HL Deb 10 October 1994 vol 557 cc704-6

3 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many appeals against banding decisions in respect of local government taxation are still outstanding, and when it is expected that they will be settled.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Viscount Ullswater)

My Lords, 368,574 of the initial appeals lodged in England and 24,807 in Wales were outstanding at the end of August; 31,562 initial appeals were outstanding in Scotland at the end of June, the latest date for which figures are available. Four out of five of the initial period appeals are expected to have been settled before the end of this year. The remaining appeals—those which are more complex and difficult to resolve—will be settled as soon as possible thereafter.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend satisfied that the long delay which has elapsed in respect of a very substantial number of appeals, as he has told us, is unfair to the taxpayer and casts a rather adverse reflection on the efficiency of the governmental system? Is he also aware of the fact that decisions are now apparently being taken by the officials concerned without visiting the premises involved?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I cannot agree with my noble friend—and nor can the National Audit Office, which I quoted on a previous occasion as stating: The completion of 21 million bandings to a 12 month deadline was, by any standards, a significant achievement… the banding of all properties was carried out to a level of accuracy that met acceptable professional standards".—[Official Report, 26/7/94; col. 593.] The original banding exercise relied largely on the existing records of the valuation office agency, with some external inspections of properties. I understand that more detailed inspections are clearly needed when bandings are appealed against. I believe that that is what is taking place now.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that at the end of March, according to figures announced in this House, there were 614,000 appeals outstanding; that in mid-June, according to figures announced in this House, there were 478,000 appeals still outstanding in England alone, before including Wales; and that, if my arithmetic is right, the noble Viscount is announcing that something like 392,000 appeals are still outstanding in England and Wales? I recognise that the noble Viscount is agreeing with his noble friend Lord Henley, who announced on 28th April in this House at Question Time that 80 per cent. would be cleared by the end of the year, but is it not the case that the council tax has to be paid in full and in advance before the appeal? Is not that unjust? Is not there some mechanism for making sure that the council tax is not paid by people who challenge their banding until such time as that banding is approved?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I repeat again that I believe that 80 per cent. of the initial appeals in England and Wales are expected to be settled by the end of 1994. There has been no announced target for Scotland, but, to judge from the limited information available, I believe that Scotland is likely to do better still. A tax of some sort or another will be payable by the taxpayer. We are talking probably about corrections from one middle band to another middle band, meaning a difference of about £60. I think that it is right that the taxpayer should make that sort of contribution.

Viscount Mountgarret

My Lords, if any rebates are made because taxpayers have paid in excess of the banding into which their property is eventually adjudged to fall, will such a repayment have interest attached?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, again that is an attractive proposition, but in a typical case the interest would amount to only £3 or £4 a year—that would be for a one-band reduction in the middle of the range. Clearly, it would not be worth setting up special machinery for such trivial amounts. I am sure that the noble Viscount would agree that that would be a waste of public money.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, is it not a novel doctrine of taxation that trivial amounts do not matter, because what is trivial to one man may be another man's decent pint of beer or dinner at the Savoy?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I agree that many sums which may be trivial to some are not trivial to others, but what is important is that we should not waste the taxpayers' money.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, will my noble friend answer my question as to why the official who determines the amount of the tax does not in many cases visit the premises concerned? Is that a sensible and fair way to assess a tax?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I think that I said that initially the original bandings relied largely on external inspections, but I indicated to my noble friend that, when it comes to a question of an appeal, the inside of a house would need to be considered. If my noble friend would like to bring to my attention any specific cases where that has not happened, I should be most grateful and shall take them up.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, instead of making the taxpayer pay the higher amount which he is challenging, would it not be more reasonable to allow him to pay the amount that he thinks is reasonable but then, if the assessment goes the other way, require him to produce the extra money? As the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, pointed out, although a relatively small sum, that additional money could be a large proportion of the disposable income of the people concerned.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I really feel that some £3 or £4 a year is not a particularly large sum for people to have to cope with. That is what the interest would amount to. I am sure that the noble Baroness would not want to go down that road or to find that, where other appeals have been made to increase the banding, people have to pay the charge for the higher band until the property has been seen.