Orders of the Day — Local Government Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 24th February 1948.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Cecil Poole Mr Cecil Poole , Lichfield 12:00 am, 24th February 1948

The Secretary of State for Scotland and I are in the rather remarkable position of having nearly two hours of Parliamentary time of which to avail ourselves. I can assure the House that I have no intention of taking my full share of that time. I wish merely to sum up the reasons which have been put forward by my right hon. and hon. Friends in opposing this Bill.

When introducing this Bill, which one might almost call an omnibus Bill, on Second Reading, the Minister referred to it as a long and complicated Measure. This afternoon he referred to it as a very important Measure indeed. To many of us, although our acquaintance with the Bill is rather more mature than it was on the Second Reading, it still remains as he described it then. I shall deal with only that part of the Bill which relates to England and Wales. I do not know whether the Secretary of State for Scotland, when he winds up, intends to refer to this part of the Bill, or whether he will confine himself to Scotland. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Pollok (Commander Galbraith) has dealt with the effect of this Bill on Scotland and he referred particularly to Part II. I am looking forward to the right hon. Gentleman dealing with the question raised by the hon. Member for Dumbartonshire (Mr. McKinlay) in regard to Loch Sloy, particularly in view of the fact that Birmingham has an increase, not of £600,000, but of over £1 million, whereas Glasgow gets nothing. I am looking forward to hearing his explanation on that point.

I would like to turn to the remarks of the hon. Member for East Islington (Mr. E. Fletcher). He said that no one on this side of the House had complained of the principles of the Bill or shown why we disagree with them. If he will read the report of those parts of the Debate which he has not heard, including speeches not only from my hon. Friends but from hon. Members opposite, he will see that there is, in fact, no very great disagreement with the objects of the Bill, nor is there any great disagreement with the necessity for a Measure of this sort. However, if he reads the speeches to which he was unable to listen, and particularly the speech of my hon. Friend. the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton), he will see that specific and definite objections have been put forward. That being the case, I am bound to say that it is quite obvious that my hon. Friends have had to rely on detailed and technical arguments which have not commended themselves to a very wide number of people, but I do not think that they can be said to be less important for all that. It must be emphasised that, in spite of the fact that at this stage of the proceedings only a small number of Members are taking part in the deliberations, it is, as the Minister said this afternoon, a most important Measure which will affect not only every local authority but, what is more important, every ratepayer in the country.

I shall try to sum up briefly the reasons we think this Bill will fail in its objective. The Minister must realise—my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Worthing (Brigadier Prior-Palmer) has already referred to this—that if the object of this Bill is to be achieved, three conditions are essential: first, the equalisation of costs per head for the same services; secondly, the equalisation of rateable value per head; and thirdly, the uniformity of valuation for rating. We maintain that if the provisions of the Bill are examined closely, we shall see that none of these three conditions is, in fact, achieved. We have argued this point throughout the various stages of the Bill, and the Minister, his Parliamentary Secretary and the right hon. Gentleman who is to wind up, have put forward arguments in reply. The Minister of Health, with all that forensic skill which we admire so much, was apt to sweep us off our feet during the Committee stage. However, on mature reflection, having considered the answers which we have received, I am bound to say that we still remain completely unconvinced.

I would like to deal first with the question of the equalisation of costs per head in the same services, and I wish to emphasise the point which has already been made by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Worthing. The Minister has realised that sparsity of population has a definite effect in increasing the cost to the ratepayers. That is inherently admitted in the Bill. But he is determined that only those counties with a population of less than 70 persons per mile of road shall have the advantage of weighting. The Minister of Health supplied me recently, in answer to a Question, with certain figures which show that few counties will qualify for this weighting. There are, however, a number of counties—and Shropshire, part of which I have the honour to represent, is one—which have populations very slightly above the figure of 70, yet they will get no assistance and will have to bear the increased cost of administration over a wide area.

The Bill also provides for the payment of grant in the form of "rates" upon "credited" rateable value. We maintain this can only have the effect of treating as identical the different sets of services provided in each area. It must be apparent to everyone experienced in these matters that these services, conducted by different local authorities, differ enormously as a result, in some cases, of extravagance, in other cases, of inefficiency, and, in many cases, of the fact that they have undertaken voluntarily additional services. Therefore, to treat them as identical seems to be unreasonable. With regard to inefficiency and extravagance, the provisions of Clause 6, which deals with disallowances by the Minister for various reasons, does not meet the case we have put forward.

If we have made out a case, as we think we have, that the Bill does not achieve equalisation of cost per head for the same services, the same applies to equalisation of rateable value per head. The argument has been advanced that this is achieved because of the equalisation grants. The hon. and gallant Member for the Scottish Universities (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot) this afternoon made it clear that this did not take into account those authorities who do not receive grants. I think that the hon. Member for Hitchin (Mr. Asterley Jones), when he referred to this point, overlooked this aspect, that, as the hon. and gallant Member for Worthing pointed out, seven counties and 28 county boroughs in England, as well as others in Scotland, come above the national average.

Therefore, injustice must result to the ratepayer in those areas. I emphasise the ratepayer, because, on Second Reading, the Minister of Health made play with the fact that we were referring to local authorities rather than to ratepayers. I think that the hon. and gallant Member for the Scottish Universities exploded that by saying that they are one and the same. In this case, it is, in fact, the ratepayer in these areas who will suffer. The derating of hereditaments in these areas will be borne by the local ratepayer, whereas in other areas the equalisation grant will be borne, as it should be, by the national taxpayer. The distribution of railway and electricity rate money operates unfairly against them. The abolition of the adjustment of burdens as the result of boundary alterations is illogical where non-grant receiving authorities are concerned. When we pressed that point during the Committee stage, the Minister did not feel able to meet us on it.

Over and above the points which I have made, the provisions of the Bill come into force at once, and do not, therefore, take into account the results of the new valuation and the work of the Local Government Boundary Commission. If the Government had waited for this, the inequalities would have been less, because the Exchequer, which is paying this, would only pay equalisation up to the limit of the national average. I would ask for some explanation or justification for the capitation grant formula in Clause 9, as this does not seem to us to achieve its object or to have any logical basis behind it. It is a complicated matter, and if we can have an explanation it would be of great value.

I think that one of the main points argued from this side and realised by every one who has followed our discussions is that whether this Measure will be a success or otherwise depends on achieving uniformity of valuation. I understand that the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Pargiter) complained that we had put up no alternatives. I regret that I was not in my place when he was speaking, because I have listened to everything he has said on this Bill with the greatest interest and respect. I suggest that if he looks back to what has been done, he will find that we have put forward a clear and constructive alternative. I think that you would rule me out of Order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, if I attempted to deal with that now. Therefore, I cannot reply to the taunt of the hon. Gentleman, but I ask him to read what we have set out in other stages of the Bill.

The Bill sets out two new methods to achieve uniformity of valuation. It lays down the procedure for the transfer of the duties of valuation from the rating authorities to the Inland Revenue officials, and also lays down a new law of valuation for dwellinghouses. The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton has dealt fully with the first matter and the delay of the new valuation until 1952 which can only prolong the present injustice. I take the view, and I think that, on the whole, hon. Members on this side agree with me that one cannot complain against centralised valuation on principle. The fact that it is being removed from the local authority to the Board is not something to which I myself object. But I maintain, for many reasons, that the setting up of this organisation at this time, with the difficulty of obtaining suitable accommodation, and with the vast number of other centralised boards that are being created, with the difficulty of getting staff, and the transfer of staffs from local authorities to the Inland Revenue, makes this quite inopportune.

It is to the valuation of dwellinghouses in Part IV of the Bill that we take the greatest exception. That matter was dealt with fully at the commencement of our proceedings this afternoon by the hon. and gallant Member for the Scottish Universities, and was also referred to by the hon. Member for Hastings (Mr. Cooper-Key) just now. Even if one ignores the inherent difficulty of valuation based on the hypothetical cost of construction, we find that other anomalies will arise. I maintain also that it is quite wrong that the prewar values, done away with in the sphere of compulsory purchase at the time of the Town and Country Planning Act, should be introduced for the first time into rating. That seems very difficult to explain away. In the Second Reading Debate, the Minister of Health made great play with the hypothetical tenant. We maintain that the hypothetical builder may be an even more elusive gentleman. In fact, he has not done away with the hypothetical tenant in spite of all his assurances to the contrary. Under Clauses 81 and 82, the hypothetical tenant still plays his part in this Bill.

In regard to the provisions of this part of the Bill I would urge the Parliamentary Secretary to pay attention to what the hon. Member for Hitchin said. I can tell the House from my own personal experience that it is best to take notice of what the hon. Member said. I spent 18 months of the war doing that. I commend the practice to the Parliamentary Secretary. The hon. Member for Hitchin referred to this particular point, and I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will read it tomorrow. The provisions in this part of the Bill will have the effect that the valuations and rate burdens of dwellinghouses will definitely go up, and, though it will take some time before this becomes apparent, there is no doubt that the rise will be steeper than in any other hereditaments. Especially is that so with small dwellinghouses. Secondly, the occupiers of pre-1918 houses will be harshly treated. Lastly, there will also be anomalies where post-1918 houses are concerned, because some homes now valued below the £75 mark will in future be valued higher in the list than £75. I maintain that it is absolutely wrong that the definition of small dwellinghouses should be based on the present valuation lists, which we are all agreed are so unsatisfactory. I have tried to deal with our objections to the Bill, excluding Part II, with which my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Pollok (Commander Galbraith) has dealt.

It is, in fact, Parts III and IV to which we take the greatest exception. This is another case where we have no doubt whatever as to the sincerity or, indeed, the necessity of the Government's purpose, but once again we have examined what was produced and we say that it is greatly lacking in uniformity. Parts V, VI, VII, and VIII I intend to deal with quite briefly because it is to the first four parts that we take exception. Part V deals with the rating of transport and electricity authorities. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman who replies will answer the point that was put forward by my right hon. Friend as to why the transport and electricity authority should be relieved of rates while the new gas under- taking is to be rated under a different set of circumstances. That will be listened to with great interest. It is a most complex subject, and we could have spent more time discussing it in Committee. I have only two further things to say under this head. First, there is a risk that at some future date some Government may attempt to relieve the nationalised transport undertaking from rates so as to hide up their losses. The Minister of Health has assured us that this is not only improbable—which we are more or less prepared to accept—but impossible. Having given it careful consideration, I cannot see that it is impossible, and it is a point against which we should guard most strongly.

The second point which I want to make is the effect that this Bill will have on the Railway Freights Rebate Fund. Again I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman will be able to deal with this, but perhaps he will look at it and, see what effect this Bill will have on the fund. It is a complicated matter and I have not the time to discuss it. Someone connected with the Transport Commission, to whom I mentioned the matter, was unable to explain to me what the effect will be. If it is a matter of a simple answer, I hope to have it cleared up, for it is one of the greatest importance to industry in general.

I said at the beginning of my remarks that this was something of an omnibus Bill, and Parts VI to VIII show that that is so. The Minister of Health and the Secretary of State for Scotland are both like conductors on an omnibus. Early in the journey they filled their bus with the usual customers, leaving a few seats vacant for casual folk along the way. Where they differed from omnibus conductors in general was that they have not taken the first comers who wanted to be picked up but only selected the good lookers on the road, leaving behind those not so attractive or those who will cause trouble on the journey. For instance, they have included in this part of the Bill a Clause dealing with entertainments and payments to local councillors. I must say I was surprised to hear the Minister of Health himself say that the payment of expenses to local councillors would help people at least to become politically articulate. The right hon. Gentleman had long service with local authorities before he came to this House, but no one would say that he was politically inarticulate. We welcome that provision. Then there are those in regard to war memorials, insurance benefits, the votes of members, of Co-operative Society members, and many other things that attracted the eye of the Minister, and which he included in this part of the Bill. When we suggested something of a rather troublesome nature —I could not refer to it in detail because that would be out of Order—we were informed that the bus was full up, and we must wait for another occasion before our point was met.

I should like briefly to refer to this question of entertainments. It was dealt with at some length by the junior Burgess for Oxford University (Sir A. Herbert), my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. S. Marshall) and other hon. Members. We have spent a considerable amount of our time since this new Clause was introduced in discussing it. In all sincerity, I suggest that that time might well have been spent discussing other parts of this Bill. Those who have followed it carefully know that the main effect of this Bill, which is extremely important and far-reaching, is complicated because these things may or may not have the same effect when taken together.

I was absolutely astonished—and I say this without wishing to cause controversy on either side—as I listened to the Debate and heard the Parliamentary Secretary introduce this Clause, followed by the hon. Member for North Hendon (Mrs. Ayrton Gould). One would have thought that an aesthetic elysium was going to be offered to the people, and that the new world was going to start at once. As I listened to some of my hon. Friends, some of whom feared that every rural district council was going to start State opera, I felt that they were rather exaggerating the whole thing. The fact of the matter is that this particular Clause gives a number of local authorities who want to use it, power which they could have acquired under present provisions. Owing to the present financial crisis and difficulties it will be many years before this will come into effect, and I hope in general that a proper sense of proportion will be kept in relation to this Clause.

We on this side of the House put down a reasoned Amendment on the Second Reading of the Bill. Although the Gov- ernment have accepted many of our Amendments, for which not only we but the local authorities and ratepayers in general are grateful, the Minister has not accepted any Amendment which cleared up the major points that were referred to in that reasoned Amendment. As I said before it will be some time before this Bill takes effect. It may be three or four years. When that time comes what has been said in this Debate will be forgotten, but the impact of this Bill will then fall on almost every ratepayer in the country. It is because we know that when that time comes the provisions will be found to be inoperable, inadequate and unjust that we intend to divide against the Bill tonight.