§ [SECOND READING.]
§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ THE SECRETARY FOR SCOTLAND (LORD PENTLAND)
Your Lordships are familiar with the purposes which this Bill is designed to further, because two years ago the Bill largely in its present form was before your Lordships for a considerable time. That Bill was the result of an inquiry by a Departmental Committee which took much evidence in Scotland on this subject, and the Committee itself was due to a very prolonged movement in favour of legislation on this subject. But I need not dwell upon those details as they are familiar to your Lordships. The Bill of 1909 was brought up in the month of September of that year. Your Lordships gave it your consideration, and continuous efforts were made between the two Houses to find a solution of the crucial difficulties in the proposals which were then made.
718 It, may be convenient, however, if I briefly state again the purposes which these proposals are designed to serve, and also the differences between the proposals of 1909 and those in the present Bill. Before I state the grievances, I may remind the House that these grievances are felt very acutely by a part of the population in Scotland. Frequently, as your Lordships know, Scottish legislation under existing conditions has to follow English legislation on the same subject, and even in that respect Scottish interests deserve the special consideration of Parliament. All the more so then do they deserve special consideration and indulgence when they affect, not the whole of Scotland, but a small though important part of the population of that country, as is the case under the, present circumstances. The cause of the grievances which this Bill is designed to meet is to be found in the necessity which modern industrial conditions impose upon labour that it should easily move from place to place. Working men have to follow employment. When a depression of trade occurs in an industry in one part of the country it is frequently necessary for men to seek employment elsewhere, where the conditions are more favourable and industry is more prosperous. Many of the social arrangements in which working men take a part, and which affect them closely, are adapted to meet the requirements demanded by the necessity that labour should be mobile and move from place to place. Trade Unions, building societies, and other organisations of that kind adapt themselves to these conditions.
But when we come to the tenure of houses we find a remarkable difference between the systems obtaining in England and Scotland. In England the tenure of working men's houses—the conditions under which they were let and the conditions, therefore, under which working men could obtain dwelling houses, especially in the industrial districts—was adapted many years ago to meet the new requirements, and what are called "short lets" are the rule. In Scotland, however, for reasons which I need not enter into or attempt to fathom, we still have long lets, yearly lets, and the consequence is that men who under the conditions I have described are obliged when industry is slack in shipbuilding, in iron works, or in the engineering trades, to leave, say, the Clyde and go to 719 the Tyne or to the North of Ireland to obtain occupation, frequently find themselves bound to pay the rent of the house they had taken for a large part of the unexpired year, while at the same time they are paying for the house in their new location.
There is another grievance which has grown up, for let me remind your Lordships that the letting of houses is not regulated by Statute but by custom. I refer to the grievance which goes by the name in Scotland of the "missive system," which requires a yearly tenant of a dwelling-house to bind himself about the beginning of February to take the house for a year from the following May. Your Lordships will see that under that practice a man is practically bound for sixteen months. This Bill is designed to remedy that grievance by shortening the notice to a maximum of two months. Secondly, it provides for a system of short lets; and, thirdly, your Lordships will readily recognise that as the occupier of a house is liable to pay rates the sequel of introducing a system of short lets must be to modify the system under which assessments are now paid. I hope I have placed sufficiently in detail before the House the purposes which this Bill is designed to serve.
I would now point out a few of the main differences between this Bill and the proposals of two years ago. In the first place, to what districts is it to apply? The Bill of 1909 applied only to houses in burghs. This Bill applies not only to houses in burghs, but also to houses in what are known as special local government districts, formed under the Public Health Act, 1897, and under a series of Local Government Acts, 1889 to 1908, for the purposes of lighting, drainage, scavenging, water supply, and the like. These are populous districts, resembling in many respects small burghs, and it was at the instance of a county which contains, I think, the largest number of such districts—namely, Lanarkshire—that this change was made in the Bill in the House of Commons. The second difference between this Bill and the former Bill is this. A small dwelling-house in the former Bill was defined to mean in burghs of under 10,000 inhabitants a dwelling-house rented at £15 a year; in burghs with between 10,000 and 50,000 inhabitants, £21 a year; and 720 in burghs over 50,000 population, £26 a year. This House considered that these limits were too high, and reduced them to from £10 to £20. These limits have practically been adopted in the new Bill. They run in this Bill from £10 to £21. The provisions for shortening the missive period are the same in both Bills, as are also the provisions conferring on the landlord or the tenant a right of due notice to terminate the tenancy at any date when the instalment of rent is payable, and also the provisions simplifying and cheapening the process of removing. In these three respects, which are points of some importance, the two Bills are identical.
I now come to what has been the main point of controversy on this subject—namely, the provisions providing for payment and collection of assessments, with their accompaniment, the question of disqualification for the franchise. The Bill of 1909 was a compounding Bill. The owner was liable for the occupier's assessments with a right of recovery against the occupier in respect of the period of his occupation, but the franchise disqualification completely disappeared, as, let me remind your Lordships, it does in the system in vogue in England. Owners were made liable for occupiers' assessments, whether they collected them or not, but were entitled to repayment by the municipal authority or by the assessment authority if the house was unlet for part of the year. The owner's commission to cover the cost of collection and the risk of loss on assessments was left to the sheriff to fix. Those provisions were very keenly criticised, and they have led to alterations in the present Bill. It was contended then, and it is still the contention of the Government, that it is impossible to touch this question of short lets without affecting in some degree the franchise, but the proposals contained in this Bill do, in the opinion of the Government, reduce any such interference with the franchise to the very lowest minimum.
This Bill of 1911 is designed to preserve as far as possible—short, of course, of amending the Franchise Acts and the Poor Law Acts, which we do not attempt to do—the franchise disqualification for non-payment of rates. It leaves the liability of rates, but only for the period of his occupancy, upon the occupier. The liability is with the occupier for the 721 period of his occupancy; but owners are made responsible, in the first instance, for the full occupiers' rates on all their houses, but they are entitled to the repayment by the assessing authorities of any rates which they have not been able to collect from the occupiers. There is, therefore, no ultimate loss to provide for—that is to say, the owners have to bear no ultimate loss. For that reason the commission allowed is reduced in Glagsow to 2½ per cent., varying downwards in other areas. The Bill provides that owners must make a return to the assessing authorities, on a date to be fixed between the 1st and the 20th of May, of all occupiers in arrear of rent, which necessarily includes rates, and it will be the duty of the collector of poor rates to give every occupier so reported an intimation that unless he pays the rates said to be due in respect of the house for which he appears liable on the assessment roll before the date specified, he will not be entitled to be placed on the roll of voters. That provision preserves the franchise disqualification for nonpayment of rates concerning houses in respect of which the occupier's name appears on the assessment roll. Your Lordships will remember that the provisions of the Bill of 1909 were designed to keep the occupier uninformed of the assessment; it was thought that private owners would issue to the occupiers a receipt or certificate stating the amount payable under the heads of rent and assessment respectively. This Bill does not distinguish between rent and rates, so far as the occupier is concerned. This, I think, is all that need be said at this stage in respect of the difference in the treatment of the main controversial point in this Bill. The remaining provisions of the two Bills are really identical. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Pentland.)
THE EARL OF CAMPERDOWN
My Lords, I do not think it will be necessary for me at this stage to make any prolonged remarks with regard to this Bill. But I wish to say, with regard to the grievance which the noble Lord said was felt in certain burghs in Scotland owing to the system of long lets, that there has never been any controversy on that point between the two sides of the House. [Lord PENTLAND: Hear, hear.] There has never 722 been any proposal from this side of the House to do anything which would interfere with the proposed system of short lets. On the contrary, we have done everything in our power to promote short lets, and I myself introduced a Bill which went into a further point—namely, payment of rates by instalments. Therefore so far as this grievance of the lets being too long under the present system, which, as the noble Lord says, is a system not of law but of practice—so far as that is concerned there has never been any conflict of opinion between the two sides of the House. The difference which has existed has been with regard to the effect which the Bill of 1909 had upon the law as affecting the franchise, and in regard to that I shall say a word in a moment.
To take first the point of the special districts, which the noble Lord alluded to as having been for the first time introduced into this Bill, I do not desire to offer any objection at all to that. The population limits which he has adopted in this Bill are identical or very nearly identical to those which were approved by your Lordships' House, and there, of course, I agree with the noble Lord. But this Bill greatly extends the system of compounding, Now, I personally entertain all the objections which I entertained in 1909 to this extension of the system of compounding. In view of the present condition of affairs under which rates are being constantly increased and heaped up it seems to me most desirable, in the occupiers' interests and from the public point of view, that the occupiers should know the burden which they are called upon to bear, and it should not be disguised in the form of an addition to the rent. It stands to reason that although the demand may be imposed upon the owner, he is not going to bear the burden. He will endeavour to free himself from it by, as far as he can, making additions to the rent, and therefore the burden which the occupier has to bear is really very much the same although it is disguised from him by bearing another name. But although I entertain as much objection to this extension of the system of compounding as I did in 1909; I do not propose to move the rejection of the Bill on that score.
In reality, the only point of controversy between the Government and those who entertain the same opinions as I do is as 723 to the effect which the payment of the rate being imposed upon the owner instead of the occupier will have upon the qualification for the franchise. The Secretary for Scotland has already said that the Government desire to interfere with the laws relating to the qualification for the franchise as little as possible, and he also said that they did it in this Bill to a minimum degree. If any one will look at the Bill, however, he will see that the Government recognise that the liability of the occupier, so far as the franchise is concerned, ought to remain, because the proviso to Clause 7, subsection (3) reads—Provided that, for the purpose of any qualification or franchise which depends on payment of occupiers' assessments, an occupier shall be held to be in arrear and his assessments to remain unpaid to the extent of any claim therefor (if relating to any period during the occupancy of the said occupier) under this subsection in respect of which the owner has received repayment, or which is pending at the date when notice of occupiers' assessments in arrear requires to be given under the statutes relating to such qualification or franchise.And that is repeated, or, at least, it is alluded to in terms of the same sort in Clause 8, which says—Provided that where an owner who is responsible therefor omits or neglects to pay any such assessment, or where, having paid the same, he has claimed repayment thereof in respect of any period during the occupancy of the said occupier, the occupier may pay the same to the assessing authority and deduct the amount from the rent due or accruing due.That enables the occupier to save his vote by himself making a direct payment of the rates. I quite admit that this arrangement is far better than the arrangement in the former Bill. But if I read this Bill correctly, the grievance is not fully met by the words as they stand, though I think that words might very easily be devised to meet the objection which I entertain. That objection is this, that under a system of short lets, a man may occupy, we will say, five houses—A, B, C, D, and E—within twelve months. Then the assessor calls upon him when he is occupying house E. All he has to prove is that the rates in respect of house E have been paid, whereas it is quite possible that in houses A, B, C, and D he may not have paid his rent, and has not, therefore, fulfilled the conditions of the franchise. I am, of course, putting an extreme case for the sake of making my argument clear, but I think words might be easily devised to 724 meet that case, because the intention of the Government is exactly the same as mine—namely, that during the whole of the twelve months the rates due shall have been paid by somebody, either by the owner on behalf of the occupier, or, under the working of Clause 8, by the occupier himself directly. I think that is all I need say on the Bill at the present stage, and I have no intention of opposing the Second Reading.
§ THE EARL OF DUNMORE
My Lords, I should like to make quite clear our attitude on this side of the House in regard to this Bill. When the Bill came up to your Lordships in 1909 its principle was accepted on both sides of the House, and my attitude to-day in regard to the Bill is the same as it was in 1909. I accept its principle, and I go further and admit there is a grievance, and I am glad to support anything to remedy that grievance. But I do regret to see that this Bill again contains this obnoxious system of compounding. I call it obnoxious because, having had some experience of municipal government, I take a somewhat strong view on this question. Your Lordships have only to look at the great increase in municipal expenditure all over the country to recognise the absolute necessity of bringing home to the ratepayer his personal responsibility in regard to the rates levied. Moreover, I do not believe that the evils attendant on compounding are a necessary part of this Bill. The Corporation of Glasgow put forward an alternative scheme last year, and, as another alternative scheme, I see no reason why an owner should not be forced by law to state separately on his demand note how much of the amount demanded is for rent and how much is being collected as rates for the local authority. In any case, accepting the view that this principle of compounding is an integral part of this Bill, which I do not believe, it would remove some of the evil.
The noble Lord the Secretary for Scotland will correct me if I am wrong, but this Bill, as I read it, is going to take away the power which is at present possessed by assessing authorities of granting exemptions to those poorer occupiers who may find themselves unable to pay municipal rates. [Viscount ST. ALDWYN: Hear, hear.] I have read the Bill very carefully 725 and it seems to me that there is no doubt on this point. What happens is this. The owner is responsible for the occupier's assessment; therefore, when he collects the rent every week he fixes the sum which represents the occupier's proportion of rent and rates. If the occupier had an exemption, how would the owner recoup himself for the loss which he had sustained by paying the occupier's assessment to the local authority. As I read this Bill, he can only obtain repayment of rates in respect of rent which he has not received. I think that is quite clear, and it is equally clear that these occupiers will, in future, however poor they may be, be unable to obtain any exemptions in regard to rates.
I wish to support my noble friend Lord Camperdown as regards what he said about the enfranchisement of people who did not pay their rates. I am quite sure that His Majesty's Government did not intend to bring in any form of franchise measure, but under this Bill it is possible for a man to get on to the register simply because he has paid his rent and his rates for one month in respect of the house in which he happens to be residing when the voters' roll is made up. The noble Lord the Secretary for Scotland shakes his head, but I read the Bill in that way. During the previous eleven months of the year the man may have been in successive occupation of several houses in the same constituency, or in different constituencies if it is in a large burgh such as Edinburgh, or Glasgow, or Aberdeen, and in respect of those houses he need not have paid a single penny of either rent or rates. I do not think it can be the intention of the Government—certainly I do not think it desirable—that under those circumstances a man should find his name on the register. I am not going to detain your Lordships further. I support the principle of the Bill, but I do not believe that in its present form it will be altogether acceptable to the class in whose interests it is drawn up. I think they may very likely find themselves having to pay increased rent for the houses which come within the scope of the Bill. The owner adds his rates and rent together, but he adds something more to safeguard himself against any possible loss which may accrue from non-collection of rates. The result will be that the hard-working, thrifty artisan, the man who is willing to pay his way, will have to pay an increased rent in order to recoup his landlord for any possible 726 loss due to defaulting tenants. I would like to say to the noble Lord once more that we do support the principle of this Bill; but the provisions of Clause 7 as regards rating require some alteration, and I trust that the Government will see their way to meet us in regard to some of the points which we may think it necessary to raise when we consider this Bill in Committee.
§ LORD PENTLAND
Perhaps your Lordships will allow me to say a few words in reply to the points which have been put to me, and to endeavour to give the noble Lords who have spoken the information which they desire. The noble Earl who has just sat down pointed out that the provisions of this Bill, if carried into law, may produce this result, that the inhabitants of these houses may have to pay, on the whole, increased rents for the privilege. That may very possibly be a result, but that has been considered and faced by those who are interested in this matter. These men have not the means to make long, heavy payments, and, as your Lordships know, many social contrivances are devised to meet the needs of working men in these respects. The instalment system, however burdensome it may seem to us, does meet hardships and conditions or it would certainly not be in existence. It is very widely in existence, and it is in full knowledge of what may be the effects of this Bill that the pressure for some remedy such as that which this Bill is designed to give has been applied. It has been in existence in Scotland for twenty or twenty-five years. Ten, fifteen, or twenty Bills have been introduced into Parliament in the effort to obtain relief, and I think your Lordships may be assured that those who have been inspiring and supporting this movement for all these years are well aware of the probable consequences, and have measured the pros and cons of the change which they seek to bring about.
The noble Earl took another point on which I should like to say a word. Under the Poor Law Acts in Scotland payment of rates at present must be payment for the whole year. Now, if you are going to give to working men the option of taking a house for periods shorter than a whole year—they are now, as I have explained, obliged to take houses for a whole year, so that the payment of rates and the payment of rent are concurrent obligations—but if your Lordships are going, as you have expressed your willingness to-day, to 727 give working men the option of taking houses for one month, or two months, or three months, it stands to reason that you cannot possibly avoid interfering with the present obligation to pay rates for the whole year. I hope I have made that clear to your Lordships, because this is cardinal to this whole discussion. It is from this unavoidable necessity with which we have to deal that springs the whole difficulty, and if we do not at the beginning recognise that it is an unavoidable duty forced upon us by the necessity of an alteration we cannot ultimately arrive at that agreement at which, I willingly recognise, your Lordships are desirous to arrive. From that follows the necessity of in some degree touching the franchise, because, while it is not the main qualification for the franchise, the payment of rates is a subsidiary qualification. The main qualification for a person to be placed on the voters' roll is a residential qualification—having been in residence in Scotland for twelve months previous to the 31st of July.
§ THE EARL OF DUNMORE
And having paid rent.
§ LORD PENTLAND
I am thinking of the law in Scotland. The noble Earl is quite right, but I am putting aside the special condition of the constituency for a moment. The residential qualification is the main qualification for the franchise. Having paid rates is a subsidiary qualification, quite as essential, I admit, but subsidiary. Now if you are going to interfere with the present law which obliges payment of rates in one sum for the whole year, you must consequentially touch in some degree this subsidiary qualification for the franchise. I do not state that in any controversial sense because it is the basis of our whole discussion.
Now let me say one word in regard to what the noble Earl, Lord Dunmore, said about the payment of one month's rates, in exceptional circumstances, qualifying a man for a whole year. The noble Earl, Lord Camperdown, said something of the same kind. I will discuss that fully in Committee. But let me put it to your Lordships that you are really considering 728 exceptions. The main body of the people for whom this remedy is established and proposed in this Bill are men who faithfully discharge their obligations. They pay their rent and their rates regularly, but by the force of circumstances in having to seek their employment elsewhere they leave a district and go to work for their living in another district. In nine eases out of ten, I might almost say in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, these men go off the roll because their residential qualification is interrupted. Numbers of them may move within the same constituency, but a great many will go out of a district altogether, and their franchise would be lost to them under the present law, not because they had not paid rates, but because their residential qualification was interrupted. I therefore put it to your Lordships that the controversy, such as it is, between us is really within very narrow limits as to what would happen in the case of a very small number of men.
Let me state, even in regard to this very small minority, what happens. The assessment roll in Scotland is made up from the valuation roll, and from the valuation roll is made up the register of voters. Take the case of a man who is in occupation of a house in September or October, when the register of voters is made up. The assessor who makes up the register of voters looks at the valuation roll and sees a particular man's name entered on the roll opposite the house which he occupies, and he puts him upon the register of voters in respect of that house. The time comes when the rating notes, or what we call the assessment notes, are sent out, in December. The Poor-law authorities and the other local authorities send out their assessment notes for the rate from the following Whitsuntide for the year. In January they begin to press for the payment of that rate. In May the notices are sent out to defaulters, and they have to pay by the 15th of June or they are struck off the register of voters, which begins to be made up in June, July and August. The noble Earl says that a man may be put on the roll when he has only paid rates for a month. That is perfectly true. He may have been on the roll for a month, because when he pays lie pays for his occupancy. Under this Bill we cannot any longer ask him to pay for the year. Before you established short lets you asked that man in January to pay his rates for the whole year; but when you 729 once begin telling that man that he can leave his house in a month—that is what this Bill does, and that is what your Lordships say you are in favour of, the giving of short lets—
THE EARL OF CAMPERDOWN
Will not the owner be called upon to pay the rates for the whole year? The occupier will not be called upon, as I understand, under the Bill to pay the rates at all.
§ LORD PENTLAND
If the noble Earl will allow me to go on, for the sake of simplicity I think it will be better. The noble Earl is quite right; but the owner has a right of recovery, so it comes to the same thing. We are dealing with the occupier who is only in residence for a short time, and that is the point I wish to make. When you have a system as at present, that rates should be paid for the whole year, that matter is simple enough. If the man does not pay the rates legally payable for the whole year he is struck off the register; he becomes a defaulter and does not get a vote. But if you introduce a system of short lets and say to a man, "You may break the tenure of your house, you may go to Belfast, or Sunderland, or Gateshead, or North Shields, or wherever your employment takes you, you may break your tenure after, it may be, one month, or two months, or three months." you must free him also from the obligation to pay rates for the whole year.
§ LORD PENTLAND
That is where your difficulty comes in. The noble Earl at once says that he suspects something. He says, "Oh, I have caught you extending the franchise." That is I he real difficulty; but I would urge upon you that we have done our best to reduce this objection to the very narrowest limits.
§ LORD PENTLAND
The noble Earl says "Oh"; but I would ask him to balance against it the great injustice which people in Scotland in this position are now suffering, and to remember that thirty years ago in England Parliament was obliged, after abandoning compounding, under much wider limits than are contained in this Bill—
§ VISCOUNT ST. ALDWYN
Establishing it, you mean, in 1869.
§ LORD PENTLAND
But after establishing it in England they abandoned it, and then they came back to it—that is my point—and it is now the law. I can only say that in working out any improvement of this Bill the Government will welcome the co-operation of noble Lords opposite.
THE EARL OF CAMPERDOWN
May I, by permission of the House, say one word for the purpose of clearing my own mind and possibly the minds of some others on this side of the House? The noble Lord says he does not interfere with the residential qualification, but he does propose to interfere with the condition that rates must have been paid during the preceding twelve months. I do not quite understand on what principle he proposes to alter the one and not to alter the other. Nor do I think it, really will be found possible to do so. As Lord Dunmore and I said, it will be quite possible for a man to be put upon the roll when he has only occupied a house and paid rates in respect of it for one month, or possibly for one week. During the preceding twelve mouths he may have lived in five or six other houses. The law as it stands says that the rates must be paid during the whole of the preceding twelve months. The noble Lord the Secretary for Scotland says the alteration proposed is a very slight alteration; but surely it is a very considerable alteration when you say that a man may be placed on the voters' roll in respect of having paid rates for only one week.
§ LORD PENTLAND
May I, by leave of the House, say a word on that point? It is a hypothetical case. As a matter of fact, landlords will not take a man who has been in six or seven houses in a year and has not discharged his obligations. The odds are that in practice they will not take such a man. When a man goes to them for a house, especially a man who desires it for a short time, they will inquire as to his antecedents and where he has been living, and such cases as Lord Camperdown mentions are not likely to happen, though they are quite possible.
THE EARL OF CAMPERDOWN
The noble Lord says it is a hypothetical case, but that is only an assertion of his own; it is not an argument. It is in the very western towns, where this system appears to be most desired, where the greatest number of changes will take place. With regard to the residential qualification, the noble Lord says you cannot require a man to pay the rates for the year. Well, in the same way you may say you cannot require a man to reside for twelve months. I do not wish to pursue the subject further, but I think it is a matter that can be easily arranged. I believe I can put down words which will satisfy the Government, and I 732 will endeavour to put down such words before your Lordships go into Committee on this Bill.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House on Wednesday next.