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The Earl of Caithness: Perhaps the Minister could be a little more forthcoming than that. He cannot just duck it until the next piece of legislation. Surely the Minister should be able to give a little fuller explanation. We had long discussions about whether regional assemblies would become precepting authorities. If my memory serves me right, we were firmly told that they would not be part of local government. Presumably, therefore, they could not be precepting authorities.

Lord Rooker: With respect, this Bill is not about elected regional assemblies. If there are to be any, there will be proper legislation in a Bill which will be discussed in full. I guarantee that it will not be before 2005 because the referendums will not take place until the end of 2004. There may be a Bill just after that, but I do not know the date of the referendums. But there will be a proper Bill in due course. I have nothing further to add about the regional assemblies to what I said in the Chamber when I repeated the Deputy Prime Minister's Statement. I would simply be standing here waffling—I am trying not to do that!

Baroness Hanham: It would be so unlike the Minister to stand and waffle. The Minister said that in a Bill—in the House today we were promised a draft Bill, so presumably within the draft Bill—there would be the information as to whether regional assemblies were to be precepting authorities or not. Judging by what was said, presumably a draft Bill should be available before the first referendum. Otherwise the information will not be available to those taking part in the referendum. For the record, the Minister nods his head.

Lord Rooker: I shall not add to what I said in the Chamber because I cannot remember what I said and therefore I might get it slightly wrong. Members of the Committee will then use two different answers to the same question against me should I happen to be dealing with the Bill for setting up the regional assemblies.

Baroness Hanham: I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Earl of Caithness moved Amendment No. 147:

"( ) No rule made under this section shall increase the individual liability for non-domestic rates of any ratepayer."

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The noble Earl said: Amendment No. 147 stands in my name and that of my noble friends. This amendment is designed to protect ratepayers from inadvertently facing additional payments as a consequence of government action. Members of the Committee will recall that in the pre-Budget report by the Chancellor in November 2002, he announced that local authorities would be empowered to retain additional rates achieved through successful regeneration. The Chancellor explained that the policy would be a matter for consultation. The noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, said, "Of course, we consult. As night follows day, we consult". But they have not consulted on this.

Consequently, what next occurred was an amendment on Report in another place. There has been no consultation, which has rather shattered the trust and confidence between surveyors and the Government. My simple amendment is trying to elucidate more information from the Government as to what the situation is, when they will consult, who will be affected and how it will actually work. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am grateful to the noble Earl for his explanation. He is probably after a re-statement of what is already government policy, which is that no business will pay more non-domestic rates through this scheme. In addition, there is no way under the scheme that they could be increased directly. To answer the specific point about consultation, the Government will produce a consultation paper later in the summer. I know that that can mean any time between now and maybe September or October, but I think that it will be sooner rather than later. However, it will be produced and obviously we shall listen carefully to what it says. I hope that the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, will feel reasonably reassured by that.

Our concern, should this amendment be agreed at some point, is that it could have an unintended and perhaps even rather negative effect. It is our view that if rateable values in an authority's area rose faster than the national average because it had improved its business environment as a result of the scheme, after a revaluation those businesses would naturally pay more business rates. The amendment could inadvertently prohibit the scheme encouraging any business growth. We believe that it could have a rather counterproductive effect. For those reasons, and more, I hope that the noble Earl will withdraw his amendment.

The Earl of Caithness: I am grateful for some of those reassurances. Does the noble Lord not think that it is a little odd to legislate before one consults?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: It is the case that we consult, we legislate and we consult some more. It is a rolling process, is it not? Sometimes it may not always appear like that, but we are perfecting the scheme. We

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shall consult and I am sure that the organisations with which the noble Earl is obviously very closely in contact will be happy with that consultation.

The Earl of Caithness: Of course, the Government are always right and consultation is there to justify what the Government put forward. I am glad that the noble Lord confirmed that there is to be consultation. We look forward to receiving it soon. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 71 agreed to.

Clause 72 agreed to.

Clause 73 [Provision of information]:

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 148:

    Page 37, line 24, leave out "21" and insert "28"

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 148, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 150 and 151 which are not directly related but which, to assist the progress of the Committee, we are happy to debate together. Amendment No. 148 addresses the reasonableness of the period of 21 days in which a person must respond to a notice from a local authority. We fully recognise that this is in the context of a penalty notice—a situation where someone has already not replied for a period of 56 days.

However, there are two other important differences which this Bill enacts from the 1988 Act. First, Clause 73(2)(a) removes the important rider that the information sought must be in the "possession or control" of the person being contacted. That is no longer to be part of the law. The question of possession or control comes into play only once a person appeals—with all the costs involved in that—against a fine of at least 200 and up to 700 for not supplying information that he may never have had in the first place.

Secondly, the innocent looking subsection (3) removes a "reasonable excuse" defence for non-compliance and once again removes it to the end of the process when the full 700 penalty has already rolled up. In these circumstances, we do not think it reasonable to allow a period of 21 days only for a person to respond to a penalty notice that could unleash penalties of a large scale without any prior right to claim that the information is not in that person's control. The reality is that in the modern world many people take holidays of three weeks or more and may not be back in time to fulfil an obligation of three weeks. It therefore seems only reasonable to allow a person in receipt of a penalty notice to have an extra seven days with which to comply with a request for information. I hope that the Minister can agree to that.

Amendment No. 150 also addresses the same situation. As the Bill is drafted, a quite innocent person with a reasonable excuse for not supplying information, and who may not even have that information in his possession, may have been hauled over the coals by what is all too often an insensitive bureaucracy. By this time it is possible that a person

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may have been fined up to 700. He would then have had to go to the expense of appealing to a valuation tribunal where he wins his case. After all that, he would be told that the tribunal may only mitigate or repay the penalty that has been unjustly visited upon him.

This must surely be a case of "shall" not "may", leaving the valuation tribunal no option but to repay the money and not to do so at its discretion. A person who wins his case should be entitled to restitution of an unjust fine. I hope that the Minister will agree to that.

Amendment No. 151 suggests a further improvement to the system on grounds of fairness. There may be circumstances where it becomes so obvious that a person has been unjustly pursued and has a good excuse not to provide the information that there is no point in the machinery grinding to a conclusion. In those circumstances it ought to be possible for the person to withdraw his appeal against the unjust penalty and for the tribunal to settle the matter out of court and repay the penalty. I suggest that this would be appropriate and sensible and would allow unnecessary time, expense and worry to be avoided. I hope that the Minister can look positively at all these proposals. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker: Clause 73 amends the 1988 Act by removing the criminal penalty for the non-return of information requested by the Valuation Office Agency. The VOA sends out requests for information about properties and rents to occupiers prior to a revaluation in order to build up a body of information on which to base its valuations. Occupiers are currently asked to return the information within 21 days or risk criminal prosecution. That is acknowledged as being an inappropriate sanction and was universally ignored. As a result very few forms are returned, simply increasing the cost to the Valuation Office Agency.

The clause changes that sanction from a criminal to a civil penalty and extends the time allowed. The expectation is that this will improve the level of response and include a more appropriate penalty for non-compliance.

Amendment No. 148 is aimed at giving ratepayers more time—28 days instead of 21—before the daily penalty starts being incurred. Before the further 100 penalty and daily penalties of 20 are incurred, the person concerned would have had 21 days to reply to the information notice under paragraph 5 of Schedule 9 to the 1988 Act and would have failed to do so.

The person would have had 56 days from first being sent the information request notice under paragraph 5 before being subject to the first 100 penalty. They would also have ignored the penalty notice for a further 21 days. In total, before the extra 100 penalty and daily penalties are incurred, the person will have failed to respond for at least a minimum of 77 days! We feel that this is sufficient time.

Amendment No. 150 obliges the valuation tribunal to remit any penalty if the appellant is successful in an appeal explaining their reason for not supplying the

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information. I think that we need to leave the discretion with the tribunal. If the circumstances of a case are such that the tribunal feels that the penalty or penalties ought to be waived or reduced, it can do so.

Tribunals ought to have discretion as to how they act and should not be under a duty to waive or reduce the penalties in all cases. There may be circumstances in a case that mean that the valuation tribunal decides that although there was a reasonable excuse, the penalty should not be waived. I do not know what kind of circumstances those are but I suspect that if I had talked to some of my friends who serve on valuation tribunals they could have given me chapter and verse with regard to the "awkward squad". We must allow the members of valuation tribunals discretion in that regard.

Amendment No. 151 gives the power to the valuation officer to mitigate or repeal any penalty. This is already covered by new paragraph 5B. There is nothing to stop the valuation officer waiving or remitting the penalty if a settlement has been reached even if the person has started appeal proceedings. The appeal would then be withdrawn and the matter would be over. So the amendment is not needed, it is already covered. I hope that with those reassurances the amendments will be withdrawn.

5.45 p.m.

Baroness Hanham: I thank the Minister for that reply. However, I wish to return to two points. As I understand it, subparagraph (2)(a) removes the rider that the information sought must be in the possession or control of the person being contacted. So that requirement on the part of the valuation tribunal has been taken out. Therefore, I cannot see what the problem is with accepting Amendment No. 148 under those circumstances. The relevant words have been taken out and no longer constitute part of the law. When I spoke to the amendment, I accepted that the period of 56 days would already have passed. However, I suggested, for a number of very good reasons, that a period of 21 days might not be sufficient and that 28 days would be more appropriate. The problem is whether the person has the information, or can possibly be expected to have it, within their knowledge or possession before the fines procedure begins to apply.

On the question of valuation tribunals being able to decide whether to waive money after an appeal has been won, that seems to me very strange. I do not know whether I can think of any other situation where, if you won an appeal, you would not get your money back. Even Transport for London can eventually be shamed into reimbursing a parking fine if it was not justified in the first place and you win your case on appeal. There must be a rationale for ensuring that that is the case. I accept the point about Amendment No. 151. If the matter is already covered, I shall not pursue it.

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