HL Deb 09 March 1993 vol 543 cc913-5

Lord Eatwell asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps have been taken to expedite appeals against council tax banding.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Strathclyde)

My Lords, the Government have made available an extra £36.2 million in 1993–94 to enable the Valuation Office Agency to deal with council tax appeals. The agency is setting in place systems to ensure that as many appeals as possible are dealt with at an early stage. The Government have also increased the staffing of valuation tribunals and provided them with new computer systems.

Lord Eatwell

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his reply and somewhat reassured. Will he confirm that in the case of successful appeals interest will be paid on sums returned?

Lord Strathclyde

No, my Lords.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, in the light of his remark about expediting appeals, is my noble friend aware that in Hampshire the authorities decline to consider appeals until April or even to make available appeal forms? Is that consistent with the Government's view that these matters should be dealt with speedily?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, my noble friend is right to point that out. However, the local authority is correct in that no discussion will take place on banding until after 1st April.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, has the Minster any information as to how many appeals are for upgrading and how many for downgrading of bands?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, it is certainly the case that in some parts of the country people are complaining that they are in too low a band rather than too high a band.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that one disturbing aspect is that when one inquires as to what the procedure is likely to be, the authorities do not seem to know what drill they will adopt? They do not know where one should be advised to go.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I am very sorry to hear that from my noble friend because the procedure is clear. In the first instance my noble friend should go to the listing officer and explain his problem. We expect most cases to be dealt with at that stage. Cases which are not dealt with after six months will be referred to the valuation tribunal.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, can the Minister say whether interest will be charged on sums underpaid?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, that is a matter for the local authority.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble Lord confident that valuation officers have sufficient staff to deal with inquiries? Is he aware (and if he is not I shall tell him) that I wrote to my valuation officer nine weeks ago trying to obtain information in order to decide whether I should appeal and I have still not received a reply? Indeed, it seems impossible to talk to the valuation officer at all.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, valuation tribunals currently employ about 250 staff. The Government's plans allow that total to rise to up to 400. It is our belief that we have provided enough money to ensure that valuation tribunals are fully financed.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, is it not the case that the Government have made plans to deal with up to 950,000 appeals, equivalent to 5 per cent. of domestic properties? And given that, as the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, pointed out, no appeal is possible until 1st April 1993, does that not mean that there will be considerable delay in the collection of council tax by local authorities? What provision are the Government making to compensate for that delay? How much do they believe local authorities will lose, and will the Government pay interest to the local authorities to make up for it?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, it is true that some appeals may take a long time. However, it should be remembered that we are dealing with appeals between different bands and in some cases there will not be a great deal of difference in monetary terms between the bands. All those who wish to appeal should pay the original assessment at the outset.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I have received many complaints in my former constituency to the effect that valuations are being made without any examination or survey of the property concerned? How can that be justified?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I venture to suggest that that is another question. However, if it would be helpful I can tell the noble Lord that the valuation process was undertaken most professionally and effectively and I believe that it will lead to a minimum number of appeals.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, I am sorry to intervene again. Is the noble Lord aware that it is not another question? My noble friend Lord Cledwyn raised a perfectly good point. That factor will affect appeals. Is it not the case that one of the assumptions which the revenue asked the estate agents who were undertaking the valuations to make was that the property was in a reasonable state of repair? How can the estate agent make such an assessment if he does not make a survey of the property? That is the point which my noble friend Lord Cledwyn made. Under those circumstances it is perfectly valid that the owner of the property should lodge an appeal.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the point is that the valuation process is taking place along broad bands. Therefore the general state of repair of individual properties will not necessarily count. But, of course, it will be up to individual property owners to appeal if they believe that their banding is wrong.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, the Minister states that the valuation was done professionally. I have a totally derelict, unimproved and uninhabitable farmhouse. Will he explain why that was placed in the top band?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, with a valuation exercise which covers the whole country, it may well be that one or two mistakes will be made. It is for that reason that we have instituted the effective appeals procedure.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, will the noble Lord inform the House how credible are his estimates of appeals? I know that thousands of people in London cannot find out which band their properties are in or what the council tax will be. We are only a few days away from the date when the council tax has to be paid. How does he know how many of those people will appeal?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, we have made an estimate of up to a million appeals. That is just a planning estimate. Of course we have no means of knowing exactly how many appeals there will be, but we believe that the figure is about right.

Lord Eatwell

My Lords, the Minister has made clear that the Government have ordained that payments must be made before an appeal can be made. Given that a successful appeal would indicate that the Government had been in error, is it not reasonable that interest should be paid on the forced loan which the Government have extracted from the public?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, it may be reasonable, but bureaucratically it would be difficult to implement. The amounts of money involved would be small.

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