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Hospital Houses, Scotland (Rents)

Volume 654: debated on Tuesday 27 February 1962

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. E. Wakefield.]

11.15 p.m.

Tonight I want to raise the subject not of the stately homes of England, but of the stately people who live in hospital houses in Scotland. These are people who perform a great service to the public of Scotland. Admittedly, there are not many of them, but that is no reason why their plight should not be raised in the House tonight, nor why we should not seek redress for the grievances which they have presented to Parliament.

Many of the staff who live in hospital houses in Scotland do so as a direct consequence of their conditions of service and as such they are obliged to live in residences which are in many cases not only remote from communities but which also impose conditions on the staff which are inconvenient, although gladly accepted, but which should be taken into account in any matter of rent and rates and conditions of service.

It is a rather sad event that on 11th August, 1961, an application for the reconsideration of the conditions of service of these people, namely, their wages, was deferred until today. It was only today that the Whitley Council met and was able to tell the staff side that the increase in wages for these people would be no more than 6d. in the £, that being in accordance with the Government's declared policy. Unfortunately, it is not the case that the rents which they are asked to pay have increased by only 6d. in the £; nor is it true that the increase in rates which they are asked to pay is only 6d. in the £. That is my complaint tonight.

I concede that, in the light of representations which have been going on since last December, the Government have had to give way because of the obvious injustice of their case, and only last week issued a hospital circular, 62/12, which defers two-thirds of these increases until November of this year. But I shall not praise the Government for making that concession. When the Government do something bad and then retreat and do only two-thirds of the bad, they do not deserve to be complimented. They deserve rather to be rebuked for having embarked on the procedure at all.

It is my contention that persons living in hospital houses ought to have these things considered as part of their conditions of service. In other words, hospital rates and rents should be subject to negotiation by the Whitley Council machinery. The Government have imposed these increases in rent and rates not because of any antipathy towards hospital staff—that would be pathological—but because they are engaged on a wider manoeuvre against local authority tenants. In Committee on the Local Government (Finance Provisions, Etc.) (Scotland) Bill on 19th December, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland said:
"I should explain that at present such people—"
that is, members of the staffs of these hospitals—
"occupy the houses by virtue of their employment and, in accordance with established practice, it is the employer and not the occupier—in this case the board of management—who is regarded as the occupier for rating purposes. Because all these houses are in Crown occupation an ex gratia payment is made in lieu of rates on a value fixed by the Treasury Valuer."
He went on to say:
"I do not propose to go into the general question of the exemption of Crown property from rates. What seems the important point from the practical aspect is that no unfairness results from the present system. The Treasury Valuer naturally keeps the values he fixes in line with the values fixed by local assessors for comparable properties in the area."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Scottish Standing Committee, 19th December, 1961; c. 244.]
That is grossly untrue.

The hon. Member conceded later in the proceedings of that Committee that there have been well over 200 appeals, more than two-thirds of which have been granted, against the Treasury Valuer's figures. It is my contention that it is the duty of the Scottish Office in cases in which boards of management have appeals against the Treasury Valuer to look carefully at the gross annual value imposed on all hospital houses in Scotland and to appeal against the Treasury Valuer's decision if they consider that it is outwith the local assessments made by the county valuer in the area.

The reason that I make the point is that the Scottish Office goes on from the assessment made by the Treasury Valuer to allege that all tenants of hospital houses ought to pay the rent settled by the Treasury Valuer. That is the point of the argument. In many cases it has been made clear that there is a discrepancy between the assessment of the houses made by the local county valuer and that made by the Treasury Valuer. That is one point of the argument—that all these cases are made to the detriment of Crown property, and while the Crown may wonder about this, in practical terms, to quote the Under-Secretary of State, it is the practical occupier of the houses, the member of the hospital staff, who has to make what is, in effect, though not in law, a rate contribution in respect of that valuation.

The Secretary of State has decided in his circular, which proposed these rent increases from 11th November, 1961, to charge rents in accordance with the valuations laid down by the Treasury Valuer so that he can turn round to local councils in Scotland and say, "You ought to charge the same"—namely, the gross annual value—"in respect of every one of your council house tenants". This is a shocking state of affairs. The Secretary of State is willing to exploit one of the most commendable sections serving the community, a minority who are not strong in their union organisation or in their ability to exert political pressure, to further his own political ends in relation to the payment of money by local authority tenants. That is a disgraceful state of affairs.

Moreover, he does this at a time when he freezes the wages of persons employed by the hospital service who are occupying these houses as a condition of their service. I cannot think of a more disgraceful piece of behaviour on the part of the Scottish Office. Even hon. Members opposite have consciences, and they have already admitted the substance of the case by withdrawing the full effect of their previous circular.

I feel it right in this debate to ask the Under-Secretary of State to give us some facts. Will he tell us how many people are involved in the hospital service who occupy these houses and whose rents are to be raised? Will he give an all-round Scottish figure for the amount by which these rents are being raised in relation to the existing rents? Will he give us an all-round figure of the increased contribution which these people will have to make in relation to the increase made in the assessment of their houses? Will he tell us what is the relationship of many of these employees to their English counterparts? It is often argued by the Scottish Office that Scottish hospital personnel benefit more favourably than do their English counterparts who occupy such houses in the South. Because of local concessions made by boards of management, it is difficult to have a scale of comparison between the two countries, but the onus of proof lies on the Scottish Office. It is for the Scottish Office to show that the hospital employees in Scotland get greater benefit than do their English and Welsh colleagues in the hospital service.

It is not fair for them to allege, as they have done privately and publicly, that somehow or other these hospital personnel enjoy an advantage which their colleagues south of the border do not share. My information is that many of our English friends in the hospital service enjoy a higher standard of remuneration in practice than do our Scottish people. I should like the Under-Secretary to give us some facts—facts which have been denied many of the persons most intimately concerned with this matter.

Apart from those facts, I urge these courses of action on the Under-Secretary. I should like him to reconsider the valuations made of hospital houses in Scotland. I should like him to instruct hospital boards of management to re-assess the position of hospital houses under their control, and of which they are the legal occupiers, to see whether an appeal against the Treasury valuer ought not to be lodged even at this late date. I go further: the Scottish Office ought to facilitate any late appeals that may be contemplated on its own initiative or on the initiative of hospital boards of management.

Secondly, I urge that these contributions to rates, wherever they may be, ought to be considered by the Scottish Office, as distinct from the position in England, as a factor in the present negotiations before the Whitley Council. Representing the management side on the Whitley Council, the Scottish Office ought to accept that the rates are a further burden on the persons living in the houses and represent a decrease in the real value of wages of hospital employees in relation to their remuneration through the hospital service.

Thirdly, I urge that the rents ought to be reconsidered in the light of all these complexities, and that the Scottish Office ought to realise that the rents are part of the conditions of service—that the houses are, in fact, tied houses, and should be considered in the light of that and all the disadvantages which arise from it.

The last thing which I feel is important is that the Scottish Office ought to realise that with the shortage of personnel in the National Health Service, particularly in Scotland—one could go so far as to say that in almost every category of the service there is a shortage of personnel—it is foolish to put further impositions on our people and expect them to perform their duties, which they loyally do, in the hospital service subject to impositions which are unfair, inequitable and unjust.

I ask the Under-Secretary not to give us just a Departmental brief in answering the debate but to accept that many of us are genuinely concerned about this unfair treatment of a minority of Scots. We want him to think about the matter. Even if it means deferring a decision tonight, I strongly urge him to do so.

11.28 p.m.

I support the case so ably made by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock (Dr. Dickson Mabon). He said—I want to take up this point in particular—that the boards of management ought to ensure that the assessment of the Treasury assessor was right, and if it was not, there should be an appeal. It does not matter how strongly the occupant of the house feels that the house has been assessed too highly; he has no right of appeal. Only the board of management can do it.

Only today I had a reply from the Financial Secretary to the Treasury about the matter of an isolated hospital house which I had taken up with him, and he regarded my taking it up as an appeal on behalf of the individual. That seems to stress what my hon. Friend has said. I have seen another letter to an hon. Member from the secretary of a board of management. It said that the individual concerned did not need to stay in his house if he was aggrieved with the assessment and the consequent rent, but could get out. That was the harshest kind of reply that could possibly have been sent. This was a man who was doing important public service and a man who, if he took that advice, could not find other accommodation.

There has been great harshness in the Whole of this matter and in my constituency the majority of those involved have had their cases taken to the assessor. The Under-Secretary has been given the facts and figures which show that even on the new assessments these houses are still in an unfavourable position compared with other houses in the same area. It seems to me that the Secretary of State has made use of this small section of people, and I understand that his official who took part in the discussions made it clear that the right hon. Gentleman was doing this because otherwise he could not tell the local authorities to charge higher tents since they would reply, "What are you doing about houses under your control?"

The men and women about whom we are speaking perform an important service. Many of them work in hospitals for the mentally ill. Their work is hard enough, the conditions are not good, and the salaries are very inadequate without this extra imposition that is being placed upon them. I hope that the Under-Secretary will try to get his right hon. Friend to make some change in the assessments and do what he has the power to do in lowering the rents which he is now asking.

11.32 p.m.

One thing which I must hand to the hon. Member for Greenock (Dr. Dickson Mabon) and his hon. Friends is that they have been very persistent in this matter of the rents of hospital houses. They have made representations by letter, by deputation, by Parliamentary Question and now by means of this debate. The only trouble is that their persistence, as so often is the case with the party opposite, is entirely misdirected.

It is a great pity that they do not use their energies on more worthy objects than on always seeming to oppose any change in rents everywhere. Theoretically they sometimes agree, but never in practice. This tendency of theirs may indicate that they have a good heart but it certainly does not indicate that they have good sense. Their opposition to these changes is utterly unrealistic.

If I have, the hon. Lady will have an opportunity of intervening before the end.

When deputations met the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary we made it clear that neither we nor the tenants of hospital houses were opposed to an increase which would be reasonable. The objection was to the steepness of the proposed increase.

That is my point. The hon. Lady theoretically never opposes increases but in practice she always does.

Perhaps I should begin by explaining to the House the reason for the introduction last November of new arrangements for hospital house rents by saying a few words about the present situation. The hon. Member asked about the number of people involved. Altogether there are now about 2,000 hospital staff houses in Scotland all of which are owned by the Secretary of State.

The majority of these were taken over in 1948 and their distribution throughout the country was governed by the policy of the former hospital authorities. As might be expected, the rents of the houses showed great variety. In some cases a free house or a very cheap house was even regarded as part of the remuneration. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] However, from the beginning of the National Health Service the conception of a cheap house forming part of remuneration was abandoned in favour of national rates of pay that were adequate in themselves. I am sure that no one would dispute that this is the right policy. As part of that policy, in 1950, under a Labour Government, the first steps were taken to rationalise rents and they were brought into line with the rents of comparable local houses.

This, of course, produced an increase in some cases organised by the party opposite, which, when it was in power—I agree with hon. Members opposite in this respect—acted rather more responsibly than it seems to be doing just now. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says I contradicted myself. I did not contradict myself at all. When the party opposite was in power it showed rather more responsibility in this matter than it does just now. That is the point I was making.

In spite of these changes, rents still remained very low. A sample survey carried out in 1959 showed that the average rent of all hospital houses in Scotland was less than £16 per annum. Since this sample included some quite large houses occupied by senior doctors, it is not surprising to find that some of the houses were let at rents as low as £2 13s., £3 18s., and £4 6s. per annum. Such rents were clearly indefensible at a time when my right hon. Friend was urging local authorities to follow a more realistic rent policy—and this answers the point raised by the hon. Lady.

The hon. Gentleman also suggested that my right hon. Friend had gone about things in the wrong way and that he should have waited till local authorities' rents were higher before raising rents of hospital houses. I think, however, that my right hon. Friend would have been open to severe censure if he had adopted this course of action. Example, after all, carries more weight than exhortation. It would have been very strange if the Secretary of State had pressed local authorities to increase the rents of their houses and had done nothing about the houses under his own control, particularly when—

Taking the hon. Gentleman's figures, these were conditions of service accepted by the employees and by the Government for a considerable time. If these conditions of service are altered without negotiation with the employees, it means enforced reduction in the conditions of their service—in fact, enforced reduction of their wages. Is that the way the Government treat their employees?

I think the right hon. Gentleman is wrong when he says these are conditions of service, because in fact they are not.

What I was saying was that this would be particularly wrong for the Secretary of State when last year the revaluation of all property in Scotland provided a reasonable new basis for calculating rents of hospital houses.

Since these hospital houses are Crown property, the new valuations were fixed by the Treasury Valuer and not by the local assessor. This fact, as the hon. Lady pointed out, has caused some tenants misgivings. But in fixing his valuations the Treasury Valuer has kept in touch with the local assessor and has applied the same general principles. For both the Treasury valuer and the local assessor, the basis of the gross valuation has been the rent at which the houses might be expected to let.

The valuation takes into account the size of the house, its condition, the amenities it offers, its geographical position, remoteness, and so on. It, therefore, seemed to my right hon. Friend that these valuations might not unfairly be used as the basis for the new rents.

Of course, he recognised that if the rents were increased at once to the full amount of the new valuations some tenants might have to pay a considerable increase, because their old rents had been at a very low level. For this reason, he decided to bring the new arrangements into effect in stages related to the incomes of the tenants. This change in the rent structure, therefore, was not a harsh move, as the hon. Lady suggested, but one carried out with concern for the tenants, so that they would have time to adjust their finances to the scheme.

In addition, special arrangements were made for tenants who had to live in particular hospital houses as a condition of service. In order to compensate them for any disadvantages resulting from this lack of choice, boards of management were given discretion to allow reduction of rent up to 15 per cent. Furthermore, although he was not required to do so, my right hon. Friend before introducing the new scheme, informed representatives of the Staff side of what was in his mind, and discussions took place. This partly meets the point raised by the right hon. Member for East Stirlingshire (Mr. Woodburn). Rents are not, however, part of the conditions of service.

Unfortunately, the staff wanted the rents left on their existing basis, although, as I have indicated, the existing basis has produced rents which by no stretch of the imagination could be termed reasonable.

The hon. Lady keeps saying that I am quite wrong, but this is one of the cases where I am quite right.

Accordingly, the Secretary of State had to go ahead alone and the scheme was introduced on 11th November, as the hon. Member said. One aspect of the scheme has, however, caused slight difficulty, and I now come to the point to which the hon. Member for Greenock referred. The arrangement is based on the gross valuation of the house. Some tenants, however, considered that the valuation of their houses was too high and they made representations to the Treasury Valuer; they cannot appeal, but they can make representations. The hon. Member may be interested to know that to date representations have been made in 517 cases. The number dealt with already is 251; in 194 cases, reductions were made. There are thus still 266 cases outstanding.

Will the hon. Gentleman undertake tonight to instruct all boards of management to review hospital houses in their area with a view to appealing if they think it wise, against the Treasury Valuer's assessment?

I will certainly consider that.

Because of the number of cases still outstanding, my right hon. Friend decided to introduce a slight modification to be helpful to the tenants. As the hon. Member is aware, it was the original intention that the second stage of the increases should take place this spring, after the scheme had been in operation for six months. Since then, however, the date of determining appeals against the valuation of ordinary property has been extended to Whitsun, 1962. Because the result of these appeals may have a direct bearing on some of the hospital houses which are valued by the Treasury Valuer and against which representations have been made, my right hon. Friend has decided to postpone the second stage of increase in rent until 11th November, by which time these valuation points will have been disposed of.

Although there have been complaints by the Staff Side, I should like to make it clear that, from the outset, the scheme has been accepted by most of the tenants. Nobody, of course, likes paying more for anything. I am, therefore, glad to acknowledge the way in which these naturally unwelcome proposals have been accepted by most people as being perfectly fair and reasonable. I should, perhaps, add that although the Confederation of Health Service Employees has not withdrawn opposition to the general principles of the scheme, it has decided to advise those of its members who have not yet paid their increase to do so now.

The hon. Member made a number of criticisms, but there are a number of points which he should bear in mind and to which insufficient weight has been given. First, references have been made to increases as high as 300 or 400 per cent. I have an example of a house for which there has been an increase of 300 per cent., but the rent is still under 10s. per week. Nobody would regard that as being excessive. Secondly, everything has been done to avoid hardship falling on the tenants. Not only has the 5s. increase, which originally was to be for six months, been extended for a whole year, but where the regional hospital board finds that somebody who has to occupy a house is occupying one larger than he would normally use, it is allowed to make an abatement in excess of 15 per cent.

The third consideration, which is of great importance, is that the average of the new rents in Scotland will not be any greater—in fact, it will probably be rather less—than the average level of rents of hospital houses in England and Wales. As far as we can make out, the English average is about £47 per annum. There is uncertainty concerning Scotland because not all the appeals have been settled; but the figure will be a little more than £40. This is relevant because members of staff of the hospital service throughout Great Britain are on common rates of pay; and when that is so, I cannot see why the staff in Scotland should have substantially lower rents for comparable houses than their similarly paid colleagues in England and Wales. This fact of common rates of pay seems to me to close the argument—

The Question having been proposed after half-past Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to Orders.

Adjourned at a quarter to Twelve o'clock.