Clause 1 - Determinations in respect of certain non-domestic rating lists

Rating (Coronavirus) and Directors Disqualification (Dissolved Companies) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 8th July 2021.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour/Co-operative, Neath

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 2—Effectiveness of non-domestic rating lists provisions—

“(1) The Secretary of State must, no later than the end of the period of one year after the day on which this Act is passed, lay before Parliament an assessment of the effectiveness of the provisions in section 1 of this Act.

(2) The assessment must include consideration of—

(a) the extent to which the provisions have achieved their objectives;

(b) the interaction of the provisions with other law and policy relating to coronavirus support for business and business rates; and

(c) possible related changes to law and policy.”

This new clause would place an obligation on the Secretary of State to publish an assessment of the provisions in section 1 of this Act.

Photo of Luke Hall Luke Hall Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. The Bill before the Committee is one of two halves. The first half is a measure that changes the valuation assumptions applied when making business rates determinations in the light of the pandemic. The provisions that will implement the measure are contained entirely within the first clause.

In order to understand clause 1, I will briefly take us back to the Local Government Finance Act 1988, which requires business rates to be calculated from rateable values that, broadly speaking, represent annual rental values. Those values are updated at regular general revaluations. Earlier this year, we were extremely grateful for the cross-party support for the passing of the Non-Domestic Rating (Lists) Act 2021, which sets out the date of the next revaluation on 1 April 2023, based on a valuation date of 1 April 2021. That means that future business rates bills will reflect the impact of the pandemic on the commercial property market.

Outside general revaluations, rateable values can be altered only to correct an inaccuracy or to reflect a material change of circumstance, such as a physical change to a property or locality. For example, a successful material change in circumstances challenge might be made on the basis of significant roadworks in a property’s immediate area. The material change in circumstances legislation itself, which is set out in the 1988 Act, was not designed with pandemics or coronavirus in mind, and the material change in circumstances system was not intended to be used in response to matters with economy-wide impacts. Relying on the MCC system, rather than on targeted business rates reliefs, is not in line with the original intention of the law and would not be the right approach to take to support businesses that have been impacted during the pandemic. Clause 1 of the Bill therefore clarifies that the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, and the Government’s response to it, should be reflected at the next general revaluation on 1 April 2023.

Business rates are devolved, so clause 1 applies to England. Decisions on whether to take similar steps in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are for the respective Governments to make. I understand that in Northern Ireland the matter is still under consideration. The Scottish Government have recently announced that they agree with our position that it is not appropriate to use the MCC appeals system in relation to covid-19 or related restrictions. Yesterday, the Welsh Government announced that they also agree with our position, and set out their intention to seek to include provisions covering Wales in the Bill. We will work closely with the Welsh Government on this, and I will keep Members, including those on the Opposition Front Bench, updated on any amendments to the Bill that might be required. I am glad to say that the largely cross-party support that we have received for this measure is now spreading to cross-territorial support.

As I said on Second Reading, the measures in clause 1 do not mean that we have not provided significant support to businesses during the pandemic; there has been a £16 billion package of support for business rates. We have also announced £1.5 billion in relief to be targeted at ratepayers who have not already benefited from support linked to business rates. The additional business rates relief will be administered by councils, and my Department will continue to work closely with local government to enable ratepayers to apply for the support as soon as possible, subject to the passing of the Bill.

New clause 2 would require an assessment of the effectiveness of the provisions in clause 1 to be made within one year of Royal Assent. It would require the Secretary of State’s assessment to consider

“the interaction of the provisions with other law and policy relating to coronavirus support for business and business rates”,

as well as the Government’s overall package of support for businesses impacted by the pandemic. We completely understand hon. Members’ concern to ensure that the business rates system is kept under review.

The objective of the Bill, which is to ensure that successful MCC appeals cannot be made on the basis of the pandemic or the Government’s response to it, will be met as soon as the Bill is enacted, so I can certainly assure the Committee that there will be no need to monitor the implementation of any changes to the rating list or any new practices by the Valuation Office Agency once the Bill is passed. That is simply because the VOA has not, to date, been amending the rating list to reflect covid-19. I hope the Committee will see that new clause 2 is therefore unnecessary.

I appreciate, however, that interest extends beyond the provisions in the Bill to the design of the wider business rates system. This matter will therefore be considered as part of the fundamental review of business rates, which is currently being carried out by the Chancellor. We published the consultation earlier this month to set out proposals for moving to a system of three-yearly evaluations. As part of ensuring the sustainability of that three-yearly cycle, we are reviewing the MCC system. It is clear from our need to bring forward this piece of legislation that the MCC system has not worked as expected in this instance.

I can certainly assure the Committee that we will be looking more generally at the MCC rules as we see how they can be improved to avoid this type of situation arising again. We will work with the VOA, stakeholders and, I hope, our Opposition colleagues to understand how we can improve the system and track and monitor its operation. We absolutely monitor and track changes to the business rates yield through our regular returns from local government. The VOA publishes regular statistics on the rating list and, of course, keeps us fully informed of activity on the rating list. I am confident we can find a sustainable system that we can monitor effectively and that will stand the test of time.

Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Rees. May I start by wishing the Minister a happy birthday? What better way to spend a birthday than in a Bill Committee? I am grateful to him for setting out the rationale for clause 1, which would rule out covid-related material change in circumstances claims for business rates appeals.

As we outlined on Second Reading, the Opposition broadly recognise the rationale for the Bill as a whole, and we accept the logic for the provisions in clause 1. Material change in circumstances claims related to covid restrictions would not be the most effective way to provide help for business that have been—I hope only temporarily—badly hit by the pandemic. Indeed, many of those who most need the extra help might struggle with the time-consuming process of such an appeal. We appreciate that a large number of covid-related appeals could lead to what has been described as an effective shadow revaluation, which could put a real strain on the Valuation Office Agency, when its time and expertise would be better used on the upcoming general revaluation of business rates in 2023.

There is also a risk that new MCC-related changes would have to be made every time Government restrictions on businesses changed. It remains to be seen whether we have seen the last of the restrictions and business closures as a result of the pandemic—we hope we have—but if not, a further wave of such applications in the wake of further restrictions could cause future problems for the VOA.

To go alongside this legislation, the Government have announced an additional relief fund for businesses that have so far not benefited from any rates relief, such as those in the supply chain of retail, hospitality and leisure businesses. In principle, that seems a sensible way of administering targeted support without the need for MCC claims, but questions remain: first on the adequacy of the £1.5 billion figure, especially for certain sectors such as large airports, and secondly on the guidance and eligibility criteria for the fund.

We welcome that clause 1 gives local authorities some guarantee that their income from business rates will remain reasonably stable for the immediate future. With business rates forming such a substantial part of local authorities’ income, they need that stability. The uncertainty that would be caused by a potential income reduction as a result of large numbers of MCCs could cause real problems, particularly following such a difficult period for local government, marred by covid pressures after 10 years of austerity and broken promises from the Government about their support.

As I said during the evidence sessions, this legislation can be considered to be shifting the financial risk, or burden, from local government to the national Government by means of support for businesses. That seems reasonable, given the financial difficulties that local government is facing, but it is reasonable only if the funding available is sufficient to guarantee businesses the support they need. On Second Reading, we raised concerns about whether the £1.5 billion package that goes alongside the Bill would be enough to support all those businesses that have missed out on rates relief and other support so far, and the Government still have not clarified how they arrived at that figure or who exactly they envisage it supporting. It would be helpful if the Minister referred to that in his response.

I raise the example of large airports, which have been among the sectors worst affected by the pandemic. They pay huge amounts of business rates, but have been able to access only limited rates relief. Many were planning to put in MCC claims to try to recoup some of that money and stay afloat, but this legislation rules that out. I would therefore be grateful if the Minister could clarify whether the £1.5 billion fund is supposed to cover airports as well as all the other businesses that have missed out.

During the evidence sessions, David Magor, the chief executive officer of the Institute of Revenues Rating and Valuation, said of the £1.5 billion:

“the amount does not appear to be sufficient to meet the desires of all the ratepayers who had outstanding challenges and large assessments, like the airports. The challenge for the Government is to ensure that those particular ratepayers are satisfied.”––[Official Report, Rating (Coronavirus) and Directors Disqualification (Dissolved Companies) Public Bill Committee, 6 July 2021; c. 28, Q41.]

Heathrow, for example, had losses in 2020 exceeding £2 billion, including a business rates bill of £120 million— the biggest in the UK. It has been given £8 million in business rates relief. If the £1.5 billion pot is to support large airports too, it would appear to be inadequate. If not, what are larger airports supposed to do as an alternative to claiming for MCC, and will the Government come forward with further funding for large airports and critical infrastructure?

Even taking the airports and critical infrastructure out of the equation, there is serious concern about the £1.5 billion figure, which is shared by some of the experts we heard from at the evidence sessions earlier in the week. We have since had written evidence from the car parking sector, which is another one that has expressed real concerns. The consensus appears to be that we simply will not know whether it is enough or not until the Government publish the guidance for the scheme—something that businesses and local authorities are hoping happens urgently.

Even though it is usual for guidance to be published after the accompanying legislation has completed its passage through Parliament, there seems to be no reason why the Government could not publish draft guidance now and an indicative figure on the amount for each local authority immediately. The Opposition strongly urge the Government to do so, and given that the passing of the legislation is not actually required in order for the £1.5 billion to be released, we encourage the Government to get on with it quickly. There are businesses out there in real financial difficulty that are desperate for rapid help.

I also wonder whether the Minister can address concerns raised during the evidence sessions about the timing of the legislation and its impact on the release of funding. As we heard on Tuesday from Adrian Blaylock of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy and Sarah Pickup of the Local Government Association, there is a concern about timing related to section 47 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988. In essence, a local authority cannot take financial decisions more than six months after the financial year to which the decision relates. As we know, the majority of covid restrictions applied during financial year 2020-21 rather than 2021-22, so there is a question about whether a local authority can grant these reliefs to cover losses incurred during the 2020-21 financial year. Local authorities need reassurance that they can; otherwise, strictly speaking, all the local schemes will need to be set up and be running by the end of September.

As of this morning, we have the legislative timetable until the summer recess, and while the Government thought it appropriate to schedule two days for the Second Reading of the Nationality and Borders Bill, they could not find time for the remaining stages of the Bill we are discussing today. Given that there will be Lords consideration, as well as the conference recess, I do not see how the Bill will get through all its stages before the middle to end of October. If the Minister can correct me on the timescales, I will happily give way. If not, I hope that he will explain how this will affect the timescale for payments.

We have received supplementary evidence from the Institute of Revenues Rating and Valuation suggesting that a way around this problem might be to amend the Bill, effectively to exclude it from section 47 of the 1988 Act. I am interested to know whether the Government might consider such an amendment on Report to give local authorities and businesses reassurance.

We have heard about the risk that, if the amounts allocated to each local authority are inadequate, there will be pressure on overstretched councils provide funding from their own pot, beyond the resources that have been made available. Of course, that could result in local economic pressure, because businesses that cannot manage without the relief that they have been expecting may close. That reinforces the urgent need for the Government to get guidance out to businesses and councils to give them certainty, and to be transparent about the rationale behind the amounts to be allocated and the eligibility criteria.

I repeat the point made by the Local Government Association that there cannot be a simplistic per head allocation of resources across local authorities; it needs to factor in the areas and sectors where businesses have taken the biggest hit. It was a concern to hear during the evidence sessions that there appear to be no conversations happening with local government on the framing of that guidance. Perhaps the Minister could address that point.

I will touch on the ability of the VOA to carry out its duties in the context of this legislation. As we know, the VOA is currently conducting the next business rates valuation. Although this legislation removes a potential overburdening of the VOA by ruling out an influx of MCC claims, we believe that there is already a need for extra resources for the VOA. Revaluations of business rates are slow and infrequent, and a wide coalition of business organisations has been calling for more frequent revaluations so that there is a closer and more accurate link between the rate and the state of the economy and businesses’ ability to pay.

We understand, and supported, the decision for the next revaluation to be moved to 2023, so that it did not take place in the middle of a pandemic. More generally, as we hope to leave the pandemic behind us, the VOA needs to be given the resources that it needs to carry out more frequent revaluations. Additionally, plenty of businesses have legitimate non-covid-related MCC claims. They will be looking hopefully to the VOA for a timely decision, and it needs to have the necessary resources to process all the claims not ruled out by this legislation.

Finally, I will speak to new clause 2, which appears in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston. The new clause would place an obligation on the Secretary of State to publish an assessment of the provisions in clause 1. It asks for a review of the effectiveness of the legislation. Of course, the effectiveness of any legislation should be subject to review, but in relation to this particular Bill there are a number of uncertainties and questions around the provisions, impacts and related funding.

We do not know whether restrictions and closures will need to be reintroduced later in the year. We all hope not, of course, and we hope that we do not get a vaccine-resistant strain of the virus, but the upcoming relatively uncontrolled relaxation of restrictions may have consequences that are difficult to predict. If we have to close businesses again, we need to know how well this package has worked. We owe it to struggling businesses, overburdened local authorities and the VOA to get this right. An assessment of the provisions in the Bill is, we think, a very reasonable request. By then we should have access to hard data and facts that will inform us for the future, so I hope that Committee members will support new clause 2.

The Opposition recognise the rationale for the Bill. We have tried to engage constructively to raise the questions that need to be clarified, and I look forward to the Minister doing so in his response.

Photo of Luke Hall Luke Hall Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 11:45 am, 8th July 2021

I thank the hon. Gentlemen for the constructive way in which he has held this discussion and raised legitimate points, especially following the sittings on Tuesday, which I thought were useful and informative. I will try to address all those points.

On funding, the £1.5 billion comes on top of a significant package of business rates support: £16 billion of relief over two years for the retail, hospitality, leisure and nursery ratepayers most affected by the pandemic. The new scheme will be targeted at the sectors that are most affected by covid-19 but have not benefited from that type of business rates support. It will enable councils to award relief to businesses that they consider to have been most affected, using their local knowledge, contacts and systems for determining who will be eligible. Councils will ultimately be responsible for decisions on the award of the relief. The crux of the issue is that it is about ensuring that relief is targeted at the businesses most affected by covid-19 and providing certainty for ratepayers and councils—it is not about saving money. It is never easy to draw the line, but we think that this strikes the right balance between supporting ratepayers and maintaining a tax base that continues to fund vital services in local government, which are more important than they ever have been.

On the point about airports, it is a core principle of the business rates system that MCC challenges should be used between revaluations to address issues of a discrete geographic, sectoral or temporal nature. The drop in demand for airports in the light of the pandemic is exactly the sort of market-wide economic change affecting property values that should be considered only at revaluations. Airports have received significant support for their fixed costs during this period from the airport and ground operations support scheme, and the Chancellor announced in his recent Budget a further six months’ support up to the equivalent of their business rate liabilities for the first half of 2021, subject to certain conditions under the £4 million cap.

The hon. Gentleman asked when the guidance for councils would be published. As we heard earlier this week, we absolutely recognise the importance of getting the guidance published as soon as we can. We want to do that, and I will clarify one of the points that was raised on Tuesday. We have shared the draft guidance with the LGA, officers from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, and the Institute of Revenues Rating and Valuation. We are now discussing the parameters of the scheme with them in order to help shape the final document, so I offer the Committee some reassurance on that. We have done that in parallel here, to try to ensure that we can get it published as quickly as we can. We will absolutely be working with local government to help ratepayers apply for the new relief as soon as they can once the Bill has passed and they have set up their schemes.

Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Does the Minister accept that there is absolutely no reason to wait for the Bill to pass to put the scheme in place? The Government could distribute the £1.5 billion today, if they wanted.

Photo of Luke Hall Luke Hall Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The point is that we are still working on the final points in the guidance. The LGA made the point that it desperately wants to be involved in the drawing up of the guidance and in setting the framework and parameters. That is what we are doing and going through now. As soon as we are ready to do that, of course that is what we will do. We are as keen as everybody for the support to be available to local authorities, so as soon as the Bill has passed, we will ensure that we get the support out to councils and businesses as soon as we can. It is a point that has been well made by the Opposition and by people who contributed written evidence and who participated in the session earlier this week and the Second Reading debate, so we are acutely aware of that point.

Another temporal question was raised on Tuesday that the hon. Gentleman asked me to clarify today—whether the legislation will prevent councils from awarding rate relief after the end of September. I want to offer some reassurance on that, and I will perhaps do so in writing after the Committee as well, just to provide some more detail. There is a requirement in primary legislation that certain decisions on the use of a discretionary rate relief scheme must be made by a local authority by the end of the September following the year in question. For the year 2021, that deadline is fast approaching. Given the scrutiny that a Bill of this nature deserves, we do not expect councils to be in a position to award the whole £1.5 billion relief scheme in respect of liabilities for 2020-21. Instead, we can simply ensure that the scheme will apply to 2021-22 liabilities, and local authorities have over a year until the deadline for that period. Ratepayers will still be receiving rate relief, which councils can award on the basis of how ratepayers have been affected by covid-19, but it will be against their liability for this year rather than last year, so we can still ensure that ratepayers quickly receive support against their rates bill once the Bill receives Royal Assent. As that is a slightly technical point, perhaps I will put that in writing before Report, so that it can be scrutinised properly by the Opposition and we can discuss the point further.

I appreciate that concerns have been raised about VOA funding. I agree that the Bill will help the VOA to focus on delivering its important functions, such as the wider 2023 revaluation. The Treasury is working closely with the VOA and HMRC to understand the resourcing requirements. We have provided the VOA with £22 million to update its IT systems, enabling it to become more flexible, more efficient and more resilient, and we have provided £31 million to support the revaluation in 2023. Of course, we will continue to assess the VOA’s funding in the spending review as well.

The hon. Gentleman rightly highlighted the pressures on local government and the new burdens that the Bill could create. It is right that when the Government ask councils to deliver new activity we consider new burdens. I assure the Committee that we will work closely with local government to consider, and assess the funding of, any new burdens in the administration of the relief as they arise. We have tried to do that in good faith throughout the pandemic, and will continue to ensure that that is the case.

I thank the hon. Gentleman again for his contribution. I am happy to try to clarify any further points that he wants to raise between now and Report. I look forward to continuing discussions throughout the passage of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.