I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The House may have spotted that I am not in as full voice as I normally like to be. I promise that is not because I have been participating in the activities that I understand are going on outside in Parliament Square. I hope the House will understand if I do not take quite the number of interventions that I generally like to when opening a debate.
I believe that all of us across the House recognise how important business rates are to council budgets and the funding of core services. This year alone, business rates are set to raise more than £20 billion to fund vital services, from adult and children’s social care to refuse collection. However, business owners have raised concerns about the impact of this tax on their ability to stay competitive. That is why the Government have delivered and will continue to deliver on our commitment to reform business rates.
In the autumn statement, we announced substantial immediate support to help businesses adapt to the 2023 business rates revaluation. Today, we take another major step forward, turning our attention towards longer-term reform with the Non-Domestic Rating Bill. It will ensure a business rates system that is more flexible, transparent and fair.
Before I set out what the Bill delivers, I remind the House of the steps we have already taken to improve the business rates system. From April 2023, we have updated all rateable values for non-domestic properties, reflecting changes in the property market. The revaluation ensured a fairer distribution of bills between online and physical retail. On average, bricks-and-mortar retailers saw decreases of around 20%, but we did not stop there.
In the autumn statement, we announced a support package worth almost £14 billion over the next five years to support businesses. We have frozen the business rates multiplier this year—a £9.3 billion tax cut over the next five years—we have increased the retail, hospitality and leisure relief scheme from 50% to 75%, supporting around 230,000 properties, and we have removed unpopular downwards caps from the transitional relief scheme, ensuring that businesses immediately see the benefit of falling bills.
Turning to the Bill, business owners have been clear that a more frequent revaluation cycle would be extremely helpful. In place of the current five-yearly cycle, the Bill will implement a three-yearly cycle. The most recent revaluation took effect from this April, so the next will take place in 2026 and it will happen every three years thereafter. I understand that colleagues will ask, “Hang on a minute. Why every three years, rather than annually or every two years?”. The reason is that this single measure is a significant shake-up of the business rates system. An initial three-yearly cycle ensures that the Valuation Office Agency has the capacity to deliver these important reforms. I reassure the House that we will of course keep the system under review, with the aim of going even further if we can.
We are implementing a new duty for ratepayers to provide the VOA with information that supports valuation. That will be submitted through a new, simple online service. It brings business rates in line with wider tax practice, and it is a crucial first step towards going further on the frequency of revaluations in the future. We will make the valuation process clearer by increasing the transparency of the VOA’s work. The VOA has already delivered some improvements, but the Bill will allow it to go even further and provide more accessible information to ratepayers on how individual valuations have been reached.
The Minister is speaking about the Valuation Office Agency, which gave evidence to the Treasury Committee last week. It reassured us that it was ready for these changes and on track for its computer system changes. Is that consistent with what she has been told?
Yes, it is. Indeed, the VOA is very keen to get moving with this because, while it does a good job under the current system, it understands the difficulties that less frequent revaluations have posed for businesses, particularly given recent history with the pandemic. This is very much part of trying to sew the system together even more tightly, so that the VOA is able to fulfil its obligations to ratepayers.
We are going to clarify what sort of changes or events should lead to changes in rateable values between revaluations, with reforms to material changes of circumstances. Another key reform involves rethinking the way that the two multipliers or tax rates are calculated. We are making the recent practice of uprating the multipliers by the consumer prices index a permanent feature. Defaulting to this lower measure of inflation will help businesses struggling with rising costs. The Bill will also allow the Government to adjust either multiplier to a rate lower than inflation, and to prescribe which properties pay the lower or smaller multiplier, keeping business support adaptable to the fast-moving fiscal environment.
The key driver for all of these changes is to help businesses grow, and in so doing we want to remove barriers to investment and to incentivise growth. We are therefore creating an entirely new 100% relief for ratepayers making eligible improvements to their property. They will not face higher bills as a result of those investments for 12 months. I know that that is something for which businesses, and indeed colleagues, have been asking for some time. We will also enshrine in law the 100% relief for low-carbon heat networks that have their own rates bill. That is something we recently brought in with the support of local authorities, and it has been warmly welcomed by the business community.
The Bill shows that the Government are honouring our promise to British businesses that we will be there for them no matter what, so that they can continue to innovate, expand and thrive in a globally competitive economy. In the last six months, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has announced almost £14 billion of support to the business rates system, and now through the Bill we are going even further. The Bill creates a modern system that can adapt to the ebb and flow of market tides. It delivers a fairer system that provides greater transparency for ratepayers and a business-friendly system that helps, not hinders, growth and rewards companies that invest. I commend it to the House.
There is no getting around it: this has been an incredibly tough time for businesses across the UK. There was the pandemic, of course, but before and after it, they have had this Government’s mismanagement of Brexit to contend with, the Government’s failure to manage rising energy costs, the highest inflation for a generation and the unforgivable mess of the Government’s mini-Budget in October.
With this Bill reaching its Second Reading still inadequate in many areas, business owners are concerned about what further challenges await them. While businesses have welcomed some elements of this legislation, it is clear across the board that supportive measures such as improvement relief are being delivered far too late. The most glaring omission from the Bill continues to be the lack of any substantial improvements to our outdated, dysfunctional business rates system. Labour is committed to scrapping business rates root and branch, but the Government continue to tinker around the edges, buying time with short-term measures, rather than addressing the depth of the problems they have caused.
The last thing businesses need is more short-term sticking-plaster fixes. Maybe they are waiting for a Labour Government in the next 18 months to come and fix it for good. Our proposed reforms to business rates are what small and medium-sized enterprises have spent years lobbying for. All of us will know a high street that was prosperous 15 years ago and is now in miserable decline, along with libraries, nurseries and leisure centres. The Tories’ commitment to austerity policies has led to the death of a devastating number of high street businesses. They sat by and watched business after business go bust and the hearts of our high streets gutted. Office for National Statistics figures show that, even at the height of the recession, business deaths under the last Labour Government never rose above 277,000. In stark contrast, this Tory Government oversaw a staggering peak of 331,000 business deaths in 2017—years before the pandemic, before the war and any other factors that they may try to draw on.
While the Tories tread water, Labour has a plan for British business. We will support entrepreneurs to turn their ideas into reality. We will ensure that bricks and mortar businesses stay on our high street by making their tax contributions proportionate. Labour will make online tech giants finally pay their fair share of tax—something the Conservatives have never had the will to do. By raising the digital services tax paid by the likes of Amazon, we will be able to raise the threshold for small business rates relief, helping more homegrown small and medium-sized businesses to thrive in our retail sector. Sadly, among other common-sense reforms suggested by Labour, the Tories have refused to provide short-term support through raising the threshold for small business rates relief this financial year. Our estimates suggest that raising the threshold to £25,000 would save our high streets more than £1 billion. Instead, SMEs will continue to wade through bills and fight for their survival. Corner shops and cash and carries are essential staples of our neighbourhood and many families rely on them to meet daily need.
Although some measures in the Bill have been welcomed by small shop owners, worry continues over the administrative burdens of meeting the new “duty to notify” requirements. The Association of Convenience Stores told me that, despite representations to Ministers, its concerns about clause 13 have not been addressed. Forcing ratepayers to submit taxpayer reference numbers to the Valuation Office Agency will create more work for all retailers, but have a particular impact on convenience store chains. Has the Minister considered the difficulties facing businesses in that situation: those that may need to spend more to safely report sensitive tax information for multiple sites? There are also valid fears that fines will be incurred through small businesses not knowing when or what to update the VOA with regarding changes to their premises. Can the Minister update me on what consultations the Government are conducting to bring clarity to that process?
The Shopkeepers’ Campaign rightly notes that the clause allowing fines for retailers to notify the VOA within 60 days represents a “stealth tax”. Surely Ministers do not intend to find new ways to make small businesses worse off. Can they please commit to reviewing that policy?
Many convenience stores are owned and frequented by first, second and third generation migrant communities and those on lower incomes. Have Ministers carried out an equality impact assessment of the unintended consequences that these costs will have on the owners and, therefore, their customers? I would be grateful to know whether any such assessment has also investigated regional differences in the impact of the Bill. Recent analysis by Savills estate agents found strong disparity between the new rateable value for city centre retail units and those in small towns. Surely the Government are not proposing yet more policy that will make a mockery of their central promise to level up.
The hospitality sector was at the sharp end of the pandemic restrictions and slow economic recovery. Most recently, it has suffered a severe workforce shortage due to post-Brexit limitations on migrant workers. UKHospitality has joined other business advocacy groups in questioning the new proposals regarding expanding the VOA’s remit and powers. What is the Minister’s response to businesses facing extensive administrative time and costs to provide the VOA with more information than it reasonably requires? We welcome the commitment to revaluate rates more frequently, but every three years is still not enough to keep up with the sudden changes that businesses can experience during economic turmoil. A Labour Government will introduce annual revaluations, delivering the up-to-date monitoring and support that businesses are crying out for.
As I have raised with the Minister before, there is still no explanation from the Government on how they will support local authorities that have the huge task of processing tens of thousands of new business rate forms. Local authorities, as we all know and appreciate, are already understaffed and under-resourced. I do not need to remind the Minister that councils still do not have a long-term sustainable funding model, so each year brings more financial insecurity than the last. With yet another new administrative responsibility dumped on their desks, how does the Minister expect councils to be able to afford the time and staffing to adjust? Have the Government conducted any sort of consultation with local authority leaders to assist with the burden?
We will not be voting against the Bill today. We know some improvements have been made and we will work towards further improvements in the next stages. What will not change between this version of the Bill and the next is that Labour remains the party of business. We are committed to ensuring that every business, every entrepreneur, every high street, every worker and every customer gets what they need from government to live well and see our economy thrive in return.
I would like to focus my remarks on our retail sector. The last few years have seen an acceleration in shop closures and job losses. The Centre for Retail Research found that more than 17,000 shops closed in 2022, equivalent to 47 a day and the highest total in five years. More than 5% of retail staff lost their jobs last year through insolvencies and store closures arising from rationalisation.
Retail, especially independent shops, is hugely important in beautiful Hastings and Rye, where over 30% of the local economy depends on the hospitality and tourism sectors. I know many local outlets have ceased to trade, and the town centre in Hastings is punctuated with empty or shuttered shop windows. Even key areas such as Robertson Street, which has seen something of a revival since the pandemic, now has prominent outlets closed and empty. Sadly, some businesses we lost were Hastings institutions, such as the fishmongers in Queens Arcade, which had been there for more than half a century. Others include the large Argos near Breeds Place, which remained empty for several years prior to the pandemic, and big names such as Game, in Priory Meadow. Several cafés across the town have also closed.
It would be unfair to say that all those business closures relate to the business rates system. Some are due to an increase in rent, on top of the increase in supply chain and energy costs caused by the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but I have no doubt that business rates is a significant contributory factor to many business closures across the country. The business rates system has become disconnected from the realities of modern retail and retail real estate, which is why I am pleased the Government have decided to modernise it.
There are several positive measures in the Bill which will help our retail sector. A more frequent cycle of three years for revaluations will allow changes in economic conditions to feed through more rapidly into businesses’ liabilities. As long-term changes in the economy continue to manifest, accelerated by the aftermath of the pandemic, that will ensure the business rates system is more agile and responsive to change, while also improving fairness for ratepayers. However, it has been argued that annual revaluations would be most ideal, ensuring a highly responsive and up-to-date system. Perhaps the Minister can explain a bit more about that in her response.
The digitalising business rates project will, I hope, modernise the business rates system, improve the targeting of rates relief, generate better data for central Government and local government and help to improve business rates compliance. Measures to support de-carbonisation and investment, including a relief for low-carbon heat networks and a new improvement relief, will ensure that, from April 2024, ratepayers will not see an increase in their rates bill for 12 months from qualifying improvements made to their property. That is important because businesses that improve their properties should not be penalised for it.
However, I have some concerns that the Bill does not go far enough to help small businesses. The move to the three-yearly valuations has a cost to the ratepayer. The Valuation Office Agency has imposed a corresponding duty to notify, which requires ratepayers to inform it of any changes made to a property within 60 days of the change. This new duty represents a significant administrative burden for businesses, particularly the small ones. Whenever a change is made to the property, the occupier must inform the VOA within 60 days, or be met, it seems, with punitive fines.
The VOA’s job is to determine a property’s rateable value. It appears that the imposition of the new duty is simply the VOA asking the ratepayer to do its job for it. Many small businesses will struggle with that additional burden. Perhaps most concerning is the lack of a corresponding duty for the VOA to respond to ratepayers’ requests. Although the ratepayer must notify the VOA within 60 days—with the threat of financial sanctions—the VOA may respond to the ratepayer at its leisure. That hardly seems fair.
I am concerned that the uniform business rate multiplier has risen to 51p, which is a significant increase from the 34p that it stood at on its introduction in 1990—admittedly, that is quite a long time ago. Although freezing the UBR is welcome, it is temporary and contrary to our promise in the 2019 Conservative manifesto to cut the burden of tax on businesses by reducing business rates. The Bill means there may be annual increases in the UBR by linking it to the consumer prices index. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain a bit more about that. We need to keep in mind that in 2019 voters were promised reduced business rates bills on SMEs. Can the Minister outline what has been done to lower the UBR? Can she explain how linking the UBR to inflation through the consumer prices index will help to reduce the tax burden on businesses?
Overall, the Bill is welcome as a positive step in the right direction. We must do all we can to protect our retail sector. The Conservative party is always the party for small businesses. I would like a business rates system that flexes with profit rather than one based on the value of a property—that would be fairer.
I have been looking forward to this legislation, partly because I am passionate about any measures that will revive the fortunes of the high street in North Shropshire’s historic and beautiful market towns, and partly because, from my previous role as an accountant and financial controller, I have first-hand experience of dealing with the business rates system.
Businesses are facing tough conditions. Every ingredient, nut and bolt and widget purchased is more expensive. Many businesses are finding it impossible to pass on those additional costs to consumers. On top of that, energy costs have been historically high. Many businesses were forced to sign up to fixed-price energy contracts when prices were stratospheric. The Government left those businesses facing a cliff edge when support was withdrawn at the beginning of this month. Many pubs, cafés and restaurants have seen a 90% cut in Government help. In my constituency, they are reporting to me that they are looking at closure. Businesses have it really tough right now and they need a break. They need a Government who will
“cut the burden of tax on business by reducing business rates…via a fundamental review of the system.”
Those are not my words but the commitment that the Conservatives made in their 2019 manifesto.
The Bill before us today is a disappointment. It tinkers around the edge of an outdated tax that does not work for the modern economy. Our high street shops are competing with online retailers that do not have the same overheads as the physical shops that form the backbone of our communities’ common spaces. Business rates increase those costs further, making it even harder to compete. The Treasury Committee’s 2019 report, “Impact of business rates on business” confirmed that view.
In market towns such as Oswestry in my constituency, the smaller independent stores benefit from small business rates relief. They are not paying anything, so more frequent revaluations will not help them because they pay nothing in the first place. The opportunity was to make the difference for the larger retailers—the anchor tenants and the drivers of footfall that are needed to bring people back to town centres in person. I think that opportunity has been missed.
Turning to the detail of the Bill, there are some steps in the right direction. The increase in the frequency of revaluations, from every five years to every three years, is clearly welcome. It is also right to enable businesses to use business rates improvement relief to encourage businesses to improve and upgrade their properties. We would hope that the relief might encourage businesses to look towards ways in which they can embrace decarbonisation.
It also seems sensible to link business rates to a unique taxpayer reference. The provisions around notification of completion of works look to be a welcome measure to reduce the possibility of fraud in relation to buildings being removed from the rating list while being refurbished. From experience, that struck me as a potential weak spot for fraud, so that measure is welcome.
However, I want to expand on the onerous nature of placing a responsibility on businesses to keep the Valuation Office Agency informed about market value and changes to the lease or ownership. Businesses already receive a notification to inform the Valuation Office Agency when something material changes at a premises—primarily, ownership or the registration of a lease—and they must provide detailed information to confirm that the rating value is still appropriate. Moving to an annual notification, even in the event of no change, would mean yet another form to fill in for the beleaguered financial controller, with whom I have huge sympathy, who is already bogged down in seemingly endless monthly and quarterly ONS returns, on top of their monthly and quarterly financial reporting requirements. It is estimated that around 700,000 small businesses that currently do not pay rates at all will be included in this annual form-filling exercise, with significant penalties in place if they get it wrong.
Speaking from my own experience, the VOA is not quick to decide and respond when changes are notified. I spent a year persuading the VOA to put a new office building on the rating register and to record other alternations to a mixed-use site, including inviting the officers on a personal visit to assess the site at first hand. This was after the pandemic restrictions had been removed. Changes in case manager, records lost, confusion, and lack of interaction between the valuation for business rates and council tax meant that it was an administrative nightmare, as well as a business planning nightmare.
Businesses need to know what their rates liability is going to be. Cash-flow planning is critical to staying afloat, particularly at a time when businesses are struggling with soaring energy costs and rocketing inflation. Businesses cannot do that if they do not know what their rates bill will be; we should remember that the rates bill is backdated to the point circumstances change, not to the point that the Valuation Office Agency makes its decision.
I am extremely nervous about imposing a further administrative burden on small and medium-sized businesses, complete with harsh fines and penalties, when there is no acknowledgement of the importance of a swift response from the VOA. Surely some timetable could be put in place, at least for interim assessments, to help businesses to plan. I would be grateful if the Minister could consider corresponding reliefs or an appeals system, with remedies provided, when the VOA has taken an unreasonable amount of time to reach a decision, or got its decision wrong or in a state that requires challenge.
The current business rates system is broken. The Federation of Small Businesses said:
“these changes do not amount to the fundamental overhaul the system needs, to reduce the chilling impact of a regressive tax that you pay before even earning a penny in turnover, let alone profit.”
Fundamentally, Liberal Democrats disagree with business rates. They are harmful to high streets and our wider economy, and the current framework is a huge burden for small businesses. They tax productive business investment in structures and equipment, rather than taxing profits and land value.
The Liberal Democrats would abolish the broken business rates system and replace it with a commercial landowner levy. That levy would be paid initially by the landlords of commercial properties, not the businesses occupying them, and it would feature annual revaluations, which Netherlands has proved are possible administratively. It would tax only the land value of commercial sites, not productive investment. Removing buildings, utilities and other physical capital from taxation would boost business investment, in turn increasing productivity and wages.
Liberal Democrat plans would improve our high streets by boosting investment and helping shops that struggle. None of that will be achieved by today’s Bill.
The Bill is welcome as it was a 2019 Conservative manifesto commitment to carry out a fundamental review of business rates, the final report for which was published alongside the 2021 autumn Budget.
I support the Bill generally, but I have two concerns. First, the Bill should be seen not as the endgame but as the start of the process to radically reform business rates. The ultimate objective should be to reduce the uniform business rate multiplier to something in the order of 30p in the pound; to carry out annual revaluations; to abolish the multitude of complicated reliefs; and to digitalise the Valuation Office Agency. If we do so, business rates will be reduced to an affordable level, the system will be put on a long-term and more easily understood footing and we shall be able to get on with so-called levelling up—removing barriers that impede regional growth. That will enable businesses to know where they stand and to make long-term investment decisions. The message I continually get from the Suffolk Chamber of Commerce, which carries out quarterly economic surveys, is that the No. 1 concern for businesses in Suffolk is always business rates.
My second worry is that the Bill will increase rather than ease the bureaucratic and administrative burden on businesses. I urge the Government to introduce amendments to prevent that. I shall set out my concerns in more detail later.
Before I came to this place, I was a chartered surveyor; I did not specialise in business rates, but I carried out appeals from time to time. Business rates are a tax with certain inherent advantages for the Treasury: they yield approximately £25 billion per annum, they are relatively easy to collect and they are difficult to avoid. However, if the system is not administered properly, they can have a significant negative impact on businesses generally, on specific sectors—we have heard about the challenges facing hospitality and retail—and on local economies.
Business rates are in effect a tax on existence rather than on profitability, so it is important that they be kept as low as possible. High business rates not only discourage occupation, but disincentivise investment in innovation, improvement and expansion—and if you will forgive a quick commercial interlude while I am on that subject, Madam Deputy Speaker, I must congratulate PCE Automation of Beccles, which has just received the King’s award for enterprise in recognition of excellence in innovation.
At a time of high inflation, high utility costs and stubbornly high rents, business rates are a fixed cost that occupiers cannot escape. The Chancellor made some significant and welcome announcements in his autumn statement, including the revaluation that is now coming into effect, the reform of the transitional relief scheme and the freezing of the uniform business rates multiplier. The Bill provides the necessary legislative framework for some of those changes and for others that arise from the Government’s review, as well as making some minor legislative adjustments and correcting some anomalies. I shall not go through the Bill’s provisions in detail at this stage, but I repeat that I applaud the Chancellor for the undertakings that he made in November, which are much needed in these challenging times. As I say, however, the Bill must be seen as the start, not the conclusion, of the process of radical reform.
It is also necessary to guard against some unintended consequences. As drafted, the Bill will add to the regulatory burden on businesses at a time when we should be seeking to ease and reduce it. The new duty to notify set out in clause 13, which the VOA has justified as necessary to facilitate the move to a review every three years, will result in a mountain of paperwork for ratepayers. Businesses will now have to notify the VOA of any changes to their properties within 60 days, or find themselves facing punitive fines or even imprisonment. It is not right for us to expect businesses which are already facing an extraordinarily challenging regulatory environment to put up with that.
This obligation was formerly the VOA’s, but has now been transferred to the ratepayer. The VOA has no corresponding obligation, and is able to respond to requests for information at its leisure. Ideally, the duty to notify should be removed from the Bill in its entirety, but if the Government wish to impose this new duty, they must do so with the principle of reciprocation in mind. The VOA must have a corresponding duty to respond within 60 days, giving the ratepayers rebates on their business rates bills equivalent to the penalties imposed on them if there is a failure to respond within that time.
My second concern relates to clause 14, which proposes changes in the circumstances in which rateable values may be altered outside the regular cycle of revaluations. I am concerned about the consequences of this clause, and I believe that it should be removed. Let me explain the background. A “material change in circumstances” allows ratepayers recourse to pursue relief on their business rates bills when factors outside their control have an impact on their ability to do business and to operate. To my mind, that is logical natural justice, but the VOA seems to dislike the paperwork associated with these claims, as is evidenced by its mass rejection of 400,000 covid-related appeals. It appears that to prevent the repetition of such circumstances, it is now proposed to exempt any Government legislation as qualifying grounds for a challenge. In practice, this means that the Government would be able to act with impunity and enact policies that could hamper businesses without allowing them the legal recourse to challenge them. That is fundamentally unjust.
As I have mentioned, the move to three-yearly revaluations should not be the endgame, but should be a stepping stone towards annual revaluations. The advantage of that approach is that there would no longer be a need for the current complex system of reliefs; businesses would in effect be paying a tax that moved with the market, and that would lead to greater long-term certainty which would then encourage private sector investment. At first glance, annual revaluations might seem too complicated and challenging, but, as we have heard, such a system operates in the Netherlands, and there is no reason why we should not have it here.
It is regrettable that, for many businesses, discussions and negotiations with the VOA are conducted in accordance with the philosophy of “one rule for us and another for them”. The proposed duty to notify embeds this sentiment still further. It must be removed, and the system must become more transparent. The VOA’s processes are notoriously opaque, and leave many ratepayers scratching their heads when they receive their revaluation figures. As it stands, a business’s only recourse when it comes to understanding its rateable value is to go through the VOA’s complex “check, challenge and appeal” process, which many feel is deliberately designed to discourage people from—dare I say it—peering behind the curtain.
The Bill, as currently drafted, does provide the VOA with the power to give more information to ratepayers, but only at its discretion, if it considers it “reasonable to do so”. This provision is set out in clause 10, but it is vague and undefined, and some might say that it provides the VOA with the ability to reveal information to no one while appearing to be forthcoming. If clause 13 requires businesses to provide reams of information to the VOA, it is only right that it should reciprocate. Ratepayers must be given the option to understand the process that defines the tax that they will be paying for the next three years, and to reasonably expect an answer within 60 days of submitting their request, thereby mirroring the duty to notify.
My final concern relates to another unintended consequence of the duty to notify, as currently drafted in the Bill, which is the wave of predatory, unqualified and unscrupulous rating advisers that I fear it may spawn. The ramifications of financial advice, whether good or bad, can be huge for individuals and businesses. Most financial advisers in most settings require a licence to give advice from a sanctioning body. One therefore has to ask why this does not also apply to rating advisers.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. On his point about advice, financial controllers are inundated daily by people cold calling them and offering to challenge their rates bills. They have no idea who they are, yet they take a cut of any saving that might be made. This indicates two things to me: first, that the system is not fit for purpose; and secondly, that the rating values are inadequate in the first place. Does he agree with me on those points?
I agree with the hon. Lady. This is a specialist area of valuation. When I was practising as a chartered surveyor, I quite often got called in because the client, the business owner, had gone down the line of paying money upfront to someone who had sent them a circular—they may have paid them £1,000 or £2,000—and that person had suddenly disappeared. I often got called in to try to sort out that type of situation.
At the current time, with the publication of the new rating list, thousands of businesses are being flooded by solicitations from charlatan rating advisers who are taking advantage of the confusion created by the complicated rating system. There is a significant risk that many businesses, particularly SMEs, will have neither the understanding nor the capacity to meet the duty to notify. They will increasingly fall prey to such bad advice, and this could have a devastating impact. The Government should therefore consider some sort of licensing to protect businesses from the scourge of cowboys looking to take advantage of the duty to notify.
Madam Deputy Speaker, you will be pleased to hear that I have now reached my conclusion. Taking into account that we have been awaiting legislation on the reform of business rates for the whole of the 13 years that I have been an MP, this legislation is indeed welcome. For too long we have been carrying out reviews and searching for holy grail solutions that involve the abolition of business rates, but my personal view is that those do not exist. As I have said, the Chancellor should be commended for the positive announcements he made in his autumn statement, some of which are included in this Bill. The Bill should be viewed as a step in the right direction. However, as currently drafted, it contains a number of false steps that are likely to have unintended consequences. It is also vital to recognise that this is not the end of the reform of business rates, but it is the end of the beginning. I am happy to support the Bill this afternoon, but it has defects that need to be addressed as it progresses through this and the other place, and I hope that the Government will take on board the concerns that I and my colleagues across the Chamber have highlighted.
As we have heard today, this Bill makes a number of changes to the system of business rates, with most of these changes arising from the Government’s business rates review, which was first announced in March 2020. My colleagues and I will not oppose the Bill today, as any support it offers to businesses is welcome. However, as we know, some business organisations are concerned that the Bill will increase the overall administrative burden on businesses, and I will address that point in a moment.
First, it is worth putting this package of measures in the context of Government promises on businesses rates in recent years. The review that led to many of these measures was first launched by the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor at the Budget of March 2020. He called this project a
“fundamental review…of the long-term future of business rates.”—[Official Report, 11 March 2020; Vol. 673, c. 281.]
When the final report was published alongside the autumn Budget of October 2021, however, the verdict was clear. As the British Retail Consortium concluded at the time, it
“falls far short of the truly fundamental reform that is needed and was promised in the government’s 2019 manifesto.”
The truth is that the changes before us, now more than three years in the making, miss the opportunity to begin replacing the current system of business rates with one that understands the needs of British businesses and that is fit for the modern day.
What is more, right now, we know that many smaller businesses, particularly those on high streets, that are already struggling after the pandemic and a difficult winter of high energy bills are worried about the impact of the current revaluation, which is why we called for an immediate cut in business rates for small firms this year by raising the threshold for small business rates relief in 2023-24. This would be funded by an increase in the rate of the digital services tax that is charged on the global revenues of global tech giants. We were disappointed that the Government failed to adopt our plans, although we welcome their having heeded our call to ensure that firms are immediately given any discount they are owed through the current revaluation, thanks to the Bill’s changes to transitional relief.
It is clear, however, that businesses need a Government who are ready to go further. In the Government’s own press release on the Bill, a quote from the British Retail Consortium’s chief executive makes it clear that
“the job is not done.”
That is, of course, right, and members of the Government may well accept that the job is not done but, after 13 years in power, how much longer can Conservative Members get away with the excuse that they have not yet got round to the urgent and fundamental reforms our country needs?
We know that fundamental reform is needed, which is why Labour has said that if we win the next general election, we will replace the business rates system with one that shifts the burden of tax away from the high street and on to online giants, that moves towards annual revaluations and that truly supports entrepreneurship. Businesses across the country want the Government to transform the system of business rates to meet the needs of the modern economy, which is what Labour will do in power.
There are measures in the Bill that we hope will give at least some support to struggling businesses. As I mentioned, we have been calling on the Government to remove downward caps on transitional relief, so we welcome the measures in the Bill to make that so. We are also glad to see the revaluation cycle being moved to every three years, rather than every five years, although we are concerned that the Government have kicked the prospect of annual revaluations far into the long grass.
The importance of annual revaluations was, again, made clear in the Government’s own press release on the Bill, in a quote from the chief executive of the British Property Federation, who made it clear that her organisation
“would like to see Government continuing to strive towards even more frequent revaluations in due course.”
We are therefore concerned that, in the final report of the business rates review, the Government said only that they will
“consider the case for…annual revaluations…in the longer-term.”
We do not have to read between the lines very hard to conclude that annual revaluations are off the table under this Government.
Furthermore, alongside the reservations that many businesses and their representative bodies hold about how the Government’s reforms do not go far enough, we know that others, such as the Shopkeepers’ Campaign, have raised important concerns that the Bill will increase the overall administrative burden on businesses. As we have heard, the Bill introduces a new legal duty on business rate payers to provide annual confirmation of the information held on their property and to inform the Valuation Office Agency of any changes made to the property within 60 days of the change or face a fine.
The new requirements will have an impact on business rate payers and on the billing authorities—indeed, the impacts are referred to in the information and impact note on the new duty, published by the Treasury and the VOA. I wish to press the Minister on two points in particular on the impact of the new duty. First, the note makes it clear that the average annual cost for each ratepayer will more than double as a result of the new duty and that in the first year the cost for each ratepayer of complying with the new system will be more than three times that of doing so under the current system. Will he confirm whether that is correct? The note goes on to accept that the 309 billing authorities in England with responsibility for business rates will be impacted by the measures too, but it says that the
“costs are yet to be quantified.”
Will the Minister confirm when the Government will publish the detail of what those costs are? I look forward to hearing his response to those points in his closing remarks.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen), the shadow local government Minister, and I have made clear, we will not be opposing this Bill today. However, although any support for businesses that are struggling may be welcome, it is clear that promises of fundamental reform of the business rates system under this Government are gone. As businesses and their representative bodies have been making clear, even as we debate the Bill, much more needs to be done. Yet it is also clear that after 13 years of economic failure, and with a party now chronically divided by infighting, the Conservatives are incapable of delivering the reform that businesses need. Our country needs a new Government, who are ready to replace business rates with a system fit for the future, ready to work hand in hand with British businesses to succeed, and ready to get our economy growing in every part of the country, making everyone better off.
It is a pleasure to close this short but constructive debate on the future of the business rates system. As we have heard, our consumer habits are changing faster than ever before and with that come challenges for high-street businesses. The Government have conducted a review of business rates, as promised, and now, through this Bill, we will continue to reform them to better meet the needs of our economy, while sustaining vital taxpayer subsidy for local government.
In the time available, I wish to address some of today’s contributions. I was grateful for the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart), who raised the important issue of smaller businesses and those in the hospitality and retail sector. I know, as do many of us across the Chamber, that there have been challenges in the past few years. I have seen that in my constituency, as will every Member in their constituency. That is precisely why the combination of what the Government have outlined in the autumn statement and in this Bill seeks to support businesses that are smaller or in those sectors, along with a wider group of businesses from across the economy. We are talking about 75% relief for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses; the removal of downward caps so that there is immediate relief when business rates reduce; and more than £14 billion-worth of relief. I hope that that goes some way to assuaging her concern.
My hon. Friend also rightly raised the issue of annualised revaluations, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), the Opposition Front-Benchers and the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan). As the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), outlined when opening the debate, we absolutely want to see more frequent revaluations. That is exactly why we have brought forward the proposals to move from a five-year revaluation cycle to a three-year one. We think that is a big step forward in making business rates more effective and closer to the businesses that pay them. We also recognise that this will take time and we need to do it in steps. As has been outlined by colleagues, we will continue to look at it and we hope we will be able to make further progress in the years ahead. The British Retail Consortium was mentioned in a number of speeches. Organisations such as the BRC have welcomed this approach, and I hope that Members from across the House will welcome the move to a three-year revaluation cycle.
Hon. Members have raised a point about data. It is always challenging to make the decision about where to request data and where to require it, and how to get the right balance between ensuring that the tax system is effective—we need data in order to make sure of that—and not creating an undue burden on businesses.
The purpose behind the collection of this data is to ensure both that we have the best information possible to make decisions in the future and that we balance proportionately the information that we collect to make sure that the tax is collected in the right way. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney that, with regard to the administrative questions, we are committed to a soft launch of the collection of this data. We will not activate the compliance regime until we are satisfied that it works, and we will be piloting it further with a range of users. We accept that we need to get this right, but the principles behind ensuring that we have the most up-to-date system, which requires data to achieve, are sound. It will be through the pilot and the review process, following the Bill hopefully becoming law, that we will be able to review the changes to make sure that they work for businesses in the best way possible.
Briefly, my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney also touched on clause 14, which recognises the particular challenge visible during covid. Of course everybody in this House will have hoped that highly unusual and atypical events such as covid could never happen, but because they have, it is incumbent on us all in this place to make sure that we have considered the situation should—hopefully it will never happen—such atypical events happen again in the future. We are trying through clause 14 to recognise that such things may happen, while hoping that they never will. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his constructive comments. He says that the Bill is a step in the right direction, and we agree. I hope that my comments now have reassured him about those other steps that he is not yet sure about.
The hon. Member for North Shropshire made a number of important points about the burden of business rates, about ensuring that they are proportionate, and about the challenge of taxation in general. She is absolutely right to do so, but it would have made more sense had the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Ed Davey), not been out on the airwaves just a few days ago committing himself to spending more money, which the country does not have, and which taxes such as this have to pay for. There is a consistency problem with the Liberal Democrats. For those of us who are not in the Liberal Democrats, we recognise that consistency is something that they have never shown.
Finally, I welcome the fact that those on the Opposition Front Bench will not be opposing the Bill tonight. I also welcome their generally constructive comments, and I hope that I have been able to answer them, but—there is always a but with the Opposition Front Bench—the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) suggested that we were waiting for a Labour Government to fix this issue. The question is what the fix would be, because we have put forward a plan that ensures relief for businesses up and down the land. Was she talking about the fix of 2021, when the right hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) was going to scrap business rates? Is it the fix a few days later, after 2021, when it was to significantly change business rates, but not to scrap them? Or is it the fix of 2022 when business rates were to be modernised but without any clarity as to how that would happen. The Labour party says what it needs to say, but it has no plan on issues such as this.
In front of us today is a Bill that improves and modernises our business rates and makes them more efficient and effective, on top of £14 billion of relief for all businessmen and women and all businesses across the country. It makes sure that those rates are as effective and efficient as they can be and that businesses in this country thrive in the future.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
Non-Domestic Rating Bill (Programme)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Non-Domestic Rating Bill:
(1) The Bill shall be committed to a Committee of the whole House.
Proceedings in Committee, on Consideration and on Third Reading
(2) Proceedings in Committee of the whole House shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after their commencement.
(3) Any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion four hours after the commencement of proceedings in Committee of the whole House.
(4) Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings in Committee of the whole House, to any proceedings on Consideration or to proceedings on Third Reading.
(5) Any other proceedings on the Bill may be programmed.—(Andrew Stephenson.)
Question agreed to.
Non-Domestic Rating Bill (Money)
King’s recommendation signified.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)),
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Non-Domestic Rating Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable under any other Act out of money so provided.—(Andrew Stephenson.)
Question agreed to.
Non-Domestic Rating Bill (Ways and Means)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)),
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Non-Domestic Rating Bill, it is expedient to authorise:
(1) the payment of sums to the Secretary of State in respect of non-domestic rating,
(2) the payment of those and other sums into the Consolidated Fund.—(Andrew Stephenson.)
Question agreed to.