HL Deb 04 December 1952 vol 179 cc767-76

3.30 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this, also, is a very short Bill, and it has only one purpose: it seeks to prolong the period before the Inland Revenue have to sign and seal the valuation, the date at the moment being the 31st of this month. The object of asking Parliament to postpone the date is simple and obvious: it is because the job has not yet been done. I think noble Lords opposite will agree that when their Party were in power they more than hinted that there would have to be postponement, so we may all be agreed on that. The reason why the job has not been done is two-fold. First, and most important, there is the fact that when this work came to be done—and, as your Lordships will remember, this is the first valuation since 1934, and, apart from anything else, the length of time that has elapsed means that it must inevitably be a long and complex job, whatever method of valuation is used—it proved to be more difficult than if it had continued on the usual quinquennial basis, as it had up to the war.

In addition to those particular difficulties, which were the fault of nobody but were the fault of the war, we were faced, as noble Lords opposite, when they were in power, were probably faced, with the great shortage of trained valuers necessary to do the work. Moreover—I do not want to treat this matter in any Party spirit, because there was no doubt an idea that the formula adopted would work out, though, in all fairness, it was criticised from this side of the House—the new formula in Part IV of the 1948 Act, has, in the light of experience, broken down. Therefore, we have to find a second or modified formula to that proposed in the 1948 Act. We have to cut our coat according to our cloth, and use the valuers and their staff available to carry out this work. Therefore, I am asking the House to give a Second Reading to this Bill, which merely asks your Lordships to prolong the time. Though, for convenience sake, there is no fixed date in the Bill, we hope that it will be 1956. In fact, the Inland Revenue are slightly more optimistic than we are, for they hope it will be 1955. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Onslow.)

3.33 p.m.


My Lords, in view of the facts which the noble Earl has stated, this House is bound to give a Second Reading to this Bill. But I must express my own regret, and the regret of all those who are concerned with this subject, at the necessity. The noble Earl has not chosen to make this a Party issue or to indulge in recriminations. I do not propose to do so myself, but I should like to impress upon the House the great urgency of dealing with this subject. The Local Government Act, 1948, made drastic amendments in the basis of valuation for rating purposes. It was urgently necessary at that time. I think it will be agreed that the basis of valuation had, in fact, broken down: it had become almost impossible to continue on the assumption that the rateable value was to be based upon what a hypothetical tenant would pay for a dwelling-house. It had become more and more hypothetical as to what the hypothetical tenant would pay. New factors had become relevant—for instance, the scarcity of accommodation, and so on—and more and more this basis of valuation had become quite unfair and unworkable.

But, in addition to that, there was the immense difference in the method of valuation as between one authority and another. That might not have mattered very much so long as each authority was responsible for levying its own rates and was completely self-contained; but for many years past, in the London area, there had been an equalisation fund. The poorer boroughs in the London area had been subsidised by the wealthier boroughs. This had been carried out on the basis of the valuations made by each particular borough. While I should not for a moment suggest that there was any deliberate under-valuation, there was certainly a great temptation to certain boroughs to under-value their rateable assessments. But, in 1948, this went further, because equalisation grants were introduced throughout the whole country, the wealthier areas being asked to subsidise the poorer areas. Again, the position was based upon the rateable values, as assessed by the local people themselves; and again you had the incentive, if you were a receiving authority, to make your assessments as low as possible and, if you were a paying authority, as high as possible. Obviously, there was a need for a uniform and up-to-date method of assessment.

But the case went even further than that, because, as the noble Earl knows, not only are these assessments the basis for the levy of rates but for practical purposes these assessments also are the basis for Schedule A assessments. Therefore, the local authority itself, in making its assessments, was, in effect, in a position to fix what its inhabitants would pay by way of taxation. There again, they had every incentive to reduce their assessments as far as they could. Those authorities who played fair and made their assessments on the true basis of the Rating Acts were subsidising the inhabitants of other authorities who were under-assessing. These conditions still exist and they ought not to continue a day longer than is inevitable. Therefore, it really is urgent to get these new assessments done by the method devised by the Local Government Act, 1948, and to get a uniform system of valuation throughout the country.

What is the difficulty? The noble Earl has referred to two difficulties. One is that of staff and the other is the difficulty which has emerged as the result of the experience gained so far in making these assessments. On the first, I admit that there has been a considerable demand on the limited number of valuers in the country. I cannot deny that they have been engaged on war damage work, on work under the Town and Country Planning Act and on a variety of other matters which have been regarded as even more urgent than valuation. In another place, some point was made about the different categories of persons who were being discharged, the referencers and the estimators, both of whom are necessary as subsidiaries to the valuers. One has to make the measurements and the other has to make the calculations on the basis of the measurements; then the valuer comes in and assesses the value of the result of the information produced from both of those. It is wholly owing to the shortage of referencers that difficulty arises. Indeed, I think that some have been discharged. There is no great shortage of estimators.

The real shortage, however, lies in valuers. I think it will be conceded to-day, with the reduced demand for valuers to carry out the work of war damage, and the fact that the work under the Town and Country Planning Act of assessing development value has been very largely completed, that there is a pool of valuers which could be used for the purpose of carrying out these valuations. If that were the only difficulty involved, then one might hope that in the course of the next twelve months or so we might get these valuations carried out.

There is the second and, I must concede, real difficult. Neither here nor in another place have we had any evidence of it, but I readily accept that experience has shown that the basis of valuation laid down in the 1948 Act has produced some rather extraordinary results. Dwelling-houses are divided between post-1918 and pre-1918 houses, and one might expect that the post-1918 houses, which are presumably better houses, more up-to-date and so on, would be rated more highly than the pre-1918 houses. In fact, on the formula of the 1948 Act, the reverse is the case. If that is so, and it is clearly established on the basis of a sufficiently large sample, then I must admit that there is a case for further examination. We do not want merely to change the law from one anomaly to another. I agree, therefore, that the Minister of Housing and Local Government must be given the opportunity of reconsidering this basis and of seeing whether something can be devised which is more equitable as between pre-1918 properties and those of the post-1918 period.

I have no complaint, therefore, that on that ground, as well as on the first ground of shortage of staff, some postponement is being asked for. But I feel that it is a pity that the Bill itself does not say for how long this postponement is to continue. It says merely that it is to be postponed to such later date as the Minister may, by order, specify. That is very vague indeed. He may specify any date he likes. He may not even specify a date at all. If he found that this measure was somewhat inconvenient and burdensome he could specify a date, say, in 1970 or 1980, which would put it beyond the point of practical politics. Therefore I would ask the noble Earl this question—the only one I wish to ask him. Can he state definitely when it is proposed that a Bill to effect the revaluation shall be introduced, if a Bill is necessary; when it is intended that this valuation shall be completed; and whether he will state those dates in the Bill itself? Subject to those points, I and my friends have no objection to the Second Reading.

3.43 p.m.


My Lords, I agree with my noble friend Lord Silkin that this Bill must be passed by your Lordships, because the situation is one which was not contemplated under the original Act. I do not propose to speak generally on the Bill. I want to raise only one particular matter which I have been asked to put before your Lordships. For some years I have been connected in an honorary capacity with the Society of Clerks of Valuation Panels, and before that body was inaugurated I acted in a similar capacity to their predecessors, the Society of Clerks of Assessment Committees. From what I hear I regret to say that the Society of Clerks of Valuation Panels, who comprise people who are, of course, essential under the original Act and will be essential when the Act really comes into operation, have not had a very happy experience in relation to the Treasury.

In the old days, the clerks of the assessment committees were local government officers, and although the system no doubt had the weaknesses and limitations which have been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, nevertheless there were certain advantages in it. One advantage was that these clerks, their emoluments and their conditions of service, were largely determined by their own committee. Eventually, however, they had to accept the situation created by the Act of 1948, and they became civil servants. The first thing that happened, of course, was that in many cases they received less pay than they were getting under the old system. But what they now complain about chiefly is that they are not treated in the way they ought to be treated by the Treasury; their representations are not receiving the weight that representations from such very experienced people should receive. They feel that now, owing to this postponement, their numbers will be broken into and many of them will be disbanded. They are only150 in number. It is not a large number; but they are highly experienced men, and if they are allowed to go into other work and are lost sight of, it will be very difficult, when the time comes, to bring the Act into operation with efficiency.

I understand that the Society have made representations to the Ministry but have met with no sympathy whatsoever. They have been regarded simply as people who are looking after their own ends and trying to put forward something which will suit their own pockets. That is not so at all. They are old servants of the community who realise the importance of the Act and realise the importance of their own position under the Act, and they are most anxious that when the time comes for the Act to be brought into operation they, the key men under this system, will be there to operate it. I would ask the noble Earl, therefore, whether he will assure the House, if not to-day then perhaps at a later date, that these experienced men will not be disbanded: that in some way or other they will be kept together, and that their services will be retained. It may be that temporarily they will have to do other work, but I ask for an assurance that they will be regarded as the nucleus upon which this system is based. And not only the clerks themselves but also the assistant clerks ought—to use a modern expression —to be earmarked, because they are the repositories of the traditions, the learning and the experience of the older clerks and of the system.

In all probability it will be possible to bring certain sections of the new list into operation before others. I understand that in many areas all valuations except those of dwellinghouses have in fact been completed, and that it is only in the case of dwellinghouses that a difficult problem exists—as my noble friend Lord Silkin pointed out—owing to the question of the Rent Restrictions Acts and a hundred and one other things. So far as other classes of hereditaments are concerned there is no difficulty, and it might be possible to utilise the services of these panels with regard to other premises and hereditaments, leaving the dwellinghouses to a later date. That is the point I have in mind. I think it is an important point. We do not want a similar experience to that which we have had already with regard to valuation officers. We are told to-day that we cannot bring in this scheme in the year, or even in the series of years within which the Act intended that it should be brought in, because we have not the valuation officers. We do not want to get to 1955 or 1956 and then be told, "We are sorry, but we cannot bring it in because we have not the skilled clerks for the valuation panels; they have all gone." If they have gone, it will be the responsibility and the fault of the Government. I would ask the noble Earl to remember that though he may be told by the Treasury that Treasury officials can do everything, that they know all about this matter and do not need anyone else to help them, that is not really so at all. This is a highly specialised field in which the Treasury has had no experience whatsoever


May I intervene to assure the noble Lord that I never believe that any particular official can do everything?


I hope the noble Earl will persuade some of the Treasury people that that is a fact. I would reiterate, if I may, that the Treasury have not within their ranks skilled people who can be substituted for these old local government officers who, at great cost to themselves, have come under the new system.

3.52 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to say just one or two words in support of what my noble friends Lord Silkin and Lord Ogmore have said in regard to this Bill. The noble Earl has said that it is a short Bill. That is true. But I can assure him that there is widespread apprehension in the minds of the staffs who are at present engaged in this work. As my noble friend Lord Ogmore said, these staffs have been built up from the local authorities. With the change which was brought about by the 1948 Act, it was necessary for them to go into this new field of work, whereas if they had remained in the service of the local authorities—and they were experts in the work—they would undoubtedly have had before them now long and, shall I say, decent and honourable careers in the local government service. Does this Bill mean that these men (and I believe, in some instances, women), who have been obliged by the 1948 Act to take on the same responsibilities but, as my noble friend said, directly under the Civil Service, are now to be thrown on to the scrap heap because there is some changed intention with regard to bringing the valuation lists into operation? I am not going to develop this matter now. We have not given the noble Earl notice of the question, though I believe that the point was raised during the Committee stage in another place, when the Minister said that he had every sympathy with the staffs concerned. We know that the Minister of Housing and Local Government is a man of wide sympathies. In this case, we shall ask on the Committee stage for action to be taken with a view to translating those sympathies into something of a tangible character, so far as the staff are concerned. With that intimation that we propose to raise the matter again at the Committee stage, I will leave it for the moment.

3.56 p.m.


My Lords, may I start by saying that I am grateful for the way in which the House has received this little Bill as a whole? As the noble Lord, Lard Burden, has intimated, I did not have previous notice that these detailed points were to be raised, so I will answer them more or less on a broad basis, and then, as the noble Lord has suggested, we can discuss them more fully at a later stage. In regard to the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, I think he ended his remarks by asking for an assurance with regard to the date fixed for this revaluation to take place. As I said in my opening remarks, we purposely did not put down any fixed date because it was thought wiser, in view of the difficulties which exist, that this matter should be kept on the widest basis, rather than that we should keep coming to your Lordships on a year-to-year basis. I say, with authority that we hope the matter will be settled by 1956, possibly even a year earlier—that is by 1955. The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, rather hinted at a fear that the form of rating might be changed and that the local authorities might once again become the valuing authorities. I can assure the noble Lord—though there are many people, on both sides of this House, and in other places, who can put up quite good arguments for this—that we shall not depart from the 1948 Act arrangements, so far as that question is concerned, because it would clearly delay things. I doubt, also, whether it would be possible to find the people to do the work in the event of a reshuffle. So I can assure the noble Lord that we shall remain on the existing basis with regard to personnel. It is all a question of finding the right formula and, as I said, enough trained valuers to do the work.

As regards the question of staff, which has been raised by several noble Lords, one of the difficulties has arisen over the question of these clerks to the panels, since the business that was expected to come to the valuation courts has been much less than was anticipated. The result is there has not been anything at all for these people to do. As my right honourable friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government has said, this matter is being sympathetically looked into, but I am sure that all your Lordships will agree that there comes a point when, obviously, you cannot keep someone in a post when there is no hope of providing him with adequate employment within that sphere. I understand that at the moment only twenty of these people have been found redundant, but the matter is being closely examined the whole time, and whenever any of these staffs can be fitted in anywhere they will be fitted in. I hope your Lordships will feel that at this stage I have answered adequately—sometimes on rather broad lines, I admit—your various queries, and I hope that you will now agree to the Bill being read a second time.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.