The first Amendment is a paving Amendment for No. 83 which is itself not much more than drafting. Clause 30(2) provides that
it shall cease to be a condition for exemption from duty under
Section 4 of the Dog Licences Act 1959,
which relates to dogs kept for tending sheep and cattle that the owner of the dog in question obtains a certificate of exemption under that section".
These certificates are issued by the magistrates' courts and they are being dispensed with as unnecessarily cumbersome. Schedule 6 provides certain consequential repeals in respect of references to those certificates, and this Amendment provides for the repeal of another reference which has been overlooked.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I do so happy in the knowledge that passage brokers and emigrant runners can sleep peacefully in their beds tonight for the first time for many years. This is, of course, essentially an interim Measure, but it is right that I should outline as briefly as I can the provisions of the Bill as it leaves us to go to another place, reminding the House that more radical changes must await the Report of the Royal Commission on Local Government.
The Bill breaks new ground in introducing a new relationship between central and local finance. Instead of die various Exchequer grants being considered separately and the total effect on the rates being left more or less to chance, we will determine a total Exchequer contribution by reference to estimates of expenditure that would otherwise fall on the rates. From this total contribution will be deducted the expected total of grants in aid of specific services, and the remainder will be distributed by the three parts of the rate support grant.
The absorption into the needs element of the money formerly distributed separately in respect of school meals, the improvement of non-principal roads and the maintenance of all roads will permit administration to be simplified and central control to be reduced. An important improvement in the existing formula is the introduction of "education units". In the present formula only the primary and secondary school pupils are counted and they are given the same weight, but a secondary pupil of 16 or over and an award to a university student, for example, each costs about three and a half times as much as a primary school child.
Since the proportions of pupils at these stages naturally vary from one authority to another, the present formula is over-generous to some and unfair to others. I am happy to be able to tell the House that complete agreement has been reached with the associations of local authorities as to the weighting—that is, the number of education units to be given to pupils and students in the various categories.
Another innovation is the domestic element which was devised to channel most of the extra money the Exchequer will be putting into local government directly to the reduction of the rates of the domestic ratepayer, who can neither charge his rates as a business expense nor pass on any part of them.
The new specific grants will be very helpful to individual authorities facing exceptional expenditure on comprehensive redevelopment or the restoration of derelict land—a serious problem in a number of parts of the country, not least the Pennine towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire—or on special provision on account of large numbers of Commonwealth immigrants.
Before leaving this part of the Bill, I should tell the House something of the progress that has been made with the preparation for the first rate support grant order that will have to be made later this year. During the earlier stages of the Bill some hon. Members, and particularly the hon. Member for the City of Chester (Mr. Temple), were concerned about the ability of local authorities to provide, in the time available to them, forecasts of expenditure up to the year 1968–69. It is a tribute to the authorities for me to be able to say that most of them got their estimates in within the very tight time limits we allowed. This has given the departments and the local authority associations time to examine the estimates in readiness for discussions due to take place at the end of the month.
Part II of the Bill makes three changes in the sphere of rating and valuation. The postponement of the general revaluation was fully discussed earlier this evening. Postponement made it essential to provide a statutory foundation for the long-established practice of valuing properties between general revaluation by reference to the existing lists. At the moment, that means using values as they were about four years earlier. The Clause has been closely scrutinised by the professional bodies and other interested parties and it has been amended to meet points they made.
The proposal to charge half rates on unoccupied property has been generally accepted as right in principle. Most people agree that there should be some deterrent to those who leave property vacant in times of scarcity in the hope of getting a higher price or rent. It is, I believe, also appreciated that owners benefit from local services, such as police and fire, even when their properties are empty. I do not believe that part-rating of empty property is a matter of conflicting party doctrine and I hope it will not be so treated in council chambers.
Part III of the Bill provides the legislative framework for the new system of highway grants, and brings up to date the administrative arrangements for street lighting. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport is now undertaking a comprehensive review of the highway system so that the network of principal roads, which will receive specific grants, can be designated when the new grant system comes into effect on 1st April next year. The Ministry's initial proposals for the new network were sent to local authorities in June, and my right hon. Friend hopes to let them know the results of the review before the end of the year.
The street lighting provisions have, I know, caused a certain amount of controversy and understandable regret among those authorities which are losing functions they have exercised for many years. Responsibility for road lighting—that is to say, lighting of which the primary purpose is to assist the safe movement of motor traffic—is to be transferred to highway authorities, and the installation of road lighting on principal roads will be eligible for 75 per cent. specific grant in the same way as any other highway improvement. We think it essential that the highway authority for the road should be responsible for lighting it, and particularly for the planning and programming of lighting schemes. The present organisation of street lighting dates from the pre-motor age, and we must now bring it up to date so that it will serve the needs of today and tomorrow.
The Bill contains many complicated and highly technical provisions, and I greatly admire the hon. Members who served in Standing Committee, and who, without the aid of Departmental briefs, mastered its complexities. Many improvements have resulted from suggestions made at that stage, and I am grate- ful to those responsible for their devoted study and constructive attitude, and not least for their kindness to me, coming fresh to a somewhat complicated Bill.
I began by saying that this is an interim Measure, and I make no claim that it will transform the lot of the ratepayer, but it will certainly help. Over the last decade, the expenditure of local authorities has been rising faster than public expenditure generally, and much faster than national income. The consequent steep rise in rates has put an excessive strain upon this form of taxation. The Government have already given substantial relief to the hardest-hit ratepayers by means of rate rebates, and under the provisions of this Bill the strain on the general body of domestic ratepayers will be eased by a gradual but steady increase in the share of the burden borne by the Exchequer.
I do not claim, and my predecessor did not claim, that rates will not rise in future. If local authority expenditure continues to grow—as I think it must, since most of it is on vital services which everyone wants to be improved—the rates of all ratepayers could be kept steady only by transferring more and more services to the centre, or by increasing grants to an extent that would be liable to undermine local financial responsibility. Either method would damage local government. The long-term solution must be to find additional sources of local revenue that are buoyant like the expenditure of local authorities and are fair in their incidence. I intend to put in hand an intensive study of possible sources, which will be carried out concurrently with the work of the Royal Commission, so that we are ready to tackle financial reconstruction in the general reorganisation.
In the meantime, I commend the Bill to the House as a Measure which, together with the Rating Act, will substantially ease the burden of rates for those who find them hardest to bear, and will do so without reducing the vitality and independence of local government.
I welcome the detailed explanation which the Minister has just given. I acknowledge with him that it is a somewhat complicated Measure. Like himself, I regard it as an interim Measure, and I was very glad to hear him announce that he is putting in hand an intensive search within his Department for alternative sources of locally-raised revenue. I can only wish his Department luck; it has searched in its recesses before and has brought forward very little!
As an Opposition, our approach to the Bill has been constructive. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his references to some of our constructive suggestions, several of which have been taken over by the Government. I should like also to thank my right hon. and hon. Friends for the great amount of work they have put in on this Bill.
I must admit that during the long period when we were in office I had no idea what heavy work it was to be in Opposition. I have now found out for myself that it is indeed a strenuous task to try to study a complicated Bill of this nature even with the good will of many outside organisations behind one. In that respect I pay tribute to the constant vigilance of the local authority associations and also those very valuable bodies such as the Institute of Municipal Treasurers and Accountants, the Rating and Valuation Association and many others who work in this extremely difficult field. I should like, certainly not less, to thank the Ministers for the many ways in which they have been particularly helpful and to make special mention of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary. The Joint Parliamentary Secretary carries a very heavy load in his Department. He has at all times endeavoured to give us very full explanations of what he has been doing and I thank him personally for the cooperation which he has shown to me, which has been so extraordinarily helpful in throwing a little light in some rather dark and abstruse corners.
This Bill has been lying about this House for some considerable time. It was introduced on 18th May in what I would call a very different world before the prices and incomes freeze. We had an assumed growth rate of the gross domestic product on 18th May this year which was clearly laid down in the National Plan. I do not know what has happened to the National Plan, whether that has gone into a deep freeze or is being disregarded altogether. However, there is no doubt but that the assumptions made in the White Paper of the growth of the gross domestic product have now unfortunately been completely falsified.
There has departed from the scene the Minister of Housing and Local Government, who has been replaced, and also what I call the "Growth Overlord". He has left for other pastures. So we are looking at the whole problem of the finance of local government in a very different light.
On Third Reading, I can comment only on what is in the Bill, but I shall do that against the background of the changed economic circumstances, which I think it would be admitted on all sides have taken place since 18th May this year. Significantly, the starting date for all the new rate support grants is April, 1967, a month and a year, which is coming on us extremely fast.
The Minister paid tribute to the work of local authorities which had got in their estimates in time. They had to if they are to get grants in April, 1967. These estimates had to be in whether they were estimates or "guesstimates". The local authorities associations, I assure the Minister, are under extreme pressure at the present time. I had that confirmed this morning. The Parliamentary Secretary always notes my diligence in having conversations early in the morning with local authority associations. I have to reiterate now what I took an hour and a quarter to say in Committee—the longest speech of my Parliamentary career—when I criticised very much the timetable. I am not able to do it so fully on this occasion. However, the fact remains that the starting date for all these grant mechanisms is April, 1967, and before that time we have to have the rate support grant order. Before that time also the most abstruse calculations have to be gone through. I draw attention to the administrative strain being put on local authorities, I believe unnecessarily, due to the timetable in this Bill. I happened to pick up the Sunday Times of 21st August. It said in a big splash headline:
Town Hall Men Fear Breakdown
I make a short quotation from that issue:
Staff shortages in the offices of five enlarged county boroughs in the West Midlands have become so serious that there are fears of a breakdown in the administration.
That is the position which has been brought about by the insistence on the
starting date of April, 1967. I do not know the remedy for these staff shortages in the Midlands. I can only suppose that a certain amount of redeployment from the car industry will probably be envisaged by the Government, so that the administrative staffs of local authorities can get some extra personnel to help them.
We have been told by the Minister time and again that, owing to the Bill, some areas will gain and others will lose. An intelligent estimate is that the urban areas will gain and the countryside will lose. Some people know the answers; the working parties know them and Ministers know them—or they should. If they do not know now they must know them in the course of a few weeks, and I complain bitterly that Parliament is not in a position to know the effects of this legislation at Third Reading. Parliament is being "blindfolded" in this matter, and I am very disappointed that fuller explanations of the effects of the grants were not available to the House during the passage of the Bill through it.
The Minister has said on Third Reading that rates will go up for all. Nothing is more certain. The collapse of the National Plan has entirely vitiated the assumptions in the White Paper. I quote only from Paragraph 15, which is entirely apposite in this matter:
The aim would be to keep the average increase in rate poundages more nearly in line with the growth of the economy, as measured by gross domestic product.
Between last May and this month the growth of the gross national product has been zero, and I hazard a guess that it is declining at present, as opposed to increasing, as was anticipated in the White Paper upon which all the financial calculations of the Bill were made. The growth of local authority expenditure was stated in the White Paper, and referred to by the Minister on Third Reading, as being of the order of 10 per cent. cumulative per annum. The domestic rate relief in the Bill will take care of only half of that growth. It was assumed that the other half would be taken care of by the growth of the gross domestic product as it would have taken place over the last few years. As the growth of the gross domestic product has dropped
to zero, most of the assumptions of the Bill upon which rate relief was based have unfortunately been vitiated. I am afraid that the ratepayers will be disillusioned and the domestic ratepayers will not get anything like as much relief as they had been led to suppose they would obtain.
I have only one comment on Clause 6 and the mixed hereditaments. I was disappointed at the reply of the Parliamentary Secretary on this. I thought that we could have dealt with this very expeditiously and made the mixed hereditament into what I call a "thoroughbred "rather than leaving it as a mongrel. As we leave the Bill it has been tidied up to a limited extent. It is a better looking mongrel, but in my view it is still a mongrel, which is disappointing, even in a temporary Bill.
The Minister made special reference to the school meals grant and went out of his way to say that central control would be reduced. The abolition of the 100 per cent. grant for school meals under the Bill has had very scant attention. The Parliamentary Secretary and I had a highly esoteric debate in Standing Committee. I think that the honours were about even. The Parliamentary Secretary deployed one of those arguments that perhaps he did not find terribly convincing himself and I deployed an argument that I found convincing but I was not absolutely certain that I was on firm ground.
As I say, I think that the honours were reasonably even, but the point at issue is not really the esoteric argument behind the finance of the school meals service. It is, in the words of the Parliamentary Secretary, "Can we divorce financial responsibility from policy?" On 7th July, the hon. Gentleman said, referring to the abolition of the school meals grant:
… I said that this was a financial operation and not in any sense a policy operation".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee F. 7th July, 1966; c. 238.]
I put three questions to the new Minister of Housing and Local Government. First, does he happen to read a journal called Catering Management? If he does not read it, I advise him as Minister of Housing and Local Government to read it. I draw his particular
attention to the issue of October, 1966, in which there is the splash headline,
New Bill could lead to complete break-up of the school meals service. Commons debate will be an October 20th".
Their timing was exactly right. It is a very well informed journal. Here is one sentence from the article:
So far as I am aware, neither the Department of Education nor anyone else took it upon themselves to inform the N.A.S.M.O."—
that is, the National Association of School Meals Organisers—
or the I.M.A.—both vitally interested bodies—about this move".
Was the National Association of School Meals Organisers consulted about this matter? They are the people who have to operate this service.
The Minister went out of his way in his Third Reading speech to emphasise that central control would be reduced. I put my other two questions to him. Will the nutritional content of the meals be maintained? Will there be variations in charges for meals as between one authority and another? Both are extremely pertinent questions, and I hope that the Minister who is to wind up the debate will clear the matter up. As I say, the question of the abolition of the 100 per cent. grant for school meals has had very little attention throughout all our discussions on the Bill.
We have already expressed our views about postponement of revaluation. I had something fairly caustic to say about the previous Minister of Housing and Local Government. I was sorry that he was not in the Chamber when I was delivering myself of those comments. I shall not repeat what I then said, but perhaps he would like to read them in HANSARD tomorrow.
Now, Clause 26 and the transference of lighting functions. We had one severe criticism of the Bill, directed to the extraordinary "so-called principle" adopted by the Government in transferring the lighting functions of local authorities and the loan charges going therewith. Where lighting functions are to be transferred between authority and authority, the loan charges, naturally, follow the functions and are taken over by the receiving authority. But in the case of transference of lighting functions between a local authority and the Ministry of Transport, the Ministry of Trans- is not to take over financial responsibility for the loan charges.
This procedure is almost unprecedented. It was precedented in the Trunk Roads Act, 1936, a Conservative Measure, but the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport—who, I know, has apologised to the House for not being with us today—said that that was a precedent he would not like to follow, largely, I think, because it was a Conservative precedent. Yet he has succeeded in following it. I cannot understand the logic of the present Government in this matter.
Now, highway grants. We have not heard a great deal about these, but there will be a complete change in highway grants prior to a major reclassification of highways.
The erstwhile Minister of Housing and Local Government says "Hear, hear", but, of course, he is a Minister who always likes to jump in quickly before the ground in front of him has been properly prepared. I admire his courage, but I cannot admire his sagacity in these matters. There ought to be a complete reclassification of highways first and then a recasting of the highway grants. In that way, one would know exactly where one was going.
I think that I have covered the main points of criticism that we have about the Bill, highlighting some of the important facets, and, in addition to those important matters, making reference again to some of the minutiae which also go with the Bill. We can, I think, say that we welcome the tidying up of some of the archaic legislation that the Government have put in hand. It has not taken up a great deal of the time of the House, and I consider that it has been valuable.
I can say in conclusion that we approve wholeheartedly the extension of the general grant, an amazing volte face by the Labour Party. We approve also the domestic rate relief, which does not go anything like far enough and certainly does not measure up to the extravagant promises given by Labour Ministers at the last General Election. We welcome the rating of unoccupied property, although nobody thinks it will bring in a great deal of money or be of great assistance to ratepayers. We deplore the postponement of revaluation and the ridiculous haste with which the new financial provisions are to be brought into operation.
We have worked as hard as we possibly could to improve the Bill, and think that we have made it a little more intelligible. We hope very much that local authorities will be in a position to operate the Bill in such a way that it will be of great assistance to ratepayers and all householders throughout the country.
This complicated Bill covers a very wide spectrum of activity. I begin by congratulating my right hon. Friend and his predecessor on bringing it so successfully before the House to its Third Reading.
I would refer specifically to one of the questions raised from the Opposition Front Bench, that concerning Clause 14, about the abolition of the grant under Section 100 of the Education Act, 1944, in respect of school milk and meals. It may well be that this is merely a measure of fiscal rationalisation and should be recognised as such, but I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be aware that some anxiety has been publicly expressed as to the possible implications of the Clause. Certainly it is fair to say that the whole matter is not as clear as daylight to many people, possibly even in the House.
I gather from careful study of the Committee proceedings that the effect of the change will be that if expenditure on school milk and meals goes up less than other services local authorities will gain. On the other hand, if expenditure on school milk and meals goes up more than other items local authorities will not do so well. The net result of the exercise seems to be that under the new grant proposals a local authority will be worse off if it spends a higher proportion on milk and meals than it does on other services. I am not completely sure what all this means.
I ask my right hon. Friend to forgive-any of us who are perhaps over-sensitive on this matter. The whole question of the provision of school milk and meals has been very much under political attack. It is historically one of the starting points of the whole fabric of our social services, and I hope that those of us who regard any possible inroads on this service with anxiety will be forgiven. My point in raising the subject is to give my right hon. Friend the opportunity to allay the anxieties that some of us feel.
I am sure that it would be no part of my right hon. Friend's wish nor part of the policy of the Government to bring in any Measure which would in any way be detrimental to the provision of school milk and meals. This is part of the whole fabric of our social welfare and we must have a categorical statement that it is invulnerable as far as the Government are concerned.
One has to be a little anxious, however, in view of what was said in Standing Committee about the possible disadvantage to local authorities whose expenditure on this service increases, possibly out of proportion to the expenditure on other services. While we may have every confidence in the power of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Economic Affairs to ensure that, in the coming years, there are no price increases whatever in many essential commodities, I cannot help wondering what is to happen under this Bill if there is a sudden jump, for instance, in the price of milk.
I am not sure that this can be ruled out. If it can be ruled out, I shall be relieved to hear it. But there are many instances of rises in the cost of foodstuffs, labour and transport, which are all reflected in an increase in the cost of school meals, and if these tendencies continue it may be that, within a short time, if the standards of nutrition are to be maintained, expenditure will go up.
In these circumstances, will a local authority which endeavours to maintain a high nutritional standard and to increase the availability of school meals be disadvantaged by this change in the law which is now before us? I hope that this will not be the case and I trust that my right hon. Friend will be able to assure the House that it is the intention of the Government to see that this very important factor in our social welfare provisions is maintained and jealously safeguarded.
As many hon. Members will be aware, it was suggested in The Times yesterday that Clause 14 means that local authorities will henceforth have power to reduce or abolish either school meals or school milk or both. We should all like a reassurance from my right hon. Friend that this is not the implication of the Clause, that it is simply concerned with a change in the method of financial control and does not imply that local authorities will be able to run down or abolish the school meals and milk service.
There may be a case for a review of this service but, if so, we hope that it will be done publicly and in proper form and not in consequence of a Clause in a Bill principally dealing with other matters.
I want briefly to add my name to those seeking clarification on this point. I ask my right hon. Friend to bear in mind that this is not an academic consideration of Clause 14 because there are already reports that certain local authorities, particularly in Kent, have taken active measures to discuss how they might reduce this service.
This is an urgent matter, particularly at a time when the Government are emphasising their concern for pockets of poverty which still exist in the community and when, obviously, all of us are concerned about temporary difficulties faced by families in the present economic situation and about the sociological changes in the pattern of life and the encouragement of mothers and wives to go out to work.
It is most important that my right hon. Friend should recognise that already certain local authorities are considering reducing this service and that therefore we must have clarification of the Government's attitude.
I want first to give a wholehearted welcome to two measures for which many of us have been cam- paigning for some time. I intervened at the beginning of our debates on the Report stage to speak about the new rating assessment of nationalised industry offices, a subject on which my constituents feel very strongly. For some time Croydon Council has been pressing on the Minister its view that the offices of nationalised industries should bear a proper rating assessment, and I therefore welcome the change which my right hon. Friend has introduced and which will be enthusiastically welcomed in the London Borough of Croydon. Having said that, I do not want to appear critical, but I would have liked the Minister to have gone one stage further and perhaps it is not asking too much to hope that when this issue is considered in another place, there will be a complete reform in this respect. However, even that reform which has been made is welcome.
Another change about which I am pleased, and for which many of us on this side of the House have been campaigning for some time, is the rating assessment of empty property. Opposition spokesmen did not seem to be very cheerful about that, but, of course, over the years hon. Gentleman opposite have been very lukewarm about this reform and I well remember that when in office they dismissed the suggested rating of empty property as completely useless. Perhaps it is understandable that they should not be too happy about the change.
There can be no doubt that in the past few months there has been a propaganda campaign to get people to accept that the school meals service is becoming obsolete and that too much is being spent on school meals. A number of hon. Members opposite, in speeches and letters to newspapers and journals, have said that in this day and age too much is being spent on this function.
In the last few months, organisations concerned with poverty in this country, such as the Ministry of Social Security and the new Child Poverty Action Group, have spotlighted the hard poverty which still exists in our society. As a member of the Labour Party, I would be most concerned if there were any attempt to reduce the responsibility of local authorities to perform this very important function of supplying school meals.
I can well understand the concern which is sometimes felt in the teaching profession about responsibility for this function and I should like my right hon. Friend to make the position very clear. Will he clarify whether central control is to be retained and that responsibility is still to rest on local education authorities to perform this function? Will he also make it clear that local authorities will not be able to vary the amount of money spent on the school meal service? I am particularly concerned about this, because last week Croydon Education Committee stated that, under new instructions which it had issued, Croydon schools would not be able to use supplementary heating during the winter months, blaming the current "freeze" as a justification for the new freeze in the schools.
That is something which the Minister should consider. There may be a number of other education committees, perhaps a minority, but nevertheless still a number, who would use the opportunity of a relaxation in the law to reduce the amount of money spent on school meals. With the amount of poverty still outstanding in this country, Labour Members are entitled to expect a clear cut statement from the Minister tonight that there will be no relaxation in the regulations requiring local education authorities to perform the very important function of providing school meals.
By leave of the House I will reply briefly to the points made about school meals and milk, raised by hon. Gentlemen opposite and by my hon. Friends the Members for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mrs. Lena Jeger), The Wrekin (Mr. Fowler) Portsmouth, West (Mr. Judd) and Croydon, South (Mr. Winnick).
My hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras was right to say that this was simply a measure of fiscal rationalisation. It is true that the Bill does not reduce the power of the Government and the central control is not lessened. Under Clause 14 the 100 per cent. grant paid by the Secretary of State for Education and Science to local authorities on the expenditure of these services will come to an end on 31st March next year. Thereafter the expenditure will be taken into account by the Minister of Hous- ing in calculating the payment of rate support grant, formerly general grant, to local authorities, which will not suffer financially from the change. If for example, there is a rise in prices, that will be taken into account in fixing the grant.
My hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary made it clear in Committee that Section 49 of the Education Act, 1944, and the Regulations made under it will not be affected by the Bill. They impose on local authorities the duty to provide free school milk and meals of adequate quality and quantity at a national charge, fixed by the Secretary of State for Education and Science, with free meals in cases of hardship. If a local authority fails to fulfil these obligations I have the power in the last resort, under Clause 4 of the Local Government Bill, to make a deduction of grant.
In those circumstances the Secretary of State, under Section 99(1) of the Education Act, 1944, will retain the power to make an order declaring the local authority in default and to give appropriate directions to enforce the order and if necessary, to apply to the High Court for an order of mandamus. I hope that the anxieties expressed by my hon. Friends will be met by this explanation.