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Clause 5

Business Rate Supplements Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:30 pm on 27th January 2009.

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Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I beg to move amendment 8, in clause 5, page 3, line 35, after ‘office’, insert

‘, and the principal offices of any relevant billing authority,’.

It may seem a minor point, but although we have had discussions about London and particular circumstances that pertain there, certain circumstances pertain to rural potential levying authorities as well, given the great distances involved. The provision in clause 5, as it stands, sensibly says that a prospectus should be available on the internet and copies should be available for inspection at the principal office of the levying authority. That may be a problem in two-tier authorities—it may well be in London—where the levying authority is a body at some distance from people. Those people may be involved in a lengthy, sometimes difficult journey in order to go and inspect the prospectus, if they do not have the ability to look at it on the web or if they would prefer to see a hard copy and ask questions of the relevant officer when they are consulting it.

The point of my amendment 8 is that the principal offices of the relevant billing authority should also be in possession of those documents for people to inspect, so that those living at some distance from county hall, for example, in a large rural county, where there may not be particularly regular or frequent public transport, have the opportunity to consult the documents. The prospectus concerns everybody, so although the business community will naturally want to have a look, council tax payers  too, for example, might want to view the prospectus and contribute to the general consultation. It is important, therefore, that people living in the area covered by the levying authority have the maximum opportunity to inspect the prospectus. It seems sensible, therefore, to extend the provision of the relevant documents to the offices of billing authorities as well as to those of the levying authorities.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Conservative, Northampton South

I am also concerned about this matter. I have already drawn attention to what I consider to be the weakness in the ability of local authorities to consult properly. Part of that weakness lies not only in the document produced for consultation but in the ability to make people aware of such documents. That affects the entire prospectus issue. Will the Minister consider ways to notify the public of what is going on in the first place, so that they can visit sites where the prospectus might be available? Will he also consider increasing the number of those sites? In rural areas, in particular, finding out about such matters in the first place is a serious problem, not to mention getting to the place where the information can be obtained. In particular, some elderly business people might not be quite up to using the internet in ways that we might expect.

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

The hon. Member for North Cornwall introduced his amendment by saying that it was a minor one, but it is not, for three principal reasons: first, because it gives me the opportunity to welcome you, Mr. Atkinson, and to say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship; secondly, because it allows me to make my maiden voyage in my new role, which it is a pleasure to have; and thirdly because it gives me the chance to introduce a series of clauses that set out in more detail some of the requirements contained in clause 4, which we have not yet had a chance to discuss.

Amendment No. 8 would require hard copies of the prospectus to be made available at the principal offices of the billing authority as well as the authority proposed in the supplement. We are keen to ensure that prospectuses are easily accessible during the consultation, which is why we have required hard copies to be made available at the principal offices of the levying authority and why electronic copies will need to be available on that authority’s website. I accept the need for accessibility, but that need should be balanced with the additional costs that we expect authorities to meet when proposing a supplement. Authorities will not be able to recoup the costs of producing and publishing a prospectus through the BRS—not that anyone is suggesting that they should. We need to show some restraint, therefore, in the requirements that we place on authorities.

Nothing is preventing a good local authority, especially in a rural part of the country, from doing the very sensible things suggested by the hon. Members for North Cornwall and for Northampton, South. The latter made a very good point: we must not all assume that everyone is computer literate and has access to the web. We expect local authorities to take note of their points. They know their areas better than we in Whitehall do. Committee members, whichever side of the Committee  they sit, do not want us in Whitehall to impose burdens on local authorities when elected councillors know their communities far better than we do.

We are trying to set out an approach that strikes the right balance to ensure that prospectuses are widely available while keeping costs minimal. Requiring billing authorities to make copies of the prospectus available at the principal offices, which the amendment would do, would increase costs and be prescriptive, but would not necessarily result in a significant improvement in availability. Making copies available in the principal offices of the lower-tier authorities could lead to confusion for ratepayers, who might not realise that the upper-tier authority—the levying authority—is responsible for the project. That is a big concern for the Committee. For that reason, I urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment, which is by no means a minor one.

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I am somewhat mystified by the argument that the Minister is seeking to make. For potentially multi-million pound projects, we are talking about a bit of photocopying and the provision of a prospectus. His right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government will be well aware that the situation in my local area is about to change. At present we have six district authorities, which would be billing authorities, and Cornwall county council, which as the top tier would be the levying authority if the provisions were enacted. Providing six copies of the relevant information to bring it that much closer in a very rural authority such as Cornwall—I use it as an example because it is the one that I know best—would make a difference.

I accept, of course, that local authorities may choose to provide that information elsewhere, but the business community, local taxpayers and so on are used to the billing authority being the authority with which they interact when paying their bills and having any queries answered.

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that what we envisage and what his example demonstrates is a conversation between businesses and key stakeholders? His point about rural parts of the country relates to our hope that stakeholders will join the conversation. Some people call that consultation; some call it partnership. During the course of that discussion and consultation, we would expect such points to be made. We expect that good local authorities, such as the one that he is fortunate to have in his constituency, would respect the views of key stakeholders and ensure that copies were available, but does he believe that we in Whitehall should impose that throughout the country?

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

Absolutely, just as I believe that we should impose a ballot, at the risk of being out of order. The provisions are crucial to ensuring that adequate safeguards are in place so that people have the opportunity to interact. The Minister rightly points out that there will be a consultation process, which is to be welcomed. Were I proposing that every business should be sent a copy of the prospectus, I might agree that that would be burdensome to the local authorities involved. However, to say that a copy should be available nearby at the local authority office for consultation is not particularly burdensome.

I did not anticipate pressing the amendment to a vote, because I thought that the Government might graciously give way and accept that it was a beneficial provision that would improve the Bill. However, having heard the Minister’s argument and not being convinced by it, I must press it to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 8.

Division number 4 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 5

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.