The Earl of Lytton (CB)
My Lords, I will make a contribution from, as it were, the technical Benches on the matter of non-domestic rating. I thank the Minister—this will probably be the only time I can thank him publicly—for writing to me about matters he raised when we were at a previous stage of the Bill, in connection with the package of measures the Government have put in place to try to alleviate the problems facing businesses. I do not know whether the right term is “sidestep”, but I suspect he did not quite get the point I was making. Where a major manufacturer carries out works to meet an environmental target—for decarbonisation, for example—and in doing so wrecks something tantamount to a building or structure, or an item covered by the plant and machinery order, a proportion of its value automatically gets built in as an addition to the rateable value. That has been described to me as the double whammy of having to pay for the improvement to meet a government-imposed target, and additional rates. I was trying to focus on specific instances involving a building or structure, or the plant and machinery order, but I leave that to one side because that was to some extent an overture to what the Bill is about. I mention it only because the Minister was making the point about the assistance the Government have provided.
As for the Bill itself, I obviously regret a business rating measure of such a binary nature preventing the effects of coronavirus being properly reflected in rental values as a material change of circumstances for the purposes of making appeals against the assessments. Although the government package of reliefs and other support for the business sector is extremely welcome, it none the less pales into insignificance compared with what businesses could have expected, had a material change of circumstances applied. I will leave that there.
The Government say that the material change of circumstances was never intended to apply to things like pandemics. Well, probably not, but there has never been a time like this when HM Treasury and HMRC have been quite so keen to protect their income streams come what may, regardless of the precise effects on businesses. I hope this Bill does not have the consequences I fear it might, but I remain concerned that the whole process of business rates is beginning to drive responses, which should always be a warning sign with any taxation measure going forward. That said, I thank the Minister and the Bill team, and other noble Lords who have spoken up for the business rate payer. I wish this Bill a safe passage, and I hope it will not fulfil my worst prognostications.