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Baroness Hamwee: Keep going!

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I shall attempt to extemporise some more. One point that needs to be made is that the amendment could have inadvertently prohibited the scheme encouraging business growth. Of course none of us would want to see that happen.

I can also advise the noble Baroness—I need to be clear on this—that all authorities with a diminishing rate base will benefit from this provision. I think that that was partly what the noble Baroness was after, so that saves a whole letter and the machinery of government will whirr that much more efficiently as a result. I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I am delighted that the Minister's advisers' brains whirr more quickly than do ours. That probably answers exactly what I was asking about, which concerned where the rateable base was decreasing, as opposed to rising—where the local retention of rates will be applicable.

I shall read what the Minister said in reply and ensure that it is entirely appropriate, but I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 73 [Provision of information]:

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 63:

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 64, 65 and 66. The amendments deal with the provision of information to the valuation officer regarding discretion on levying penalties. Each year, valuation officers request more than 250,000 rent return forms from ratepayers. In the five-yearly revaluation exercises, that quantity increases even further as valuation officers seek to assess the correct rateable value of the 1.7 million non-domestic ratepayers in England and Wales.

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Until the Bill, a criminal penalty for non-provision of information required by the Valuation Office Agency has existed. That is now to be replaced by a civil penalty system, which is a welcome but slightly overdue move. The former system had not been revoked by the Valuation Office Agency, due to its draconian and entirely inappropriate criminal procedure. Welcome though the new civil system is, it introduces a large degree of discretion for valuation officers. That should be matched by appropriate guidance set by the Secretary of State, which would reassure ratepayers and professional advisers about the approach to be taken by valuation officers to levying penalties for non-return of requested information.

In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, suggested that as there had been little problem with the old system of requesting information, there would be little difficulty with the new system. However, it will now be more tempting for valuation officers to use the easier system of civil penalties. That may occur where the ratepayer has missed deadlines or requests for information for plausible reasons. The amendments are therefore intended to prompt the Minister to provide ratepayers and professional advisers with the reassurance that they seek with respect to the new civil penalty path that will be open to valuation officers once the Bill is approved by Parliament and brought into force. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, Clause 73 amends the 1988 Act by removing the criminal penalty for non-return of information requested by the Valuation Office Agency. The noble Baroness clearly understands that we have shifted to a civil penalty; I welcome her support for that. If a greater number of returns are received and are fully completed, the resultant rateable values on a revaluation are likely to be more accurate. We believe that that will benefit all.

Currently, occupiers are required to return information within 21 days or risk criminal prosecution. That is felt to be an inappropriate sanction and one that has been often ignored. Historically, few properly completed forms were returned. The clause changes the sanction from a criminal to a civil penalty and—helpfully, I think—extends the time allowed. We hope that that will ensure a better response rate and provide a more appropriate penalty.

The amendment would oblige the valuation tribunal to remit any penalty if the appellant is successful in an appeal explaining his reason for not supplying the information. That provision is contained in paragraph 5C(6). We must leave the discretion with the valuation tribunal. If the circumstances of a case are such that the tribunal feels that penalties ought to be waived or reduced, it can do so. It ought to have discretion as to how it acts. It should not be under a duty to waive or reduce penalties in all cases. For example, there may be circumstances in which a tribunal decides that, although there was a reasonable excuse, it did not

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cover the whole time before the information was provided to the Valuation Office and that the penalty should be charged.

Amendment No. 64 gives the valuation officer power to mitigate or appeal any penalty. That is already covered by paragraph 5B. There is nothing to stop a valuation officer waiving or remitting a penalty if a settlement has been reached, even if the person has started appeal proceedings already. The appeal can be withdrawn, and the matter would be completed. The amendment is not necessary, as the matter is already covered.

Amendment No. 65 would remove the power to increase or decrease the amount of the penalty. It is obvious that over time it might be necessary to review the penalty. We have already amended the Bill in line with the recommendation of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which the noble Baroness believes is a wonderful institution—we all believe that. It provides sufficient safeguards when introducing any changes to the penalty while enabling the penalty to be reviewed in the light of changing circumstances. We have covered that very much as the noble Baroness seeks.

Amendment No. 66 would introduce legislation to ensure that any notice must comply with guidance published after formal consultation. That would effectively make guidance statutory. We think that it is not necessary. The Valuation Office Agency will seek to apply a consistent approach to the implementation of the new provisions across all its offices. It is currently in discussion with interested parties on the guidance that it will use. It is hoped that those discussions will be concluded soon, once the legislation is in place. Then the agency will publish the guidance on its website, in accordance with normal practice. The guidance will be transparent, visible and accessible by anyone who wishes to find out how valuation officers implement the new provisions.

The points raised in the amendments are all covered. I hope that, as a result, the noble Baroness has greater confidence and reassurance.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that. It is helpful that the guidance will be published and that it will be accessible. The main purpose of the amendments was to ensure that there was guidance. I thank the Minister for his reassurance and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 64 to 66 not moved.]

Clause 76 [Second and empty homes: England]:

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 67:

    Page 40, line 38, at end insert—

"( ) No dwelling may be prescribed by the Secretary of State under subsection (1) above on the grounds that it is unoccupied if the owner or occupier is a sick or disabled person who is resident in a hospital, hospice, residential care home or nursing home.
( ) No discount may be removed from a mentally or physically disabled person under this section on the grounds that a dwelling is unoccupied if it is unoccupied by reason of long-term illness or infirmity."

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The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the amendment returns to a matter that we discussed briefly in Committee. It is a matter of considerable importance, so we wish to raise it again. The amendment relates to the discounts that local authorities can implement. A local authority should not be able to make any determination under this provision where a property is unoccupied simply because its owner or occupier is sick or disabled and resident in a hospital, hospice, residential care home or nursing home. We can all think of examples where people have had to make serious determinations about relatives living away from home and need time to consider the matter. We propose that, while an owner or occupier is in an establishment or sick, they should not be subject to determination under these provisions.

Equally, in the second part of the amendment, we propose that, on grounds of long-term illness or infirmity, there should be no determination in the case where someone is living away from home or in a hospital because they are physically or mentally disabled. The aim of the amendment is to ensure that a decent amount of time is given to people who must make decisions on behalf of others about such matters, including, perhaps, whether a house should be sold. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I hope that I can satisfy the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, which are legitimate but complicated points relating to local government finance.

Clause 76 inserts a new Section 11A into the Local Government Finance Act 1992 to allow a billing authority to reduce or end the 50 per cent council tax discount for classes of unoccupied dwellings prescribed in regulations. Amendment No. 67 appears to be an attempt to prevent the nationally set second homes and long-term empty homes discounts being charged in relation to property left unoccupied due to the long-term illness or infirmity of the owner or person who would otherwise have occupied it, or that person's residence in a hospital, hospice, residential care home or nursing home where he is sick or disabled.

The amendment is unnecessary and partly unhelpful. When a dwelling is left unoccupied because the owner or tenant who previously lived there now has his sole or main residence in a hospital, care home, independent hospital or hostel, or in another place for the purpose of receiving personal care required by him for a number of specified reasons, including disablement and illness, such a dwelling is exempt from council tax under either class E or class I of the Council Tax (Exempt Dwellings) Order 1992. There is no 50 per cent discount to remove in such cases because no council tax is actually payable.

The powers conferred by Clause 76 to allow authorities to reduce or remove the 50 per cent discount are irrelevant when the dwelling is exempt and not currently subject to the 50 per cent discount. However, a person may leave what was previously his

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sole main residence to live and receive care in a hospital, care home or similar establishment. If that person also owns a second home or another property which is a long-term empty home that was not previously their sole main residence, which is currently subject to a 50 per cent discount, we see no reason for special treatment of that second or long-term empty home.

As the law currently stands, no council tax discount is available on a person's property because the owner or occupier is in hospital for a short period. Our view is that if people are in hospital only for a short time, it is only fair that they continue to contribute to the cost of local services through the council tax on their home. As there is currently no 50 per cent discount in such cases, the powers in Clause 76 to reduce the 50 per cent discount are entirely irrelevant, as, with respect, is Amendment No. 67.

However, we are giving billing authorities the flexibility to introduce local discounts and exemptions in Clause 77. It would be open to individual billing authorities to choose to give a discount in individual cases of hardship. I do not think we should change the rules at a national level to automatically exclude from council tax liability people going into hospital for short periods regardless of their means.

It is good and bad, but we think that the amendment is unnecessary, even though it was put forward with the best of intentions. In the light of that explanation, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, will not press the amendment.

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