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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 Alex Rowley Alex Rowley Labour

First, I apologise for being a few minutes late to the debate.

The committee’s report captures many of the key issues that were raised by people who gave evidence and submitted their views. I congratulate the committee’s convener and its members. I am pleased that the committee has focused on the concerns that were raised about the transparency of the revaluation process. It is ridiculous that, as many businesses do, a business would struggle to understand the process, and to understand how revaluation of its property has been done. The process for revaluations should—indeed, must—be totally transparent. If it is too complex and difficult for the majority of people to understand, it is clearly failing and should be challenged. I hope that we will see a culture change that puts people, and the need for them to understand the process, at the heart of revaluation.

In its report, the committee states:

“We also note widely shared views that the more transparent and intelligible the revaluations process is, the fewer appeals there will be, and invite the Scottish Government to confirm whether it sees opportunities, as the Bill continues through the Parliament, to ensure that the process will be more transparent in future.”

Whether the process is intelligible or unintelligible, we surely need to address that issue. From my experience of dealing with businesses in Fife, I can see that there has been no commitment to explaining properly how evaluation is done. That needs to change.

On staffing, many people in valuation talk about the pressure of work and the fact that while staffing levels are falling through pressure from cuts, the workload is increasing. I am pleased that the committee identified that point, and I look forward to hearing how the Government intends to address the workload pressures that contribute to retention challenges in particular. The move to three-yearly revaluation is welcome, but the committee asks what additional pressures that will put on an already overstretched service.

It is important to restate what the committee said about modernising the system for administrating revaluations and appeals. It said:

“We welcome the small steps taken so far in the Bill but urge the Scottish Government to seize the opportunity to consider further ways to streamline and modernise the process.”

I hope that the minister will pick up on that point, and on the many other well-made points in the committee’s report.

On arm’s-length organisations, I think that all members welcome the decision not to proceed with the Barclay recommendations. In reality, the recommendations being implemented would have led to massive pressure on services, and many council services that have been put into ALEOs would have collapsed.

However, the Government needs to clarify whether it is introducing a new policy that ALEOs that are being set up would not qualify for the same relief as the current ones do. I know from having been council leader at Fife Council about the pressure on the education department from many people to make cuts by making savings from putting all the schools out to an ALEO. Where would that stop? The Government recognises that there is a problem, but it needs to state clearly what its policy will be and give local authorities a clear understanding of that.

Once again, Presiding Officer, I apologise for being late for the debate.