26 May 2021
Jesse Norman responds to a debate on business rates

Jesse Norman responds to a debate on business rates and, specifically, companies offering reduction services to small businesses.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Jesse Norman)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for having secured this important debate on a matter that is of considerable public interest generally, but also locally in his constituency and to those affected by this company. It is a pleasure to speak in a debate that is not disfigured by party politics; all Members have made very constructive contributions, and I am grateful for them.

I will start by expressing my sadness that, inevitably, proceedings elsewhere in this House at the moment are going to be overshadowed by this very important consideration of business rates. I only hope that the media will find some time to indulge Mr Cummings in his comments in between reporting on this vital topic. In a slightly more serious vein, I apologise that the Government have not been able to supply a Minister with specific responsibility for this area to respond to the debate. As the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) rightly said, its focus is not on business rates—although there has been the occasional attempt to crowbar the rest of the business rates system in—but on the reduction services aspect that my hon. Friend raised. That aspect is a matter of business regulation, and therefore falls to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. He and the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) have also focused on some individual cases of predatory practice by specific companies, and they will understand that I cannot comment in any detail on specific cases. It would set a very bad precedent for a Financial Secretary to do so, given the connection to the tax system in a different context.

I think Members recognise that, at its core, the system of business rates is a relatively simple and straightforward one. Companies and individuals who occupy non-domestic properties are liable for business rates. The rates bill is the product, in the literal, mathematical sense, of the rateable value of the property and the multiplier for the financial year concerned, offset by any rate reliefs. The rateable value is set by the Valuation Office Agency and, broadly speaking, it is the rental value at a set date —presently 1 April 2015.

In cases where businesses are unsure about the rateable value of properties, there are plenty of helpful resources on the website of the Valuation Office Agency. For example, I can go online and see a detailed valuation of No. 2, Marsham Street, which is the headquarters of the Home Office, and an explanation for how its valuation has been reached. You will be pleased to know, Mr Hollobone, that it has rather a high valuation, as befits its position in central London.

If ratepayers are unhappy with their rateable value, there is an online system known as check, challenge and appeal, which allows them to check the facts and, if necessary, to dispute the valuation that has been reached. This system was introduced to provide ratepayers with a service that is easier to use and understand than its predecessor and that enables quicker resolution of cases. An evaluation of the system last year found that it is working and that ratepayers are getting their cases resolved faster, without the automatic need to make appeals.

Rate reliefs are applied by individual local authorities, but most of these are automatic or require minimal information from the ratepayer. For example, transitional relief, which is used to phase in the effects of revaluations, is entirely automatic. For small business rate relief, rate- payers need only provide a little information about other properties on which they pay business rates, before being able to claim. All rate bills must explain the various reliefs available, and local authorities have many excellent websites that explain how to claim those reliefs.

Much of the £16 billion of relief that the Government have provided to the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors in response to covid-19—this was picked up by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—has been applied automatically to rates bills. So there are many automatic methods of applying reliefs currently within the system. The relevance of that to the present debate is that there is no reason why a ratepayer should have to use an agent to claim rate relief. If they believe they are eligible for relief, they should instead contact their local authority. Of course, that is not in any sense to criticise people who have been found to be clients or would-be clients of the predatory organisations that have been highlighted by Members in the debate.

Let me pick up on the nature of some of the protections that exist within the system, of which there are several. One is the rules that apply to business-to-business contracts and that arise from the Business Protection from Misleading Marketing Regulations 2008, which prohibit advertising that misleads traders. There is also the Misrepresentation Act 1967, which may also apply to business-to-business contracts, and which says that if someone has entered into a contract following misrepresentation by the other party, they would be entitled to rescind that contract. Additionally, if they have suffered loss, they can claim damages against the other party.

Small businesses can seek help through other channels. If a ratepayer feels that there may have been illegal or fraudulent activity, they can choose to take court action, as I understand a number of businesses have successfully done in at least one of the cases under discussion. Alternatively, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton mentioned the Insolvency Service, which offers some protections, although they appear not to have been availing in this case.

It is worth just picking up the point about consumer protections. At present, the services are provided to the businesses that I have described, and consumer protections do not apply in the case that we have described. I note, and my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton has argued, that microbusinesses share many of the characteristics of consumers, and he and other Members have therefore argued that they are worthy of protections in their own right. Members have highlighted the predatory practices of the companies they have discussed, which are, I am afraid, also exercised by a relatively small number of other companies, and cause extreme distress to the people who are affected by them.

It is important to note that, in other markets—for example, financial markets—it has proved possible to differentiate between protections afforded to different kinds of people in the client relationship. Therefore, there is a clear case here for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to revisit this area and to assess what further protections can, in principle, be provided. Let me conclude with a very simple message.

Stella Creasy 

I hesitate to stop the Minister in full flow, because it is very interesting to hear what he is saying. I just want to come back on a point he made about businesses being entitled to rates relief automatically. Of course, that does require businesses to know about that. I agree with him, and I think we all agree, that differentiating between businesses—often small businesses —and consumers does not make any sense in terms of the expectation of protection, which is the reason why we have consumer regulations.

However, might he be convinced that it would be helpful in these instances for Government to be proactive in telling people that they might be entitled to rates relief? One reason why this company has been able to exploit people is a lack of awareness of the scheme. Although the Minister may feel that it is relatively straightforward, for a new business, the idea that there might be some things that do not have to be paid and others that do adds complexity. Is there a case, perhaps, in the absence of the further consumer protections we are talking about, for requiring local authorities, when they send a bill, to say, “Most small businesses would be entitled to rate relief, and therefore it is worth your time investigating”?

Jesse Norman 

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I have already said that all rates bills are required to explain the various reliefs available and that local authorities have, in many cases, excellent websites that explain how to claim the reliefs. Of course, the fact that reliefs in the cases I have described are automatic means that they flow through in and of themselves. That is a very attractive feature, where that can be engineered into the system. Where it cannot, it is for good reasons, and it may not be possible.

I do not think it is right to suggest—I do not think anyone who has participated in this very thoughtful debate would suggest—that there is any easy fix here, but there is a clear case to be addressed. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton for bringing it to our attention and for raising it with the Government. I think the Government—across my colleagues and myself—need to consider what more can be done, both by themselves and in their further discussions with local authorities.