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10 Mar 2003 : Column 37—continued

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton): Rather than cherry-pick the bits of the reports that bolster what is, to many of us, a wholly unconvincing Government case, and further to the question by the Father of the House, will the Foreign Secretary now confirm that the forged evidence on uranium purchases that was submitted to the IAEA was provided by the United Kingdom? Will he also confirm, given his comments on anthrax as an alleged biological weapon in Iraq, that the anthrax was provided by the United States, as set out in Senator Riegle's report?

Mr. Straw: I have to say gently to my hon. Friend that I do not know quite where he is coming from, because the Iraqis had an illegal nuclear weapons programme that they did not initially disclose. Far from cherry-picking the report, I felt it my duty to make clear the burden of what Dr. el-Baradei was saying, which I duly did. For information on anthrax, my hon. Friend needs to read section a. in chapter IV, on biological clusters, of the lengthy report. There, set out in detail, he will see the charges against the Iraqi regime. Contrary to Iraq's assertions that no other facilities had been used to produce anthrax, UNSCOM found evidence of anthrax in two places. Details of that are given. The report says:

As far as I know, that anthrax did not come from the United States. However, even if it did, while it would have been wrong of the United States to supply it,

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it would have been even worse of Iraq, in complete defiance of the United Nations, to continue to hang on to it and to maintain facilities to produce it.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): How does the Foreign Secretary expect to get public support when a senior member of the Cabinet has described his policy as "reckless"?

Mr. Straw: We have had that question. [Hon. Members: "Answer."] The answer is that I would describe the policy that we are following as fully in accordance with United Nations policy, and right.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde): Is one of my right hon. Friend's grounds for optimism the repeated findings of opinion polls of ordinary Israeli citizens that show that 70 per cent. or more of them consistently support a two-state settlement, including the removal of most, if not all, of the settlements? Given that fact, should the United States not move forward with that process? Far from abandoning Israel, as some have claimed it would be doing—and which I do not want it to do—the United States will be ensuring that the will of ordinary Israeli citizens comes to pass.

Mr. Straw: I acknowledge what my hon. Friend says about Israeli public opinion. However, it also has to be said that Israeli public opinion was expressed in a recent general election, with a slightly different indication in the result. The United States Government have to take account of such indications of public opinion, as do we. What I know for sure is that establishing a democratic Palestinian Authority with sound public administration and good people running it—as we now have—and ensuring that such a move is properly reciprocated by the Israeli Government, are two steps that can lead towards peace in the occupied territories and the beginnings of democracy, and peace in Israel, which is in the interests of both communities.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that, in the event of the House of Commons having a vote on a decision to commit British troops to a war in the Gulf, the Government will treat that vote as an issue of confidence?

Mr. Straw: We will treat that vote as the issue laid down in the resolution.

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North): If the further resolution fails to obtain a majority, or is vetoed in the Security Council, how will my right hon. Friend, in the event that Britain then goes to war, demonstrate to the British public that we are taking the UN route? Is there not a danger that the British public will see that we are in favour of the UN when it suits us, and not when it does not?

Mr. Straw: I have already set out to the House our understanding of the legal base for any such action. I know that my hon. Friend has strong opinions on this issue, but if he goes through all the resolutions—from 1441 back to 687 and 678—he will see beyond peradventure why Iraq is in material breach, why the ceasefire provided for by those earlier 1991 resolutions

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is not operative, and why serious consequences may follow. I repeat that our preference is for a second resolution. That is what we are working to achieve.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): Is it not the case that UN resolution 1441 gives all the criteria and more against which to set the non-compliance of the Iraqi regime? That being the case, may I say to the Foreign Secretary that he should not be dissuaded by any outcome over a second resolution in the event that French diplomacy, for example, is successful? Should he not bear in mind the fact that President Mugabe was recently fêted and hosted by the French Government, and that the French Government are in danger of looking like a friend of murderous dictators?

Mr. Straw: I am very clear that the Government of France have no better opinion of the Iraqi regime than we do. They supported 1441 and said back in November that Iraq was in material breach of it. The issue between us is not whether it is a hateful regime, but how we deal with that hateful regime. I regret the position that the French Government have taken on the merits, because that is less likely, not more likely, to lead to a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

David Hamilton (Midlothian): May I push the Minister on the following point? Time and time again he refers to how we must support the United Nations, but if one, two or three permanent members reject and veto our position—or, indeed, if a majority are against us—will we still go ahead with America and the conflict in Iraq?

Mr. Straw: I spelled out the background to, and the legal base and details of, 1441. The Security Council of the United Nations is a political institution. We are working to achieve a second resolution. We have to reserve our position on what decisions we may take if we cannot achieve that, but we will not make those decisions unless and until we have to face them.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order.



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Local Government Bill

[2nd Allotted Day]

As amended in the Standing Committee, further considered.

New Clause 1

Valuation: Conflicts Between Judicial and Administrative Matters

'In the event of any conflict between the Valuation Tribunal Service and a valuation tribunal over what is an administrative matter within the jurisdiction of the former and what is a judicial or other matter within the jurisdiction of the latter, the Service, a valuation tribunal or its president may request the President of the Council on Tribunals to appoint a qualified person to arbitrate between them and he shall do so.'.—[Mr. Clifton-Brown.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

4.36 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker : With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 2—Valuation tribunals: immunity—

'A member of a Valuation Tribunal or a clerk officiating at a tribunal hearing shall not be liable for anything done or omitted in the discharge or purported discharge of his functions as a tribunal member unless the act or omission is shown to have been in bad faith.'.

Amendment No. 1, in clause 105, page 60, line 17, leave out 'of, and clerks to' and insert—

'and staff of (including clerks to)'.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: We have just 24 minutes in which to discuss four major groups of amendments. We must get to grips with timetable motions. The way in which the Government's business managers have handled the timetabling of the Bill is an utter disgrace to democratic debate in the House.

New clause 1 is relatively technical and relates to the Valuation Tribunal Service. Perhaps it will help if I explain how the system works. In contrast, the Valuation Office Agency is an Executive agency of the Inland Revenue. It has 85 offices spread throughout England and Wales and employs about 4,000 people. It operates under a framework document agreed with Treasury Ministers and reviewed every five years. The most recent review is published in its report of 13 September.

The main function of the VOA is to compile and maintain business rating and council tax valuation lists for England and Wales. The Valuation Tribunal Service is an independent judicial body that has the power to deal with appeals relating to non-domestic rating and council tax. There are 56 valuation tribunals in England. They are independent of the valuation officer and the billing authority. They usually sit with three members, although sometimes with two by agreement, and they have a clerk who is a paid employee of the tribunal and who advises on points of procedural law.

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The valuation tribunals have been subjected to pressure on administrative grounds that sometimes infringes the conduct of their judicial activities. Those pressures come from central organisations, such as the Valuation Tribunal Service. Valuation tribunals want a means of protection against misuse of the word "administrative". It must be remembered that a valuation tribunal is a tax tribunal. It is understandable that an organisation such as the VOA may want procedural ways to make the collection of rates—nowadays a national tax—more efficient, but there is a difference between administrative ways and legal methods of collecting tax. But the VOA is also a party to almost all non-domestic rating cases heard by the valuation tribunals, which must act with judicial impartiality between the parties—the VOA and the taxpayers.

New clause 1 deals with the conflicts that may arise. An officer of the valuation tribunal management board, the existing precursor of the Valuation Tribunal Service, issued a valuation tribunal guidance note, No. 5, criticising a tribunal's reasons for its decision, which can be appealed against in the High Court and the Lands Tribunal, and advocating that valuation tribunals should not comment on the legislation that they were reviewing. The valuation tribunal, which consists of three people acting in a voluntary capacity, had said that by law it must decide against the appellant, but pointed out that the legislation unduly restricted appeals. By issuing that guidance, the Executive was purporting to tell the judiciary what it should say, and that has not been accepted since 1688. The guidance was ignored, but is still remembered.

New clause 1 states that, in the event of any conflict between the Valuation Tribunal Service and a valuation tribunal over what is an administrative matter within the jurisdiction of the former and what is a judicial or other matter within the jurisdiction of the latter, a qualified person will be appointed to arbitrate between them. It makes sense that there must be a satisfactory way of resolving conflicts between the different parts of the valuation system.

For administrative convenience, I shall deal with amendment No. 1 before new clause 2. The amendment corrects what appears to be a simple drafting error in the Bill. The word "clerk" has two meanings. It can mean the principal officer of a whole valuation tribunal, who should be a member of the IRRV—the Institute of Revenues, Rating and Valuation—which is the independent examination board and a professional body, not a trade union, but most professional clerks are not members. Some were in post before the professional exams came into existence and some did not bother to take them. That is being attended to, but in the meantime there is the old core. The number of such clerks is decreasing as tribunals are grouped for administrative purposes.

Then there is a second type of clerk. As I said, each hearing is heard by three voluntary tribunal members, and a clerk in the second sense. It may be a clerk in the first sense, but it is more usually a tribunal tabling officer qualified to be a clerk in the first sense, but who is not one. They may or may not be IRRV-qualified, but it is important that they should be so qualified. The management board will pay all the fees and allow time off for staff to encourage them to train. The wording in

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line 14, which includes other staff, is right, but the wording in line 17 leaves out other staff. That is clearly a drafting error. I hope that the Government will accede to our amendment No. 1, if not to new clauses 1 and 2.

New clause 2 relates to members' liability. Members of tribunals are protected by judicial immunity at common law. Section 29(1) of the Arbitration Act 1996 states:

Clearly, if he has acted in bad faith, he should be liable. As that applies to an arbitrator, why does it not apply to the three members of a valuation tribunal? It is far better for that to be enshrined in statute than for it to be part of common law.

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