Special Charging Orders

Part of Orders of the Day — Local Government Finance (No. 2) Bill – in the House of Commons at 8:45 pm on 5th April 1982.

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Photo of Mr Giles Shaw Mr Giles Shaw , Pudsey 8:45 pm, 5th April 1982

I knew that, in moving the new clause, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton) would deploy strong arguments in favour of making this rearrangement to improve the lot of parish councils.

Two points arise at the outset. First, the Government, and I suspect hon. Members of all parties, were aware for some considerable time of the anxieties of district councils and parish councils on this matter. Secondly, Governments of both parties, for a considerable time, have tried to find an equitable and sensible way to resolve the matter.

I spoke at the local councils association's national conference in Harrogate recently when this matter was obviously of major concern and a topic for debate. I explained that under the existing RSG procedure the formula, albeit not entirely accepted on both sides of the House, but at least designed to provide a system of local financing based on a careful assessment of need, and spread over a national network of a substantial number of districts, is not capable of being redesigned to deal with 10,500 parish councils.

The hon. Member for Edge Hill will understand that if some of those parish or community councils have zero ratepayers—as I believe they do—several hundred have small numbers of ratepayers or electors. Therefore, it is beyond administrative possibility to extrapolate from the present RSG system to deal with each and every parish or community precept or requirement, given that they have such variable calculations and requirements.

I admit that that does not alter the fact that parishes and community councils exist and that where they have the right to precept against district councils, in all fairness, they should be able to obtain from the precepting authority the correct sums of money to spend on the matters for which they have statutory power. I suggest to the hon. Member for Edge Hill and to the right hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. Oakes) that it is a major obstacle to try to redefine the rate support grant and GREA systems in order to make an equitable settlement for 10,500 additional authorities, given the substantial number of authorities currently covered by the mechanism. Therefore, it is not for want of seeking to find a way, but I must say to the hon. Member for Edge Hill that I do not believe that the existing mechanism works in that way.

We come to the question of how the parish or community council can obtain satisfaction to do what is seeks to do on behalf of its parishioners or ratepayers. In that matter we have traditionally relied on the relationship between the parish or community council and its district. There is plenty of evidence that in most cases there is an amicable arrangement whereby under precept the district will provide the required sums. The parish seeks to say that the discounted amount, not the full amount, should be levied. It regards what it does as a second rate levied on individual persons. That is the burden of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Edge Hill.

It is true that there is a double rating point for the individual elector, who is at one and the same time a ratepayer of the parish, a ratepayer of the district and a ratepayer of the county. That is not a new position for the ratepayer. Equally it is true that in many district council areas there is now a mechanism whereby the council can take out from its formula for charging the rate the parishes over which it has rating authority and can rate differentially. That provides part of the solution to the problem of double rating. However, there is no mechanism at the moment that will prevent the possibility of an individual community or parish being double rated if the district seeks so to do.

The question is whether we should amend in the manner laid down by the hon. Gentleman. Should we amend the Bill at this time to achieve that objective? We shall not be able to draft an amendment that will allow the RSG mechanism to go through to the 10,500 individual communities or parish councils in such a way that it will become an effective local authority financing mechanism. I do not believe that we can do that. It would not be right for me to seek to mislead the House by assuring it that we can design an amendment in another place that will carry out that intention.

We must rely on the relationship between the parish or community council and its precepting district. In a number of cases that is an effective instrument whereby the parish can obtain what it wishes. That is the correct way to deal with the matter.

9.15 pm

We are not prepared to accept the amendment. I invite hon. Members to vote against it. That is not because what the hon. Member for Edge Hill asks is so controversial and unacceptable in political terms that we would not wish to meet it. With our system of local government financing it is not possible for us to design a mechanism, based on the RSG system, which would effectively deal with every community, parish or town council requirement.

That cannot be a satisfactory answer for the hon. Member for Edge Hill. However, I suspect that a vast majority of local authorities and their associations feel, as the Government do, that with the present system that is as far as it can be taken. It would be wrong for us to seek to legislate further by enacting the new clause so eloquently moved by the hon. Member for Edge Hill.