Power to impose a charge for business rate appeals

Local Government Finance Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 21 February 2017.

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‘(1) A billing authority or major precepting authority may charge a ratepayer a fee in connection with activities undertaken as a result of an appeal by that ratepayer to alter the authority’s local non-domestic rating list under section 55 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988.

(2) The amount of fee payable must be calculated by reference to costs incurred by the authority when undertaking activities relating to that ratepayer’s appeal and the amount of fee payable must not be calculated by reference to costs incurred by the authority in the undertaking of any other activities.

(3) The Secretary of State may, by regulations, make provision about the circumstances in which those fees are to be refunded.’ —

This new clause would enable billing authorities or major precepting authorities to charge fees on a cost recovery basis to ratepayers in connection with business rates appeals.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Party Chair, Co-operative Party, Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I understand that Ministers intend to charge £300 for large businesses and £150 for small businesses that want to make a business rate appeal. The new clause is a probing measure to explore how Ministers arrived at those figures. Given that there are likely to be substantially more appeals as a result of the current business rates revaluation, it would be good to understand what the thinking has been about the charges.

In the context of business rates bills being reduced on six out of nine warehouses of a very large business such as Amazon, one wonders whether £300 is not rather low. It costs £250 to submit a claim for unfair dismissal and £950 if the case goes to a tribunal. Funding has been cut from the Valuation Office Agency and I wonder whether a fee of £300 for a big business submitting a speculative revaluation claim is truly appropriate.

It would be good to hear what Ministers have to say and whether they will keep the matter under close review, with the potential for amending the charges as evidence begins to emerge.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West

The charge for business rate appeals is understandable, given the regrettable trend of recent years, which started under a Labour Government, of charging for access to justice. However, we also need to see things in the context of something that was raised with me and the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton—the margin of appreciation, as I think it would be called; the flexibility. A business pays a charge and there is an appeal. It wins, but is told that the difference between what it would have been charged and what it will be charged post-appeal is less than 15%. Then it has lost—even though it has won. That does not seem to me to be a good way to proceed.

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Harrow West for tabling the new clause as it gives me a further opportunity to remind the Committee of the work that we are doing to improve the business rate appeal system.

The system has always suffered from too many speculative applications clogging it up, causing delays and uncertainty for those ratepayers with genuine cases. It has for far too long been too easy for rating agents to lodge speculative appeals with little or no supporting evidence.

More than 1 million appeals have been made against the 2010 rating list, using the system that was put in place on 1 April 2010. Of those that have been resolved, only 29% resulted in a change to the rating list. With the introduction of a new rating list on 1 April 2017, we have a fresh opportunity to reform the system. Our check, challenge, appeal system will introduce a new three-stage process. We will put the emphasis on early engagement and resolution by all parties to ensure that, where ratepayers and rating agents decide to make a formal challenge, they must bring forward proper evidence cases. In turn, it will support local government, giving it greater certainty over its rates income.

New clause 13 would allow local authorities to charge fees to ratepayers making appeals. We agree that fees are needed in the business rating appeal system. Our check, challenge, appeal reforms will include fees to be payable at the appeals stage and refundable if the appeal is successful. Those fees will be payable to the independent valuation tribunal and then to the consolidated fund, ensuring that neither the Valuation Office Agency nor the valuation tribunal benefit from those fees.

We will ensure, as part of our reforms, that local authorities have a role in the check, challenge, appeal process. We will be giving them the statutory right to provide evidence to the valuation officer in respect of a challenge, and we intend to place a clear duty on the Valuation Office Agency to provide key information on challenges to assist local authorities in planning for any potential impact.

While there may be some costs associated with a local authority providing evidence, there is only a right to provide evidence and not a duty. The task of maintaining an accurate rating list falls to the valuation office and local authorities are not obliged to take any part in the challenge process. If a local authority chooses to take part in the challenge process and provide evidence in such a way, it should do so at its own cost. I do not think that right to provide evidence should come at the cost of the ratepayer in the form of more fees in the system. Therefore, I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that we are striking the right balance in regard to fees on ratepayers and I hope he will withdraw his new clause.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Party Chair, Co-operative Party, Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 4:15, 21 February 2017

I do intend to withdraw the new clause. I am grateful to the Minister for the clarification; I think it is something that he should keep under review, but we have had a useful trip around the issue. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

On a point of order, Sir David. I would like to thank you and Mr Gapes for the skilful and diligent way in which you have chaired proceedings over the past few weeks. There were times at which the Committee may have stepped near to the edge of being in order, and at every opportunity you and Mr Gapes kept us on the straight and narrow, so I thank you and Mr Gapes for that.

I also thank the Committee Clerks for the part that they have played in this Committee and the assistance that they have provided in supporting members of this Committee. In that context, I would also like to thank the people who are here from Hansard. I also thank the Government’s officials for the hard work that they have put into the Bill so far and for the support that they have given to me throughout the Committee stage.

Finally, I would like to thank the members of the Committee. At times, it has been an interesting Committee and although not all Committee members have always seen eye to eye, I think that we have conducted it in a reasonable spirit. Despite the fact that both sides have not seen eye to eye on a number of amendments that have been put to a Division, debate has always been conducted in a respectful way. I would like to thank the members of the Committee for the part that they have played.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Party Chair, Co-operative Party, Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

Further to that point of order, Sir David. I echo the thanks to you and to Mr Gapes for chairing the Committee. The way that your interventions have been very helpfully timed to stop Members going off track is remarkable. You have the perfect knack of intervening at just the right moment to stop temptation getting the better of us.

I should add the Committee’s thanks to the Clerks, who have ensured that amendments that were debated were in order, to the Doorkeepers and to the Hansard writers for the important job that they have done. I thank too those who crucially submitted evidence and who have appeared before the Committee. Their contributions without doubt made the Committee’s deliberations more informed.

It would be entirely remiss of me not to also thank my hon. Friends on this Committee. In Bill Committees, the odds are always stacked against Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition, but the quality of my hon. Friends has meant that it has not felt quite such an imbalance on this occasion. I thank in particular my fellow shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton, whose expertise has been particularly welcome. That of my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West has been particularly important too. My hon. Friend the Member for Redcar made an important contribution this afternoon. My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham has been a lurking presence throughout, which brings me lastly to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford, who has helped to make sure that we have stayed firmly in order on this side. There have on occasions been moments of edge, as there should be between two different political parties but, as the Minister says, in general this has been conducted in a friendly, good-hearted and provocative way, which is surely exactly the purpose of a parliamentary Bill Committee.

I thank hon. Members for their kind and generous remarks. Mr Gapes and I have thoroughly enjoyed chairing the Committee, because proceedings have been conducted with good temper throughout. Hon. Members have fulfilled their duty of thoroughly scrutinising the Bill and being kept in good order. I thank the Hansard writers and the Doorkeepers for their support, and I particularly want to thank our Clerks, whose wisdom has prevailed at all times and whose firmness has ensured that I have not been as lax with the Committee as might otherwise have been the case.

Bill, as amended, to be reported.

Committee rose.