Business Rates Supplements Bill

Mark was on the Standing Committee for the Business Rates Supplements Bill in January and February 2009. He made the following short speeches at the Report Stage of the Bill, looking at an amendment on the Programme Motion.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Having served on the Public Bill Committee, I pay tribute to the Minister for the work that was done during the evidence-gathering sessions. We had the opportunity to carry out a pretty full analysis of what the Bill was about. However, I endorse the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). He did not serve on the Committee, but he recognises the Bill’s huge importance to the financing of large-scale infrastructure projects; I suspect that it will even go beyond that. That will affect our constituents throughout the UK, not least because much of this money will be raised through a supplementary charge on local businesses during difficult times.

It is regrettable that these constraints have been imposed by business managers; I accept that the Minister may not necessarily be directly to blame. Given that other elements of our business have fallen away quite easily, and that may well apply to much of the work in the next week or two, given what is likely to be dealt with, it is surprising that this did not warrant a full day’s debate instead of being truncated to four hours.

Given that the motion is likely to go to a vote, the danger is that the longer I and colleagues speak in this debate, the more we reduce the amount of time available for proper scrutiny, and there are important matters to be debated later on. This is regrettable. I hope that even if the Minister decides not to take on board our concerns at this juncture, he will at least consider them and ensure that when we discuss such crucial Bills in the future involving tax-raising we can deal with them properly.

Mr. Redwood: Is this not an unreasonable pressure to place on us? There is nothing wrong with debating whether the House should receive this summary treatment or be given a proper length of time for consideration, but why should that be taken out of the time spent on the Bill? It is absolutely outrageous. This is all part of the thuggery of this Government’s approach towards the House of Commons. They will not let us have time to discuss anything: they say, “If you discuss A, you can’t discuss B.” They need to get used to democracy.

Mr. Field: I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend’s every word. I only hope that there are not too many hostages to fortune for a future Conservative Government and that we will ensure we do not go down this path when these matters arise. I will not detain the House any further. I hope that the Minister will take on board our concerns even if he will not allow a longer debate today. These are very important issues that affect all of us as constituency Members, and they deserve full and proper consideration by this House.

Mr. Mark Field: The Minister will be aware from previous debates on this matter that I have perhaps a little more sympathy than one or two of my colleagues for the whole principle of business rate supplements. This is not the ideal year for the Bill. Had it been introduced a few years ago, those in my party might not have had the many understandable concerns that we have expressed, representing business interests, given the real financial and economic problems that are facing our businesses.

I fully support my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) in speaking to amendment 16, so I must express some opposition to the comments made by the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg). I worry that the credibility of BRS schemes is crucial. There is a risk of such schemes, particularly the longer ones, seeming to be at quite a distance from the local authority. During what might be a 10 or 12-year scheme—a bigger type of regeneration project perhaps—a range of different councillors may be involved. A certain political party will be in office when a BRS scheme is put into place, and by the time it comes to fruition a different one might be in office. It is therefore all the more important that we have an ongoing input from business in the way that we have set out.

I agree with a number of the comments that have been made, although I have some sympathy with what the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) proposed. The notion of having a project delivery board, in the way he sets out, would be over-prescriptive and highly unwieldy. It would detract from what we are trying to achieve. The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I consider the proposal in the context of Crossrail. How on earth could we have a project delivery board that would avoid being anything more than an extra layer of bureaucracy that left us open to a lot of confusion, if it were given a project of such size that it took into account the views of people from 33 different boroughs?

Dan Rogerson: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is exploring the matter and supports us on the general concept, although I appreciate that he is unhappy with some of the details of the new clause. We have been at pains throughout the process to point out that there is a distinction between Crossrail and projects in the rest of the country. Indeed, his own party has sought to do that as well. Although I believe that a mechanism could be found to ensure that local government and the business community in London are represented, we need to consider closely how the system will operate in other areas. We are considering a specific case in London, but the Bill may well be applied across the whole country.

Mr. Field: I appreciate that the Bill will not necessarily create fully fledged Crossrails across the board.

The hon. Gentleman made a comparison between the proposed business rate supplements and business improvement districts. I believe that we will return to that matter in other debates this afternoon. It is crucial that we draw a firm distinction between the two. My biggest fear is that by putting the Bill on the statute book, we will allow it to be used for small infrastructure projects that should be covered not by a BRS but by BID-type schemes. A BID works by being highly localised and highly focused, and by working for businesses that, as in my constituency, are often within a couple of roads or a small number of blocks of each other. Those schemes work extremely well, and having some sort of delivery board mechanism makes sense in the context of a highly localised scheme.

My concern, which is implicit in all the amendments in this group, is that no local authority should be able to say, “Right, we’ve now got our BRS scheme through and we do not need to bother with worrying about the concerns of business or anybody else for the next 10 or 12 years”, or however long the project takes. That would be wrong, which is why I support amendment 16. Equally, we should avoid highly prescriptive man-management that would only provide a further level of bureaucracy and confusion. I hope that the Government will give some thought here and in another place to finding a way to ensure that the credibility of BRS schemes is maintained. I know that we will come on to ballots later this afternoon, but my biggest concern is that without some safeguard for business, there is a real risk that credibility will be undermined and the system will simply be seen as another opportunity for a cash-grab from the Government, rather than used for a specific purpose that benefits a business community in infrastructure terms.