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Council Tax and Non-Domestic Rating (Powers of Entry: Safeguards) (England) Order 2015

Volume 760: debated on Monday 23 March 2015

Motion to Consider

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Council Tax and Non-Domestic Rating (Powers of Entry: Safeguards) (England) Order 2015.

Relevant document: 25th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments

My Lords, the order was laid before this House on 27 February and I beg to move that it be approved. The Government are committed to protecting individuals and businesses from unnecessary intrusion into their homes and business premises by public bodies. It is essential that powers of entry, as with any enforcement power, achieve the right balance between the need to enforce the law and ensure public protection and the need to provide sufficient safeguards and rights to individuals. That is why I am delighted to inform the Committee that the Government have clamped down on the overuse and abuse of snooping, with more than 300 powers of entry already being abolished. We have also stopped spy cars and bin snoopers. However, some powers of entry are important and reasonable, such as the need for council tax and business rate inspectors to enter a property to value it. We now propose to introduce three additional safeguards for individuals and businesses through the draft order.

The main change is that the draft order, using powers under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, would change the law so that officials from the Valuation Office Agency, an agency of Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs, should no longer have an automatic power of entry into homes and businesses to value them for council tax and business rates. We are proposing to amend the Valuation Office Agency’s powers of entry so that where consent to enter is not given, listing and valuation officers will have to seek the authority of the First-tier Tribunal before they can exercise their statutory entry power. The vast majority of inspections will continue to happen with consent. However, where consent is not given, it will be for the First-tier Tribunal to judge whether the inspection is needed.

Secondly, when listing or valuation officers exercise their power, if the property’s occupier obstructs them the occupier can be prosecuted and fined. We propose, through this draft order, that the fine level for council tax be reduced and aligned with business rates to level 1 of the standard scale. This is currently £200. The third and final change is that the period for written notices sent by listing officers and valuation officers in advance of inspecting a business property to business ratepayers following First-tier Tribunal authorisation is increased and aligned with that for council tax, to three working days.

These changes, if they are approved, will ensure that private and family life is respected at all times. They will ensure that the privacy of citizens’ homes and businesses is protected, while allowing the Valuation Office Agency to meet its statutory functions and enabling listing officers and valuation officers to fulfil their statutory valuation duties.

In drawing up our proposals, we listened to representations from a range of sectors. We had a total of 23 responses from local authorities, the Valuation Tribunal for England, the Institute of Revenues, Rating and Valuation, Big Brother Watch, a member of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the Rating Surveyors Association, and from members of the public. The majority agreed that the proposals set out in the consultation document sufficiently protect the privacy and rights of homeowners and businesses. There was no significant disagreement with the principle of requiring that listing and valuation officers should be made to seek the authority of the tribunal before exercising their power of entry. There were mixed views on whether to reduce the fine level for council tax and align it with business rates, to level 1 of the standard scale. The majority agreed with aligning the period for written notices sent by listing officers and valuation officers in advance of a visit to council tax payers and business ratepayers to three working days. Based on the details of the order, I commend it to the committee.

My Lords, I do not have too many comments to make in respect of this order. When I looked at the order, I noticed the reference to the Protection of Freedoms Act. This Government seem to like some grand titles for Acts. I think also of the SARAH Bill, which my noble friend Lord Beecham did for the Opposition.

There is a lot of florid language in this order. As the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, outlined, it ensures that when officials want to get entry to a property, if they have not been allowed it they have to seek the permission of the First-tier Tribunal. I have no particular issue with that. However, I saw that no impact assessment was done on this provision. Who will bear the costs of these actions? I hope that it will not be the taxpayer or the council tax payer. Why was no impact assessment done? Is it because in reality there will be a relatively small number of cases? That would be very useful.

Will the Minister also comment a bit more on the consultation? I read it and thought it was a bit more mixed than the Minister may have outlined. Also, who were consulted? I saw that Big Brother Watch is mentioned here, but what other groups were consulted? It would be quite nice to have a list of the organisations. I assume that local authorities were included. What concern did Big Brother Watch have? It stuck out on the list. I would appreciate some answers to those questions.

My Lords, in following my noble friend and in relation to the costs which he raised, there seem to be a couple of questions. First, what is the cost assumed to be nationally of any applications that would be made to the First-tier Tribunal and how many cases is it estimated will take place? My noble friend asked upon whom the cost would fall, but would that depend on the outcome of an application or just fall upon the relevant authority? If so, would that then become part of the new burdens doctrine and would it be funded by the department itself?

I have another question. What we are talking about here appears to be valuation for council tax purposes but what about, for example, the bedroom tax? It will presumably be necessary to inspect a property to see how many residents there are and what the position is in relation to allegedly spare rooms. There is already quite a lot of controversy, for example, about rooms adapted for disability purposes within a property. That would presumably require some kind of inspection. Is it proposed that there would have to be an application under these provisions for an inspection by a valuation officer or some other official to determine whether it is appropriate to levy the bedroom tax? I cannot quite remember the more dignified name that the Government choose to give it. Is the euphemism deployed the “supplementary room”?

That is right. Yes, it is the spare room subsidy, a wonderful euphemism. In establishing whether that applies, an inspection would presumably often be required but is that covered by these provisions? It would be interesting to know.

My Lords, if I may intervene, noble Lords opposite do not need to feel that they have to object to every regulation that comes here. I have no particular difficulty with this order, as to give three working days is highly sensible. Indeed, most of what is in it is highly desirable.

I intervene briefly only to say that, as we have discussed on other occasions, this is part of a lot of stuff now coming out from the department. As we look forward to the next Parliament, I would put in a plea to whoever is in control of it. I agree with my noble friend and I sincerely hope that it is him, because he is a highly respected and experienced colleague from local government. After the election, however, I hope that there will be a restraining hand laid on those who want to uninvent the general power of competence or assert the principle that Whitehall knows better than local authorities about a range of things, from how votes should be conducted in council meetings to how an individual high street should be regulated. At this last stage in the Parliament I put in a plea before both parties, although I hope that my own will form the next Government, for that message to be heeded. However, I hope that we can approve these regulations. They are highly welcome and I thank my noble friend for bringing them forward.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their questions, comments and general support for what the Government are proposing. I first thank my noble friend Lord True for his very kind remarks and, as a general point, I take on board what he said about powers of competence. From this Government’s perspective, the whole essence has been an increased focus on localism. He raises his points well and I am sure that both my party and others will listen to his comments with great interest as we move forward, post 7 May.

Turning to the specific questions from other noble Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, raised the issue of the impact assessment for this change. The proposed policy changes do not actually fall within the scope of the reducing regulation committee, and so they do not need an impact assessment for this purpose. We do not anticipate any impact on the private or voluntary sector in this regard. A question was also raised about the costs associated with the order. As my noble friend Lord True pointed out, with most inspections there is an allowance of three working days and they will still happen by consent. There will be no significant increase in costs, as new costs for First-tier Tribunals will be paid by DCLG.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, asked about consultation and whom we consulted. I listed a number of organisations and all the consultation details are available on the government website, GOV.UK. This includes all the statutory consultees I mentioned earlier.

I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord. Would it be possible to send me a list of the organisations consulted other than the obvious ones such as local authorities? It would be helpful to me if he could do that.

I am quite happy to send the noble Lord the list of the statutory consultees, although the whole idea of putting it on the website is to open it up to whoever wishes to comment. However, if the noble Lord is asking specifically about the statutory consultees, I am quite happy to send him the list.

I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, referred to the spare room subsidy by its correct name. Just by way of clarification, that is not assessed by the Valuation Office Agency and, as such, this order will not apply. I believe that I have answered the questions that were raised.

I just want to say that obviously we have great respect for the noble Lord. I think that all Members here have served on local authorities in the past. Certainly, the noble Lord, Lord True, leads a council; my noble friend Lord Beecham has led a council; and I was deputy leader of a council many years ago and went back on to Lewisham council last year. Of course, I hope that we get back in May and that the position will be reversed. However, whatever happens, I have great respect for the noble Lord.

I hasten to add my agreement to that. However, with respect, the noble Lord has not answered a couple of the questions that I put to him. What will be the cost of the use of the valuation service and who will bear that cost? Will it be the local authority or the householder, or, to put it another way, the occupier of the property? In that event, would the cost apply only if he objected and the objection was overruled?

Just so that I am clear, this is if a request is made to enter a property and the request is refused. I am just clarifying the nature of the noble Lord’s question.

An application has to be made to the First-tier Tribunal and there must be a cost for the application to that tribunal. Who bears the cost of the tribunal hearing?

I think that I have already alluded to the administrative costs, which I said the DCLG would pay. The House will have an opportunity to see the full details of how the First-tier Tribunal will operate when the MoJ tribunal regulations are brought forward. They will include full, detailed costs.

Motion agreed.