§ 3.18 p.m.
§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ THE JOINT PARLIAMENTARY UNDER-SECRETARY OF STATE FOR SCOTLAND (LORD HUGHES)
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This Bill is part of the Government's new approach to local government finance and rating. The White Paper Local Government Finance in Scotland, published last February, setting out Government policy in this field stated that the Government are satisfied that there is no immediate alternative to rates as a major source of local revenue. Nor is it possible to recast them radically. Although the system of rates and Government grants has therefore to continue for the time being, it must be made more equitable and efficient. While the reforms proposed in the Bill are well worth while in themselves, the Government have of course in mind that much more fundamental improvements may be considered after the Royal Commission on Local Government in Scotland has reported.
The Rating Act passed earlier this year introduced a system of rate rebates with the aid of a 75 per cent. Exchequer contribution likely to amount to £2 million this year in Scotland; it also improved the facilities for the payment of rates by instalments, for those who find lump sum payments a heavy burden. These measures are not, however, enough in themselves. The cost of local services has been rising—it has trebled since 1951—and the total sum required to be met from rates in Scotland in this period has increased in a like proportion. While, of course, everyone wants economy in local government expenditure, no one really wants to cut the services; in fact, public pressure is for improvement of the services. Recognising therefore that local expenditure is likely to continue 1351 to rise, the Government's approach is to assure Scottish local authorities that the Exchequer will meet, in aggregate, a rising proportion of accepted local expenditure, and to determine the share allocated to different types of grant and to different authorities in close consultation with the local authority associations.
Part I of the Bill introduces a comprehensive system—something which has not existed before—of looking at the probable expenditure of local authorities on all rating services instead of just a selection of them, so that the amount of Exchequer assistance can be related to the total needs of the authorities. Coupled with this, the Government have given an undertaking—that the percentage of accepted expenditure met by grant will rise each year, instead of remaining virtually static as it has done for a number of years (at around 55 per cent., or a little over 60 per cent. if housing expenditure and housing subsidies are left out of consideration). The greater part of the extra percentage grant will be devoted to assisting the householder in quite a new way, by giving him a lower rate poundage than that applicable to other categories of ratepayer.
Clause 1 discontinues the present Exchequer equalisation and general grants from 1967–68 and, as a transitional measure, gives Scottish local authorities an extra £700,000 general grant for the year 1966–67, an amount corresponding broadly to the grants which local authorities in England and Wales with a high proportion of old people in their area will receive under the Rating (Interim Relief) Act1964, which does not apply to Scotland.
Clause 2 introduces a system of rate support grants to replace the general and equalisation grants and certain specific grants—for example, for road maintenance and school meals. To arrive at the total rate support grant for any year, the aggregate Exchequer assistance to be received by authorities is first determined on the basis of forecasts of their revenue expenditure, excluding expenditure on trading accounts and on housing. Housing is being left to stand on its own as a new system of housing subsidies is being introduced. From the total amount 1352 of Exchequer assistance will be deducted continuing grants towards specific services such as Police and Civil Defence, and the difference between the two sums will be the total rate support grant. The rate support grant will be divided into three parts; that is to say, a needs element, a resources element and a domestic element, which will be distributed among authorities according to the provisions of Schedule1 to the Bill. The total rate support grant will be determined by Order for periods of two years. That is laid down in Clause 3.
The needs element will be apportioned among all county and town councils on the basis of population and other objective measurements of need, such as the effect of numbers of children under five and old people over 65 on the cost of the social services, and the different cost of pupils at different stages of education. The precise formula for this has been agreed with the local authority associations. A special portion for roads will be included in the needs element to support road costs in so far as they are not met by the capital grants on principal road improvement schemes. The resources element, the total of which will be one third of the needs element, will go, on similar lines to the old Exchequer equalisation grant, to those authorities whose rating resources fall below a certain standard.
The third element of the rate support grant is the domestic element, a new concept. In the Government's view spreading the extra Exchequer assistance beyond the domestic ratepayer would have destroyed its impact; and, moreover, industry is de-rated and in both industry and commerce it is possible to charge rates as expenses for tax purposes, which the domestic ratepayer cannot do. The effect of this domestic element will be that householders' rates in 1967–68 will be 10d. lower than the local general rate; in the following year they will be 1s. 8d. lower, and so on. The cumulative benefit of this to the householder will be considerable, and this innovation represents a considerable transfer of the burden of the cost of local services from the rates to the Exchequer, about £30 million in four years.
The remainder of Part I of the Bill includes provision (Clause 4) for the rate support grant originally determined for 1353 any year to be varied by an Increase Order, should there be unforeseen increases in the level of prices, costs or remuneration; that is, along the same lines as with the present general grant. Where an authority fails to maintain standards or spends excessively, power is given to the Secretary of State in common form (Clause 5) to restrict grants. It has never been necessary to use similar powers in the past, but it is considered that the Secretary of State ought to continue to have them to protect local authorities generally from any excessive claims by individual authorities on the general pool of grants. Clause 7 puts into effect the Government's proposal to have a special lower rate poundage for domestic property.
Specific grants will continue to be an important part of the system where expenditure varies widely from one area to another, and the Bill introduces four new specific grants. Clause 8 will enable specific grants to be paid to reduce the financial loss which planning authorities face, at least in the early years of a scheme. in acquiring and clearing areas for comprehensive development. This grant was in existence before, but was restricted in 1959 to "major redevelopment" schemes under which only Glasgow and Greenock have qualified. It has been particularly welcomed by the local authorities. Provision for an associated grant is made in Clause 9 towards the cost of acquiring and perparing land for use as open space outside redevelopment schemes. This grant should help towards the provision of more open space for public recreation, especially in congested urban districts.
Clause 10 introduces a specific grant for the reclamation of derelict land which will supplement the derelict land grants under the Industrial Development Act 1966 which have to meet certain economic criteria. Power is being taken in Clause 11 to enable grants to be introduced if necessary where local authorities have to make special provision because there are a substantial number of Commonwealth immigrants in their area and there is extreme pressure on the social services.
Part II of the Bill deals mainly with some long-needed improvements to the rating system, especially in Clauses 24 and25 and the Third Schedule, which make improved provisions for the rating of unoccupied property. Section 17 of the Valuation and Rating (Scotland) Act 1354 1956 enabled 25 per cent. of the rates to be levied on the owners of property left vacant for more than six months, but the section has not worked properly because it proved difficult to establish that property was being left unoccupied "without reasonable cause". The Government are now making a much more determined effort to ensure that any property left unoccupied without good reason—for example, solely to obtain an excessive price or rent—is rated. Clause 24 provides that where property is left unoccupied for a period of three months the local authority have discretion to charge 50 percent. of the normal rates, if they wish, or 75 per cent. in the case of houses. This 75 per cent. signifies that the community cannot tolerate the evil of houses left empty, and to assist local authorities to take steps, Clauses 26 and 27 enable local authorities to set up a registration system, under which landlords must notify houses which have been empty for more than two months. New houses will not be rated for a period of six months, and properties affected by closing orders, preservation orders, or likely to be purchased by public bodies will not be affected. The Secretary of State is given power to prescribe other categories of exempt premises.
Going back to Clause 15, this catches up a limited injustice to individuals at the present time where, if a new subject is valued, the law requires that it is valued as at the time of occupation. The general level of valuation over the whole area would, however, be as at the last revaluation so that the new subject in fact is being rated more than other peoples subjects are. The clause makes provision for all new valuations to be related to values in the previous year of revaluation. This does not affect a great number of people, but it at least puts everyone on the same basis.
Clause 16 and Schedule 2 provide that the valuation of water undertakings should be related to output. Under the present "revenue" principle of valuation of such undertakings (I do not know why it is called a "revenue principle", because it does not seem to have anything to do with revenue at all) the effect is that the more capital expenditure there is on the undertaking the larger the burden of loan charges and the higher the valuation which has been an immense burden on new and expanding undertakings. The clause is a step towards the general 1355 modernisation of water supply arrangements in Scotland.
Some important clauses were added to this Part of the Bill at Report stage in another place. They provided—for example, in Clause 20—for night-storage heaters to be exempt from valuation, as they were generally held to be until a decision of the Lands Valuation Appeal Court last year. Clause 18 will lead to a greater contribution to local finance from the nationalised industries, whose administrative offices will become rateable. Clause 19 makes gas and electricity showrooms rateable, again because of their similarity to ordinary commercial undertakings. A further need was to bring the "standard amounts" of the Electricity Boards, which correspond in a sense to a private industry's valuation, into line with the new level of valuations established this year, and Clause 17 enables them to be adjusted with this in mind.
Clause 21 places churches in the same position as church halls are under the Valuation and Rating (Scotland) Act 1956. No rates will be payable on a church or church hall so long as the premises are used wholly or mainly for purposes connected with the religious body in question, and no profit is derived from use for any other purposes. The effect of this is that churches, like church halls at present, will be able to be used for things other than church services—for example, religious concerts or dramas—without losing their exemption from rates, even if a profit is derived from them. No profit can go to the church organisation, however, if the building is used for non-church activities.
My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord a question? Does that mean that church halls will be exempt in respect of sales of work and things like that. That is rather important for most churches.
§ LORD HUGHES
Part III of the Bill deals with highway grants and functions, and does two main things. First it provides 1356 the legislative framework for a new system of highway grants, and secondly it modernises the administrative arrangements for road lighting. At present roads are classified as Class I, Class II or Class III for grant purposes, and specific grants are paid for the improvement and maintenance of all three—except for the maintenance of classified roads in large burghs. Under the revised system, specific grants, at 75 per cent., will be given only for the improvement of those local authority roads which are important to the national economy as essential routes for major traffic movements. These will be called "principal roads", and Clause 28 refers to this matter. Specific grant will no longer be paid for the improvement of roads which do not become principal roads but the improvement of these roads and the maintenance of all roads, including principal roads, will be assisted through the rate support grant.
It is worth noting that the assistance now to be given to the maintenance of roads in cities and large burghs, for the first time since 1929 and for which we are including an additional sum of £900,000 in the rate support grant, will remove a long-standing grievance of these authorities. It is also worth noting that "improvements" to principal roads for which specific grants will be made will cover all works designed to improve the potential capacity of the road or to lead to its more efficient or safer use. Besides works of major improvement, improvements may now include works required for traffic management, such as the erection of traffic signs and signals, and the provision of refuges and footbridges for pedestrians.
These changes in the grant system will mean that, subject to loan sanction and normal revenue grant controls, local authorities will become responsible for planning and programming the improvement of all roads other than principal roads, and for maintaining all roads for which they are the highway authorities. Assistance will be given through the rate support grant for this and for the rate-borne element of expenditure on improvements which qualify for capital grants. There will be no reduction in the total amount of Exchequer assistance, as special consideration will be given to highway factors in the needs element of the rate support grant.
1357 To provide an up-to-date basis on which the proposed arrangements can operate, the highway system is at present being reviewed so that the network of principal roads can he designated when the new system comes into operation on May 16, 1967. The Secretary of State's proposals were sent to local authorities in September, and their comments are now being received and considered. The intention is that the total mileage of principal roads will be broadly equivalent to the present Class I mileage, although, because of changes in the patterns of traffic over the years, not all Class I roads may be principal roads.
In addition to the grant changes, we propose in Clause 29 that road lighting should become a highway function because of its importance for traffic movement and safety. At present lighting authorities are generally the town councils of small and large burghs, and county councils in landward areas. Some lighting authorities are not highway authorities for the roads they light, and the standard of lighting provided is varied and uneven. Highway authorities for all roads, including the Secretary of State as highway authority for trunk roads, will now become responsible for road lighting—that is, lighting the primary purpose of which is to assist the safe movement of motor traffic—and specific grants, at 75 per cent., will be paid for improving road lighting on principal roads. The provision of lighting for other purposes, such as the lighting of footways for the benefit of pedestrians, will remain the responsibility of the present lighting authorities.
Part IV of the Bill contains a number of miscellaneous local government provisions. For example, Clause 35 will allow local authorities to send members, within prescribed conditions, to any conference concerned with local authority functions or the promotion of trade or industry. This replaces the existing arrangements under which the Secretary of State must approve particular types of conference. Local authorities will thus have a proper degree of discretion as to choice of conference but the number of councillors attending will continue to be limited. Clause 36 provides that authorities in Scotland will have, as in England, power to spend up to a 6d. rate on the arts. Although present spending is below 1358 this level, it is increasing and there is no reason why Scotland should be restricted to a 4⅘d. rate. Clause 40 removes an injustice to Scotland by providing that, although dog licence money will continue to be collected by the Post Office, the net revenue will go to the Scottish local authorities as to authorities in England and Wales and not the Treasury. I do not anticipate that any local authorities will declare a dividend as the result of this. The total amount of money involved is £60,000. I suppose otherwise the Treasury would have got it.
To sum up, the major changes are the first really comprehensive system of Exchequer aid to local revenues based on the cost of all services; secondly, special relief for the domestic ratepayer; thirdly, the introduction of new and extended grants in the important fields of urban and other redevelopment and a system of roads grants which will reduce central control to the minimum. And, finally, the Bill contains a number of improvements to the rating system particularly in respect of unoccupied property, and introduces a new and fairer method of valuing water undertakings. I submit that these are important changes and some of them are long overdue. My Lords, I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Hughes.)
§ 3.47 p.m.
§ THE EARL OF DUNDEE
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, for his explanation of the Bill. The main business set down for this afternoon is the Committee stage of the English Local Government Bill, and on this Scottish Bill, provided it is understood that we, too, shall require ample time on Committee, when we shall want to discuss a fairly wide range of matters arising from the Bill, I do not think we need detain your Lordships long on Second Reading.
None of the main political Parties has yet produced a full comprehensive scheme for transferring a major part of the heavy burden of social services from local rates to the Exchequer. The noble Lord mentioned that the burden in Scotland has multiplied by three since 1951. Although the Party opposite did, I think, indicate in their 1964 Manifesto that they would transfer a major part of the burden from 1359 the rates to the Exchequer, particularly for education, there is no indication yet that this is to be done, and the Local Government Finance White Paper last February to which the noble Lord referred, does not give any forecast of it either. This Bill simply follows the precedent which has been set by previous rating legislation. As I understand it, it continues in principle provision of the general purpose or block grant on a slightly extended basis, although at the time that was introduced the Party opposite did not seem to like it at all.
The only really novel feature of this Bill, I think, is the extraordinary coyness which the Government have shown about the formula of distribution. Up till now the formula of distribution has always been made clear before new legislation was passed, but on this occasion it has been shrouded in carefully preserved mystery. The noble Lord, in his remarks just now, told us that a precise formula had been worked out in consultation with local authorities. The only sign of that which I have seen is the Written Answer which the Secretary of State gave to a Question in another place on October 26, in which he said thatthe Joint Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State met representatives of the local authority associations on October 14, and reached general agreement on a distribution formula which will be submitted for the approval of the House after the Local Government (Scotland) Bill becomes law."—[OFFICIAL REPORT (Commons) Vol. 734 (No. 82) col. 181. 26/10/66.]The statement ends by saying:The whole formula will be subject to reconsideration when a further Rate Support Grant Order is made.I do not know what has been discussed or considered with the local authorities. All I know is that all the local authorities in Scotland of which I have any knowledge, all the town and county clerks and conveners, and everybody else, are in a state of complete ignorance as to whether they are going to do better or worse under this Bill. They do not know whether they are going to get more help in their education expenditure. They do not know whether they are going to get more or less aid for road expenditure, and some of them are particularly worried about the uncertainty of the new road classification, whether it 1360 will be more favourable or less favourable than the existing one.
As for rents, as your Lordships know, in Scotland, in order not to give large grants to local authorities who deliberately charge ridiculously low rents, there is a distinction between the actual rent, which may be anything, and the notional rent, which is supposed to be a fair rent. The definition of the notional rent up till now has always been a fixed percentage of the assessed rent which is put on the house by the assessor, the percentage of which has been rising year by year. But if your Lordships will look at page 32 of the Bill, at Part II of Schedule 1 which deals with the resources element, you will see that in paragraph 4(2), on rents, it is now stated that:the notional rent income of a council shall be calculated on such basis as may be prescribed.I was reminded by this so forcefully of the prospectuses of those numerous bogus companies which started in the reign of Queen Anne. Your Lordships will remember the South Sea Bubble, and a company which invited shareholders to subscribe money in order to discover the use of perpetual motion and to utilise it for machinery. But the one which "takes the cake", which really took the prize, was the company which invited shareholders to subscribe money for a purpose "which shall hereafter be disclosed". We find the same sort of thing in Schedule 1:the notional rent income of a council shall be calculated on such basis as may be prescribed.I hope that when this Bill reaches Committee stage we shall have a much fuller explanation of all these uncertainties.
I will mention two points in the Bill on which I give notice that they will be pressed in Committee. Only a week ago in another place two Amendments were introduced to this Bill on Report stage. One Amendment was suddenly brought in to bump up the rating percentage on unoccupied houses from 50 to 75 per cent. No good reason has been given for this in the other place. Since nearly 50 per cent. of rates are accounted for by education, it seems to me that it does not make sense to levy educational rates on unoccupied houses. We shall want to have a full justification for this sudden 1361 change which, in my view, has not been justified in another place at all.
The other matter relates to the provision to impose a penalty of £20 upon the owner of a house if he fails to report to the local authority the existence of an unoccupied house within a period of two months. This is a permissive scheme which may or may not be applied by a local authority, but for the man to whom it may apply it makes no difference whether it is permissive or not if the local authority suddenly applies it. Again, I see no useful purpose to be served by this provision. It is easy for large companies or large landowners with a full-time agent who can immediately find out what houses are unoccupied and give the necessary information, but for thousands of small house owners who may be going abroad for six months, or who may be serving in the Army abroad and who may leave their houses temporarily un-occupied, they may have no means of knowing—they do not read official notices and there is no reason why they should—that they are committing an offence if they do not write and report to a local authority that a certain house is unoccupied. This is a provision which has very little consideration behind it. I do not want to raise any argument about it now on Second Reading, but I earnestly suggest to the noble Lord that he consults with his colleagues about it. I think they may have made a mistake, and I hope very much they will reconsider this matter on Committee.
The noble Lord concluded his explanation of the Bill with a relatively trivial point on Clause 40 in relation to dogs, and I shall do the same. Clause 40 deals with dogs and Clause 41 deals with game licences, but I am surprised to see nothing in the Bill about gun licences. It may be that it can be dealt with by other legislation, but many of your Lordships have long held the view that it is high time that the issue and control of gun licences should be put in the hands of the police. That, in my view, ought to have been done long ago, and I hope that opportunity will be taken to do this under this Bill. I shall, if necessary, put down an Amendment to that effect, but it may be that the Government are contemplating doing it in another way. I do not mind whether it is done under this Bill or under some other Bill, so long as it is done.
§ 3.55 p.m.
§ LORD FERRIER
My Lords, before I turn to my main theme which is related to Clauses 26 and 27 of the Bill and to what the noble Earl has referred, I would say that something said by the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, attracted my attention, and that was his reference to Part III dealing with roads. He said that these provisions would now cover the cost of moving roads signs and the like. I should like to ask him whether the provisions of this Bill will in any way speed up the carrying out of decisions by local authorities in regard to the positioning of road signs. At the moment if a town wants to move its 30-miles-per-hour sign out 200 yards, it may take nine months to get the approval of the Secretary of State. It is most important that with the rapid increase in traffic in Scotland, due to the provision of road bridges, everything should be done to see that long delays are avoided when it becomes necessary to adjust road signs in order to promote road safety.
I turn now to deal with Clauses 26 and 27 which, as the noble Earl has said, were popped into the Bill on Third Reading—not only at short notice, but with no inkling being given to the Scottish Grand Committee when the Bill was before them earlier in the year that the Government intended to introduce these clauses. In the Third Reading debate in another place sonic of the stoutest opponents of the provisions of these clauses were in the Labour Party. I emphasise this to show that it is a broader matter than a purely Party issue. Clause 26 leaves it to the discretion of the rating authority whether the conditions of the clause should apply to an area. But supposing this power is taken—and of course it will be; that is the idea of having the clause there—what then? Under Clause 27 a new statutory offence is created. An owner has to notify an empty dwelling house or empty premises of any sort to an authority within a certain time, that is to say within a period of two months. Failure to do so renders him liable to a fine of £20. I do not seek to have the existence of empty accommodation concealed from the housing authority—far from it.
§ LORD FERRIER
It cannot be concealed, but the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, said that the object was that it should not be concealed. I do not seek to support any concealment, nor do I seek to defend the housing speculator who deliberately keeps much-needed accommodation empty, but surely even he could be controlled without recourse to the provisions of Clause 27(2). I speak for the property owner who has a house, a house, as the Minister said in another place,left empty for good reason, for example, because of the difficulty of getting tenants of farm cottages.I speak for the Service man who is ordered overseas. I speak for the businessman who has to work abroad and who is contemplating retirement. Perhaps I should declare an interest because I was in that position, and, furthermore, I own two cottages which neither I nor my family occupy. They are not empty and I hope they never will be; nevertheless they might be classed as "tied". I speak for the small man who owns a couple of cottages "cheek by jowl" and who wants to pick and choose his neighbour. In this respect I speak with some force because the mischief does not end with a fine—or so I suspect—and my suspicion is based on the following. In another place the Minister went further than the noble Lord has done here, and grieved that without this provision local authoritieswill not be able to take effective steps to get empty houses reoccupied…What does this all mean? I do not like the look of it. Is this another one of the Government's "blunt instruments"? Surely the penalty of paying full rates would be sufficient penalty to make an owner think before deciding not to notify an empty house. We are shortly to take the Police (Scotland) Bill. Do we want to add another criminal offence to the thousands which already exist? Perhaps if this Bill is not a blunt instrument, it is another wedge to torment the owner of the tied house so hated by the urban, if not by the urbane, Socialist. If it is the latter, which I suspect—namely, a wedge—why is it not in the English Bill?
I have said enough to explain why I object to these clauses. But what about the Church property; the manses, for instance? The empty manse may present a problem here, and this requires to be 1364 looked into again. I do not suggest the rejection of the Bill, but I feel bound to say that I contemplate moving Amendments at the Committee stage if no one else does. However, I think the noble Earl has clearly said that he has it in mind to do something of the sort.
§ 4.1 p.m.
§ THE EARL OF CROMARTIE
My Lords, I am not going to make a long speech. In fact, I shall take only about two minutes. My noble friend Lord Ferrier and I went into this Bill this morning, and we suddenly saw those two extraordinary clauses. It was very difficult to understand their meaning, but it seemed that whatever they did mean it was not very nice.
Just as much as any noble Lord on the other side of the House, I do not like to have empty houses, but I feel there are other ways of accomplishing their use without, as my noble friend said, creating another criminal offence. That seems completely unnecessary. Admittedly, the operation of these clauses is in the hands of the county council. But although my own county council is so good—I am a member of it—and I do not anticipate any trouble, there might be other county councils which are not so good and which might use these clauses in a very wrong way. I entirely supported the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, when he said he would produce some Amendments. Obviously, one is not going to try to obstruct the Second Reading of this Bill. It is a necessary Bill and a lot of it is extremely good, but these two clauses are just a very nasty and very unnecessary sting.
I would make one suggestion to the Minister about the lack of houses. Of course, I am talking about the Far North where we have many houses which are condemned, and I think quite wrongly condemned. We have piles of regulations on why a house should be condemned, but those regulations were usually made for Bermondsey or Manchester or somewhere else. I know of dozens of houses which, with a little expenditure, would be a great deal better than many houses built in the last three, four or five years. But because of these regulations we have to pull down and destroy perfectly good, beautiful houses for the reason that they are old—which means that they are probably much 1365 more solid—when a little money spent on them would bring them up to a decent condition, with water sanitation and so forth. If Her Majesty's Government would consider this, and perhaps reconsider some of the extraordinary regulations, which, as I say, are perfectly feasible in the East End of London but not in the Highlands of Scotland, that would do much to solve the housing problem.
§ 4.4 p.m.
My Lords, I do not want to say very much about this Bill, but I do want to say something about Clause 27. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, is extremely proud of the housing record of the City of Dundee, and he knows that I know something about that record and am full of admiration for it and its tenants. Just in passing, I should like to say to him that I share the sorrows which I am quite certain he felt at the death of their wonderful Town Clerk, Mr. Lyle.
It is very important for a burgh or a city which is proud of its housing record—and most of the burghs in Scotland are proud of their housing record—that the amenities of the council tenants should be always as perfect as they can be. But burgh surveyors in Scotland have very often told me of the difficulty which they occasionally have, about which I expect the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, knows much better than I do, when they get tenants who are quite unfitted for the highly civilised conditions of local government housing. They cause great discomfort, and worse than discomfort, to their immediate neighbours. As a matter of fact, from time to time burgh surveyors have suggested to me that they should be allowed to build special houses into which they could remove unsatisfactory tenants, at any rate for a time, for the relief of their immediate neighbours in a housing scheme. I have actually suggested that to various Governments in your Lordships' House and have always been turned down, but the difficulty remains.
It seems to me that there is a temptation for counties and burghs in Scotland to put unsatisfactory tenants into houses in private ownership which happen to be empty, and so rid themselves of a very great difficulty. I think that it is a great temptation to put in the way of housing authorities. If it happened in 1366 a county, it might be that the neighbouring occupier would find his conditions made so much worse that he actually left, and if it happened in a tied house on a farm it might make it very difficult to run the farm. That is the kind of considerations which are in my mind and which make me extremely uneasy about Clause 27. I think the Government ought to have a careful look at it again. That is all I wish to say on the Bill at the moment.
§ 4.7 p.m.
§ LORD ROYLE
My Lords, if this is not a private debate, I wonder whether a poor Sassenach might have a word at this moment. I am impelled to say what I want to say because of the fact that on the Order Paper to-day there is the Second Reading of this Bill, while lower down there is the Committee stage of the Local Government Bill applying to England and Wales. This brings me to say things which I have said in another place and about which I have thought a great deal. Why on earth has this to be so? I am not expecting my noble friend Lord Hughes to answer this question, because I appreciate that it is not his responsibility, but a great deal of Parliamentary time and expense must be involved because of the fact that we are discussing on the same day two Bills which are in principle entirely the same, except for just a few details which the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, has mentioned.
I am one of those people who were opposed to the appointment of the new Secretary of State for Wales for exactly the same reason, and I asked the question: Are we one nation or are we not? After twenty years in another place, I must confess, with deep respect to those who were my Scottish colleagues there, that I should have been prepared to vote for Home Rule for Scotland at any time. But so long as we are not getting down to that, is it not time that we made up our minds to be one nation? I listened with a great deal of care to the speech of my noble friend Lord Hughes this afternoon, and he might almost have got up and said, "My Lords, I desire to say what my noble friend said on the other Bill last week, and there are very few differences indeed."
It seems to me—and perhaps the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack may one day put this forward to his 1367 colleagues—that the time has come when we should declare ourselves, at long last, to be one nation. What was the date of Union—1707? Let us make it a reality in this present day. This is the protest I want to make at this moment, my Lords, because I feel that an awful lot of Parliamentary time is wasted.
§ 4.11 p.m.
§ LORD BALERNO
My Lords, I would hardly agree with the point of view of the noble Lord who has just spoken. He does not seem to understand the problems we are up against in Scotland, or this dreadful drag of the South-East of England. They try to dominate the whole of the United Kingdom—
§ LORD ROYLE
Would the noble Lord permit me just one moment to say that his remarks in that respect might apply equally to Lancashire. They are worried about the South-East as well. Why Scotland, and not Lancashire?
§ LORD BALERNO
My Lords, they might apply equally to Lancashire, they might apply equally to Cornwall; but in the case of Scotland we fought for our independence and held it, and we came into the United Kingdom of our own free will. We made a "U.D.I.", and we came back into the Union. We in Scotland are determined to maintain our individuality, and that is why we have maintained our system of law and our Church, and we are very glad that this is so, not only for our own nation but for what we have been able to give to the world at large through being distinctive and separate from the other half, the other part, of the Island.
My Lords, I should like to support what my noble friends have said about Clause 27. To my mind, it introduces a tremendous amount of quite unnecessary red tape. Local authorities are going to have more red tape to tie around the necks of the ratepayers. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, will be able to persuade his right honourable friend to take another look at this clause to see whether something can be done about it. There will immediately be exemptions, because some county councils will enforce it and some will not. Then there will be the further exemptions of those houses which are going to be exempted anyway, as 1368 well as local government houses, for which exemption is already provided. So it will be very difficult for any owner of property to know whether he is committing a criminal offence or not. In one county he may be, and in another county he may not be.
I hope the noble Lord will give special consideration to this problem of the tied house, and, in particular, the manses. No vacancy committee in a church can be expected to get its manse filled in two months and a fortnight; it is bound to run over that time. Is the session clerk to remember that he must make his report to the local authority that his committee have not been able to find a minister in the time? It just does not make sense. Again, take the tied houses of the university authorities and other educational establishments. The chances are that the occupant will go out at some time in June or July, and it may be that his successor will arrive in late August or September. There may be some delays which take him over the two months and a fortnight. All this has to be remembered by some hardworking secretary or under-secretary in the university at a time when he should be getting on with the job of organising the university for the next academic year. He will have plenty on his plate already, and here will be an additional piece of red tape being tied around him.
As regards the farm cottages—and here I must declare an interest—I am glad that the noble Earl, Lord Cromartie, who opened this subject, resides in a county where he has complete confidence in his local authority. Like the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, I reside and own tied cottages in a county where the local authority look at problems with an urban outlook and not with a farm outlook, and to be tied up with red tape under those conditions can put one into a very difficult position altogether.
There is one point that I should like to ask the noble Lord, and that is to what extent holiday chalets would be affected by this clause, because if we are to develop tourism properly in Scotland there must, I think, be a great extension in the provision of holiday chalets and they must be properly constructed, with all "mod. cons.". Finally, on Clause 27, I would say that the real problem is not the problem of the unoccupied house 1369 owned by a private person: the real problem of the unoccupied house is the length of time that it takes the local authority to fill a house once it has become vacant. The number of local authority houses which are vacant is almost as large at any given time as the number of private houses that may be vacant. The noble Lord shakes his head, and I should be very glad to be corrected if my information on that point happens to be wrong.
I welcome Clause 21, which makes the rate concession in respect of the churches and their manses. May I be told at a later stage, perhaps when we are discussing this Bill in Committee, whether this includes buildings such as the Scottish church houses, which are built for special social services and not primarily for religious services? They very nearly come within the definition of a church hall, because they are usually associated with a particular denomination; but there are, in addition, buildings which are used by inter-denominational organisations and which may be used under precisely the same terms as those laid down for the churches. I suggest that the noble Lord should look at the question of these buildings used by inter-denominational bodies.
I welcome Clause 32, on road lighting, which I think is overdue. Living in the country, and having had to provide the lighting for my own village, I know how important it is to have consistent lighting on the highways; and, of course, anything to do with dogs, as this is, is bound to meet with a certain amount of approval.
§ 4.18 p.m.
My Lords, there are only two points to which I should like to call your Lordships' attention, and one is the question of the pensioner. Most of us have cottages which are reserved for men Who have given many years of service to the estate, having perhaps been born on it, as in many cases were their fathers before them. They retire, and then the cottage that they have occupied as a service cottage has to be re-occupied by another person who has come in to take over the job. There is no place to which that pensioner can go, and it is going to be a very real hardship for him. Under the present legislation we dare not let the cottage, or we shall never get it in our hands again for when the 1370 pensioner retires. Yet what are we to do? We shall be forced to let it and to move that man from the area where he has lived for years and where all his friends live, and an area in which he had looked forward to spending his last days. If some provision could be made for exemption in these cases where there is a limited period before the retirement of an aged servant, it would be a great relief to these people and also to many of us landowners.
The other point I should like to call attention to is on the cost of maintenance of farm roads which are in some cases a mile or a mile and a half across the moors from the nearest road. The bulk milk tanker weighing well over 10 tons, perhaps nearer 15 tons, travels up and down every day. Lorries weighing up to and more than 20 tons laden bring foodstuffs and take cattle and sheep. That road was never built for that purpose, nor was it ever built to allow the excessive speeds which in a great many cases are indulged in by these heavy lorries.
Is it possible to introduce a French casse at the beginning of the village, half-way through and at the end? This is a slight depression which so long as the lorry goes over it at a reasonable speed is not felt at all; if the driver attempts a faster sped it will break his lorry springs; and if he goes too fast it will break his neck. Some of us may be tempted in the circumstances to think this well deserved. It is a great problem in the countryside. The cost of these roads is becoming absolutely crippling on many of these farms and if some means cannot be devised for preventing excessive speeds by imposing limitations of the casse type those roads are going to sink into the bog in a very few years' time, possibly in a few months' time. Could not some solution be found to this problem? That is all I have to say. I hope the seed will fall on fruitful ground.
§ 4.22 p.m.
THE EARL OF MANSFIELD
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Balerno has pretty effectively demolished the noble Lord opposite who suggested that this debate was unnecessary and that the two countries should have a joint Bill. However, I propose to complete his good work by putting a final demolition charge among the ruins by asking the noble Lord whether he does not realise that his 1371 particular advocacy of a policy of "Little England" has gone so far to lose the Empire and Commonwealth. The calm, indeed arrogant, assumption that England in particular, and South-East England more particularly, is the only region not merely of Great Britain but of the world which needs to be considered is one wreaking irreparable havoc in international relations. I do not suggest that there is any danger of Scotland separating entirely from England; we have much too great a sense of our responsibility. We realise that the results of such a separation would be a dire one for England because—
§ LORD ROYLE
My Lords, the noble Lord is asking a question. May I answer it by saying that I am advocating a larger England?
THE EARL OF MANSFIELD
It would be a dire one for England; for Scotland has always recognised that the civilising of the English and of keeping them civilised is Scotland's share of the "White Man's burden." To change the metaphor, having once put our shoulder to the wheel in that difficult task, we intend to go on doing so, but not to drag at the coat tails of England.
There are not many questions that I want to ask, but I should like to follow up those on Clause 21 which were asked by the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, because I am not quite happy about the position of church halls as laid out in this clause. It would appear that if a church hall is let—and mark the word, "let"—and is not permitted to be used for any purpose which is not fairly closely connected with the hall, it will be in danger of losing its rate relief. All of us who are aware of the conditions in rural Scotland—and I have no doubt this applies in rural England, too—must know that many of these small church halls have the greatest difficulty in carrying on because of the expense of running them on the small income they receive. We know also that in many cases they are the only hall the local population have for any form of recreation.
These halls are used not only for church purposes but for other entirely laudable ones, such as meetings of Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, or of the Boy's Brigade, of which my noble friend Lord Balerno knows well. They are also used for local 1372 flower shows and for other almost as worthy purposes. Furthermore, they are used, on occasions, for political meetings. I have in my time spoken in many church halls. If, therefore, you are going to say that the halls can only be used free, or perhaps with the payment of a small fee to cover lighting and heating, it will mean that local communities are going to be deprived of what is perhaps the only building which is suitable for their harmless local amusements in remote areas.
My Lords, my other main point is to pursue a little further this notorious Clause 27, speaking particularly from the rural point of view. There are many occasions when a rural landlord, large or small, may have a house vacant for considerably longer than two months, with perfectly valid reasons. Often an old house becomes vacant and the landlord has to decide what he is going to do with it, whether it is to be demolished or whether it is in a sufficiently good state of preservation to be worth his applying to his county council for grants. The time required for that, and the preparation of plans, may last much longer than two months.
Again, suppose a house becomes vacant and the landlord does not have someone to put in at that particular moment, though he knows very well that some old servant to whom he would like to allocate that house is going to retire within the next few months. Everyone knows that if, in the meantime, he lets it to somebody else it will be extraordinarily difficult to get it back again. Furthermore, there is the Agriculture Act and the question of seasonal workers; and there are a great many of these in my own part of the world particularly in regard to the raspberry trade. I assume that "a dwelling house" for this purpose would cover a bothy. As I have already said the question of chalets, which are occupied for only the summer months, which are often in picturesque areas and which are well-nigh uninhabitable in winter also cannot be overlooked. I hope very much that Her Majesty's Government will take a second and very much more profound look at both Clause 21 and Clause 27, and will not leave them as blemishes in a Bill which must otherwise be welcomed by us all.
§ 4.28 p.m.
§ LORD HUGHES
My Lords, I start by feeling that I ought at the outset to cross the Floor and join my Scottish colleagues in order to reply more effectively to my noble friend Lord Royle. I will, however, restrain myself, but will remind my noble friend that he has overlooked one rather trifling matter, that is, the Treaty of Union, under which we have a separate code of law in Scotland. Although explained in general terms, as I have done—and this, no doubt, my noble friend did earlier on the English Bill—the two Bills sound familiar, because of the different code of law there is hardly a clause in the Scottish Bill identical with the English one.
§ LORD CITRINE
My Lords, in view of the intense patriotism that has been displayed this afternoon, may I ask my noble friend whether those noble Lords who have spoken in the debate will on the next occasion wear their kilts.
§ LORD HUGHES
My Lords, other noble Lords must speak for themselves; I have no such intention. But noble Lords opposite do not know that things went from bad to worse, because what my noble friend Lord Royle said incited another of my noble friends (who must in the interests of his own safety at the hands of noble Lords opposite remain nameless) to say to me: "Do you realise that you are now using English time?" At the risk of falling out with him I will take up a little more of this English time.
The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, alleged that the Government were being coy about the grant distribution formula. It may be that that is so, my Lords, but it is not out of any sinister motive on the part of the Government. It is precisely because local authority associations have made it clear to the Government beyond any doubt that they do not want the formula to be written into the Bill, because it could not be altered quickly or easily in the light of experience. Having regard to that, the Government have given the fullest possible information about the proposed formula in reply to a Parliamentary Question, the beginning and end of which the noble Earl quoted, leaving out—probably only out of regard for the time of the House—the whole meat of the Answer which gave the information sought.
1374 The noble Earl also criticised the fact that the basis for notional rent is left to be prescribed after consultation with the local authority associations who are the bodies concerned. The Government think it is better, that it should be done in this way rather than that it should be fixed by Statute as was done in 1963, because once it is fixed it becomes very difficult to alter it in the light of the changing circumstances; and circumstances may require appreciably substantial alterations in any such notional rent. The way in which we are doing it makes it possible to have the fullest regard to the considered views of the local authority associations in this matter.
The noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, in dealing with roads, asked whether this would make it quicker to get decisions on road signs. I am very sorry to have to tell the noble Lord that it will not make any difference at all. I will in due course pass on to my honourable friend the views of the noble Lord about the delays in getting these changes effected.
The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, referred to gun licences. They are done away with by Clause 39 with the change in relation to game licences. This is a change in the method of collection. The reason why we are doing away with gun licences is that it is not felt that they serve any useful purpose whatsoever. The police would very much prefer to have a better control of weapons through firearms certificates, and this is a change which the police authorities welcome very much.
§ THE EARL OF DUNDEE
My Lords, will that be done in another Bill, such as the Criminal Justice Bill?
§ LORD HUGHES
Yes, my Lords, I think that is so. It does not need to be covered in this Bill. We are doing away with this particular form of Excise licence because it serves no Revenue purpose which is worth while, and does not help the police in their other activities at all.
§ THE EARL OF DUNDEE
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hughes. It seems to me that the Government are agreeing to do exactly what we want.
§ LORD HUGHES
Well, my Lords, noble Lords opposite must be right sometimes, even though it is only by accident.
1375 The noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, made some complimentary remarks about my native city of Dundee and its housing activities. It will give me great pleasure to direct the attention of the Lord Provost of Dundee to those very friendly remarks which were made by the noble Lord. On the subject of Clauses 26 and 27, I had a feeling that noble Lords opposite would not necessarily express themselves with complete enthusiasm about these clauses. However, I do not think that the situation is as bad as they purport to make out. In the first instance, if one takes the case of the owner of a small amount of property who goes abroad for six months—the sort of case which is quoted—it is just as easy for that owner to make arrangements with his agent to notify a vacancy as it is to make arrangements with his agent to collect the rents. I am quite certain that the owner would not go abroad for six months and hope that the rent would find its way into his account of its own accord. So that presents no particular difficulties. Some of the other cases of absence are not more difficult, but some of the points which have been made are, I think, very valid. It is simply because there are such cases—the manse, university property, the tied house, the house for the old-age pensioner, the house which is being altered—that the Secretary of State is taking powers in the Bill to prescribe other classes of property which may be exempt from this need.
When the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier suggested that full payment of rates would be a sufficient deterrent, I do not know whether he put it forward seriously as an alternative to registration after two months, because if so he was not in complete agreement with the noble Earl, Lord Dundee. If the noble Lord is in due course intending to table an Amendment to the Bill, suggesting that all empty property should be rated in full, I must undertake on behalf of Her Majesty's Government to look very closely at it as an alternative to notification of empty properties, followed in proper cases by the levying of rates at 50 per cent. or 75 per cent. as the case may be ! and I am quite happy to undertake to look at the suggestion.
§ THE EARL OF DUNDEE
My Lords, may I ask about this? I am not sure 1376 that the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, has the point of my noble friend Lord Ferrier. If a house becomes vacant surely the occupier goes on paying full rates until such time as he does notify, and asks that it be derated or practically derated as an unoccupied house. I think that was the point which my noble friend was making.
§ LORD FERRIER
My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, is quite right. As for suggesting that a house should not be derated, I think that was proposed in the Scottish Grand Committee in another place and rejected. I would not suggest that. The noble Earl has put my point.
§ LORD HUGHES
My Lords, I knew that there must be a snag in it somewhere. I did not think that the noble Lord was going to give away money as easily as all that. I ought to have known better.
On the question of holiday chalets, the advice I am given is that holiday chalets are not generally in the valuation role as dwelling houses. There may be one or two cases where they are, but it would be only if a holiday chalet was in the valuation role that it would be affected. The noble Lord, Lord Rowallan, raised the question of the maintenance of farm roads. This is a point with which I have great sympathy but, unfortunately, there is nothing in the Bill which affects this at all. Farm roads are private roads and are not affected by any of these proposals. I doubt very much whether the owners would be happy if the alternative was that the roads should be taken over by the local authority, with all the cost that would be involved therein.
My Lords, I realise that it is quite impossible, and is not within measurable distance of being an economic proposition, to have these roads up to the condition which would be required to carry this traffic. What I hope will be done is that some means of restricting the speed of lorries on these roads will be found, such as the casse, which may be very effective without in any way making difficulties for the lorry drivers. provided that they keep to reasonable speeds. It is the speed which destroys these roads much more than wet.
§ LORD HUGHES
My Lords, I do not know whether the owner of a private 1377 road would be at liberty to do this in his own road or not, but I will certainly have a look at the matter again. It takes me back many years. I remember that I had been a councillor only about two years in Dundee when there was a motion before my local authority, because of the excessive speed of motor vehicles going through the town, that the town council, instead of repairing the road to a proper standard, should deliberately dig potholes in it in order to slow up the vehicles. This is coming pretty near to it, though on a less widespread scale.
§ LORD HUGHES
There are a number of things which work in France which would not necessarily work here.
The noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, said that he was worried about Clause 21 in relation to church halls. I would remind the noble Earl that there is no alteration in this Bill with regard to the position of church halls. All the Bill does is to make clear that a church can be in exactly the same beneficial position as a church hall. On the point relating to inter-church halls, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Balerno, I am sorry that I do not know the answer, but I will make inquiries so that I may let him know before the next stage. If the position is not satisfactory then, it will be possible for him to take such action as he thinks will be an improvement in that direction.
I think that I am entitled to say that in this general debate the Bill has received a good welcome from your Lordships' House. The criticisms have been intense on only one subject, and the criticisms of the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, have been fear about the later prescribing of what will be done rather than about the present statement. I hope that what I have said will have allayed his fears to the extent that he will accept that it is not because of any innate wickedness in the Government, but rather because of the desires of local authorities, that things are done in this way.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.