§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ LORD AMULREE
My Lords, this Bill is designed to secure economy in the preparation of the new valuation lists for all areas outside London made in accordance with the provisions of the Rating and Valuation Act, 1925. Your Lordships will recollect that the Act of 1925 effected great changes in the procedure relating to the preparation of valuation lists and kindred matters. One of the changes was the introduction of a system of quinquennial valuation, adopting in this respect a system which had been in operation for many years in the Metropolis. Before 1925 the valuation lists were prepared by the overseers of the parish and new valuation lists were made, not at stated intervals, but when ordered by the assessment committee of the then Poor Law union.
The office of overseer is now abolished and under the Act of 1925 the rating authority is required every fifth year to make a valuation list of all the hereditaments within its area with the gross and net annual values of each hereditament. This list is known as the quinquennial valuation list. The first valuation list was made following the coming into operation of the Act of 1925 and the preparation of the second quinquennial valuation list is, in most cases, now about to be undertaken. Representations have been made by local authorities that the existing provision, which requires certain returns to be made by occupiers, owners or lessees as a preliminary to the compilation of the lists, entails much unnecessary labour and expense. Section 40, subsection (1) of the Act of 1925, as the Bill shows, requires the issue by the rating authority in connection with the preparation of each quinquennial revaluation of a notice with a form of return in respect of 326 every hereditament in its area. The rating authority is required to serve such notice on the occupier, owner or lessee of every hereditament, and the person upon whom the notice has been served is required to make the return under a penalty for default.
Section 40, subsection (1) of the Act of 1925 is as follows:In every case where a new valuation list is to be made under this part of this Act for any rating area the rating authority shall serve notice on the occupier, owner or lessee of every hereditament in the area or on any one or more of them requiring him or them to make a return containing such particulars as may be reasonably required for the purpose of carrying out this Act. The said notice shall be served not later than such date as will allow a sufficient interval for completing in accordance with the provisions of this part of this Act the various stages in the preparation of the valuation list.Your Lordships will see that that section requires that the rating authority is to call upon any occupier, owner or lessee to make a return. A form of return is prescribed by the Rating and Valuation Act (Returns) Rules, 1926, and this return requires the person upon whom it is served to state the situation of the property, the name of the occupier, the name and address of the owner, the use to which the property is put, the nature of the business carried on, and various particulars of that kind. This information is intended to be for the assistance of the rating authority and does not affect in any way the right of the ratepayer to challenge his assessment when the valuation list is deposited in draft nor does it affect his opportunity for doing so.
The powers conferred by Section 40 are most useful to rating authorities. Overseers had no such powers and they had to collect information relating to the rateable value of any property as best they could, but experience has shown that Section 40 goes too far. The rating authorities who, as I have said, are responsible for the preparation of valuation lists, while recognising that information obtainable from the prescribed form is in many cases useful, have pointed out that in numerous instances the information so obtained is of no appreciable assistance to them. There are types of rateable property to which the form that has been prescribed is, for practical purposes, inapplicable; for example, public utility undertakings, mines and quarries, 327 schools and other institutions, theatres and hotels. Moreover, even in the case of houses the need for issuing separate forms in respect of large numbers of premises identical in character involves much needless labour and considerable expenditure. An example is a long street of identical houses where there would be no object in requiring every occupier or owner to make a return. Local authorities are in many instances owners of a large number of dwelling houses and other property. Yet under the Act the local authority as rating authority must serve notice on itself as owner requiring a return to be made by itself to itself, or it must serve similar notices on its tenants. All the information which any return could disclose in respect of such property is already in possession of the local authority.
May I give an instance of how the section works out in practice? In Birmingham the Corporation as rating authority will under the present law have to serve over 170,000 notices calling for returns. The Corporation has already full information in respect of the majority of the properties as to which notices will be served. The greater part of the work in serving these notices is thus unnecessary, and if the Corporation were not required to serve notices in all cases but empowered to serve such notices as they deemed necessary it is estimated that £2,000 would be saved in respect of the preparation of the new valuation list. A like sum would be saved in the preparation of each succeeding quinquennial valuation list. The number of rating authorities in England and Wales affected by the Bill in 1,762. The matter thus assumes some importance. Material is not available to form any accurate estimate of the potential saving of these authorities, but seeing that the number of separately rateable properties is in the neighbourhood of 11,000,000 it is apparent that if anything like the ratio of saving in Birmingham obtains generally the economy would be considerable.
It has been represented that all that is necessary to remedy what is complained of is that the rating authorities should be empowered, instead of being required, to call for the returns, and that they should be in a position to exercise their discretion as to the cases 328 in which a return is or is not desirable. The Bill provides for this. With this view the Association of Municipal Corporations are in sympathy and it is understood that it commends itself also to the county councils. The Central Valuation Committee takes the same view and emphasises the desirability of amending the Act in the interests of economy. The committee is a statutory body constituted under Section 57 of the Act of 1925 and is representative of all classes of local authority. In a circular letter, dated April 15 last addressed to the clerks to the county valuation committees, the Central Valuation Committee state:It has been suggested that much labour and expense might be saved if the power and duty under Section 40 (1) of the Rating and Valuation Act, 1925, of requiring a return in respect of every hereditament were made generally permissive instead of obligatory. The Central Valuation Committee have accordingly represented to the Minister that, in the interests of economy, it is desirable that the Act of 1925 shall be amended in this respect during the present Session if there is an opportunity of so doing.Thus the various authorities concerned in rating and valuation are favourable to the amendment of the Act of 1925 in the manner proposed by the Bill.
There is reason to believe that the Minister of Health would also view the proposal with sympathy, particularly in present circumstances. If the Bill becomes law it will relieve many occupiers and owners from the obligation of making unnecessary returns. Preliminary steps for the new valuation are already in hand in most areas and notices calling for returns would be normally served during the ensuing autumn in the case of the great majority of rating authorities. If, therefore, the object of the Bill is to be achieved, it is necessary that it should reach the Statute Book this Session. In those circumstances, I invite your Lordships' favourable consideration of the Bill and I beg to move that it be read a second time.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Amulree.)
§ LORD BANBURY OF SOUTHAM
My Lords, I am very glad to hear that at last a Bill is introduced which will economise in some directions. I have not seen very many attempts at that, and I am glad to hear that the noble 329 Lord is beginning to proceed in the right way. I am still more glad to hear that corporations are at last beginning to understand that economy is necessary. I have never seen any corporation going that way before, and, in fact, I think they are the worst offenders.
§ LORD BANBURY OF SOUTHAM
There are always exceptions. They prove the rule. I would like to ask the noble Lord one question as to what is the actual position, presuming the Bill becomes law, of the ratepayers. There is a fresh valuation. I am a ratepayer. I pay £100 a year for my house. At the present moment I have to return to the rating authority the fact that I pay £100 a year for my house. Under the noble Lord's Bill I shall not have to do that, which, of course, is an advantage. But what is there to prevent the corporation assessing me at £150? Then, as I understand it, I shall have to go to the trouble of pointing out that they have had made a bad assessment. Is not that right?
§ LORD AMULREE
Yes. The Bill does not affect that question. The Bill only deals with the necessity of making returns in respect of every property in the rating area. The object is to give the rating authority discretion as to which properties they think the valuation should be revised.
§ LORD BANBURY OF SOUTHAM
As long as the ratepayer is not damaged, I do not know that I very much mind. I presume that the effect on the ratepayer will be that, whereas, under the present law he has to make a long return, that will not necessarily have to be done under the new law, but that if he is wrongly assessed then he will have to take action. He will only take action in case he is badly assessed. Is that right?
§ LORD PARMOOR
My Lords, if I have understood the noble Lord aright all that this Bill does is to give a discretion to the local authority where there is an obligation at the present time. 330 That obligation is found to be more than is necessary and therefore it is asked that discretion should be substituted for obligation. I should have thought that every one would have assented to that and I believe myself that it is an excellent proposal.
THE EARL OF MALMESBURY
My Lords, I do not intend to detain the House more than a few moments in giving my general support to the Bill. On the last occasion when the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, and myself engaged in discussion on local government administration we found ourselves on opposite sides, but to-day I have much pleasure in supporting the Bill he has introduced which I think is vital to the peace and happiness of the ratepayer. As your Lordships no doubt are well aware, if you have studied this Bill, it merely seeks to remedy a position which was probably not intended when the Rating and Valuation Act of 1925 was passed. It introduces a permissive element instead of the obligatory character of that Act. If this Bill becomes law, local authorities will no longer be compelled to demand returns from owners or occupiers with regard to their assessments. That is to say, if a local authority, whether it is a municipal council or a county council, is already in possession of sufficient knowledge, it need not call upon the ratepayer to make a return. Of course, it may still be possible, as my noble friend Lord Banbury has pointed out, for the rating authority to raise the assessment of a house. Equally it is possible for them to reduce it. The local authority, however, as I understand, will not be bound to have fresh returns made if an agreement is come to between them and the owner or occupier. That is a gain.
There are many districts where the value of a house does not materially alter from year to year, or from one period of five years to another. There are other districts where the value of a house may vary very materially in this period. This Bill will give local authorities more elasticity in the exercise of their powers. Where the local authority have the necessary knowledge it will not be necessary for them to worry the owners and occupiers of property to the same extent as they would if this Bill were not 331 passed. There is one other thing I would like to say before I conclude. For a long time, as no doubt your Lordships are aware, there has been a large body of opinion in favour of the postponement of the quinquennial valuation. The Government, I believe, were approached on that subject but did not think fit to postpone that quinquennial valuation and accordingly it will shortly become due and will be duly made. This Bill, however, will remove a great deal of hardship from that valuation and will greatly reduce its cost. On behalf of the County Councils' Association, which no doubt would have introduced a similar Bill if the Associaton of Municipal Corporations had not done so—in fact, it has been done by agreement—I beg to support the Bill.
My Lords, perhaps I ought to add that the Ministry of Health are grateful to the noble Lord for introducing this Bill. It will make for economy without prejudice to the accuracy and fairness of the valuation list. It will also reduce the number of unnecessary forms which householders have to fill in, and the Ministry of Health are always anxious to help in reducing the number of unnecessary forms.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.