HL Deb 30 October 1990 vol 522 cc1817-23

5.6 p.m.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time. Mae'n ddrwg iawn gen i dwi ddim yn siarad Cymraeg.

This hybrid Bill, brought to us from another place, seeks to restore the democratic rights to vote and stand for election to the small island community of Caldey in South West Wales. It is a non-controversial Bill which only began its parliamentary passage after consultation between the Welsh Office and the islanders. So far as I am aware, it is acceptable to the islanders, who have not exercised their right to petition against its provisions.

If I may, I shall begin by providing a brief background to Caldey and its exceptional history. It is in the island's history that the need for the Bill currently before us is rooted. Caldey is situated one and a half miles south west of Tenby in South Pembrokeshire and is owned by the Cistercian Order. Its residents consist of a monastic community of 15 monks and a small lay community of approximately 20 adults and 15 children. Caldey is within the county of Dyfed but it is outside the district of South Pembrokeshire and has never been part of any second tier of local government. Its unique status has come about in the following way.

In the 12th century the island was granted by King Henry I to one Robert Fitz-Martin and since then it has been in the continuous ownership of religious communities or private landowners. As a consequence Caldey did not become an ecclesiastical parish in the Middle Ages, nor did it become part of the civil parish system which evolved later. The parish system was the foundation for the evolution of the local government system that we know today. It formed the basis of rural sanitation boards formed under the Public Health Act 1875 and their successors, rural district councils, under the Local Government Act 1896.

With the consolidation of local government under the Local Government Act 1972, the Local Government Boundary Commission for Wales undertook a special community review. The purpose of the review was to establish a system of communities in Wales (the equivalent of the parish system in England) to replace the previous pattern of boroughs, urban districts and parishes. The islanders of Caldey made it clear that they did not wish Caldey to become a community within the district of South Pembrokeshire. In 1982 the Secretary of State for Wales decided, in deference to the islanders wishes to retain their traditional independence, that the island should remain outside South Pembrokeshire. This also means that Caldey is not a community in the local government sense. Under the provisions of the Local Government Act 1972 a community can exist only as a constituent part of a local government district. This also accords with the islanders' wishes.

The Parliamentary Constituencies (Wales) Order 1983 defined the constituency of Pembroke (previously the old county of Pembrokeshire which included Caldey) as the district of South Pembrokeshire and some wards of the neighbouring district of Preseli. Caldey was therefore outside the new constituency and the European parliamentary constituency of Mid and West Wales which is an aggregation of a number of parliamentary constituencies, including that of Pembroke. Also, as Caldey is outside South Pembrokeshire, it falls outside the jurisdiction of the district's electoral registration officer. Theoretically, therefore, the islanders are not entitled to be included on an electoral register.

I should stress at this point that the residents of Caldey have never been deprived of the ability to vote. The electoral intricacies of the situation did not come to light until late 1988 and the islanders were included on the electoral registers for South Pembrokeshire until the expiry of the 1989–90 register on 15th February 1990. Once a person's name is on the register the law provides that that is proof enough of an entitlement to vote and the Caldey Islanders have done so quite legally since 1983. The next South Pembrokeshire District Council elections are not until May 1991 and the next Dyfed County Council elections are not until 1993.

Without this Bill, however, the islanders would not be entitled to be included on the current register for 1990–91 or any future register. Their disfranchisement was unintentional, is certainly unacceptable and is probably in contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights.

I now turn to the main provisions of the Bill, of which there are four. Clause 1 deems Caldey Island and its neighbour, St. Margaret's, to be in South Pembrokeshire for the purposes of voting in local, parliamentary and European parliamentary elections. It also enables the islanders to be included on the district's electoral registers for 1990–91 and 1991–92 retrospectively. The 1990–91 register does not expire until 15th February 1991 and the qualifying date of 10th October 1990 for inclusion on the register for 1991–92 has now passed. St Margaret's is uninhabited but census returns show that as late as 1841 three families still lived on the island. Although highly unlikely, it is not inconceivable that it will be inhabited again at some future date. It is for this reason that St. Margaret's has been included within the scope of the Bill.

Clause 2 deems Caldey to be in the district of South Pembrokeshire for the purposes of paying the community charge, including county precepts and non-domestic rating. Members of the religious order will of course be exempt from the personal community charge, although the commercial activities of the abbey undertaken by the Caldey Island Estate Company will be liable to non-domestic rating. The community earns revenue from visitor-related activities mainly during the summer months and facilities on the island comprise a tearoom, a gift shop and a perfumery. As a registered charity the company may be entitled to mandatory relief of 80 per cent. on non-domestic rates.

This will be the first time that the islanders have been subject to local taxation. I have already mentioned that Caldey is in the County of Dyfed, which provides the islanders with services, primarily education for the island's children. Dyfed Education Authority maintains a small school unit with a full-time teacher on the island which provides the children with infant and primary education. For secondary education the children travel to the mainland and are boarded out by the education authority for the school week. The fire authority maintains a permanent tender on the island which the authority regularly maintains. In addition to these specific services the islanders benefit from more general amenity services provided by the county such as library facilities.

Because Caldey lies outside the charging authority of South Pembrokeshire, Dyfed County Council has been unable to precept on the district for the proportionately expensive services it provides to the islanders, the cost of which falls upon other Dyfed charge payers. The islanders do not receive services from South Pembrokeshire and will not do so if this Bill becomes law. This is a logical consequence of their desire to stay outside the district. In practice they are in a similar position to inhabitants of other offshore islands and isolated rural areas on the mainland which are fully integrated within the local government system. The community charge is not intended to reflect the levels of service used by individuals or particular groups of individuals.

I should mention at this point that there is a gentleman's agreement between the islanders and South Pembrokeshire Environmental Health Department under which the latter inspects the islands visitor and refuse disposal facilities on a regular basis and provides the islanders with advice on other environmental health matters. The arrangement is harmonious and constructive and has worked well for a number of years.

The provisions of the Bill, should it become law, will come into effect upon receipt of Royal Assent. The islanders' initial liability to payment of community charge will, however, be deferred until 1st April 1991. The islanders will also benefit from a specially devised community charge transitional relief scheme which will ensure that the reductions in their charge over the first four years of liability will be comparable to those enjoyed by other charge payers in South Pembrokeshire. Both these initiatives will be implemented under order-making powers which are available under Clause 4(3) of the Bill.

Clause 3 rectifies other anomalous aspects of Caldey and St. Margaret's position. It includes the islands within the jurisdiction of the Pembrokeshire Coroner and the Pembrokeshire Health Authority. The existing jurisdiction of both these bodies is confined to the districts of South Pembrokeshire and Preseli and, therefore, inadvertently excludes Caldey. As far as I am aware, Caldey's exclusion from their jurisdiction has been of no practical consequence.

Clause 4 of the Bill makes it clear that the position of Caldey established by the Bill is without prejudice to any future decisions on its position that may be required in the light of a change of ownership, local government area or electoral changes and health authority or coroners areas of jurisdiction.

I have already mentioned that the provisions of the Bill have been the subject of consultation with the islanders. It became clear that their paramount concern was that any corrective measures should preserve their cherished tradition of independence from second-tier local government. In presenting the Caldey Island Bill the Government have sought as far as possible to accommodate the islanders' wishes. Clauses 1 and 2 of the Bill incorporate Caldey within South Pembrokeshire only for the purposes of voting and local taxation. In all other respects Caldey will remain outside the district's jurisdiction. Should the Bill become law Caldey will retain its unique status of not being completely integrated within the local government system. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. —(Baroness Trumpington.)

5.15 p.m.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the manner in which she has introduced the Bill. She has given the House a brief outline of the history of the island of Caldey. For that I say, Diolch yn fawr.

This evening the Minister also referred to the wishes of the islanders to retain their tradition of semi-independence from local government. The words have splendid overtones of ancient customs, rights and privileges. I note that one of the most important effects of the Bill, if not the most important, is that it will impose upon the people of Caldey Island the community charge and the non-domestic rates, even though their ancestors have never paid local taxation. In fact, the Minister referred to that more than once in her speech. That aspect of the Bill particularly fascinated me when I read its provisions for the first time. Why had the islanders been exempt from local taxation although, as the Minister explained, they are in receipt of some local government services? I was tempted to ask whether the exemption was derived from ancient custom or whether it had a moral or legal basis in age-old rights or privileges which may, for example, have been granted on the dissolution of the Monastery of St. Dogmaels and Calde.

With the help of Dr. Peter Davies in your Lordships' Library and also with the help of the Welsh Office I discovered that in 1537 or 1543, in exchange for the sum of £62.10s.6d., Henry VIII had by his own hand granted a conveyance of the territory of the monastery of St. Dogmaels, which included Caldey, to one John Bradshawe and his heirs and successors, reserving nevertheless to the King tithes, portions and other emoluments.

That is a significant document and being unfamiliar with the legal terminology and phraseology of the 16th century, the document bristles with some difficulties. However, I understand that the Privy Council has confirmed that Clause 2 of this Bill in particular—that is the clause which imposes local taxation—is not in conflict with the grant of 1537. Perhaps the Minister can confirm that advice when she replies.

Nevertheless, I believe that the grant of 1537, selling off as it does the assets of the monastery, is an instructive document and a precedent. Does that not represent the earliest precedent in the privatisation game and a precedent which regrettably was shaped by a Welshman—Henry VIII?

I have two fairly straightforward questions for the Minister. I have read the discussions of the provisions of the Bill in Standing Committee B in another place but I am still not clear at what rate the 15 monks who are on the island will pay the community charge. Will they pay any charge at all or will they receive 80 per cent. relief?

Secondly, as I understand it, initially no one pays a community charge more than £150 above what he would have paid in domestic rates. Will the community charge for the people of the island of Caldey for the first year be fixed no higher than £150?

The islanders could have petitioned Parliament right up to today but the Minister has confirmed that no petition has been received. Therefore, we go along with this Bill even though it is shedding an important piece of tradition and will mean less diversity in this corner of the realm.

5.25 p.m.

Lord Crickhowell

My Lords, I intervene very briefly really for old times' sake and partly because the Minister referred to me in her speech. She referred to the decision taken in 1982 to retain the traditional independence outside South Pembrokeshire. I well remember the issue coming before me. Of course, I was the local Member of Parliament and I have reason to think that some of the inhabitants of Caldey from time to time cast their votes for me, although I must confess also that it was not the usual practice of candidates in an election campaign to make the crossing in order to win their votes. It may be that my energetic successor has set new precedents in that respect.

Therefore, I listened to what has been said with a certain amount of interest and, I must say, some regret. The Minister spoke of that traditional independence and we have heard the history back to Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries. While I am glad that at least that traditional independence from a particular tier of local government is being maintained, it is a little sad that for the first time the islands will be subject to taxation.

When I took that decision back in 1982, I took the view that anomalies of this kind were worth preserving and the fact that some services were being provided might be overlooked. These islands, and Caldey particularly, have not only long been the home of monks but also of notable artists who have gone there and painted the scenery of the beautiful Pembroke coast: people like David Jones, who was also a notable poet, and Ray Howard Jones. I hope that artists will continue to be attracted to the island and will not be put off by the new taxes. I was relieved to hear that the monks will obtain some relief and that there will be transitional arrangements. I too should be glad to hear the details of what exactly will be the liabilities.

It must be said that despite the Minster's description of the services provided, they are not extensive. However, I understand perfectly well that Caldey finds itself in the same position as other offshore islands, and as no petitions have been received, I too have no reason to object to the Bill. Of course I am delighted that the mistake which was made in omitting the inhabitants from the electoral roll has now been corrected.

We are now considering the loss of a piece of history which is perhaps a pity but I believe that this is one occasion when we must go along with it.

5.29 p.m.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I listened with interest to my noble friend Lord Crickhowell. I share his feelings of regret. It is always sad when local custom changes but that is that. There has been no petition and change there must be.

I find the first question put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, fascinating because I like delving back into history. What he did not say was that following his request to see a copy of King Henry VIII's grant to John Bradshawe, a copy has been sent to your Lordships' Library so that everyone can read that fascinating document.

Our advice is that there is no inconsistency between the grant and the Bill. There appears to be nothing in the former which prevents the partial inclusion of Caldey within South Pembrokeshire. I have already explained at some length that the provisions of the Bill still leave Caldey in a unique position. The grant by King Henry VIII did not specifically relate to Caldey Island. It granted to John Bradshawe all the lands in South Wales within the ownership of St. Dogmaels Abbey prior to dissolution of which Caldey was a part. That abbey is situated a mile west of the town of Cardigan in the district Ceredigion.

The village of St. Dogmaels is in the present-day community of Cardigan. Land the subject of the grant has already been fully integrated into the local government system. The grant appears to give certain exemptions under Royal prerogative from payments which could have been charged in respect of ownership of the land for the benefit of the Crown, but not, alas, general exemption from taxation. The community charge is a tax levied on individuals for local government purposes and not for the benefit of the Crown. Non-domestic rating is a tax on the occupation rather than the ownership of land.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, raised another point, in which my noble friend said he too was interested. Under the provisions of the Local Government Finance Act 1988 the monks will be exempt from the community charge.

The answer to the third point is rather complicated, and I hope the noble Lord understands it. If he does, he is "a better man than I am, Gunga Din."

The islanders will not begin to pay community charge until 1st April 1991. From then on they will be subject to the provisions relating to the Welsh community charge transitional relief system which, unlike the English system, is community-based. Under the English system of transitional relief charge payers are assessed individually. Those whose notional community charge exceeds their domestic rate liability for 1989–90 by £156 or more will be eligible for relief. In Wales, if the assumed community charge for 1990–91 for a local government community exceeds the average domestic rate bill per adult for 1989–90 by more than £18, 100 per cent. relief is automatically given on the excess to the charge payers for that community.

The islanders will not begin to pay community charge until 1st April 1991. The Welsh community charge for standard spending—CCSS—for 1991–92, upon which the Welsh revenue support grant settlement will be based, is £228 per adult. For 1991–92 the residents of Caldey, other than the monks, will pay 80 per cent.—£182—of that sum. In effect therefore relief will be £46 per head.

If the charge actually set by South Pembrokeshire is lower than the CCSS, then the islanders will each pay 80 per cent. of that lower charge. If South Pembrokeshire and Dyfed spend such that the charge set exceeds £228, each islander will pay 80 per cent. of the CCSS plus the amount by which the charge exceeds the CCSS, and the 80 per cent. will increase over the four-year period so that the islanders will, in common with other charge payers in Wales, move to a regime of full charges in 1995–96.

I said at the beginning that the answer was complicated. I must say that I hope I shall have the opportunity to visit the island in the future. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. —(Baroness Trumpington.)

On Question, Bill read a second time; Committee negatived. Then Standing Order No. 44 having been dispensed with, Bill read a third time, and passed.