All Simon Clarke contributions to the Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Act 2021

Thu 3rd September 2020
Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill
Commons Chamber

3rd reading: House of Commons
Committee: 1st sitting
Committee: 1st sitting: House of Commons
Report stage: House of Commons
Committee stage
Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
7 interactions (669 words)
Thu 16th July 2020
7 interactions (1,542 words)

Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill

(3rd reading: House of Commons)
Simon Clarke Excerpts
Richard Holden Portrait Mr Richard Holden (North West Durham) (Con)
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I will try to be brief, although I must make a declaration as co-chair of the all-party group on local democracy, which has been pushing for this legislation for some time.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) and for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray), who have worked on this with me. I would also like to pick up on some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker), who recognised the great work that his parish councils are doing to keep their public loos going, and to recognise some of my own, some of which I also used on my summer surgery tour this year, in Rookhope, which is run by Stanhope Parish Council and Durham County Council, and in Wolsingham, run by the parish council there. The latter council is one of the reasons why I have been such an active campaigner on this issue, because it is paying about 2% of its annual budget on the rates for the public loos, so this relief today will make a major contribution.

I want to pick up on a couple of the Opposition’s amendments. I am glad they have withdrawn amendment 1, which would have extended the scope of the Bill, and amendment 2, which would have limited it, as they were somewhat contradictory. Amendment 3 would add a level of complexity for much larger councils and is unnecessary at this stage, although it will be well worth considering the issues it raises for inclusion in future legislation.

Simon Clarke Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (Mr Simon Clarke)
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3 Sep 2020, midnight

Today’s debate has raised some interesting and valid points that help us to understand how the provisions of the Bill will operate. But before I get to the detail of the amendments, let me first remind the Committee of the purpose of the Bill.

As has been discussed, the importance of public lavatories to our communities and economy is recognised by local and central Government alike. In particular, we recognise, especially at this time, the need for access to high-quality facilities to maintain high standards of public hygiene. More broadly, good toilet provision helps the high street and supports the independence of people who rely on those facilities. This small but important measure supports the Government’s strategy to open up our economy and society as we recover from coronavirus and delivers on the Budget 2020 commitment to provide a mandatory business rates relief for public lavatories.

As Members would expect, the Bill has been welcomed by councils that operate public lavatories, as well as by the public who use them. It will ensure that eligible public lavatories, both privately and publicly run, will receive a 100% reduction in their business rates. Crucially, in cutting the costs of public lavatories, particularly in cases in which rates bills make up a significant proportion of their running costs, the Bill will help to keep these vital facilities open.

To ensure that both local authority and privately run facilities receive support to respond to the current pressures, the Bill contains provisions for it to apply with retrospective effect from 1 April 2020. That means that the relief will be backdated to the start of the current financial year. By making the relief mandatory, the full cost of the measure will be met by central Government. Authorities in England will be fully compensated for awarding the relief through the usual grant process. Business rates are, of course, a devolved matter; nevertheless, I am pleased to say that, with the consent of the Welsh Government, the Bill will apply to both England and Wales.

--- Later in debate ---
Kate Hollern Portrait Kate Hollern
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I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clauses 1 to 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Third Reading

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Simon Clarke
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3 Sep 2020, midnight

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

This Government know how important good lavatory provision is for all of us at work, in our leisure time or as we shop, and this Bill delivers on the commitment made by the Government at Budget to establish a 100% mandatory business rate relief for eligible public lavatories.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Members on both sides of the House for their positive contributions, in particular my hon. Friends the Members for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) and for North West Durham. This Bill has genuine cross-party support, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Blackburn for her constructive comments. I am also grateful to those who, on Second Reading, fully supported this measure, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) and for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), who have both worked tirelessly in support of getting this measure on to the statute book. This represents mission accomplished. Furthermore, I would like to reiterate the welcome support offered to the Bill’s passage from the National Association of Local Councils and the British Toilet Association, as well as local authorities, including town and parish councils up and down our country, who have worked so hard to open their facilities to the public and to support their local communities.

During the passage of the Bill, a number of questions and points have been raised that it may be helpful for me to address briefly. I can confirm that local authorities will be fully compensated by central Government for awarding the relief, including those lavatories run by parish and town councils. Subject to enactment of the Bill, the relief will apply with effect from 1 April this year, meaning that eligible properties will receive a backdated discount, ensuring that they will pay nothing in the current financial year and onwards. In line with other reliefs, local authorities will be responsible for determining eligibility within the scope of the legislation and will award support to those lavatories that they consider to qualify for support.

It is also worth noting that in late July, the Government published our response to the Changing Places consultation and announced changes to building regulation guidance to mandate the provision of Changing Places toilets for the most severely disabled in many new public buildings. That is the right thing to have done and it is something that we can all be proud of across the House.

This Bill is a positive measure, which has been widely welcomed by those who run public lavatories, and provides support to help keep these facilities open. I commend it to the House.

Kate Hollern Portrait Kate Hollern
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3 Sep 2020, 12:02 a.m.

I will keep this brief, as I am sure the Minister will be pleased to hear. It is disappointing that the Government have rejected our amendments, which, for reasons already outlined, we believe would have further widened public access to loos. The Minister will be aware that there are strong feelings in both Houses about the number, quality and accessibility of public loos, and the Lords will return to the matters that we have raised in our amendments.

The Bill as it stands is a welcome attempt to cover some of the costs associated with public lavatories, and for that reason, we will support it. The relief that the Bill provides does not cover all the costs of maintaining public loos, given the enhanced cleaning regimes that councils and other loo providers have put in place to tackle covid.

I sincerely hope that introducing the Bill at this time is a signal from the Government that they are committed to supporting councils, many of which have run public toilets during this crisis. If the Government are serious about saving public loos, they should also consider our request to carry out an equality impact assessment. Doing so would be a tangible demonstration that the Government are committed to supporting the most vulnerable.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill

(2nd reading)
Simon Clarke Excerpts

Second Reading

Simon Clarke Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (Mr Simon Clarke)
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16 Jul 2020, 12:04 a.m.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Government recognise the vital role that public lavatories play in our communities and the economy. Ensuring access to public toilets and handwashing facilities is critical in maintaining a high level of public hygiene as the lockdown continues to ease across the country. More generally, our ability to work or to enjoy leisure time often depends on the availability of appropriate toilet facilities. This is especially important for essential workers such as taxi or delivery drivers who do not work in fixed locations and who often rely on public facilities, and it will be important for all of us as more and more people begin making use of our public spaces again as lockdown eases.

Given how vital these facilities are, it is understandable that there has been significant public concern about the potential reduction in available lavatories. Members of this House have also raised valid concerns about the provision of toilet facilities in their own constituencies. At Budget 2018, the Government responded to calls from local councils and the public and committed to introduce a business rates relief for public lavatories. This Bill delivers on that commitment, providing support for those who provide public lavatories, both publicly and privately run, by reducing one of the most significant running costs for toilets and making it easier for them to be kept open.

Today also marks an opportunity to thank colleagues in this House who have campaigned long and hard for the Bill’s introduction, including my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), who is in his place, and my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), as well as a number of others. Furthermore, I thank the National Association of Local Councils for providing its support for this Bill. I am pleased to say that, in line with the announcement at Budget 2020 by the Chancellor, this Bill will, subject to Royal Assent, apply retrospectively from April 2020. That will mean that, for eligible properties, the relief will be backdated to the start of this financial year.

Andrew Griffith Portrait Andrew Griffith (Arundel and South Downs) (Con)
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I thank my hon. Friend for bringing forward the Bill. Does he share with me the relief felt by key workers across my constituency, such as ambulance drivers and the police, who, in rural areas, often conduct very long shifts and, as a result of the efficiency of putting those workers on the frontline, no longer benefit from physical facilities themselves?

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
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That is a well made point. It is precisely because so many people rely on these facilities that it is important that we do this. Although it is not necessarily the kind of legislation that people will talk about in 100 years’ time, it is of real, practical value.

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
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16 Jul 2020, 12:01 a.m.

As the hon. Lady says, they should—because this legislation does something of lasting benefit. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith), and I also commend the hard work of our emergency services throughout the current crisis.

I am aware that, as we emerge from lockdown restrictions, there has been concern about the reopening of public toilet facilities that may have been closed because of covid-19. Although decisions on reopening public lavatories are rightly for councils, the Government have been clear that we encourage them to open wherever possible. Indeed, I wrote to councils in June to say just this and to refer them to the Government’s advice on measures that can be taken to open toilets safely. I am grateful to councils for their efforts in reopening these facilities and hope that today’s Bill will come as welcome news.

I extend my general gratitude to the local authorities, town and parish councils up and down the country that work hard to provide public lavatories in their areas and to keep them open. I also pay tribute to the councils, associations and businesses that have launched innovative local initiatives to provide further lavatory access to the public—for example, the community toilet scheme devised by the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames that is now used by local authorities across the country. This enables local businesses to work together with councils to widen lavatory access so that the public can use their facilities without making a purchase. I recognise that that may be more challenging in current circumstances, but it is an innovative and helpful approach that I commend, and which will become important as more and more businesses reopen.

I highlight the excellent work of the British Toilet Association and its national campaign—imaginatively called “Use Our Loos”—which encourages businesses to join these community schemes and open their toilets to the public. Participating lavatories are shown on a map called the Great British public toilet map, so that visitors to an area always know the location of available facilities.

For some people, medical or other conditions may mean that they are particularly likely to need access to toilet facilities at short notice, so I very much welcome the introduction of the “Can’t Wait” card, which is now widely accepted by businesses, even when they do not offer public facilities. I am sure that Members across the House will join me in commending such initiatives, which are already making a huge difference to people’s lives.

For people with special access requirements, it is about not just having any facilities available, but having the right facilities. That is why there has been a strong cross-Government drive to provide more Changing Places lavatories to help maintain the dignity of people with special lavatory requirements when they are away from home. The Department for Transport’s inclusive transport strategy includes £2 million to improve the provision of Changing Places toilets in motorway service areas, and the Department of Health and Social Care has made £2 million available to install over 100 Changing Places toilets in NHS hospitals throughout England.

In May 2019, we launched a consultation on proposals for the increased provision of Changing Places toilets in new and refurbished buildings. Following that consultation, the Government have committed to change building regulations guidance to mandate the provision of Changing Places toilets in new public buildings. At Budget 2020, the Chancellor confirmed that the Government will launch a £30 million Changing Places fund. This will allow the Government to work with the Changing Places Consortium and others to identify the sectors where we most need to accelerate the provision of such facilities in existing buildings.

Although the focus of today’s Bill and this debate is public toilets, I recognise that this Bill comes at a time of unprecedented challenges for business, when business rates may be at the forefront of concerns for those who occupy non-domestic properties. That is why the Government are taking unprecedented steps to help businesses that are most affected. As a result of the Government’s expanded retail, hospitality and leisure relief, eligible businesses are expected to receive almost £10 billion in business rates relief as part of the Government’s wider support for the economy during the pandemic. Combined with existing measures, this means that a total of 1.1 million ratepayers—over half of all ratepayers—will pay no business rates at all in 2020-21. Our economic response is one of the most generous globally, and the Government are working urgently to deliver vital schemes such as the expanded retail discount as quickly as possible. I would like to use today’s debate to pay tribute to local authorities for working hard to implement these measures right across the country.

The Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill is only a short, four-clause Bill, but one that is important to reduce running costs and help keep these vital public facilities open. The Government have been listening to and addressing issues surrounding the provision of public toilets for some time. A measure to enable local authorities to give business rates relief to public toilets through the discretionary relief system was included as part of the Local Government Finance Bill in 2017, and concerns were raised that a discretionary relief not fully funded by central Government would not be widely used. The Government have listened. This Bill will provide 100% mandatory relief. Specifically, the Bill provides 100% mandatory business rates relief to properties in England and Wales that are used wholly or mainly as public lavatories. Local authorities will be responsible for implementing the relief and will be fully compensated by central Government for any loss of local income resulting from the measure. Subject to the safe passage of the Bill, it will have retrospective effect from 1 April just gone, in line with the Chancellor’s commitment at Budget.

The Welsh Government have worked with the UK Government to ensure that public lavatories in Wales will also benefit from this measure. That will help the Welsh Government to deliver their commitment to provide access to public toilets for public use under part 8 of the Public Health (Wales) Act 2017.

A business rates relief for public toilets has been called for by councils and health and disability charities for some time and has wide-ranging public support. The Government have responded. This small but important Bill will make a real difference to many people’s lives, including essential workers, as lockdown eases. The savings will assist councils. Removing the additional costs of business rates could make the difference in helping to keep these vital facilities open, while supporting high standards of public hygiene as we emerge from the virus. I hope that Members across the House will agree that this is a positive step and support the Bill’s passage. I commend it to the House.

Thangam Debbonaire Portrait Thangam Debbonaire (Bristol West) (Lab)
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16 Jul 2020, midnight

I do not know where to start—after so many weeks away from this place, it is extraordinary to come back to this Bill, which is incredibly important.

On the east coast of India, in a town called Pondicherry, on the seafront, beside a broad walkway, underneath coconut trees and opposite a massive statue of Gandhi, there is a large public sign. It has a map of the town on it, and all public lavatories are clearly marked. There are pictures and diagrams clearly illustrating activities that may be carried out in them, and importantly, there are also pictures and diagrams illustrating equally clearly where those activities should not be carried out. There is information about the public health consequences of carrying out these exercises other than in lavatories. It requires no app and no internet. The sign is replicated in other public meeting spots around the town, and I love it—I love it so much that I have a picture of it on my phone. I have followed the toilet trail around the town, and I can vouch for every one.

On a serious note, the message from the sign is clear, and it is one that we need to reflect on as we consider this Bill. Across the whole globe, public health requires that there are public toilets and that people can use them with confidence, know where they are and trust that they will be available, safe and clean for use. I salute that wonderful town and all the others across the world who understand the need to promote public lavatories and, importantly, to break down taboos about talking about them, because we definitely need to do that.

It is absurd to think that people will leave their homes for leisure, pleasure or the many jobs that take us out and about and suspend their need for a lavatory. Urination, defecation, menstruation and changing babies’ nappies are all natural bodily functions, even if we do not enjoy talking about them, and they all require toilets. The absence of toilets does not remove those bodily functions. Instead, it removes people’s freedom to enjoy public space. It affects their health or, unfortunately, prompts the unsavoury use of public space as a lavatory. The Bill recognises that, in part, and we will be supporting it. Since it helps to address some of the problems of financing the upkeep of a public lavatory, we will not stand in its way.

I want to place on record my appreciation of the House of Commons Library research staff, who turned around a briefing for my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Kate Hollern) and I in quick time to help us to prepare for this debate, and of the Royal Society for Public Health and the British Toilet Association. Their contributions inform our scrutiny and will help us to make suggestions for improvements, which I hope Ministers will consider in the autumn. I also thank the Clerks in advance for their help.

We will support the Bill, but we have concerns. First, there is the lack of help with lavatories in other public buildings, such as a library or a community hall. Secondly, the Bill does not redress the overall damage done by the past 10 years of cuts to local authority funding, which have resulted in councils’ unwillingly taking difficult decisions to remove loos or restrict their use. I am concerned that the funding that the Bill provides, though welcome, will not be sufficient to remedy the gaps, and I want to ensure that the Government are aware of the strain that local authorities are under at the moment in any case.

Thirdly, there is no recognition of the consequent inequality of access to public space, particularly for elderly, sick or disabled people, parents of young children and women and girls. Nor does the Bill recognise the consequences for all of us when some people end up using the public space. Fourthly—I know the Bill was originally planned before covid, as the Minister also mentioned, but here we are—there is nothing that I can see that would help struggling local councils to restore and to provide additional cleaning and staffing during this crisis, at a time when we all want to encourage people to feel confident about going out and about. The Minister mentioned the covid importance, but I have not yet seen anything that deals with those increased costs, and I hope we can return to that at a later date.

I would like each hon. Member here to imagine the loo map of their own constituency. They have probably all checked, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I hope you have too. It is a fascinating subject. Has the map been made public? Is it in plain view? Can it be found in a place that people naturally head to for information? Can someone who does not have a smartphone easily find out where the loo is while they are out and about? Will it be close, open, safe and—ideally—free?

To anyone listening to our debate who says they never use public loos—I do, by the way—I encourage them to consider what it is like to have a bladder infection, to be in that early stage of pregnancy where the baby is causing urgent needs, to be elderly and not able to sprint to a lav, or not to have the confidence to go into a café and say, “I have a medical condition and I need to use your loo.”

Many councils, towns and cities, including Bristol, do have the schemes that the Minister has mentioned to use loos in private property, but many people do not know about those schemes. That includes the Can’t Wait card; the Minister quite rightly commended businesses for that, but I fear that many people still do not know about it or do not have the confidence to use it, and of course at the moment many businesses are shut.

If there are not sufficient facilities, we all suffer. There are the social and economic consequences, and there are consequences for us all, with the smells, health and hygiene problems, if people choose to or feel forced to urinate or defecate in public. The Royal Society for Public Health recently published a fantastic report called “Taking the P***”—one can fill in the asterisks for oneself, Mr Deputy Speaker. The subtitle, and the subject, is “The decline of the great British toilet”. It is a most educational report, and I urge everyone who has a problem discussing the subject of loos to take a read and consider what life would be like if we did not have public toilets, and what it is already like when there are not enough.

More than half of the public apparently restrict their intake of fluids before and during a trip out, at the risk of dehydration and other health consequences. One in five operate on a toilet leash, not allowing themselves to go further than they can nip back home from to use the loo; that number rises to more than two in five for those who have medical conditions. That has economic as well as social consequences.