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10 Mar 2003 : Column 42—continued

4.45 pm

Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble): Can the hon. Gentleman give examples in which the new clause has been needed, and in which the system has not worked correctly, that would give reason to amend the law as he suggests?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The matter was brought to our attention by the National Association of Valuation Tribunals. Although it has not supplied me with specific examples, there have no doubt been such examples, or it would not have urged me to press the matter. The hon. Gentleman, who has professional experience in this field, may have such examples, although I do not know whether he supports the new clause.

I was interrupted while reading out our new clause, which states:

let us remember that some clerks can operate in a voluntary capacity, too—

As the House can see, the wording of the new clause does not reinvent the wheel but is simply lifted from the Arbitration Act 1996 as it applies to arbitrators, who often act in a voluntary capacity, although they are sometimes paid. There seems no reason at all why members of the valuation tribunal, who nearly always act in a voluntary capacity, should not have that immunity enshrined in statute rather than having to rely on immunity in common law. I await with interest what the Minister has to say.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): The Liberal Democrats support the new clauses and amendment tabled by Conservative Members. We, too, have been contacted by the National Association of Valuation Tribunals, which set out the reason behind its wish to see the error in clause 105(2)(a)(v) corrected, and the addition of the two new clauses: to sort out the conflicts between judicial and administrative matters, and to clarify once and for all the issue of immunity.

Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I obtained a further briefing from the association, including examples, which I could quote at length. It was produced by a learned

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counsel, Ronald Barham, and discusses at length why the association thinks that the changes are necessary. I will not quote it, however, as the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) has an important set of amendments to consider, as do we, and I do not want to take up the House's time further. I hope that the Minister will give the new clauses and the amendment fair wind.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Christopher Leslie): Valuation tribunals are extremely important to the operation of council tax and business rates across the country. Part 8 of the Bill creates a new Valuation Tribunal Service, a non-departmental public body, to be the employer of all valuation tribunal staff and to improve customer service delivery. The new service will not, however, interfere with the judicial decision-making function of valuation tribunals. We believe that it is important to create the new body to strengthen the identity and capacity of valuation tribunals, spread best practice across them, and give them increased independence. We anticipate it coming into force from around April 2004, which is a significant move that is widely welcomed by local government and those in the Valuation Tribunal Service.

New clause 1 proposes a statutory duty for the president of the Council on Tribunals to, if asked, appoint somebody to arbitrate between the new Valuation Tribunal Service and valuation tribunals over what is or is not a judicial or administrative matter. The Valuation Tribunal Service, as we envisage it, would give advice only on procedure in relation to proceedings. Clause 105(2)(b) sets out that that will be the case. Disputes will, in our view, be so rare and minor that it would be entirely disproportionate to have a whole convoluted resolution mechanism, especially were it included in the Bill. In any case, valuation tribunals will be governed by the law and the Valuation Tribunal Service cannot force valuation tribunals to follow its advice.

The new burden that new clause 1 would place on the president of the Council on Tribunals is unnecessary and out of proportion, not least because, as far as I am aware, there is no such post; the Council on Tribunals has a chairman, currently Lord Newton of Braintree. However, to be helpful and conciliatory, the Government are considering drafting an agreed dispute resolution procedure in the new Valuation Tribunal Service management statement to address any points as they may arise. With that, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will see fit to withdraw new clause 1.

New clause 2 would ensure that members or clerks of valuation tribunals would not be liable for the reasonable consequences of their duties. There is no need for that new clause. Those who hold judicial office in this country have public policy immunity from acts of negligence in any case and similar protection already extends to members and clerks of valuation tribunals through the standard procedures governing the relationship between any non-departmental public body and sponsor Departments, and there are other protections as well.

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Mr. Clifton-Brown: There may be protection at common law, but that is difficult to enforce. If the Minister accepts the principle, will he explain why immunity should not be enshrined in legislation?

Mr. Leslie: The reason is that there is no need to do so, as all judicial office holders already automatically have public policy immunity. It would be inconsistent for us to enshrine such an arrangement in the Bill, but not to do so for the other judicial posts that exist in our constitution. In any case, Departments usually and typically give an undertaking that they will indemnify members, as well as staff, of valuation tribunals against personal civil liability incurred in the execution of official functions provided that they have not acted irresponsibly. That gives adequate protection, so new clause 2 is not necessary.

Finally, amendment No. 1 would change clause 105(2)(a)(v), so that the list of functions and services provided by the Valuation Tribunal Service would not just include training for members of, and clerks to, tribunals, but instead explicitly allow training for members and staff of tribunals, including clerks to tribunals. Staff training is, of course, essential to the Valuation Tribunal Service in carrying out duties under clause 105 to secure the efficient and independent operation of valuation tribunals.

Clause 105(4) explicitly says that the Valuation Tribunal Service can do anything to facilitate those functions, so staff training is covered adequately by the wording of that clause. However, we want to be helpful today to expedite business, and I have looked carefully at amendment No. 1, tabled by the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown). Perhaps despite the eloquence of his argument, I believe that we must make it clear that staff are essential and important from the very outset and that there may be benefits in making it explicit that staff must be included in the training provision, so I am happy to say on this rare, but important occasion that the Government are happy to accept amendment No. 1.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): In view of what the Minister says about accepting amendment No. 1, will he look closely at amendment No. 63, tabled in my name, which I do not think we will have an opportunity to discuss, and perhaps return to me with similarly favourable comments?

Mr. Leslie: If we reach that stage, I will listen carefully to my hon. Friend's arguments.

I urge the hon. Member for Cotswold to withdraw new clause 1 and not to press new clause 2 for the reasons that I have given, but we can accept amendment No. 1.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to interrupt the debate, but I want to make an important point. The Foreign Secretary has just made a statement in which he based his case on a document entitled, "Unresolved Disarmament Issues: Iraq's Proscribed Weapons Programmes", which was produced by UNMOVIC. He said that copies of the document had been placed in the Library and he commended it to all hon. Members. He said that it set out in 173 pages of painstaking detail the terrible nature of Saddam's weapons.

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I have just been to the Library and asked for a copy. I was told that I could not have a copy to take away but would have to sit and read all 173 pages in the Library. This is a very important document: it is the basis on which war may be declared within days. It is impossible for us to queue up and read it in the Library, but we do not have permission to take it away to our rooms. I would be grateful if you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, could have words with the Library or with the Foreign Office, so that copies are made available and so that, as the Foreign Secretary said, all hon. Members may have access to the document.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Ministers are responsible for the statements that they make in the House and for making sure that what they say is carried out. The Library will have heard the right hon. Gentleman's point of order, as will the whole House. No doubt, the Library will take note of the situation. I hope that the problem will be remedied.

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