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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Non-Domestic Rating (Designation of Rural Areas) (England) Order 2001 and Non-Domestic Rating Contributions (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2001

Sixth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Wednesday 27 February 2002

[Mr. Mike Hancock in the Chair]

Non-Domestic Rating (Designation of Rural Areas) (England) Order 2001

4.30 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): On a point of order, Mr. Hancock. Article 1(2) of the order refers to maps. The order is based on the fact that the areas are being redesignated by map. Billing authorities were informed by Peter Emechete on 4 January that the maps would be available from the Department, but it would have been helpful if they had been placed in the Library so that hon. Members, particularly those who are members of the Committee, could have checked the maps of their local areas. I shall argue strongly that many errors have been made on the maps in the past.

This is the second time in a month that we have had to discuss an order from the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions when important information has not been placed in the Library. That is sloppy, to say the least, and we are being asked to consider important secondary legislation without being in possession of full information. I seek your guidance, Mr. Hancock, on whether the Committee could be suspended so that we might teach the Department the lesson that it must provide us with all the necessary information as a basic courtesy to hon. Members.

The Chairman: Your point of order is well made, Mr. Clifton-Brown. My ruling is that the Committee cannot be suspended, but I hope that the Minister will explain why the maps are not available. I also hope that he will tell his Department that the whole Committee takes a dim view when information is not available to Members when a debate on important legislation matures to finality.

I accept the point of order and hope that the Minister and those members of his Department who are present have noted it.

4.32 pm

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Non-Domestic Rating (Designation of Rural Areas) (England) Order 2001 (S.I. 2001, No. 3916).

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the Non-Domestic Rating Contributions (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2001.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful, Mr. Hancock, for your comments in response to my point of order. I want Committees to function properly, and the discussion of orders for only one and a half hours before rejecting or confirming them is a none-too onerous way of introducing secondary legislation. It would be helpful if we could have full information in future, and I am grateful for your response.

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The Non-Domestic Rating (Designation of Rural Areas) (England) Order alters the way in which rural areas are designated for village shop rate relief by moving from a list of named parishes to maps, so you can begin to see why the maps are so important to our deliberations, Mr. Hancock. The maps were not only not available in the Library; neither were they available on the DTLR website. The Government want 100 per cent. electronic delivery of Government information by 2005 and the fact that maps are not available on the website does not suggest progress with e-government. Will the Minister make the maps available on the website?

There may be a problem with copyright, but if the Government cite maps in legislation, some modification of copyright provisions needs to apply. In the interests of democracy, if nothing else, it is important that our constituents can go to the websites. Of course, they can get documents by post, which they will probably have to pay for, but in a day and age when we are trying to encourage greater dissemination of information, it seems reasonable to ask the Minister whether they can be made available on the website. If there is a problem with copyright, perhaps he should look into it because it raises a general problem.

We are concerned about a catalogue of mistakes that DTLR has made over the changes. As a result, we do not accept the Government's assurances that existing recipients of rural rate relief will not lose out. That is important. We do not want anyone in premises in rural areas to lose out. Many have suffered severe hardship as a result of last year's foot and mouth crisis and because the events of 11 September hit many properties, especially in rural areas, very hard indeed. I am sure that the Minister shares our aspiration that no one should lose out.

Mistakes have been made. The consultation paper, ''Changes to the Designation of Rural Areas for the Purposes of Village Shop Rate Relief Scheme'', dated 30 November 2001 and published by the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, revealed that the Government had mismanaged the introduction of village shop rate relief. It notes, which is especially interesting, that

    ''the village shop rate relief scheme was introduced in 1998 . . . However, it has since become apparent that the housing Right to Acquire designations did not cover all rural settlements which are eligible for the village shop rate relief scheme.''

Some settlements were not previously covered, and we want to ensure that they are covered by this order.

The Government successively designated further rural areas when ratepayers or local authorities made them aware that they had not yet been designated. In other words, the Minister's Department has admitted that serious mistakes were made. As we discuss an order that alters the system, it would be helpful if the Minister would say how many businesses were left out under previous orders and what steps are being taken to compensate businesses that should have been included but were left out because of drafting mistakes. It would be suitable for retrospective relief or compensation to be given to such businesses, which may well have suffered severe hardship but been unable to claim relief because they were left out.

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We believe that more mistakes are to come. The consultation paper to which I have just referred—this is extraordinary when we know that mistakes have already been made—went on to say:

    ''we cannot be absolutely certain that there are no more''

wrongly designated areas. When the consultation paper says that, it is cause for worry. That is not reassuring from a Department that is becoming, and I do not mean this in an especially political way, pretty gaffe-ridden.

Some rural areas will lose out, because there is concern that redesignation could mean that rural shops in some areas lose rate relief. The Minister, and I quote him directly, conceded that some responses to the consultation paper said that

    ''rural settlements in their area would lose their designated status if what was proposed was implemented. A significant number of other local authorities expressed similar concerns about settlements in their areas.''—[Official Report, 16 January 2002; Vol. 378, c. 335W.]

The Minister will be aware that Tandridge council pointed to a series of shops that would no longer be entitled to relief. Such shops may be entitled to a remit of non-domestic rate liability on the grounds of hardship, but that requires 25 per cent. of the costs to be borne by the council tax payer of that council. The Minister responded by saying that existing designations will be maintained for Tandridge in addition to the new maps while the reasons for the discrepancies between the previous lists and the new maps are reviewed. That does not inspire great confidence. If the map system is flawed in Tandridge, how do we know, particularly if we have not had an easy opportunity to inspect the maps, that it is not flawed elsewhere? I should like an assurance from the Minister that if, when the maps are available, we find that they are flawed, there will be a mechanism in his Department to right rapidly any inconsistencies and errors.

We are concerned about the status of parish councils, and we shall debate their code of conduct next week. We are concerned by the shift from a parish-based system to maps, which could signal yet another attempt by the Government to sideline the role of parish councils. Parish councils have a history that goes back to before William the Conqueror. It would be unfortunate if the Government sought to sideline or downgrade the role of parish councils through the order and other measures, in particular the code of conduct for parish councillors.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): Will my hon. Friend give way?

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) should not give way on that point. I fear that he is drifting away from the scope of this afternoon's discussion. Does the intervention relates to his points on parish councillors?,

Mr. Brazier: It was on parish councils.

The Chairman: I will not allow it.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Although I take your stricture and do not want to try your patience, Mr. Hancock, we are moving away from a system of parish council

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designations to maps. Given that the Government are dealing with rural settlements of 3,000 people or less, it would not have been difficult for them to have produced a list of designated parishes rather than having those maps, which may not be correct. I have no doubt that the Minister will give us a good explanation of why he decided to design that system.

Mr. Brazier: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I think that my point is in order, Mr. Hancock, because it is concerns the transfer from parish councils to maps.

My hon. Friend has alluded to flood protection, which concerns many people. It has been increasingly evident in flood protection work in my area not only how often parish councils are involved, but how often their borders correspond to water features, which sometimes appear only as irregular items. In one case, we had to go back to a mediaeval river bed to avoid flooding. It would be a great mistake to move away from parish boundaries that have developed over centuries to a map taken at a particular point.

 
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Prepared 27 February 2002