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29 Jan 2003 : Column 985—continued

7.15 pm

The Paymaster General (Dawn Primarolo): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) on securing the Adjournment debate. Those of us who listened to his speech can sense the frustration that he and his constituents feel on this long-running issue. I have been provided with the explanation of what has happened in his area with the decisions of the listing officer, the role of the Valuation Office agency, the appeals to the tribunal and the results of the tribunal hearings. He referred to the outcome of the tribunal hearing, but it is not always in such hearings that bandings are confirmed.

In fairness to my hon. Friend and his constituents, I should, rather than adding to the explanation of how we reached this point, move directly to the outstanding issues. I shall explain what can be done to try, as he pleaded in his closing remarks, to come to a sensible conclusion so that a line can be drawn and we can move on to the revaluations that will commence in 2005.

My hon. Friend's constituents remain concerned about three matters. He mentioned a meeting that he had in January 2002 with the director of council tax, when the full range of difficulties involved in the case were rehearsed. It was agreed that the VOA would investigate the potential for providing compensation under its code of practice on mistakes, and compensation was subsequently made to occupiers where there had been an increase in banding on two separate occasions, which is viewed as an error in the code of practice. As he said, that relates to 10 properties, whereas residents believed that 28 complainants should receive compensation.

The other outstanding matters are as follows. The residents remain unhappy, first, with the bands applied to their bungalows; secondly, with the bands applied to similar properties nearby; and thirdly, with the conduct of the listing officer and VOA in dealing with the issues that were raised.

The valuation tribunal system has considered the first issue. The listing officer cannot make the sought alterations, even if he believed that to be the correct course of action. I understand the frustration of my hon. Friend and his constituents. The provisions allow for appeal against the banding of the dwelling to the valuation tribunal and from there, on a point of law, to the High Court. The residents have raised valuation issues that have been aired before the tribunal twice. The appeals system makes no provision for rehearing or appeal in the event of further or better information coming to light.

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The second issue is whether the other properties in Crestview drive and the nearby roads that are disputed by taxpayers are correctly banded. The residents and the listing officer have a difference of opinion on the valuation of the relevant properties. The valuation tribunal system has considered that. There is no statutory provision for resolving the residents' continuing dissatisfaction.

The VOA has already accepted the third issue. Apologies have been tendered locally and nationally. There is little to be gained from further apology, but the VOA none the less regrets the handling of the rebanding process and the earlier piecemeal reviews.

VOA policy on financial redress is to compensate people when a VOA error has caused them financial loss or worry and distress. The VOA believes that the bands in the Crestview drive locality are correct and in line with the valuation tribunal decisions. It also believes that the residents are correctly liable for payments based on the increased bands. However, it will consider making ex gratia payments for worry and distress. It has offered to make such payments, amounting to £650, to each of the residents whose dwellings have been subject to two band uplifts.

The VOA has reflected further on the matter. It understands, because of the handling of band alterations over several years, why many residents might have lost confidence in the agency's ability to achieve a correct and fair valuation list for the estate. It therefore appreciates that that has caused worry and distress to many residents as evidenced by the correspondence that was sent to the agency directly and through my hon. Friend.

The VOA has agreed that the handling errors had a significantly adverse effect on the personal lives of several residents, not only those who live in the dwellings that were the subject of the two separate band uplifts. For that reason, it has offered to make an exceptional ex gratia payment of £650 to each of the affected residents.

The VOA considers it appropriate to make the payments to those who have shown their anxiety by signing a document that expresses their wish to accept such a sum in compensation. My hon. Friend forwarded the document to the agency last year.

I hope that, having reflected on my comments, my hon. Friend will agree that the matter is closed, on the understandings that I have given the House. I hope that he will agree that, this evening, he, the local residents, the VOA and I can draw a line under the matter, and that we can move forward to the 2005 debate.

Notwithstanding the fact that the VOA itself has apologised, both locally and nationally, and that I know that the officers in the Department have done all that they possibly can within their statutory obligations to assist in this matter, I too apologise to my hon. Friend and his constituents.

I sincerely hope that we can now close this matter and move on.

Mr. Blizzard : May I say on behalf of my constituents that they will be extremely grateful for what my right hon. Friend has said tonight regarding the

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compensation? On their behalf, I thank her and the VOA for bringing this matter to what I now believe will be a conclusion.

Dawn Primarolo: I am very grateful for my hon. Friend's comments. His behaviour is a salutary lesson to

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all hon. Members that we should all persist in advancing a view on behalf of our constituents, whatever the circumstances. I am grateful for the gracious way in which he has responded to what I have said this evening. I therefore hope that the matter is now closed.

Question put and agreed to.

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