HL Deb 26 January 1978 vol 388 cc461-4
The Lord Bishop of LONDON

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government when they intend to use their powers to exempt the trustees of voluntary schools whose premises have become disused from the payment of the unoccupied property rate.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I cannot hold out any hope of adding to the present very limited exemptions to the empty property rate. Empty property does benefit in some degree from local government services and we think it right to leave the amounts charged on various classes of property to the local authorities, who are best able to judge local circumstances.

The Lord Bishop of LONDON

My Lords, while thanking the noble Baroness for giving me an Answer which is highly unsatisfactory, may I ask her whether she does not think that it is absurd and illogical that trustees of schools which have closed should be required to pay charges which they did not have to pay when those buildings were being used as schools—some of them controlled schools, and some of them even county schools?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, there certainly seems to be a germ of unfairness in that, and it is something which I shall ask my officials to have a look at. But I hope that the right reverend Prelate is aware, and I am sure that he is, that there are certain discretions which local authorities can give to the rate applied to charitable premises. Buildings with a rateable value under £2,000 are now exempted from the rating surcharge. My understanding is that this is of some help to charitable trustees.


My Lords, while recognising at once that local authorities have a discretion, which they sometimes use wisely—and I was very glad to hear the noble Baroness give a slightly more conciliatory reply in her supplementary answer than she gave in her original Answer—will she realise that this is not a question of Party politics at all but of the invaluable work done in the educational world by voluntary bodies? To make them pay rates for schools which have become disused simply withdraws funds from a desirable purpose and serves no other useful purpose at all. Will she realise that the right reverend Prelate, when he is putting this case, is speaking for a great number of us, quite irrespective of Party affiliation?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I accept very freely that this is not a matter of Party politics, and I accept most of the things that the noble and learned Lord has said. What I am saying is that local authorities do have a certain amount of discretion, and my Department are at the moment thinking of drawing up some rules of guidance to local authorities because we are not completely satisfied that all of them are at all times being as generous as they ought to be in these cases of hardship. We are giving notice of that.

The local authorities have a discretion and the Churches, or any other charitable organisation, may go to them and plead their case of hardship. If the noble and learned Lord, any other noble Lord, or the right reverend Prelate, have any instances of any local authorities which they think have not listened to them with as sufficient care as they should have done, then, if they will let me have the details, we will see whether we can inquire of the local authorities as to why they are not as generous as perhaps some of us think they might be.


My Lords, when the noble Baroness's Department is sending the rules of guidance to local authorities will the Government take into account that the buildings which the right reverend Prelate is talking about are in a very special position, in that when they are forced to close they have to look round first of all for a reversioner, and very often have to involve themselves in planning permission for change of use? Therefore, would I be right in thinking that a very much longer period usually has to elapse during which the property has to remain empty? May I, arising from my noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham's question, also ask the noble Baroness to take into account that what we are asking about is not merely a question of hardship; what we are asking for is for her Department to look specially at the contribution which we believe the Churches can give to the education system?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I yield to no one in my admiration for what the voluntary schools, and the Churches in particular, have done in our education system. I shall certainly take the views of noble Lords back to my Department, and we shall see what we can do about it.


My Lords, the noble Baroness says that local government has a certain amount of discretion. What happens if it indulges in indiscretion?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I said that if any noble Lords had instances of where they felt local authorities had not used that discretion properly, if they would advise me we would look into it to see if we could help in any way.


My Lords, could the noble Baroness indicate what discretion the local authorities have? It is rather difficult for governors of schools to pursue the matter with the local authority if they do not know what discretions lie in the laps of local authorities.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, the local authorities have the discretion, if a case of hardship is brought to their notice, to determine a reduction or remission of rates on the ground of hardship. In October last my right honourable friend the Secretary of State made new regulations which exempted certain classes of building from the rating surcharge. Under these regulations all buildings with a rateable value of under £2,000 are now exempted from this surcharge. This, we think, adequately covers very many of these types of buildings. Where it does not, and they can make out a case for hardship, then it is for the appropriate authorities to make their case to go to the local authorities for a rate reduction.


My Lords, may we take it as a result of this discussion that the Minister will circulate local authorities, draw their attention to what has been said in the House this afternoon, and urge them in all possible cases to exercise their discretion in order to grant full relief to these charities?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, we are aware that there is room for some guidance to local authorities. We have been considering how we should do this, and have decided to send out a circular. My understanding is that a draft circular is already in preparation. I shall certainly make it my business to ask to have a look at the draft circular, to see whether it meets the points raised this afternoon.

The Lord Bishop of LONDON

My Lords, will the noble Baroness bear in mind that as regards the Churches the only source from which they can pay these rates is the Section 86 money, which will therefore not be available for new voluntary schools and so the whole operation will be self-defeating?

Baroness STEDMAN

Yes, my Lords.


My Lords, will the noble Baroness be so good as to let managers of schools also have a copy of this information?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I think that it is probably a matter for the local education authorities if they want to pass on the information to managers of schools, but I shall check on the point.

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