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Collection Of Rates By Housing Body On Behalf Of Rating Authority

Volume 886: debated on Wednesday 19 February 1975

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9.0 p.m.

I beg to move Amendment No. 10, in page 10, line 36, at end insert:

'on the occupiers of lands and heritages let by the housing body, and where such arrangements are made the rates shall be payable to the housing body by instalments along with payments of rent.'
The purpose of the amendment is to provide for arrangements to be made by a housing body for the payment of rates. The amendment seeks to make the matter much more explicit since the provision as drafted is not as clear as it might be.

The amendment makes two changes. First, it makes it clear that when such an arrangement is made the ratepayer is bound to pay his rates not to the rating authority but to the housing body concerned. Secondly, the amendment provides for rates to be subject to the same instalment arrangements as those which apply to rents. In normal circumstances, under Clause 8 ratepayers will be able to pay their rates by 10 instalments. The provision seeks to make clear that where an arrangement is made a tenant will not be asked to pay rates in one lump sum. The amendment will meet the convenience of tenants who wish to make one payment in respect of rent and rates and not separate payments at different times.

We cannot understand why the Secretary of State should take it upon himself to decide how and when rent and rates should be paid. Surely this should be a matter for local authorities. If the Government are giving complete power to local authorities to decide rent levels, why cannot the Government be consistent and give local authorities power to say when and how rent and rates should be paid? Surely local authorities are the best people to take into account the wishes of local people. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will look at the matter again.

In regard to rents, arrangements can be made by local authorities to meet the convenience of those concerned. On the subject of rates, we are providing in Clause 8 for the pay- ment of instalments. We are not leaving the matter to the local authority but we are providing that rates shall be paid in instalments. It would be inconsistent if, to reduce ratepayers' burdens, we were to introduce provisions for payment of rates by instalments and were not at the same time to safeguard a number of other people who are tenants of housing bodies. If we did not give the right to pay rates by instalment to the general body of ratepayers, we could not under the clause safeguard a large number of people who will be tenants of housing bodies, either the local authorities or the other bodies defined in the clause.

What we are doing is utterly consistent with what we are doing in Clause 8. It is a protection for tenants in case the local authority does not wish to give them the benefit of the payment of rates by instalments.

The Minister has not understood the point my hon. Friend made. The clause says that if there is no agreement between the Secretary of State and the rating authority as to how the job should be done, the Secretary of State should determine how it should be done. The Minister is now adding to the clause the provision that in every case rent and rates shall be paid together.

What happens if a local authority takes the view, which obviously the Minister does not share, that it is more for the convenience of tenants that they should pay their rent in a particular way and their rates in exactly the same way as other people are required to do under Clause 8, namely in 10 monthly instalments, and not with the rent? Will the Secretary of State prevent them from so doing under the clause?

The Minister must be aware that some local authorities are concerned that if people pay rent and rates together they are often not aware of what is the rent part and what is the rate part. Many people will say "I pay a rent of £30 a month" whereas on inspection one finds that the rent is £15 a month and the rates are £15 a month.

It is inconsistent that the Government are using as their main argument in the Bill that they want to give freedom to responsible local authorities, whereas they are not prepared to give this freedom. A local authority may well take the view that it is in the best interests of its tenants that they should pay their rent monthly, weekly or yearly, and pay their rates in exactly the same way as other people under Clause 8, namely, in 10 payments direct to the city collector.

The Minister has said that the provision will be for the convenience of tenants. Who is he to say what is convenient? The local authorities are in a far better position to decide. What is the position of a local authority that comes to the conclusion that it is in the best interests of everyone in its area, is a matter of convenience and economy, and benefits its tenants, that tenants should not pay their rent and rates together? Does the amendment mean that it will be prevented from implementing that decision?

Will my hon. Friend clarify one or two points? First, will he make it absolutely clear that the provision applies to all dwelling houses, to all occupiable houses? Secondly, is he aware that we have been having difficulty with the Scottish Special Housing Association over the payment of rates and rents? A group of tenants in Airdrie who were unable to pay rates in large instalments asked to be allowed to pay by the addition of several instalments a year. We received a reply to the effect that where tenants have difficulty in paying rates they may negotiate with the representatives of the Association as to how rates should be paid, and over what period of time.

It is obvious to me that those in the lower income groups must find it difficult to pay rates in large instalments, and would prefer to pay them fortnightly or monthly. Will the provisions in the Bill be obligatory on the Association, as well as other housing authorities and house owners, to ensure that rates and rents are paid regularly on a reasonable basis, to avoid the burdens and economic difficulties that large instalments cause to those in the lower income groups?

Will my hon. Friend also clarify the position of the local authorities, because we are confused? We received a letter from the going-out or standing-down authority, the Lanarkshire County Council, saying that rates would no longer be payable through bankers' orders. When I refer to rates, I include rents. This is a convenient way of paying rents and rates for working people. It prevents them from having to stay in and lose work when the rent collector comes or having to travel late at night after work or on a Saturday morning if the office is open to pay rents and rates fortnightly or monthly. Yet the Lanarkshire County Council has issued this notice which has been signed by the Lanarkshire County Council factor. Will the provisions allow some discretion or understanding whereby local authorities and tenants can arrange the best and most convenient means the payment of rents and rates?

Order. The hon. Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey) is going far beyond the purpose of the amendment by raising a matter which would arise on the debate on the Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill." I must rule him out of order on the matter that he is developing.

Order. We are not discussing the Bill at this stage. We are discussing a particular amendment.

The amendment raises the whole question of the payment of rates. I think that I am entitled to ask my hon. Friend to clarify the position. I shall not need to make a speech in the debate on the clause if my hon. Friend replies to this point when he answers other hon. Members.

I should like to speak briefly in support of the amendment.

The Government appear to be strangely and surprisingly inconsistent in their approach to this amendment compared with their attitude on the Housing Rents and Subsidies (Scotland) Bill to an amendment tabled by the Opposition which suggested that a tenant in receipt of supplementary benefit should, if he wished, be allowed to pay his rent direct. That proposal, which most of us thought to be reasonable as it depended on the wishes of the tenant, was bitterly attacked by the Government as an abuse of the freedom of the individual and a restriction on his right and responsibility to determine his own payments and obligations to the local authority.

Here, however, irrespective of the wishes of either the tenant or the local authority, the Government are directing an arrangement to take place between the tenant and the housing body or local authority which neither might wish or which might be inconvenient to them. Will the Minister indicate why a completely different approach is justified by the Government on two Bills which they have brought forward, both of which affect the freedom of the individual tenant?

I think that I have quite enough to deal with on this Bill without going back over the arguments on supplementary benefit regarding the previous Bill to which the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind) has referred.

My hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey) asked what we are trying to do. In Clause 8 we are providing for the payment of rates by instalments, not at the discretion of the local authority. We are making it mandatory that rates should be paid by 10 equal instalments. It seems extraordinary that, because that might be inconvenient for housing bodies and, therefore, they should be allowed to make arrangements other than the general provision in Clause 8, we should nevertheless leave these other arrangements and deny to local authority and SSHA tenants the right to pay rates by instalments at all. That would be an extraordinary situation. It would mean that we were singling out one class of ratepayer and denying him rights that are available to other ratepayers under Clause 8.

9.15 p.m.

Therefore if we are to allow the arrangements under Clause 10 to override those made under Clause 8, we have to make the necessary safeguard that the right of the ratepayer to pay rates by instalments shall not be overridden. That is the purpose of the amendment. It provides that where those arrangements are made rates can be paid along with rent. That will be mandatory but not in the sense of the Secretary of State intervening or approving any agreement. It will be mandatory because if the amendment is accepted it will be written into the Bill, just as we have written in the earlier provisions in Clause 8.

I was asked what would happen if the local authority and the tenant both wanted the tenant to pay his rates by 10 instalments under Clause 8. The answer is that the arrangement would not come under this clause. But we must not allow the local authorities to override the general principle that ratepayers should be able to pay their rates by instalments. I do not believe that a local authority would want to do that.

If the Opposition do not like Clause 8 they have had ample opportunity to do something about it in Committee and now on Report. If they support the clause, it is extraordinary that they should be proposing that its advantages should be denied to council tenants. I cannot accept that.

The Minister has not even begun to understand our point. I hope that between now and the next stage of the Bill he will endeavour to do so. Clause 8 provides that every ratepayer can pay his rates in 10 instalments a year. Arrangements can be made for a local authority or housing body to make different arrangements, subject to the approval of the Secretary of State where there is a failure to agree. Now, however, the Minister is seeking to bring in the further qualification that where such arrangements are made rates should be paid with rent.

I cannot understand why the Government want to do that. Many tenants simply do not know how much rates they are paying, because they think that what they are paying is all rent. Perhaps a local authority might take the view that it would be in the interest of its tenants that they should be fully aware of the amount of rates they pay by paying them separately to the city collector and paying the rent directly to the housing manager.

The Minister is unwilling to make a concession on this point, and he has not justified the requirement to have rent and rates paid together. He has not even begun to understand that argument. I therefore hope that he will study what we have said before the Bill goes to the other place.

Amendment agreed to.