§ 2.45 p.m.
§ Order of the Day for receiving the Report of Amendments read.
§ THE MINISTER WITHOUT PORTFOLIO (THE EARL OF MUNSTER)
My Lords, in moving that this Report be now received, I think it would be appropriate to say a few words to your Lordships about the Amendments which were withdrawn on an earlier occasion. Noble Lords may remember that on the Committee stage of the Bill there were four Amendments in my name which would have had the effect of excluding certain parts of the outfall sewers belonging to the London County Council from the general exemption of sewers from rating conferred by subsection (2) of Clause 9 of the Bill. Those Amendments were not moved, and my noble friend Lord Man-croft explained that this was because of the possibility that, if the Amendments were inserted in the Bill, it might be converted into a hybrid Bill. My noble friend said that further consideration would have to be given to this matter before the Government decided whether to proceed with the Amendments. As a result of this consideration, it was decided not to put these Amendments down for the Report stage.
Noble Lords will probably expect to have a word of explanation as to why 962 the Government have taken this course. The effect of Clause 9 (2) of the Bill is to exempt all sewers from rating. When this provision was discussed in another place, Amendments were moved from the Opposition Benches with the intention of excluding the outfall sewers of the London County Council from the exemption conferred by the Bill and thus of ensuring that the London County Council continued to pay rates on them. The Amendments were supported by a number of speakers, mainly on the Opposition side, and including a Member of the Opposition Front Bench. It was urged that these sewers ran for long distances above ground, across the areas of local authorities inside and outside the County of London, took up much valuable ground, and provided a large source of rate income for the local authorities of the areas concerned. It was pointed out that there were no other over-ground sewers anywhere in the country even remotely comparable in size to these particular ones.
As the geneml feeling in another place seemed to be in favour of the Amendments, my right honourable friend the Parliamentary Secretary undertook to find a suitable forty of words to secure the continued rateability of the over-ground portions of the sewers. Amendments were put down in pursuance of this undertaking. The possibility that the Amendments would convert the clause into a hybrid one was considered, but the preliminary view taken was that they would not have that effect. Since the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, raised the point, however, the Government have given further consideration to it, and have now come to the conclusion that the position is not entirely clear. Undoubtedly an arguable ease can be made for the view that if the Amendments were made the Bill would become a hybrid one. To decide this point, the Bill would have to go to the Examiners, with all the delay involved. And were they to take the view, as they well might, that the Bill had in fact become hybrid, all the hybrid Bill procedure, under which those involved would be entitled to be heard by counsel before a Select Committee, would come into play. This the Government could not accept, since for practical reasons it is important that the Bill should be 963 passed before the Recess. The Government have therefore been forced to conclude that they cannot give effect in this Bill to the assurance which was given by my honourable friend in another place. It is for this reason that the Amendments which were put down but not moved in Committee have not been put down again. I beg to move that this Report be now received.
§ Moved, That the Report be now received.—(The Earl of Munster.)
§ 2.52 p.m.
§ LORD SILKIN
My Lords, I think it right that I should say a few words on this matter, because I believe it is largely as a result of my intervention that this question has been raised. I should like the House to feel that this is not a purely technical point. If it were, I do not think that I should have wished to raise it. But this House, in its wisdom, over a long period of years, has taken the view that where in a Public Act private interests are affected, and particularly where an individual interest is affected, that individual should have the right to appear by counsel and state his casein other words, that it is wrong to use the instrument of a Public Bill in order to affect the position of an isolated individual. I am sure the House will agree that that is right.
In this particular case. it was sought to give every authority in the country the right to be free of rating in respect of its sewers, except the London County Council in respect of two particular sewers. I said this on Tuesday, but I think it is right that it should be said once more in the clearest possible terms. There may or may not be good reasons for imposing this disability upon the London County Council. In my view, there are no good reasons for it. As I said before, it is a very big sewer, and I agree with the noble Earl—he has put the position quite fairly—that probably there is no other sewer in the country as large as the two particular sewers that it was sought to make responsible for rates. But there are other big sewers in the country—as I say, not quite so big as this—and there are overhead sewers and areas where, whether the sewers are above ground or underground, large areas of land are sterilised and it is 964 impossible to build upon them. The London County Council sewers are not unique in that respect.
Be that as it may, it may well be that a case could have been made for special treatment of the London County Council. But what could not possibly be justified was that this case should be made without giving the London County Council an opportunity of being heard and stating their view. For that reason, I believe that the Government and the noble Earl have acted wisely in not moving these Amendments. I do not know whether one should attach any sinister implication to his words, "in this Bill." I do not know whether it is the intention of the Government to pursue the matter further. I hope they will not. I hope they will accept the position as it stands, and will not seek to penalise the London County Council because of its size and because it happens to have large sewers. With what the noble Earl is doing to-day I fully agree. I think he has taken the right course, and I hope that the matter will be allowed to rest where it is.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.
§ 2.56 p.m.
EARL HOWE moved, after Clause 7, to insert the following new clause:
. No lifeboat house, shed or slipway used solely for the purposes of lifeboat services shall in the case of any rating area be liable to be rated for any rate period beginning on or after the date of the coming into force of the new valuation list for that area.
§ The noble Earl said: My Lords, I will not weary the House by endeavouring to recite all the arguments used when an Amendment similar to this was proposed by me the other day. Noble Lords will remember that the noble and learned Earl who leads Her Majesty's Opposition suggested that an Amendment should be drafted making the exemption from rating applicable only to lifeboat stations round the coast. He threw out a hope that Her Majesty's Government would look at the matter again and would see whether they could, to that limited extent, deal with the matter in the way suggested by my Amendment. The noble Marquess the Leader of the House then said at the conclusion of the debate that further consideration was to be given to the point. I hope further consideration has been given to it.965
§ The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, replying to the debate the other day, compared the position of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution with that of the Y.M.C.A., the Boy Scouts, the St. John Ambulance Brigade, and so on. I should have been a little happier if he had compared the work of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution with that of Trinity House, because it is far more analogous to that body. After all, we exist to save life at sea of people of all nationalities— not only British seamen or people who find themselves in the sea for one cause or another, but all nationalities. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution is an entirely voluntary body, and if it is right to exempt Trinity House I cannot help thinking that it is also right to exempt us. I do not agree that the Y.M.C.A. is quite in the same Class. It is a magnificent body, as are all those bodies mentioned by my noble friend Lord Mancroft. We all support them and do everything we can to help them; but their position is not quite the same. I hope that Her Majesty's Government have found it possible to help the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, but omitting the depôt. We have a fairly big depôt where we keep spare parts and stores for the lifeboats all round the coast of the British Isles and Eire. That is not a factory, but a depôt, and is always looked upon as such by the Inland Revenue for the purposes of taxation. I should have liked to move that the depôt be exempt. However, I have bowed to the view of the noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt, and that idea has been dropped. I hope that if it is at all possible Her Majesty's Government will give consideration to this point, which is not a very large one. I beg to move.
After Clause 7 insert the said new clause.—(Earl Howe.)
§ LORD SILKIN
My Lords, my reason for intervening is that I have been asked by my noble and learned friend Lord Jowitt to say a word: he had intended to do so himself, but has been unavoidably prevented from being here. I should like to say this in support of the noble Earl. He has now modified his Amendment, compared with what it was before. I know it is easy to say about any one of these worthy institutions that if we give particular treatment for this one, we should give it for another, and yet 966 another, and so on. I venture to suggest this criterion. This particular Institution, I submit, is absolutely vital to the life of the country: if it went out of action it would be essential for the Government to reinstate it and operate it themselves. It is a matter of convenience that it is being operated on this voluntary basis, and I suggest that what differentiates it from almost any other charity is that it is vital to the life of the nation. For that reason, I think that it deserves special treatment.
I am not going to suggest that if the noble Earl, Lord Munster, thought very hard he would not be able to find one more institution, or two more, or half a dozen more, that could be treated in the same way. If there are a few other institutions upon which the nation vitally depends, which are in the same category and which are so essential that if they did not exist in a voluntary form they would have to be provided by the nation, then I say that they ought to be assisted in the same way. But what we have before us is this Amendment, and I think we ought to take this one on its merits. I feel that this organisation ought not to be placed in a position that it is, or might be, in financial difficulties.
Furthermore, if it is alleged that this matter could be dealt with under the other provisions of the Bill, and that it could be left to each particular local authority to deal with it on its merits, then we have the point made by the noble and learned Earl on the Committee stage: that there will not be uniform treatment. At the present time, I understand that a hundred local authorities are giving exemption or relief and that forty-eight are not. It is a most undesirable state of affairs that the success of this Institution should be left to the whim or mercy of each particular local authority to decide for itself whether it should get relief. I submit that, if we take the view that this is an essential part of the life of the community, then it ought to receive the best possible treatment and be included in the category of those institutions which are entitled to complete exemption. I hope, therefore, that the Government will give the most sympathetic consideration to this Amendment.
§ THE EARL OF MUNSTER
My noble friend Lord Howe, if I may say so with 967 respect, moved this Amendment with admirable brevity, but I hope that the House, and the noble Earl as well, will forgive me if I go into this matter at some length and in considerable detail. The noble Earl has explained to the House the effect that this Amendment would have on the Bill and on the Lifeboat Institution in particular. The noble Earl reminded your Lordships that he withdrew an Amendment on the Committee stage, saying that he would put down another Amendment at a later stage of the Bill and would follow the advice which was suggested by the noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt. In his reply, my noble friend Lord Mancroft, while making it clear that he thought the Government would not be prepared to accept such an Amendment, undertook to go into the question again in the light of what had been said during the discussion on the Committee stage. We have been into it with great care. The arguments which were advanced at that time have been reviewed by my right honourable friend, but he does not find them sufficient justification for accepting the Amendment.
On the previous occasion, my noble friend who moved the Amendment referred first to a number of existing exemptions — churches, chapels, and scientific, literary and fine art societies. Her Majesty's Government do not think it necessary to justify these exemptions on merits in contrast to the exemption now sought for lifeboat stations, since it has been made clear during the proceedings that this Bill is principally a tidying-up measure which, in regard to reliefs from rates, sets out so far as possible to maintain the existing position, rather than to extend or restrict any existing relief from rates, whether statutory or given without statutory sanction by means of sympathetic or nominal assessment.
The noble Earl also mentioned the exemption of Trinity House under Section 731 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894. He referred to Trinity House again in his speech this afternoon. That section of that Act exempts fromall public, parochial and local taxes, dues and rates of every kind;"—alllighthouses, buoys, beacons and all premises or property belonging to or occupied by any of the general lighthouse authorities "—968 of which Trinity House is one—or by the Board of Trade"—now by the Ministry of Transport. My noble friend described this as a better analogy to the lifeboat service than the churches and scientific societies to which he had previously referred. The argument which I have just made with regard to the churches and scientific societies is, nevertheless, equally valid; that, as the Government are seeking in this Bill merely to preserve the existing position. they would not regard the fact that the work of the lighthouses and lifeboats is, to some extent, analogous as a justification for extending or curtailing existing reliefs.
I should, however, like to go into this point about lighthouse exemption in more detail. The noble Earl will observe that it is in a very different category. I am sorry that I cannot give the House as full an account as I should wish on this question, for the exemption of lighthouses appears to be a subject of great antiquity. I have not succeeded with my advisers in tracing it further back than the Merchant Shipping Act, 1854, which itself was a consolidating measure. The Sara Committee on Scottish Valuation and Rating expressed the view that the exemption was based on the analogy with Crown property and there appears to be some justification for that view.
In the first place, the General Lighthouse Fund, from which the Trinity House lighthouses, beacons and so on, are provided and maintained, is deemed to be a public account, and, as such, is subject to examination and audit by the Exchequer and Audit Department. The accounts of the Fund are laid before Parliament each year by the Minister of Transport. The Fund's revenue, light dues from shipping using our ports, is secured to it by Statute, and expenditure requires the prior approval of the Minister of Transport. This view of an analogy with Crown premises is further strengthened by the fact that the exemption has been held not to extend to the lighthouses, beacons, et cetera of other authorities, such as local authorities. I think, therefore, that my noble friend will probably see at once that the lifeboat service cannot similarly claim exemption by analogy with Crown property for it is an entirely voluntary organisation.
969 My Lords, the next point which my noble friend raised was the anxiety of the Lifeboat Institution that when its property had been revalued by the Inland Revenue Department, who have no discretion to make sympathetic assessments, there might be a considerable increase in the amount which the Institution had to pay by way of rates. I think that on this point I can set his mind at rest. If the Institution is within the categories which are described in Clause 8 (1) it has the protection afforded by subsections (2) and (3) of that clause, which means that it could not be required to pay more in rates in 1956–57 than it did in 1955–56, and it would be entitled to a proportionate remission in rates in subsequent years unless three years' notice was given of the intention to reduce or discontinue the remission. No doubt the rating authorities concerned will take account of the views expressed in your Lordships' House on this subject. but in any event the Minister has undertaken to report to Parliament upon the way in which the policy of rating authorities develops in this respect, so that further measures could, if necessary, be taken before—I hope long before—irreparable damage is done to the charities.
In addition to the compulsory remission, the Institution may benefit under Clause 8 (4), which will enable any rating authority to reduce further, or to remit entirely, any rates for which they are liable. Doubts were expressed when your Lordships last discussed this matter whether this was, in fact, a new power, since a hundred rating authorities were already giving the Institution favourable treatment. I have been advised that the only statutory power which could conceivably be called in aid to remit or reduce the rates is the general power given under Section 2 (4), of the Rating and Valuation Act, 1925, to do so on account of the poverty of the person liable. In practice, poverty in this sense is extremely difficult to establish in relation to a charity, and it is understood that for that reason the power is rarely, if ever, invoked to help charities. On the other hand, it is a fact that many rating authorities gave sympathetic assessments without statutory authority, while others have stood on the letter of the law, as the Inland Revenue have had to do, and will assess all properties at their true value.
970 The noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt and the noble Lord, Lord Silkin were particularly concerned with this question on the previous occasion. May I remind them that is another place the right honourable Member for South Shields, Mr. Chuter Ede, expressed some surprise that rating authorities should have resorted to sympathetic assessments to give rate relief to charities. My right honourable friend and the Department do not know whether the forty-eight rating authorities who have demanded rates from the Lifeboat Institution have done so because they have taken the strict view of the law, but there is at least the hope that, encouraged by the views which have been expressed in all quarters of this House, and armed now with the clear power which I have mentioned under Clause 8 (4) of the Bill, they will be more generous in future to the Institution.
May I now, for a few moments, refer to the present Amendment? I must tell the House the principal reasons which the Government hold for advising your Lordships, with regret, not to accept this Amendment, in the certainty that if you did so they could not reasonably refrain from embarking upon a judgment of the merits of a great number of very worthy organisations who may well consider themselves at least equal in merit in their particular field to the Institution. The noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt (who I understand is for other reasons not able to he present to-day), suggested that if there were others who felt that they had an equally strong case, they should put forward their claims for exemption. I venture to suggest, however, that we do not want exemption from rating to be settled in this way, with success dependent in some measure upon the skill of each organisation's advocate in this House or in another place.
It is true that the Amendment which Lord Howe has moved to-day is more modest than the one we discussed on the Committee stage of the Bill, but it illustrates in itself the danger the Government feel would arise if this Amendment were made and anyone justly criticised a rating authority who refused to remit or reduce the rates on any of the Institution's properties which had not been covered by the clause. Would not such people be likely to say, "If Parliament, in all its wisdom, was satisfied that the boat-house 971 exemption was enough, who are we to presume otherwise?" Yet I suspect that the Institution's present relief from rates amounts to as much as they might get under this Amendment alone. Similarly, if we set about listing the organisations which convinced Her Majesty's Government that they ought to have exemption, should not we be encouraging rating authorities to regard that as an authoritative list, not to be exceeded by the exercise of the rating authorities' discretionary power, and so shut out no less deserving, though perhaps less vocal, organisations?
To sum up briefly what I have said—I apologise for being so long, but this is a most important matter—my right honourable friend considers that, so far as possible, discretion in the matter of rate relief should rest with the rating authorities alone; and he feels that, having regard to the compulsory remissions covered by subsections (2) and (3) of Clause 8, the organisations concerned are protected against any possibility of ruinous rate increases, and should at least be content to wait and see how the rating authorities exercise their discretion before seeking more far-reaching reliefs. There can be nobody in this House who has not considerable admiration for this great Institution, and indeed sympathy behind the purpose of the new clause. Nevertheless, for the reasons that I have given the House at some considerable length, I feel that I must advise your Lordships not to put this Amendment in the Bill.
§ EARL HOWE
My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Earl very warmly for the carefully considered answer which he has given us. Naturally, I regret the decision, but his explanation was so clear that I do not feel I should be justified in pressing the case. I hope that when he referred to "equally vocal societies" he did not mean that we have been too vocal. If he did, well, he must put it down to our propaganda. However, I feel that the explanation that the noble Earl has given is a sound and intelligible one, and on behalf of those associated with me I should like to thank both him 972 and Her Majesty's Government very much. If at any future time the whole question should again come up for review. I think your Lordships will probably hear from us also. I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Then, Standing Order No. 41 having been suspended (pursuant to the Resolution of July 19):
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(The Earl of Munster.)
§ On Question, Bill read 3a, with the Amendments, and passed, and returned to the Commons.