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I beg to move Amendment No. 198, in page 48, line 25, to leave out from beginning to 'Act' in line 27.
This point was discussed in Committee, all too shortly. It is an important matter, and the Minister was good enough to indicate that he would give it further consideration. He said that there was nothing to prevent the two parties getting together informally as the Bill is framed. But there is nothing in the Bill to indicate to anyone studying it to see what the procedure is that such a thing is permissible.
As we pointed out yesterday, we cannot rely in future on what the right hon. Gentleman believes is the interpretation of any specific Clause. People will be guided by what is actually in the Bill, and, as the Bill stands, it is stated clearly that discussions cannot begin until a counter notice objecting to the notice of assessment of levy has been served under Clause 46. We believe that all this is unnecessary palaver. It is an unnecessary formality because, if this machine is ever going to work, the works must be oiled in some way and it is just this sort of cumbersome and unwieldy procedure which will make it impossible for the Commission ever to get on the move—although whether, if it ever gets on the move, it stays on the rails is another question.
Our intention in moving the Amendment is simply and sincerely to oil the mechanism and help get the parties together informally so that discussions can take place. If it is not accepted, anyone receiving an assessment with which he disagrees or which is in error cannot do the normal, sensible thing—lift the telephone and point out to the Commission that the acreage is wrong, for example, or the date. He must go through all the cumbersome procedure laid down in Clause 46.
He must formally notify the Land Commission of the various details before his objection can be considered. That must be carried out however simple and straightforward the error may be. He has to serve a counter notice in which he states the grounds of his objection. He has to put in a statement of what he believes the counter assessment should be. To enable him to provide all the necessary information, he will in some cases have to go to considerable expense. He will be unwise if he does not get legal advice and he will surely have to get a valuer's advice. He may well have to draw upon a surveyor's advice. He will be involved in considerable expenditure. With this Amendment, we are genuinely seeking to oil the wheels of this cumbersome machine, and I hope the Minister will be able to accept it.
As the hon. Gentleman has said, we had an interesting discussion on this point in Committee and fears were expressed that it might not be possible for the Land Commission and the levy payer to agree before a counter-notice was served. My right hon. Friend agreed to look at this aspect very carefully. He has done so and, in correspondence with the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page), explaining what studies he has made, he has said that he is satisfied, on reconsideration, that there is nothing to prevent the Land Commission and the levy payer reaching agreement before the counter-notice is served.
The Amendment is therefore redundant. There is no need to provide a statutory procedure to deal with a case which can be settled without any. As we have pointed out from time to time, anything we can do to prevent the Bill being any longer and to make the procedure more flexible is to the good. If, before a counter-notice has been served, the Commission and the levy payer agree to vary the notice, the Commission already has full power to withdraw the notice and serve another. Indeed, a counter-notice may be withdrawn after it has been served, and provision for this is made in the Bill because it was thought that there should be statutory cover. But such a provision is not necessary in the case of a notice. With these assurances, and following our investigations, I hope that the Opposition will not press the Amendment.
The Minister and his Parliamentary Secretary are being peculiarly pig-headed over this. The Bill states a certain form of procedure. Only after a counter-notice has been served can an agreement by the Commission and the objector have any force. It is only after that process that subsection (2) comes into operation. It says:
Subject to the following provisions of this section, where an agreement is made as mentioned in the preceding subsection …
it can only be made in accordance with the preceding subsection if a counter-notice of objection to the notice of assessment has been served on the Commission. Subsection (2,b) says that the notice of assessment of levy can be treated
as varied in a particular manner …
and subsection (2,c) says:
if in accordance with the agreement the notice of assessment of levy is to be treated as withdrawn, the notice shall cease to have effect.
In effect, this says that if agreement is reached under Clause 48 it can only be made after a counter notice objecting to the notice of assessment. That is ridiculous. The hon. Gentleman said that anyway there is nothing to prevent the parties agreeing. If that is so, why have the Clause at all? What is the point of it if the parties can agree before or after a counter notice has been served? It would be better, in those circumstances, to remove the Clause altogether. With this Amendment, we are trying to say that we should have a provision that the parties can agree at any time and that the agreement shall have the effect set out in subsection (2). But if they can agree at any time as the position stands, then let us have the Clause out altogether. As it is, anyone reading the Bill will say, "I cannot reach agreement with the Commission until I have served a counter notice". He will therefore trot off to his solicitor, who may say, "I cannot draw this counter notice without advice from a surveyor or valuer", and the fees will go up, whereas he could go straight
to the Commission, discuss the matter across the table and come to an agreement.
I should prefer not to have a dispute on this matter because there is very little between the two sides of the House. Both sides are trying to do what is best for the levy payer. There is much to be said for leaving this procedure flexible, particularly in view of the assurance I have given and the advice we have received.
The hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) asked why we should have the provision in the Bill. I said that where the assessment could be withdrawn after the counter-notice had been put in this should be given statutory authority, because this is probably the point at which disputes will arise and the matter will go elsewhere. There must be some finality and some stage at which the matter becomes subject to statute.
I suggest that on the other point which the hon. Gentleman mentioned we should be tying down both the Commission and the levy payer in a way which was undesirable.