HL Deb 14 June 1978 vol 393 cc412-25

7.17 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. Some of your Lordships will no doubt recall the background to the proposals in the Bill. Rating relief is currently given to disabled persons under Section 45 of the General Rate Act 1967. That section is obscurely drafted, the extent to which it gives relief being far from clear. It has led to a succession of court cases about its interpretation, not least of which was the decisive decision of this House on the Vandyk v. Oliver appeal. Largely as a result of that case, and the continued criticism directed at the current provision, this measure was sponsored in another place by my namesake, the honourable Member for Aberdeen, North—someone with whom, not unnaturally, I am glad to be associated. The Bill was supported in another place by Members of the three main Parties, and I hope that it will meet with the approval of your Lordships.

The purpose of the Bill is simply to clarify the circumstances in which relief is available—and I believe that it achieves that object by spelling them out in some detail—and the way in which the actual amount of relief will be calculated. If it becomes law, then the existing provision in Section 45 will be repealed. The Bill covers England and Wales, and Scotland, but because of the different rating system north of the Border, the Scottish provisions have been separated for ease of reference. So far as it has been possible to achieve this, the provision of relief is the same, although it has been recognised that differences will inevitably occur here and there. I do not think that too much should be made of them, in view of the overall benefits that will ensue from a single measure.

The Bill will give relief both on private dwellings which have special additions or adaptations for a disabled person living there, and to institutions for the disabled. In England and Wales there will be a standard tariff for the more common adaptations; but rating authorities will also have the discretion to grant extra relief up to 20 per cent. above that tariff. Relief will also be granted to disabled persons moving into dwellings already specially adapted to their needs, as well as to those having adaptations made for them. In the case of institutions, the intention is largely to continue the relief presently given, but a small extension of the coverage is being proposed partly to remove anomalies, and partly to achieve parity on both sides of the Border.

The cost of this relief will initially fall on local authorities, as in effect it does at present under Section 45. But it is proposed to make an adjustment to the distribution of the resources element of rate support grant so as to take account of the cost to individual local authorities. The Bill will require an application to be made to the rating authority by the person entitled to a rebate, and provides for an appeal to the county court (or, in Scotland, to the sheriff) in the event of a refusal. It also provides, where the valuation officer is required to certify rateable values in certain special cases involving installations or adapatations, for an appeal against his certificates to be made to the local valuation court.

My Lords, at the next stage I shall be proposing two Amendments to the Bill. In another place, doubt was expressed as to whether "garages" included carports. It is thought that it does, but, in order to make certain, in each of the places where garages are referred to in the Bill the word "carports" will be added to make absolutely certain. It may be that we are carrying out a belt and braces operation, but that is better than finding out that you have neither. In another part of the Bill, it is mandatory at present for a local authority to reduce the amount of the rebate if it applies only for a part of the year; for instance, if the recipient of the rebate died before the end of the year, the local authority would be required, as the Bill stands, to recover that part of the rebate. The Amendment which I shall be submitting is to substitute the word "may" for the word "shall", so that it will be within the discretion of the local authority whether or not to take any action.

My Lords, I am sure that as a result of this measure disabled persons, and those running institutions connected with them, will have a much clearer idea of the circumstances in which they are entitled to claim relief. Not only have great pains been taken to ensure that everyone receiving relief under Section 45 will continue to do so, but where it has been possible the opportunity has been taken to make some small extensions of relief. Of these, perhaps the most significant is the inclusion of wheelchair housing within the provisions. My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2ª—(Lord Hughes).

7.23 p.m.


My Lords, from this side of the House I should like to give a warm welcome to the Bill, which has been produced by the efforts of the honourable friend and namesake of the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, in another place, and I do so for a very particular reason. I stood at this Dispatch Box on the 16th February 1977 when your Lordships were discussing the Snowdon Report, and I made a particular reference at that time to the case to which the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, has referred; that is, the Vandyk v. Oliver case. This, again, was referred to in the Snowdon Report in these words, which I should like to stress—and I quote the words exactly: We therefore urge Parliament to clarify the position and establish in law those concessions which, prior to the House of Lords ruling, had been deemed to exist". Section 45 of the General Rate Act 1967 has caused great difficulty in interpretation in another case, and that, of course, was the case of Almond v. Birmingham Corporation in 1968, only a year after the enactment. Here, I should like to quote—and I shall not be long—what was said by Lord Reid in that case. These are particularly significant words, and I quote them exactly: If the scope of section 45 was to be extended far beyond local authorities and charities to many thousands of citizens, many of them ill or handicapped, or if the contrary was the case, Parliament really ought to make its dispositions intelligible". My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, referred to this, and, of course, the situation was pointed out very clearly by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilberforce, when he said that Section 45 of the 1967 Act was, "a labyrinth and a minefield of obscurity". All this will be found in The Times law report of 28th January 1976, and I am sure the Government have fully noted it.

It is important that very eminent authorities have so strongly criticised the 1967 General Rate Act, and it is therefore hoped on this side of the House that the Government will be very receptive of the detailed matters of dubiety which have been raised up to date when it comes to the Committee stage, particularly in the case of the matter of interpretation. I would pause here to stress the interpretation clause in one particular respect. The word "rebate" occurs in the Bill no less than 73 times, and when I looked through the Bill I was under the impression initially that I understood what the word "rebate" meant until I heard what those specialists in this particular field, the district valuers and others, had to say about it. I hope the Government will be generous in according suitable thought to this particular problem.

The field as a whole goes very much wider, because the aim of the Bill is to enable the handicapped to enjoy as much independence as those more fortunate. Much has been achieved in terms of technical design by such well-known experts as Mr. Selwyn Goldsmith, who wrote that famous book Designing for the Disabled. My Lords, the adaptation of houses and flats to suit the lives of the disabled is a skilled and often extremely complex and costly undertaking, especially when it is a matter of ensuring that the burden of rates does not fall on a householder after the alterations have been completed.

It has been said that this will involve, in turn, a loss of rates to the local authority, but perhaps at this point it bears mentioning that this, perhaps, has been exaggerated. The noble Baroness's honourable friend Mr. Guy Barnett said in another place during Standing Committee on 3rd May, in column 18—and I quote his words: Compensation to local authorities will be provided by means of the Rate Support Grant, as now, and an adjustment will be made if that is necessary.". My Lords, on the domestic side, the additional cost to rating authorities will mainly be the discretionary one-fifth available in some cases on the mandatory relief. The noble Baroness's honourable friend went on to say that currently some 14,000 dwellings receive relief under Section 45 of the Act, giving a rating loss of the sum of £235,000 in England and Wales only. Just compare this for a moment to the cost of making institutional provision for those 14,000 handicapped people at a cost of, say, £200 a week. I quote this figure purely for the purposes of example. I may be told that it is a greater or a lesser figure, but let us take it at £200 a week. This figure would produce a cost per person of more than £10,400, and give a grand total of the sum of £142 million. So, financially alone, the arguments are immensely strong for encouraging the disabled and the handicapped to remain where they wish to be—in their own homes.

7.29 p.m.


My Lords, the Bill before us this evening is surely welcome to all sides of your Lordships' House. The Times law report of 28th January 1976 states that the existing law on rate relief was described by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilberforce, as: a labyrinth and a minefield of obscurity". This is a commendable small piece of legislation designed to rectify the Vandyk anomaly. Therefore, I hope it will pass through all its stages rapidly, and will quickly become law. But it is true to say that most of the legislation for the disabled is of a piecemeal nature, and is very confusing. I hope that at some stage we shall be able to get it put together as one good disablement package. I suppose that an intelligent disabled person who took a look at the present Bill would immediately react with the question, "How much will I get out of this?" Then, later, meeting with another disabled and intelligent person from another part of the country, he or she would ask, "What do you get out of it?"

My Lords, how is it to be ensured that this Bill will be interpreted in a uniform manner throughout the country and that the relief afforded in Tiverton will be proportionately the same as in Tooting Bec. I cannot find any answer to this question in the Bill. I see, too, that it is quite a difficult question and perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, will prefer not to reply to it this evening. I apologise for not giving the noble Lord prior notice of my question.

7.32 p.m.

The Earl of SWINTON

My Lords, I feel that I ought to start by declaring a financial interest in this Bill, for not only have I an enormous rate bill every year but I have a very expensive disabled wife to maintain; so perhaps I may be gaining if this Bill becomes law. I thought that I should speak tonight of 20 years of practical experience of being married to a severely disabled person. When we were married we were fortunate enough to have been able to afford to build our own house, specially designed with a wheelchair in mind. This included the most important part which is referred to in the Bill; that is the question of separate bathrooms. To my mind, this is not a luxury but an absolute essential for two reasons: first, because of the time factors involved and, second, because of the practicalities. The time factors are probably obvious. It takes my noble kinswoman a lot of time to do the necessary in the bathroom every morning; and, staying around the country with other disabled friends, I found that this is the rule and not the exception and that the time factor is very important.

There are also the practicalities of the matter, if I can put it delicately. I was brought up in the old-fashioned way that after breakfast every day I must go and do what is good for me. In order to do this, I have to have the right atmosphere, if I might say so, to achieve job satisfaction. To go into a disabled person's bathroom, which is covered with things like plastic gloves, suppositories and all sorts of other "nasties" which I do not think I shall mention to your Lordships tonight, is a very off-putting experience. So I feel that this is a very essential factor.

I can joke about it, but it is a serious problem and I might say that it is a very serious problem to many hardworking disabled people. I think we ought to encourage them to have their own separate lavatories and they should not be penalised, as they are at the moment, for having the nous to go out and to achieve independence through doing a job of work and getting a house of their own. At the moment, if they live in a council house or in a home, they do not have to pay this large rates bill and I am delighted that this Bill is going to remove this anomaly. At the same time, I think that there are some questions that need ironing out in this Bill and I hope that certain Amendments will be accepted on Committee stage. I should like to join with all other noble Lords and noble Baronesses who have spoken in welcoming this Bill and in wishing it a successful passage through your Lordships' House.

7.34 p.m.

Baroness VICKERS

My Lords, I am glad that we are having a Second Reading debate on this Bill because there was not one in the other House. This gives us the opportunity of paying tribute to the originator of this Bill, Mr. Robert Hughes, and to the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, who is introducing it in this House. I should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, for taking part. She must be very fatigued after the long debate that we have had previously. This is a small, but I think very important Bill. I have served in the Council of Europe and on the EEC Sub-Committee and I think it is quite fair to say that the United Kingdom leads in the work for the disabled and that we should recognise that. We really have given a lead to the whole of Europe.

The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, for whom I have great admiration, will remember, when she and I went to Brussels, that there were no conveniences for disabled people in the newest building they were using there. I have more than admiration for the way that she coped. We should not forget the wonderful example of the formation of the Disabled Income Group by a disabled woman Mrs. du Boisson, and also Mary Greaves, who is herself disabled, and who has been undertaking visits to various organisations in Europe and has been consulted on what they should do. I think that we should remember, too, that the motto of the disabled people is, "Help us to help ourselve" and also the Association called the "Association of Disabled Professionals" and not "Disabled People".

Paragraph 13(3) of Schedule 1 is very useful because it says that the Minister will have the power to review the rateable values under paragraph 13(3) and that any, statutory instrument containing an order made under this paragraph shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament". This should act as a safeguard for local authorities who are slow in implementing this Bill. We can also call in aid Cmnd 6851 on Housing Policy, page 112, paragraph 12.28. It says: Most physically disabled people would like to go on living in their own homes, among friends and in a familiar neighbourhood. They express also the need for ramps, hand-rails, a downstairs lavatory and improvements. We all know that directly you get improvements the rate is increased. I gather that there are already 2,000 wheelchair units built since the Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, which is a fairly good record. There are over 11,000 mobility units, which is also helpful.

This Bill, I think, should help to improve the situation. I understand—and perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, will confirm this—that no existing relief will be withdrawn when this is put into operation. I also note in Clause 2 the rebates for institutions for the disabled. I think this should be helpful also—and perhaps he can confirm this—to the voluntary organisations who have homes for disabled people.

I should like to mention (and perhaps confirm what the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, said in relation to it) the Rating and Valuation Association. I think they have a good point. I should like to read what they suggest in regard to the term "rebate" in Clause 1(1). They say: The term 'rebate' is known both to the public and rating staffs as allowances to persons on limited incomes. It is defined in Section 115(3)(a)(i) of the General Rate Act 1967 and that meaning is very different from the terms contained in the Bill. This duplication could lead to very considerable confusion. Perhaps 'allowance' or ' abatement ' would be more appropriate". I hope that the noble Lord might think of this.

I believe that there is a misprint in Paragraph 7 of Schedule I which deals with Garage or Land used for accommodating vehicle. It reads: Where the heriditament is within Section 1(2)(e) …". I think that should be Section 1(2)(f); and also on page 11 it should read, I understand, "1 (2)(g)" instead of what is there at the moment. Probably these are only printing errors but I thought that I should mention them.

I hope that this little Bill will help disabled people substantially and that those who are now to benefit by it will have the satisfaction of earning, perhaps, a better living and be as able to serve their country as can fully able people.

7.40 p.m.

Baroness MASHAM of ILTON

My Lords, this type of rating Bill is far too complicated and involved for me and I had not intended to speak on it; but many disabled people have made it known to me that they are concerned that the Bill will, unless amended, mean extra hardship for many disabled people. My first question is this: The Bill covers provisions for England and Wales and provisions for Scotland. What about provisions for disabled persons in Northern Ireland? Northern Ireland was left out of the 1970 Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act. Are they to be left out of all legislation for disabled people? Perhaps the Government will consider including Northern Ireland. I know that there are many disabled people in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is supposed to be part of Britain; then, should they not have the same provisions?

This Bill may seem very unimportant to you, my Lords, but I can assure you as chairman of the Spinal Injuries Association that I know several of our members who have been very distressed over the payment of rates on the essentials that tney need due to their disabilities. It is sometimes the small things in life which grow to be enormous problems. Some disabled people will perhaps take their rating problems to court if they fear they are being unfairly treated. But even if they won the increased rebate, it can only be an additional amount equal to one-fifth of the amount so determined, so it would not be worth going to court over it unless one did so on a matter of principle. This means that the valuation officer will have unfair power over the disabled person.

I am sure that your Lordships will agree that, wherever possible, it is right to encourage disabled people to live in their own homes rather than be institutionalised in Part III accommodation. A survey was taken some years ago of some severely disabled people and it was found that those living in housing and poor circumstances in their own homes lived longer and were happier than those in institutions. We who are disabled know that, if we cannot use public transport, it is essential to have a car and so have a garage. If one is a paraplegic, it is highly desirable for the other members of the family that there should be two lavatories. This has already been stated by my noble kinsman. If one is paralysed, it is essential to have a good heating system otherwise there are numerous complications. I can assure your Lordships that these are not luxuries; they are necessities to enable a disabled person to live in the community.

May I ask a few more questions. Will the Bill cover lifts and permanent hoists? Should the rating not be calculated on a cubic capacity rather than on a floor area? Will heating needs be taken into consideration? Does the Bill cover day care centres? If not, I think it should do so because day care centres do a splendid job and need encouragement. Part III accommodation is not rateable. I feel that these essentials in a disabled person's home should also be exempt from rates. Some people who will have to pay more rates if this Bill becomes an Act are those who presently get complete exemption for garages occupied by their vehicles, but who will only get exemption up to the limits of rateable value imposed in Schedule 1 to the new Bill. For example, a garage in inner London can be up to approximately £145 rateable value. It is now wholly exempt. But under the new Bill only £25 of the value will be rebated. Under the new Bill, the specially adapted baths for disabled people in their houses will no longer be exempt. This is surely against the wish of society to encourage disabled people to live in the community. With the risk of fire and the difficulty of lifts breaking down, bungalow accommodation is by far the most suitable for disabled people: but these have extra rates.

I hope that your Lordships will try to imagine what it is like to be severely disabled, and I hope that your Lordships will study this Bill and find it feasible and humanitarian to support the Amendments which will be put forward. It seems to me that there will be a great deal of extra administrative work. The disabled person will have to deal with the rating authority, the valuation officer, the Inland Revenue and, if the claim is disputed, the local valuation court and the county court, whereas now they have to deal only with the valuation officer. I hope very sincerely that your Lordships will make this an even better and simpler Bill than it is now without delaying its passage.

7.45 p.m.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I should like to intervene briefly just to indicate the Government's warm welcome and support for this Bill. My noble friend has introduced it in a clear and succinct manner, and I am sure the House will wish me to thank him for that. There is no doubt that for some time a considerable amount of confusion has reigned on the subject of rate relief for the disabled and this effective measure will go a long way towards clarifying what does or does not qualify for relief, both on the domestic front and for institutions. It will also be an advantage to have a greater parity of treatment than hitherto both North and South of the Border. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, who has been expecting this Bill for so long, will endorse that, even though, as the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, has explained, total uniformity is unlikely to be achieved because the two countries have different rating systems.

If the Bill is passed—and my hopes are high because of the non-controversial nature of its provisions—it will not come into effect until 1st April 1979. The reason for that is that it will allow plenty of time for local authorities to make all the preparations that will be necessary for the administration of their new responsibilities for giving the new form of rate relief, which will be by way of a reduction in the rate bill rather than a reduction in the rateable value as at present. It will also allow time for disabled people to submit their applications for relief as the Bill requires. It is of course intended that guidance will be issued to local authorities and to disabled people explaining the new system and the way it will work in order to get it off to a smooth start.

I hope that my noble friend Lord Hughes will not mind me dealing with one point which has been raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham of Ilton, in that my ministerial colleagues advise me that the Department which deals with rating subjects in Northern Ireland has already said that they intend to promote their own legislation in the same way as this Bill. I do not think that there is anything else that I need add to the details of the Bill already explained by my noble friends, and I hope that the House will give it a Second Reading this evening.

7.48 p.m.


My Lords, if, in the interests of the time that is available to us, I reply very briefly to the points which have been made, it is not because of any lack of interest. To a certain extent when the noble Baroness, Lady Masham of Ilton, was speaking I was very much aware that I should not be able to reply to some of her questions, not because of lack of interest but because of lack of knowledge.

In the Division on the previous matter which we have been discussing, much was made of the advantages of having issues discussed by people who knew what they were talking about. This was a reference to the expertise of the noble Lord, Lord Wigg. I have found, through the intervention of the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Masham of Ilton—to whom he was pleased to refer as his "noble kinswoman" —that it can be a positive disadvantage to someone like myself, picking up the Bill for Second Reading, to be confronted by two people who know so well what they are talking about.

However, I was heartened at the end of what the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, said, because in the early part of her remarks I thought that she was praising the Bill with a considerable number of faint damns, but it was at least consoling to have her say finally that she hoped that the Amendments which would be passed would make it an even better Bill. So she does see some merit in the Bill at some point. I will read in particular what she has said about these points. I hope that it will be at least possible to give fair consideration to anything that she may be submitting for the next stage.

Very briefly, the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, and the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, referred to the word "rebate". The noble Lord, Lord Sandys, referred to what exactly people understood "rebate" to mean, and the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, referred to finding a better term. I will certainly consider those matters. The noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, asked further whether I would assure her that nobody would have a reduction in what they are getting at present. Until the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, spoke about garages in Inner London, I thought that was the position. I have to qualify the answer and, subject to what the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, said, I think the answer is "yes".

The noble Lady, Lady Kinloss, asked how equality could be achieved up and down the country. The simple answer is that there will not be equality: there will be uniformity of method. But as rates vary very much from one area to another—and I am talking now, as I did in my other speech, entirely on the English side of the matter—if the measure of rebate is £30, obviously the higher the rates are in particular area the bigger the measure of relief that is being given. Similarly, in Scotland it will vary from one place to another. But at least the method to be applied will be uniform, which is an advantage on the present position.

I think it true to say that the Bill has received the sort of welcome I thought it would get from your Lordships, given the interest that has always been shown in the House in the welfare of disabled people. I thank all those who have taken part.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.