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Grand Committee

Volume 831: debated on Monday 3 July 2023

Grand Committee

Monday 3 July 2023

Arrangement of Business

Announcement

My Lords, if there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, this Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and resume after 10 minutes.

Non-Domestic Rating Bill

Committee

Clause 1: Local rating: liability and mandatory reliefs for occupied hereditaments

Amendment 1

Moved by

1: Clause 1, page 2, line 25, at end insert—

“(za) the chargeable day falls after the day on which qualifying energy efficiency improvements are completed,”Member's explanatory statement

This amendment, and others to Clause 1 in the name of Lord Ravensdale, would allow qualifying energy efficiency improvements a time-unlimited level of improvement rate relief.

My Lords, I will speak to my Amendments 1, 3 and 4. I apologise to noble Lords for not being present for the opening speeches of Second Reading and therefore being unable to make my points then. However, I was present for the rest of the debate and wrote to the Minister with the points I would have made, so I hope that I may be forgiven. I declare my interests as a project director for Atkins and as a director of Peers for the Planet. I certainly support the aims of the Bill and the measures contained within it, which will support businesses and high streets across our country and the economy.

My amendments in this group are very straightforward. They relate to the application of improvement relief. I listened with great interest at Second Reading to the remarks on this topic from noble Lords and the Minister, who said:

“The Government consider that a 12-month relief will allow time for the benefits of the property investments to flow through into businesses. We will keep this under review”.—[Official Report, 19/6/23; cols. 83-84.]

Although the 12-month relief is very welcome, there is a strong case for the Government to remove such constraints from a specific class of improvement—energy-efficiency improvements. I will explain why.

The Government have already made the great move of exempting renewable energy generation and storage from rateable value through regulations introduced in 2022. However, energy efficiency does not receive a matching exemption, despite the efficacy of energy- efficiency measures in increasing the energy security of the UK and reducing carbon emissions, not to mention in reducing costs for businesses and supporting economic growth. Energy efficiency has been raised many times recently in your Lordships’ House, so I will not bore the Minister and other noble Lords with an extended analysis of why we need to do more in this area.

As to the effect of the Bill as written, we know that all but the simplest energy-efficiency measures have longer payback periods, so it is likely that a 12-month exemption will continue to disincentivise improvements. To be adopted by business, energy-efficiency measures must make clear financial sense and have a low net cost. As a simple illustration, it is unlikely that a household would contemplate insulating their home if there was a risk that the savings would be outweighed by the introduction of a higher council tax band after only a year of relief.

My amendments seek simply to align energy-efficiency measures more closely with the existing reliefs for renewable energy generation and storage so that we have a coherent approach in this area. They represent a great opportunity for the Government to help increase investment in energy-efficiency improvements across business and to contribute to critical national goals in energy security and net zero, as well as lowering bills for businesses at a time when this is needed more than ever. Fatih Birol of the International Energy Agency warned recently that we may see another surge in gas prices this winter. The amendments would extend improvement rate relief for energy efficiency to 1 April 2029; the Government could then decide whether to extend any reliefs beyond then. I beg to move Amendment 1.

My Lords, I have two amendments in this group, to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, who cannot be with us because he is arguing his case across the way in the Chamber, has added his name. I declare that I am a member of the Rating Surveyors’ Association, which, together with Luke Wilcox, barrister of Landmark Chambers, has been helping me formulate my views on these amendments.

The purpose of the two amendments in my name in this group, Amendments 2 and 6, is to extend the application of improvement relief, so, to some extent, they follow the lead of the noble Lord, Lord Ravensdale. Without discussing it with him, I opted for extending the application to works carried out within a five-year period. The amendments follow up on the comments made at Second Reading.

The expected lifespan of the many types of improvement may extend to decades. If, as one supposes, the relief is intended to incentivise improvements—not just mandatory compliance works but those which add materially to utility, convenience and annual value—it needs to be an altogether bigger quantum; otherwise, as matters stand at the moment, we will be in a situation where, maybe 13 months after the work is carried out, the rateable value will increase by some 50% of the additional annual value of the works. This may not be so much for the purposes of adding value as of preserving value in the face of decline, so this dynamic needs to be whittled down.

We have issues with the definition of “relief” and whether it will count for anything at all in practice, and of “improvement”, of which other noble Lords may seek to define certain aspects more clearly—I agree with that. Unfortunately, the Government’s protestations about the sums they claim to have earmarked for this relief do not disguise the fact that the design of these things is often such that none of it is ever called on in practice. I will leave that bit of cynicism to one side, but if this relief is to mean anything beyond a fig leaf, it has to be large enough in quantum and long enough in duration to be commercially noticeable and relevant. Some types of improvement may take a considerable time to translate into a business benefit.

Although I understand, for instance, not including developers in the benefits of this measure, I maintain that the net effect of excluding any otherwise qualifying works carried out by landlords for the tenant, for which there may be a higher rent payable, is based mainly on groupthink rather than objective balance. That is the reason behind Amendments 2 and 6.

My Lords, I have Amendment 5 in this group. Its purpose is to probe the expiration date for heat network relief. For example, why have the Government come up with 2030 in this respect? As I said at Second Reading, we very much welcome the introduction of heat network relief but, as I asked then, as the exemption of renewable energy plant machinery is permanent, why has a similar approach not been taken to heat networks?

Also, the heat network relief applies only to what are described as “occupied” heat networks, so it would be helpful to have some clarification of the definition of “occupied”. For example, if the networks apply as a mix of properties, some of which are traditionally occupied and others are unoccupied, is that still considered to be an occupied property, or does the whole property have to be occupied?

More broadly, the aims of this amendment are also to do with the fact that we believe that the reform of business rates as a whole should have the underlying principle and aim to encourage green improvements to business properties, if, as the noble Lord, Lord Ravensdale, talked about, the targets are around net zero and emissions. We feel that all the proposals should have as their aim—at their centre—ways of meeting those targets.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ravensdale, for his introduction of this group of amendments. His amendments are very sensible, and I hope that the Minister will look at them carefully. I also take this opportunity to thank the Minister for her letter to all Peers following Second Reading, in which she gave quite detailed clarification of a number of issues, which I am sure we will discuss further today. I put on record that that was extremely helpful.

As for the other amendments in the group, clearly, improvement relief has been designed so that no business will face higher business rate bills for 12 months following qualifying improvements. We also heard from the Minister in her letter and at Second Reading that the Government consider 12 months sufficient for the benefits to flow through but, clearly, noble Lords who have spoken previously have reservations about this—in particular the noble Earl, Lord Lytton.

I was pleased to see in the Minister’s letter that the scheme will be reviewed in 2028 but, having heard the concerns raised, perhaps that date could be revisited. Are the Government completely confident in their rationale that within 12 months that will be the case?

The noble Lord, Lord Ravensdale, said that energy-efficiency measures should be considered differently from other measures, which comes back to what I said about meeting our national target by, for example, treating energy-efficiency improvements in the same way as renewable energy installations and exempting them from rateable value entirely. Excluding them from business rates calculations would incentivise business to make those improvements.

I also noted in the helpful briefing provided by the Chartered Institute of Taxation that it is asking why the new relief for improvements will not be introduced until 2024. Its concern is that leaving it until then will incentivise a delay in undertaking improvements. I will be interested in the Minister’s response on that.

My Lords, at the outset of the debate I remind the Committee that I have relevant interests as a councillor and as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

This group of amendments is significant because it focuses our attention on energy efficiency and on how the business rates system could be adjusted to encourage more businesses to improve the energy efficiency of their premises. Amendment 1, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Ravensdale, is important in that regard. As he said, an earlier Bill on non-domestic rating focused on relief for energy generation and storage, but not energy efficiency. Energy efficiency is the non-glamorous side of getting to net zero. It is about improving the general energy efficiency of buildings through loft and cavity wall insulation, putting in more efficient heating systems and so on.

I have a high regard for Amendment 1 for the reason that the noble Lord outlined, which is that the payback period for energy-efficiency improvements can be very long. Therefore, giving just one year’s relief is a drop in the ocean. If we want to encourage businesses to make these improvements and to invest in their property by improving their energy efficiency, there must be relief on business rates. This is a positive amendment and, if the noble Lord, Lord Ravensdale, wants to pursue it on Report, I am sure that we will give it positive consideration.

The other amendments in this group, in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, suggest five years of relief. That is another way forward. I think that we will have to debate five years of relief or unlimited relief. If we are really concerned about getting to net zero, there has to be a real incentive to do so.

I co-signed Amendment 5, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, about heat networks because I thought that it was important in itself. The Government have a scheme—the heat network efficiency scheme—which gives grant funding to communal heat networks or district heating schemes. This amendment matches well with that. If the Government are giving with the one hand but taking with the other, that seems a negative approach to encouraging heat network schemes. That is why I very much support Amendment 5 in particular.

Maybe when we get to Report the amendment will not say “2050” but will be unlimited, matching the other amendments in this group, which are making a positive push towards getting businesses, via the relief through the business rates system, to become more energy efficient. These are all good, probing amendments. I know that the Minister is supportive of energy-efficiency schemes and moving towards net zero, so I look forward to her positive response to this group of amendments.

My Lords, I start by welcoming our new Deputy Chairman of Committees on his first outing today. I think that I am allowed to say that—anyway, I have said it.

These amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Ravensdale, the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayman and Lady Pinnock, concern the two new business rate reliefs introduced by the Bill: the new improvement relief and a relief for low-carbon heat networks.

First, on the improvement relief, during the review of business rates a key ask from ratepayers was support for those businesses looking to improve their property. Clause 1 delivers on that ask by introducing the improvement relief. The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, asked about the definitions of “improvement” and “relief”. These definitions are in the draft regulations, on which we are consulting. We will consider those matters following consultation.

Clause 1 will ensure that from 1 April 2024 no business will face higher business rates bills as a result of qualifying improvements it makes to a property it occupies, in the 12 months following those improvements. When a ratepayer makes improvements to the rateable part of their property, that is likely to increase its rateable value and, therefore, the rates bill. To deliver the relief, Clause 1 will ensure that, where that happens and the qualifying conditions for improvement relief have been met, that increase in the rateable value will be delayed for 12 months. Clause 3 does the same for the central rating list.

As is common for business rate reliefs, the detailed rules will be in regulations made under the powers in these clauses. My department has published those regulations in draft so that the House may see during the passage of the Bill how we intend to use these powers.

The amendments we are considering in relation to improvement relief, from the noble Lord, Lord Ravensdale, the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, seek to extend the period of relief from one year to five years and to allow unlimited relief for energy-efficiency improvements.

Of course, I understand the concerns we have heard and why some consider that the relief should be extended. It is a question we face when we come to consider and review all the reliefs in the business rates system. We recognise the importance of energy-efficiency improvements to properties. We have already ensured that eligible plant and machinery used in onsite renewable energy generation and storage, such as rooftop solar panels, wind turbines and battery storage, are exempt from business rates from 1 April 2022 until 31 March 2035. Onsite storage used with electric vehicle charging points is also exempt. We have done this using existing powers.

However, as with all tax breaks, we must balance the need for support with the need to fund the vital public services that those taxes support. In the case of improvement relief, we considered these matters at length during our review and, following extensive engagement with business groups, settled on a 12-month relief.

Under the current system, as one would expect for a tax based on the value of property, businesses may see an immediate increase in their rates bill for improvements they make to their property, where those improvements increase the value of the property, but they may see a lag in the return or income that flows from that investment.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

My Lords, I will continue. The 12-month relief will provide a breathing space for the investment to start to generate returns before business rates have to be paid. I know that some feel that 12 months is not long enough to incentivise the types of major refurbishment and improvement often made to properties by landlords and developers. However, as I explained to the House at Second Reading, this relief is designed to help occupiers make improvements to their existing premises rather than subsidising general commercial property development.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, asked what “occupied” meant. We already have a current discretionary heat network scheme that we have worked up with full guidance in partnership with the heat network sector and local government. That guidance is already published. Once the Bill receives Royal Assent, we intend to translate that guidance into regulations and to make those in good time to ensure a seamless transition between the current discretionary scheme and the new mandatory scheme. I suggest that noble Lords look now at the guidance as it will make it clear what will go forward. In the meantime, we will work with the heat network sector on the regulations in case they need any tweaking.

Nevertheless, as this is a new relief, it is right that the Government evaluate whether it is working and delivers value for money. Therefore, the Bill as currently drafted includes powers to extend the duration of the improvement relief and in 2028 the Government will review the scheme. That will be the appropriate time to consider whether to continue with the scheme and how effectively the relief is operating. As part of that review, we will consider whether 12 months remains the correct duration for the relief. We have, however, allowed for a longer period of relief for low-carbon heat networks, given the particular role that they play in reducing our dependence on natural gas. That relief runs until 2035. Amendment 5, from the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayman and Lady Pinnock, would extend that to 2050. As with improvement relief, we have to balance the need for support with maintaining the services funded from the tax, as I have said. The end date in the Bill aligns with our ambition to phase out new natural gas boilers by 2035. By that date, new low-carbon heat networks will no longer have to compete with natural gas alternatives. Under those circumstances, we hope that the relief will no longer be necessary and, therefore, 2035 will be the right time to end the relief. However, as with the improvement relief, we will keep this under review and the Bill includes powers for us to extend the 2035 date, if it is necessary at the time.

I hope I have given noble Lords the explanations and assurances that they were seeking and that the noble Lord is able to consider withdrawing his amendment.

The Minister mentioned regulations following Royal Assent and I am happy with that, but could she confirm that this will have a consultation process attached to it? She also referred to something that I interpreted as a post-legislative review. What is the framework for that in this instance?

On the regulations, we are consulting at the moment and that will be discussed afterwards. If noble Lords want to put anything in, I suggest they look on GOV.UK. I shall sit down so that the noble Earl can ask his second question because I did not quite pick it up.

It was about the post-legislative review and its framework, in so far as it would apply to the workings of the Bill once it gets Royal Assent.

As far as I know, we do not have a framework yet, but as soon as we have—I assume it will go out to some sort of consultation—I shall make sure that noble Lords are aware of when it is issued.

My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, made a compelling argument for a general extension of improvement relief, as did the noble Baronesses, Lady Pinnock and Lady Hayman, for extending heat network relief. For me, this is all about joining the dots across the legislation, so that we have a coherent picture. As the Minister said, we already have a permanent exemption for renewable energy and storage. All these factors feed into our overall strategic targets, so we need a coherent picture across the legislation. The Minister rightly talked about fiscal responsibility and the need to bear it in mind.

The other side of the picture, to counter that, are all the benefits to increasing private investment—in the case of energy efficiency, lower bills—and the benefits from overall economic growth that would flow from that. I look forward to further discussions with the Minister leading up to Report, but for now I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 1 withdrawn.

Amendments 2 to 5 not moved.

Clause 1 agreed.

Clause 2 agreed.

Clause 3: Central rating: liability and mandatory reliefs

Amendment 6 not moved.

Clause 3 agreed.

Clause 4 agreed.

Clause 5: Frequency with which lists are compiled

Amendment 7

Moved by

7: Clause 5, page 16, line 4, leave out “third” and insert “second”

Member’s explanatory statement

This amendment would require central non-domestic rating lists to be compiled every two years.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Shipley and I have Amendments 7, 9 and 11 in this group, all of which seek to achieve the same end; namely, that the revaluation period be reduced to two years. The Minister and the Bill team have been very generous with their time and that has enabled a discussion of the time gap between revaluations. The Government have decided on a three-year gap. We are suggesting that a shorter gap may enable a valuation that more closely reflects business confidence and thus rental values.

There is a revaluation this year, which will be based on rental values in 2021. Under the Government’s proposal, the next revaluation will be in 2026 and based, therefore, on rental values in 2024. In the Government’s own business rate review of 2020, respondents wanted a shorter gap between the assessment of revaluations and implementation. Hence the amendments to Clause 5, which reduce the three-year gap to two years, as this will result in a closer alignment between business confidence and the revaluation. Businesses, as we are all very aware, are facing considerable challenges as a result of factors well outside their control. The significant fluctuation in economic outlook, reflected, for instance, in the level of inflation and the rise in interest rates, creates uncertainty for businesses. A narrower gap between revaluations is one step that will help businesses.

In our discussions with the Minister, it became clear that there are no administrative barriers to a two-year gap. Indeed, the Netherlands has for many years managed a similar system with annual revaluations. Other amendments in this group are designed to achieve the same outcome and come from noble Lords who have considerable experience in these matters. The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, and the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, all have considerable expertise and knowledge in practice and have picked up the same issue of the period between revaluations.

It seems to me, an amateur in these things, having read the reports from businesses asking for a shorter period between revaluations, that the Government should go back and go for two-yearly revaluations. It would be better for everybody. If we have, as the Government say they have, a priority to support businesses and give them greater certainty and confidence in the system, I am sure the Minister will again respond positively to this set of amendments. I beg to move.

My Lords, I have four amendments in this group, of which Amendments 8, 10 and 13 relate to the matter explained by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. Amendment 14 is a little different and to do with downward-only transition.

Before I go any further, I should have thanked the Minister earlier for her drop-in sessions and her willingness to engage on the Bill. To some extent, it is a joint venture between business, professions and the Government in trying to wrestle with the issues of local government revenues. I understand that.

The purpose of Amendments 8, 10 and 13 is to create an ability for the Secretary of State to adopt a shorter cycle, be it of one year or two years, but they are not prescriptive as to what that might be. That is simply because, having considered the situation and how things have bedded in, the Government should at least have the ability to do so without then seeking a legislative slot later. Although it is counterintuitive to suggest anything that might smack of a Henry VIII clause, this is a sort of Henry VIII clause that I think might be useful in this particular instance.

I pick up something that the Minister said at Second Reading, which the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, mentioned, namely the potential instability of more frequent revaluations. However, this does not seem to be a problem in Hong Kong or Scotland; why should it be here? The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, alluded to my next point, which is that the stability of the system is within the gift of the Government in terms of their wider policies. I would argue that it is the level of business rates—levied at around 50p in the pound at the assessed rateable value—that is itself the harbinger and cause of a degree of instability. Professionals and businesses just need to feel that there is a better commitment—a more bankable expression of intent—about this. That is why these amendments would serve to allow the shortening of the revaluation gap and, of course, its attendant antecedent date.

I now turn to Amendment 14, which, had I spotted it before, I might have disaggregated from this group because it relates to downward-only transition. Although the Minister made some hopeful noises at Second Reading, I have not yet persuaded her to signpost the permanence of what is otherwise a very welcome item in this Bill; namely, the removal for the next revaluation of downward transition. It always seemed to me invidious that those whose rateable values were reduced should see the benefit only by such minimal and curmudgeonly means as to deprive them of the effect of a significant reduction, not just for many years but, sometimes, for many revaluations. Now that the principle is established that the transition no longer has to equal and offset the transitional phasing of increases by those who should be paying, it is time to confine this rather dishonourable measure to oblivion, if I may so suggest.

Let us not forget that, for every measure of palpable unfairness, perceived or actual, in the business rates, there will be an unknown number of potential entrepreneurs who simply will not lay themselves open to such practices because they see the system as unfair and operating unfairly against them. To that extent, the system is not as elastic an economic function as may be supposed. That is the background to my amendments.

I take a slightly different position. I support these amendments, but I want to introduce a brief note of caution. The case for a reduction in the frequency of updating rateable values has been extremely well made, but I think experts should have a voice in the proposal. I think we should wait until the three-year review process has bedded in and all interested parties should then be free to comment, before reducing that interval further from three to two years, or even one year. Clearly, the VOA has a central role—the most important role—but ordinary ratepayers have a role too. It is possible that an annual or biannual revaluation will become unworkable. That is unlikely with digitisation and the wider use of technology, but any period longer than one year between revaluations is, by definition, quickly out of date. We saw that in high relief with volatile rental markets during and following Covid.

My amendment suggests that the Government listen to the view of the VOA, of course, but also to the RICS, the Rating Surveyors’ Association and the Institute of Revenues Rating and Valuation, together with other accredited advisory groups, before making a decision on these further reductions. I ask the Government to write into the Bill that they will listen to the voices of these experts before further reductions are agreed to.

My name appears on three of the amendments in this group. I think that the case made by the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, is very strong. We have to be certain. I believe a reduction from three years to two years—and, in an ideal world, to one year—would be the right thing to do.

I should state for the Committee stage, however long that lasts, that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

I am convinced that currently revaluations are too infrequent. The Government have accepted that case. We are going to three years, and that is indeed better, but to reduce appeals and to ensure a fairer system requires two years or fewer. Like my noble friend Lady Pinnock, I will be very interested to know why we cannot draw on the comparator of the Netherlands since it does a revaluation every year.

There are clearly advantages to more frequent revaluations. We will have fewer appeals because the valuation would be more accurate. It would be fairer to businesses and reduce complaints about the system. I read very carefully the letter the Minister wrote after Second Reading, but it is not clear to me that there are any administrative barriers to moving from three years to two years.

We support Amendments 8 and 10, which suggest that the Government introduce a change to two-year revaluation or to one-year revaluation by order, as long as the affirmative procedure is used. As I said a moment ago, I think the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, matter. I hope the Government will pay particular attention to Amendment 12 because it would enable us to be certain that it would not be a mistake to move to two years. We are sufficiently open to say that we want to go to two years and would like to go to one year, but we are very happy to build in a timescale which enables that to happen securely.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, for introducing this group with Amendment 7, which seeks to change the Bill so that lists must be produced every two years instead of three. Today’s discussion has demonstrated that noble Lords think that this needs to be revisited and that perhaps three years is too long.

I am quite interested in Amendment 9 in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, which would allow SIs to be introduced to change it to one or two years. Bringing in flexibility to adopt a shorter cycle without that kind of prescription is a really interesting idea and approach. In principle, we would support that; my only concern is that the SI procedure has not exactly gone entirely smoothly in recent years. To get our full support to move in that direction, we would need to ensure that SIs are managed better than they have been recently.

The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, made some important points about the need for business confidence regarding valuations. That is incredibly important, particularly given the uncertainty resulting from inflation, various costs—of energy, for example—going through the roof, the challenges following the pandemic, the business rate holidays that have moved or not moved, and the differences resulting from where in the country you may be. None of that helps with certainty for businesses, particularly those that have retail in different parts of the country.

Another really good point was made about the fact that a small but perfect group is taking part in these discussions. Here we have noble Lords with real and practical experience and knowledge, which I hope will be helpful as we move through Committee.

The Chartered Institute of Taxation has agreed that moving initially to three-year revaluations would provide a balance between the administrative costs and the need for regular revaluation to reflect the economic conditions of business. But it also said that, given the rapidity of changes in business and shopping practices, the Government should consider a phased approach to achieving more frequent revaluations, and that this should remain under evaluation. Given the different amendments we have today and the discussions that we have had, will the Minister consider taking back to her department the introduction of a phased approach? I know that in the letter to noble Lords following Second Reading, she said that the Government will

“carefully consider the case for even greater frequency of revaluations once the new system changes have bedded in”.

That brings us to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, who suggested that waiting for that three-year cycle to bed in might be very helpful. He made the point that we need to listen to the experts and advisory groups and make sure that we get this right, because anything over two years goes out of date very quickly. The Labour Party position is that we should have more frequent valuations. We have talked about them being annual, but of course this has to be right, and it has to work for business.

Finally, on Amendment 14, tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, on the abolition of downward caps, it is concerning that the downward caps can prevent savings being passed on to businesses and could mean that they unnecessarily pay more in business rates. It is an important amendment, and I would be interested to hear what reassurances the Minister can give the noble Earl.

My Lords, this group of amendments takes us to the heart of the Bill; namely, our commitment to modernise the business rates system through more frequent revaluations. Amendments 7 to 13, from the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, the noble Lords, Lord Shipley and Lord Thurlow, the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, are concerned with the frequency of revaluations. They provide for either the revaluation cycle to move to every two years or for the Government to adopt a two-year cycle by order. The Government fully understand the desire to keep business rates as accurate and responsive as possible. That is why the frequency of revaluations was a key part of our review.

Regular revaluations update rateable values, and so rates bills, to reflect changes in the property market. During the business rates review, we heard from businesses that they overwhelmingly favoured more frequent revaluations. Interestingly, a majority of respondents to the review supported a three-year revaluation cycle. The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, mentioned countries that had annual revaluations, but it is not straightforward or accurate to simply compare our revaluation cycles with places such as the Netherlands. Evidently, a single property tax there covers both residential and commercial properties, so it is a very different system from the one in this country. We also considered annual revaluations, but some stakeholders raised concerns about an annual cycle, such as the increased volatility of bills and potential impacts on valuation accuracy. We therefore concluded that we should move to a three-year cycle of revaluations, and the Bill provides for that, with the next one to take place on 1 April 2026.

As I said at Second Reading, we can consider further increasing the frequency of revaluations in the future. We would need to—and always do—consult with ratepayers and local government about whether they would like this. But I assure the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, that we would also ask our other stakeholders, which they mentioned. We would need to ensure that more frequent revaluations could be delivered—the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, is absolutely right: we want to make sure that the system works. Currently, we do not believe that this is possible without significant changes to how ratepayers engage with the VOA, including the VOA duty under Clause 13. So we would need to consider this once those reforms are all in place.

I understand concerns that, were we to decide to move to a two-yearly or even an annual cycle, we would require primary legislation. However, we do not think that this is a good reason to take a power in this case. The date of the revaluation is a very significant matter for all occupiers of business properties, and it has always been set by Parliament, not delegated into a power, going back to the General Rate Act 1967. Such a power would therefore be significant and unprecedented, and it would not be appropriate here. The Government have always shown that, when important changes to the rating system are needed, they will bring forward the necessary primary legislation. They have done that here, as they have with previous Bills in this and previous Parliaments. We will continue to do so in the future.

Amendment 14, tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, seeks assurances that we will end the practice of downward caps—the capping of reductions in bills to fund the transitional relief scheme. I thought I had given assurances on this at Second Reading, but I am happy to do so again. Our policy is clear: we are abolishing downward transition. That is now in Hansard. Business groups raised this with us as an issue of real concern, and, at the Autumn Statement last year, the Government announced that we would propose legislation to permanently remove the requirement for revenue neutrality from transitional relief, enabling us to permanently scrap downward transition.

The Bill does just that: we are removing the constraint that has required us to impose downward transition, and we are putting in place an Exchequer-funded scheme for the current revaluation. We will use that freedom to permanently deliver all future transitional relief schemes without using downward caps. The detail for the transitional arrangements is set out in regulations rather than in the Act, but those regulations are themselves subject to parliamentary scrutiny and approval. I hope I have given noble Lords some reassurance both that we can return to the question of more frequent revaluations and that we are now abolishing downward transition.

I am delighted about what the Minister has just said. I thank her for that and apologise for making her say it twice, if I did. It is my understanding that this is now a permanent abolition of downward relief, which is extremely welcome.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her response. As she rightly said, this is at the heart of the changes being introduced in the Bill. I thank her for recognising that there could indeed be a further review to reduce the gap between revaluations. However, although I may have misheard her, I thought that the Minister said that the review conducted by the Treasury was—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

I shall try to pick up from where I left off. I may or may not have heard the Minister aright so this is just to check. The very good Library briefing on the Bill references the Treasury review into business rates. I shall refer to the Library briefing, then the Minister can say whether or not I have misunderstood. It says:

“On the longer-term proposals, most respondents stated that … revaluations should happen more often”—

we agree with that. But then it says that

“the gap between when the revaluations were assessed and when they came into force should be shorter than the current two years”,

which was one of the points that I was trying to make.

I may have misheard the Minister—if I have, I apologise—but the point that the review was making was to say yes to a shorter gap than five years, and the Government have pitched on to three. At the same time, the assessment year should be shorter than the two years that it currently is—that is what I think the review was saying, and I was trying to say that part of the argument for reducing the gap between the assessment year and the revaluation year is to make it narrower.

The response was three years, because of the reasons that I put forward—but, yes, we have aspirations to squeeze that to two years. That is the issue that we are discussing, and it is absolutely right that we are trying to do that. It is where we would like to get to, but it will take the changes that we are making to the Valuation Office Agency to do that—and then there is the digital aspect, and things like that, which we have already talked about.

Amendment 7 withdrawn.

Amendments 8 to 13 not moved.

Clause 5 agreed.

Clause 6: Transitional relief

Amendment 14 not moved.

Clause 6 agreed.

Clauses 7 to 9 agreed.

Clause 10: Disclosure of valuation information to ratepayers

Amendment 15

Moved by

15: Clause 10, page 19, leave out lines 4 and 5 and insert—

“(2) V must disclose the information to P without delay if requested by P.”Member's explanatory statement

This adds an obligation on the Valuation Office Agency to reveal their rental comparables/evidence used in arriving at a Rateable Value when challenged in the interests of transparency. This may satisfy ratepayer concerns at fairness early in the process and reduce the numbers resorting to appeal.

I declare my interest as a former chartered surveyor. I should have done so earlier, and I apologise. I, too, join in the chorus of thanks to the Minister and her Bill team for the help and meetings a week ago. I also thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, who is absent, for adding his name to my amendments in this group. I am sorry that he is not here to add his voice. This group of amendments is focused on the operation of the VOA and rooted in the desire for transparency for the ratepayer. It is a matter of simple public interest.

The current arrangements require registration for the check, challenge, appeal process before the VOA reveals the evidence it relied upon in assessing rental value. Amendment 15 questions why the VOA should be so secretive. There is no need for it. On appeal, the evidence is revealed, so why not admit it on first inquiry without the need for the CCA registration process? We all hope that the VOA’s figures are correct when assessing new rateable values and that its assumptions in arriving at them are well founded. It is hoped that, by the evidence being shown at the outset of any inquiry, most ratepayers would agree with the VOA’s evidence and accept its valuation. This would avoid the cost, resourcing and administration of the CCA process for the VOA and ratepayers.

With the help of the RICS, I have looked at some of the statistics for recent check, challenge, appeal numbers. In the quarter to March this year, more than 10,000 CCA notices were received. This is the first stage in the appeal process. Fortunately, 90% of them came from interested persons, and I believe that means ordinary people, not agents acting on behalf of ratepayers, so the leaseholder or the freeholder. It is a good thing in the absence of a requirement to use accredited agents, which we will come on to. But 10,000 registrations is an unusually high number. It is to some extent the result of the publication of the latest business rates revaluation. It must put great pressure on VOA resources.

If I am reading the VOA’s published data correctly, in the rating list period 2017-23, 30% of challenges resulted in a reduction. That is far too high. It suggests that the VOA may be taking a bullish view of estimated rental value, rather than an objective one. The VOA translates from estimated rental value to rateable value. This is very likely to lead to a growing trend towards challenges of the fairness of assessments, which is a concern. I do not want to overlook the fact that 70% of CCAs were found in the VOA’s favour, but 30% is still too high for successful appeals. My amendment seeks to reduce the volume of CCAs by thousands of appeals through applicants withdrawing at an early stage in the process.

My other amendment in his group is Amendment 17. It is a simple matter concerning confidentiality of information. Occasionally there is a confidentiality clause in a rent review or a new letting. There may be a means by which the VOA can obtain that detail but the ratepayer cannot. There may be other reasons for confidentiality. Why should the VOA be allowed to factor this evidence into its assessment if the ratepayer may not? It is akin to the VOA informing the ratepayer that it has information it cannot reveal which supports its figures. My amendment does not dispute the reasons for confidentiality being protected—not a bit—but requires simply that any information which cannot be shared with the ratepayer must be disregarded. The ratepayer must be empowered to challenge all the evidence used against them. I beg to move.

My Lords, I have five amendments in this group. I support the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, in what he has just said in relation to Amendments 15 and 17. My Amendment 16 follows on from that, and for that reason I will be quite brief about it. The amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, and my Amendment 16 seek to provide a duty on the Valuation Office Agency to provide such information, subject only to data protection legislation.

This addresses something that has been a bone of contention for many years, namely that a target and tax revenue focus in HMRC seems to have affected areas of Valuation Office Agency practice to the point where—or where the appearance has been that—evidence has been withheld, right up to tribunal-stage appeals. Over the years, as I have monitored the updates from the Rating Surveyors’ Association and others, I have noted with alarm some examples—I hope these instances are few and far between—of appalling and unprofessional practice, not, as one might suppose, from rating agents of an indifferent moral persuasion and possibly no professional training at all, but from the VOA itself. I worked for the VOA’s predecessor body, the Inland Revenue Valuation Office, for nearly seven years. Then, it was held in universally high esteem for its ethical and professional principles. It would be highly regrettable if, as time has gone on, that were no longer a given—I want to stress that.

This amendment does no more than insist on the same standards for disclosure and candour from the VOA that it requires of private sector agents acting for ratepayers. If this or something similar is not agreed to, there will be not only a rising tide of criticism within the profession but some sort of backlash from the First-tier Tribunal and Upper Tribunal, which will ultimately force the issue. We need to deal with that at this stage.

I move on to Amendments 18 to 20 in my name. Again, I can deal with these quite briefly. All three interlinked amendments try to remove the requirement for an annual return. The principle is that the requirement for notification arises only when there is a change in that status requiring the notification. At Second Reading, there was some consensus that the proposed volume and frequency of making returns to the Valuation Office Agency in relation to changes was misconceived. We heard that it would bring into scope some 700,000 hereditaments on which an additional return-making duty will fall—we are talking about a return per hereditament, not a blanket return per operator. If you are, for instance, an outdoor advertising company—that trade body has been in touch with me, as it has with many other noble Lords—with thousands of billboards, or an operator of cashpoints, this starts to matter. I do not know whether the latter is a good or bad example.

I accept that, if we move to two-yearly or yearly valuation, the real-time provision of data capture becomes that much more important. But why, in all logic and seriousness, if a return is required for a change within 60 days after the event, is it also necessary to make an end-of-year return in addition for the same hereditament, especially as a form of return can be requested at any time by the VOA? To put it another way: the desire for real-time notification and coherence of VOA record-keeping cannot be a justification for unnecessary duplication of duties on the ratepayer. I really do not think that this should be a matter for negotiation; it is a matter of straightforward common sense.

I move on to Amendment 21 in my name. It seeks to ensure that ratepayers do not receive retrospective increases in their rating liabilities where the Valuation Office Agency has not acted promptly on the receipt of ratepayer-provided information. It is to prevent retrospectivity where there is delay in acting on the ratepayer’s provision of information on a notifiable event. Its intention is to cover all situations where the rateable value is likely to be affected, including entering a new hereditament into the rating list. I think it is basically self-explanatory, but it is the counterpart to the duties on the ratepayer to furnish information in a timely manner and, of course, the penalties for failing to do so—about which more in due course.

My Lords, my name is on Amendments 28, 33 and 34 in this group. I will come to the accreditation of rating advisers in a moment.

There are a range of issues here which relate to the performance of the Valuation Office Agency. I agree entirely with all that the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, has said about the amendment to which his name is attached and with Amendment 15 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, which is about the proposed requirement on the Valuation Office Agency to reveal rental comparables and the evidence used in arriving at a rateable value. A lot of these issues meet the test of reasonable common sense. If I were challenging a business rates bill or valuation, I would want to be certain that it was at the correct level.

The amendments in my name relate to annual reporting and, jointly with the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, to whether the Valuation Office Agency has a problem with its resourcing. We need to be clear whether it has a problem and cannot do things because it does not have the resources. However, the principle that this group of amendments tries to establish is that the Valuation Office Agency should meet the same performance standards that it requires of business rate payers. It should have a duty to provide information requested, in particular comparable evidence on valuations, as I said earlier. That comment relates to Amendments 15 and 16.

It is very important that the burden of the regulatory requirements on business rate payers is re-examined to make sure that all that business rate payers are now being asked to do is valid. It is said that all the proposed increases in workload are required because of the reduction of the valuation time period from five years to three. I am unconvinced by that and I hope that the Minister might be able to explain why that statement applies. Maybe, as I said a moment ago, it relates to resources. However, the Valuation Office Agency should meet the same performance standards that it requires of business rate payers. That is a very important principle.

My Amendment 34 relates to the Secretary of State being required to consult on the benefits and practicability of a system of accreditation for rating advisers. It seeks to explore an avenue for combating the rogue and unprofessional practices of some rating advisers. It is a simple issue. The new duty to notify will give rise to demand for professional help among business rate payers and, therefore, a serious risk of there being a rise in unqualified advisers offering services, so I conclude that there should be a licensing or accreditation system. At the very least, the Government should consult on that.

The context is simple: there is to be more work for business rate payers, the system is more complex, more will seek professional help and, when they do so, they will expect expert advice. If they do not get expert advice and mistakes are made which perhaps cost the business rate payer a substantial sum as a consequence, whose fault will that be? Of course, the immediate fault will not lie with the Government or the Valuation Office Agency, but behind that failure will be the fact that the Government could have done something to ensure that those who are giving advice are competent to do so.

This is simply a proposal that the Government set up a consultation for a system of accreditation. I hope that the Minister will take it seriously; it is a big issue. The changes in the Bill are welcome in so many ways but, as the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, said a moment ago, there is a danger of unintended consequences, which will cause some to feel that they have not been properly attended to. Setting up a consultation on the issue of accreditation of advisers seems an appropriate measure that the Government could take.

My Lords, as we have just heard, I have Amendment 28 in this group. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for his support for my amendment. We tabled this because we are concerned that the VOA may not be sufficiently resourced, particularly as the Bill gives the agency additional responsibilities. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, has clearly expressed many of the concerns behind the amendment.

I looked at some recent data about the number of staff employed by the agency. The latest figures that I could find showed that it has a full-time equivalent of 3,698 staff, which is not huge, to be honest, particularly as a large number of new responsibilities is being brought its way. The global property consultancy, Colliers International, has described the Government’s plan to reduce the number of VOA offices from 56 to 26 as “a shambles”, and said that it will be a

“nightmare for businesses wanting to appeal their business rates”.

That is another reason why I was concerned enough to table this amendment.

We also know that there have been problems with the VOA managing the number of appeals and the time taken for resolution. I very much support what the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, said in his excellent introduction to this debate, about the importance of transparency. He also talked about the number of challenges—30%—resulting in reduction. Clearly, that is too high and needs to be addressed—and the VOA needs sufficient resources to be able to do so.

We also know that, often, the number of challenges and the time taken for resolution relate to the number of rogue agents, many of which want to make a fast buck out of this. That is why we support Amendment 34 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, which looks to address this. Again, we had discussions about it at Second Reading. We support his amendment and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, in this group. In the letter that the Minister sent to noble Lords after Second Reading, she acknowledged that rogue agents need to be looked at and that this would be part of a government consultation. I hope that the Government will take this seriously enough to consider action on this following the consultation, because it seems genuinely to be a problem.

We very much support what Amendments 15 and 17, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, are trying to do to increase transparency in the revaluation process. We hope that that transparency would also reduce the number of appeals, as the noble Lord so eloquently said. Amendment 16, tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, would also increase transparency, and we would be happy to support it. Clearly, increasing transparency is important, but we have to be careful that amendments we put down on transparency do not have the unintended consequence of adding to the valuation office’s workload without it having sufficient resources—this comes back full circle to what I said at the beginning.

There is also the risk of a major bottleneck in the system, through the new online portal. It would be good to have reassurances from the Minister about how that will be resourced and managed. It is human nature that a large proportion of ratepayers will put in requests for their rental evidence soon after the 1 April date, when the new rating system is published. It would be helpful if the Minister could give assurances that the VOA will be able to respond in time to allow ratepayers and their agents to construct and submit challenges by 30 September—the six-month deadline—because that six-month window for a challenge is a fundamental change to the rating system. We need greater clarity and certainty about exactly how that window will operate, particularly in relation to new tenants and the changes in the list that occur during and after the six-month window. Where is that flexibility?

The Bill states that a ratepayer must provide “annual confirmation” that they have, first, provided “all notifiable information required” or, secondly, that they are “not required to provide” any such notifiable information. Is this confirmation likely to be digital, to fit in with the online system? Will accessible formats be reduced, and will any mitigating circumstances be considered, if a person is unable to complete that confirmation?

As the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, described it, his Amendments 18 to 20 remove the requirements for the annual return. He talked about duplication and unnecessary returns, and it would be helpful if the Minister could provide clarification on that, because a number of changes to how this is done are coming in, and it is important that it works smoothly from the start.

My Lords, group 3 concerns information sharing between the Valuation Office Agency and ratepayers, the performance and capacity of the VOA, and the behaviour of some of our rating agents. Central to this part of the Bill is our commitment to move to more frequent revaluations, delivered by Clause 5. As we have discussed, sustainably delivering this important goal is contingent on increasing the timeliness and quality of the information received by the VOA.

To ensure that the VOA has that timely and complete flow of information, Clause 13 introduces a duty on ratepayers to provide notifiable information to the VOA and to confirm each year that they have met their obligations under that duty. In return, Clause 10 provides the means for ratepayers to access an analysis of evidence used to set the rateable value for their property, which should reduce the need for ratepayers to make a challenge. Ratepayers will be able to access guidance from the VOA, provide information on their property and request evidence on their own valuations, all through an online service. This will be the same online portal through which ratepayers will also be able to provide their taxpayer reference number to meet the other duty introduced by Clause 13.

The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, asked about information if you have more than one property. The VOA will seek to enable ratepayers with multiple properties to provide information about their properties at the same time every 30 days, to limit their administrative burden. We have listened to requests from stakeholders for this functionality, and we recognise that there is also a benefit for the VOA from receiving information in this way. We will work with businesses, agents and software suppliers to rebuild a robust and effective system for ratepayers. The deadline for notification of the underlying changes will remain at the now-increased 60 days, and the same deadline will apply to all, regardless of the means of notification.

I turn to Amendments 18 to 20. As I have set out, Clause 13 includes a requirement on the ratepayers to confirm once a year that they have provided the information required of them—this will be digitally, to respond to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman—under the VOA duty. Amendments 18, 19 and 20 from the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, would remove that requirement. I shall explain why this part of the duty is necessary.

Annual confirmation will support ratepayers to comply with the new VOA duty by providing an opportunity to supply, correct or update any information they should have provided during the year. This is part of a range of measures that will ensure the VOA has enough data to deliver more accurate and more frequent valuations. It is important that all ratepayers participate in providing information, so that the VOA has the information it needs to value comparable properties accurately and to ensure that ratepayers are paying the right tax and benefiting from any reliefs they may be entitled to.

For most ratepayers, annual confirmation should be very straightforward, simply requiring them to confirm that they have complied with the duty. Where there have been no changes, this should take only a few minutes, and ratepayers will not have to resubmit information already provided. The annual confirmation process will not be introduced until we have ensured that it will be sufficiently straightforward for ratepayers to complete. The commencement powers allow us to commence annual confirmation separately from and later than the rest of the information duty.

I turn to Amendments 15 and 17 from the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, and Amendment 16 from the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and the noble and learned Lord, which relate to Clause 10. As I have said, this clause will allow valuation officers to share information with ratepayers to help them understand the rateable value of their property and how it has been determined. Amendments 15 and 16 would make it obligatory for the VOA to share information used in valuation. Amendment 17 provides that the VOA can use as valuation evidence only information which it is prepared to share with ratepayers in the interests of transparency. I fully understand the instinct for maximum transparency, but I will briefly explain why we have drafted the Bill in this way.

First, improving transparency is an important part of the reform of business rates, because it will allow the VOA to go further in demystifying and explaining the rating valuation system. Access to the evidence underpinning their valuation will allow ratepayers to make an informed judgment as to whether to make a challenge. This measure, therefore, has widespread support from stakeholders and is seen as an essential step in business rate reform. However, it is important to strike the right balance between sharing valuation information and protecting sensitive and personal data.

Currently, the VOA is barred from sharing this information outside of a formal challenge because it is data belonging to taxpayers. Release of such information may constitute wrongful disclosure under the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Act 2005. In amending the law, we have not lost sight of the fact that this remains taxpayer data and may be sensitive or commercially important to landlords and other ratepayers.

That is why we have included safeguards to recognise the potentially sensitive nature of some of this data. In particular, it is important that the gateway is “permissive” so that the valuation officer is not under a duty to share the information but is permitted to do so. The VOA recently consulted to invite views on how it might best make use of this permissive power, in a way that balances transparency with the protection of sensitive taxpayer data. Clause 10 also includes the safeguards that disclosure cannot happen if it would contravene data protection legislation, protecting personal data rights, and that information is available on request via a secure online service. I trust that my answer explains why these safeguards are appropriate.

Amendment 28, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, and Amendment 33, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and the noble Lord, are focused on the performance of the VOA and its resourcing. I assure the Committee that the VOA is being fully resourced to deliver the additional responsibilities that it will have as a result of the reforms in the Bill. The agency received half a billion pounds of funding at the last spending review—and I can tell the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, that that included funding for upgrades to its IT infrastructure and digital capabilities. It has also been provided with £80 million pounds of funding for the 2026 revaluation.

The VOA is already subject to extensive reporting requirements. As an executive agency of HMRC reporting to the Treasury, the VOA has a legal obligation to prepare an annual report and accounts, which are laid in Parliament. In the annual report, the VOA reports against its performance measures and targets as well as its statutory deadlines for check and challenge. The report for 2021-22 was published in December 2022 and is available on the VOA’s website. The VOA met or exceeded all its targets in respect of business rates. Throughout the 2017 lists the VOA resolved the vast majority of its cases within the statutory deadlines, more than 99.9% of checks within the 12-month target and more than 98% of challenge cases within the 18-month target. The current targets are of course based around its existing business. I assure the Committee that the Government will review the targets with the introduction of the new duty to ensure they continue to drive strong performance from the VOA effectively.

Finally, Amendment 34, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, raises the issue of rogue agents. The amendment would require the Secretary of State to consult on the implications of putting in place a system of accreditation for business rates advisers. This is primarily aimed at exploring ways to combat the rogue and unprofessional practices of some rating advisers. Most rating agents are legitimate organisations registered with a professional body; they provide a valuable service to their clients and contribute to the effective operation of the tax. Nevertheless, we know that some agents seek to take advantage of their clients through predatory practices, using exploitative contracts or actively promoting rate mitigation strategies. We therefore provide advice on GOV.UK on appointing an agent. In this, we make it clear that ratepayers should take care in ensuring they appoint a reputable agent. We say in that guidance that the Rating Surveyors’ Association, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the Institute of Revenues Rating and Valuation all work to a set of standards. We repeat this advice whenever appropriate throughout government material on business rates, and the new duty in this Bill will give the VOA new contacts with ratepayers with which to relay this message.

In addition, the Government will very shortly be consulting on avoidance and evasion in the business rates system, meeting the commitment made by the Chancellor at the Spring Budget. As I clarified at Second Reading, this consultation will include agent behaviour in its scope. The consultation will seek to understand evidence of the nature and scale of any rogue or unprofessional practices in the business rates system and identify action the Government could take to combat this behaviour within the system.

I trust that I have addressed the many points raised by noble Lords, and I am grateful for the engagement we have had previously on the issues. I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

I think that I have listened very carefully but, on the digitisation of business rates, which I support, did the Minister explain the arrangements that could be made for businesses in remote locations where there is little or no mobile signal and where broadband has yet to reach them, despite what I accept are the Government’s best intentions that that should be the case? I live in the upper Pennines region, where there are businesses and remote farming communities. So far, they do not have either. Ditto in the Yorkshire Dales; I know of businesses there with neither a mobile signal—one that works, anyway—or a broadband connection. What arrangements will be made for such businesses?

I am told that there will be a non-digital availability. I will get all the details for the noble Baroness and I will write a letter, which will also go to the Library.

I would like to tease out a little more information following the Minister’s response on Amendment 17. What happens, in effect, is that the evidence is part of an adjudication process. In my professional line of business, there are various stipulations about surveyors acting as expert witnesses and the way in which these things are to be handled. Amendment 17 is particularly important because, when one gets into a situation where there is an appeal pending, there is this little thing about equality of arms. If one party is able to use information that is held confidentially, to the exclusion of the other party, I do not think that equality—that transparency standard—is met. We are talking about what is ultimately something that leads to an appeal before the valuation tribunal.

Can the Minister say whether I have got it right that the VOA can have a protected category of evidence, as it were, that it is not prepared to share? This is something that has come up on my radar when looking at some of the blogs that have come out of the rating surveying world. It is a matter of fundamental importance in terms of the administration of any sort of justice system and adjudication, which is what this is. I would therefore like to pin down the Minister a little more on that point.

I think we made it very clear that the information that can be shared is the information that does not affect the data protection. Therefore, there will be information that cannot be shared because it will affect data protection. Because this is quite a legal issue, I will offer noble Lords a further, in-depth meeting, with lawyers there. If we are to get to the bottom of this, it is better to do that with a lawyer with us talking about the data protection law. Would the noble Earl be happy with that?

I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this group. I thought that the reference made by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, to a timely VOA response was particularly apt, and I was grateful for his support just now on Amendment 17 on confidentiality. I thank the Minister for the offer to follow up.

The comment from the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, that the amendments in this group are simple common sense was one of the most powerful pieces of oratory that I have heard this afternoon, and I hope that it materialises very soon. I admired his well-made comments about the rogue agents, and once again I thank the Minister for her comments in that regard, as to how the Government intend to protect the public. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, for identifying a number of concerns over the VOA’s resourcing, which tie in directly.

Finally, there is considerable overlap in some of these amendments, and I think we will distil those as necessary. I thank the Minister for her wide-ranging response. I do not get the feeling that the CCA appeal process will improve, but perhaps Hansard will improve my understanding. Some of our questions remain unanswered, but perhaps we will try to progress some of these in advance of Report, along with the confidentiality subject. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw.

Amendment 15 withdrawn.

Amendments 16 and 17 not moved.

Clause 10 agreed.

Clauses 11 and 12 agreed.

Clause 13: Requirements for ratepayers etc to provide information

Amendments 18 to 21 not moved.

Amendment 22

Moved by

22: Clause 13, page 25, line 26, at end insert—

“(3A) No penalty notice may be imposed pursuant to paragraph 5ZC(1) or (3), and no offence is committed pursuant to paragraph 5ZC(2) (as the case may be), where P’s failure to comply, or P’s provision of false information, was made in reasonable reliance on any relevant guidance published by or on behalf of the valuation officer, or any advice provided to P by or on behalf of the valuation officer.”Member's explanatory statement

This would prevent the imposition of penalties where ratepayers’ errors or omissions are the result of reasonable reliance on VOA guidance or advice.

My Lords, this is the first of a series of amendments relating to penalties. Amendment 22 tries to create a defence to a penalty. I say straightaway that I do not have any principled objection to penalties as such, but the amendment tries to make sure that, when a penalty demand is made, if the ratepayer had reasonably relied on published Valuation Office Agency guidance or specific advice given about what was not relevant, that should be a relevant defence.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

My Lords, I was making the point that it should be a defence for a business rate payer to say that they had reasonably relied on published VOA or other guidance in respect of anything to do with being made liable for a penalty. Failure by a ratepayer to notify carries with it a number of penalties, at least one of which is entirely open-ended—more of that in a minute. The implementation of this will depend very much on the extent and quality of the guidance issued, especially as it is supposed that this will be comprehensible to unrepresented ratepayers. I particularly make that point because we are trying to make sure that this does not trigger a requirement across the board for more ratepayers to seek professional advice.

I appreciate that the VOA will not bring in notification and penalty measures until it is satisfied that they work smoothly and seamlessly. That is my understanding—my words, I stress, not necessarily the ones that the Minister would use. My submission is that no government body should be at liberty to state one thing in guidance and then do something quite different or to reinterpret established understandings at its own whim and caprice to the detriment, in this instance, of a ratepayer.

I shall deal with Amendments 23 to 26 as a job lot because their purpose is to fix a number of issues that appear to me to be typos or errors of construction or perception to do with the way in which the penalty regime will work. First, the fixed penalty minimums for incorrect information provided to the VOA appear to be the wrong way round and Amendments 23 and 24 serve to remedy that. I think the figures have just been transposed.

Secondly, unlike the penalties in relation to the provision of information to HMRC as opposed to the VOA, there is no cap whatever for non-compliance on the VOA notification. This seems contrary to legal principle in general and at odds with non-compliance with, for instance, the form of return under Schedule 9 to the 1988 Act, which is subject to a cap, so Amendment 25 seeks to address that.

Finally, there is the question of the Valuation Tribunal for England’s—VTE’s—determination of penalties, which the VOA has imposed in lieu of prosecution for false information. As drafted in the Bill, the burden of criminal proof is inverted, with the ratepayer having to prove “beyond reasonable doubt” that they did not commit the offence. That cannot be right or reasonable. I suspect that it is not intended, either—I hope I am correct. Amendment 26 seeks to deal with that.

That summarises my amendments in this group. I beg to move.

My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, has raised an important group of issues regarding the penalties that could be imposed on ratepayers who do not provide accurate, timely information. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to that and explain how ratepayers seem to have more and more imposed on them. They must provide the information annually to the VOA—in the last group we debated the VOA’s transparency in relation to that—and the noble Earl has just raised the quite significant penalties imposed if the information is not accurate, even if, as he pointed out, there is a genuine error. It seems that, in the previous group and this one, we do not have the right balance of responsibilities between the VOA requiring information, what business rate payers are required to provide and where the final duty lies.

The VOA is serving two masters: the Treasury on one hand and business rate payers on the other. It seems that the VOA is responding to its Treasury master and is not giving sufficient cognisance to the customers—the business rate payers. The noble Earl raised some important points regarding that. We must get this balance right. The VOA needs to be more transparent and responsive to business rate payers. It also needs to be accountable to them—and the reverse is also true, as the noble Earl said. The VOA demands penalties if the ratepayer gets the information wrong but—hang on—the VOA makes errors all the time. Where is the accountability and compensation to business rate payers for those errors? The noble Earl raised that issue and I hope that the Minister will be able to get the balance right when she responds.

I thank the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, for bringing the amendments on penalties forward because a number of questions around compliance and the penalties regime have been drawn to our attention. One is how it aligns with the wider UK tax regime generally. Another is that a new criminal offence is being created here, but is that actually necessary? Is this not covered by existing legislation and existing criminal charges, for example? I am more broadly probing why we need a new offence here.

Of course, valuation officers can apply a civil penalty by serving a penalty notice, providing that they are satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the person has committed the offence. Again, the question is whether that valuation officer the right person to make that judgment. How are they being supported in making that judgment, for example? How are they getting information, and how do we guarantee that that judgment is being exercised in a consistent manner? We would be interested to have some clarification of that.

The summary of responses in the technical consultation says that the penalties have to be a “last resort”, with earlier steps taken to support ratepayers in meeting their obligations. It lists things such as the “electronic reminder”, hard-copy and digital warnings, and so on. It is welcome that we have these safeguards before that penalty route, but my concern is that none of that is set in the legislation, and I wonder why it was not clearly laid out in the Bill. If we are going to build trust in the VOA, it is important that people have a clear understanding and clarification of exactly how the penalty system will operate and that it is clear and consistent right across the board.

I asked about the definition of “occupied” and “unoccupied” earlier, so I will ask for one clarification. For unoccupied properties, the technical consultation noted that the VOA may need

“information about … intended use and how it is expected to be occupied”,

with the extent of the information required depending on the nature of the property. So, unless the use of the building is relatively restricted, and therefore its future use is apparent—a storage unit, for example—the intended use could span a number of different uses. So the question is what would the consequences be if the intended and actual use differed in relation to the terms of the penalties? I can see someone frowning—I hope I am being clear. Perhaps we can pick this up at a later date if I am not being completely clear about this. It is just in case there is a difference between what you say you will use it for and then, ultimately, what you do use it for.

Group 4 consists of Amendments 22 to 26, tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton. They are concerned with the application of penalties for non-compliance with the VOA duty. As we have said, we will not initiate the VOA duty until we are satisfied that all ratepayers can reasonably and efficiently comply. There will be a soft launch of the duty, during which time no penalties for non-compliance will be issued and the VOA will raise awareness and expand its engagement with sector bodies and businesses of all sizes. As was said, issuing penalties will be the last resort. The VOA and HMRC will ensure that the new online service is simple to use and will take multiple steps to encourage ratepayers to comply, through reminders and warnings, before issuing a penalty.

Amendment 22 seeks to prevent the imposition of penalties where ratepayers’ errors or omissions are the result of reasonable reliance on VOA guidance. However, it is already the case that the VOA is able to apply penalties only where the ratepayer could reasonably be expected to know that the information would assist the VOA. All ratepayers will need to do to ensure that they are complying is follow guided steps on GOV.UK. If the ratepayer follows this guidance, the VOA will not, under the existing provisions of the Bill, be able to apply penalties. Thus, we do not think that this amendment adds anything of substance to the position as it already stands. If a penalty is issued in error where a ratepayer has relied on VOA guidance, the Bill gives the VOA the power to remit it. Ratepayers will also be able to appeal any penalty applied, and this will be independently reviewed by the valuation tribunal.

Amendments 23 to 25 are designed to address the penalty tariffs applicable to instances where a ratepayer has either failed to notify the VOA or provided false information. I will briefly explain the Government’s approach here. The Bill sets out the maximum level of penalty which the VOA may apply depending on the nature of the failure to comply. Our intention, as set out in our response to the technical consultation, is for the VOA sometimes to levy lower penalties than are set out by the framework of the Bill. Penalties will be levied as a percentage of the change in the rateable value rather than the entire rateable value and, where penalties are issued for a failure to provide information, the minimum penalty will be reduced for those on lower rateable values.

The Bill also introduces an offence where a ratepayer has knowingly or recklessly made a false statement. In these cases, a ratepayer could be subject to criminal sanction. Alternatively, making a false statement will lead to a civil penalty, the amount of which is provided by new paragraph 5ZD. Where the civil penalty is applied, in practice the maximum penalty will be 3% of the change in the property’s rateable value plus a fixed penalty of £500. To address the amendment, the Bill rightly provides a more severe penalty for knowingly or recklessly providing false information.

The point has been made that there should be a cap on daily penalties following an initial instance of failure to provide information. This information can have a direct impact on tax liability, so it is crucial that the duty is underpinned by a fair and proportionate but robust compliance regime. However, I can provide the reassurance that, even after the initial 60-day deadline, ratepayers will receive a reminder, warning and final warning before a penalty is applied. Only after an additional 30 days would the first daily penalty of £60 be issued. Ratepayers will be able to request a review and appeal of any penalties imposed. The daily penalties will be stopped when the ratepayer provides the required information, so as soon as the ratepayer complies, the penalties are effectively capped.

Applying daily penalties in this way is not an uncommon feature of taxation penalty regimes. For example, Schedule 36 to the Finance Act 2008 deals with powers for HMRC to request information from taxpayers and imposes penalties for a failure to provide such information. It includes penalties of up to £60 per day for as long as the non-compliance continues, without an overall cap on liability.

Amendment 26 seeks to alter the burden of proof which the valuation tribunal should apply when deciding whether to uphold a penalty decision. Of course, when considering a higher penalty for a ratepayer who has provided false information, the VOA must in the first place be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the information was provided knowingly or recklessly. There is considerable protection for ratepayers already.

Nevertheless, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, for raising questions about the appeals process. We will of course review the relevant text. I hope that, given that I have explained why the system of penalties is designed as it is, noble Lords will agree the amendments are not necessary.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Pinnock and Lady Hayman, for their contributions on this group of amendments. The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, referred to the necessary balance here, and I agree. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, queried whether the application of criminal charges is properly introduced here, whether the Valuation Office Agency is the right outfit to make that call and whether it will be given the necessary guidance and assistance to make consistent rulings in that respect.

It seems to me that the question is about the discretion of the VOA to do things—its ability to do or not do—as opposed to a legal duty. It seems to me that some sort of duty on the VOA is part and parcel of its overarching statutory duty to, for instance, maintain a correct valuation list. It also seems to me that those duties should mirror the obligations and penalties imposed on the ratepayer, otherwise it is a very asymmetric situation. That is, to some extent, what I was trying to deal with in Amendment 16.

The Minister has given various explanations of the Government’s position here. On Amendment 22 and the question of “reasonably be expected to know”, she said that this covers the guidance given and therefore the amendment does not add anything of substance and that there is a right of appeal. I think I will have to consider carefully what she said. With regard to Amendments 23 and 25, I felt that I had detected a series of typographical errors, but I understand the Minister to have said that they are not errors and that the Bill is deliberately worded that way. I am not sure that on a fair reading that is likely to be the case, so I hope they may be looked into at some stage or other.

On the cap or no cap, I have already pointed out that there is a degree of asymmetry between the approach that has been adopted in the Bill in this respect and what happens with failure to deal with the form of return. I appreciate that there is the “knowingly or recklessly” test, but we have a rather circular argument here because, if the VOA is again the sole arbiter of “knowingly or recklessly” and the thing then proceeds to a tribunal that says something different, I would hope that we could have got to a situation well before then where the ground rules were understood. Is the Minister saying that the wording of the Bill is in all respects what was intended and that there are no typographical errors in it as I had supposed? Will she please clarify that point?

No, there are no typographical errors in the Bill. I think the noble Earl asked that question earlier, and there were none.

Just to be clear on criminal offences and why they are necessary, there is already a criminal offence for providing false information in response to a request for information by the VOA. So we are not putting in a criminal offence—there is already one there as it stands now. It is interesting that criminal charges will be only for “knowingly or recklessly” giving false information. If it is just a false statement, for whatever reason, that would still be a civil penalty.

My Lords, I see a point here, and I shall have to reflect further on what the Minister has said in this respect and may well need to return to the issue at a later stage of the Bill. For the time being, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 22 withdrawn.

Amendments 23 to 26 not moved.

Clause 13 agreed.

Clause 14: Alterations to lists: matters not to be taken into account in valuation

Amendment 27

Moved by

27: Clause 14, page 32, line 21, leave out “2023” and insert “2026”

Member's explanatory statement

This would delay the commencement of the alteration to the reality principle until the 2026 List enters force.

My Lords, I must admit that this amendment is something of a stalking horse—a bit like asking a Prime Minister on a Wednesday morning what is in the diary for the coming week. What I am really saying is that Clause 14 should be deleted and I thought that, rather than moving that the clause do not stand part, it was better to seek an explanation. That is why it has been done this way.

The amendment relates to material changes in circumstances of hereditament. This is not the same as physical alteration to the hereditament itself. A standard alteration to its extent, and an extension to or improvement of the physical fabric, will continue to be taken into account, as I understand it, as and when it occurs. There is no attempt in the Bill, as I read it, to fetter that—rather, this is to do with matters that do not change the measurable physical attributes of the hereditament itself but none the less patently affect its physical enjoyment.

I am particularly indebted to Luke Wilcox of Landmark Chambers for some very pertinent guidance on this issue. I have a note from him that he has given me permission to share with other noble Lords, and I may well do that, as it goes into more detail about what I am trying to explain.

In non-domestic rating, there is a hypothetical landlord and tenant and a hypothetical lease between the two as well as an assumed obligation for certain states of repair, none of which necessarily mirrors the actual state of affairs relating to the property. However, the hereditament itself is real, measurable and a physically determinable entity, and how it is to be regarded has always been subject to what in legal jargon used to be referred to as the rebus sic stantibus principle. In simple terms, that means that one had to value the hereditament and its environment as it physically is. That is in essence what is now known as the reality principle.

There are two legs to the reality principle. The first is the physical extent—the construction, age, layout and other physical characteristics, fixtures and fittings and general suitability and fitness of purpose of the hereditament for its intended or actual use. The second relates to the local circumstances affecting the area where the physical hereditament is situated. Put another way, it is the local business environment that underpins its physical enjoyment, as distinct from its physical extent. This could be location in relation to other complementary trades, whether there is or is not good customer accessibility, the relevance of parking restrictions, proximity to public transport, levels of shopper footfall and all those sorts of things, which are not related to the physical nature of the hereditament itself but are part of its market environment and, therefore, its rental value.

The current position is that, where there is a change in a matter affecting the physical enjoyment of the property, such as a regulatory change to its planning status or a change in a matter which is physically manifest in the locality—in the past, Government Ministers referred to changed bus routes; I would add a change in road layout to that category—those matters, to the extent that they are evident and quantifiable, are material changes in circumstances, or MCCs, and can trigger a mid-list change in rateable value. Such factors are a part of the reality principle, which is one of the most fundamental concepts in rating law and, to my certain knowledge, has been so for over five decades.

What is proposed here is that Clause 14 would amend the rules that govern when a mid-list alteration to a property’s rating assessment is permitted by changing the definition of what may constitute “material changes of circumstances”. Under the Government’s proposals, those matters, even though manifestly affecting physical enjoyment, would no longer be MCCs, wherever and whenever they are directly or indirectly attributable to legislation or official guidance. Under the relevant portion of the Bill, new paragraph 2ZA(2)(a) of Schedule 6, inserted by Clause 14, an MCC is something that is

“directly or indirectly attributable to a relevant factor”.

New paragraph 2ZA(3) goes on to say what the relevant factors are:

“legislation of any country or territory … provision that … is made under, and given effect by, legislation of any country or territory … advice or guidance given by a public authority of any country or territory … anything done by a person with a view to compliance with anything within paragraph (a), (b) or (c)”.

New paragraph 2ZA(5) states that

“‘legislation’ includes any provision of a legislative character … ‘public authority’ includes any person exercising functions of a public nature”.

This, to my mind, is a substantial change to what has long been understood. What is proposed here is that this category of what has always been understood to be a material change in circumstances should be removed.

It appears that this is a response to matters that arose during Covid. The various Covid lockdown regulations significantly altered the way in which occupiers could occupy their premises. This in turn gave rise to a number of requests for mid-list alterations, since the regulations affected the ability of occupiers physically to enjoy their properties. The Government considered that general legislation should be part of the general market conditions considered at revaluations—this is the case being made—and so should not count as MCCs. However, the Government’s view in this regard differs not only from their own internal guidance, which I checked only yesterday on their website, but from that of the Valuation Office Agency, which regarded, and still regards, legislative changes as MCCs where they are physically manifest. That much is evident from the paperwork.

The Government passed the Coronavirus Act 2020, which prevented matters directly or indirectly attributable to the coronavirus regulations from being MCCs. This was a very specific and nationwide response to an emergency situation and was promoted as such. Clause 14, however, seeks to extend that principle to all events arising from legislation or regulation of all kinds and in all normal times, which is a very different construct.

The Government claim that Clause 14 is intended to restore the law to its originally intended state and condition and that its purpose is to require general legislation and guidance to be treated as part of the general market conditions which are thought to be considered only when a new list is compiled—which, under the Bill, would be every three years. However, under Clause 14 we are considering not necessarily nationwide or even emergency situations but much more mundane changes, often of a local or per-property specific nature. Some are harmless and insignificant but others would have significant effects on individual businesses and the physical enjoyment of the premises. These measures could deny a beneficial use which underpins the operation being run from a hereditament. Clause 14 is not the same thing at all as restoring the situation to what was always understood in rating practice but, in fact, a material departure from it.

The audit trail of legislation that brought in what is now Section 2(7) of the Local Government Finance Act 1988 does not support the Government’s claim either. In fact, it reveals quite a different narrative, and an examination of Addis Ltd v Clement (VO), which has long been and remains the benchmark legal decision that the 1988 Act sought to enshrine, demonstrates this. Not only that but its antecedents go back to the 1920s and have been reaffirmed at senior judicial level as recently as 2020. I repeat: the Government’s guidance on their website and the guidance issued by the VOA make it clear that changes which affect the physical enjoyment of the hereditament, as distinct from changes to the physical hereditament itself, are indeed in scope of material change of circumstances.

This means that Clause 14 will have a far wider effect than the Government’s stated intention. That is because, if something can be so loosely defined as being “indirectly attributable” to a change in legislation, and thereby no longer treated as a material change of circumstances of the relevant type, this opens up a vast array of circumstances in which the causative measure and the non-MCC status may apply. Many things would come into play which affect perhaps only one property or a discrete group, such as a change in planning permission, a premises licence or a road layout change. These are changes which in many cases—in fact, almost invariably—can be made only by dint of legislative authority but none the less would henceforward be “indirectly attributable” to legislation, and thus no longer material changes of circumstances.

There is no sense in which a change in, say, the planning status of an individual property or the exercise of administrative authority resulting in something which patently affects the physical enjoyment of a single property or a locally identifiable property type, can be regarded as part of general market conditions, falling to be dealt with only at revaluation, yet those changes will be excluded under Clause 14 as currently drafted. I do not think that such an approach could ever be justified even on an annual revaluation basis. They are not general market shifts but the result of specific, conscious measures by an authority exercising powers.

Why is this a problem? If the planning or licensing position of a property, or its accessibility or commercial standing in its locality, have changed early in the life of a list, under Clause 14 the ratepayer will continue to pay rates on what would be an incorrect valuation, possibly for almost three years. This gives rise to clear unfairness and inequity. On my reading of the Bill, a billing authority would presumably be in no position to require the rateable value to be reviewed if it implements a scheme under a statutory power which could increase the rateable value of a hereditament in like circumstances.

I assume that it is not the Government’s intention that this should be the effect of the Bill, but that is what will happen as it is currently drafted, based on the expert and legal advice I have received. It will have significant—and, I hope, unintended—consequences for a fundamental aspect of the law of rating. It needs to be rethought. With apologies for a lengthy technical explanation, I will listen with care to the Minister’s response and her reasoned justification. I beg to move.

My Lords, I think the wise course of action now would be to listen to what the Minister has to say. I am very supportive of what the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, has said. He called this amendment a stalking horse; we clearly need a definition of the Government’s intention and there is clearly a legal question that must be sorted out. I said at Second Reading that I had concerns about material change of circumstances being altered in the way the Government are proposing, not least to exclude legislation such as licensing laws and guidance from public bodies. As a layman, in legal terms, in this area, it seems to me that legislation can cause a material change in circumstance, particularly if licensing or planning laws are altered. There is a case for that to be considered. These Benches would very much like to hear the Minister’s justification for what is being proposed. If that requires a letter to explain the legal issues involved, that would be helpful. The noble Earl has raised a set of very important questions.

My Lords, I will be very brief. The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, has laid out his concerns very clearly and in great detail. At the least, we need clarification. We have talked about the problems around licensing conditions; the hospitality sector in particular is very concerned about the implications of being stuck with a valuation for three years that, bluntly, may not be correct. It would be very helpful to hear what the Minister has to say and for her to give reassurances to the licensing sector that its circumstances will be taken into account.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, for their amendment. I understand the concerns around this clause; I will take the opportunity to explain why we consider this measure to be necessary and to set out the limits of its application.

As we have heard throughout the passage of the Bill, more frequent revaluations and the measures we are introducing to support them are central to the reform of the business rates system. It is through those revaluations that the rating system is able to track and reflect changing economic circumstances. In property valuation terms, rateable values are updated at revaluations to reflect changes in economic factors, market conditions and changes in the general level of rents.

Of course, that does not mean that rateable values never change between revaluations. It would hardly be fair if, for example, a ratepayer demolished part of their property but this was not reflected until the next revaluation, or if a new property were built but escaped rates until the next revaluation. Therefore, some changes are reflected in rateable values as and when they happen. Examples include changes to the physical state of the property, the mode or category of occupation of the property or matters affecting the physical state of the locality. These matters, reflected as and when they occur, are called material changes of circumstances—MCCs.

The MCC system has been operating in this way for many years, but, during the coronavirus pandemic, we found that it was not working as intended. Large numbers of challenges were made, seeking reductions between revaluations for the effects of the pandemic, which by their nature were part of the general market conditions. Such general market matters should be considered at general revaluations.

Therefore, the Rating (Coronavirus) and Directors Disqualification (Dissolved Companies) Act 2021 clarified the law to ensure that coronavirus and the Government’s response to it were not an appropriate use of MCC provisions. Specifically, that Act ensured that anything done to comply with legislation, advice or guidance given by a public authority and attributable to coronavirus should not be an MCC, subject to some exclusions. The principle in that Act was approved by both Houses, and it received Royal Assent on 15 December 2021.

Clause 14 of the Bill merely takes that principle, clarified and accepted by this House in the 2021 Act in relation to coronavirus, and applies it more generally to all legislation, guidance and advice from public bodies. Changes in such matters are part of the economic factors and market conditions for a property and should be reflected at a general revaluation. This clause will protect the integrity of the rating system and ensure that more frequent revaluations can proceed smoothly. It will protect the system not just for central government but for local government, which relies on the revenue from business rates. The Local Government Association supports this clause and agrees that these matters should be reflected at general revaluations. But this does not mean that these matters are not reflected in rateable values; it just means that they are reflected only at the set date of each revaluation, along with all other economic and general market factors present at that date.

Furthermore, we have limited the scope of Clause 14 to three aspects of the MCC system to ensure that it operates fairly. This is to ensure that physical changes to the property or the state of the locality are still reflected. Therefore, Clause 14 will bite on only three types of MCCs. First, it will catch matters affecting the physical enjoyment of the property but not the physical state. This might include changes in how the property can be used following new legislation or guidance. Secondly, it will catch matters that are physically manifest in the locality but not matters affecting the physical state of the locality. This might include changes to traffic flows and bus or transport services. Thirdly, it will catch the use or occupation of other premises in the locality, which might include the change in use of a nearby property where, for example, the original use has been prohibited by new legislation.

Clause 14 will ensure that matters such as physical changes to a property or to the state of the locality continue to be immediately reflected in valuations, even if they are a result of new legislation or guidance. Clause 14 will also not bite on whether the property is non-domestic or domestic or whether it is exempt. Overall, Clause 14 will preserve a long-established principle by ensuring that matters that go more to the market conditions and general level of rents of a property belong in the general revaluation process. Of course, with more frequent revaluations, these factors will still be updated more often than ever before.

The clause will provide important stability and certainty to the rating list and, therefore, to the vital revenue for local government that flows from the list. Therefore, it would not be prudent to delay the introduction of the clause, as this amendment seeks. I know that the noble Earl will be disappointed that we are unable to agree to this, but I hope that I have set out the basis for taking this measure and also given him some assurances regarding its scope. I will look at Hansard tomorrow and will write to noble Lords with further explanations if I feel that they are required.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, for their support in connection with this. Although I understand what the Minister says is the intention of Clause 14, having been taken through it in some detail by more than one expert, I am bound to say that I do not agree with her about the effect of the clause. There is a difference in understanding, and I wonder whether it could be dealt with by a further discussion—the Minister is nodding, which I am grateful for. It is very difficult if somebody reads this in one way and says, “This could cover a multitude of things that could be excluded”, and the Minister says, “Actually, it is not intended to do that and these are the safeguards that we have built in”.

All I can say at this juncture is that I will certainly return to this on Report. I hope that there can be a meaningful dialogue on this in the meantime. It would be wrong for me to go into a detailed unpicking of what the Minister said at this hour and given the other pressures on us. To that end, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 27 withdrawn.

Clause 14 agreed.

Clause 15 agreed.

Amendment 28 not moved.

Amendment 29

Moved by

29: After Clause 15, insert the following new Clause—

“Threshold for small business rate relief adjustment: impact assessmentWithin 90 days of this Act receiving Royal Assent, a Minister of the Crown must lay before Parliament an assessment of the impact of reducing the threshold for small business rate relief on the future of the high streets.”Member’s explanatory statement

This is intended to probe the possibility of reducing the threshold for small business rate relief.

My Lords, Amendment 29 was tabled just to probe the possibility of reducing the threshold for small business rate relief, particularly in consideration of our high streets. We know that business rates remain one of the largest fixed costs for retailers and that they fundamentally impact business planning and investment decisions; for example, the convenience sector’s business rates liabilities are over £274 million, despite the small business rate relief. We also know that retailers are facing a particularly difficult time at the moment: we have increased commodity prices, skyrocketing energy bills and structural changes to the labour market—there is an awful lot going on and a lot of instability.

We are concerned that the current revaluation of business rates, which was implemented in April this year, will hit smaller high street stores in particular. They struggled during the pandemic and afterwards, and, combining that with a winter ahead with higher energy bills, we have particular concerns. We have called for short-term support through an increase in the threshold for the small business rate relief. We suggested that the current threshold of £15,000 be increased to £20,000 in order to give SMEs a discount on their business rate bill for 2023-24.

I am aware that, in the letter that the Minister sent to noble Lords after Second Reading, she set out in quite some detail the action around small business rate relief and the additional support. When we look at reducing the amount of rates that businesses pay, we need to look at the impact on local government and its resources. We need to look at this in the round. So we welcome the action that has been taken. We think that more action needs to be taken, but we must not forget the impact on local authorities.

We also think that the reduction in business relief should be funded by an increase in the digital services tax, which is charged on the global revenues of the global tech giants—basically, the online shopping argument against the high street argument, which we had at some length at Second Reading and which I am sure we will continue to have. In her letter, the Minister said that the Government have increased the total business rates bills for large distribution warehouses to reflect the growth of the online sales sector. Again, we welcome that, but we feel that we need to do more to resolve the imbalance between the amount of taxes paid online and in store.

I will be brief because it would be nice to finish, although a vote is coming. We very much support Amendment 31 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Shipley. The hospitality sector has clearly laid out its particular concerns about how it may not come off so well from the improvement relief, the material changes to circumstances and the duty to notify. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, will mention them, so I beg to move.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

My Lords, Amendments 30, 32 and 35 are in my name in this group. They cover two issues. One is reform and the other is review. The reform amendment is Amendment 30 because, as many of us said at Second Reading, we are tinkering at the edges of business rate reform and change. What is needed is, in fact, what the Conservative manifesto promised in 2019—a fundamental review of the system. Amendment 30 asks for a review and reform of the non-domestic rateable value system between different parts of the retail sector. It focuses particularly on the retail sector.

In Amendment 30, paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) of proposed new subsection (3) identify the different sectors: single-shop businesses in high streets,

“chain stores with multiple premises in city centres and out-of-centre shopping malls”

and “mainly online operations” by global businesses, which do not pay their fair share of taxation in any case and seem to be taxed very lightly in business rates compared to the sectors mentioned in proposed new paragraphs (a) and (b).

I would like the Government to agree to the amendment, as they already recognise that the system is not fair and equitable. For example, the current system acknowledges that small businesses are overtaxed by the existing system of assessment and responds to that by creating a plethora of business rate reliefs, such as small business rate relief, charitable relief and so on. The Treasury funds those reliefs, but how much better would it be if the system was designed from the outset to be more equitable between different parts of the retail sector? It would encourage more activity on our high streets, which benefits local businesses and the communities that they serve, and would also extract more money from those who have most and who have avoided taxation the best—global online retail businesses.

At this point I shall say, for brevity, that Amendment 36 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, is an excellent expression of what I have just tried to achieve with my Amendment 30, so I obviously totally support that and look forward to the noble Lord describing exactly how it will be achieved.

Amendments 32 and 35 in my name are asking for reviews of the impact of these changes. On Amendment 32, as I raised at Second Reading, I am concerned that the impact of these changes may be a fall in business rate income, which would impact on local authorities’ funding, because business rates income transfers to local government. At Second Reading, the Minister confirmed that there would be new-burdens funding for the changes described in the Bill; however, it was not confirmed that there would be compensation for loss of income due to reduction in business rate income. Local authorities are on the edge of their financial viability and, if there is a loss of business rate income, it will significantly harm local authorities. I have outlined other impacts in that amendment that I would like to see reviewed, but I will take them as read, in the interests of brevity.

The final review I ask for, in Amendment 35, is simply for an impact assessment. Do these changes actually incentivise improvements to business premises? Will business benefit from more frequent valuations? The amendment asks the question about devolving more powers over business rates to local authorities. These are important changes. Reform and review are at the heart of the amendments, and I look forward to hearing how the Minister will respond, especially to Amendment 36 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow.

That was an impressive introduction. I apologise for bringing this up so late. I was not going to table it, as it was too difficult, but I just could not not do so. I give great thanks to the Table Office for drafting and help.

This group is listed as reliefs and reviews, and I feel strongly that we should dwell more on reviews than reliefs. While injustices should be addressed in the short term with financial relief, the non-domestic rating system is broken, and it seems that the attempts to fix it have become too difficult and it has become easier to throw taxpayers’ money at reliefs than to review it. I believe that the attempts to resolve the injustices in the system have simply been considered too difficult—as I did until last night, or Friday—and have been kicked into the long grass. I would like nothing more at all than to hear from the Minister that action is expected very soon.

One particular injustice, perhaps the most trumpeted, is that of the small high street retailers we have heard about, struggling to survive against the onslaught of internet shopping. In ordinary business terms, the free-market economy dictates the survival rate of businesses, but in this case there is an important further dimension—so much more important—which is the public interest case for healthy high streets. They provide a social necessity to our communities, a valuable asset in the social fabric. We know the subject is complex. A number of high street retailers and major supermarkets have websites; some SMEs may rely on them. These and other good reasons simply complicate the matter; they do not make it impossible.

There is a fiscal irony here. The growing turnover and profitability of internet retail is directly felt in the high street by falling demand. Falling demand translates as falling rental value. It follows that the rateable value will fall. Without this amendment or something similar to it, net tax receipts will also fall. Introducing fairness to the rates paid by internet retailers will go some way—possibly a very long way—to making up for the loss of high street rate contributions.

The solution lies in a new property use class for the purposes of assessing NDR—not to overlap with use classes in the planning Acts; I would run a mile from that. This would be purely for rating. It would correct the current major imbalance between retailers paying warehouse rates and high street retailers paying high street rates. Warehouse rates are a fraction of high street equivalents. Internet retailers know this, and their profits swell by the artificial discount the system supports.

The amendment proposes that the Government conduct a review to make recommendations for a new rating use class. It would harness expertise from the commercial property sector. The amendment gives the Government 12 months to bring a new Bill before Parliament with recommendations to correct this widely recognised injustice.

My Lords, I support the amendments in this group. At one of my meetings with the Minister and her Bill team I was told that it was not HMRC—or they may have said Treasury—practice to produce an impact assessment as such, and I was directed to a series of notes in lieu. But business rates have an impact on business, employment, entrepreneurial activity and the health of our high streets, and have long seemed a substantial tipping point in decisions about taking on premises, where the tax levied is 50% of the determined market rental value. That puts into shade the collective cost of things such as insurance service charges and other occupational outgoings.

There is a basic imbalance here; I have said so on many occasions in the House and elsewhere. Upfront impact assessments and post-legislative review are exactly what is missing here. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, that small business relief and small business exemptions are almost an admission of the failure of the system we have.

Turning to Amendment 36, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, I totally agree with its underlying principle that the tax base for local government finance needs to be broadened, with proportionately less of a burden falling on what we might call the traditional business rate payer. This is becoming an impediment. What are termed fundamental reviews have been a great deal less fundamental than they ought to have been. The system has been creaking for some time and one should take notice when things start to creak; it usually means that something is wrong. I very much relate to these amendments, and I look forward to the Minister’s comments.

My Lords, my name appears on two of the amendments in this group. Underlying the whole group is a major issue: the Treasury now sees business rates as a source of general income to government, but many small businesses see them as a contribution to local services. That has got out of balance.

I strongly support Amendment 36, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, who has just spoken. He talked about the impact of online shopping on small high street outlets and said that there was a public interest case to be made. Indeed, Amendment 29, moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, probes the possibility of reducing the threshold for small business rate relief on high streets. A number of us raised that issue at Second Reading.

A number of issues are raised in this group. I have an amendment on the hospitality sector. It is not clear to me what reason there would be for not having a hospitality sector review, as I propose. It is about assessing the consistency of approach; we have spoken a lot about high streets, but this applies to the hospitality sector as well. There needs to be an assessment of whether there is a consistent approach for setting non-domestic rateable values between hospitality businesses occupying premises of similar size and trading style. I cite public houses, restaurants, live performance theatres and exhibition spaces as examples. This is the kind of thing that government should be doing anyway, but there is a huge policy issue now around what business rates are for and how we make sure that they are being fairly charged.

My Lords, group 6 covers several amendments probing the Government’s support for high street businesses and the wider impact of the Bill. I am grateful for the useful discussions that I have had with noble Lords on what are, undoubtedly, significant issues.

Amendments 30 and 31, from the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, seek a review of the effect of business rates on the retail and hospitality sectors. I recognise that the conditions for businesses in town centres and high streets are concerning for many noble Lords. The Government take these concerns seriously and recognise the impact that increased competition from online businesses, changing consumer behaviour and Covid-19 has had on the fortunes of some high street businesses.

That is why the Government have taken decisive action to ensure that business rates are manageable for ratepayers on the high street. First, 720,000 properties, including many smaller retailers, pay no rates as a result of small business rates relief. Additional support has also been provided for those that do have rates bills: at the Autumn Statement, the Chancellor announced a package of business rates measures worth £13.6 billion. This included a general freeze of the multipliers for all properties, as well as increased support—from 50% to 75% relief—for retail, hospitality and leisure properties, which is worth over £2.1 billion. As we heard, the Government also scrapped downward caps and, as we move to more frequent revaluations through the Bill, we will see a business rates system that better reflects real market values, which was the leading ask of businesses in our review.

I understand that the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, tabled Amendment 26 to encourage the Government to more actively intervene in how different types of property used in the retail sector are valued. Valuation is, of course, conducted independently by the VOA. All properties subject to business rates are assessed to the same standard of rateable value, which is, broadly speaking, the annual rental value. Properties are valued by reference to the evidence on the level of rents, which is agreed by landlords and tenants for that specific property class. If, at the most recent revaluation, the evidence shows that those open market rental values have increased, rateable values will change with them. Nevertheless, in all cases, the method must result in the common standard of rateable values.

In our review of business rates, the Government sought views on many different ways in which the valuation system could be changed. However, there was strong majority support for retaining the existing basis of rateable value. Therefore, we do not support significant changes to the industry-recognised valuation methodology, as was suggested.

Amendment 29, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, seeks an assessment of the impact of reducing the threshold for small business rate relief. As I have set out, the Government’s small business rate relief scheme already sees more than one-third of properties pay no business rates at all, with an additional 76,000 benefiting from reduced bills. The eligibility criteria for small business rate relief ensures that it effectively targets the smallest businesses, where help is needed most, and provides a good balance between support and the cost to the Exchequer. Further increases in the threshold for small business rate relief would be a broad-based and indiscriminate way to provide support and would therefore be a poorly targeted form of relief, so we do not agree that this amendment is necessary. However, the Government keep all taxes under review, and any future decisions regarding the tax system will be taken in line with the normal Budget process.

Finally, Amendments 32 and 35, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, would require an assessment of: the impact of three-yearly revaluations on business rates revenue and the financial resilience of local government; the impact of the VOA duty on ratepayers; the impact of the Act on the VOA’s resources; and the impact of temporary rate reliefs in the Bill on the UK’s net-zero targets. I will begin with local government. Local authorities will receive new burdens funding for the additional costs they face as administrators of the system, and I assure noble Lords that we will undertake a new burdens assessment of the measures in the Bill. I also assure noble Lords that local authorities are protected from the effects of the revaluation.

Revaluations update the rateable value of all properties across the country, meaning that some will see increases and others reductions. Unmitigated, this would lead to changes in the amount of business rates income collected and retained by individual local authorities under the business rates retention system. The Government have adjusted the business rates retention system to strip out as far as practicable the impact of the revaluation on local authority income via the adjustment to local authority top-ups and tariffs. This is a mechanism that we have discussed and consulted upon with local government and it worked effectively in the 2017 and 2023 revaluations.

Regarding the VOA duty, the Government have already published their estimates of the impact of complying with the duty on ratepayers. We will continue to monitor this as we design the system and engage with ratepayers. I have already spoken about the VOA’s resources and the funding the Government have provided to ensure that these changes are delivered. The VOA is investing considerably in its resourcing, particularly around the recruitment of surveyors.

Finally, it is of course right that we review the effectiveness of the new improvement and heat network reliefs at a suitable juncture. We have said that we will do so ahead of their 2035 expiry date and have kept a power in the Bill to extend the reliefs based on that review.

Having only recently conducted a comprehensive review of the rates system, and having set out our plans for monitoring and reviewing the measures in the Bill and the protections for local government in our administration of the system, I trust that noble Lords will agree that these amendments are unnecessary.

I thank noble Lords for the debate we have had on this, and I thank the Minister for her thorough response to the debate. I thank her particularly for her assurances regarding the impact of the revaluation on local authorities. It is important that that is taken into account. There are still outstanding issues in this area, particularly around the impact on the hospitality industry and other specific groups that will be affected and how we manage online versus high street and get an equitable position. I should have mentioned in my opening speech that we support the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, and I thank him for his introduction to it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 29 withdrawn.

Amendments 30 to 36 not moved.

Clauses 16 and 17 agreed.

Schedule 1 agreed.

Clauses 18 to 20 agreed.

Bill reported without amendment.

Committee adjourned at 8.05 pm.