HC Deb 03 November 1976 vol 918 cc1470-96

6.40 p.m.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Glasgow, Cathcart)

I beg to move Amendment No. 3, in page 1, line 7, after "lie", insert "float or are suspended".

This is a genuine probing and a rather small amendment. What I have proposed is that instead of giving the Secretary of State power to free from the rates burden— lands and heritages which lie wholly or partly on, over or under the bed of the sea. we should add the words— float or are suspended". I suggest this because I am not sure whether the word "over" covers the point that I am making. If something is over the sea bed, would that cover things which are suspended or are floating? I am thinking particularly of fish farming. One item that I would hope a future Secretary of State would consider exempting from rates would be fish farming cages.

I would have thought that fish farming cages did not lie on, over or under the bed of the sea. They are usually suspended. Do the words that I am proposing cover all eventualities?

Mr. John Corrie (Bute and North Ayrshire)

I intervene to put a specific point to the Secretary of State. I am slightly worried that an oil rig might be rated twice. On Second Reading we talked about what would happen to oil rig building platform sites, because one could have a coffer-dam site built below the low water mark with a rig in it. I think that the Secretary off State said that as long as it was attached to the mainland, it could still be rated.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Bruce Millan)

When I looked at the Second Reading debate I thought my reply was ambiguous. It might have suggested that not only was the permanent installation rateable but the rig as it was built was rateable until it was floated out. I did not actually mean that and I hope that I have not misled the hon. Gentleman on that point. It is, of course, a moveable structure and no more rateable when being constructed than a machine would be rated when it is being constructed for shipment elsewhere.

Mr. Corrie

I thank the Secretary of State for that explanation. That was the point that I was worried about and his intervention has cleared it up.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Frank McElhone)

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) has put forward an interesting argument about whether subjects can float or be suspended. The purpose and effect of the amendment is to extend the scope of the order-making power to lands and heritages which float or are suspended over the sea bed. I am sorry to say that its effect would add nothing to the clause as drafted.

It is difficult to imagine what might float or be suspended wholly or partly on, over or under the bed of the sea without lying wholly or partly on, over or under it. If that seems confusing, I am prepared to re-state it. The amendment would therefore have no effect on the meaning of the subsection. It is unnecessary and I have to resist it.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

I am perfectly happy to accept the Minister's assurance, so long as when we come to fish farming he will not say that the amendment cannot be accepted because it would not be contained within the provisions of Clause 1. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will remember that when we discuss fish farming. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

6.45 p.m.

Mr. J. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)

I beg to move Amendment No. 4, in page 1, line 7, leave out 'or partly'.

The First Deputy Chairman

With this we may take the following amendments:

No. 14, in Clause 2, page 3, line 1, leave out 'or partly'.

No. 1, in Title, line 3, leave out 'or partly'.

Mr. Grimond

As I said on Second Reading, I have some fundamental objections to the Bill, but a most important detail is that it applies not only to heritages which lie wholly … over or under the bed of the sea. but to those which lie partly on, over or under the bed of the sea". My first objection is that the word "partly" seems to be extraordinarily vague. I take it, however, that a heritage or structure any part of which was built below the low water mark would come within the scope of the Bill and, therefore, a jetty or a pier—as it would extend from above the high water mark to below the low water mark—would come within the scope of the Bill. Although that would make it possible to remove it from the rateable value which the local authorities could draw their income from, it is contrary to the general desire to give local authorities more sources of income.

It could also be extremely serious in my constituency. The estimate made by the Shetland Island Council of the valuation figures for piers and jetties alone, leaving out all other structures and pipelines, is £2 million. It will have serious effects in Orkney and Shetland if the Secretary of State should use his powers under the Bill. It would be most objectionable to rely upon the Secretary of State not to use his powers, because it has been a general principle that rating should not be in the hands of the Scottish Office but left to the independent valuers. Now we are giving the Secretary of State authority to intervene. However, if he does intervene, it would seem that it must create unfairness between one rateable subject and another.

I cannot see how that can be avoided. If the Secretary of State exempts any structure which is partly above the low water mark, that would be unfair on the other structures which are still subject to rating. If it is argued, as it was on Second Reading that this is a provision to prevent the oil companies from being too heavily taxed, I would adopt the argument that it is not by the local authorities that the oil companies are heavily taxed. That taxation was taken by the Government for the Exchequer before this Bill was ever thought of.

If the Secretary of State is to use his discretion and bring in orders which will exempt oil companies but will not necessarily exempt other forms of enterprise, that would be most unfair. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would make good to the local authorities any lack of revenue which they suffer from the exemption of oil companies. In any case, it cannot be right for Parliament to pass a Bill which gives a power to the Secretary of State which is quite unknown to the general law of rating. It would allow him to rate not only structures in the sea but structures part of which are out of the sea and to discriminate between one type of structure and the others.

The other two amendments that we are discussing deal with the same point.

Mr. Gordon Wilson (Dundee, East)

This is a point which I raised on Second Reading and the answer which the Minister then gave was that the word "partly" was included to cover bridges. He said that it was difficult to bring within the scope of the Bill toll bridges which span waters as well as perhaps being partly involved in them. The answer suggested at the time by the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Doig)—with whom I associate myself on this occasion—was that bridges should be dealt with separately so that there is no doubt about their position. I understand that later we shall have an opportunity of considering two forms of amendment which would seek to do just that.

The word "partly" could cause a difficulty. I shall not repeat what I said about the legal interpretations to which that could give rise, but it could cause assessors considerable difficulty. As a consequence, difficulty will be caused to Ministers when considering what sort of exclusions are to be made to cover any changes in a valuation.

If we removed the need for this word "partly" to cover bridges, because bridges were dealt with separately, we should then have to consider the justification for the word at all. The definition clause says: the sea means any area seaward of the lowest point to which the tide ebbs at ordinary spring tides and includes any estuary, arm of the sea and the waters of any channel, creek, bay or river seaward of that lowest point". If that is the definition which has been employed, it seeks to give a point of delimitation where the land ends and the sea begins and consequently to separate that area where the right to value heritages exists from that where no such right exists.

If a definition in the Bill creates a fixed point and is capable of interpretation by assessors, lands valuation committees, the Lands Valuation Appeal Court and the Scottish Office, why is the word "partly" used? That fixed point of the subject is either below the mark—that is, in the sea—and therefore cannot be valued, or it is on land and can.

One example given on Second Reading was that of the submarine pipeline. In that case, the part of the subject which came above the sea from the definition point contained in the Bill could be valued, as indeed could other oil-related subjects on land, whereas that portion of the pipeline which was below the sea would get the benefit of the Bill.

In the case of jetties and piers, the Minister assured us that they could not be exempted by virtue of the Bill. However, the problem in legislation is that firm and proper intentions expressed by a Secretary of State can be reversed by his successor for policy and political reasons. If that is the case, we should make the Bill as self-explanatory as possible. That seems to rule out the use of the word "partly". I therefore ask the Minister to consider accepting the amendment.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

Because of the inclusion of the word "partly", a Secretary of State might be able to remove from rating subjects on which rates are now paid. Subjects which extend below low water mark, like coal mines, piers and estuarial bridges, have been held by the courts to be rateable. Considerable sums are involved, particularly with piers. Would it be possible for the Secretary of State to remove such subjects from rating?

Mr. Millan

First, all that the Secretary of State can do under the Bill is to lay an order before Parliament under the affirmative resolution procedure. The House actually makes the decision. Therefore, for hon. Members to talk about the Secretary of State being able to take subjects out of valuation or include them in valuation at his own discretion is to misunderstand and misrepresent the Bill.

That, incidentally, disposes of the argument that I should be interfering with the independence of the assessors. An assessor has a certain amount of independence, but he does not decide what is rateable and what is not. Parliament decides that through the various valuation Acts and Parliament will continue to decide it by the view that it expresses on any order under the Bill brought forward by any Secretary of State.

I explained on Second Reading why the Bill was drafted in this way. The intention is to give the Secretary of State the maximum flexibility. If I could forecast now my view in future of what should be rateable and what should not and could express that in satisfactory legislative terms, I should be willing to do so. But it is difficult in this unusual field to ensure that the legislative provisions are absolutely right. That is why it is done in this way—so that the matter can be dealt with by order, subject to confirmation by Parliament.

Having looked at the alternative procedure, of including special provisions for the bridges, I do not believe that that would have been so satisfactory. If we found that we did not have it right, other small pieces of valuation legislation might be needed to define this area accurately. This method of proceeding will be much more beneficial and will enable the House to express a view on the development of the Bill as an order is laid. If we tried to get everything right in the first place, we might find that it was not right but it would then be the law and we should have to put up with it.

The reason for the words "or partly" is that without them some of the land and heritages with which we intend to deal under the Bill would not be covered. Both hon. Members who have spoken accepted that that was so for the Forth and Tay road bridges, but without these words, they would be removed from the Bill. That is because, in layman's language, they are partly over the sea and partly on land. No one wants to remove them from the provisions of the Bill.

On the other hand, nor do I accept that every bridge going over every little bit of water should not be subject to rates. That applies to the Forth and Tay bridges, but there may be others which are suitable for rating. We certainly need these words in this discretionary way to cover those two bridges.

The same applies to pipelines. The hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) suggested that it was not true for pipelines because if we took these words out and substituted another definition of the word "sea", it would be possible not to rate a bit of pipeline until it got to the boundary point and then to rate the bit on shore. That is not so, because it would be a single subject and it is not possible in valuation terms to divide it.

7 p.m.

Mr. Gordon Wilson

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that in valuation law a single subject straddling a boundary is divided in quantity and value for entry into different valuation rolls—for example, the valuation roll for the former city of Glasgow and that for Renfrewshire? That is common throughout the country. Therefore, I cannot see why it should not be adopted here.

Mr. Millan

That may be so, but we have a situation where a single subject is divided so that part is rateable and part is not. It is a question not of dividing the valuation between one rating authority and another, but whether it should be rateable. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman's formulation does not achieve the objective which he has in mind, because it is a single subject, as he recognised. A pipeline would be a single subject which did not lie wholly on, over or under the bed of the sea; if it did, it would stop before it got to the shore, and it would be a peculiar and unsatisfactory pipeline.

To take these words out of the Bill would not achieve the hon. Gentleman's objective. We need words of this nature to deal with bridges and pipelines. That does not mean that when the Bill is passed the Secretary of State—either myself or any successor—would immediately wish to exempt anything which could possibly come under Clause 1. That is not what is intended.

I have given certain assurances about a number of subjects which we shall not remove from rating. It must not be assumed that we shall do that. If we attempted to do that, it would be subject to agreement by the House of Commons. But we need the words expressed in the terms in subsection (1) if we are to have the flexibility to work the exemption procedure. Therefore, I cannot advise the Committee to accept the amendment.

Mr. Grimond

I am totally unconvinced by the Secretary of State's speech. First, he has advanced no arguments as to why, if he wishes to exempt the Forth and Tay Bridges, they cannot be explicitly exempted. Secondly, although rating legislation is passed by the House of Commons, it has up to now been in a form which has not given discretion to the House or Ministers to make distinctions between one rateable subject and another.

Mr. Millan

For the right hon. Gentleman to talk about giving discretion to the House of Commons when it has legislative supremacy to decide what the law should be seems extraordinary.

Mr. Grimond

The right hon. Gentleman said that one of the reasons for

drafting the legislation in this form was that he did not quite know what he wanted to do. That was the alarming part of his speech. The House of Commons should not pass legislation which is designed to give some general umbrella to cover what the Government may wish to do in future.

I take the point that this is subject to an affirmative resolution of the House of Commons. We all know what that means. If the Government of the day have a majority—they normally do, despite the present situation, which is rather eccentric—the order will go through. Whatever the Secretary of State may say, there will be discrimination between one rateable subject and another. I consider that highly undesirable.

If the Government wish to exempt certain oil installations in the sea, they should come to the House of Commons and say in precise terms that the valuers shall not have power to rate beyond two or three miles. They should not introduce legislation which will cause injustice between one subject and another. In my constituency it could have extremely serious results. I maintain that this amendment ought to be made.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 18, Noes 104.

Division No. 370.] AYES [7.4 p.m.
Bain, Mrs Margaret Reid, George Welsh, Andrew
Crawford, Douglas Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight) Wigley, Dafydd
Freud, Clement Steel, David (Roxburgh) Wilson, Gordon (Dundee E)
Henderson, Douglas Stewart, Donald (Western Isles)
Howells, Geraint (Cardigan) Thompson, George TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
MacCormick, Iain Thorpe, Rt Hon Jeremy (N Devon) Mr. A. J. Beith and
Pardoe, John Watt, Hamish Mr. Russell Johnston
Penhaligon, David
Anderson, Donald Douglas-Mann, Bruce Jones, Dan (Burnley)
Armstrong, Ernest Eadie, Alex Judd, Frank
Ashton, Joe Edwards, Robert (Wolv SE) Kaufman, Gerald
Atkins, Ronald (Preston N) Ellis, John (Brigg & Scun) Kerr, Russell
Atkinson, Norman English, Michael Lambie, David
Bates, Alf Evans, John (Newton) Lamond, James
Bishop, E. S. Fletcher, L. R. (Ilkeston) Leadbitter, Ted
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) Lipton, Marcus
Brown, Ronald (Hackney S) Forrester, John Lomas, Kenneth
Campbell, Ian Fowler, Gerald (The Wrekin) McCartney, Hugh
Canavan, Dennis Golding, John McElhone, Frank
Cant, R. B. Gourlay, Harry McGuire, Michael (Ince)
Carmichael, Neil Hardy, Peter Mackintosh, John P.
Cocks, Rt Hon Michael Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) McMillan, Tom (Glasgow C)
Cohen, Stanley Hart, Rt Hon Judith McNamara, Kevin
Cook, Robin F. (Edin C) Hatton, Frank Madden, Max
Craigen, J. M. (Maryhill) Hunter, Adam Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole)
Deakins, Eric Hutchison, Michael Clark Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
de Freitas, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Irvine, Rt Hon Sir A. (Edge Hill) Mellish, Rt Hon Robert
Dempsey, James Irving, Rt Hon S. (Dartford) Millan, Rt Hon Bruce
Doig, Peter John, Brynmor Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)
Dormand, J. D. Johnson, James (Hull West) Molloy, William
Murray, Rt Hon Ronald King Selby, Harry Walker, Harold (Doncaster)
Oakes, Gordon Sheldon, Robert (Ashton-u-Lyne) Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
Ovenden, John Silkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich) White, James (Pollock)
Palmer, Arthur Sillars, James Whitehead, Phillip
Park, George Silverman, Julius Wilson, Alexander (Hamilton)
Parker, John Skinner, Dennis Wilson, William (Coventry SE)
Phipps, Dr Colin Small, William Wise, Mrs Audrey
Prescott, John Smith, John (N Lanarkshire) Woodall, Alec
Roberts, Gwilym (Cannock) Spriggs, Leslie Woof, Robert
Roper, John Stallard, A. W. Wrigglesworth, Ian
Rose, Paul B. Stewart, Rt Hon M. (Fulham)
Ross, Rt Hon W. (Kilmarnock) Stoddart, David TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Rowlands, Ted Strang, Gavin Mr. Ted Graham and
Sedgemore, Brian Tierney, Sydney Mr. Thomas Cox

Question accordingly negatived.

7.15 p.m.

Mr. Grimond

I beg to move Amendment No. 5, in page 1, line 8, after 'sea', insert: 'within three miles of the lowest point to which the tide ebbs at ordinary spring tides'.

The First Deputy Chairman

With this we may take the following amendments:

No. 19, in Clause 3, page 3, line 27, leave out from 'tides' to end of line 30.

No. 20, in Clause 3, page 3, line 33, at end insert— '(2) This Act shall not apply to rivers, bays, creeks and portions of the sea largely enclosed by land'.

Mr. Grimond

These are largely probing amendments suggested because I am not very clear as to the definitions in the Bill. I am advised that there is at any rate a view that subjects outside the three-mile limit cannot be rated anyway. Is in the Government's view that, were it not for this Bill, subjects outside the three-mile limit would be rated? The amendment is designed to find out whether this is so.

I do not think that the Bill should be drafted in this way, but, if the Government wish to draft it in this way, are they assuming that without the Bill subjects can be rated even beyond the three-mile limit?

I have some doubt as to the meaning of Clause 3(1), which says: 'the sea' means any area seaward of the lowest point to which the tide ebbs at ordinary spring tides and includes any estuary, arm of the sea and the waters of any channel, creek, bay or river seaward of that lowest point". I am not at all certain what that means. The Thames, which flows past this building, is tidal, and at low water mark there is a channel which is much narrower than that at high water mark. If the Bill applied to England, would the whole of the Thames estuary come within it in regard to a channel at low water mark?

To take another example that is familiar to me, in East Fife the Guard-bridge Paper Works is on a part of the Eden estuary, which is tidal. It may well have a water intake below low water mark, and may well have an outlet for its effluent below low water mark.

Sir John Gilmour (Fife, East)

I do not think that paper is made with salt water.

Mr. Grimond

The company may purify salt water for all I know. It could be held, under the interpretation in the Bill, that those paper works were partly below low water mark. I cannot believe that that is the Secretary of State's intention, but I do not understand where, under the definition, the sea begins. What is the "lowest point"? Is it the lowest point in the sea or the lowest point in the estuary, creek, bay or river?

I should have thought it was unnecessary to have rivers and creeks within the Bill and that it would be easier to remove them altogether. If the Secretary of State has good reason for not doing that, I hope that he will give us an explanation of the definition of the sea in Clause 3.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) has put some interesting points. I have another in relation to the three-mile limit proposed.

On Second Reading I asked which part of the sea belonged to which local authority. I asked whether the boundaries would be extended in what one might call a straight line, or whether they could cover the contours of the local authority boundary. If there were some item—rig, land or heritage—in the sea which had to be rated, obviously difficulties could arise if it were not clear which part of the sea belonged to which local authority.

The Under-Secretary was kind enough to write to me on 2nd September answering this point, but what he said was rather alarming. Apparently, difficulties arose over determining common boundaries, but the seaward limits appeared for most purposes to be totally undefined. The reason appears to be that, when we drew up the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, the new regions and island areas were defined merely by reference to the boundaries of the abolished authorities, mostly deriving from those of ancient parishes. Apparently, in England and Wales there are pretty clear boundaries. In England and Wales the limit of a local authority area is the low-water mark and provision exists for accretions from the sea to be added to the appropriate local authority area. But it seems that in Scotland there is no such provision.

Obviously, if we are to have any item rated which is in the sea, it is important to know which part of the sea belongs to the rating area of which local authority. From what the Minister said in his letter, it seems that in drawing up the Local Government (Scotland) Act we made an error in not making provision for which part of the sea belonged to which local authority.

This is a responsibility which all those who took part in the drafting of that legislation must bear. But now that it is clear that there are no seaward limits defined as belonging to particular authorities, it may be appropriate to put it right. In view of the Minister's helpful but rather disturbing letter, we hope that he will say whether he has any plan in the future to take action to ensure that the situation in Scotland is made similar to that in England and Wales.

Mr. Millan

Dealing first with the point raised by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor), I am afraid that no one knows exactly what the position is. It has never been necessary in the past to worry too much about things floating out in the sea. There have not been many of them, and they have tended to be boats, which no one has considered should be subject to rateable value. So I would not be too hard on those who drew up the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 for defining the regions and islands areas by the boundaries of the old authorities, which were equally vague about this matter.

For some subjects which are partly in, say, estuarial waters, it is not difficult to decide that, if they are rated, they are in one specific authority. Obviously, the shaft of a coal mine which starts on land and goes out to sea is attached to somewhere on land. That land is part of a specific authority, and there is no difficulty about it. But, if we brought into the area of rating oil production platforms which are not attached to any particular piece of land, there would be considerable difficulty, apart from whether they are rated at all, in attributing an installation to one local authority area rather than to another. There are considerable difficulties of definition here.

If we had not been faced with the problem that a number of assessors have attempted to enter on the valuation roll and have rated certain oil production platforms and, therefore, made it necessary to do something rather quickly about it, we might have treated this in a more leisurely manner. It would have involved tremendous consultation if we had wanted to define every seaward boundary of every local authority area. The Western Isles and the West Coast of Scotland would have given us a great many problems in that regard.

I dare say at the end of the day it would have been possible to get a satisfactory solution. However, there is an element of urgency in this matter. We have to deal with issues which have already arisen. We have to deal with the position of the Forth and Tay road bridges, and we have used the definition in the Bill and the particular formulation in the drafting of the Bill to enable us to do the things which we think need to be done urgently without allowing the whole legal question to be argued out at considerable length through the courts. That would be the alternative to producing this Bill and getting it into operation fairly quickly. I agree that it is not a wholly satisfactory situation, but it is one that we have to deal with at the present time.

Earlier, the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) accused the Government of not knowing what they were doing. I can assure him that we know what we are doing. However, I find it difficult to understand what he is doing with his amendments.

Amendment No. 5 would confine the exemption orders under Clause 1(1) to lands and heritages within three miles offshore. In other words, Sullom Voe and all the piers and jetties about which the right hon. Gentleman is worried would be the only kinds of lands and heritages which I would be able to prescribe by order as being exempt from rating, and oil production platforms and the rest would carry merrily on and not be covered by his definition. That is the reverse of what presumably he would like it to do. Certainly it is the absolute reverse of what Shetland County Council would like to do, and I am sure that it would not be very happy to think that its Member of Parliament was seeking to put provisions in the Bill which would have the effect of bringing into exemption from rating very considerable installations to which it attaches great importance from the rating point of view, but, apparently, allowing other things well out to sea to be subject to the possibility of rating. I am afraid that Amendment No. 5, whatever its objective, would have that very unfortunate effect, and I cannot believe that the right hon. Gentleman will want to press it.

As for Amendments Nos. 19 and 20, I have already dealt with the general question of our approach to the Bill, and we have put in a definition which in the circumstances of the Bill we think is the right one. The right hon. Gentleman asked what was meant by the lowest point to which the tide ebbs at ordinary spring tides. It means what it says. These are matters of fact. I see no difficulty in using that formulation. But to take out the words estuary, arm of the sea and the waters of any channel, creek, bay or river", as Amendment No. 19 would do—and it is reinforced by Amendment No. 20—would mean again excluding the two bridges, because they bridge estuarial waters. Therefore, these amendments, for whatever reason they are tabled, would have the effect of preventing the exemption for the Forth and Tay road bridges which I am sure the House as a whole wants them to have.

For those reasons I cannot recommend the Committee to accept any of these amendments.

Amendment negatived.

Sir John Gilmour

I beg to move Amendment No. 6, in page 1, line 9, at end add 'and all bridges over estuarial tidal waters shall be automatically exempt without the need for an order by the Secretary of State'.

The First Deputy Chairman

With this we may discuss Amendment No. 7, in page 1, line 9, at end insert— 'In this subsection "lands and heritages" include the Tay and Forth road bridges'.

Sir J. Gilmour

To some extent, the Secretary of State has alluded already to the spirit of this amendment. However, I would take him up on one matter. He said that Parliament's view was sacrosanct in terms of what was and what was not rated. But, it will be within the discretion of the Secretary of State to make an order. We in Parliament will have no power to force him to make an order. It means that the power lies with the Secretary of State and not with Parliament.

I seek to ensure that these two bridges in particular are taken out of being rated without the need for the Secretary of State to make an order. It may be that I have tabled my amendment in the wrong way to achieve this. If I have, I do not know whether on Report it will be possible to move a manuscript amendment to do it in another way. For example, would it be possible to say that, notwithstanding the provisions of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, the provision to take these two bridges out of rating in the Acts under which they were built shall still stand?

All I seek to do is to ensure that the two bridges are not eligible for valuation at the whim of the Secretary of State. This should be laid down in an Act of Parliament which we pass so that there can be no doubt about the fact that they have been exempted.

7.30 p.m.

Mr. Gordon Wilson

This matter has been discussed before, and I have tabled an amendment dealing specifically with this issue of the Tay and Forth road bridges. I have my doubts still about the definition of that word "partly". I believe that on balance the courts will interpret it, but there is still some doubt about it.

The Secretary of State has said quite specifically that the Tay and Forth road bridges will be excluded from rating, and he has had the support of the House in that. If it is his intention to exclude these two bridges and if, under the terms of the Bill, he is required to promote an order to that effect, would it not save time and effort if the bridges were included in this Bill, either by the suggestion of the hon. Member for East Fife (Sir J. Gilmour) or by specific mention of them. If this were the case, that would be the end of the matter.

In the previous local government legislation these two bridges were excluded from valuation, and it was only by an oversight on the part of the previous Administration that they became eligible for inclusion. I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic to this point.

Mr. McElhone

I must say straight away that I recommend that the Committee resist these amendments.

Amendment No. 6 would confer exemption on all bridges over estuarial tidal waters. The amendment of the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) would extend the definition to "land or heritages" just to include the Tay and Forth road bridges. It is difficult to imagine a road bridge which is not land or heritage. I do not wish to start a debate on the word "partly". No doubt the hon. Member, being a lawyer, could speak for many hours on the definition, and at the end of the day we would still disagree.

The Government have said that the power to exempt by order will be used to extend exemption of rating to the Tay and Forth road bridges. This was unintentionally left out of legislation by the Conservatives in the process of the reorganisation of local government, and it shows that the previous Administration was certainly not infallible.

We are glad that this exemption by order process exists, because if we did not exempt these bridges they would probably double their tolls, and nobody wants that. I hope that hon. Members will accept that it is a very useful purpose to ensure that we contain any increase in toll charges.

Mr. Gordon Wilson

In referring to my amendment the Minister said that lands and heritages included road bridges. I take that point. However, I doubt very much whether a whole series of Tay and Forth road bridges will be built as a result of my amendment. The amendment simply makes it clear that these two bridges will be included for the purposes of the Bill.

Mr. McElhone

I am glad that the hon. Member understands the position. There is a strong measure of agreement between us. The concern expressed by the hon. Member has been met, even if it is not in the way in which he wants it. But one of the main purposes of the Bill is to ensure that no rates are charged on the Tay and Forth road bridges, and I can certainly give that assurance.

Sir J. Gilmour

I hope that the Minister will give an assurance that he will lay the orders as soon as the Bill gets Royal Assent. If there were to be a change of Government we might have a Secretary of State who did not wish to lay the orders. Can we be certain that as soon as Royal Assent has been given the Secretary of State will lay the order forthwith?

Mr. Teddy Taylor

I can assure my hon. Friend that any Conservative Government would respond to all his arguments with even greater sympathy than the present Government.

My hon. Friend has put forward an amendment to exempt the bridges which would in effect exempt all bridges over estuarial tidal waters without the need for orders, to save administration time, and the time of the House. Is he aware of any estuarial tidal water bridges which are rated?

The Minister wrote to me and said that subjects which extended beyond low water mark, such as coal mines, and estuarial bridges, had been held by the courts to be rateable. Therefore, it seems that some estuarial bridges are rateable.

Would the Minister give me some idea which estuarial bridges are rated in Scotland because that would help us to decide what to do with this amendment?

Mr. McElhone

I do not have that information at the moment. Personally, I am not aware of any bridges, apart from those that we are discussing. I assure the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) that there is no danger that we shall see a change in Government in the near future. I give an assurance that my hon. Friend will try to lay the order as soon as practicable, although there are still some consultations to be undertaken.

Sir J. Gilmour

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

I beg to move Amendment No. 8, in page 1, line 19, at end insert— 'In making any such order the Secretary of State shall have regard to the nature and extent of the services provided by local authorities to the owners, occupiers or users of the lands and heritages concerned.'. Because of the amounts of taxation on the oil companies it would be wrong to charge them with rates. However, we must bear in mind that certain local authorities have considerable extra expenditure because of the existence of oilfields, rigs and platforms off their shores. Often they have to provide extra services, such as police, and a number of regions and districts have complained that they are thereby involved in extra expenditure.

Have the Government considered making some compensation available to these local authorities for the extra expenditure for which they get no return in rates? Once this Bill is law, the Secretary of State can exempt all these offshore structures entirely from rates. This amounts to extra expenditure for local authorities with no possibility of rating return.

I feel that it is rather unfair on the local authority especially at this time when money is short.

Mr. Millan

I can assure the hon. Member that the problem is recognised and that there is special provision in the rate support grant for oil-related expenditure beyond that which an authority would normally have been given to cover services. This is taken into account by a special grant which is part of the rate support grant. We therefore recognise that certain authorities have borne expenditure burdens because of oil developments, and they have been compensated accordingly. The authorities include Shetland, the Grampian Region and a number of others.

However, we must be careful on this matter. I stress that it was the present Government, not the previous one, who introduced this provision. If we were to do too much for these authorities it would be unfair to authorities elsewhere in Scotland. Although oil activity brings burdens it also brings rewards, including additional rateable values for the area concerned.

There is also the question how the rate support grant is calculated in terms of the needs element and the resources element. I take the view that, combined with the special arrangements that I have mentioned, we take adequate account of the problems of local authorities involved with oil development. For that reason I hope that the hon. Member will be willing to withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Grimond

I beg to move Amendment No. 10, in page 2, line 19, at end add— 'The Secretary of State shall in any case consult with the local authorities affected if they so desire'. I tabled the amendment because of the curious wording of subsection (6). Under that subsection the Secretary of State is compelled to consult the associations of local authorities or persons who appear to him to be concerned. But consultation with any single local authority is left to his discretion, and he need consult only if he thinks it desirable.

I cannot understand that. I should have thought that it was essential for him to consult the particular local authority concerned, and I should like it written into the Bill, as the amendment suggests, that he would have to do that if the local authority so requested. As I understand it, the drafting of the Bill compels him to consult associations of local authorities or persons who appear to him concerned. But then there is the class of authority which he may think it desirable to consult, and it is in that class that the particular local authorities fall.

Mr. McElhone

I think that I can give the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) the assurance that he seeks. I can see the point that he is attempting to make. This subsection is well precedented.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the position of a single local authority. In practice we now deal with large authorities such as the regional authorities, and we have regular consultation with them on such matters as social work and education. Consultations with an individual local authority can relate to existing assessments of the authority on, for example, the Forth and Tay bridges and the Auk, Argyll and Forties oilfields. In such a case we would consult the separate authority.

There may be instances which involve a joint local authority interest. The right hon. Gentleman is concerned to ensure that local authorities, whether individually or collectively, can have that consultation with the Secretary of State on matters concerning the Bill and their jurisdiction. I think that I can give that assurance.

Mr. Grimond

In view of the assurance that the Secretary of State would always consult separately with local authorities, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

7.45 p.m.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

I beg to move Amendment No. 11, in page 2, line 23, leave out subsection (8).

I hope that the Secretary of State will explain this unusual subsection. It appears to say that even if one of the orders was hybrid or private, it should be regarded as a Public Bill, irrespective of the circumstances. The House has had much discussion on the subject of hybrid legislation this year. The procedures for hybrid or Private Bills are different from those for Public Bills. If one individual company or group is singled out for special parliamentary attention, it has the right to go before a Private Bill Committee where its case is presented and argued and witnesses are called.

It was clear from the Secretary of State's introduction of the Bill that it is more than possible that some of the orders made under the Bill will be private or hybrid in the sense that individual oilfields or oil rigs or areas will be selected while others may not be. Does subsection (8) mean that even if an order is private or hybrid it should be regarded as public and treated as a Private Bill?

Are there precedents for this arrangement? The subsection appears horrifying, but it may have been used a hundred times before and therefore may not be a matter of concern. Does the working of the subsection mean that such orders cannot go to Private Bill Committees? The Bill says On the expiry of 28 days from the laying of the draft … the order shall proceed in that House, whether or not it has been referred to a Committee under Standing Orders … relating to Private Bills, as if its provisions would require to be enacted by Public Bill. Does that mean that these orders may in no circumstances go to a Private Bill Committee, or is it that they may go for 28 days and then move forward in a different category? The clause appears most unusual and seems to apply the same provision that was applied to the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Bill. There may be a perfectly good explanation for the provision, and that may remove my fears.

Mr. Millan

This rather obscure wording has no implication for the House of Commons. It deals with the procedures in the House of Lords. The wording is precedented and it invokes a particular procedure in the other place. It is of fairly recent origin and is provided for, for example, in Section 1(7) of the Offshore Petroleum Development (Scotland) Act 1975. It is strictly a House of Lords procedure which does not affect the House of Commons. I understand that when the other place discussed this matter it was perfectly agreeable to the procedure applying there. I hope that that will set the hon. Gentleman's mind at rest.

In the House of Lords the instrument can be a hybrid instrument even under a Public Bill of this sort. I understand that there is no such thing as a hybrid instrument in that sense in the House of Commons. It is a purely House of Lords concept which involves the characteristic that a private interest is affected by an order in a manner different from the private interests of other persons or bodies of the same category or class. When that happens in another place there are procedures similar to those for Private Bills. They include provision for petitions and the rest.

There is also an accelerated procedure in another place and this subsection brings in that procedure and provides a reasonable period of 28 days for hearing private interests. Thereafter, the order proceeds as though it were not hybrid.

It is a new procedure which has not been much used, but this is a standard formula which will have to be used in legislation which attracts that procedure. There is nothing in the least bit sinister about it and nothing which affects the interests of this House. It is a rather obscure matter to us and it is rather obscurely drawn in the legislation.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I am sure that we have all learned a great deal. The problem could have been resolved if reference had been made to the House of Lords instead of to a House of Parliament. That gave the impression that it could be either.

The Minister's explanation was interesting and reasonable and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

I beg to move Amendment No. 12, in page 2, line 36, at end add: '(11) Notwithstanding the provisions of the above subsections the Secretary of State shall, within six months of the passing of this Act, make an order to delete from valuation rolls all lands and heritages which fall under the criteria of section 1() above and which relate to fish farming'.

The First Deputy Chairman

With this we may take New Clause 1—Rating of marine fish farming.

Mr. Taylor

The amendment relates to fish farming and I hope that even if the Government cannot accept the amendment or the new clause, they will be able to make concessions and give an indication of future policy.

There is considerable grievance among fish farmers who feel that the industry is not treated with the same consideration as is given to agriculture generally. We would be mistaken if we did not appreciate the potential of this industry and the work being done.

There is quite a substantial industry, particularly in Scotland, in rainbow trout and brown trout. At the expensive lunches of which my hon. Friends have experience, though I have not, they have probably eaten rainbow trout bred under these unusual conditions. It is becoming a major industry. About 900 tons of rainbow trout were fish farmed in Scotland last year.

There have been experiments, including some in Norway, in the fish farming of salmon. Several large firms have taken an interest with Unilever starting the process in Lochailort. It is expected that production of fish farmed salmon might increase to 200 tons a year. However, all these are marginal activities from which little profit is made because of the considerable rates burden on the industry. I understand that progress is also being made with oysters and mussels.

Bearing in mind the special problems facing our fishing industry and the possibility that we might not get an agreement on our inshore limits, our housewives and fishermen will find themselves in a difficult situation. If there is the prospect of ever-rising prices, sea fish farming will become an industry with potential. However, if we wish to build up such an industry, we must realise that the rates involved are substantial and that it is wrong to draw a distinction between farming at sea and other agriculture.

Some people may think that there is not much involved here. I assumed that until I started to look into the subject. I assumed that a wall could be put across a fjord to keep the fish in, but I have been told by experts that this could not be done because of salinity problems and water exchange difficulties. That is why most fish farming involves floating cages and static, fenced-off enclosures, both of which attract considerable rate burdens which are preventing the further development of the industry. There is no doubt of the great scope in sea fish farming. I am told that the only sea fish currently farmed in this way are Dover sole and turbot, because they are expensive fish.

However, if we have continued problems with the shortage of fish and overfishing—we already have indications that we might not be successful in getting the kind of agreement on limits which all my hon. Friends would want—fish farming and sea fish farming could become growth industries and safeguard some of our potential food supplies. There is every reason for treating fish farming in the same way as agriculture.

I understand that we give concessions on agricultural buildings and land but not on the heritages of fish farming. As a general matter of policy, will the Government give an indication that they accept the potential of the industry and that it will be treated in the same way as agriculture generally? Will the Government provide this assistance to help an important industry to expand in the interests of housewives and everyone else?

Sir John Gilmour

The new clause deals mainly with marine fish farming because I felt that it was the only type which could be included within the title of the Bill. However, what my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) said applies to marine farming and fish farming. Surely we can make a start in this area? Fish farmers are as much farmers as those who farm the land.

In the past 20 or 30 years there have been enormous changes in the techniques involved in livestock farming, particularly with poultry and pigs. Experiments with intensive beef production have also shown what can be done. We need to remove any rating burdens on the same type of activity which can produce food from the sea. Breeding and hatching techniques and disease control are on similar lines to those practised on land.

We have all the facilities. Our coastline, particularly around Scotland, is particularly suited to the development of fish farming. It is remarkable that a country such as Japan produces almost 1 million tons of farmed fish a year and has a five-year plan for a big expansion. The European output is 750,000 tons a year, mostly from Spain and France, with some from Italy and Germany. We are net importers of fish and fish products. Last year we imported £80 million worth of fish products, salmon and trout, even though we are big salmon producers and have built up salmon fisheries in the West Coast of Scotland, we still imported £42 million worth of the fish last year.

Bearing in mind the value of the pound, our balance of payments troubles and our need to become as self-sufficient as possible in food, we should miss no opportunity to take a step forward by increasing fish farming.

As an island we have been able to keep ourselves free from endemic diseases such as foot and mouth in cattle. We would be able to do the same with fish farming. The increased number of job opportunities in certain areas is another good reason, in the present unemployment situation, to expand fish farming.

I am told that fish is a more efficient converter than animals. We do not need to keep fish warm. Unlike pigs and cattle they can exist happily in extremely cold conditions and are therefore more efficient producers of food than some other animals we farm. These arguments and many more were rehearsed in a debate on another subject, and at that time the Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food admitted that our law on the rating of fish farming was vague and indeterminate. I hope that we shall receive an assurance from the Under-Secretary of State that he will look with favour on this proposition.

8.0 p.m.

Mr. McElhone

I must say at the outset that the hon. Member for Fife, East (Sir J. Gilmour) has put forward a strong argument for the derating of fish farms, as did the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor). They will be aware that the argument has continued for a number of years.

I can remember the argument being raised when we were discussing the 1971 rating legislation. On that occasion amendments were moved in both Houses in the hope of derating buildings used by fish farmers. They were rejected as was a similar amendment when we discussed the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. That was because the analogy with agriculture was not accepted.

Perhaps hon. Members will know that the matter was decided in the Lands Valuation Appeal Court. It was decided in Wallace v. Assessor for the joint county of Perth and Kinross that fish are not livestock within the meaning of the Act. In the past the argument has been based on the assertion that fish farming is analogous with agriculture, but that was not accepted in the courts.

I must also be consistent and say that it is not the intention of the Government to afford exemption from rates to marine fish farmers or any other fish farmers. We do not think it would be proper to alter valuation and rating law when the whole area of local government finance is under review following the Layfield Committee's report. To derate fish farms alone would create an anomaly within the industry.

I hope that I have not been unkind to the hon. Member for Cathcart, who today has been a model of calmness in putting forward a reasonable case on behalf of the Opposition. However, I should draw to his attention the debate on Second Reading and to column 105 of Hansard, where he expressed, as he has done so often in the past, his concern for ratepayers not only in the Glasgow seat that he represents but in Scotland generally. He has been consistent in his defence of ratepayers and it is rather surprising that he should put his name to an amendment which would relieve marine fish farmers and other fish farmers from rates. He must realise that the cost of relieving anyone from the rate burden must fall on the rest of the community in the form of added rates or taxes. If he is consistent in his views—I am sure that he always wants to be—I am sure that he will support the Government when we say that we cannot accept the two amendments to derate marine or other fish farms.

Sir John Gilmour

We have heard a disappointing and short-sighted reply. The point that the Minister has entirely failed to grasp is that if we expand the production of fish we shall build up ancillary industries, which will pay rates. The contribution that would be made to the Exchequer by the distribution of the fish and the money that would be saved in not paying unemployment benefit to those in rural areas would far outweigh the loss of money from the ratepayer.

If the hon. Gentleman were to follow his argument through he would be advocating the rerating of agriculture. I trust that he will not be doing that. He has made a most unsatisfactory answer that is unacceptable.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, East (Sir J. Gilmour), I am disappointed by the Minister's reply, which showed that he has no real appreciation of the importance of agriculture and fishing. He also showed a singular lack of sympathy with those who try to battle against all the problems of running a fish farm as well as having to cope with the extra problem of rates. This is a major issue and the debate will have to continue. I am sure that my hon. Friend and I will take part in it.

The Minister made some rather nasty comments about my views on rates and the effect of the amendment on ratepayers in Cathcart and Queen's Park. The hon. Gentleman may like to know that, apart from wanting to relieve some people of the rates burden, my party is committed to the abolition of domestic rates. It is committed to replacing them with a much fairer form of taxation.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that if he were to pursue general Conservative policies, which are fair to all, this and many other problems would not arise. This is a debate that must continue for that reason. As the Chamber is rather empty, perhaps it would be right not to vote on the issue at this stage. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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