The Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government (Luke Hall)
I beg to move, That the Bill be read a Second time.
The Bill contains two halves: first, a measure that changes the valuation assumptions that are applied when making business rate determinations in the light of covid-19; and secondly, a measure that will provide for the disqualification of unfit directors of dissolved companies. I will start with the first measure before moving on to the second.
The pandemic has presented significant challenges for businesses in all sectors. Our response has been of a similarly unprecedented scale, with more than £280 billion provided throughout the pandemic to protect millions of jobs and businesses. In this year’s Budget, the Chancellor announced an extra £65 billion of support for 2020-21 and 2021-22. The support we have provided for businesses included 100% business rate relief for all eligible retail, hospitality, leisure and military properties for 2020-21, at a cost of £10 billion. Combined with those eligible for small business rate relief, this means that more than half of ratepayers in England will have paid no rates in 2020-21.
At this year’s Budget, we confirmed a further three-month extension to the full 100% business rate relief for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses, followed by a further nine-month period of relief at 66% subject to the cash cap, at a further cost of £6 billion. That takes the total level of support provided to businesses by Government through relief from business rates since the start of the pandemic to over £16 billion.
That is an important context for the Bill, because as well as helping businesses through the pandemic, it is also important that we support local government with the critical role it has in supporting our communities. A vital part of that is the income that it receives from business rates, so while it is necessary to provide rates relief to businesses, it is important that we do so in a way that is targeted and that ensures that those who can still contribute continue to pay this tax.
With that in mind, clause 1 is concerned with how rateable values should be assessed during the pandemic. A business rates bill is calculated by multiplying the rateable value of the property by the multiplier, or the tax rate, and then applying the reliefs. The rateable value of a property is therefore, broadly speaking, its annual rental value at a set valuation date, which in the current rating list is 1 April 2015. All rateable values should therefore reflect annual rental values at 1 April 2015. This provides a consistent tax base for all businesses.
Of course, it is necessary to update the tax base, which is done at regular revaluations undertaken by the Valuation Office Agency. The next revaluation was originally scheduled for 1 April 2021, based on values at 1 April 2019, but last year we took the step of postponing it to 1 April 2023 to ensure that it better reflected the impact of the pandemic; Parliament approved that change by passing the Non-Domestic Rating (Lists) Act 2021. The Act received cross-party support, for which we were extremely grateful.
Outside those general revaluations, a ratepayer can still submit a challenge to the VOA on their property’s rateable value between revaluations for a number of reasons, such as to correct factual errors or reflect a material change in circumstances. If not satisfied with the outcome of the challenge, the ratepayer can appeal the VOA’s decision to the valuation tribunal. It has been an established principle of the business rates system that a material change in circumstances challenge can be made on the basis of a physical change to a property or its locality. For example, a successful MCC challenge could be made following the partial demolition of a property, or significant roadworks near a property that might affect its value.
However, following the pandemic, the VOA received high numbers of MCC challenges seeking a reduction in rateable value to reflect the impact of the pandemic. Of course, the MCC legislation, as first set out in the Local Government Finance Act 1988, was not designed with covid-19 in mind, and the MCC system has never been used in response to economy-wide impacts or shocks. It has therefore become necessary to clarify, as clause 1 does, the treatment of covid-19 in assessing rateable values.
We have been clear that relying on the MCC system to help businesses that need further support in the light of the pandemic is not the right mechanism. It would mean significant taxpayer support going to businesses with properties such as offices, many of which might be able to operate normally throughout the pandemic, at a time when we have provided significant support to those most affected.
For example, the workforce of a consultancy firm based in central London that was previously entirely office-based is likely to have been working largely from home since the start of the pandemic, but the business itself may have continued to operate throughout. Under the business rates appeal regime, it could have argued that its office space had undergone a material change of circumstances due to the reduced occupancy.
If that business’s appeal had been successful, it would have been awarded a business rates reduction, but it would not have been right for it to have a reduced tax liability on that basis, given that it had not actually suffered an economic impact. Relying on the MCC system to support businesses would also mean resolving disputes through the courts, which could take years and create additional uncertainty both for businesses and for local government, which relies on income from business rates to deliver vital local services.
The Bill will therefore ensure that the coronavirus and the restrictions put in place in response to it cannot be used as the basis for a successful MCC challenge or appeal. It will ensure that changes to the physical state of a property can continue to be reflected in rateable values as and when they occur, irrespective of whether they are a result of the coronavirus, but that the general impact of the pandemic on the property market will not be reflected until the next revaluation in 2023. Until then, all rateable values will continue to be based on the property market as at 1 April 2015. This approach is supported by the Public Accounts Committee, which has welcomed the financial certainty that such a measure gives to councils.
Clause 1 applies in England. Business rates policy is fully devolved, so whether the same legislation is necessary in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland is a matter for their respective Governments, but we have been working closely with the devolved Administrations regarding the Bill. Although the law in Wales is similar to that in England, different legislation applies in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Of course, the impact of the coronavirus may have been different, so whether the devolved Administrations choose to follow the measures set out in clause 1 will depend on the individual circumstances and choices made in those countries.
We have also supported businesses. We have put £16 billion of support into business rates for the pandemic, and we have announced a relief worth an additional £1.5 billion for ratepayers impacted by the pandemic who have not been able to access business rate reliefs. These new reliefs will be administered by local authorities and will be distributed according to which sectors have suffered the most economically, rather than on the basis of temporary falls in property value. This will ensure that support is provided to businesses in England in the fastest and fairest way possible, and we will continue to work with and support councils and local government to enable ratepayers to apply for the new reliefs as soon as possible.
The second part of the Bill deals with the abuse of the process whereby companies are removed from the register and dissolved. The large majority of company directors are responsible, passionate about their businesses and diligent. They act as effective stewards of the companies to which they are appointed, and I pay tribute to the directors who make such a valuable contribution to our economy and who have fought so hard over the past year to ensure their company’s survival, preserving the jobs and livelihoods of so many within their business and beyond.
Unfortunately there are exceptions, and the business community and the wider public must be protected from those individuals who abuse the privilege of limited liability. Those directors who act recklessly, irresponsibly or even criminally should expect to have to answer for their conduct. That means expecting to have their conduct investigated and, if they had done wrong, facing the possibility of being disqualified from acting as a company director for up to 15 years, depending on the severity of their misconduct. Disqualification protects the public from the actions of those who have demonstrated they are unfit to hold the position of a director of a company, and acts as a deterrent to reckless or culpable behaviour.
Evidence to support disqualification action comes from the investigation of companies and the conduct of their directors. The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy may investigate live companies through the powers contained in the Companies Act 1985, and also the conduct of the directors of insolvent companies through similar powers in the Insolvency Act 1986 and the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986. If such investigations reveal evidence that a director’s conduct has fallen below the standards expected of someone in their position, a period of disqualification can be sought, either through a court application or through an under- taking given by the person to the Secretary of State. A period of disqualification protects the business community and the wider public by preventing the person from acting in the promotion, formation or management of a limited company. Breach of a disqualification order is a criminal offence, and an extremely serious matter.
As things stand, though, there is a loophole in the disqualification regime that some irresponsible directors have been able to exploit. It concerns the situation where a company has been dissolved without entering insolvency proceedings. Dissolution should not be used as an alternative to insolvency proceedings, but there is evidence that some directors have been using the process both as a way of fraudulently dodging the payment of company debts and of avoiding insolvency proceedings and the scrutiny of their behaviour that comes with that.