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Volume 949: debated on Friday 12 May 1978

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

I beg to move Amendment No. 47, in page 8, leave out lines 34 and 35.

With this we may take Amendment No. 48, in page 8, line 34, leave out 'in relation to Scotland'.

Lines 34 and 35 on page 8 read:

"'rates' includes, in relation to Scotland, domestic water rates".
We are immediately entering a contentious area in that Scotland is treated differently from England and Wales with regard to water rates. Although many of my constituents might wish me to do so, I do not intend to enter into a debate about whether water rates are justified. I would, however, suggest that when we include water rates, even only in Scotland, in the provisions of the Bill, we are presumably looking not at the relief provided under Clause 1—because that is limited in amount anyhow—but at premises having relief under Clause 2, where total relief is given to a certain category of premises. Some of these could be quite large.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Price) referred to Cheshire Homes. That is an obvious example. I do not know whether there are any Cheshire Homes in Scotland, but I am sure that there are other similar places. To say that there should be relief from water rates is, it seems to me, not a sensible or practical suggestion, because water is a commodity which is provided in the same way as electricity, gas or even coal.

There is a case for equalising the charge over an area, but I do not think that we should treat the provision of water as part of a local authority service. Furthermore, in the interests of economy and efficiency, the larger users of water ought to have a metered supply. As we were reminded recently, water can be a scarce commodity, although lately it has been rather too plentiful.

I am rather mystified, because in England the water rate is not subject to rebate since it comes from water authorities as distinct from local authorities, and only local authorities are rebated. Does that mean that in Scotland the water rate is still levied by local authorities?

Indeed. As has been pointed out, the Scottish situation is different. But in respect of the Bill I believe that we should try to seek equality of treatment throughout the United Kingdom, as well as bearing in mind that it would be far more appropriate if larger institutions received their water supply through a meter.

This is a very difficult area. I can remember that under the 1974 Act the charitable situation was changed. Charities used to get 50 per cent. mandatory relief across the whole of both their rates and their water rates. That has now changed. I am not sure whether charities still get water rate relief in Scotland, but it seems to be totally wrong that one area of the United Kingdom should get relief when other areas do not.

We in this House have been striving to achieve a situation where people are aware of the costs of the services provided. We believe that the central subsidy should be removed. We are also becoming much more conscious of the need to conserve resources. In the summer of 1976 we had an unhappy experience with regard to water. That brought home to areas in a drought condition, of which mine happened to be one, that there is great need to ensure that we are careful about the use of our water resources. It is unhappy that this provision is included in Clause 8. I hope that the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) will be able to assure us that it will be deleted.

The harmony which used to exist between my hon. Friends who represent Sussex constituencies is about to be restored. You yourself, Mr. Deputy Speaker, represent an important constituency in East Sussex. You will have noted with the same incredulity as did my hon. Friends the difference of view between my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury)—I was about to say "the Member for Sainsbury's"—and myself. But, happily, that unity is about to be restored.

First and foremost, those of us on this side of the House, and, indeed, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) himself, are Unionists, and those of us who are Unionists believe that there should be, in so far as it is possible, equal treatment between the parts which make up the United Kingdom. I note with profound dissatisfaction subsection (5) of Clause 9, which says that the measure does not extend to Northern Ireland. Why not?

I am not in favour of giving preferential discriminatory treatment to Scotland, even though, as my hon. Friend has just confirmed, there is a different system of levying water rates in Scotland as compared with England. So I am an enthusiastic supporter of the amendment, and I am very happy, in this short contribution to the debate, to restore the total harmony that exists between Conservative and Unionist Members—I direct myself particularly to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—in East Sussex.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) was so anxious to re-establish and re-emphasise the natural unity between the South Coast towns which he shares in common with a number of my hon. Friends that he was almost lured into an examination of the threat to the Unionist cause inherent in the threat of devolution. That might have extended the debate very considerably.

But there is a narrow point of some importance here, and I may have to ask the Minister to clarify it. It may not be proper in the Bill to attempt to change the situation in England and Wales under which, if I understand it, water is a specific charge for a specific service and is not susceptible of or eligible for rate support grant or rate rebate. An important change is being made in the Bill. The Under-Secretary of State spelt it out in Committee when he emphasised that we were changing to a system of giving domestic relief by way of deduction from the rate bill rather than a reduction in the valuation of the property.

In so far as we are switching away from a system of a reduction in the valuation of the property, the hon. Gentleman will notice the situation in local authority areas where the water authority raises its specific charge by reference to a precept upon the local authority. I give as an example my local council, Harrogate District Council, in sending me my latest rate bill in that it included a precept of so much in the pound for water rate and sewerage. I leave aside sewerage.

My water rate is 15·10p in the pound. That rate is, no doubt, fixed by the Yorkshire Water Authority in relation to the total penny rate product of that local authority area. It determines what it has to levy in order to secure its specific charge. For the individual householder, however, the actual sum he pays is the penny rate in the pound multiplied by the specific rateable value of an individual property.

We have a situation here in which, as a result of the change we are making, the value of a disabled person's individual property will go up. The rateable value of the individual property will change. It will not be compensated for by a reduction in rateable value, which was the old system. The rateable value of the properties of disabled people will go up and they will be compensated by rebates.

3.15 p.m.

The effect of the rateable value going up will mean that their water charge may go up as well, because the precepting water authority levies its rate in respect of an individual property on the basis of its rateable value. That means that there will be a marked increase specifically limited to disabled people's houses because their rateable value will go up. The effect of the levying of the water charge will lay a specially heavy burden on the households of disabled folk, thereby going much further than the existing state of play whereby water rates are borne by the general rate in Scotland, but not in England. Therefore, we are exacerbating the situation for the disabled. I am sure that that is not the Government's intention. I hope that we can find a way of getting round it, but I do not see how.

It is of no use trying to avoid this issue. There is a difference in treatment between Scotland and England in the Bill in relation to the water rate.

Looking at Clauses 1 and 4, which are the respective English and Welsh and Scottish provisions, we see that the Bill does not attempt to provide rigid uniformity in the methods of dealing with rate relief. Therefore, we are not saying that everything is exactly the same north and south of the border.

The water authorities in Scotland are the same as the general rating authorities. One of the reorganisations that Scotland thankfully escaped was the reorganisation of the water services. That was taken care of in local government reform.

There are two points to be made here. The first is that we are dealing with very small amounts. In Scotland we are dealing with possibly 3p, 4p or 5p in the pound. Therefore, Scottish disabled people will not get a substantial advantage. Secondly, the general intention throughout the Bill has been as far as possible not to make anybody worse off as a result of any changes. That does not mean that some individuals will not be worse off. One cannot give a categoric assurance that no person will not perhaps be slightly worse off as a result of changes.

The fact that there are these differences in treatment and that we are trying not to disturb matters brings me to the point that we would be imposing an administrative burden on local authorities in Scotland, because they have to break down the rate bills into separate categories to show what would and would not be allowable for rebate.

I do not want to stimulate a second battle of Bannockburn. However, I should like to know whether in Scotland the water rate is separately levied or is part of an overall total rate. If it is separately levied, there should be no difficulty administratively in separating it. Before we had this nonsense in England of the untouchable water rate from the water authority, the water rate was always a separate levy and was always separated. If it is the same in Scotland, I do not see any administrative difficulty.

It is separately shown on the assessment. In that regard, it is separately levied. But we are dealing with 3p, 4p or 5p in the pound. It is such a small amount that it seems unnecessary to take the rate bill, as it were, and to diffuse out of it which part is allowable for rebate and which part is not.

I do not want to become involved in the devolution argument again Heaven knows, we have had enough trouble about that. One of my arguments about devolution is that it seems that many people in Scotland are demanding devolution because they want the same kind of provisions as apply in England. That is curious. I dare say that on devolution there will be a lot of common ground. I am not trying to tempt hon. Members away from what they think is the true path of virtue here.

I am surprised that the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) should argue that we must have uniformity throughout the whole of the United Kingdom, and that there should never be any swings, roundabouts or differences. I am anti-devolutionist, but there is room for treating people in different ways provided that the margin of advantage or disadvantage is not significant.

I should regret it if hon. Members were to press the amendment. I understand the problems of the rising costs of water in England and the other important issues which only the Under-Secretary of State can answer. I hope that hon. Members will not carry their views to the extent that they would deny to the people in Scotland the rate relief which they already possess, simply for the sake of stressing the problems with the water authorities in England.

I cannot help suspecting that the hon. Member has not examined in any depth the water rate issue in Scotland. It is cheap to provide water in many parts of Scotland, but it is just as expensive as in England to provide water in certain parts of Scotland. It might be a little tedious to have to examine the water rates at this stage of the Bill, and I accept that that is not a primary part of the Bill, but the hon. Member is not being fair to England and Wales by brushing the matter aside as a tedious administrative detail.

The hon. Member has confirmed that there is no difference in the detailed calculation in Scotland in that there is a separate levy which is put in with the ordinary domestic rate and billed by the water authority. I am tempted to press this matter. I urge the hon. Member at least to see that the issue is examined in another place. If he does that, we shall back down, but if he is saying dogmatically that Scotland will be treated separately and that he has not time to look at the water regulations in Scotland, he is tempting us.

I am sorry that the hon. Member is upset. We have come a long way today with good humour and with give and take. It would be tempting for me to say that I will take action without meaning it.

There is a real difficulty. I am not trying to dismiss it. I accept that it is a serious matter. But there are swings and roundabouts in the treatment of the disabled and the method of calculation north and south of the border. The tariff for England and Wales means that if one could take two individual disabled people who were equal in all respects they would, one way or the other, both get the same amount of relief. There would be a matter of pennies in it.

I ask hon. Members not to believe that I am dismissing the problems or seeking a peculiar advantage for Scottish disabled people. That is not my intention. I am asking hon. Members to allow for the disparities in the law, treatment and approach between Scotland and England and Wales. I urge them to allow for flexibility and not to press the amendment to take Scotland out of the arrangements. If that were done, we should have to recalculate the amount of money involved.

I am advised that the balance of advantage between the two sides is none. Taking the Bill as a whole and allowing for the Scottish water rate being treated differently, I believe that the people of Scotland do not have a marked advantage. I know hon. Members feel that the English would be disadvantaged, but I hope that they will not press the amendment.

I should like brieflly to follow up the logic of my earlier remarks on the need for simplicity on rebate periods and the like—

With respect, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I have not yet spoken to this amendment. I was referring to my remarks on a previous amendment.

I appeal to my hon. Friends to drop this amendment. The amounts involved must be tiny by the time water rates in England and Wales are scaled down in relation to the reductions in rateable value.

The argument which I put forward earlier and which I thought had a measure of support from my hon. Friends was that we should stop trying to make everything fair to the last hair's breadth of legalistic complexity. The same argument applies to this amendment. I think that the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) has made the case for leaving this matter where it is. If this amendment were pressed, I should feel inclined to vote against it.

Perhaps I might respond to the matter raised by the hon. Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison). One of the probably unintended consequences of the Bill was pointed out by the hon. Member, who referred to an anomalous situation whereby preferring the practice of giving rate relief to that of reducing the rateable value of a property in respect of a disabled person meant that it was likely that in many cases disabled persons might be required to pay a slightly larger water rate than otherwise on which in England and Wales it would be impossible to get relief.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) pointed out, the sums involved are very small. However, the hon. Member for Barkston Ash was right to point out the fault. He asked whether I knew of any possible way in which the anomaly could be removed. I know of none. I am afraid that we shall simply have to be content with this small anomaly.

I wish to raise one minor matter with the Minister, because it may be within his responsibility as well. I am sure that he appreciates that, with the inclusion of the sewerage rate in the water rate, quite a large slice is now taken out of the area of rate rebate in England and Wales. With water and sewerage rates put together, quite large sums nowadays cannot be subject to rate rebate. It makes quite a difference to what we are discussing. It is a consider able disadvantage to the English in this instance.

Even so, I suspect that the sums are still relatively small, though I accept what the hon. Member for Carlton (Mr. Holland) says.

It is clear from the discussion that there is a point of genuine concern on this aspect of the Bill. I accept that there can be different treatments in different parts of the country, with the proviso that English ratepayers or taxpayers are not being asked to give a special additional relief to our friends north of the border.

But, even taking that into account, the matter raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison) merits further consideration. I hope that the Minister and the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) will give careful thought to what has been said in this debate.

We are in danger of running out of time, and all of us wish this Bill to proceed. I do not want to continue the debate on this amendment, but I hope that in another place there will be an opportunity for this matter to be considered further and to see whether a way can be found out of this anomalous position.

Having said that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.