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Lord Hanningfield: I thank the Minister. On several of the amendments that we tabled in an attempt to improve the situation, he has commented that they would make difficulties for the billing authority. After we have finished debating these amendments, we must consider how we might make things simpler in the next stage of the Bill. We feel that our amendments might make the system fairer, and we may need to find ways in which it might be easier for the billing authority to implement our proposals, by using modern technology. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 163:

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"( ) A billing authority shall not make a determination under this section unless it has taken reasonable steps to ensure that households affected have been made aware of its intention."

The noble Lord said: Clause 76(6) requires an authority that has decided to disapply council tax discounts to publish a notice to that effect in a local newspaper. The next subsection says that, if it does not do that, it does not matter. The original determination will remain valid. I am unclear whether a local authority is under a duty to do it or not. I can only conclude that a local authority is under such a duty, but that it does not matter if the local authority does not comply. Is that right? It certainly seems very odd.

We also have concerns about the effectiveness of putting in a local paper a notice to the effect that discounts on occupied property are being disapplied. In many instances, that will prove a merely cosmetic measure that will not alert those affected to the decision. However, our major concern and the point of the amendment is that people should have the opportunity to make representations to the council before it takes a decision of this nature, which will have a direct impact on the level of local taxation.

In conclusion, we support local authorities having the power, and believe that good communication encourages public engagement in local democracy and ensures the accountability of local authorities to local communities. As long as the public is notified in advance of any intention to alter the council tax discounts, it is not necessary for the Government to be unduly prescriptive about the ways in which local authorities communicate with the electorate. The amendment would leave it to local authorities to determine how best to do that. We do not see that as an onerous addition to the duties already imposed in the Bill. I beg to move.

Baroness Maddock: I would be grateful if the Minister would give us some idea of the thinking behind subsection (7), which says that the determination is valid even when the local authority does not advertise it. There must be some reason for that, and I hope that the Minister can tell us what it is.

Lord Rooker: Amendment No. 163 would require a billing authority to take reasonable steps to inform all households affected by any proposal to reduce or remove council tax discounts. We recognise the importance of the decision to reduce or remove discounts on second homes or long-term empty property, which is why we have provided for this decision to be taken by a full council meeting. That is achieved by an amendment to Section 67 of the Local Government Finance Act 1992, in paragraph 49 of Schedule 6 to this Bill. We also provide for the billing authority to publish a notice in at least one newspaper circulating in the area. That is achieved by new Section 11 A(6) inserted by Clause 76.

What we are discussing is the minimum requirement. I would expect there to be a full local debate about the issues around changing the second homes or long-term empty property council tax discounts. If the second-home owners say that they did not know about the measure, they do not have much

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interest in the area in which they have their second home, do they? Think about it. People who are using those second homes will at least participate in the local community to the extent, if not of shopping there, of buying the local newspaper.

The provision is consistent with other parts of the Local Government Finance Act, including the current Welsh provisions. We do not want mass non-payment when there are minor technical breaches by an authority. Of course, the intention is that the advert should appear. The objective of the amendment is to spell out in the Bill that the billing authority has to search out every household affected. That is not a reasonable position in which to put local government. If an authority takes reasonable steps, the decision will have to be made at a full council meeting, not only by a sub-committee. With a minimum requirement of a newspaper advert, local debate would be generated. One sees headlines in local papers in areas where there are second homes. The second-home owner has a responsibility. I do not see why that responsibility should all be put on the local authority—that is, on the general council tax payer.

I hope that that is a reasonable explanation. The amendment is onerous in the extreme, and we are trying not to apply such measures to local authorities. We would not want minor technical breaches to cause difficulties. As I say, the issue would have to be taken up by the full council. I am not sure what other issues require in statute that the full council has to take decisions. That is there for really important decisions, and this is such an important decision and something of which second-home owners should be broadly aware.

6.45 p.m.

Baroness Hanham: The Minister needs a greater realisation of what goes on in council meetings and how much is actually reported. If the Minister is suggesting that every bit of every council meeting is reported faithfully by the local press, he is in cloud-cuckoo land. Half the time, the press does not turn up; nor do members of the public. The fact that something is decided in council will not necessarily ensure that it goes any further than the council chamber.

The decision would be taken in the course of debate on the new council tax regime for the following year, as something that would happen thereafter. As far as I am aware, every council issues a rates statement or council tax statement. The leader sends a letter to the ratepayers or council tax payers. There is a perfectly good mechanism by which the information can be disseminated without the council paying a penny more than it pays normally to make sure that it is available.

It cannot be an onerous responsibility but it is important to ensure that people are aware whether they will have to pay more. It is not up to the second home owner to ferret around trying to find out whether the situation has changed. Local papers are not brilliant. Often, there are no free papers—certainly in country areas. We can debate how people become aware of the information, but there is a responsibility

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on the local authority, if it is changing its terms of taxation, to make sure that the people affected by it know about it.

Lord Hanningfield: The Minister did not explain an odd thing in the Bill. New Section 11A(6) says:

    "A billing authority which makes a determination under this section shall publish a notice in at least one newspaper".

New Section 11A(7) says:

    "Failure to comply with subsection (6) above shall not affect the validity of the determination".

It is nonsense to have "shall" in subsection (6), if it is negated in subsection (7). Those are odd provisions, and the Minister did not answer that question. One moment, he said that the authority "shall" do it, and, the next moment, he said that it did not matter and would not affect the decision if it did not. No one will waste the money if it does not matter.

Lord Rooker: I did refer to it. Perhaps I did not go into sufficient detail. I made the point that we did not want mass non-payment, if there was some minor technical breach. The intention is that they shall comply.

I go back to what I said originally. I do not believe that second home owners are so stupid that they do not know what is on offer or what changes are being made. They have applied for the discount in the first place, and they have sufficient knowledge of the area in which they have the second home to decide that, if they are not using the services, they will not pay the full council tax. Not every second home owner takes that view. Many second home owners I know say, "No. I will pay the full council tax because there is a responsibility to do so where I have the home, even though I am not using all the services". There are people who take that view. It is incumbent on the others to take a bit of responsibility on themselves and not have everything done for them by the local authority.

I know that the reporting of local authorities varies. Heavens above, Parliament does not get reported these days, but I will not open up a new debate on that. Judging by the headlines that I see in papers in non-urban areas, there are many areas where the local press and the free press print the stuff that they get from local authorities virtually verbatim. I do not accept that people would be unaware.

The intention is that local authorities shall take reasonable steps to publicise the change. I suspect that the vast majority of local authorities will do that. There may be a minor technical breach for some reason—for example, the paper may not appear, or the free paper may not be delivered down a particular street that it used to get delivered in—but we cannot allow a situation in which the circulation of a free paper is changed because someone says that it was not delivered down their street and claims that he relies on it for all his information. That would be a minor technical breach, and we would not want people not to pay because of it. We must be reasonable about it.

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