Consideration of Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee
As indicated on the Order Paper, the Speaker has certified that the Bill relates exclusively to England on matters within devolved legislative competence. As the Bill has not been amended, there is no change to that certification.
Under Standing Order No. 83M, a consent motion is required for the Bill to proceed. It has been tabled and is available in the Vote Office. Does the Minister intend to move the consent motion?
The House forthwith resolved itself into the Legislative Grand Committee (England) (Standing Order No. 83M).
[Dame Rosie Winterton in the Chair]
Order. Will Members leaving the Chamber do so quietly?
I am afraid that that the hon. Gentleman cannot move that in this Committee.
I remind Members that if there is a Division, only Members representing constituencies in England may vote on the consent motion.
Motion made and Question proposed,
That the Committee consents to the Rating (Property in Common Occupation) and Council Tax (Empty Dwellings) Bill.—(Rishi Sunak).
Thank you ever so much for calling me to speak, Dame Rosie.
Is it not good to be back in the environs of the English Parliament, with all its tradition, with all its heritage and with all its history? We are at last back in the English Parliament, and is it not great that we are here today? It does not come any more important than the Rating (Property in Common Occupation) and Council Tax (Empty Dwellings) Bill. These are critical English-only issues, dealing with important hereditaments occupied or owned by the same person—in England.
Although it is good to be back in the English Parliament, it is nothing short of a crime that this English Parliament has not met for weeks and months, meaning that English Members have not had their opportunity to meet in this English Parliament to discuss and debate critical English-only measures, which were certified as English-only in these previous Bills.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful point. The Government talk on a regular basis about how Parliament is taking back control. Does he feel that that has been represented by the fact that this is the first time that the House has had the opportunity to take back control?
Let me say quite candidly to my hon. Friend that what we are waiting for is the moment when my English colleagues spring into action with this opportunity—perhaps this one-off opportunity—to meet in their English Parliament and to discuss the weighty issues of state that require that English-only attention.
Let me say to the right hon. Gentleman that he may not take this seriously, and Conservative Members may not take this seriously, but I understand the importance and the significance of this English Parliament sitting in this House of Commons and I will not deride that opportunity. I stand here inviting English Members to get to their feet and to explain passionately and eloquently why they need this opportunity to debate these English-only Bills.
English Members have every right to be outraged that they have not previously had these opportunities. That is why, given that they have this opportunity today, I am fully expecting them to spring to their feet to ensure that this Parliament is properly respected. I will tell you something, Dame Rosie: Scottish National party Members fully respect the right of English Members to speak in their Parliament. We expect to hear speeches full of passion from hon. Members who have this fantastic opportunity in front of them, because we know that the English voice must be heard. It is a voice that demands its right, and today all of England will be hearing from its proud tribunes as they get to their feet in vast numbers to articulately and compellingly put that English voice. I remember why we have this Parliament, and I remember those speeches when we changed Standing Orders so that we could secure this Parliament. Can you remember, Dame Rosie, all these perfidious Scottish Members of Parliament coming down to this Parliament to make sure that that voice was going to be overridden by Caledonian votes; the hordes coming forth off that border to make sure that the outcomes were to be influenced by Scots Members of Parliament. I remember the eloquence with which that was put, why that had to be rejected, why the English Parliament was necessary, and why English votes for English laws had to be an enduring feature of this House.
I wholeheartedly congratulate the hon. Gentleman on being the first English Member of Parliament to speak in an English-only debate in a Legislative Grand Committee of the quasi-English Parliament who is not from the Scottish National party and is not a member of the Government. Well done to him; he is charting and pioneering a way for all his colleagues now to follow. Speak in your English Parliament and raise your English voice!
I just want to be the second English Member to speak in this important debate. I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that maybe the English are not rising to their feet in great numbers because we are so much more united and happy with our lot in life, and we are happy with this particular Bill. If he wants to visit my constituency to see how happy we are, he is welcome at any time.
I suspected that it might have been something like the situation that the hon. Gentleman describes. Conservative Members are just so united; of course there is no fissure within the ranks of the Conservative party on the big issues of the day. Here was I thinking that here were a party and a Government in crisis, who cannot determine a means of withdrawing from the European Union. But no, they are not in crisis. They are all quiet because they are all totally united on the big issues of the day. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting me right on that point.
This great Parliament, in this green and pleasant land, is free from Scottish intervention, even though every contribution is made by a Scot.
I intervene for fear that people in the Chamber today think that the hon. Gentleman’s voice is for all of Scotland. It is not for all of Scotland—it is for a small part—and Scotland may not be proud of his behaviour in the Chamber today.
We have now heard from three Government Members. In fact, the hon. Gentleman is another Scottish Member to add to the growing list of people who are now prepared to participate in the English Parliament. I have a question for the hon. Gentleman, and I will give him an opportunity to think about it. We think that English votes for English laws is the most appalling measure, which makes second-class Members of Parliament out of him and out of us. It divides the House on geography and nationality, and is one of the most invidious measures that has been passed in this place. I am not prepared to accept this on behalf of my constituents. I wonder whether he is. That is the big question today.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the measure divides the House on geography, but he is not right to say that it divides the House on nationality, because Members representing English constituencies who may not be English—I happen to be a Welshman—can take part in these debates and vote. The hon. Gentleman is right about geography, but wrong about nationality.
What we have, therefore, is a House that is divided upon nation. The last time I had a look, this was English votes for English laws. No other Parliament in the world divides its membership based on that type of geography. We are exclusively alone when it comes to conducting our business on such a basis. Lest the hon. Gentleman forgets, this is the united Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. To pursue a measure that divides us, based on constituency geography, is not only totally and utterly invidious, but ludicrous and unworkable.
So we have this wonderful Parliament, but England said, “No. Never again. We will make this Parliament ours. We shall banish these Scots.” And it did. England created this fine institution—this Legislative Grand Committee, the voice of England. And what a transformation.
I just want to be the third English Member to speak on this issue. The hon. Gentleman is not presenting a wholly correct picture. Those of us who actually support the principle of English laws did not want to ban anybody or see Scottish Members thrown out of here. This situation is a reaction to the fact that I, as an English Member of Parliament, have no say on the matters that only affect Scotland. For the purpose of fairness, given the devolution settlement that we have, it is therefore perfectly reasonable for only English Members to vote on certain matters that only affect England. There is nothing anti-Scottish about that, which is what the hon. Gentleman seems be trying to say; nor is there any attempt to divide. It is simply a response to the devolution settlement we have.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because there was quite a lot in what he said that I could go along with and almost support. I understand English Members of Parliament wanting that English voice. Of course they have constituents to represent who demand that they have their say in all this. There are a couple of elegant solutions that might actually deliver that.
The first is Scottish independence. The second is a little concept that seems to exist perfectly well in a number of parliamentary institutions the length and breadth of Europe and the rest of the world—it is called federalism, where the hon. Gentleman has his Parliament, we have our Parliament, and we all get together as equals to decide on the stuff that we are going to reserve. What we do not do is make the Parliament of the United Kingdom a de facto English parliament and think that there will be no issue with that. That is no solution. It is what we have just now—this unsatisfactory arrangement that divides this House, is unworkable, and is an embarrassment to this House in how it operates.
Let us have a look at how it operates, this fine institution—the English parliament; the voice of England.
The hon. Gentleman has rolled out for everyone his grievance at being excluded from this discussion into which he wants to have some input. Perhaps he could tell us what it is in the Rating (Property in Common Occupation) and Council Tax (Empty Dwellings) Bill that he finds so offensive that he wants to say something about it, because I have not heard anything about it yet.
I am just at the very beginning of my introductory remarks. I want to come to this fine Bill—this fine English Bill. I have lots and lots to say about the Rating (Property in Common Occupation) and Council Tax (Empty Dwellings) Bill. Believe, me, the right hon. Gentleman will be more than satisfied when I get on to the substance of this Bill, because there is lots and lots that has to be properly—
Let me say to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the papers I have here are just a few of my brief speaking notes.
I am being very serious in all this. I know there can be a little bit of banter about English votes for English laws—how embarrassing, unworkable, stupid and ridiculous it all is—but this is a serious Bill that requires attention. The thing that surprises me more than anything else is the lack of interest from my English colleagues. We will do this job on their behalf. If they are not prepared to get to their feet to speak to this fine Bill, it will be left to Scottish National party Members—
I am grateful for the introduction from the hon. Gentleman. His misguided mockery serves his cause ill and serves this House ill. He well knows that we have had a proper constitutional debate about how some symmetry can be put into the asymmetric arrangements that we inherited so that each part of the United Kingdom can make its own decisions on its own measures, and this is the result. England now has the right to veto a measure that the Union Parliament wishes to impose on England if it does not meet with the approval of England. It is the weakest form of devolution of any of the four countries in our Union. The reason there are not English Members queuing up to speak on this measure is that we agree with it. We like this measure and we wish it to go through. If the hon. Gentleman is a true friend of England, he will now sit down and let this Bill pass.
I think I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I would describe his intervention as half-hearted at best. His heart was not really in it, I do not think. He is one of the great defenders of the tradition of an English Parliament and English rights. Is he really satisfied with these woeful arrangements for this House? I am all for English democracy and making sure that English Members get the opportunity to design and progress their own legislation, as is required by their constituents, but to describe what we are doing today—this embarrassing mess—as a solution is below the right hon. Gentleman.
I have just heard the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) invoke a fantastic principle: a member nation of the United Kingdom has the right to veto a measure of the Union Parliament. He said that English Members can veto what the Union Parliament chooses. Can Scottish Members have that right when it comes to Brexit? Can we veto the imposition on a country where 62% of people voted to remain in the European Union of being taken out of it?
My hon. Friend hits the nail right on the head. In this wonderful institution—the quasi-English Parliament—it seems to be all right for English Members to demand that they get their way and that they determine their legislation. But I remember the Scotland Bill 2015, as the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) will too. I remember something like 97% of all Scottish Members of Parliament tabling amendments to that Bill, only for them to be overwhelmingly and comprehensively rejected because of the Government majority. It seems to be all right for English Members to get their own Parliament when it comes to these things, but when we have our say on important reserved issues in this House, it is completely and utterly ignored.
The hon. Gentleman must know that his colleague, the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil), has completely misconstrued the arrangements. No member country of the Union has a veto over Union matters such as withdrawal from the EU. Scotland not only has a complete veto over Scottish legislation but is in sole possession of Scottish legislation in a way that we English Members are not for English legislation.
I will leave the right hon. Gentleman to take that up with my good friend from Na h-Eileanan an Iar, who I have to say I find much more convincing when it comes to some of the great constitutional issues of the day. I am more than persuaded by my hon. Friend’s eloquence.
I beg patience from the hon. Gentleman. There is so much to say. I have done my study on the Bill, and I think it is important. I have a list of 425 English towns where the Bill will have an impact—I have everything from Aylesbury all the way through to Witham and Wisbech—and I am going to go through every single one of those towns to speak about how some of the curtilage-related issues are being dealt with. I do not want to leave out any part of England. It is important that no part of England is left behind in these debates, and if English Members are not prepared to speak about their constituencies, it will be left to Scottish National party Members to do it. We will not shirk our responsibility to ensure that the English voice is heard. That is our job today, and I am determined that we will fulfil it.
I am sorry that I am not the real voice of England; I do not know what that makes me. The hon. Gentleman suggests two solutions to this problem: one is Scottish independence, which the people of Scotland have rejected, and the other is federalism, which the people of England clearly do not want, because all polling shows that there is not majority support for an English Parliament. So what is the SNP’s policy? Does it want to force independence against people’s will, or does it want to force a system on England against the will of the English? It would be nice to know which undemocratic solution it wants.
Order. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire may have been drawn down certain paths. I have been listening carefully to what he has been saying, and I have given him some leeway, but I remind him that the motion before the Committee is that the Legislative Grand Committee (England) consents to the Bill. I hope he will not be drawn down other tracks and will confine his remarks to that proposition.
For that, I am very grateful. I cannot believe that I have been drawn down constitutional cul de sacs by the outrageous contributions we have had from hon. Members. I will now ensure that my remarks are confined to the Bill, which is very important.
We have to find out why the Bill is important. It is important because in 2017, in the autumn Budget statement, the Government said that they would legislate to give effect to two of the Chancellor’s commitments, one of which was to retrospectively reinstate particular features of business rates revaluation practice which applied before the judgment of the Supreme Court in Woolway (VO) v. Mazars UKSC 53. That is important, and it is one of the reasons why we are doing this. There is another probably much more important reason why we should consider the English-only parts of this important Bill and make sure that we understand and debate it properly during this Legislative Grand Committee. The Bill will give local authorities in England the discretion to charge a council tax premium of up to 100% on long-term empty dwellings.
That is why it is so important to consider this important Bill, and we need to use the opportunity of this Legislative Grand Committee to look at the motives behind the Bill’s design and at the reason why there was a requirement on the Government to bring it to this House. We want to make sure that the Bill is properly considered—given all the significant amendments that were brought forward on Report—and we have an opportunity in this Legislative Grand Committee.
Let us have a look at some of the history and background of why we want to hold this debate and why this Bill is so important. For over 50 years, the practice of the Valuation Office Agency in identifying the unit of assessment for business rates, known herewith as the hereditament—if I have said that right—was based on the leading decision of the Court of Appeal in Gilbert (VO) v. S Hickinbottom & Sons Ltd 1956. Keep the year 1956 in mind.
When considering the question of a separate hereditament for rating purposes, Denning LJ said, absent a definition in statute, that the following general rule applied. I want to read the ruling in full so that it is properly understood and so that we know exactly the reasoning behind Lord Denning’s decision in making the said judgment. I think the Committee is looking forward with great anticipation to hear what Denning LJ had to say. He said:
“First take the case where two or more properties are within the same curtilage or contiguous to one another, and are in the same occupation.”
Think about that:
“the same curtilage or contiguous to one another”.
Then Lord Denning said:
“In that case they are, as a general rule”—
There are sometimes exceptions to rules, but he said, “as a general rule”. That is important when we are designing the generality of a rule in legislation, because it is important to understand that when there are general rules, there are often exceptions. He said:
“In that case they are, as a general rule to be treated for rating purposes as if they formed parts of a single hereditament.”
When this ruling was required, he was clearly stating that the general rule applying to the curtilage and to contiguous dwellings was generally what we should pursue and follow. I think his lordship was right: we must make sure we do this.
However, and this is important, Lord Denning then said:
“There are, however, exceptional cases where for some special reason they may be treated as two or more hereditaments.”
He went on to offer some examples, and I am sure hon. Members are absolutely glued to their seats waiting to hear what those examples might be. He gave the example of the case in which
“one part is used for an entirely different purpose”.
Let us think about having a house and using different parts of it for different purposes. That is an important distinction to make. I know that in my house I have bedrooms, kitchens and sitting rooms, so I use my house for different purposes. It is therefore quite right that, when he made the ruling, Denning was quite clear in saying that parts of a house are sometimes used for different purposes. That is an important lesson from a very important man.
I take great exception to what the hon. Gentleman has said. This is an important Bill; he may not be interested in the words of Denning LJ, but my colleagues and I are. We want to make sure that this House is aware of the weighty views of Denning LJ, whoever he may be.
So there is a general rule. It had been the practice of the Valuation Office Agency that where units of property were contiguous—that means “touching”, I believe—and in the same occupation, they received one rates bill. I think the Government have been really generous in offering examples of how all this might work. That is why, when considering a Bill such as this, it is very important that we take everything into account.
The exceptions are important. The general rule, obviously, is as well—because a general rule is a guiding principle on how we approach these issues. But the exceptions are also important because they could lead to precedents. This is where we start to get into dangerous territory. In elegant legislation, the general rule applies nearly universally. When legislation has a number of exceptions, we start to get into certain territory—I know how difficult it is for the Clerks to design legislation with too many exceptions. We have to be careful when designing legislation. When the generalities of rules and what we want to achieve in legislation tend to be universal in concept, it is important to understand exceptions and all the other things that may influence future legislation by becoming precedent.
My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech that legislators across the world should pay attention to. Will he expand on not the generalities but the exceptions? The House could really do with fully understanding how exceptions lead to further complications. Will he enlighten me?
I always enjoy enlightening my hon. Friend, although it is usually not necessary. I feel obliged to try to offer further enlightenment on these particular issues. There are other examples. I gave the example of my house, but my hon. Friend is a crofter, and I am pretty certain that his is a single dwelling on the isle of Barra—in fact, I know it because I have seen his place on several occasions. I know how he utilises his land and I am pretty certain that, when it comes to him, the generality of the rule applies. His dwelling is generally designed for the purpose of crofting and habitation. I am pretty certain that his property is not contiguous and that there is no such issue with his land. I am looking at my hon. Friend and—
Order. The hon. Gentleman must bear in mind that he should face the Chair. Although he likes looking at his hon. Friend, it is better to look at me.
Has the hon. Gentleman noticed that the longer he goes on, the fewer of his hon. Friends he has to face when he turns around? Maybe that should be a lesson to him: he is getting a bit beyond what even his own hon. Friends will tolerate—let alone the rest of the House.
I am glad that I have been able to detain the right hon. Gentleman long enough to get his attention. I know he is very much enjoying this short contribution to the debate. Look at my hon. Friends, sitting here and making sure that this important issue is discussed and debated. They think that this is important, and that is the lesson that goes forward today.
Actually, I am looking forward to seeing the right hon. Gentleman’s hon. Friends join him—it is always nice to see our friends from Northern Ireland here. We may not be as well endowed with largesse from the Government in order to secure a majority, but we will muddle through on what we secure from the Barnett formula.
Order. The hon. Gentleman will return to the subject of the debate.
I want to get back to the rule, Madam Deputy Speaker, because it is the key issue in the Bill, one that must consume and concern the House more than any other. The rule was widely understood and accepted by ratepayers. It was generally understood and I think everybody appreciated what was happening. Representatives in the Valuation Office Agency are responsible for assessing business rates. However, the rule received negative judicial treatment in the 2015 judgment of the Supreme Court in the Woolway v. Mazars case. As a result, the VOA has had to change its practice. The practice is now that separate units of property in a shared building should be treated as separate rating units and should therefore receive their own rules irrespective of whether they are in the same occupation and are contiguous.
That is what we are here today to consider properly. This is an important issue. I will try to list some of the towns and cities—hon. Members will represent some of them—throughout the United Kingdom where it will apply and where it is important. I will start with Abingdon-on-Thames, where there will be dwelling houses that are contiguous and which may or may not be part of the general rule and may have exceptions. There is Accrington, Acton, Alcester, Aldershot, Alnwick, Alston, Altrincham, Ambleside, Amersham—I think we can see where this is going—Andover, Arundel, Ashburton, Ashby-de-la-Zouch—[Laughter.] Hon. Members are laughing at my pronunciation. I challenge them to get to their feet and say Auchtermuchty. There is Axminster, Aylesbury, Bakewell, Bampton, Banbury—Madam Deputy Speaker, I could go on and go on.
Looking through the list, I spent a lovely hour in Berwick-upon-Tweed and I remember a lovely cup of tea in Bexhill-on-Sea in one of its very fine restaurants, but I am sure hon. Members do not want me to go through the whole list and describe the very many hours I have spent.
I shall spare the House the 35 pages of towns, villages and cities included in my list which are represented by English Members who are not doing their job. I will now give them the opportunity to get up and speak on behalf of their constituents. I hazard a guess that they are probably better at it than I am, as a Scottish National party Member of Parliament. I think that my English colleagues are probably just a little bit more qualified, experienced and skilled to speak on behalf of their own constituencies than I am, so I am perplexed as to why it has been left to me to do this job. So I will now, having provided a little bit of encouragement, give them to the opportunity to do it.
This is an absolute and utter farce, Madam Deputy Speaker. Regardless of anything else, this speech has pointed out just how ridiculous this practice is. I am just about the only Member of Parliament who has spoken in Legislative Grand Committee. I could speak for another hour if required, but I know Labour Members are keen to move on to the next business and I will accommodate that. We should be profoundly ashamed of the way we operate the English votes for English laws procedure. It has become an embarrassment to this House and makes this place look at its most ridiculous: bells ringing, maces going up and down, and nothing ever actually happening. It is time that we brought this farce to an end. I appeal to hon. Members from England. This has not worked. We have tried it. We have seen what it is like and nothing ever happens. Join us now to ensure that we rid the House of this embarrassment and go back to a united House with one class of MP where we can all have an equal say. Join us and let us end this farce.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee consents to the Rating (Property in Common Occupation) and Council Tax (Empty Dwellings) Bill.
The occupant of the Chair left the Chair to report the decision of the Committee (Standing Order No. 83M(6)).
The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair; decision reported.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
This Bill, above all, promotes fairness; it promotes fairness for hard-working business rate payers hit by a tax hike that they could not have anticipated—the so-called staircase tax—and fairness for those who struggle to find somewhere to live while properties lie empty for years. That was why we moved quickly to introduce the Bill and ensure that ratepayers, in particular, receive the urgent help that it will provide. I thank hon. Members on both sides of the House for their contributions and support in helping us to achieve this aim.
The Minister is making important points and the Bill does some important things. However, it could do something important that it does not—it does not allow local authorities, such as his and mine, in very rural areas to vary council tax on second homes. He will be aware that in the Yorkshire dales and the Lake district, vast percentages of communities are empty most of the year round because homes are not lived in. That undermines schools, public transport and the sustainability of such communities. Will the Government listen to local authorities and local communities and allow council tax to be raised to tackle the problem of excessive second-home ownership?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, my constituency neighbour, for his intervention. He is right to point out the issue of second homes in rural areas, which he and I have local familiarity with. I gently disagree when he says that nothing is being done. As he will be aware, the Government introduced a stamp duty surcharge for second homes. Much of the funds raised from that have gone to schemes, perhaps in his constituency and certainly in mine, in areas with high second-home ownership—for example, in Hudswell in Richmondshire, where community land trusts have been funded to create affordable housing for local occupancy. Beyond that, local plans, which no doubt will be discussed in the forthcoming debate, also allow local communities to have control over who is living in new build properties.
Work is being done, and all that followed the work done by the coalition Government to remove the automatic discount for second homes. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that that was in place for many years. The coalition Government removed the necessity for the discount to apply, and now the vast majority of second homes are not eligible for a council tax discount, but he is right to point out the issue. The Department is looking more broadly at the loophole with regard to business rates applying to second homes and them then qualifying for an exemption through small business rates relief. This has been raised by hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) and others from Cornwall, so the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) can rest assured that I am keeping an eye on this issue.
I return to the Bill, which deals with empty homes. I thank our partners in the rating sector for their invaluable help with the draft provisions, together with the very detailed and technical work that was done by officials, to whom I pay thanks. This has helped us to bring effective legislation to the House that navigates the intricacies of ratings law.
I also pay tribute to the work of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee. Not only did its comments on the definition of a void find their way to the language in the final Bill, but I noted the points raised on Second Reading by the Committee Chair, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts). He is not in his place, but I thank him and assure him that I look forward to working with him in future to ensure that Bills from my Department and in my brief go through the adequate legislative scrutiny process that we were fortunate to enjoy doing with the Committee. Lastly, I thank the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) for his input and constructive attitude in the Bill Committee. I very much look forward to working with him on future local government measures.
In conclusion, this Bill delivers on our commitment to fairness and supports those in our country who want to build a better life. It is a Bill for those looking for a place to call home. It is a Bill for small businesses. It is a Bill that I hope we can all welcome, and I commend it to the House.
I thank the Minister for the constructive and positive way he has approached the Bill, from the early conversations about the technicalities to his contributions in Committee, and I repeat his thanks to the Committees that have worked in the background on this. It is clear that a lot of work has been done to engage and to iron out the wrinkles in the Bill. I hope this reinforces the offer we made some time ago that, where measures are not controversial and have the support of the sector, we will work constructively to take them through Parliament. I hope this will be the first of a number that local government wants to see come forward.
I do not know whether it is in order to refer to a previous stage, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I thought the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), who is not in his place, took something of a liberty in the Legislative Grand Committee in trying to hijack a debate that affected English parliamentarians and English constituencies for what is an age-old debate about English votes for English laws. It almost belittles the detailed work done in many Committee sittings, where the hard work of making law has been happening but in a more constructive and mature way. I would not want us to lose sight of that. People watching on television—if anyone was watching it—might have been left with the inaccurate impression that Parliament was not doing its job and that this is a superficial way to pass laws, which is not the case at all.
Turning to the Bill, we support the measures relating to the staircase tax and the Supreme Court ruling. We recognise that it was a quirk of the system when the matter went to court and that it was not the original intention of legislation, but there remains concern about the financial impact on local authorities. In private meetings and in Committee, we requested a breakdown of the implications for each local authority in the country, but we have not to date had that information and so have not been able to assess the impact of this financial change on each local authority.
The Government will say that that is because the Supreme Court ruling meant that some local authorities were, for a short period, financially better off than had the ruling not been given, but many councils set their budgets based on that financial information, so some will face a net loss when, because of this change, money they were expecting from business rates does not come in. For some, the loss might be very minor, but for others it could be significant, depending on the make-up of properties within their local authority area. It would therefore have been reassuring to see that list today.
The agreement between central and local government is that, where central Government makes a change to the financial settlement and rules and regulations that has a net effect on local government budgets, councils ought to be compensated. Local Government and the Local Government Association—I declare an interest as vice-president of the LGA—are concerned about what it means when the Government make changes that can materially affect the financial base of local authorities but then do not provide financial compensation. Notwithstanding that, we recognise that the Government have heard the calls from business and ratepayers and have taken action. That should be welcomed.
Empty properties are a big issue. There are around 200,000 empty properties in this country at a time of a housing crisis. We know that 120,000 children in this country are without a permanent home and living in temporary accommodation. So the housing crisis is very real. Part of the problem with the Bill is that it addresses some types of empty property but not others. About 20% of properties in parts of London are empty. They are owned by wealthy individuals and institutions that will not be put off by a 100% additional council tax payment requirement, because that is pennies in the scheme of the wealth they hold. It might affect small landlords and people renovating properties, but it will not necessarily affect the part of the UK that arguably has the biggest housing crisis, and that of course is London. If the Government come forward with new proposals to address the problem of foreign individuals owning properties they have no intention of ever living in or allowing others to live in, the shadow Housing team would be open to a discussion on that.
I am aware that there is a housing debate to follow and that a great many Members have applied to speak in it. I repeat my thanks to the Government for being constructive and for engaging in the process at an early stage. I also repeat the offer of what we know local authorities want: far more cross-party working on matters that affect local government as a whole.
I shall make just four brief points.
Along with the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), the Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, I examined the Bill in draft. However, the staircase tax was drawn to my attention by my constituent Anthony Broza, who was faced with a swingeing rates demand for more than £8,500, to be paid in one go, which he had no way of paying. I hope that, as the Bill proceeds, the Government will find a way to return the money that has been taken from small businesses as swiftly as possible, because this has had a direct, demonstrable impact on the cash flow of 30,000 businesses across the United Kingdom.
May I issue a gentle reminder to the Minister? Our Select Committee wanted to subject the draft Bill to pre-legislative scrutiny, but because the Government published it long before we were allowed to do that, we were unable to contribute as effectively as we would have liked. I strongly suggest that in future, if the Government wish Select Committees to undertake pre-legislative scrutiny, they should allow them to do that work in advance.
As was mentioned by the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon), local authorities will lose money as a direct result of this—necessary—correction of the law. I have yet to see a quantification of that. I have yet to find out how many local authorities will lose, and how much they will lose. However, given the Government’s clear commitment in the Budget to compensate local government for any losses that would result, I think that they owe a debt of honour to those authorities.
My final point, which I hope will be discussed in the other place, relates to the concerns raised by a number of small businesses about the double-jeopardy risk involved in requesting a review. Requesting a review of rateable value may cause it to increase dramatically, and there is a risk that by asking for a review, small businesses could lose out as a result of what is otherwise a very good measure. I ask the Government to consider how we can ensure that they will not have to pay large sums of money as a result of new valuations. However, I—along with, I am sure, all other Members—support the Bill. It is a very well-meaning measure, and I trust that it will become law as quickly as possible.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.