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Lord Rooker: As regards the second point the noble Baroness made, I do not have any examples but in ordinary cases before the courts if people win they are not necessarily awarded their costs, even on appeal.

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There is no general presumption in that regard. In my former constituency a case arose that I raised in an Adjournment debate in the House a long time ago. The person concerned had served a term of imprisonment and, after his release, the appeal was heard and the conviction was quashed. A police officer was involved, believe it or not. One could not turn back the clock. Try to get compensation for that! But it is normally the case that even if you win an appeal, you are not necessarily awarded your costs. That will depend on the circumstances of the case. We have to leave that to the discretion of the tribunal.

However, if information is statutorily requested by an authority of someone and that person is not in possession of the information, he or she should tell the authority that he does not have the information. However, if the person does not tell the relevant authority that he or she does not have the information, he is obstructing the work of the valuation office. If the person does not have the relevant information, he or she should simply tell the valuation officer that he does not have it. The failure to inform the valuation officer that one does not have the information constitutes an obstruction. The worry about the wording of subparagraph (2)(a) that the noble Baroness mentioned is irrelevant. As I say, if a person does not have the information that is requested of him or her, he should simply say that he does not have it. What he should not do is ignore the request for information.

Baroness Hanham: I sought a period of 28 days rather than 21 in order to provide the information. However, I hear what the Minister says. I do not wish to pursue the matter further at this stage. However, I am perplexed by what the Minister said about the repayment of a penalty. If one has been fined a penalty, I believe that that should be reimbursed if it is discovered on appeal that it is not justified. I am not talking about costs. Costs could constitute an astronomical sum if counsel have been briefed. I referred to a penalty. The Bill states that,


    "the valuation tribunal may mitigate or remit any penalty".

We sought to change the word "may" in that sentence to "shall".

Lord Rooker: If the noble Baroness wishes to provide any examples of where people have been treated unfairly as regards the matter that we are discussing, I shall certainly consider them before Report. I am not saying that I shall take away the amendment and reconsider it but I shall need to be given some facts and details of unfair treatment to respond to the matter if it is raised at the next stage of the Bill. I do not have any examples of that. As I say, I am more than prepared to consider such examples, but the matter must be based on facts, not what we consider might be unfair. The present system seems to work all right. I am not aware of massive problems with the present system. If we are going to change it, we would have to have a damned good reason for doing so.

Baroness Hanham: I thank the Minister for that reply. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Earl of Caithness moved Amendment No. 149:


    Page 37, line 40, at end insert—


"(6) For the purposes of sub-paragraph (2) above—
(a) where a valuation officer serves a notice under this section, this will comply with guidance to be published by the Secretary of State for the purposes of this section; and
(b) before publishing any such guidance, the Secretary of State shall consult with such persons or organisations as appear to him to be relevant."

The noble Earl said: This amendment follows on to some extent from the discussion that we have just had. The Minister explained the reasons for Clause 73. By and large, I support the Government in what they are proposing. I am not a great one for increasing bureaucracy but I believe that there is a case here for a little more bureaucracy in the form of guidelines. The Government are giving valuation officers quite a degree of discretion and powers to remit and to levy additional fines. I believe that that ought to be governed by a code of practice or a statement from the Minister. That is what my amendment seeks to achieve. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I understand why the noble Earl tabled the amendment which follows on from the previous debate. We believe that the scheme works well as it is. Perhaps the noble Earl is aware of problems, difficulties and complaints than we are. The amendment seeks to ensure that new guidance is introduced when the regulations are produced. The clause replaces a criminal penalty with a civil penalty. The scheme should operate largely as it operates at present. I cannot see any major differences.

There is already a clear legal framework and set of requirements with regard to serving a notice. If that is not done in accordance with proper practice, I am sure that any court would rule on behalf of the person on whom the notice is served. We do not believe that additional guidance on that process is required. No doubt the noble Earl may wish to make some further representations on that point on behalf of his profession, but the scheme works well as it is. As I say, we are replacing a criminal regime with a civil one. We believe that the scheme will continue to work well within that regime.

The Earl of Caithness: We all hope that the scheme will work well but it did not work under the criminal regime as no action was taken, as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said. What the Government are doing—I support that—is introducing a civil regime. However, you are giving valuation officers a degree of power and ability to remit and to levy additional penalties. I believe that guidance should be given on that. In a court situation, one has all the paraphernalia that goes with a court, but valuation officers do not have that. As there are about 1.6 million ratepayers out there, one needs to give some thought to how they might react to the decisions of a valuation officer. I hope that the noble Lord will reconsider the matter with his officials between now and Report as this is a small but important point. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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[Amendments Nos. 150 and 151 not moved.]

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 152:


    Page 38, leave out lines 36 to 39.

The noble Baroness said: I fear that there is a whole string of government amendments grouped with my Amendment No. 152.

This amendment is closely related to the previous debate. It once again brings up the point that occurs time and time again under the Bill that the Government are trying to take far-reaching powers to amend the law. At least in this case it is proposed that there should be an order-making power. But what it says on the face of the Bill is that the Secretary of State can change a penalty without any limit. So, in place of 700, he could potentially introduce 1,000, 7,000 or any figure above or between. Are the Government expecting some sudden surge of inflation that we do not know about?

I happen to think that the penalties in the Bill—exercised in the ways that I have described—are quite large enough and, indeed, onerous. It is difficult to imagine the need for further alteration. If there should be further alteration, it is difficult to see why that should not be done in the context of primary legislation.

We all know that a large increase in penalty could be included in a more general unamendable regulation. That would not be acceptable. I have studied Schedule 9 of the 1988 Act which is being replaced under the clause—I hope that the Minister will explain this matter—and find no comparable power. The Government should not have the power I am discussing without it being subject to scrutiny. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker: Before I reply to the amendment, I should like to take a little pop at the system in this House. I thought that I had obtained a written agreement, or an agreement between the usual channels, that when government amendments were grouped with Opposition amendments, the letter "G" or the word "Gov" would appear beside the relevant amendment, as occurs in another place. I know that it is a horrible habit to want to drag practices of the other House into the Lords, but I assure the Committee that it is much easier to interpret the Groupings List when the government amendments are identified. That happened the first week after I requested it, but it has not happened since. I turned over the page and thought, "Oh, my God, these are my amendments". I make that suggestion for my own but also other people's convenience. I do not refer to the Marshalled List but to the list that is also available to the public. I believe that if my suggestion were followed, it would be easier to find one's way through the Bill. It was agreed that my suggestion would be adopted. Everyone thought that such a measure would be helpful even though it comprised a nasty practice from another place.

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In due course I shall move the string of amendments in my name. As I say, Clause 73 amends the 1988 Act by replacing the criminal penalty for the non-return of information requested by the Valuation Office Agency with a civil penalty.

The main amendment, Amendment No. 228, makes any increase or decrease in the level of the penalty subject to affirmative resolution in both Houses of Parliament in accordance with the recommendation of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee of your Lordships' House. All the other amendments are purely consequential and I do not propose to speak to them.

Amendment No. 152, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, removes the power to increase or decrease the amount of the penalty. It is obvious that over time it might be necessary to review the penalty. We believe that making any increase or decrease in the level of the penalty subject to affirmative resolution of both Houses is sufficient safeguard, while enabling the penalty to be reviewed in the light of changing circumstances. I believe that that is right and proper. It should not be for a Select Committee of this House to come up with such a recommendation. Frankly, it should have been in the Bill in the first place that any change to such penalties should be by affirmative resolution. Nevertheless, the committee has an important role to play.

I hope that with those assurances the noble Baroness will not press her amendment, that I have answered the specific question she asked and that she is satisfied with the reply.

6 p.m.

Baroness Hanham: My question related to why the Government should be able to increase a penalty without any limit. Is it fair that the Secretary of State can increase the penalty without further reference to Parliament?


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