HL Deb 10 March 1964 vol 256 cc354-66

4.15 p.m.

Order of the Day for the House to be put into Committee read.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Hastings.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD AILWYN in the Chair.]

Clause 1:

Grants by reference to proportion of elderly persons in population

1.—(1) If in the year 1964–65 or any subsequent year not being later than the year 1967–68 the number of persons over the age of sixty-five estimated to be included in the population of any rating authority's area exceeds one-tenth of the estimated total of that population, the Minister shall pay to that authority a grant in respect of that year at a rate of five pounds per head of the excess.

LORD SILKIN moved, in subsection (1), to leave out "over the age of sixty-five" and to insert "under the age of sixteen". The noble Lord said: In moving this Amendment, I should like to make two preliminary remarks. The first is that I hope that this Amendment will not be regarded as hostile to the Bill. We approved the Bill on Second Reading—I hope we were not too devastating in our approval—and certainly have no desire to sabotage the Bill in Committee. The Amendment is an attempt to be helpful and to provide what we regard as a more helpful criterion for hardship in Clause 1 than the criterion which is contained in the Bill as it stands.

Secondly, I want to apologise for the form of the Amendment. I quite realise that we have not gone far enough, because the clause provides that there is to be a grant of £5 "for each such person in excess of that population". We are substituting a different criterion and it may be that £5 per person may not be the appropriate figure but some other figure—probably a smaller one. Therefore I hope that, in discussing this Amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, will not make too great play with the fact that the Amendment is not perfect as it stands. I should be happy if he were to say to me that he accepts the idea in principle and that he would bring forward at a later stage of the Bill an Amendment which would make the necessary provisions in the proper manner.

The case for the Amendment is that under Clause 1 we are seeking to give grants to local authorities in respect of a number of years for each person over 65 years of age who goes to make up more than one-tenth of the population. It is assumed, and I think it has been clearly stated, that although the local authorities which receive the grant in respect of these old people are under no obligation to use it for the purpose of relief, nevertheless it is a criterion and will be taken into account in the relief which is given generally to deal with hardship under the rating provisions.

We criticised Clause 1 on Second Reading. We pointed out that local authorities receiving grant were under no obligation to use it for the specific purpose. But I am not making that point to-day. I am simply making the point that in deciding whether grants should be made we think that the grant would be more appropriately made and it would be a better test of hardship if it were on the basis of the number of children under the age of 16 in a given community than the number of old people over 65.

I have not in the time avalable been able to get many figures to support this, but I have been able to obtain a few from the Census. Among the local authorities who have the highest proportion of children under the age of 16 are Leeds, Leicester and Oldham. These are typical industrial towns which one would assume would have a high proportion of people who would suffer hardship under the revaluation provisions. In each of these cases the proportion of children under the age of 16 is of the order of 24 per cent. On the other hand, in Worthing, which I am told is typical of a large number of seaside resorts, the figure is 15.8 per cent. So that whereas under the Bill as it stands Worthing, Bournemouth and other such places would get relief, because they are towns with a high proportion of old people, if the Amendment I am moving were accepted the relief would be given instead to places like Leeds, Leicester, Oldham and other of the industrial towns, because they have a higher proportion of children under the age of 16.

I do not want to impute evil motives—I never do—but I understand that the seaside resorts are very much looking forward to the benefits of this Bill; and I have had a considerable number of abusive letters—some of them very abusive—from people in seaside resorts because I am seeking to substitute the criterion of children under 16 for the criterion of people over 65. I would say to the noble Lord: do not worry about Bournemouth, Worthing, Eastbourne and so on. They are all right for the Conservative Party, and will always be loyal. If you are really thinking of the Election, think of Leeds, Leicester and Oldham, which are much more marginal, and where you stand a chance if you do justice.

However, I am not suggesting that this Bill is an electioneering. Bill, although, if I take the Prime Minister at his word, I might assume that it was, because he has said that everything the Government now do is directed to one purpose, and one purpose only, and that is the coming Election. From a purely electioneering point of view I would give the noble Lord a piece of friendly advice and ask him to accept this Amendment, because it would do him good in those quarters where he needs good, and it would not harm him in those quarters where he has it already. To be more serious, I suggest that, if the Government really want to do justice and help local authorities who have a considerable number of people suffering hardship, the test that I put forward, of the number of children under the age of 16, is a far more reliable and satisfactory test than that in the Bill. For that reason, I beg to move the Amendment.

Amendment moved— Page 1, line 7, leave out ("over the age of sixty-five") and insert ("under the age of sixteen").—(Lord Silkin.)


I do not want to insinuate that there is a split on this side of the Committee, abut I am not inclined to be quite so generous towards the Government as my noble friend Lord Silkin is—perhaps because I have not been here long enough to mellow. In the Second Reading debate I described the Bill as a phoney Bill, for political purposes, because, as my noble friend has said, it does nothing to ameliorate what is an undoubted hardship, from one end of the country to the other, arising from the heavy increased rate burden placed upon ratepayers. That burden has been placed upon them, rightly or wrongly from the Government's point of view, by their own deliberate action in transferring the costs of local government services from the Treasury to the local rates—in other words, from the taxpayer to the ratepayer—to say nothing of increased interest charges due to their forcing of local authorities on to the open market to borrow money, and the added cost that comes to local authorities because of the debt burden they have to bear.

This Amendment is really a test of sincerity, so far as the Government are concerned. Are they concerned with the burden of rates on the ratepayers throughout the country, or are they concerned, for political purposes, in regard to certain of the seaside towns? The proportion of persons over 65, as my noble friend has said, is no test of the hardship or burdens falling upon local authorities or individual ratepayers. The greatest cost on a local authority's budget to-day is education. I have no quarrel with this: it is all to the good and something of which we can be proud. The local education authority has to make provision for children of school age; for those under school age but coming up to it, for those above the statutory age in further education—for day release (as we were discussing a few weeks ago on the Industrial Training Bill), university awards and that sort of thing.

We have had recently in this House excellent debates on the Newsom Report and the Robbins Report. The Government have indicated that under Newsom the school-leaving age is to be raised to 16 by 1970; and even between now and then certain aspects of the Newsom Report are to be adopted by local education authorities. All this will cost money. Equally, university awards are, quite rightly, a heavy charge on a local authority's finances, and if the Robbins Report is implemented, that will be a still further heavy charge on the costs of local authorities. I hope that the Minister will not say that to accept this Amendment would mean further legislation, because I submit that it could be done under the general grant—and this might perhaps be part of the Government's argument for not accepting the Amendment.

The general grant is in two parts, one the basic and the other the supplementary. Under part II of the basic there is a grant of £0.77 per child for the estimated number of children under 15, and under part II of the supplementary a grant of £0.87 for children of school age, per 1,000 of the population. A variation in either of those sections can be made without legislation, and I would submit that we can do it if there is real good will on the part of the Government to relieve the rate burden on ratepayers.

I want to point out, too, that while the general grant covers the children under 15 and those of school age, there is no provision within the general grant for further education, day release or university awards. Those costs are very considerable, and will rise if we treat the educational system of this country on a real basis of making it effective for the population. I want to point out, too, as I said in the Second Reading debate—and it is worth repeating—that the Government are talking about wage increases of 3½ to 4 per cent., and yet rates this year throughout the whole country have gone up on average 8 per cent.

May I say as a trade unionist, and one who has had to take part in negotiations, that rates, together with other costs of living, are part of the basis of a wage demand. If the Government want to reduce the wage demands that trade unions are bound to put forward, then they ought to take some action to reduce the incidence of rates on the householder. I am going to admit straight away that this will mean an added charge, and it was intended, so far as I was concerned, to be an added charge, and a transfer of benefits from the Treasury to the ratepayer.

As the Bill stands, £6,500,000 is going to local authorities. If the Bill were implemented—and I can give only what I hope is an intelligent guess—it would cost some £37 million if we took it on the £5 and 10 per cent. of the population, as specified in the Bill. As my noble friend has said, if either the poundage or percentage needs to be altered, that is a matter for consideration. But I suggest that if it is intended to be an interim relief Bill, then it can be made a real interim relief Bill only if some method such as this, dealing with the basic and highest charge to the local authority on its rate burden, is dealt with. I hope we are not going to be told again that the Allen Committee and the Working Party are looking into the financial relationship between central and local government in the rating system generally. What is required is some relief now, and to do that I think this Amendment, or a slight variation of it, is a valid contribution to the local authorities of this country.

4.33 p.m.


When I read this Amendment, I must say that I was a little puzzled as to what was meant. While I am certain that it has been put down in all sincerity to improve what is admittedly a not particularly convincing Bill, I feel that this is a rather expensive way of doing it, even though, as the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, fairly said, it would give more relief. But this is an interim measure, and whether one considers it a good measure or not is a matter of opinion. The number of children under the age of 16 is very large, and if it is to be calculated on that basis it would be very costly.


Perhaps I did not make myself clear. It is my fault, and due to my incapacity to use the English language adequately. I thought I said in my introductory remarks that the percentage would have to be altered. I am not asking for more money. I was asking only that it should be distributed in a more satisfactory way on the basis of the number of children under 16, rather than on the basis of people over 65. I am not asking for more money under Clause 1.


I take the noble Lord's point, and I apologise if I in any way misrepresented him. The fact is, of course, that places like Leeds, Leicester and Oldham are industrial centres. Under the 1961 Act industries are now fully rated, which should to some extent help householders, although that is not always the case. For example, at Purfleet, which is an industrial centre, the rates for householders still continue to rise, despite the large amount of industry, pulp mills, and so on, in that area. But I feel that under this interim measure it is the seaside resorts which deserve some benefit. I quarrel with the point that they are necessarily bastions of Conservatism. Particularly in local government there have been a number of radical changes recently. Eastbourne was mentioned. I know Eastbourne well, and recently the council there has taken on a somewhat different political complexion, even though the Conservatives still retain control.

There is a scheme in many of these resorts to alleviate the unemployment which often occurs out of season. I feel that the Bill, as at present drafted, may well be of advantage to these resorts who are trying to relieve unemployment. However, if it is put to the vote, I shall remain neutral, because although I do not support this measure for the reason I have given, nevertheless I do not believe that the Government's own remedy at present is the right one, because the relief, as I understand it, is going to the local authority as a whole and not to those who really need it, as I said on Second Reading. Although, as I say, I believe that the Amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, is a genuine attempt to improve the Bill administratively, I believe there will be difficulties, and I hope that the Allen Committee will report and that the Report will be acted on soon so that hardship can really be discussed and action taken in a more practical manner.

4.38 p.m.


I appreciate very much the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, saying right at the beginning that this Amendment was not designed to ruin the Bill but to help the Government, and that he thought that as a criterion of directing payments towards the relief of hardship it was a better provision than the one taken, or partly taken, by the Government under Clause 1. Also, of course, I took his point absolutely about the question of the sum of money per head of population. He made this perfectly clear, and he need not apologise at all for his use of the English language.

Of course, the result of this Amendment would be that the areas in which the elderly, retired people were most numerous, and where the Government believe the incidence of hardship seems likely to be greatest, would get a smaller share of the grant. Areas where children were more numerous would get the larger share. I immediately dispatch this point about the money: in point of fact, if we allowed £5 on the basis of the noble Lord's Amendment, it would mean the Government's spending about five times as much as we envisage spending under the present Bill. So the figure would have to be £1 and not £5. But that is not important in the context of the general argument, in view of the noble Lord's explanation. The number of children under 16 in each rating area is not readily available but, of course, the number of children under 15 is one of the factors in the distribution of the general grant, and figures up to that age are available from all county boroughs. The three with the highest number of children per population, in descending order, are Bootle, Middlesbrough and West Hartlepool. In none of these areas does the rate payment of the average householder amount to the national average of £30 12s.


I am sorry to interrupt, but I do so because this use of the average is very misleading. It is true that the average, so far as an industrial town is concerned, is lower, but the incidence on the individual is no lower because industrial rating is included within the domestic hereditament to arrive at the average; whereas, if you have a town such as Bournemouth, where there is little industry, of course it is a straight one, but the incidence so far as the individual is concerned is just as high.


I should appreciate it if I were allowed to make my argument. I am perfectly capable of understanding the fallacy inherent in all averages. There are extremes, of course. There is above and below the average, otherwise you could not have an average. But an average does give an indication, at any rate, of where hardship exists in considerable proportion, and if noble Lords will bear with me for a moment, I think they will see how this operates.

I was going to say that in these three places I have mentioned it is well below the national average, and nor does the average increase in that payment since 1962–63 amount to the national average of just over £3. The noble Lord will remember that there has to be a minimum increase of £5 before any refund becomes payable, yet the Amendment would give proportionately the most grant to those areas. West Hartlepool, for instance, where the average rate payment per house is still only £21 6s. per year, would get a 7d. rate relief, equivalent to about 30s. off the rates on the average house.

The three county boroughs with the fewest children per 100 population are Blackpool, Eastbourne and Bournemouth, and in all three the average rate payment and the average increase per house are far above the national average. The average Bournemouth rate payment is nearly £47, and the increase since last year is £15. So I think these figures give an indication, if nothing more, of where the hardship lies and the numbers in which it is likely to be found.

The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, mentioned other cities and I have been given a few figures here which illuminate the same sort of point. In Leeds, the average rate payment in 1963–64 was £24 8s., but the average increase since 1962–63 in rates was only £1 4s. In Leicester, the figures were £32 5s. and £2 12s. respectively; Oldham, £20 14s. average rate payment, £2 18s. average increase; Worthing (which the noble Lord mentioned as at the other end of the scale) average rate payment is £53 2s., average increase £6 14s. So I think the same sort of picture evolves out of consideration of all those places, whether the ones I have taken or those which the noble Lord opposite has brought forward as examples. Given that the object of Clause 1 is to put proportionately more grant into the areas where householders' rate increases following revaluation have been most severe and the incidence of hardship in those increases is likely to be highest, there seems to me to be no question but that the proportion of elderly—imperfect though it is, and we have admitted that—is a better criterion than the proportion of children.

To come to another aspect of the result of the noble Lord's Amendment if it were accepted, in counties, for example, we must remember that the grant under Clause 1 is, in any case, payable to county district councils and not to county councils; and, of course, it is the county councils who bear the burden of expenditure for education. Another point is, that if we take the three places I mentioned, Bootle, Middlesbrough and West Hartlepool, all three already have about three-quarters of their expenditure on education—I think one can tie this with the Amendment because it is based on children under 16—and the other big general grant services met by general grant and rate deficiency grant, while Blackpool, Eastbourne and Bournemouth, at the other extreme, have well below half their expenditure on these services met by grant.

I would turn to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, who said that this is an interim relief Bill, but he wanted to direct his relief really towards the general ratepayer. We want to direct it towards a particular class of ratepayer who is hit by hardship arising, not out of the general incidence of rate burden, but out of the specific increase due to revaluation, and only revaluation. Therefore, if one considers that is the purpose of the Bill, I am quite sure from the figures I have given noble Lords—and I hope they will be sure, too—that Clause 1 will be more effective and will produce the effect we require much better if we stick to the payment based on the numbers of elderly people over 65 and do not switch to the grant based on the number of children under 16. Since this is, I think, the proven fact, and since the purpose of the Bill is, as I have said, not to deal with the general rate burden and deficiency of payments made by the Exchequer, on the one hand, towards local authority expenditure and by the rates, on the other—it has nothing to do with that but is entirely directed towards the question of hardship on a temporary basis due to revaluation—then I must say that I think it would be quite impossible for the Government, with the best will in the world, and even with gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, for having put this forward as a better idea, to advise the Committee to accept this Amendment, which really would make a completely different sort of Bill, which we do not want at all, and would defeat the Bill's main object.


I do not want to press this, but I must say that, with all the logic that the noble Lord has produced, his results were extraordinary. You can, if you are skilful enough, always manage to produce the best possible reasons for getting the most illogical result. That is what the noble Lord has done. He has demonstrated to his own satisfaction that places like Eastbourne, Worthing and Bournemouth ought to get relief from the Government, but that places such as he described in the North of England, where unemployment is high and rateable value is low, should not. In these circumstances I am unable to accept his contention. I will not go to a Division, but I think we ought to let the Amendment be negatived.

On Question, Amendment negatived.

4.50 p.m.

On Question, Whether Clause 1 shall be agreed to?


Perhaps I may say a word at this point. Before I do so, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, will not start quibbling in debates like this. Just now he said that district councils under Clause 1 get the grant, whereas county councils bear the cost of education. That was a little naughty, because he must give us some credit for knowing something about local government. I would ask him where the county councils get their money from. Is he not aware, being in the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, that a county council precepts on the district councils, and that it is the district councils that pay the education rate, which is still the highest part of the rate which the district council has to levy on its ratepayers?

Dealing with that point here, under Clause 1, the district councils and the county boroughs get the grant, but nowhere in the Bill is there any requirement on the local authority to use that money for any purposes other than the general rate relief. And yet the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, resisting the Amendment, criticised it because it was a general rate relief. Under the Bill a local authority can take its grant and make no grant to anybody, and the shopkeepers of Bournemouth, of Blackpool or of Eastbourne are the only persons who are going to benefit. What steps will the Government take to see that the grant made under Clause 1 is in fact used for the relief of the hard-pressed ratepayer, the ratepayer who is suffering hardship? Because, with the greatest respect, I have seen far more hardship in Middlesbrough and Bolton than I have ever seen in Bournemouth or Eastbourne.


The noble Lord was not here, I am bound to remind him, at the end of the Second Reading. The noble Lord has just made two Second Reading speeches during Committee stage, and the points he has made were put and answered fully when I replied on Second Reading. Briefly, although this is in the form of a general grant under Clause 1 it is designed specifically to offset the likely payments to be made by the local authorities for hardship under Clause 2; and that is really the purpose. But the grant is not tied; there is no compulsion to use it in that way, because that would he taking away from the local authorities a degree of their responsibility to their own ratepayers as to how they operate Clause 2, for which they get only half in Exchequer grant, and in some cases two-thirds, under Clause 5. That, very briefly, recapitulates the argument which I expounded at greater length at the end of the Second Reading. This point has been threshed out in both Houses.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Remaining clauses agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment; Report received.