Clause 29 — Regulations etc.
Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister
Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole, Labour)
I shall not detain the House too long, because when we debate this issue I feel increasingly that I am turning into Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day". I simply turn up and say exactly the same thing over and again and get exactly the same response. At the heart of the matter is the fact that we are discussing Lords amendments to the Business Rate Supplements Bill, but a lot of us who represent ports represent companies that think that they are already being charged a business rate supplement. They have paid their rates once through the cumulo system—that is not really disputed, and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Minister said earlier that people should come forward with evidence of that if it exists. In a previous debate, I said to the previous Minister that Associated British Ports sent out a letter to those companies at a time when their business rates had been increased to say that the cumulo was being increased to cover the increase in business rates. If that does not prove that business rates are included in what they pay, I do not know what else can prove the point.
We have got ourselves into a completely unnecessary mess. The other place did this House a service by passing amendment 11. It has ensured that the issue comes back on to the agenda and that all Members can see that there is a solution. That solution might well have been directed at the problems in our ports, but the amendment is a good one in its own right. Even if the Government still feel uneasy about the port situation, what on earth is wrong with or offensive about the amendment? It should be passed and it should be applied to the ports companies. There can be no fairness when good companies are struggling to stay in business because they are being asked to pay, for a second time, business rates backdated to 2005. They can no longer go back to their customers and reclaim the money.
ABP, which is not the only owner of ports in this country but affects the area that I represent in Goole, has made it perfectly clear that the money that the Government have paid back to them will not be passed on. This is retrospection and double taxation. In fairness to ABP, it says that because although it might have got its money back in ports such as Goole its liability across the country has gone up, too. I do not think ABP sees itself as a winner out of this whole sorry tale, either.
I plead with the Minister, who is new to her post and who will have had all sorts of briefings and notes from officials that say, "Resist," "Stick with the line," and "Don't let them grind you down." We all know what happens in these scenarios. However, it needs dealing with because this problem will not go away. I might be wrong, but I think that the most likely thing that will happen today will be that the Government will win the day on the amendment, despite the fact that Members on both sides of the House will vote in favour of their lordships' position. Of course, that will not be the end of it, because the amendment will go back to the other place. I hope that if we end up with that scenario, their lordships will take heart from the fact that there is cross-party consensus that the provision is just wrong and that it needs to be dealt with.
I had the great honour a few years ago, for one year, of being Parliamentary Private Secretary to the much missed Lord Williams when he was Leader of the House of Lords and I know what happens in this scenario. No Government want to lose legislation because of one bit of controversy, so at some point people have to sit down and to start talking about what will ensure that both Houses can reach an agreement. If we are unsuccessful today, I hope that their lordships will see that there is strong support in this House for the amendment and will sit down with representatives of the Government to thrash out a position that can be brought back to both Houses on which we will agree.
This matter will not go away, because it is manifestly and obviously unfair. Companies in ports up and down the nation are struggling in already difficult circumstances because of the failure to grasp this simple matter, which is not of the Government's making. We all accept that the Valuation Office Agency messed it up in the first place, but there is an obvious solution. I refuse to believe that it is beyond the wit of people in this House and the other place to reach a solution together, so for goodness' sake let us get on and do it.