HL Deb 02 February 1982 vol 426 cc1277-80

8.11 p.m.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (The Earl of Gowrie) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 17th December 1981 be approved.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I beg to move that the Rates Amendment (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 a draft of which was laid before the House on 17th December 1981 be now approved. The House will be relieved to hear that the order is short and uncomplicated. It sets out to do two things: to make possible the valuation and rating as a single hereditament, in suitable cases, of caravan sites or portions of such sites inclusive of parts separately occupied by caravanners and their caravans; and to enable the rating authority, in reckoning rate liability, to disregard minor valuation changes until the next rating year.

Northern Ireland rating law as it presently stands requires that the Valuation Office enter in the valuation list every property which can properly be deemed a hereditament within rating law. The qualifying criteria are precisely the same in all parts of the United Kingdom. It has been found over a period of years that many leisure caravans are attaining the status of hereditaments. The Valuation Office has a statutory duty to enter all such caravans in the valuation list and the rating authority to recover rates in respect of them. But the collection of rates from individual caravan owners whose permanent homes are widely dispersed throughout the country would be troublesome to the ratepayers and extremely difficult to administer by the rating authority.

Precisely similar difficulties in Great Britain led to the enactment of the Rating (Caravan Sites) Act 1976, and the present proposed provisions of Article 3 represent the extension to Northern Ireland of powers which have very satisfactorily operated in Great Britain since that time. The developments in leisure caravanning which necessitated the 1976 Act were somewhat slower to evolve in Northern Ireland and parallel legislation has not until now been necessary.

Article 4 of the new order represents the extension to Northern Ireland, in a form modified in the light of experience, of a change in the law brought into effect in England and Wales by Section 21 of the Local Government Act 1974. It has been found that a disproportionate amount of time and effort is expended by the rating authority in determining the effective dates of occupancy of minor alterations which results in small changes in rateable value. The proposed new power will enable the rating authority to ignore minor changes of £30 or less in the reckoning of rate liability until the next rating year. The £30 limit is the same as in Great Britain and can he varied by the department by order subject to affirmative resolution.

The form of the draft order published as a proposal for consultation also contained a provision whose effect would have been to discontinue the small discount allowed for prompt payment of domestic rates. The proposal attracted virtually universal opposition from Northern Ireland elected representatives in Parliament and the local authorities, as well as many private individuals. Because of this the Government decided to drop the proposal from the order as laid and to give the matter further thought in the light of the views and advice received.

The House will see that the general effect of the order is to bring Northern Ireland law in these matters into closer alignment with that of Great Britain, and by and large to confer on Northern Ireland ratepayers certain benefits which they do not at present enjoy. It will also result in somewhat more equitable distribution of the rate burden and make for a worthwhile gain in efficiency in the administering department. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the draft Rates Amendment (Northern Ireland) Order 1981, laid before the House on 17th December 1981, be approved.—(The Earl of Gowrie.)

Lord Blease

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for his explanation of this order. The House will know that the order was debated in another place last Tuesday, 26th January, and as the Minister will be aware of the matters that were raised during that debate it is not my intention to repeat them here this evening in this House.

I understand that some of the issues concerning caravan ownership and the operation and control of caravan sites in Northern Ireland are to be investigated by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. But I believe that these issues are outside the immediate scope of this order. However, there is a considerable amount of evidence that some caravan site operators are enforcing unscrupulous rents and conditions on leisure caravanners. Some of these site factors have given rise to concern and dissatisfaction among caravan owners, and I understand that these matters have been the subject of correspondence between the Northern Ireland Caravan Owners' Association and Northern Ireland Government departments.

Whatever may be the present contractual relationships between the site operators and the caravan owners, it is being claimed that this order will introduce further cause for disputes and grievances unless suitable measures are taken and assurances given about the fairness of the rates levied and about the rate appeals machinery.

I should he grateful to the Minister if he could clarify some matters arising from the order which may help to ease concern felt by many caravan owners and tenants. Before I put the points to the Minister, I feel that I should mention that, in a note which I have from the Northern Ireland Caravan Owners' Association, they indicate that they fully accept the obligation to pay rates that are equitably assessed and collected in a fair and reasonable manner. I should like to ask whether the Minister can indicate what will be the precise form of the machinery for appeals about site valuation assessments and about the possible unfair proportioning by the site operators of the site rate assessment on individual tenants. Will the individual caravan owners or a person renting a caravan have a right to request from the district valuation officer a separate rate assessment; and also the right to appeal direct to the district valuation officer? I am trying to assess whether the individual caravan owner has some right of appeal direct to the district valuation officer. That is the concern of many persons who rent and who own caravans on particular sites.

Will the order allow for some form of administrative action to permit an appeal by an individual tenant to be based on a time limit of not less than 21 days from the date of receipt of a rate demand note from the site operator? As I understand it, the site operator will duly furnish the person on the site with a rate demand and in respect of appeals I think that it will be necessary for some time limit to be laid down.

Finally, can the Minister indicate whether the present legislation or the proposed order would permit some form of administrative action to provide a code of practice to be produced by the department to regulate caravan sites? With those general remarks I should like to say that we support the order from this side of the House.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Blease, for his general support and also for his kindness in giving me prior notice of some of the issues that he wished to raise. The noble Lord and the House will appreciate that, of course, this rather limited order dealing with rating issues is not really concerned with wider problems which may be suffered by people who own caravans, and Northern Ireland is an excellent place in which to own a caravan. There are many fine sites and, broadly, we all enjoy facilities without much difficulty. But obviously in any leisure pursuit which many people follow occasionally there are problems.

Therefore, I do not really want to get drawn into a debate on caravan issues generally. But as this is perhaps a chance to reassure many people who enjoy facilities for caravanning in the Province, concerning the question of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission's reference I am able to say that I have no doubt whatever that the commission's investigations will be wide-ranging, as they usually are. I can repeat here the undertaking which my honourable friend gave in another place, that the Government will of course consult with representatives of caravanners when we consider the conclusions of the commission.

Perhaps I may jump from that general point to the last question which the noble Lord, Lord Blease, asked me. The question of a code of practice for caravan sites is something which could be considered at that time, but not, of course, in connection with an order about rates.

To return to rates, the noble Lord asked me a question about separate assessment. Yes, that is provided for in Article 3 of the order. The noble Lord asked me to indicate what might be the precise machinery for appeals about site rate valuation assessments, and he also asked about the apportioning of site assessments, fairly on individual tenants. Individual caravanners have the same right of appeal against an assessment of net annual value as any other person who is rated, and in the end they may, of course, ask to be individually assessed if they are not content to have their caravans included in this aggregate assessment. But we hope, for reasons of economy and administrative economy, that people will use that right sparingly and responsibly.

I was asked whether the order would allow for administrative action for an appeal by an individual tenant on a time limit of not less than 21 days on receipt of a notification of rates for the site operator. As I have just said, an individual may make application at any time for revision of an assessment and there is no time limit within which that application might be made by him. If he is aggrieved by the outcome of any such application, he can of course invoke the right of appeal, and he invokes this to the Commissioner of Valuation. Yet again, if he remains dissatisfied after receipt of the commissioner's decision, he has a further right of appeal, to the Lands Tribunal for Northern Ireland. So it seems to me that the possession of a rateable caravan on a site there is very well protected in respect of anything that might go wrong. I beg to move.

On Question, Motion agreed to.