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Non-Domestic Rates (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 10th October 2019.

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Photo of Andy Wightman Andy Wightman Green

I will not. Thank you, Presiding Officer.

I note that this is the first time that the Scottish Parliament has considered primary legislation on non-domestic rates. Indeed, there has been no reform in more than a quarter of a century, since the Local Government Finance Act 1992. That is very telling. It demonstrates how little interest there has been in Parliament in local tax and how much power the 1992 act gave to the Secretary of State for Scotland—that power now lies with the Scottish ministers—in relation to detailed design of the non-domestic rating regime, including the rates themselves, the reliefs and other details, all of which are pushed through Parliament in secondary legislation. For a tax that, as the minister pointed out, is the second-highest-yielding tax under devolved powers, that is a remarkable state of affairs.

Therefore, the fact that we have a bill is welcome, but it is not welcome that it is so narrowly focused on a series of technical measures and that it leaves a vast number of questions unanswered. It is worth briefly reflecting on why that is. In September 2013, Derek Mackay—who was in the chamber a few moments ago—the then Minister for Local Government and Planning, published a response to a consultation document in which he said that the Scottish Government would

“conduct a thorough and comprehensive review of the whole business rates system” by 2017, which would deliver

“a fairer, simpler and more efficient business rates system.”

That review never took place. Instead, we had the Barclay review, which asked only one question:

“How would you redesign the business rates system to better support business and incentivise investment?”

That is why OSCR, for example, never paid much attention to the review. It was only after the review had been completed that organisations such as OSCR suddenly realised that the findings had some relevance to them. The review was instructed on the basis that its recommendations would be revenue neutral. In practice, that meant that any proposals that were made to reduce liabilities in any way had to be balanced by measures that would make up for the lost yield. It is no coincidence that many of the measures that are in the bill to make up for the lost yield were plucked from thin air—the Government simply looked at a list of reliefs to find out where it could get the money to pay for the review’s recommendations.

The Barclay review was not the comprehensive review that was promised in 2013; that review has still to take place. It is in that context that Green members approach the bill. I will outline our key objections and proposed reforms before concluding with a more fundamental objection. At stage 2, Green members will lodge amendments, on all of which I undertook a consultation in the summer recess. I will say a few things about some of them.

First, members will be aware that non-domestic rates are a local tax, and yet, in 1992, Mrs Thatcher’s Government removed councils’ powers to set the rate. Since then, the rate has been set by negative instrument with next to no parliamentary scrutiny. We will lodge amendments to return the rates to the level of government to which they belong—local government. There will be issues of timescales and all sorts to debate in relation to that.

Secondly, it is bizarre that we have an incomplete tax base. Barclay recommendation 28 is that all property should be on the valuation roll and those currently exempt could then be granted reliefs, which would increase the transparency of, for example, the unjustifiable tax breaks afforded to agricultural holdings.

That recommendation was made as far back as 1976 by the Layfield committee, the Mirrlees review drew Government’s attention to the issue in 2011 and the land reform review group made a very clear recommendation on that topic in 2014.

In the past two years, more than 13,000 new entries have been added to the valuation roll, to cover shootings and deer forests. The vast majority of those will be registered agricultural holdings. We are well on the way to a complete roll, and we should commit to completing the task.

Thirdly, the non-domestic rate is a flat-rate tax—it has one rate of 49p or thereabouts—that is applicable to all properties, regardless of their value. We propose that there be a progressive rate, with a tax-free allowance, just like we have for income tax.

Other changes that we will be seeking include either removing the exemption that is granted in the bill for specialist music schools that are in the private sector, or retaining it but also applying it to the four specialist music schools that are in the public sector, such as the City of Edinburgh music school.

We also want the localisation of reliefs, and the provision of backstop powers to force owners to pay, rather than forcing occupiers to pay where the owners cannot be found. We also want there to be reforms to stop multibillionaires such as Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, being eligible for the so-called small business bonus scheme, and to ensure that all ratepayers pay something, which would eliminate what Barclay calls the “rates deserts”.

We have one major concern: the removal of the NDR tax base from the control of its historic owners—local government—is, in our view, a violation of international law. That breaches article 9 of the Council of Europe’s European Charter of Local Self-Government, which provides legal protections for the autonomy of the tax base of the local state. This situation cannot be allowed to persist. However, because it does—at the moment, anyway—we cannot support the bill; neither will we stand in its way, so the Greens will abstain on the motion this evening.