HL Deb 04 March 1966 vol 273 cc883-94

11.34 a.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 Mitchison.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD AILWYN in the Chair.]

Clauses 1 to 4 agreed to.

Clause 5:

Right to rebate in respect of rates on dwellings


(5)Subject to subsection (7) of this section, it shall be the duty of the rating authority to consider any application made to them under this section and, if satisfied that the application has been duly made by a person qualified to make it, the authority shall grant the rebate, if any, to which the applicant is entitled under this section.

LORD ILFORDmoved, in subsection (5), to leave out the words after "of this section" down to and including "the application" and to insert: the rating authority if satisfied that any application made to them under this section".

The noble Lord said: This Amendment aims at dealing with an administrative matter. It does not affect the purpose or substance of the Bill in any way. As drafted, the Bill provides that if an application for a rate rebate is made to a local authority it shall be the duty of the rating authority to consider any such application. The practical effect of this provision would be that in dealing with applications for rate rebates the local authority would have to refer each application to the appropriate committee, and the committee would have to consider the application and give its decision. This procedure seems to local authorities to be an unnecessary circumlocution. The consideration and grant of rate rebates in the form in which it would necessarily come before the committee would be more or less formal. The local authorities consider that this is a case where consideration by the committee might be avoided if they were authorised to delegate the decision to their officers.

The local authorities think that this would simplify and expedite the whole procedure of dealing with these applications. It is, of course, right that responsibility for matters of this nature should rest ultimately on the elected representatives of the authorities. My Amendment does not alter that situation. It requires the authority to be satisfied that any application has been duly made and that the applicant is qualified to make it. Under the Bill as drafted, or as the Amendment proposes, the ultimate responsibility for granting or withholding a rate rebate rests with the elected members of the authority. The difference is that, as the Bill is drafted, it would be necessary for each application to be referred to one of the committees of the council for consideration before it was met. Under my Amendment the application would be delegated to the chief officer who would give a decision.

Of course, if a case arose in which some member of a committee or of the council knew something of the circumstances, and knew, perhaps, that the decision of the chief officer was not based on a true understanding of the facts, it would always be open to that member of the authority to raise the matter specifically. But a formal reference of applications to a committee, and the rather pointless and empty procedure of a committee determining whether an application should be met or not, would be avoided.

As the Bill was first drafted there was in it a provision requiring the same procedure—that is to say, reference to committees—to be adopted in cases of applications to pay rates by instalments. I think that the Government saw in another place the force of the argument that I am submitting to your Lordships this morning, and they amended this part of the Bill and agreed that consideration of an application to pay rates by instalments might be delegated to the chief officer but they were not willing to go a step further and say that consideration of an application for a rate rebate might be delegated to the chief officer.

I hope that your Lordships will take a favourable view of this Amendment. Local authorities, and particularly the procedure of local authorities, are often criticised, sometimes by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. They are said to be unnecessarily dilatory and to involve unnecessary reference of administrative matters to committees. To some extent these criticisms are justified. But local authorities are anxious, if they can, to avoid unnecessary delays in their procedure. This is a case where that could be done, and I should have thought that Her Majesty's Government would welcome an opportunity of expediting applications for these rates rebates. I am certain that the persons who make application will welcome the expedition of their applications. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 12, line 1, leave out from ("section") to ("has") in line 3 and insert (" the rating authority if satisfied that any application made to them under this section").—(Lord Ilford.)


I hope that the Committee will not support my noble friend Lord Ilford and the noble Lord, Lord Royle, in this. I say this with great respect to my noble friend and his knowledge of local government, but it seems to me that there is a valid distinction between the two parts of the Bill so far as the machinery of local government is concerned. In the first case it really is a matter of routine, but in the case of rebates there may be a conflict of interests between the applicant and the rating authority as to who has to pay.

We should put the responsibility for making these decisions fairly and squarely on the local authority itself. It does not seem satisfactory to allow this to be dealt with by one of the officers of the authority and to bring in the committee only if a particular case is brought to their attention by one of the councillors or aldermen. The Bill should be clear about this. There should be no disguising of the fact that this House takes the view that the local authority should be responsible for deciding about these rebates and how much they should be, and that, if anything goes wrong, it should be the local authority, not its members and not an officer, who are the people responsible.


I am inclined to the view that the wording in the Bill is preferable to the wording suggested in the Amendment. I think that the responsibility must clearly rest with the local authority. I do not think that there will necessarily be long delays in bringing these applications before the committees. That is a matter for the local authorities to arrange as best they can. But as the noble Viscount has said, clearly the responsibility is that of the local authority, and it is better that it should appear so in the Bill.


May I interrupt the noble Lord? Of course, under the Amendment the responsibility for these decisions still rests with the local authorities.It does not take responsibility away from the elected representatives.


May I briefly support my noble friend Lord Colville of Culross and say, with great respect to my noble friend Lord Ilford, that it seems to me that the weakness of his Amendment is that there is no machinery for appeal from the decisions of the chief officers to the elected representatives. On that basis, I would strongly urge your Lordships not to accept this Amendment.


May I ask the Minister whether, when he replies, he will outline the procedure to be followed when something goes wrong? Whenever money is to be handed out, there is always a small percentage of rogues who will cheat. What will be the procedure? Will anybody be surcharged if a rate rebate is given to somebody who afterwards proves not to deserve it? I should like to know the policing provisions.


With great respect to all concerned, I think that this Amendment has probably arisen out of a misunderstanding. We have to remember what councils are. They cannot think; they cannot speak; they are inanimate statutory bodies, who have to function in some way or another through members of the council, through committees of the council or through officers of the council. This clause places on this inanimate body two things—a duty to consider an application and to decide whether they are satisfied.

The Amendment leaves in the question of whether or not they are satisfied. All that is sought to be left out is an express statement of the duty. This is really a matter of wording, I think, and I agree, for the reasons given by the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, and the noble Lord, Lord Wade, that it is advisable in a case of this sort—it is a new thing, after all—to have an express duty. I suppose, if we pressed it to its logical conclusion, the poor applicant might have to ask for mandamus, if he felt that his application had not been considered properly, but I do not think that we need take that sort of remedy seriously into account.

The substantial point is to make clear to councils that it is their duty to consider and to aid the anonymous lady, whom I shall continue respectfully to call Lord Wade's "old lady friend". After all, they will be dealing with people who are badly off and not accustomed, as the noble Lord, Lord Wade, is, to reading, considering and understanding Clause 6 or any other clause of the Bill. This is drafted on the assumption that the council must consider these applications. They must not take sides, as it were, and regard themselves as an authority whose duty it is to turn down applications when there is any doubt. They have—I will not call them judicial functions, but they have the duty to be fair in considering applications. That is the reason for the wording.

I do not think that this kind of duty, or the obligation to be satisfied, puts on them in either case a prohibition on having the matters considered by an official. They could consider a matter either in full council or in a committee of the council, or by having the matter considered, in the first instance, by an official, and then have cases brought up before the council or considered by the official himself doing it on their behalf. All these matters of procedure—because they are matters of procedure—are matters for the council itself. And procedure will vary with different councils.

Your Lordships will know that in housing applications, where I think there is no expressed duty but where there is a well understood one, some small councils consider every individual case. I knew a small rural district council in my former constituency who used to do this. They were very careful and considered all the applications under numbers, and if the local member wrote to them about it, they persistently, and in my view quite rightly, did not report the fact in council. They tried desperately hard to be fair, and I think they succeeded. But to ask the council in a place like, say, Leeds or Manchester to consider every single housing application cannot be a sensible way of doing it, though they are at liberty to do it if they choose.


Unless the noble Lord is putting it differently, it would be the same under this Bill.


I disagree. That is why I said that I thought there was a misunderstanding. I do not think the Amendment would have that effect. The Councils would still have to be satisfied. There is no real difference between the two things; it still puts the responsibility on them. How they discharge that responsibility is a matter for them. It is not for Parliament to tell them how to do it. It leaves the applicant in this case with rights against the council, but, far more important, it makes it perfectly clear that in this case, at any rate, they are not to act solely on behalf of the (if I may put it this way) other ratepayers or the Exchequer. They are to act as a body to consider the application. The Bill as it stands has an element of impartiality in it about which I think we all agreed in the course of the debate, and which it seems to me advisable to stress in the wording of this clause.

Therefore, I am afraid that I must ask the Committee to reject this Amendment, and I hope the noble Lord will accept it from me that I do this, not solely for the reason that it would involve sending the Bill back to another place, but because on the merits of the matter I think the fears of the local authorities, so far as they have them, are quite misconceived. They ought to regulate their own affairs in a sensible fashion, having regard to the question before them; and if it is left to them, as under the Bill it is, I am sure they are well able to do it. I hope, therefore, with respect to the noble Lords who moved the Amendment, and with appreciation of the knowledge they have of this sort of thing, that they will take it from me that I am advised, and I think rightly, that the Amendment would not make any substantial alteration. All it would do would be to remove a few words and to make life just a shade harder for Lord Wade's old lady friend.

11.54 a.m.


Would the noble Lord answer me, because his answers to my noble friend have made my mind even more confused than it was? He is hinting that these councils can interpret their duty in different ways. If they are going to interpret the calculation of the applicant's income in different ways, sooner or later somebody is going to be surcharged. Will this be the councillors or the chief officer? Or is it possible to interpret in more than one way the income of the applicant?


I hope and believe that nobody will be surcharged, though I agree that the Bill is necessarily complicated, as any Rating Bill is almost bound to be. The financial authorities of any council will understand it. There has been a good deal of discussion with municipal treasurers about this matter, and they find no great difficulty. If the noble Lord will excuse me, I will not go at length into the duties of a district auditor. I find it difficult to think of a likely surcharge in a case like this. There is a penal provision in this clause for (if I may use the word) naughty applications; it is a general one. I do not think that councils are going to find this point as difficult as all that. If they make honest mistakes, surcharges are unlikely. I think I can go as far as that. But it is not my job; it is the district auditors' job, and a rather judicial one. I hope that I have satisfied the noble Lord, Lord Hawke. I thought that I had answered the substance of his question, but he is quite right in thinking that I did not answer him formally.


From what the Minister has told us, it seems to me that in the view of the Government this Amendment is unnecessary. Councils will, as they do in regard to many other questions which are referred to them, have these applications listed, and all the relevant details procured by the officer. The matter will then go to the appropriate committee for a decision, and this will conform to the principles which are laid down in the Act. Everybody agrees that the council must make the ultimate decision; no one is altering that. But before the council comes to a decision, the relevant details will be collated and submitted on a list, or in an appropriate way, by the officers who are responsible to the committee. I take it that that is within the four corners of the Bill, and it is what the Minister has told us this morning.


May I ask the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, this question? I understood him to say that this Amendment was apparently based upon a misunderstanding; that it will be open to a local authority dealing with these applications to delegate to the chief officer the decision in the first instance. I do not know whether I understand the noble Lord correctly.


Yes, I think so. The responsibility is placed fairly and squarely on the local authority, not only by the words it is sought to omit, but by the words about satisfaction which it is agreed to leave in. How they discharge their responsibility is a matter for them. The practical remedy for the old lady or old gentleman—or even the young lady or young gentleman—who does not understand his or her rights, is to go to the town hall and ask, or to get their local councillor to raise it, if they so desire, when there is an opportunity, as there would be in the type of procedure outlined by my noble friend Lord Burden. The appropriate officer may come in with a stack of these applications, and say: "These are all right". Councillor Jones may then get up and say: "Yes; but there is Mrs. So-and-So. Are you sure she is all right?" Then they would go into the matter in that way.

This really is, I suggest, a matter for the councils. They must be allowed to run their own affairs. We must not try to abate their responsibility, which is a real one, or, on the other hand, dictate to them how to discharge it; because the way they do it must differ, for instance, according to the size of the council and according to their habits of mind and habitual procedure.


In the light of what the noble Lord has said, I will ask leave to withdraw the Amendment. But before doing so, perhaps I might say that I do not think my Amendment would have made the task of Lord Wade's old lady any more difficult. I have had long experience in dealing with applications of old ladies. However, in view of what the noble Lord has said, I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 5 agreed to.

Clause 6 [Reckonable rates]:

On Question, Whether Clause 6 shall stand part of the Bill?

12.1 p.m.


Yesterday on Second Reading the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, said he was extremely sorry for Lord Wade's "old lady friend" who could not understand Clause 6. He has referred to her again to-day, I should explain that this is a mythical old lady, but there are real old ladies and old gentlemen who would find the Bill quite unintelligible. I have had some difficulty in understanding it myself. As I explained yesterday, I am not advocating that legislation should be primarily reading matter for old ladies. I am anxious, however, that it should be understood.

I gather from the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, that a circular has already been sent out to local authorities, and that something further is intended. Even a circular is not always easily understood. Where there is an advice bureau in operation in a town or village, I think it might be helpful if they could assist. There are some of these old ladies and gentlemen who are a little hesitant at going to the town hall, and I think the staff of the local authorities will be pretty overworked in April. I think some of these people might be a little frightened off if there were penalties for naughty applications, as the noble Lord said. Therefore, perhaps the advice bureaux might be of assistance. If that is so, it is important that they should be fully advised as to exactly what the circumstances are in which a person could be entitled to relief under the Bill.


I should like to suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Wade, that, as a general principle, old ladies should be discouraged from reading anything.


I would remark that the noble Lord's old lady friend is typical, and I would add that, as a type, she has many boy friends in both Houses of Parliament. We are all concerned with people who have to deal with complicated legislation and who find it a little difficult to ascertain their rights. I entirely agree with the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Wade, just now. I do not want to commit anybody to anything until I discover whether there are difficulties of some sort, but I hope it will be noted. Citizens' advice bureaux have done much useful work of this kind, and, as the noble Lord said, it may not be possible for people to go into the town or wherever the advice is to be found.

I do not know whether there is anything more I can add, except that it has to be a very naughty application indeed to get the applicant into trouble. If your Lordships look at subsection (8) of Clause 5, you will see that it has to be the furnishing of information which is known to be false in a material particular, or the withholding of any material information. I think that is really pretty naughty, but the second part of it might occasionally be a case for advice. At any rate, everyone wants the advice to be given, both by way of circular and by any other means that are available. I hope the Ministry will succeed in making the circulars as simple as possible. It has been done successfully by this same Ministry (this is not a Party question) with Rent Acts and legislation of that kind, and I think we ought to be able to manage it in this case.


The noble Lord, Lord Wade, may derive some satisfaction from the fact that most of these elderly ladies will be visited by the officers of the National Assistance Board, who will be well informed about this.


May I point out that a number of these people who will benefit are not entitled to National Assistance? I appreciate the point, but it must not be thought that only those coming under the National Assistance Board will benefit from this Bill.


I did not say "all of them"; I said "many of them".

Clause 6 agreed to.

Remaining clauses agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment; Report received.

Then, Standing Order No. 41 having been suspended (pursuant to the Resolution of March 2), Bill read 3ª, and passed.

House adjourned at seven minutes past twelve o'clock.