§ 5.22 p.m.
§ Order of the Day for the House to be again in Committee read.
§ Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Kennet.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House in Committee accordingly.
§ [The BARONESS WOOTTON OF ABINGER in the Chair.]
§ Clauses 10 to 15 agreed to.
§ Clause 16 [Postponement of revaluation]:
§ On Question, Whether Clause 16 shall stand part of the Bill?
§ LORD BROOKE OF CUMNOR
I beg to leave out Clause 16. Let me say at the outset that I do not intend to embarrass either the Government or the valuers' profession by pressing this Amendment. The year 1968 is now so near upon us that I am quite sure we could not have a proper valuation completed by April, 1968, if this clause were omitted from the Bill. I seem to remember years ago that I was responsible for a Bill which, among other things, postponed a valuation. But my sin was for two years whereas the present Government's sin is for five years; and if this clause reaches the Statute Book, as I have no doubt it will, there will be no new comprehensive valuation between 1963 and 1973.
We must all recognise that this is a serious matter; that if valuations are long postponed it removes all buoyancy from the basis of the rating system. Values tend to rise (at least, they do under most Governments) with the increasing prosperity of the country, and that is reflected in the quinquennial valuation. We shall now still be continuing, as will rating authorities, rating up to 1973 on a valuation that came into force in 1963. That is not the only defect caused by postponement. A long postponement between one valuation and another prolongs the unfairness between one ratepayer and another.
Opinions may vary as to whether valuations arrived at in 1963 were in all cases correct or not. The previous Minister of 1392 Housing and Local Government, Mr. Crossman, used some rude words about the accuracy of the 1963 valuation in certain places. But whether it was done well or not at that time—and I think on the whole it was done well in most places—the fact remains that over the years the relative letting values of different premises tend to diverge. Some neighbourhoods go up in the world, some neighbourhoods come down. The popularity of a certain type of house or flat may increase; the popularity of other houses and flats may diminish. Yet each of them will be paying rates on a 1963 valuation for year after year; there will be no modification of their rateability which takes account of their relative letting value.
If there can be a divergence of this kind in five years—and we know there can—how much greater will be the divergence, and therefore the unfairness, as between one ratepayer and another over ten years? In certain circumstances this might be excusable. During the War, for example, everybody accepted that it would be out of the question to make a new valuation. But your Lordships will recognise that the reason why this Government are having to postpone the 1968 valuation is that they have diverted so much of the energy of the valuers' profession into other directions. They have imposed the capital gains tax, and now they are being so wise as to press through Parliament a Land Commission Bill! Consequently, the good of local government is being sacrificed to the operation of Socialist theories in other fields which are taking away valuers from essential work which they ought to be able to do in the local government field, and their services are now being earmarked for such matters as the development levy.
This is not the time again to discuss the Land Commission Bill, but it is the moment to ask the Government what they are doing to increase the supply of valuers. We may pass this clause postponing the 1968 valuation, but we are reiterating the opinion of Parliament that there should be a new valuation in 1973. I should think that in little more than four years from now the valuers will have to be starting work on that valuation, which must be completed by the end of 1972 in order to come into operation in April, 1973. This is no long interval, and it is absolutely essential that the 1393 supply of valuers should be increased between now and then in order that the 1973 valuation may be well done. If the Government imagine that their capital gains tax and their development levy will have completely worked themselves out by 1973, I think that is too optimistic. I am optimistic enough to think that the development levy may have disappeared by then through the action of Parliament. Even so, I am quite sure that it will leave a great many loose ends to be tied up. I am quite sure that the services of valuers will be required.
Seriously, and not seeking to make a Party point at all, I wish to urge on the Government the necessity for watching the strength of the valuers' profession most carefully, because action has to be taken quickly now if by the beginning of the next decade we are to have a sufficient number of valuers in the country.
§ 5.30 p.m.
§ LORD SORENSEN
I am impressed by what the noble Lord has said regarding the need to prepare for an increased number of valuers as much as I was by his confession of sins a short time before. We on this side of the Committee recognise that much that he said is quite valid; nevertheless, there is an explanation of it and I think that to some extent he already understands what that explanation is. We do not deny that too long an interval between revaluations can lead to unfairness between one ratepayer and another, if their rate liabilities fail to reflect the changes which the passage of time brings about in the relative values of their properties. All this we appreciate and we agree that it would be better, if it were possible to do so, to buoy up the rate base by carrying out the revaluation in 1968 instead of leaving it until 1973. In the course of his remarks the noble Lord rather chided us for the legislation which we have introduced which involves a great deal of work and has prevented valuers from being available for this particular purpose. I would say in passing, in a noncontentious way, that had the Government he would have supported been in power they might quite possibly have produced many measures to deal with the situation, which would 1394 have absorbed as much professional labour as ours will do.
Be that as it may, the ratepayers, rating authorities and the Government themselves have to live with the unpalatable fact that there are not enough trained valuers to carry out another rating revaluation before 1973. The Valuation Office is already short of its staffing needs for the existing work, the volume of which particularly on valuation for compensation continues to increase; and new burdens are being placed on it in connection with the capital gains tax and the Land Commission. This we freely admit, although without those the situation would still be acute. The professional strength of the office in England and Wales was at November, 2,312. This includes both established and temporary staff and trainees. The number of trained valuers in post has gone steadily down over the past four years, during only part of which time were the Labour Government in office. During the current year recruitment has barely kept pace with losses through resignation or retirement. This, of course, reflects the serious shortage of valuers outside the Valuation Office as well as inside, and with the additional burdens already referred to the profession as a whole will be hard put to it to meet the demands placed on it. This would have been the case whatever the complexion of the Government in power.
In spite of the difficulties, every effort has been made to recruit suitable valuers for the Inland Revenue, and I will give some information to the noble Lord regarding the point which he stressed. The Inland Revenue's aim is to recruit 18year-old school leavers who have at least two G.C.E "A" level passes. For four years they will receive a course of practical training in one of the local offices. They can then qualify as valuers. The new scheme has gone off to a promising start. Fifty-one candidates were successful in the first of the open competitions which was held in April this year, and it is expected that almost twice that number will he recruited from the second competition which has just been held.
Would the noble Lord allow me to interrupt him for one moment? He says that after four years' training they would qualify. Qualify for which particular professional examination?
§ LORD SORENSEN
I could not give the specific information for which the noble Lord has asked. Obviously it would be some examination relevant to this particular profession. Precisely what examination I do not know, but I will certainly see that the noble Lord has the information.
The introduction of the new grade of cadet valuer also widens the opportunities for clerical staff already serving in the Valuation Office to receive professional training. Clerical trainees have been assimilated in the new grade and its total strength is now 129.
The Inland Revenue have also looked carefully at the extent to which rating can be devolved upon the clerical staff, thus saving professional time. Among the tasks that it has been found possible to devolve are those of inspecting and measuring properties and suggesting values for new and altered properties which are closely similar to those already appearing in the valuation list. The devolution stops short of the substantive work of valuation, including the ascertainment of fresh levels of value on a revaluation. Valuation officers must carry the final responsibility for the values appearing in the list, and in particular must appear in appeal proceedings. The Inland Revenue keep the question of devolution under review, but it is unlikely that any material further saving of professional time can be achieved, though it is hoped that this particular subsidiary device will be of some assistance.
Consideration has also been given to the suggestion that the Inland Revenue should, as they did for the 1956 revaluation, farm out some of the revaluation work to valuers in private practice. As has already been said, the shortage of valuers is national—not simply in the Inland Revenue—and private firms could hardly undertake any great quantity of additional work unless they were to attract valuers from the Inland Revenue. I hope that my explanation will be of some satisfaction to the noble Lord and to the rest of the Committee.
I apologise for intervening when I did not hear the beginning of this debate. Some of the 1396 things which the noble Lord, Lord Sorensen, has said have shaken me to the core. He has at least spoken about training in the valuation profession, but when he talked about qualifying and I asked him what particular form this qualifying was going to take, he had not the smallest idea. I gather he thought that it was roughly like Ministers; somebody was just put on the Bench and it did not much matter—somebody put you on, and somebody else was put off. You were called a valuer, and that was that, after having served on the "back benches" for a certain length of time.
As one of the few Members of this House, I suppose, who has served some apprenticeship in an office which did valuation work, and as somebody who has passed some examinations, even if it was a long time ago, I took the greatest exception to that point of view which the Government seemed to think met this particularly difficult situation. It is true you start with clerical assistants and slowly grade them up by giving them other names and other titles, and they then work in an office for a certain length of time; and it is possible from the Front Bench to try to represent that you have a staff of skilled valuers. But the truth is that you have not anything of the kind. There is no mystique in this any more than there is any mystique in any other profession. What is important is to have experience of working closely with members who have been for a long time skilled in this profession, to learn the way their minds work, and also to learn to command the confidence of Her Majesty's subjects.
The present somewhat smaller service of the district valuers in the Inland Revenue is a superb service. What I fear, if what the noble Lord has suggested is right, is that we shall find this service being watered down by all sorts and kinds of trainees, who sit about in offices for four years, and who then, he says, have qualified, without being able to tell us what shape or form the qualification takes. They are then to be expected to do the most complicated job which the service has ever been asked to carry through in this country. I think the noble Lord opposite should give us a better explanation of this before he asks the House to accept this clause.
§ LORD SORENSEN
I assure the noble Lord that I thoroughly appreciate his deep concern in this matter, and what he has said about this type of professional officer is quite true. This perhaps will ease his concern in some measure, for information has now reached me that in fact those who are to be trained in the way I have described will qualify by sitting for the professional examinations of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors or the Chartered Auctioneers' and Estate Agents' Institute.
§ LORD BROOKE OF CUMNOR
I think that at this stage I should intervene to thank both my noble friend Lord Inglewood, for stressing the importance of the question which I asked, and the noble Lord, Lord Sorensen, for making two bites at the answer. We are indeed grateful for the amount of information that he was able to give us, although it may not have been all that we should have wished. However, I do not think he will take it amiss if I say that this is a matter to which we may have to return on other more appropriate occasions, because it is extremely important for the discharge of Government business, as well as for all the professional work which valuers have to do, that in this country there should be a sufficient supply of valuers for both public and private practice. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.
§ LORD SORENSEN
Before the noble Lord withdraws the Amendment, may I thank both noble Lords for their interventions, and also add, in all humility, that I cannot give them information until I myself receive it.
§ On Question, Clause 16 agreed to.
§ Clauses 17 to 20 agreed to.
§ Clause 21:
§ Liability to be rated in respect of certain unoccupied property.
§ 21.—(1) Where any relevant hereditament in an area in which this section is in operation is unoccupied for a continuous period exceeding three months, the person entitled to possession of the hereditament (hereafter in this Part of this Act referred to as the "owner") shall, sub- 1398 ject to the following provisions of this Part of this Act, be rated in respect of the hereditament for any relevant period of vacancy; and the enactments relating to rating and valuation shall apply accordingly as if the hereditament were occupied during that period by the owner.
(3) In this section—
relevant hereditament" means any hereditament consisting of, or of part of, a house, shop, office, factory, mill or other building whatsoever, together with any garden, yard, court or other land ordinarily used or intended for use for the purposes of the building or part; and
relevant period of vacancy" means, in relation to any relevant hereditament, any period beginning with the day following the end of a period of three months during which the hereditament has been continuously unoccupied and ending with the day preceding that on which the hereditament becomes or next becomes occupied.
§ 5.42 p.m.
§ LORD BROOKE OF CUMNOR moved, in subsection (1), to leave out "three" and insert "six". The noble Lord said: Perhaps I may mention to your Lordships that Amendments 9, 11 and 13 are consequential. This Amendment concerns the time for which a property may be left vacant without incurring liability to rates. At present, vacant properties in England and Wales outside the City of London are not rateable. The Government now propose that after a period of three months they should become rateable at 50 per cent. of the normal rates.
§ In moving this Amendment I am not challenging the principle of what the Government are doing I think there are pros and cons with regard to the rating of empty property. Hitherto, it has been accepted that you pay your rates for services rendered, and that if the property is unoccupied it is unreasonable that you should be asked to pay a heavy charge for rates. But we on this side are prepared to accept an experiment with the rating of empty property. We appreciate that in the case of houses it may be particularly desirable to have an experiment of this kind, against the small numbers of owners who might keep their houses unoccupied for a long time, seeking to obtain a price which is really above the market value. This clause is optional for local authorities and there is no need for any local authority to adopt it if it does not wish to do so.1399
§ My Amendment is based on my own conviction that if you are going to try an experiment of this kind, three months is too short a period. I am therefore suggesting that the liability to rates should arise only when property has been empty for six months. I am not seeking to argue against there being any deterrent at all to keep property empty, though I note that on Second Reading the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, instanced only the case of house property as being property which was liable to be kept empty in the hope of getting a higher price, and I think nobody has suggested that that would be liable to happen, and to happen harmfully, except in a small number of areas.
§ But, accepting the desirability of some deterrent against a man refusing to sell and holding out for a higher price, it seems to me extremely important that justice should be done in respect of the period for which the house may remain empty. The sale may be delayed for all kinds of reasons quite unconnected with the price that is being asked. I know to my cost, because I have recently been seeking to sell a house, that sales just now are considerably delayed by the difficulty of would-be purchasers obtaining mortgages. I am not seeking to make a Party point there, but that is the case and we have to recognise it. Whichever Government is in power, there may be times when mortgages are more easily come by than at others. I may say that I have now sold my house, so I do not have to declare an interest in this case.
§ There may be difficulties, quite apart from the price or the mortgage, over the contract. However hard the two firms of solicitors may work, the buyer's solicitors may perfectly reasonably have to pursue various enquiries before they can advise their client to sign the contract or the conveyance. All this takes time, and the house is vacant meanwhile. Moreover, after the sale has taken place there-occupation of the house may be postponed for perfectly normal reasons. Very few of the larger houses, at any rate, are ready to be re-occupied the moment the sale is complete. In the great majority of cases, some work must be done on the house. It maybe only internal and external painting and re-decoration, but frequently there is neces- 1400 sary structural work—something going beyond mere redecoration—which naturally needs to be completed before a new family moves into the house. It seems to me that three months does not take sufficient account of this.
§ I came across a case only last week, where somebody had bought an old house which had obviously, at one time, been a charming house, but it had fallen into decay, to say the least, and this person had been willing to spend a certain amount of money and to wait for quite a long period in order that that house might again be made fully fit for habitation. The result of that delay and that money spent has been that a house which was virtually lost to the housing accommodation of the country will now make a good house for a family for many, many years to come. But even if everything had gone through as quickly as possible with regard to the sale, purchase, conveyance and everything like that, I cannot think that it would have been possible to keep the period of vacancy of that house down to less than three months. There are many cases in which nobody could conceivably be blameworthy if a house were to be unoccupied for more than three months.
§ It is for these reasons that I suggest to your Lordships that it would be far better, when we are trying this experiment—an experiment which should, if possible, be carried through with general good will—to fix the period at six months. I do not suggest anything longer than that, because that seems to be a reasonably fair average in every case. But there are going to be so many cases where genuine hardship and injustice will be felt if we leave the period at three months that I think your Lordships should seriously consider accepting this Amendment and making the period six months. I beg to move.
Page 16, line 45, leave out ("three") and insert ("six").—(Lord Brooke of Cumnor.)
§ House resumed.
§ House adjourned during pleasure.
§ House resumed.