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Non-Domestic Rating (Information) Bill

Volume 571: debated on Wednesday 17 April 1996

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8.32 p.m.

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. I have pleasure in introducing the Bill for Second Reading.

This is a short Bill, which extends throughout Great Britain and will enable assessors in Scotland and valuation officers in England and Wales to exchange information which they have obtained for statutory rating purposes. This will enable them to develop and defend, on appeal, the harmonised GB schemes of valuation which were introduced with effect from 1st April 1995 or are developed at subsequent revaluations.

The Bill will benefit the business community by helping to ensure that rating harmonisation is effectively maintained. The main purpose of the Bill, in helping to maintain the British harmonised rating system, is to close a loophole in the existing provisions by facilitating the free exchange of relevant information between assessors and valuation officers. While there is, at present no statutory prohibition to the free exchange of such information, much of the information is obtained from ratepayers under information-gathering powers which are supported by criminal penalties for failure to comply. In these circumstances, it is considered that there could be considerable doubt as to the legality of an assessor or valuation officer passing information of this kind to each other than as expressly authorised by statute. Particular difficulties could arise where, for example, a Scottish assessor needs to produce, at an appeal hearing, the English rental evidence to support a Great Britain valuation scheme developed by assessors and valuation officers together. This Bill will provide the statutory authority to overcome those difficulties.

I am confident that the Bill will attract full support, as it did at all stages in another place. It has no direct financial effects and will not result in any additional burdens on business. Indeed, business will benefit from the greater assurance of rateable values being harmonised throughout Great Britain which the Bill will bring. I therefore hope that your Lordships will support the Bill. I commend it to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Gray of Contin.)

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Gray of Contin, for introducing the Bill. It will be very helpful. I checked the record of another place and found that the Bill went through very speedily on 9th March. 1 was particularly pleased that the noble Lord emphasised the importance of confidentiality and the penalties involved in any breaching of that confidentiality. This will be a helpful Bill. I commend it to the House.

8.36 p.m.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on his presentation of the Bill and extend my wholehearted support for the measure. It is a highly desirable Bill and, I hope noble Lords will agree, totally uncontroversial.

As noble Lords will be aware, the Government have given a high priority during the period since 1990 to achieving parity for business rates north and south of the Border. The considerable investment made in bringing Scottish rate levels down to the English level and the fact that valuation practitioners north and south of the Border now work to the same techniques and overall guidelines has at last achieved this. From 1st April 1995 the unified business rate in Scotland has been the same as in England and this has been backed by the implementation of the revaluation north and south of the Border which was the first to be conducted with fully harmonised valuation schemes for all classes of subject.

The Scottish assessors worked closely with the Valuation Office Agency in England and Wales to achieve this result and they assure us that there is now harmonisation in the outcome of their valuations. In teaching this position, they have of course each had to take into account the level of values that could he set and defended on either side of the Border.

It is an important feature of the rating system that all ratepayers must have the opportunity to challenge their valuation and have it considered. if necessary, by an independent valuation appeal committee or, in England or Wales, a valuation tribunal. In order, however, to explain valuation schemes that depend on evidence gathered on both sides of the Border an assessor or valuation officer defending an appeal would need to be able to present that evidence before the appeal committee or tribunal. In order to do that he or she must, of course, have access to the original evidence. Much of this evidenct, is gathered under specific statutory powers and—I emphasise this to the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael—subject to proper safeguards to protect commercial confidentiality. It follows that the officer gathering the information should not divulge it except in an authorised manner. The Bill, if enacted, will allow valuation officers and assessors to share information from each other's areas of operation. It would not allow them to divulge information collected in another area which they could not divulge if it had been collected from their own area. They could not therefore do anything which they cannot already do. It follows that there is no breach of commercial confidentiality since no information will be divulged in relation to another part of the country which could not be divulged locally.

This will, however, ensure that where rental information or other evidence as to value is only available on a scattered basis throughout the country the same evidence can be led before all appeal committees or tribunals so that all valuations can be judged on a similar basis. This should help to reinforce the equality for business rates while not, in any way, hampering anyone's appeal rights.

Noble Lords will see that this is a very short and simple measure. It has the support of the Federation of Small Businesses. I hope noble Lords will support it, in the light of the explanation that I have given as to how it will enable valuation officers and assessors to operate for the eventual benefit of the business community. We support the Bill. I commend it to the House.

8.39 p.m.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for what he has said. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove, for the support which he has pledged from the Labour Party. I would also like to thank other parties who may not have participated in the debate tonight, for the goodwill which they have shown towards the Bill in the other place and, I hope, here, also. I commend the measure to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.