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British Gas plc (Rateable Values) (Amendment) Order 1997

British Gas plc (Rateable Values) (Scotland) Amendment Order 1997

Non-Domestic Rating (Chargeable Amounts for Small Hereditaments) Amendment Regulations 1997

7.30 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department for the Environment (Earl Ferrers): rose to move, That the draft orders and regulations laid before the House on 11th and 12th February be approved [12th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Earl said: My Lords, all three of the instruments, are about non-domestic rates. I should like first to explain the effect of the two British Gas orders.

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British Gas is one of a small group of industries whose rateable values are not assessed by the valuation officer, but instead are prescribed by the Secretary of State.

One of the drawbacks of prescribing rateable values is that they cannot be easily amended if the amount of property, which is occupied or owned by the ratepayer, changes. In the case of British Gas, the property has changed--and changed significantly.

Since 1995, British Gas has substantially reduced its property holdings by demolishing or disposing of a lot of its surplus premises. For example, many of the large gaswork sites, which have historically been included in the prescribed rateable value--such as, for example, the Greenwich Millennium site--have been cleared of all buildings or have been sold outright.

We estimate that the value of property such as this is almost £95 million in England and Wales and £6 million in Scotland. If British Gas were assessed in the normal way by valuation officers, these property changes would automatically have been reflected in their rateable value. Because, though, their value is prescribed by the Secretary of State, we need to bring forward these orders to achieve the same results.

The third set of regulations are required to correct an oversight in regulations which I brought to the House before Christmas. I apologise to the House for that.

These regulations concern England and Wales only. When we debated the original Non-Domestic Rating (Chargeable Amounts for Small Hereditament) Regulations in December, I explained that they were introduced in order to give effect to the Chancellor's Budget announcement that the rates bills of small properties should be frozen in 1997/98 at their 1996/97 levels.

As the regulations stand at present, though, small empty property will not benefit from the Chancellor's generosity--their bills will rise in line with inflation by about 2 per cent. That is not what the Chancellor intended nor is it, in fact, what we had intended when we made the regulations before Christmas. The regulations before us today will therefore extend the protection to all empty property, as from 1st April this year. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft orders and regulations laid before the House on 11th and 12th February be approved [12th Report from the Joint Committee].--[Earl Ferrers.]

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Deregulation (Provision of School Action Plans) Order 1997

7.33 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Lord Henley) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 17th February be approved [17th Report from the Deregulation Committee].

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The noble Lord said: My Lords, this draft order is a response to representations from some schools that there is at present an unreasonable burden on them following their statutory inspection. The School Inspections Act 1996 requires maintained schools in England and Wales, following their inspection, to prepare an action plan and distribute copies to the parents of all pupils at the school.

Action plans have often turned out in practice to be longer and more detailed than was originally envisaged. They may focus on the detailed internal management of the school. As a result, they are often not easily intelligible to parents. We agree that distribution of the full text is often an unnecessary burden on schools and that parents would be better served by a short summary informing them how the school proposes to address points made in the inspection report. This would replicate what already happens with inspection reports, where only a summary is sent automatically to parents.

The draft order therefore allows schools the option--I stress it must be an option--of distributing instead to each parent a summary of their action plan. Parents would still have the right to ask for a copy and schools would be obliged to inform parents of that right.

The proposed order would be made under the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994. The procedures laid down in that Act ensure that there is full public consultation on any proposal before it is brought forward as a draft order, and detailed scrutiny by Committees in both Houses thereafter. The House of Lords Delegated Powers Scrunity Committee and its counterpart in another place are satisfied that the proposal for the draft order meets the requirements of the 1994 Act and is appropriate to be made without amendment.

I commend this order to the House, so that it may be signed by my right honourable friends the Secretaries of State for Education and Employment and for Wales as soon as possible. It will come into effect 14 days thereafter. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 17th February be approved [17th Report from the Deregulation Committee].--(Lord Henley.)

Lord Morris of Castle Morris: My Lords, the House will be grateful to the Minister for explaining this order, which proposes a change that no one would describe as of an earth-shaking significance or magnitude. I would rate it as approximately .005 on the education Richter scale of importance.

Lord Byron, in his epic poem Don Juan, describes his contemporary, Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

    "explaining metaphysics to the nation, I wish he would explain his explanation".
If I may, I would presume to suggest to the Minister that his explanatory note to this simple order attracts the same request from me. Paragraph 2 of the explanatory note opens with the following sentence, which takes up 10 lines:

    "By virtue of section 17(1) of the 1996 Act the governing bodies of county, voluntary and maintained special schools which have delegated budgets and the governing bodies of grant-maintained and

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    grant-maintained special schools are required to prepare a statement of action which they propose to take in the light of either any report of an inspection of the school by a registered inspector under section 10 of that Act or a report of an inspection of the school by OFSTED (or in Wales, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector) which states that special measures are required in relation to the school".
It is not only unmemorable, it is ambiguous because of its lack of punctuation. It can mean two quite separate things. The order, by comparison, is a model of perspicuity.

However, all is not lost. We may also enjoy a second paper entitled "Explanatory Document", as distinct from "Explanatory Note", which is five and a half times as long as the order itself, and is supported by two annexes. The first of those lists the consultees, which at a conservative estimate total well over 200 persons and bodies; and the second divides them up into those who agree with the proposals, those who agree but propose amendments, and those who do not agree. That third group is made up of two members: the local education authorities in Lincolnshire and Pembrokeshire.

Paragraph 4 of the explanatory document indicates clearly the level of importance of what is proposed. Its title is "Expected costs savings", and it says:

    "Schools which distribute a summary instead of the full action plan will have lower reprographic and stationery costs. Any postage costs they incur may also be reduced. Stationery and reprographic costs quoted by respondents mostly vary between 2p - 5p per sheet. Buckinghamshire LEA note that for an average secondary school with a distribution of 800 a two-page summary in place of a typical ten page action plan would save the printing of some 6,400 A4 sheets. Schools with a number of significant key issues to address have longer action plans and therefore larger potential savings".
What that means is that the local LEA secondary school in Buckinghamshire, and presumably elsewhere, will be able, once every four or five years, to save approximately £224, which is the cost of 6,400 A.4 sheets being reprographically reproduced--every four years, £224!

I have three questions to ask. First, Setting aside all questions of the percentage of officials' time, heat, light, premises cost and so on, how much, what order of magnitude, did it cost to produce this tiny order and to run a massive consultation on it? Secondly, why was that obvious omission not seen and obviated in the preparation of the School Inspection Act 1996? Failure to foresee the implications of paragraph 57 of that Act has resulted in this wasteful expenditure.

Thirdly, why was the error not corrected simply by amending Schedule 8 to the Education Bill currently before this House? It could have been done for nothing. The School Inspection Act is already varied several times in that schedule. I assure the House that, if a suitable amendment had been proposed on school action plans, we on these Benches would not have prepared a midnight ambush against it. I should be grateful for the Minister's answers to those three questions.

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