HL Deb 13 March 1997 vol 579 cc490-1

7.30 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department for the Environment (Earl Ferrers): rose to move, That the draft orders and regulations laid before the House on 11th and 12th February he approved [12th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Earl said: My Lords, all three of the instruments, are about non-domestic rates. I should like first to explain the effect of the two British Gas orders. British Gas is one of a small group of industries whose rateable values are not assessed by the valuation officer, but instead are prescribed by the Secretary of State.

One of the drawbacks of prescribing rateable values is that they cannot be easily amended if the amount of property, which is occupied or owned by the ratepayer, changes. In the case of British Gas, the property has changed—and changed significantly.

Since 1995, British Gas has substantially reduced its property holdings by demolishing or disposing of a lot of its surplus premises. For example, many of the large gaswork sites, which have historically been included in the prescribed rateable value—such as, for example, the Greenwich Millennium site—have been cleared of all buildings or have been sold outright.

We estimate that the value of property such as this is almost £95 million in England and Wales and £6 million in Scotland. If British Gas were assessed in the normal way by valuation officers, these property changes would automatically have been reflected in their rateable value. Because, though, their value is prescribed by the Secretary of State, we need to bring forward these orders to achieve the same results.

The third set of regulations are required to correct an oversight in regulations which I brought to the House before Christmas. I apologise to the House for that.

These regulations concern England and Wales only. When we debated the original Non-Domestic Rating (Chargeable Amounts for Small Hereditament) Regulations in December, I explained that they were introduced in order to give effect to the Chancellor's Budget announcement that the rates bills of small properties should be frozen in 1997/98 at their 1996/97 levels.

As the regulations stand at present, though, small empty property will not benefit from the Chancellor's generosity—their bills will rise in line with inflation by about 2 per cent. That is not what the Chancellor intended nor is it, in fact, what we had intended when we made the regulations before Christmas. The regulations before us today will therefore extend the protection to all empty property, as from 1st April this year. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft orders and regulations laid before the House on 11th and 12th February be approved [12th Report from the Joint Committee].[Earl Ferrers.]

On Question, Motion agreed to.