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Volume 481: debated on Tuesday 21 October 2008

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on the effects of recent changes to the rating system in ports on the operation of those ports. (228325)

Following representations that I have received on behalf of businesses in ports, I am in correspondence with the Minister for Local Government, and our officials at the Department for Transport have been discussing the matter with officials at the Department for Communities and Local Government.

In the light of damning remarks by the Treasury Committee, what comfort can the Minister offer to struggling companies working in 55 UK ports, which are faced with 200 per cent. business rate increases while wealthy port owners will have a windfall?

While researching for my response to the hon. Gentleman, I naturally looked at Northamptonshire to see what particular port was of special interest to him—

I am not critical of the hon. Gentleman at all. As Minister with responsibility for shipping, I am grateful for any interest in the subject, as I know that shipping feels undervalued and that it is not give the credit that it is due. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the Government are aware of the concerns of businesses within ports about the backdating of business rates, and are we are looking at the position. Other right hon. and hon. Members have also made representations.

Can my hon. Friend give the House an assurance that he is dealing with this matter as a matter of urgency? Does he accept that levying retrospective business rates in ports such as Liverpool and Hull has an effect on the economic regeneration that is so evident in our ports?

As my hon. Friend, who is the Chairman of the Transport Committee, knows, during a debate on regional matters by our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government she was given an assurance that the Government are aware of the concerns about backdating raised by business within our ports, and we are looking at the situation. Indeed, I had a telephone conversation with the Minister for Local Government earlier today; we are looking into this as a matter of urgency.

In the course of his discussions with the Minister for Local Government, will the Minister seek to resolve a paradox? The Financial Secretary to the Treasury indicated to me in a written answer that retrospective taxation should be imposed only

“where the Government consider that it is necessary to protect revenue and…is fair, proportionate and in the public interest”.—[Official Report, 9 October 2008; Vol. 480, c. 802W.]

How can that be reconciled with another written answer from the Financial Secretary saying that no impact assessment was made of this retrospective decision—or, indeed, with the written answer from the Minister for Local Government saying that no assessment has been made of the amount of revenue that might be raised, and, I assume, protected?

I am at a slight disadvantage in not having to hand the three replies that the hon. Gentleman refers to. I can say that assessments have been made of the financial impact on ports and the businesses within them in respect of the increase in revenue afforded as a result of the examination of business rates within ports by the Valuation Office Agency. As I said in response both to the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), the Chair of the Transport Committee, the Government are looking into these matters and we will respond as soon as we can.

My hon. Friend will no doubt be aware that I am the Member of Parliament representing the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company—a fantastically thriving port. It had been decimated by the Tories, so in 1997 unemployment was very high. I accept what the Minister has said about his intervention in this very important matter, but will he come to visit our port, and some of the very successful companies that are working there, in order to hear about their prospects for the future under this Government?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s generous offer of a visit to the city of Liverpool and the port in her constituency. I am visiting ports as a matter of routine, and I will certainly look to see how quickly I can fit this particular visit into the schedule, and write to my hon. Friend about it.

The Minister knows of the desperate plight faced by those all those who serve the shipping industry, with the collapse in shipping rates. Will he confirm not only that there was no impact assessment of any sort, but that while the ports that stand to do well out of this were all consulted, there was no consultation of any kind with any of the businesses that will be adversely affected?

As I have explained over the last few minutes, this is very much a matter for the Department for Communities and Local Government, to which the Valuation Office Agency is responsible and reports in respect of its activities. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman once again that assessments have been carried out. I have to apologise to the House for not being in a position to confirm whether a full impact assessment was made, but I will ask my DCLG colleagues whether that was the case, and I will certainly let the hon. Gentleman know the position as a matter of urgency.