My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment 2, which is in the same group. This follows what I thought was an interesting and useful discussion in Committee on the meaning of the words “wholly or mainly” when it came to defining whether a hereditament qualified for the zero rating under business rates as a public lavatory. In Committee I probed whether “mainly” was about the area it covered, perhaps the floor area, the value or the use. The Minister made it very clear that it was about the use; I have been reading what he said in Committee and that is very clear indeed. I will come back to that because Amendment 1 is the more important of these two amendments.
Amendment 2 is about the percentage use of the hereditament that qualifies for non-payment of any business rates. In Committee the Minister made it clear that the words “wholly or mainly” were put in because, he said, they are commonly used words in this kind of legislation, particularly in relation to charities. He referred to case law and to local authorities having some flexibility in whether they decide it is a public hereditament. He said:
“The use of ‘mainly’ means that an authority may, for example, look at the floor area of a building and see that less than 50% is being used directly as a public lavatory, but it may still feel that it meets the criteria … because the remaining area is used as storage or for other matters of little consequence.”—[Official Report, 24/2/21; col. 852.]
The interesting thing is that it is not entirely clear that 50% is absolutely clear and written into the legislation. The Minister kept saying that he did not want greater burdens to be put on local authorities and did not want them to spend more time on this, yet there seems to be some disagreement, in the context of business rates relating to use for charitable purposes, about whether the proportion of the use that is taking place has to be 50% or more. The Charity Tax Group says in its briefing:
“In order to benefit from the mandatory exemption from business rates it is important to understand the meaning of ‘wholly or mainly used for charitable purposes’. Case law suggests that ‘mainly’ probably means ‘more than half’; but there is a certain amount of ambiguity about this and the interpretation may vary from local authority to local authority” which is unsatisfactory.
“It is sometimes argued that ‘mainly’ in fact means more than 75 per cent. Charities may have to try to negotiate this with their local authority.”
I am no expert on this area and I do not know how much of that goes on, but it seems sensible that if “mainly” means 50% or more that ought to be written into the Bill.
Amendment 1 would put into the legislation the exact words in the charitable legislation and the exact words that the Minister said in Committee referred to this legislation. I looked it up. Section 45A(2)(b) of the Local Government Finance Act 1988 reads, for charitable relief,
“it appears that when next in use the hereditament will be wholly or mainly used for charitable purposes.”
There is then another paragraph that refers to community amateur sports clubs that has the same wording.
I am therefore trying, in an attempt to be really helpful to the Government, which I always attempt to do in legislation because if we get good legislation it is clear what it means and it is workable, to put into the Bill the wording in the Local Government Finance Act, which in Committee the Minister said applied to this Bill, which is to say that it is not, as this Bill states at the moment
“consists wholly or mainly of”,
“is used wholly or mainly” for public lavatory purposes.
This is a very sensible little amendment. The Government ought to say, “Yes, of course. It’s sensible. Let’s put it in.” I beg to move.
My Lords, I draw the House’s attention to my interests in the register as a member of Kirklees Council and as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I must say that I enjoyed the forensic probing that my noble friend Lord Greaves has undertaken. The words in the Bill that he is keen to clarify are ones that legislators frequently use. One wonders whether this is for the precise purpose of storing up business for lawyers when a challenge is made and the words then have to be to defined. My noble friend has done his research and quoted case law. The Minister’s response will be of interest to many of us because it will relate not only to this Bill but to others where charitable institutions are involved.
My noble friend also drew our attention to the difference in the use of “consists” and “used”. As he rightly pointed out, a “well used” facility may not get relief, whereas one that consists “wholly or mainly” may well do. Perhaps the Minister will be able to explain the reasoning behind the use of the words in the Bill that my noble friend is questioning. I look forward to what I am sure will be a most informative response.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for tabling the amendment. We debated issues around similar words in Committee. I thank him for raising these important matters again because we have to be clear. I was very struck by the points he made towards the end of his remarks about how important it is to get legislation right and to have good legislation. If we are not clear what we mean and mean what we say we will have all sorts of problems.
This gives the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, the opportunity to be very clear about what the Government mean. We need to be clear when we have words such as “mainly” and whether it is “more” or “less”. If we do not get these things clear then we get confusion. That leads to bad law and might potentially involve the courts. It potentially involves wasting more time in this House clarifying what we should have clarified in the first place.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is very good at picking these things up. I remember the debate that we had on rogue landlords, when he tabled an amendment on what was meant by the word “rogue”. It is important that we get these things right because then we will not need to clarify them. I thank the noble Lord for that. I look forward to the Minister’s response on the amendment.
My Lords, I draw attention to my residential and commercial property interests as set out in the register. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for these two amendments which would change the way a public toilet is defined for the purposes of qualifying for the relief within this Bill.
As currently drafted, the 100% business rates relief will be available to any eligible hereditament which consists wholly or mainly of public lavatories. The first amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, would amend this so that eligibility is determined on the use of the hereditament.
The Government aim to make this relief as simple as possible to administer for local councils. When determining whether to award the relief, local authorities should be able to apply a degree of common sense and ask the essential question: “Does it look like a public lavatory”? Therefore, the Government favour an approach based on the physical characteristics of a hereditament, and “consists” achieves this better than “used” does.
While I appreciate the intention of the noble Lord in bringing forward this amendment, I hope that the House will agree that the extent to which a hereditament consists of public lavatories is less likely to be subject to change than the extent to which it is used as a public lavatory. As such, the approach chosen by the Government will result in fewer reassessments of awards of the relief being required.
Furthermore, the Government do not consider that the adoption of either option would result in a material difference to ratepayers. A hereditament consisting of a public toilet is unlikely to be used for any purpose other than that for which it has been designed. This contrasts with the business rates relief available to charities, which hinges on the use of the hereditament. The wording of the charity rate relief reflects that, for example, a hereditament consisting of a shop may be used for either charitable or non-charitable purposes. I do not consider there to be an equivalent issue in the case of public toilets.
I would like to reassure the noble Lord that it is not the Government’s intention for this relief to be available to toilets which are permanently closed and out of use. That is why the Bill amends only Section 43 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988—the section relating to occupied hereditaments. As such, the relief will not apply to unoccupied public lavatories.
The second amendment would define the meaning of the word “mainly” for the purposes of awarding the relief in the Bill as meaning “at least 50%”. As I have set out, it is councils and not central government which are responsible for determining eligibility for business rates relief and it is right that there is some element of discretion in this process. The use of the word “mainly”, which is used elsewhere in rates legislation where it remains undefined, achieves this.
It is right that local authorities have the ability to take a common-sense approach in marginal cases and to reflect on their own local knowledge, as well as any relevant case law and guidance, when making their decisions. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for his proposals. However, on the basis of the points made I hope he will agree to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for devoting some brainpower to this, actually thinking about it and coming up with sensible arguments. On balance, I do not agree with him. It seems that common sense would be to make it as simple as possible —his words—for local authorities, using exactly the same wording they are used to for other things.
I am particularly grateful for his use of the term “common sense”. He may find himself quoted from Hansard in future, when local authorities, as they sometimes do, make completely stupid decisions. It is now written down; it is laid down that common sense has to be used. I should declare my interest as a member of Pendle Borough Council.
I have tried to bring this into line—it will not destroy the Bill. The Minister said that the physical characteristics of public lavatories are very clear and do not change—but their uses do change. We once had a planning application for turning a public lavatory into an ice cream parlour, but I do not think that that succeeded. I think that, had they tried to sell ice cream from it, people would not have thought that it was still a public lavatory, but it is still very true.
I am grateful for what the Minister said; I am sorry that he will not accept my amendments, but I will not push them to a vote—they are not of that degree of importance. I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 1.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
Amendment 2 not moved.