HC Deb 20 January 1983 vol 35 cc571-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Cope.]

10.12 pm
Mr. Jim Lester (Beeston)

The subject of the debate is rating policy towards places of religious worship. This subject has aroused wide interest and concern as evidenced by the many letters and approaches that I have received from Members of this House and the other place. Indeed, the attendance at this moment on the Floor of the House is by any standards exceptional for an Adjournment debate. If one glances in the Strangers Gallery it is also possible to argue that the number present there is exceptional for this time of night. It shows the degree of interest in this subject.

Every hon. Member who has promised in his constituency that he will approach me has done so. It is not possible for me to identify all of them by name. To read out all their names would take up the time allocated for debate. I have put down an early-day motion that asks my hon. Friend the Minister to take account of the views that I shall express. This will give my hon. Friends and colleagues who are unable to attend this debate the opportunity to sign the motion and therefore to identify themselves with what I wish to say.

I have sought to debate these events because the changes that have been proposed have occurred in my constituency. They affect the rating of two meeting halls of the Brethren. In view of the history, which I shall recount, this has become a matter of national connotation because the Brethren have some 300 meeting halls and could now be liable for rates of £1½ million. This evening I intend to go beyond this form of Christian worship, to show that, if the tests were applied more generally, they would have much wider consequences.

In 1983, this country is a multi-religious society that has gradually become, through the centuries, a tolerant one. We should all ensure that it should remain so. Two of the basic freedoms that all hon. Members hold dear are the freedom of speech and the freedom of worship. These freedoms are precious to our society and, if we err in any direction, we should err on the side of tolerance.

I shall now recount the history of what has happened. There are two meeting halls in my constituency, which were purpose-built. One was built on Hillside Road in 1967, and is just below where I live, and the other is on Cyprus Avenue and was built in 1971. These have been used for worship by the Brethren and until March 1979 they were regarded as exempt from rates under section 39 of the General Rate Act 1967.

The meeting halls are used for the solemnisation of matrimony, the service of breaking bread, scripture reading, preaching, prayer meetings on a Sunday, and other meetings of a similar nature on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. There is considerable activity in these halls and the number of members attending, depending on the type of service, varies from 300 to 36.

In March 1979 my local district council, Broxtowe district council, proposed the removal of exemption on these halls and instead decided that Hillside Road should be rated at the gross value of £1,474, rateable value £1,200 and the hall on Cyprus Avenue should be rated at £200, rateable value £40.

The Brethren naturally appealed against this to the local valuation court, which found in favour of them and that they should continue to be exempt as they had been since the halls were constructed. The council then chose to go to the Lands Tribunal on 25 March 1980 in support of its claim that the meeting halls were not places of public worship. The tribunal ruled "not without reluctance"—the words of the chairman—that it supported in narrow terms the council's case.

The trustees then appealed to the Court of Appeal, and many of us tried to expedite the case so that the matter could be cleared up. The final judgment came on 6 December 1982 when the Court of Appeal supported the Lands Tribunal. Only this morning, the final step failed and the trustees learnt that their appeal to the House of Lords was not accepted. That is the reason for the Adjournment debate.

The argument, the judgment and the debate all hinge on what constitutes a place of public worship. The general view for rating purposes, that has been applied and is widely discussed in the legal documents that I have here but, which, as I am not a lawyer, I shall not try to condense, has come to be known as the invitation test. "Public" means open to all, and this should be demonstrated either by physical means, such as a steeple or bells, or in the least instance a notice board that says "this is a place of public worship" and gives times of services.

Since the action began, the Brethren have put on all their meeting halls a notice that says A Brethren's meeting room. Place of public religious worship, pursuant to the Registration Act of 1855 and the General Rate Act, 1967. One cannot qualify that. It might need to be tested through the procedure that has just been gone through before we are sure that it satisfies the law. That shows how arbitrary such a definition is.

In 1983 we must consider whether the invitation test, as it has come to be known, is a proper basis for judging a place of public religious worship.

Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North)

Does not my hon. Friend agree that the real test of a place of worship is the activity that goes on there and the sincerity of its worshippers, rather than the architecture and the fittings?

Mr. Lester

My hon. Friend must be clairvoyant, because that is the point I am just about to make. The Brethren have argued what has come to be known as the "well disposed persons' test". They have assured me, and I think many other hon. Members, that no one who expresses a genuine interest is prevented from going to their services. They believe that people are attracted to their services and their religion by the form of witness by which they live their lives, not by notice boards, and because they preach and evangelise outside the church in market squares and the centres of our communities. They seek to lead people to their church by example—an essential tenet of their faith.

If we apply that test to the wider Christian worship we would more likely fall into that category than those who went and looked at a notice board to find out the time of a service. If we choose to go to a church in our constituency which may not be of our religious faith, we would almost certainly ring the vicar, the rector or a member of the congregation and ask if we could go with him to his church. Certainly, that is what I would do, and that is much more the type of test that one would expect.

I can find no evidence that people have been prevented from attending the Brethren's services and I cannot see that the meeting halls are used for any other purpose than places of public worship. If the invitation test is to be the sole arbiter of places of public worship, it has a much wider significance than just for the Brethren because it has not been applied to the established Church—the Church of England.

I have in my hand an opinion from learned counsel which refers to the case of the governors of Shrewsbury school v Shrewsbury Corporation in 1960. The college chapel was found to be a place of public, not private, worship and therefore exempt from rates. Yet, one could not argue that that chapel in separate and distinct from the general buildings, nor that there is a notice which says at what time Shrewsbury school's chapel can be visited. However, one could argue that people are entitled to go to services there if they are parents, masters or their wives, or other people who are well-intentioned, who know the community and like to go to that chapel and its services.

One could also argue that if we were to look around in remote parts of the country we could find churches where notice boards have dropped off, where bells no longer ring and where the times of the services on the notice board bear no relation to the services held. At the most extreme, one could argue that a notice board could be put up and the church locked, preventing anyone from entering; and that is done for reasons which we understand.

One could go further. I also have evidence from a Mr. Bryan Wilson, a Fellow of All Souls, Oxford, a reader in sociology, who has been studying the question of religious sects for 30 years, especially the Brethren. On 14 September 1982 he wrote an interesting article in The Daily Telegraph entitled: Let them pray; so long as they pay rates". He has pointed out that, for entirely proper reasons, ultra-orthodox Jews do not invite the public to their synagogues. For fear of terrorist reprisals, they sensibly do not put up notice boards advertising the times of their services and so they would fail on the invitation test. Even the Zoastrians, who are Parsees, affirm that those who are not born Parsees and of their faith cannot become one of them. They would fail the invitation test although they are currently exempt from rates. Some Hindus are in exactly the same position.

Therefore, the question goes much wider than the ruling affecting the Brethren and their immediate rating prospects. As it is a wider question, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to review rating places of public worship in the light of recent events. He may well be able to follow Scots law. Scots law is often more sensible that English law. Indeed, I say that as a born and bred true Englishman. By section 21 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1966, Scotland amended the previous legislation, dropping the word "public". For Scottish rating exemption, the phrase is "places of religious worship". The word "public" is not used. In this day and age, we should move in that direction, and I would welcome the Minister's assurance that he will at least consider that.

The matter is so important that I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to use his influence to freeze rating so that no council levies rates until his review is completed. I realise that he can only use his influence, because local authorities are independent bodies. However, the House sets its face firmly against retrospective legislation, and it is unfair and arbitrary that some local authorities will pursue the question and levy rates on meeting halls while others will not. The question is so wide that it would be much wiser for the local authority associations and the Government to agree to look at the issue and not to levy rates until the review has been completed.

There will not be any financial hardship to councils. The amount that any council will receive from rating such premises is tiny, although the cumulative total of rates on this group is considerable. That is why I feel so deeply about the question of freedom to worship.

To sum up, I ask my hon. Friend to consider all that I have said, to remember how jealously the House guards freedom of worship and to consider taking a step in 1983 that does not go backwards from 1830, but that seeks to secure a future for freedom of worship for all sects in a multi-religious and still tolerant society.

10.27 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Giles Shaw)

I must congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Beeston (Mr. Lester) on the way in which he has skilfully deployed his case and timed it for the very day on which the legal process has been concluded. The debate is being held just as decisions have been reached in the other place. It is my duty to explain the background to the rating of such buildings.

Ever since rates were first introduced in the Poor Relief Act 1601, churches of the Church of England have not, in practice, been rated. That exemption was made statutory and extended to places of public religious worship belonging to other religious denominations by the Poor Rate Exemption Act 1833.

The relevant provisions of the 1833 Act were substantially re-enacted in the Rating and Valuation (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1955 and, subsequently, in the General Rate Act 1967. There is a fairly long, and in the case of the original Church, the Church of England, a very long history of exemption, and a long history in which public places of worship have enjoyed rate exemption. Section 39 of the General Rate Act 1967 provides that places of public religious worship together with any relevant ancillary buildings, which are either used by the Church of England or the Church in Wales or are registered under the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855, shall be exempt from rates.

Therefore, the criteria are straightforward in principle. Churches, chapels, mosques, temples and other buildings used for similar purposes are exempt from rates if they pass two tests. First, a relevant building must belong to the Church of England or the Church in Wales, or it must be registered as a place of worship under the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855. Secondly, it must be open for public religious worship.

The 1833 Act was passed at a time of special emphasis on the importance of religious toleration. I respect my hon. Friend's reference to the vital importance of that in our democracy. Since then, the provisions for rating exemption, which have stood the test of time remarkably well, have operated in a way wholly consistent with that spirit of tolerance. The provisions for the rating of places of religious worship apply even-handedly to all denominations and religions. But it is essential to the operation of the rating system that any exemption from the liability for rates that arises from the beneficial occupation of land or property must be fully justified and clearly defined.

That consideration applies as well to the rating of places of religious worship as to other rate reliefs, for example, those relating to relief for premises used for charitable purposes or rate rebates for individuals. In each case there is a set of criteria, subject ultimately to interpretation by the courts, against which each case can be measured.

The ownership and registration of a building are questions of fact, but the interpretation of the word "public" has from time to time been tested in the courts. My hon. Friend referred to the existing case in relation to the Brethren. To understand why the qualification of "public" has been considered necessary in providing for relief from rates for places of religious worship, it is instructive to consider briefly the way in which the term has been interpreted in the courts.

The issue was considered in the case of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints v. Henning, a valuation officer, in 1964. It was known as the Mormon temple case. At that time the Mormon Church in the United Kingdom had 75 chapels, the services at which were open not only to members of the Church but to members of the public. As a result, all of the chapels were, and as far as I know still are, exempt from rates. However, in a judgment in another place, the Mormon Church's single temple, although registered under the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855, was deemed not to be a place of public religious worship. In essence, the decision was based on the fact that not only were the public excluded from the temple, but that access was restricted to certain Mormons of "good standing".

When delivering their opinions, Lord Morris of Borthy-Gest and Lord Pearce touched upon the importance of the qualification "public" in such matters. I wish to quote, very briefly, from the judgment. Lord Morris said: I consider that there is a distinction between private or domestic or family worship on the one hand and public worship on the other. In my view the conception of public religious worship involves the coming together for corporate worship of a congregation or meeting or assembly of people, but I think that it further involves that the worship is in a place which is open to all properly disposed persons who wish to be present. My hon. Friend referred to the interpretation of "properly disposed persons".

Lord Pearce concluded that he found it impossible to hold that the words 'places of public religious worship' includes places which, though from the worshippers' point of view they were public as opposed to domestic, yet in the more ordinary sense were not public since the public was excluded. He then suggested that the question of how universal and indiscriminating must be the admission of the public,"— was a question of fact— and there may clearly be difficult questions whether some discrimination may be insufficient to deprive the worship of its public character. In the case of the meeting halls of the Exclusive Brethren that my hon. Friend has outlined, it is clear that the halls were not private or domestic places of worship. But the Court of Appeal agreed with Lords Morris and Pearce that the meaning of the word "public" must go beyond such a narrow construction. They contended, broadly speaking, that there must be more than a subjective willingness on the part of those in control of a place of worship to allow a properly disposed person to attend, and that there must be at least some outward sign that the public were either invited or permitted to participate.

Lord Justice Stephenson said: A building on private property must somehow declare itself open to the public if activities which are carried on inside it are to be public, and the nature of those activities must be brought to the notice of the outside world if they are not to be private activities … Here there is neither any outward and visible sign that these halls are used for meeting for religious worship, nor any evidence of attendance at them by members of the public, except rarely by one or two. In the judgment of the Court of Appeal, therefore, the meeting halls of the Exclusive Brethren did not meet the criteria of places of public worship; and, as my hon. Friend has said, petition for leave to appeal to another place has earlier today been refused.

That is the background to this case. What of the future? My hon. Friend has said that the Brethren are now advertising their meeting halls in a way which will perhaps satisfy the criteria in rating legislation. I am sure that that is a right course. The "public" test is an important one where rating relief or exemption is concerned, and it has stood the test of time very well for about 150 years. It is certainly open to the Exclusive Brethren at any time to furnish the local valuation officer with evidence that steps have been taken to advertise their meeting halls as open for public worship—as other religious denominations do—and to challenge any decision in the normal way.

Assuming that that is not a road that the Brethren would wish to tread, if the Brethren are unable or unwilling to regain their exemption in that way, they may be entitled to a mandatory 50 per cent. charitable relief from rates and possibly even for a further discretionary 50 per cent.—but this would be a matter for each local authority.

I hope that hon. Members will recognise some of the potential problems of removing the word "public" from the legislation. Indeed, I think it is important to bear in mind that where an individual, organisation or religious group steps, or finds itself stepping, outside any given criteria, it does not necessarily follow that those criteria should be changed.

Nevertheless, inasmuch as it is the function of the courts, through case law, to interpret criteria of the sort at issue here, in the light of the facts and the circumstances of each case, it is the responsibility of Parliament to ensure that statutes continue to operate in the way intended.

I am therefore grateful to my hon. Friend for raising such an important issue at this time. I can assure him that the Government will fully consider the implications of the decision in his constituents' case both for the Exclusive Brethren and for other religious organisations which may be affected by it.

In addition, I will look at the relevance and appropriateness of the Scottish position in the course of that consideration, although, as I think he will understand, there are certain statutory differences in the way in which the buildings in Scotland are related to their particular law. My hon. Friend has asked me a more pertinent and difficult question. He has asked that consideration of the consequences of the case be fully assessed before local authorities can take actions which they might seek to take in the light of the judgment which has been made.

It is not for me or for the Government to determine what local authorities may wish or seek to do—[Interruption.] —a sudden and hurried slip of the tongue, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is, after all, a local authority that has made the decision around which the case has been worked, but it is certainly possible that I should consider what is the appropriate action in relation to the information we now have with regard to valuation officers. It may be that that is a route by which the information that we are gaining through the review of where matters stand on this case will assist my hon. Friend and the cause that he has so eloquently deployed tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to Eleven o' clock.