Amendment 8

Non-Domestic Rating Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 19 September 2023.

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The Earl of Lytton:

Moved by The Earl of Lytton

8: Clause 10, page 19, leave out lines 4 and 5 and insert—“(2) Subject to sub-paragraph (4), V must disclose the information to P if V considers it is reasonable to do so.”Member’s explanatory statementThis is to reinforce the need for a reciprocal duty of disclosure on the VO by making disclosure mandatory save for the exceptions in sub-paragraph (4).

Photo of The Earl of Lytton The Earl of Lytton Crossbench

My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 9, 10 and 11 at the same time. All of these cover slightly different things, and I will try and skate through fairly quickly. In each case, I am simply looking for some reassurance from the Government Bench that these matters are in focus and that certain things will be done.

The first is the question of disclosure of information between the Valuation Office and a ratepayer’s surveyor. It may well be that practices have grown up because of these rather unsatisfactory, unqualified surveyors, who have been going around for some time. There are many fewer of them than there used to be. It may well be that the Valuation Office has somehow built a defensive carapace against this, faced with representations that might not have been all they were cracked up to be. But at the end of the day, there is this question, which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, will understand, of equality of arms: there has to be some common sharing of information and data relating to the value of the hereditament, otherwise negotiations really are in a pretty pickle and, in many cases, will get into worse level of dispute than is absolutely necessary.

As my explanatory statement says, Amendment 8 would reinforce the need for a reciprocal duty of disclosure on the valuation office by making disclosure mandatory, except for the exceptions in sub-paragraph (4), which is basically a data protection exception. I would very much appreciate comment that this will happen and there will be guidance within the Valuation Office Agency to deal with this—to improve transparency and to reinforce confidence.

Amendments 9 and 10 relate to the question of an annual return or confirmation requirement on ratepayers, which is a new provision that the Government are seeking to insert. I had to check my notes from the previous stage of the Bill, but according to the information I had, this would result in some 700,000 hereditaments having to make an additional return or being at risk of making an additional return. The point that was made to me, and that I continue to make, is that this is potentially excessive. In discussions with the Bill team and the Minister, we were given reassurances that there would be piloting and that they would not roll this out unless it was running smoothly and the online system for reporting was robust. I would simply like to have reassurance on that point and that the results of the pilot will be a matter of discussion with stakeholders, so that we do not just have a one-sided arrangement on that. The truth of the matter is that many ratepayers do not understand the terminology because they are traders; they are not people who are involved in getting to understand what a “hereditament” is—as I may have said at an earlier stage of the Bill, it is not a word easily conjured with. There is a great deal that they do not understand about making returns as they are at the moment, so there is a need for a process of general simplification. That deals with Amendments 9 and 10, which are connected.

Amendment 11 relates to something slightly different, which is consequential on this whole reporting business, and that is that, when a business ratepayer advises the Valuation Office Agency that there has been a change, the matter is dealt with promptly, whether it is a reduction or an increase. An increase obviously affects the income from the rating scheme as a whole, but a reduction is something that directly affects the ratepayer. At the moment, I understand there is still quite a considerable backlog within the Valuation Office Agency. The concern is that, unless the backlog is cleared and unless there is better funding and resourcing within the Valuation Office Agency, these things will be held up. The idea here is that ratepayers in particular should not receive retrospective increases in their rating liabilities unless the valuation office acts promptly on receipt of ratepayer-provided information. This is to give an incentive to the valuation office to make a prompt approach and deal with it, but it is all to do with speed of turnaround of necessary changes. Not everything that is advised to the Valuation Office Agency will be relevant, but quite a lot of it may be. If we are going to get into this new era of reporting 60 days after an event has happened and at the end of the year, then we need some reciprocity in relation to that. That is the gist of those amendments.

I just add that, although the Minister has not spoken to them yet, I support government Amendments 12 and 13. They are necessary and appropriate. I have no real views on Amendment 20 either way; it is an administrative consequence of other amendments. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Thurlow Lord Thurlow Crossbench 5:15, 19 September 2023

My Lords, I rise to support Amendment 8, moved by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and particularly the reciprocal duty of disclosure by the VOA apart from for data protection reasons, to which the noble Earl referred—although I object to the latter myself. However, I think it is repugnant that, in this country, where we so treasure transparency in the law and all its constituent parts, the government department responsible for non-domestic rates does not have to reveal its evidence to an applicant, which may be a small business struggling to survive, unless the rates are challenged formally. To challenge a rating assessment formally inevitably requires that small business, possibly teetering on the edge of survival, to instruct a rating specialist to advise it at a fee. Only when there has been a challenge is the valuation office required to reveal its evidence. Why on earth do we tolerate this opaque behaviour on the part of a government agency? It is fundamentally wrong, and I congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, on raising this very important issue. If it did not involve cost in this way and impact those vulnerable smaller businesses particularly—we are talking not just about shops but about businesses, offices and small industrial properties—it would be less sensitive. But I think this is very important, and I hope the Minister will be kind enough to give us a full response.

Photo of Lord Etherton Lord Etherton Chair, Bishop's Stortford Cemetery Bill [HL] Committee, Chair, Bishop's Stortford Cemetery Bill [HL] Committee

My Lords, I also support Amendment 8 in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Lytton. Ideally, it is worth avoiding appeals. Appeals can be avoided only if there is confidence that you have the material available. That presupposes a sharing of information that is open and transparent. One of the criticisms that is often made is of the time taken in appeals, the obscurity of the role adopted by the valuation office and its failure to disclose information. It seems to me that it is in everybody’s interests, economically and in terms of management time and stress, to avoid appeals by an early disclosure of information where requested.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I thank the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and others for speaking to these quite technical amendments. As the Minister said previously, I would not say that I am an expert on these issues, but it is very important that they have been raised. It is particularly important with valuations and penalties that we properly understand the implications of the Bill.

I have one question for the Minister on government Amendment 12, which limits the daily penalties that are applicable. I wonder where the figure came from and whether the Minister thinks it will be a sufficient deterrent.

Photo of Baroness Swinburne Baroness Swinburne Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, has tabled a number of amendments related to the provision of valuation evidence to the Valuation Office Agency. I am grateful for the opportunity to address this again, following the earlier debate in Committee, and to explain how the Government have listened to the suggestions heard in that debate.

As has been noted previously, these reforms are essential to securing the sustainable delivery of more frequent revaluations, which I know noble Lords support. Clause 10 consists of a power to allow the VOA to share valuation information with ratepayers. Amendment 8 would make this power a duty, and I will explain why the Government cannot support this. The Government are absolutely committed to providing greater transparency about how rateable values are calculated. The VOA has recently consulted on how, in practice, they intend to use this clause. It is an important part of the reforms and a key plank of our commitment to ratepayers. However, as that consultation reflects, we cannot overstate the importance of privacy rights. The information relied on by the VOA in establishing a valuation will, in some cases, include personal and sensitive data, so it is right that we take an approach which is common among other data gateways; namely, that the gateway is permissive: it permits the VOA to disclose information rather than placing a requirement to do so. This approach safeguards the interests of ratepayers and their data, but I am clear that within the necessary constraints of the clause we are committed to the transparency of valuations.

Amendments 9 and 10 from the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, seek to remove the requirement in Clause 13 for rate- payers to submit an annual confirmation as well as a notification to the VOA when there is a notifiable change related to their property. On this amendment, the Government are mindful of those concerns. Of course, we should not burden businesses where we do not need to. However, we have a safeguard in place for that very purpose. The Bill provides that the annual confirmation can be brought into force later than the other parts of the VOA duty, and the Government have been clear that we will not bring it into force until we have ensured that it will be sufficiently straightforward for ratepayers to complete. We intend that completing the annual confirmation should be a matter of only a few minutes for those who are already up to date with the duty. Moreover, the annual confirmation will serve a valuable purpose for ratepayers, as well as the VOA. By providing a further opportunity to ensure that they have complied with the duty, the annual confirmation will act as a safety net.

Amendment 11 seeks to prevent the VOA backdating changes to the rating list after a certain period. We are aligned on the importance of the VOA acting promptly and accurately on information received about a property. The VOA takes this very seriously and is performing well—it meets its own targets for processing checks within 12 months and challenges within 18 months in 99.9% and 98% of cases respectively. Of course, as we develop these new systems for the VOA duty, we will review the VOA’s operational targets accordingly, but in light of the VOA’s performance on its existing targets we do not see the need for primary legislation in this space. Furthermore, we hope the noble Earl will recognise that the information provided under the duty may vary considerably by type of property. In the view of the Government, that does not point to a one-size-fits-all approach being appropriate. Instead, it requires effective and transparent performance monitoring, which we will continue to provide under the new system.

I shall explain the steps the Government are taking through government Amendments 12 and 13 to improve the penalties regime for the VOA duty following proposals made by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, in Committee, for which I am grateful. Amendment 12 deals with the daily penalties which the VOA may apply where a ratepayer continues not to comply with the valuation notification requirement 30 days after being served an initial penalty notice. Its purpose is to encourage timely compliance with the duty. However, it has been noted that in the similar provision for the separate duty to provide HMRC with a taxpayer reference number, a cap on daily penalties equivalent to 30 days of the maximum penalty is applied. The Government have decided to extend this protection for ratepayers to the valuation notification duty. Of course, it is vital that the VOA can secure the information it needs to deliver more frequent revaluations, and to do this it needs effective compliance tools. Nevertheless, the Government have reflected on the points raised in Committee and accept that placing a cap on the total amount a ratepayer may be fined is appropriate. I have a note that I hope helps the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman: this is equivalent to 30 days of penalties, each being £60.

Amendment 13 alters the burden of proof that the valuation tribunal should apply when deciding whether to uphold a penalty decision. The penalty decisions with which this is concerned are for the criminal offence of knowingly or recklessly making a false statement. The Bill prescribes that, for a higher penalty to be applied, the VOA must be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the ratepayer has made the false statement knowingly or recklessly. That is the correct standard of proof for a criminal offence.

However, the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, identified an issue with the procedure where a ratepayer appeals such a penalty decision to the valuation tribunal. The tribunal would have to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the ratepayer had not committed the offence. The Government wish to amend this to ensure that the proper burden of proof is applied, to the benefit of ratepayers.

Finally, Amendment 20 is a minor and technical change that we think we should make to the 1988 Act as a consequential effect of the provisions in this Bill concerning business rates multipliers. Clause 15 makes changes to the multiplier rules and separates the multiplier provisions relating to England and Wales. Section 140(2)(b) of the Act refers to Ministers making separate estimates of rateable value for England and Wales. As the provisions relating to England and Wales will now be separate, that section is obsolete and can be deleted. This is simply a drafting correction to improve the clarity of the statute book and the Government do not foresee any practical effect.

I thank the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, for his scrutiny of this area of the Bill, which has allowed us to make important improvements. I hope, with those reassurances and our amendments, he will be prepared to consider not pressing his amendments.

Photo of The Earl of Lytton The Earl of Lytton Crossbench

My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, there is something that I probably should have asked her about earlier in connection with her Amendment 12, which is the figure of £1,800. Discussions with her noble colleague and the Bill team made it clear that it is intended to be an aggregate figure. I do not know whether she referred to that but I did not hear; if she could confirm that that is so, just for the record, I would be very grateful.

Photo of Baroness Swinburne Baroness Swinburne Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

What I can confirm is what I have written on my note, which says that this is 30 days of penalties, which are £60 per day, which comes to the figure of £1,800 that the noble Earl referred to.

Photo of The Earl of Lytton The Earl of Lytton Crossbench

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken on these amendments. I am not going to add much to anything that has been said. On Amendment 8, there is clearly a significant issue in terms of transparency. I had thought that the wording

“V must disclose the information to P if V considers it is reasonable to do so” was a sufficient get-out-of-jail-free card, but I take it that the Government do not feel able to accept that.

I am grateful to the Minister for her reassurances on how the making of returns will function, particularly her comment that one size does not fit all. We have been a bit subjected to one size fits all in some aspects of rating valuation and I am very glad to hear that that will not always be the case. With that, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 8.

Amendment 8 withdrawn.

Clause 13: Requirements for ratepayers etc to provide information

Amendments 9 to 11 not moved.