HL Deb 06 February 1975 vol 356 cc989-95

3.33 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, that the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Melchett.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The EARL OF LISTOWEL in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Postponement of new regulation lists] :

Baroness YOUNG moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1, line 9, after "1980" insert "or on such earlier date as the Secretary of State may prescribe by order made by statutory instrument ".

The noble Baroness said: I am very sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, is unable to be present this afternoon. She has written to explain to me that she is very busy rate-making in Cambridgeshire. Not only would she bring to this debate first-hand knowledge of what local authorities think about this Bill—which would have been invaluable—but as she comes from Cambridge and I come from Oxford I hope the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, would have found us an irresistable pair.

I hope that the Government will consider this Amendment most seriously. It in no way goes against the principle of the Bill; indeed, it allows the Government to do exactly what they want to do ; that is, to postpone revaluation until 1980. This is a short but very important Bill. We on this side are very grateful that in another place the Government accepted an Amendment and brought forward the date for revaluation from the original date of 1981 to the present one of 1980. But even this represents a postponement of revaluation of two years, from 1978—when it should take place— to 1980. As I have said, my Amendment in no way prevents this postponement and—I wish to emphasise this—I do not feel it would be a useful exercise to suggest an Amendment which was completely contradictory to the purpose of the Bill.

This Amendment does something which the Bill does not allow; that is, if circumstances make it desirable it would be possible to have revaluation in 1978. Nobody sitting here today can possibly foretell what will happen in the next three years. But one thing we do know is that the Committee looking into local government finance under Mr. Frank Layfield, QC is sitting, and we do not know what it will say about the future of local government finance. All we can say for certain is that the Committee may recommend that some form of the rating system should continue. If, as I submit, this is a possibility, and unless the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, can say categorically that he knows the Layfield Committee will not recommend any form of rating system at all, then it seems to me that all the arguments advanced on Second Reading against postponing revaluation will apply. The fact is that if we do postpone revaluation we increase the anomalies that already exist in the rating system.

I am well aware that revaluation, which will give increased rateable value to existing property will not increase rate income, but it will ensure a much fairer distribution as between one ratepayer and another. This sense of unfairness is one of the many criticisms of the rating system and by postponing revaluation for two years this sense of unfairness is increased. So all that this short Amendment seeks to do is to allow the Government, if they so wish, to postpone revaluation to 1980. As we have been told already, the Committee looking into local government finance is expected to report later on this year, and if by any chance it recommends that some form of a rating system should continue we could then have revaluation in 1978, as was originally agreed.

As I said at the beginning, I very much regret that the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, is not able to be here this afternoon. She was good enough to write to me, and I should like to read the relevant paragraph of her letter. She says: I hope it is possible to get an assurance from the Government that if Layfield makes it possible they will consider advancing the date for revaluation ", which I think puts succinctly the point I have been making. I also very much regret that my noble friend Lord Cranbrook is unable to be present this afternoon, because he is at the moment a serving member of the Suffolk County Council. He has just telephoned me to say that he cannot get here, because of the signalmen's strike; neither can the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, who is actively engaged in local government in Northumberland, because he, too, is involved with rate-making. I am sorry about this, because all three Members of your Lordships' House have much more up-to-date experience of local government than I, and their contributions to this debate would have been invaluable. Nevertheless, I hope the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, and the Government will recognise that the point I am trying to make is in no sense a Party political point. It in no sense stops the Government doing what they wish to do under the Bill, but it does give a measure of flexibility in case circumstances should alter in the next three years. I beg to move.

3.40 p.m.


I thank the noble Baroness for moving the Amendment and for explaining exactly what she is hoping to achieve, because I confess I had not fully understood it. I think the reason is that there is a basic misunderstanding between us on just how long it takes to get a revaluation under way. The Government, of course, accept that there are anomalies in the present system; that is why the Layfield Committee is at present considering it. I cannot give any undertaking—and I am sure the noble Baroness does not expect it—as to what the Layfield Commitee will recommend, whether they will recommend one system of local government finance rather than another. Many ideas have been put to the Layfield Committee and I have no special information as to what they will recommend. However, the Layfield Committee are expected to report by the end of this year.

I thought that the noble Baroness's Amendment would raise only the question as to whether revaluation could take place in 1979. She has, however, raised the matter of the year 1978. That year is already an impossible date. Work would have had to start in the middle of last year if a revaluation were to take place in 1978. The real question, therefore, is whether 1979 is a possible date for the next revaluation. The answer is that it is not. I think my honourable friend the Under-Secretary of State explained the reasons very fully in another place, and I thought that I explained them clearly on Second Reading, but obviously I did not. If revaluation were contemplated for 1979, the valuation office would have to begin their detailed work in 1976, next year. Properties have to be surveyed, evidence has to be sifted, and a great deal of work has to be done both in the field and in the office. If it were not done carefully the valuation list which resulted would not be defensible. As we know from the last revaluation, a great deal of time and trouble is taken to justify the revaluation made. Before evidence of rental value can be sifted and analysed it has to be collected; for a 1979 revaluation the valuation office would have to prepare forms, organise their workforce and set in hand the detailed internal procedures which must precede a job of this kind. This would have to begin about the middle of this year; that is, in a few months' time.

As the noble Baroness knows, the Layfield Committee is not expected to report before the end of this year. We do not know what it will recommend, and, in any event, my right honourable friend will need time to consider the Report and to consult with many interested parties. All this time the valuation office would have been busy on what might well be wasted work if the Committee recommends a change of system of valuation or a new method of local government finance. My right honourable friend will not be in a position to know whether or not the work has been wasted until he has received the Report. If the noble Baroness's Amendment were accepted my right honourable friend would have to decide in July this year whether or not to bring in an Order to change the date to 1979. He would then be no wiser about what the Layfield Committee would recommend than he is now, and the ground on which he believes now that the 1979 revaluation is not possible would equally apply in July of this year when the decision would have to be taken. So my right honourable friend would do nothing and the position would be as if the noble Baroness's Amendment had not been made. So the Amendment will achieve nothing. In the light of that explanation, I hope that the noble Baroness will see fit to withdraw the Amendment.

Baroness YOUNG

What the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, is saying is that the Government have decided that whatever the Layfield Committee decides— whether or not to continue with the rating system—they are not going to have a revaluation; and if the Committee decides to continue with the rating system, they will not have a revaluation before 1980. Is that the position?


The Government have said that they will await the outcome of the Layfield Committee before embarking on revaluation; that is in order not to waste valuable time and money on a revaluation which might not be needed.

Baroness YOUNG

They have decided that they do not feel that it is worth while to do a revaluation because they do not know what the Layfield Committee will say. In the meantime every local authority up and down the country will feel that the Government have decided that they will not do this because they have prejudged Layfield, and, furthermore, that they do not really mind whether or not there is fairness between one ratepayer and another. This is the effect of it.


I really do not think the noble Baroness is being fair. We have not prejudged Layfield. The noble Baroness is attempting to try to make us prejudge Layfield by embarking on a costly and difficult exercise before the Committee has reported and before we know whether or not that costly and difficult exercise is needed. The Government are saying that we will await the outcome of the Committee's deliberations before deciding whether or not to have a revaluation. We have not said that there will not be a revaluation. We have said that we will await the outcome of the Committee's Report.

Baroness YOUNG

We can interpret that in two ways, I regret to say. I had hoped very much that the noble Lord would say that this would be possible, and, even if he would not consider this Amendment, perhaps he would look at it for 1979. There are, of course, a great many professional views on the length of time a revaluation takes. There was a time in 1948 when revaluation was undertaken by local government itself. The then Labour Government decided, perhaps for very good reasons, that it might look somewhat wrong for local government to undertake its own revaluation, and this became the function of the Inland Revenue, on the ground that it would be much more efficiently done by them than by local government. We now find that when it comes to revaluation we are always told that there are not enough valuers, that it will take years to do, and that, despite the fact that both Government Departments and local authorities have computers and equipment of every kind to help them, they still cannot do a revaluation under this length of time.

I am bound to say that I think this is an extremely unsatisfactory state of affairs. I think it is very unfortunate that local government should have been put into this exceedingly difficult position, because— make no mistake about it—local government is having a great deal of difficulty at this time in rate-making. One has only to open the newspapers any day to see the outcry that exists about rates. Although I accept that this will not produce more money, it will help to alleviate the burning sense of injustice that ratepayers feel.


I am sorry to interrupt the noble Baroness again. I wonder whether I may ask her a question. Does not she feel that, if there is this burning sense of injustice and a great deal of dissatisfaction with the current method of local government finance, it would be better to await the outcome of the Layfield Committee's deliberations before embarking on further revaluation?

Baroness YOUNG

I cannot honestly say that I do. I do not know what the Layfield Committee will say; none of us does. It will depend entirely on whether or not the Layfield Committee recommends any reform of the rating system at all. We do not know that. We have had a full discussion of this matter. I am very sorry the Government have not seen fit to look at what seems to me a most reasonable proposal, or, indeed, even to consider the matter further. I shall, of course, go back and consider all this and see whether other Members active in local government will wish to raise the matter again on Report. It was unfortunate that they could not be present today. For the moment I would beg leave to withdraw my Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Remaining clause agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment.