HL Deb 07 June 1984 vol 452 cc774-82

3.36 p.m.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord Gray of Contin)

My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Rating and Valuation (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill, has consented to place her prerogative and interest, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

Read a third time.

Lord Gray of Contin moved Amendment No. 1: After Clause 15, insert the following new clause:

("Exemption from valuation and rating of certain moorings. . After section 8 of the Valuation and Rating (Scotland Act 1956 there shall be inserted the following section— Exemption from valuation and rating of certain moorings. 8AA.—(1) For the purpose of ascertaining the gross annual value of any lands and heritages no account shall be taken of any mooring to which this section applies. (2) This section applies to any mooring—

  1. (a) used or intended to be used by a boat or ship; and
  2. (b) equipped only with a buoy attached to an anchor, weight or other device—
  1. (i) which rests on or in the bed of the sea or any river or other waters when in use; and
  2. (ii) which is designed to be raised from that bed from time to time.".").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, it may be for the convenience of the House if I take Amendment No. 2 with Amendment No. 1. Amendment No. 2: Page 14, line 30, after ("11") insert ("(Exemption from valuation and rating of certain moorings)").

This is a simple amendment introduced for the avoidance of doubt and to prevent future cross-border anomalies arising. The Government have introduced a similar amendment to the Rates Bill to provide necessary clarification of the law in England and Wales. This makes similar provision to existing case law in Scotland, but as there may be a few cases where different treatment could arise it seems prudent to ensure parity of treatment by making parallel provision for the avoidance of doubt.

I honestly do not expect this amendment on its own to have any significant effect immediately, but it should prevent differences of treatment north and south of the Border from arising in future. Amendment No. 2 makes this substantive provision effective from 1st April 1985. I beg to move this amendment.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I rise to support this amendment. I am highly gratified that the Government have this immense concern for the owners of moorings, buoys, and other rare objects. It is wholly in line with their attitude throughout this Bill. They are also extremely concerned about reed beds. I understand that the popularity rating of the Government among the owners of reed beds and moorings has now risen to an extent which is unprecedented since they started doing public opinion polls. I understand that they are highly gratified and that this will be quoted in the European elections as an example of the popularity of the Government.

I should like to suggest, however, if it is relevant to this amendment, that a certain amount of concern should be translated into action—we had plenty of it in theory—about the owners of small businesses who have been in grave trouble due to many of the Government's policies, and interest rates, and so on. A certain amount of exemption like that granted to industrial premises in Scotland might have been afforded by the amendments which I moved, and which were greeted with great sympathy by the noble Lord, Lord Gray, who is, as we all know, a kind and nice man; but of action we have had none. I commend the noble Lord's support of the owners of moorings, reed beds, and other insignificant matters, but it might have been extended to a significant section of the population of small businessmen.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, I too accept this particular amendment. In the short term it will probably have little effect on rating, but as a principle it shows what many of us have been saying all through the passage of this Bill both in another place and in this place, that Scottish rating and valuation needs a complete overhaul. As the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, said, the Government have given a very little on reed beds and a little on things such as the mooring of buoys. Altogether we are finding as we go through the Bill with this Government that what seems to be happening all the time is that we have occasional little adaptations made in rating valuation in Scotland. We had a very important one some time ago on oil and outside plant, and now we have had another two or three minor ones in this particular Bill. All the time the base of Scottish rating is being reduced, and therefore the householder, the small businessman and to some extent—although they are derated—industry are all carrying more and more on this narrower base. It may be very little in this instance; but put together, the base is getting narrower and narrower all the time.

We may be able to say something when we come to the question of whether the Bill shall pass, on the matter of whether the Government have really been honest, and whether the Party opposite have been honest, in the way they have tackled rates. The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, spoke on this rather momentous amendment—and again it draws parallels with the English legislation with which we had a great deal of difficulty in persuading the Government that it was occasionally a reasonable thing to do—and we were speaking of course of sports stadia, and things like that. Having said that, I do not think there is anything any of us would be willing to stand out very strongly against in this innocuous and perhaps ultimately clearing up amendment.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, before the noble Lord replies perhaps he could clarify my mind on one point. I think he said in his opening remarks about this amendment that it in no way changed the law, it merely clarified it. May I take it therefore that it will not affect the rating values of Orkney and Shetland to any extent? As he will be aware, there are some very large moorings for Sullom Voe and Flotta. Am I to understand that there will be no change so far as they are concerned in the rating position?

Lady Saltoun

My Lords, I am rather intrigued to know what is so much holier about moorings than about grouse moors, that they should be brought into line with the situation in England. I cannot help wondering whether it is not a question of the Government's popularity.

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I welcome the remarks of all noble Lords opposite who have given such enthusiastic approval to the amendment which I have proposed. It is good to know that they are grateful even for small mercies, and of course we welcome their approval. I should just very briefly say to the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, that I think I would weary the House if I were to reiterate what I said the last time that we discussed this matter, when I listed I think 10 very substantial contributions which the Government made towards the wellbeing of small businesses. I was sorry that I was not able to meet him on the amendments which he proposed in this Bill; but I think there were ample reasons for not doing so.

I welcome also what the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, has said. He too recognises that we have tried to be helpful in this amendment, and I should also be in danger of wearying the House if I went into arguments again which I used when I answered the amendment proposed by the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun. I think that I enunciated some very sound reasons why I could not accept her amendment, much as I should like to have done so. The noble Lord, Lord Grimond, raised the question about the effect on Sullom Voe. The moorings there are too big to be raised and remain subject to rating, so there is no difference as far as the law is concerned there. This amendment, as I indicated when I introduced it, essentially codifies existing Scottish case law and excludes from valuations moorings which are moveable rather than heritable.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 22 [Citation, commencement and extent]:

Lord Gray of Contin moved Amendment No. 2: [Printed earlier.]

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 14 [Relief of rates in respect of lands and heritages partly occupied for a short time]:

Lord Gray of Contin moved Amendment No. 3: Transpose Clause 14 to after Clause 5.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move this amendment to Clause 14. This, along with the amendments to Clauses 16 and 17, is minor. They are minor drafting amendments to place clauses of the Bill in the most appropriate position and order. I beg to move.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, may I ask this? On Amendment No. 5, is Clause 17 to go after Clause 14 in its new place or its old place?

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, this clause will go in its new place.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 16 [Relief of rates in respect of non-domestic lands and heritages not in active use]:

Lord Gray of Contin moved Amendment No. 4: Transpose Clause 16 to after Clause 5.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 17 [Exemption of reed beds from rates]:

Lord Gray of Contin moved Amendment No. 5. Transpose Clause 17 to after Clause 14.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill do now pass.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Lord Gray of Contin.)

Lord Grimond

My Lords, before we part with this Bill can I enter a small protest against the drafting of it? It was almost entirely drafted by references to other Bills. It is a matter of very great importance to every ratepayer in Scotland and it is really rather intolerable that legislation should be put out from Parliament which is quite unintelligible to ordinary people and will involve the whole library of a lawyer's office to interpret it. There have been protests about this, notably by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale—who, after all, is a retired Lord of Appeal in Ordinary and speaks with some authority on these matters—in the recent debate in your Lordships' House. We have seen in a Bill proposed by the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, that it is possible to draft Bills positively so that they are intelligible and ordinary people can understand what they mean. This Bill, candidly, to my mind is a disgrace to Parliamentary draftsman and I hope very much that the Minister will take it to heart and when in future he is producing Bills of the greatest importance to the ordinary people of this country he will produce them in an intelligible form.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, I think also that something should be said before this Bill is finally passed. I must apologise that my noble friend Lord Ross, who has done so much work on the Bill, is not able to be with us today; but the House will perhaps be glad to know that he is recovering from his disability. We have taken a great deal of time discussing this Bill, not only in this House but in another place, and I am afraid we had very little flexibility from the Government. It seemed to me that the Minister was under orders to concede absolutely nothing, although it is a very, very important Bill for the people of Scotland.

One of the points my noble friend Lord Ross of Marnock was continually trying to make was that there should be an inquiry into the Scottish rating system. I will not bore the House too long with this argument except to say that it was a very well argued case that he put. It was also a very well argued case for the necessity to look at the Scottish rating system which was put to the noble Lord's own Party conference in Perth a few weeks ago. It was also a very forceful argument put by his Party before the General Election of 1979 and subsequent to that by his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland in another place.

I should emphasise that the question of the examination of the Scottish rating system was a technical argument, not a political one. The politics of rates is about the level and impact on the ratepayers and the level of services, not the method by which the rates are raised. There was a suggestion that we should consider the technical basis of financing Scottish local government. It is no use pursuing the matter after the arguments put up by the Minister about the total unacceptability of all our very persuasive arguments. The system envisaged by the last amendment is becoming extremely higgledy-piggledy and we need a full consideration of it.

This is an extremely important Bill for the people of Scotland. Unprecedented powers have been given to the Secretary of State and might be the basis of great friction between the Government and local authorities. Now the Secretary of State can use these powers without even consulting the local authorities affected. All he needs to do is to consult associations of local authorities that he believes may be concerned, not the individual local authorities. If one couples the power in Clause 3 with the great powers in Clause 2, when orders were going through in the other place that could affect a local authority which would not even be mentioned in the short debate. Since more than one order could be taken at one time, a local authority might have all these powers used against it without having been mentioned in the debate in another place.

A local authority that was previously represented by the Minister might be one of those authorities concerned. I can see the words he used in the debate being quoted back at him. It is an extremely heavy-handed way of handling local authorities in Scotland. I can see a great deal of trouble from now on with local authorities. In the other place my honourable friend the Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland said that it was a Bill that he would wholeheartedly give his approval and binding promise to rescind.

There is only one small point of principle with which I should like the Minister to go slightly further. When a decision is made there is still a feeling among many people in Scotland that the Association of Valuers tends to wait for court decisions before it makes an interpretation. In other words, at the last stage of this Bill, which was Report, there was the feeling that there is a tendency among valuers to use the courts as an area of first appeal instead of an area of final appeal. Although the Minister wrote to me on the point I raised about the valuation of accommodation in Scotland—and the order was passed in 1983—the assessors nevertheless have not yet got round to making their own valuations on this.

Because of the complication of the present Scottish rating system it is possible that the assessors have no time to analyse the problem. On the other hand, as has been suggested, the assessors may not be receiving enough guidance from the Government and therefore are afraid to go ahead until they have a court decision. The Minister was kind enough to write to me on 6th June; he promised he would give me more information and write to me later. I wonder whether, as this order has been on the statute book for 14 months, the Minister can give me any examples of when the assessors have made a revaluation of the type of accommodation included in this order. It strikes me as being rather more important than the removal of moorings and buoys from the valuation rolls of Scotland.

Lady Saltoun

My Lords, I wish this Bill well from the bottom of my heart. I only hope that it does all that the noble Lords the Ministers have told us that it will, but I am afraid that I have grave misgivings. Both at Committee and at Report stages, as the House well knows, I moved amendments concerning the rating of shootings. While we had the pleasantest possible debates at both times, I must confess that I was rather disappointed by the somewhat wooden attitude of the Government, particularly in view of the strong support which was shown for the amendments in both Houses and which can have left the Government in no doubt that the present situation is causing great concern.

I hope to be proved wrong, but I have limited faith in the efficacy of Clause 19, as I think it has now become. Until now, assessors have considered that there was material change of circumstances only if a substantial area of hill has been destroyed by fire or part has been sold or afforested. They are not given to coming out and tramping the hills to see for themselves that there is no game. If they did, I am afraid that they would quite likely think that the occupier had rounded up the grouse and locked them up in a shed, out of sight. It has been quite impossible to persuade them that there are no birds and that therefore it is not possible to let. I know of a moor in Perthshire where for seven years there have been no grouse, yet the assessors have refused to agree material change and the occupier still has to pay rates and cannot let.

The noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, told us a similar story at Report stage. I hope that the Government will seriously consider issuing the assessors with guidelines; for without guidelines I am not persuaded that there are any grounds for believing that the Government's optimism will be justified.

I can only express a forlorn hope that the Government's hopes and intentions do not fail and that, if they do, the Government will take steps themselves to remedy the situation. Those of us who have concerned ourselves with this matter will have to see how things work out over the next couple of years, but if we are disappointed we shall have to raise the matter again.

3.57 p.m.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, we have been concerned with small matters, though not terribly small, as the noble Baroness raises a real point. We have been talking about the method of valuation and so on, but on the Question, That the Bill do now pass, it is relevant to say that the Government have been enormously disappointing, not only to the Opposition but to their own supporters, because there is a real problem in local government. It is and has been exemplified by many of the Labour councils in the West and elsewhere who have driven rates to a point where they have scared away business and they have also raised the art of manipulating the grants for the benefit of a section to a fine art. Obviously local government in Scotland and elsewhere has fallen into disrepute. It has gone away from its base of responsibility to the people; it has gone away from the base of getting the best people to stand, because they will have real things to do and local councillors have become the agents of central government. The whole matter has been politicised, and local government in Scotland has deteriorated in the last 50 years. Some good things have been done, but on the whole it has deteriorated. The Conservative Party saw this; they talked about it in their manifesto and they saw the evil of the rating system as it is. Yet they have even refused to hold an inquiry into the rating system after this Bill has gone through.

In the Bill all they have done is to top up a series of measures which are designed to stop certain evils happening, but in fact can only need further measures and, ultimately, further deterioration of local government must lead to complete central control. It is very disappointing. In fact, I could say that it is wholly wrong in principle, wholly regrettable, and a thing that no responsible Government should have done. If you really believe in democracy, then you must try to see that the people who represent local government are responsible. This Bill totally fails to do that. I think it is a disaster, and I think it was a disgrace for the Government to introduce it after the promises in their manifesto.

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, the purpose of this Bill, as has been enunciated all the way through, is to help ratepayers by protecting them against local authorities planning high expenditure and setting high rates, and by resolving valuation anomalies. These are familiar words. Every member of the Government speaking on this subject has been at pains to make clear the central intent of the Bill. It is not—I repeat: it is not—about ending local government in Scotland, as claimed by some of its more histrionic critics.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, normally a very moderate man if I may say so, this afternoon used language not of his usual character. I would disagree with him about some of his suggestions as to why there has been perhaps a change in those who participate in local government. He suggested reasons. I would not necessarily agree that those are the correct reasons. I think that over the years there have been changes in the type of person who has involved himself or herself in local government; but I think that the diagnosis which the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, has suggested is certainly not the correct one.

The noble Lord, Lord Grimond, as he invariably does, made some very relevant points, and he criticised the drafting of the Bill. I suppose that this is not unusual in this House or in another place. There are few Bills which go through Parliament without some criticism of the drafting here or there. May I say to the noble Lord that, for example, in Schedule 1 of this Bill there is a Keeling schedule which virtually consolidates local government finance provisions in accordance with the report of the noble Lord, Lord Renton. As well as being in accordance with Lord Renton's report, The Preparation of Legislation, the Bill contains a variety of largely separate reforms. Nearly all are separately stated as new sections, and would not be in a materially different form even if expressed in the pre-Renton way. So there has been a genuine attempt so far as the drafting of the Bill is concerned to attain a greater simplification.

The noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, was critical of the Bill and was critical of the Government for not accepting the amendment which he moved at an earlier stage—or which his noble friend, who we are all pleased to hear is making a satisfactory recovery, moved at an earlier stage of the Bill—to the effect that we should have a general review of the rating system in Scotland. But, as I explained during the earlier stages, we looked at the whole question of review before we introduced the Bill at all. I explained that there had already been the sitting of the Layfield Committee, which was a committee composed of many very distinguished people as far as local government was concerned, and their knowledge was not disputed in any way.

We made the decision ultimately that the system which we had could not be bettered at this time; in other words, that we could not find anything with which we could replace it which would not create more anomalies and more difficulties. Therefore, we decided that the best way to proceed was to make improvements. We believe that we have introduced a number of very real improvements into this Bill. I do not think that it would be for the benefit of the House for us to become too involved in the arguments which we went into in very great detail at earlier stages; I merely reply to the perfectly legitimate point that the noble Lord made. That is the view of his party, and we agree to differ on that point.

The noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, again made her plea as far as the moors are concerned. I would thank her now, as I did on two previous occasions, for the very reasonable way in which she presented her case and invited us to accept her amendment. At earlier sittings I went into details as to why I could not accept the amendment. The only point that I would make to her is that, when she referred to the question of material changes having taken place, material changes will be taken into account in a revaluation. I would suggest, as far as the Bill is concerned, that this is helpful. I cannot really add further to the comments which I made in replying to her amendments previously.

In conclusion, my Lords, I would draw your thoughts together by suggesting that your Lordships' House has rightly directed—

Lord Mackie of Benshie

Your thoughts, not ours!

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord. We have directed a good deal of attention to the valuation and rating relief measures in this Bill. We believe that these will make useful changes to a system which, although basically sound, has thrown up a number of areas where reform is merited. In 1985, there will be an all-Scotland revaluation. Difficult or contentious appeals may now, by virtue of Clauses 11 and 12, go straight to the Lands Tribunal for Scotland, which will ease the burden of valuation appeals committees. In other clauses we have removed some of the anomalies which have given rise to problems; for example, caravans, shopping malls, reed beds and swinging moorings. We have had thorough debates about the valuation of sports grounds and similar subjects.

I know that there still linger some doubts, but it is our firm belief that Clause 18 will do the job where anomalies exist north and south of the Border; and, where circumstances change, Clause 19 will enable the benefits of new court decisions and changing rents, for example, to be felt. This Bill will be of real benefit to ratepayers as a whole through the measures in Part I, and to individuals and groups of ratepayers through the measures in Part II.

On Question, Bill passed, and returned to the Commons with the amendments.