Clause 1 — Unoccupied hereditaments: chargeable amount
Orders of the Day
Greg Knight (East Yorkshire, Conservative)
That is absolutely right; I agree with my right hon. Friend, and it is right and proper that we consider each and every one of the exemptions today.
I have some doubts about the cut-off period of three months mentioned in proposed new subsection (1A)(a). I can understand why the provision is there—it is because we want to achieve a balance between being fair to the owner and seeking to bring a property back into use. In some instances, however, there may be good reasons why the property is vacant for more than three months, and I should have preferred paragraph (a) to allow the owner to plead cause beyond that period. I regret the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Poole chose not to include such a provision. That is a minor criticism of the drafting, however, and I none the less support the amendment.
Paragraph (b) of proposed new subsection (1A), however, is rather curious, and I am not entirely happy with the drafting. I gave my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal an example of a situation that may arise when a violent husband attacks his spouse and is subject to a court order that prevents him from re-entering his property. In those circumstances, paragraph (b) would exempt him from paying any rateable charge, which I am sure is not what we intend to achieve. Perhaps the Minister will give us his thoughts on the matter when he responds to the debate.
Paragraph (c) of proposed new subsection (1A) is an essential exemption. A property may be kept vacant by the Health and Safety Executive, acting on behalf of the Crown, because a staircase is unsafe. If the property is a listed building, specialists may have to be brought in to carry out alterations to the staircase before it can be safely used. In the interim, the owner, who is using all his endeavours to improve the property, should not face a rates bill, so paragraph (c) is vital. I hope that the Minister accepts it, but if he does not, I hope that a similar exemption will apply.
Turning to paragraph (h), I had some experience when practising as a solicitor of dealing with the winding up of estates. Sometimes that is easy and quick to complete, but that is not so if there is no will or, if there is one, if the family do not know where the beneficiaries live. Documentation may be missing, so probate sometimes takes far more than a year to complete. In the interim it is wholly unfair to charge the personal representative, who may be a family member and not a well-paid solicitor who can reimburse himself for any charges by charging the estate. Why should the widow or widower who has to deal with the estate in a time of emotional stress and difficulty suddenly find that they have to pay, in addition to any duties payable by the estate, a rateable charge on an empty property? I therefore hope that the Minister will accept the fairness and common sense of the exemption in paragraph (h).
Some of us wonder why there is a need for the Bill at all. If the Chancellor and the Prime Minister had not given away part of our EU rebate to Europe, we would not need to collect £1 billion from this piece of legislation. The Bill should not have been introduced, but we are, however, considering it. We are trying to make it better, so I hope that the Minister accepts amendment No. 6.