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The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving the amendment I shall speak to amendments up to and including Amendment No. 253. I apologise to the House that there is a certain amount to be raised under this group of amendments and, although I appreciate the time, I do not want to abbreviate my notes too much.
These provisions relate to the Valuation Tribunal Service for England. I should declare an interest, which at the last stage I did not know that I had: the president of the Council of Valuation Tribunal Members, His Honour Judge Ian Morris, is a personal friend. I did not know that he was the president until I got home after the debate in Committee to find a message on my answer phone from him telling me that.
I shall speak to the five amendments individually, but the nub of it is the matter of judicial independencein other words, that the new structure and the powers of the Valuation Tribunal Service must not compromise judicial matters. When we looked at the provisions in July, the Minister told the Committee that the purpose of the Valuation Tribunal Service is,
I am not sure where independent operation comes from. One would, of course, expect independence from the Government but independent means different things to different people and the concern here is judicial independence.
The statutory functions of providing staff, accommodation and so on to tribunals and giving general advice to members of the public and to tribunal members give rise to concern centring on the advisory function. The Minister explained that the VTS board is appointed under the rules of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. I shall give her a few minutes to think about this. I mentioned it outside the Chamber. I understand that some, if not all, of the concerns could be met if the person to be appointed president had the appropriate qualification and experience to sustain judicial independence and to give advice on law and procedures to members. The qualification required would be similar to that for a recorder or a circuit judge.
In Committee the Minister said that a national president would strengthen judicial independence. I suspect that this would be the case only if that president had judicial qualification and experience. The concern about the need for judicial separation is such that about 10 days ago, 35 of 44 presidents presentthat is, presidents of the current local tribunals, of whom there are 54 in totalsigned a motion to be debated at a meeting in November, which states:
That this meeting of Presidents of Valuation Tribunals considers that the proposed President of the new Valuation Tribunal for England must have the legal qualifications, judicial
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I understand that this motion was signed after suggestions to the conference from members of the VTS board that the president of the Valuation Tribunal for England could conform to the existing structure of lay membership. I believe that the level of support, which includes two presidents who have not joined the council, is evidence that the vast majority of presidents are not satisfied that existing arrangements sustain judicial independence.
Before todays debate I passed to the Minister 15 examples sent to me which suggest that the present VTS board structure does not sustain judicial independence. I shall not read them all out this evening, not least because I know that the Minister will have done so, but I shall mention a selection. For example, despite government decision following consultation on sustaining the judicial independence of valuation tribunals that provision be made so that valuation tribunals or their presidents should be able to meet locally and nationally, without the involvement of the VTS, to discuss and agree judicial matters, the VTS abolished that arrangement and has not provided for an alternative. There has been active obstruction of attempts by valuation tribunals to arrange meetings of their chairmen and/or members. Further, despite government decision that the content of member training should be under judicial control, the VTS abolished the structure recommended but has not agreed a replacement.
My final example is that the VTS has involved itself in matters that are regarded as being wholly judicial, such as member appraisal. I have also been told that the department has allowed and indeed encouraged the VTS to become involved in matters within the remit of the tribunals and outside the statutory remit of the VTS because of the presence on the board of a majority of Valuation Tribunal members. The then Minister said:
The constitutional model adopted, of incorporating service members as a majority of the Board has permitted the VTS to engage in those aspects of its agenda that have a bearing on wider judicial matters in full confidence that it is properly informed about judicial and service issues whilst fully respecting the concept of judicial independence.
Amendment No. 249 deals with appeals. Unless the matters dealt with here are exclusively within the remit of the president, the provision in the Bill does not meet the point. Amendment No. 250 concerns functions relating to an appeal that may be discharged by the clerk or other staff under regulations. The amendment would require the presidents consent, which the Minister
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Amendment Nos. 251 and 252 would retain the provision in the 2003 Act that the majority of the board are presidents or chairs of tribunals and the provision on disqualifying members of the tribunal other than the president. Amendment No. 253 is consequential.
This is not an attempt to sabotage the rearrangement of the service. The council of Valuation Tribunal members for England welcomes the concept of a single Valuation Tribunal for England. It agrees that a single president should help to sustain judicial independence, but only if the person appointed has the appropriate judicial background, qualifications and experience. It fears that, despite the selection of the president being in the hands of the Judicial Appointments Commission, there may be an attempt to remove judicial experience from the job specification. It believes that the presence of three other members of the tribunal on the VTS board creates unnecessary conflicts of interest and may well undermine the authority of the new president. The council, in summary, considers that the removal of the provision included the 2003 Actthat there should be a majority of serving Valuation Tribunal members on the board of the VTSis the most important of the suggested amendments to the Bill.
I repeat that an assurance that the person appointed as president would have the appropriate experience and qualifications to give advice on law and procedures to members, have the stature to represent the tribunal to the outside world and, most important, be able to sustain judicial independence would go some way towards meeting my concerns. I beg to move.
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, let me start where the noble Baroness concluded. I know that the council of VT members welcomes the concept of the single Valuation Tribunal. I do not think for a moment that she is sabotaging this; she is obviously expressing her serious concerns with the process. The most useful thing that I can do is bring her up to date with where we are on the post of the new president of the VTE. DCLG Ministers have recently agreed a draft job specification for the post of the new president of the VTE. It has been passed on to the Judicial Appointments Commission, which will run the recruitment campaign in due course under the Ministry of Justice. Final decisions on the specification will be for it. We have an open mind about whether the appointment should carry a requirement for previous judicial experience. It is perfectly possible that many, if not most, good and well qualified candidates are likely to bring that experience with them, but we do not see that as an absolute requirement that needs to be spelt out in legislation. It is worth bearing in mind that such a requirement would exclude almost all the membership of the current valuation tribunals from the field, since they are volunteer lay
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I do not have a huge amount to say that is new since Committee. On the amendments to Schedule 16, the VTE will have both express and implied powers. It will have power to determine those appeals which are within its jurisdiction. Consequently, it will have power to do anything that is necessary to fulfil that duty; but there is no need to make express provision for each and every facet of those implied powers in the Bill. The Government believe that it is important for the VTE president to have an express duty for the selection of VTE members who are to deal with any appeal, so that at least one senior member of the VTE is required to deal with an appeal. There is nothing to prevent the president making further procedural arrangements, including through guidance.
In relation to the discharge of VTE functions, I again reassure the noble Baroness that it is not the intention to usurp or obstruct the appellate functions of the tribunal. A power to delegate functions is not new; a similar power already exists in relation to the current valuation tribunals. It is simply about facilitating good administration.
The Governments view remains that requiring the consent of the president before functions can be discharged by the clerk will be unnecessarily bureaucratic and may even inhibit the purpose behind the power. In most cases, the Government expect the power to be used at the express wish of the president of the VTE, and the Government would consult the president of the VTE before exercising regulation-making powers, so consultation will be built in. There are three amendments to Schedule 17 which are linked and which seek to remove the requirement for the majority of members of the VTS board to be senior members of the VTE.
I have previously set out the reasons for the board composition and why the Government believe that it is important for this to be retained when the VTE is established. It ensures that the board has a good understanding of how tribunals function and the likely impact of any proposals being considered by the board. The president of the VTE would be a member of the VTS board by virtue of office, but to prohibit any other tribunal members from sitting on the board would deny the VTS board the crucial input from those people who are strongly involved in the day-to-day working of the VTE. Importantly, it would go against the views that the members of the valuation tribunals expressed when the founding legislation for the VTS was approved by this House and in the other place.
I hope that in the light of those explanations and what I said about the post of the president of the
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Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, the Minister said that the Government are consulting the Judicial Appointments Commission on the job specification or, possibly, the job descriptionwhich is not quite the same as the person specification, which is what I am concerned about. Can she confirm that there is consultation about the person specificationin other words, the qualifications and qualities requiredas well as the job description?
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, that being the case, I can, at any rate, be satisfied that the debate on this issue will not end tonight, as that consultation is ongoing. I am grateful to the noble Baroness and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
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