HL Deb 22 January 1991 vol 525 cc193-8

9.55 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

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.—(Baroness Blatch.) On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD AIREDALE in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Caravans in England and Wales: standard community charges and non-domestic rates]:

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 [Caravans in Scotland: Standard Community Charges and non-domestic rates]:

Lord Campbell of Croy moved an amendment: Page 2, line 43, leave out from ("shall") to end of line 45 and insert ("not be made unless a draft of them has been laid before and approved by a resolution of both Houses of Parliament.")

The noble Lord said: The Bill is welcome as a whole. It excludes certain categories of caravan from liability to the standard community charge and makes them subject to rates.

The Committee will recall that the standard charge was originally designed to be a levy on second homes. When passing through this Chamber the Abolition of Domestic Rates Etc. (Scotland) Act 1987 and the similar Act for England and Wales a year later we introduced the standard as well as the personal community charge.

Most of us understood and supported the proposition that someone who was well enough off to have a second home should not be relieved altogether of any payment when domestic rates on houses disappeared. In the event, that standard community charge has become an immediate levy on empty residential premises. That is how most local authorities have interpreted the legislation.

That led to extraordinary anomalies during the first year in Scotland before the system had started in England and Wales. Members of the Committee will remember that in this Chamber I drew attention to some of those anomalies at Question Time and in debates. The Government responded by issuing guidance to local authorities for the future which greatly improved the situation to the benefit of England and Wales because the guidance was issued before 1st April last year. However, it was too late for Scotland where the system had been introduced the previous year.

The Bill is part of the same process. Clause 1 applies to England and Wales and Clause 2 entirely to Scotland. The Bill is of special importance to Scotland where the standard charge has been in operation for more than twice as long as it has in England and Wales. In Scotland we are nearing the end of our second year.

Clause 2(3) gives the Secretary of State for Scotland wide discretion in making regulations to rationalise the valuation and rating of caravans, which are now once again to be rated. To underline the importance of the issue to the Scottish tourist industry and to dwellers in caravans in Scotland, my amendment would require the regulations to come before both Houses under the affirmative procedure rather than the negative. I do not suggest that we need make the change in the Bill. My purpose is to probe and to discover the Government's intentions regarding the regulations.

In recent years the Committee will have heard me draw attention to the wide discrepancies in the rating of caravans north and south of the Scottish Border. Identical caravans on either side of that border, only a few metres apart, pay very different rate bills. The one in Scotland could be about twice as much as the other. There is now a great opportunity to remove those anomalies.

Last week, I informed my noble friend Lady Blatch and her office that the purpose of my amendment was to obtain a statement on the Government's intentions. The Department of the Environment deals only with England. My noble friend Lady Blatch is in that department and also in charge of this Bill in this House. I hope that with the notice I have given she has been able to obtain any necessary information from the Scottish Office. As a result, can she assure us that in these regulations it is the intention of the Secretary of State for Scotland to aim for harmonisation and parity with England and Wales? Will the Scottish Secretary when formulating his proposals have consultations with representatives of the leading organisations concerned? Any assurance she can give today will be valuable in maintaining confidence during the period of waiting before the regulations are formulated and published. I beg to move.

10 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Obviously, we on this side support the Bill. However, I should like to ask the Minister to give guidance to the Committee as to whether, were she to accept the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, she would expect it to apply also to England.

The first reason why we on this side would like an affirmative resolution for England is that we continue to have some unease about aspects of the Bill. As was suggested on Second Reading in this House and in the stages n another House, we suspect that there will continue to be problems on a site where there are caravans which are main residences generating poll tax, other touring caravans generating the non-business rate, and chalets which are second homes and which carry the standard community charge, all being of equal value on the same site. We have concerns in that respect, which is why with an affirmative resolution we might have an opportunity to review any subsequent anomalies which may emerge.

The second reason why we would welcome an affirmative resolution for England, were the Minister to grant it for Scotland, is that we are concerned—this was an issue raised on Second Reading here and in another place—about the effect on local authority income, particularly in those district councils which have responsibility for seaside resorts or national parks.

Of course, the Minister was quite right to say on Second Reading that that income was not taken into account when calculating spending assessments and the interaction with poll tax levies; in other words, it was a plus. However, what the Minister did not mention but which the DoE said on her behalf, was that the plus is to be considered by local authorities as offsetting some of the shortfall in collecting the poll tax. This is a problem not only in Scotland but also in England where, according to the Audit Commission, the collection rates are running perhaps one-third behind what we as local authorities would by now have collected in rates.

Therefore especially for the seaside towns, that loss in income, which can no longer be set against falls in collection, will be a modest but real loss to some local authority budgets. The confusion between chattels and homes on the one hand and collection rates on the other is associated with a poll tax which is anomalous and deeply unfair.

Therefore if the Minister is minded to accept the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, perhaps she would indicate whether, for other reasons, but the same good cause, she will consider applying it also to England and Wales.

Baroness Blatch

The powers sought under Clause 2(3) mirror those in Clause 1(7) and will be used to make any necessary minor technical adjustments to the rating regime applying to caravans. Given the use of the power, it would not seem appropriate to seek the affirmative resolution of both Houses of Parliament.

The power; which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will exercise to prescribe a revised level of derating for all caravans in Scotland is not the one contained in Clause 2(3) of the Bill. He will use his powers under Section 6 of the Local Government, (Scotland) Act 1975. Orders under Section 6 of the 1975 Act are subject to the affirmative resolution of both Houses of Parliament, and your Lordships will therefore have every opportunity to discuss any proposals to deal with the derating of caravans. Therefore, all the particular points made by my noble friend apply.

The noble Baroness ranged much more widely than those two points. The matters she raised do not refer to this amendment. They are separate subjects in themselves. However, the affirmative resolution which is contained within the other Act will apply to all the areas of concern that have been mentioned.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will shortly be consulting widely on a draft order giving effect to his proposal to increase the level of derating of caravans from its present level of 40 per cent. and to extend it to all caravans with retrospective effect from 1st April 1990. The intention behind increasing the level of derating applying to caravans is to compensate broadly for the difference between the average rateable values of caravans in England and in Scotland.

I have written to the noble Lord to tell him that I have arranged for copies of the draft regulations that we propose to make under Clause 1(7) of the Bill to be placed in the Library where they will be available for the scrutiny of other noble Lords. I shall welcome any comments on the draft regulations. Officials of the Department of the Environment have also sent copies of the draft to representatives of the National Caravan Council and the British Holiday and Home Parks Association. We shall welcome any comments from them also.

With those assurances I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Perhaps the noble Baroness will clarify a point that she made in passing and on which I remain unclear. Did she say that the affirmative resolution principle will apply in this Bill to England and Wales despite Clause 1 of the Bill?

Baroness Blatch

The affirmative resolution applies to derating matters for all caravans in England and Wales.

Lord Campbell of Croy

I thank my noble friend for her reply. I hope I made clear in my opening remarks that I did not intend to press this amendment and have it put into the Bill. It seems that my object has been achieved since I understand that the derating which is visualised about this operation will be carried out by the Secretary of State for Scotland under another Act. Under that Act the regulations will have to come to both Houses under the affirmative procedure. My noble friend made it clear that there will be opportunities to talk about that very important subject when it comes to this Chamber.

I listened for the assurance that the Secretary of State for Scotland intended to make changes in derating and to extend the derating (as my noble friend described it) with a view to equalising with the situation in England and Wales. That is what mainly worried those concerned in Scotland; whether the regulations come under this Bill or under the Act to which my noble friend referred, they will be just as content that the assurance has been given, as I heard just now, that it is the intention of the Secretary of State for Scotland to extend derating with a view to trying to harmonise and reach parity with the situation in England and Wales. With that I am glad to withdraw my amendment.

Baroness Blatch

Before the amendment is withdrawn I ought to clarify something I said that might have confused the noble Baroness, for which I apologise. I am advised that the amendment applies to Clause 2, which relates to Scotland only. The regulations under Clause 1 which apply to England will be subject to negative resolution. We have already placed in the Library the technical regulations to be made under Clause 1 of the Bill. I hope the Committee will accept that it would not be appropriate to make those technical regulations subject to affirmative resolution.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I thank the noble Baroness for being in a position to amend her statement so quickly. In that case she will understand that we should like to reserve our position and perhaps return to it.

Lord Campbell of Croy

This is a Committee stage and it seems that I have not quite completed the business. My noble friend sent me the draft of the regulations for England and Wales but naturally they did not in any way touch on the subjects which concern us in Scotland. I was interested to see them and I am sure that those interested in the subject in England and Wales will be glad that they are in the Library should they wish to look at them.

The Scottish regulations, whether under this Bill or another Act, will deal with the subject that I have raised. Therefore those are the regulations which are of importance. They cannot yet be available in draft because my noble friend—again I am glad to say—has given an assurance that the Secretary of State for Scotland is going to embark on discussions with the organisations with which he is already in touch. Unless any other noble Lord has a matter to raise, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2 agreed to.

The remaining clause agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment.

On Question, That the Report be now received?

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I was consulted earlier today as to whether the Committee and Report stages of the Bill could be taken today. I raise no objection although the matter did not appear on the Order Paper. However, I wish to reinforce the remarks made by my noble friend Lady Hollis. The Third Reading has yet to be heard and at that later stage we may decide to return to certain matters. Tonight we are dealing only with the Committee and Report stages of the Bill. The Third Reading will be heard at a future date.

Report received.