Business Rate Supplements Bill (Programme No. 2)

Theft from Shops (Use of Penalty Notices for Disorder) – in the House of Commons at 12:35 pm on 11th March 2009.

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Motion made, and Question proposed,

That the Programme Order of 12 January 2009 (Business Rate Supplements Bill (Programme)) be varied as follows:

1. Paragraphs 4 and 5 shall be omitted.

2. Proceedings on consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion for this Order.

3. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion four hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion for this Order. — (John Healey.)

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Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government), Deputy Chair, Conservative Party 12:46 pm, 11th March 2009

My hon. Friends and I are concerned about the programme motion because, although the Bill is insubstantial in volume, it could have an enormous impact on businesses in the United Kingdom. It could impose a burden of up to £600 million a year on businesses, even though business rates have already increased by 5 per cent. this year and there is a prospect of a further revaluation using a multiplier that is now out of date in the light of the changed economic circumstances.

Although the Bill has been through a careful and constructive Committee stage, it raises a number of technical issues, and I notice that two significant new clauses have been tabled for discussion today—one by Dan Rogerson and the other by Mr. Raynsford. They both raise issues that deserve serious consideration. In fairness, during the course of the Bill's consideration in Committee, the Minister said that he would look at some of those issues, in particular the question of the property owner levy in business improvement districts, which is the subject of the new clause tabled by the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich, and the issue of business's involvement in the delivery and oversight of the business rate supplements project, which I and other hon. Members raised.

We have not yet received an inkling of the Government's thinking on those matters, although I am sure that it will emerge in the debate today. However, given that the House is not overburdened with business at the moment, it might have been better to devise a programme motion that allowed for more reflection on those issues, so that we could consider whether, if my hon. Friends and I are unsuccessful in winning our principal point of opposition to the Bill, we could at least do more to ameliorate any unforeseen and perverse impacts on certain sectors of the business community. For that reason, we shall seek to oppose the programme motion.

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Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham 12:48 pm, 11th March 2009

I share the concern expressed by my hon. Friend Robert Neill. There is also a general point to be made here. How much longer will the Government go on with this absurd process of guillotining and timetabling every Bill? Under previous Governments of both parties, most Bills went through this House without any guillotine whatever. They went through in the time that the House felt they needed. Sometimes we needed less time than the Government might have thought, and sometimes we needed more. Governments of both parties accommodated the wish and will of the House on the ground that this is the democratic Chamber, and the place in which we ought to be able to talk sensibly about a Bill for as long as it takes to deal with any problems.

This is a particularly nasty and spiteful little Bill. It will impose up to £600 million of taxation on business at a time when business is running out of money and when the grotesque mismanagement of the money supply and the banking system in this country by the Government and their regulators has left business in a very weak position. Now we see them back for third helpings wanting up to £600 million more out of businesses' coffers at a time when they are having to worry about how they pay the gas bill or the staff wages, or keep in business at all.

I do not know for how long the House would like to discuss the Bill, but I do not understand why the Government cannot let us discuss it for as long as we think it should take. They may get a pleasant surprise; some of its stages may take less time than they have laid down in their motion. However, surely the least that they could do in the circumstances would be to give us the freedom to express ourselves and to have the debate that we want.

This is a revenue-raising Bill. This great House of Commons built its democratic strength on being able to challenge how much money was raised and how it was spent. It is doing a dreadful job of that at the moment. Huge sums of money go through without our having the opportunity to discuss and challenge them in the normal way, as we saw with this week's £20 billion supplementary estimate, which was not even down on the Order Paper for debate and went through on the nod. This £600 million should not go through on the Government's timetable but according to the will of the House.

I urge the Minister, at this late stage, to do the decent thing by withdrawing the guillotine motion and letting us discuss this properly. If it takes longer than until 7 o'clock tonight, what is the problem? We are paid to do our job. I am happy to stay here a bit later if there are lots of colleagues with sensible points to make, so why are the Government not willing? Why will they not do the decent thing?

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Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 12:51 pm, 11th March 2009

I entirely agree with Mr. Redwood and Robert Neill. Those who have been following our debates on the Bill closely are likely to be those who will be affected by it, including the representative organisations that have taken the trouble to contact hon. Members and talk to us. However, many of the businesses that will be affected probably do not yet understand how big an impact this might have on them. As we heard from the right hon. Member for Wokingham, there are huge pressures on business at the moment, and the issues on which business people will rightly be concentrating are staying in business, managing to get the finance that they need from banks, and so on. Liberal Democrat Members are certainly willing to explore the issue, provided that those who are to pay any extra levy have the final say through a ballot, which we will discuss later.

The undue haste with which the measure is being pushed through is not the proper way to proceed. If hon. Members feel that they need more time to tease out the issues and explore them in more detail, they should have that time. This legislation is potentially very serious in terms of the extra burden that it could place on businesses without their having the opportunity to comment on it in their local area. That is why I share the concerns that have been raised about the nature of motion before us.

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Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster 12:52 pm, 11th March 2009

Having served on the Public Bill Committee, I pay tribute to the Minister for the work that was done during the evidence-gathering sessions. We had the opportunity to carry out a pretty full analysis of what the Bill was about. However, I endorse the words of my right hon. Friend Mr. Redwood. He did not serve on the Committee, but he recognises the Bill's huge importance to the financing of large-scale infrastructure projects; I suspect that it will even go beyond that. That will affect our constituents throughout the UK, not least because much of this money will be raised through a supplementary charge on local businesses during difficult times.

It is regrettable that these constraints have been imposed by business managers; I accept that the Minister may not necessarily be directly to blame. Given that other elements of our business have fallen away quite easily, and that may well apply to much of the work in the next week or two, given what is likely to be dealt with, it is surprising that this did not warrant a full day's debate instead of being truncated to four hours.

Given that the motion is likely to go to a vote, the danger is that the longer I and colleagues speak in this debate, the more we reduce the amount of time available for proper scrutiny, and there are important matters to be debated later on. This is regrettable. I hope that even if the Minister decides not to take on board our concerns at this juncture, he will at least consider them and ensure that when we discuss such crucial Bills in the future involving tax-raising we can deal with them properly.

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Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

Is this not an unreasonable pressure to place on us? There is nothing wrong with debating whether the House should receive this summary treatment or be given a proper length of time for consideration, but why should that be taken out of the time spent on the Bill? It is absolutely outrageous. This is all part of the thuggery of this Government's approach towards the House of Commons. They will not let us have time to discuss anything: they say, "If you discuss A, you can't discuss B." They need to get used to democracy.

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Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend's every word. I only hope that there are not too many hostages to fortune for a future Conservative Government and that we will ensure we do not go down this path when these matters arise.

I will not detain the House any further. I hope that the Minister will take on board our concerns even if he will not allow a longer debate today. These are very important issues that affect all of us as constituency Members, and they deserve full and proper consideration by this House.

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Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Conservative, Northampton South 12:55 pm, 11th March 2009

This programme motion surprises me. We hear many fine words from the Government about the importance of small and medium-sized businesses, but see little action. We have talked a lot about giving money to that sector through the banks, but it is not getting through, and we still do not get a reaction from the Government that suggests they really understand that.

However, that is not what we are discussing. We are talking about loading more financial burdens on to small and medium-sized businesses from April 2010. I bet you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that many local authorities will jump on this bandwagon, not least because they consider that they have been starved of cash over recent years and see this as an opportunity to do a little more than they have been able to hitherto. I suppose that that could be considered a good thing.

The Minister will know how many business organisations have objected to this measure. He will know how much they fear the role of local government in extracting more money from them.

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Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

Why is my hon. Friend surprised by the motion, given that this Government have a history of curtailing debate?

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Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Conservative, Northampton South

I will be delighted to answer that if I can get into the mindset of the Government, which is difficult. I would have thought that they would not want this motion because they wanted to make it clear to the business communities affected that they wanted it to be fully debated. The eyes of the business community are on us at this moment. That community is very aware of the Bill and deeply concerned about it. It has made representations in sizeable numbers and of sizeable length. I would have thought that the Government were concerned about that particular constituency, as they are opinion formers who talk to the electorate and come into contact with them all the time. I would have thought that, with an election looming, the Government may feel that that was a good reason to want to prove that they were being fair to small business. The fact is, however, that they are not being fair to small business, because they are not providing the opportunity to have this measure fully and properly debated without the constraints of a programme motion. That is why I am surprised by the motion. I hope that the Government will reconsider at this last moment and withdraw it.

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Photo of John Healey John Healey Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Local Government) 12:58 pm, 11th March 2009

I quite understand why Robert Neill and his friends are using the programme motion to make arguments that go well beyond the scope of the Bill, and well beyond the issue of the scrutiny that the House will, quite properly, give the subjects before it this afternoon, once we are able to get on to them. He was right to say that the Bill has been well debated so far, so let me remind him of something as he tries to argue for more time this afternoon than the Government have proposed. I say this to Dan Rogerson, too, who accuses the Government of undue haste. We had three very good evidence sessions, as Mr. Field said. We then agreed to hold six scrutiny sessions. We finished early on the fifth, and we did not need the sixth. The Bill was, as the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said, well debated and properly scrutinised in the Public Bill Committee.

The programme motion gives the House ample time to do its job properly. I urge my hon. Friends to support the programme motion if the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst insists on opposing it.

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Question put.

The House divided: Ayes 255, Noes 180.

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Question accordingly agreed to.

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