HC Deb 27 June 1979 vol 969 cc411-4
1. Mr. Jim Marshall

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he has made a decision about the proposed rating revaluation; and if he will make a statement.

6. Mr. Hal Miller

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what proposals he has for amending the present rating system; and if he will make a statement.

16. Mr. Temple-Morris

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what consultations he is having on the reform of the domestic rating system.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Mr. Tom King)

As we made clear in our manifesto, it is the Government's longer-term intention to abolish domestic rating, though reductions in income tax must take a higher priority in the immediate future. We are considering alternative approaches to the problems of local government finance and will expect to have wide consultations about this at the appropriate time. Meanwhile, there would be no purpose in proceeding with the revaluation for rating, and we have decided to cancel it, as my right hon. Friend indicated in his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Patten) on 22 June.

Mr. Marshall

I view it as a grave discourtesy that the answer to my question should have been given in a hidden form, in a written answer on a Friday to one of the Minister's hon. Friends. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the decision not to have the revaluation will perpetuate the inequalities and inequities which have arisen in the present rating system since the last revaluation? If he meant to make a decision on revaluation, he should have awaited the Government's long-term proposals for restructuring the rating system.

Mr. King

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's first point is that the forms had already been issued. Therefore, it was a matter of urgency—to prevent unnecessary trouble and inconvenience—to give the public the earliest possible indication that the forms need not be completed.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the anomalies and difficulties that could arise with the delay in the revaluation. He will recall the recent history of the Labour Party in this respect. The late Richard Crossman postponed rating revaluation for five years, with no adequate excuse—for pure political convenience, as he admitted in his own diaries. Moreover, the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore), postponed it for four years.

Mr. Miller

Does my right hon. Friend realise the widespread apprehension among householders, particularly widows and pensioners, that councils will be seeking to get round the cuts in public expenditure by increasing the rates? Does he understand that this will inevitably undermine the credibility of the rating system, and in particular the domestic rate, and that therefore it will be necessary to introduce some reform?

Mr. King

We are very much aware of the considerations that my hon. Friend raises. They are among those that we are bearing in mind.

Mr. Temple-Morris

My right hon. Friend is to be congratulated on abandoning the revaluation. Does he accept that the matter is determined by a constructive and definite policy to do something about the domestic rating system within the period of this Parliament? Can he make an announcement or say something about the Government's plans during this Parliament for the domestic rating system?

Mr. King

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his welcome for the decision. He will understand that, so early in the life of the Government, it is not possible to indicate exactly when we shall make proposals, but I assure my hon. Friend that the matter is being studied urgently.

Mr. Alton

Does the right hon. Gentleman intend to continue the system of making announcements in answer to written questions rather than following the time-honoured tradition of circulating local authorities? Does not he accept that it is a gross discourtesy to the Association of Metropolitan Authorities that the first it knew about the announcement was when it read it in the press on Saturday morning?

Mr. King

That is not correct. I telephoned all the local authority associations to advise them of the decision before the announcement was made. I have already frankly apologised to them, because this Government intend, whenever possible, to carry out the fullest consultation on matters of importance. Our difficulty was that there was a need for speed in advising people, as they already had in their possession forms with the instruction that they must be returned within 21 days.

Dr. Edmund Marshall

Irrespective of the Government's plans for the rating system, will they give urgent consideration to an early extention, during the next year or so, of the rate rebate scheme, to include water charges? Is the Minister aware that they are calculated on the rateable value basis in the same way as general rates and are causing financial hardship to many people, especially now that water authorities are increasingly using direct billing for those charges?

Mr. King

We are concerned about the hardship represented by the whole rating system. Water charges are also a matter of great public concern. I believe I am correct in saying that the previous Government refused to take any action on the issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised. But we are looking at the question of rate rebates. There will be an announcement in due course, although I would not like to hold out too much hope on the water rebate side.

Mr. Haselhurst

Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is a finite number of ways in which the rating system can be reformed? Will he assure the House that the Government will take a conservative view of what is long term?

Mr. King

I cannot add anything to what I have said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris). We hope to have further information for the House in due course.

Mr. Oakes

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Labour Government postponed revaluation before it began? Is it not correct to say that over £5 million of public money has been wasted so far by the Government? Will he say what replies he has received from the local authority associations following this decision? What will happen to the valuation staff? Is it not grossly unfair on people who have not had improvements carried out to their homes that they have to pay the added burden of rates for those who have undertaken improvements?

Mr. King

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the recognition that he has received. I point out, in respect of anomalies and difficulties, that even if this rating revaluation had gone ahead it would not have been introduced until 1982. The local authority associations have made clear that they would have preferred revaluation to have gone ahead. We took their views into account, but felt, on balance, that in accordance with our general policies on domestic rating it was not sensible to proceed. On this question of the postponement of rating revaluation, I do not propose to take any lectures from hon. Members on the Labour Benches. It is a historical fact—hon. Members may be surprised to know—that the only rating revaluations since the war have been carried out by Conservative Governments. The record of Labour Governments has been continually to postpone or cancel, whenever they had the opportunity.

Forward to