HC Deb 10 March 2003 vol 401 cc40-5

'In the event of any conflict between the Valuation Tribunal Service and a valuation tribunal over what is an administrative matter within the jurisdiction of the former and what is a judicial or other matter within the jurisdiction of the latter, the Service, a valuation tribunal or its president may request the President of the Council on Tribunals to appoint a qualified person to arbitrate between them and he shall do so.'.—[Mr. Clifton-Brown.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

4.36 pm
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 2—Valuation tribunals: immunity— 'A member of a Valuation Tribunal or a clerk officiating at a tribunal hearing shall not be liable for anything done or omitted in the discharge or purported discharge of his functions as a tribunal member unless the act or omission is shown to have been in bad faith.'. Amendment No. 1, in clause 105, page 60, line 17, leave out 'of, and clerks to' and insert— 'and staff of (including clerks to)'.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

We have just 24 minutes in which to discuss four major groups of amendments. We must get to grips with timetable motions. The way in which the Government's business managers have handled the timetabling of the Bill is an utter disgrace to democratic debate in the House.

New clause 1 is relatively technical and relates to the Valuation Tribunal Service. Perhaps it will help if I explain how the system works. In contrast, the Valuation Office Agency is an Executive agency of the Inland Revenue. It has 85 offices spread throughout England and Wales and employs about 4,000 people. It operates under a framework document agreed with Treasury Ministers and reviewed every five years. The most recent review is published in its report of 13 September.

The main function of the VOA is to compile and maintain business rating and council tax valuation lists for England and Wales. The Valuation Tribunal Service is an independent judicial body that has the power to deal with appeals relating to non-domestic rating and council tax. There are 56 valuation tribunals in England. They are independent of the valuation officer and the billing authority. They usually sit with three members, although sometimes with two by agreement, and they have a clerk who is a paid employee of the tribunal and who advises on points of procedural law.

The valuation tribunals have been subjected to pressure on administrative grounds that sometimes infringes the conduct of their judicial activities. Those pressures come from central organisations, such as the Valuation Tribunal Service. Valuation tribunals want a means of protection against misuse of the word "administrative". It must be remembered that a valuation tribunal is a tax tribunal. It is understandable that an organisation such as the VOA may want procedural ways to make the collection of rates—nowadays a national tax—more efficient, but there is a difference between administrative ways and legal methods of collecting tax. But the VOA is also a party to almost all non-domestic rating cases heard by the valuation tribunals, which must act with judicial impartiality between the parties—the VOA and the taxpayers.

New clause 1 deals with the conflicts that may arise. An officer of the valuation tribunal management board, the existing precursor of the Valuation Tribunal Service, issued a valuation tribunal guidance note, No. 5, criticising a tribunal's reasons for its decision, which can be appealed against in the High Court and the Lands Tribunal, and advocating that valuation tribunals should not comment on the legislation that they were reviewing. The valuation tribunal, which consists of three people acting in a voluntary capacity, had said that by law it must decide against the appellant, but pointed out that the legislation unduly restricted appeals. By issuing that guidance, the Executive was purporting to tell the judiciary what it should say, and that has not been accepted since 1688. The guidance was ignored, but is still remembered.

New clause 1 states that, in the event of any conflict between the Valuation Tribunal Service and a valuation tribunal over what is an administrative matter within the jurisdiction of the former and what is a judicial or other matter within the jurisdiction of the latter, a qualified person will be appointed to arbitrate between them. It makes sense that there must be a satisfactory way of resolving conflicts between the different parts of the valuation system.

For administrative convenience, I shall deal with amendment No. 1 before new clause 2. The amendment corrects what appears to be a simple drafting error in the Bill. The word "clerk" has two meanings. It can mean the principal officer of a whole valuation tribunal, who should be a member of the IRRV—the Institute of Revenues, Rating and Valuation—which is the independent examination board and a professional body, not a trade union, but most professional clerks are not members. Some were in post before the professional exams came into existence and some did not bother to take them. That is being attended to, but in the meantime there is the old core. The number of such clerks is decreasing as tribunals are grouped for administrative purposes.

Then there is a second type of clerk. As I said, each hearing is heard by three voluntary tribunal members, and a clerk in the second sense. It may be a clerk in the first sense, but it is more usually a tribunal tabling officer qualified to be a clerk in the first sense, but who is not one. They may or may not be IRRV-qualified, but it is important that they should be so qualified. The management board will pay all the fees and allow time off for staff to encourage them to train. The wording in line 14, which includes other staff, is right, but the wording in line 17 leaves out other staff. That is clearly a drafting error. I hope that the Government will accede to our amendment No. 1, if not to new clauses 1 and 2.

New clause 2 relates to members' liability. Members of tribunals are protected by judicial immunity at common law. Section 29(1) of the Arbitration Act 1996 states: An arbitrator is not liable for anything done or omitted in the discharge or purported discharge of his functions as arbitrator unless the act or omission is shown to have been in bad faith. Clearly, if he has acted in bad faith, he should be liable. As that applies to an arbitrator, why does it not apply to the three members of a valuation tribunal? It is far better for that to be enshrined in statute than for it to be part of common law.

4.45 pm
Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble)

Can the hon. Gentleman give examples in which the new clause has been needed, and in which the system has not worked correctly, that would give reason to amend the law as he suggests?

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The matter was brought to our attention by the National Association of Valuation Tribunals. Although it has not supplied me with specific examples, there have no doubt been such examples, or it would not have urged me to press the matter. The hon. Gentleman, who has professional experience in this field, may have such examples, although I do not know whether he supports the new clause.

I was interrupted while reading out our new clause, which states: A member of a Valuation Tribunal or a clerk"— let us remember that some clerks can operate in a voluntary capacity, too— officiating at a tribunal hearing shall not be liable for anything done or omitted in the discharge or purported discharge of his functions as a tribunal member unless the act or omission is shown to have been in bad faith. As the House can see, the wording of the new clause does not reinvent the wheel but is simply lifted from the Arbitration Act 1996 as it applies to arbitrators, who often act in a voluntary capacity, although they are sometimes paid. There seems no reason at all why members of the valuation tribunal, who nearly always act in a voluntary capacity, should not have that immunity enshrined in statute rather than having to rely on immunity in common law. I await with interest what the Minister has to say.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton)

The Liberal Democrats support the new clauses and amendment tabled by Conservative Members. We, too, have been contacted by the National Association of Valuation Tribunals, which set out the reason behind its wish to see the error in clause 105(2)(a)(v) corrected, and the addition of the two new clauses: to sort out the conflicts between judicial and administrative matters, and to clarify once and for all the issue of immunity.

Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I obtained a further briefing from the association, including examples, which I could quote at length. It was produced by a learned counsel, Ronald Barham, and discusses at length why the association thinks that the changes are necessary. I will not quote it, however, as the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) has an important set of amendments to consider, as do we, and I do not want to take up the House's time further. I hope that the Minister will give the new clauses and the amendment fair wind.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Christopher Leslie)

Valuation tribunals are extremely important to the operation of council tax and business rates across the country. Part 8 of the Bill creates a new Valuation Tribunal Service, a non-departmental public body, to be the employer of all valuation tribunal staff and to improve customer service delivery. The new service will not, however, interfere with the judicial decision-making function of valuation tribunals. We believe that it is important to create the new body to strengthen the identity and capacity of valuation tribunals, spread best practice across them, and give them increased independence. We anticipate it corning into force from around April 2004, which is a significant move that is widely welcomed by local government and those in the Valuation Tribunal Service.

New clause 1 proposes a statutory duty for the president of the Council on Tribunals to, if asked, appoint somebody to arbitrate between the new Valuation Tribunal Service and valuation tribunals over what is or is not a judicial or administrative matter. The Valuation Tribunal Service, as we envisage it, would give advice only on procedure in relation to proceedings. Clause 105(2)(b) sets out that that will be the case. Disputes will, in our view, be so rare and minor that it would be entirely disproportionate to have a whole convoluted resolution mechanism, especially were it included in the Bill. In any case, valuation tribunals will be governed by the law and the Valuation Tribunal Service cannot force valuation tribunals to follow its advice.

The new burden that new clause I would place on the president of the Council on Tribunals is unnecessary and out of proportion, not least because, as far as I am aware, there is no such post; the Council on Tribunals has a chairman, currently Lord Newton of Braintree. However, to be helpful and conciliatory, the Government are considering drafting an agreed dispute resolution procedure in the new Valuation Tribunal Service management statement to address any points as they may arise. With that, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will see fit to withdraw new clause 1.

New clause 2 would ensure that members or clerks of valuation tribunals would not be liable for the reasonable consequences of their duties. There is no need for that new clause. Those who hold judicial office in this country have public policy immunity from acts of negligence in any case and similar protection already extends to members and clerks of valuation tribunals through the standard procedures governing the relationship between any non-departmental public body and sponsor Departments, and there are other protections as well.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

There may be protection at common law, but that is difficult to enforce. If the Minister accepts the principle, will he explain why immunity should not be enshrined in legislation?

Mr. Leslie

The reason is that there is no need to do so, as all judicial office holders already automatically have public policy immunity. It would be inconsistent for us to enshrine such an arrangement in the Bill, but not to do so for the other judicial posts that exist in our constitution. In any case, Departments usually and typically give an undertaking that they will indemnify members, as well as staff, of valuation tribunals against personal civil liability incurred in the execution of official functions provided that they have not acted irresponsibly. That gives adequate protection, so new clause 2 is not necessary.

Finally, amendment No. 1 would change clause 105(2)(a)(v), so that the list of functions and services provided by the Valuation Tribunal Service would not just include training for members of, and clerks to, tribunals, but instead explicitly allow training for members and staff of tribunals, including clerks to tribunals. Staff training is, of course, essential to the Valuation Tribunal Service in carrying out duties under clause 105 to secure the efficient and independent operation of valuation tribunals.

Clause 105(4) explicitly says that the Valuation Tribunal Service can do anything to facilitate those functions, so staff training is covered adequately by the wording of that clause. However, we want to be helpful today to expedite business, and I have looked carefully at amendment No. 1, tabled by the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown). Perhaps despite the eloquence of his argument, I believe that we must make it clear that staff are essential and important from the very outset and that there may be benefits in making it explicit that staff must be included in the training provision, so I am happy to say on this rare, but important occasion that the Government are happy to accept amendment No. 1.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

In view of what the Minister says about accepting amendment No. 1, will he look closely at amendment No. 63, tabled in my name, which I do not think we will have an opportunity to discuss, and perhaps return to me with similarly favourable comments?

Mr. Leslie

If we reach that stage, I will listen carefully to my hon. Friend's arguments.

I urge the hon. Member for Cotswold to withdraw new clause 1 and not to press new clause 2 for the reasons that I have given, but we can accept amendment No. 1.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to interrupt the debate, but I want to make an important point. The Foreign Secretary has just made a statement in which he based his case on a document entitled, "Unresolved Disarmament Issues: Iraq's Proscribed Weapons Programmes", which was produced by UNMOVIC. He said that copies of the document had been placed in the Library and he commended it to all hon. Members. He said that it set out in 173 pages of painstaking detail the terrible nature of Saddam's weapons.

I have just been to the Library and asked for a copy. I was told that I could not have a copy to take away but would have to sit and read all 173 pages in the Library. This is a very important document: it is the basis on which war may be declared within days. It is impossible for us to queue up and read it in the Library, but we do not have permission to take it away to our rooms. I would be grateful if you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, could have words with the Library or with the Foreign Office, so that copies are made available and so that, as the Foreign Secretary said, all hon. Members may have access to the document.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

Ministers are responsible for the statements that they make in the House and for making sure that what they say is carried out. The Library will have heard the right hon. Gentleman's point of order, as will the whole House. No doubt, the Library will take note of the situation. I hope that the problem will be remedied.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I assume that the Minister has concluded his remarks, but I hope that he will intervene to provide me with further clarification. He said that he would accept the principle of amendment No. 1. Does that mean that he will table an amendment in another place?

Mr. Leslie


Mr. Clifton-Brown

Before the Minister intervenes on that, will he clarify another matter? I believe that he inadvertently referred to clause 105(2)(a)(iv) instead of to sub-paragraph (v). Will he ensure that the provisions in sub-paragraphs (iv) and (v) are consistent? Clarification would be helpful.

Mr. Leslie

I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that I am happy to accept amendment No. 1. That means that we will support it despite his arguments. I realise that that is a great achievement for him.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I am grateful for small mercies. We had half a loaf in Committee; now we have a full loaf. Before I say anything else, I refer to the fact that I am a fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and declare certain property interests that may be affected by the Bill.

I apologise to the House for the incorrect drafting of new clause 1. There is no such person as the President of the Council on Tribunals". The new clause should have referred to the chairman and, had it done so, I would certainly have pressed it to a vote. Because it is incorrectly drafted, I shall not, but instead seek to press new clause 2. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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