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Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) [Draft]

Meeting date: Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, World Refugee Day, Urgent Question, Non-Domestic Rates (Coronavirus) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Business Motion, Motion without Notice, Decision Time, Motor Neurone Disease (Housing Needs), Correction


Contents


Non-Domestic Rates (Coronavirus) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The next item of business is a stage 3 debate on motion S6M-05095, in the name of Tom Arthur, on the Non-Domestic Rates (Coronavirus) (Scotland) Bill.

Before the debate begins, the Presiding Officer is required under standing orders to decide whether, in her view, any provision of the bill relates to a protected subject matter: that is, whether it modifies the electoral system and franchise for Scottish parliamentary elections. It is the Presiding Officer’s view that no provision of the Non-Domestic Rates (Coronavirus) (Scotland) Bill relates to a protected subject matter and therefore that the bill does not require a supermajority to be passed at stage 3.

Before I invite Tom Arthur to open the debate, I call Kate Forbes to signify Crown consent to the bill.

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy (Kate Forbes)

For the purposes of rule 9.11 of standing orders, I advise Parliament that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Non-Domestic Rates (Coronavirus) (Scotland) Bill, has consented to place her prerogative and interest, so far as they are affected by the bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the bill.

We will move to the debate. Members who wish to participate should press their request-to-speak button now or as soon as possible. I call Tom Arthur to speak to and move the motion.

16:20  

The Minister for Public Finance, Planning and Community Wealth (Tom Arthur)

I am pleased to open the stage 3 debate on the Non-Domestic Rates (Coronavirus) (Scotland) Bill, and I start by thanking the convener, Ariane Burgess, and members of the Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee for their assiduous scrutiny of the bill during stages 1 and 2 and for their on-going support for its measures and for the small number of amendments that we made. I also thank the Finance and Public Administration Committee for its consideration of the bill’s financial memorandum.

We do not often have a bill without any stage 3 amendments. That is a fair reflection of the cross-party support that the bill attracted at stages 1 and 2, and I appreciate the contributions that members have made throughout.

The intention of the bill is to deliver fairness for all ratepayers and ensure that, for all non-domestic properties, any effects of Covid-19 are considered at revaluation. The rateable values of non-domestic properties are periodically updated at revaluations to reflect changes in the general level of rents. The next revaluation is on 1 April 2023. Outside revaluations, amendments can be made to reflect a “material change of circumstances”. That material change is typically a physical change to a property, such as an extension or demolition, or it could be a major change to the area in which the property is located, such as localised roadworks.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, more than 40,000 appeals regarding non-domestic properties have been lodged. The timing of that abnormal spike suggests that most of those were lodged because of the pandemic. We do not believe that the “material change of circumstances” provisions are appropriate in relation to Covid-19. Market-wide economic changes affecting property values should be reflected at revaluations, when all relevant impacts on values across all properties will be taken into account. That would include any impact on rateable values arising from Covid-19 or Covid-19 restrictions. That view is shared by the United Kingdom Government, the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly, where similar legislation has already been passed.

In June last year, we announced that we intended to take measures to rule out appeals on the grounds of Covid. The Valuation and Rating (Coronavirus) (Scotland) Order 2021 came into force on 1 December 2021 but has effect only back to 1 April 2021. The bill builds on that order, going back further than was possible through secondary legislation, and it applies the rule that is set out in the order both to rateable value and to the net annual value from which rateable values are derived. It provides that, in calculating the rateable value or net annual value in relation to any property in the 2017 valuation roll, no account can be taken of any matter that occurred on or after 2 April 2020 that is directly or indirectly attributable to the coronavirus.

The bill was introduced last December and amendments at stage 2 clarified and strengthened the policy intention that, should a matter attributable to the coronavirus first occur before 2 April 2020 and continue on or after that date, no account can be taken of that matter with effect from 2 April 2020 onwards. That date aligns with the date from which the definition of “material change of circumstances” was clarified by the Non-Domestic Rates (Scotland) Act 2020 to exclude changes in general economic circumstances.

The issue is hugely complex, and the outcome of any appeal is uncertain and may take years. It cannot be assumed that appeals would be successful or their outcome fair for those who are most affected.

We are aware that a number of large and multinational firms that have been largely unaffected by, or even successful during, the pandemic made appeals against their properties after the outbreak of the pandemic. The Federation of Small Businesses has also pointed out that there are not many small businesses among those that have submitted appeals.

We want to ensure fairness among all ratepayers. We believe that the right time for market-wide economic changes to be reflected, including any effects of Covid-19, is at revaluation. The next revaluation is not far away—new values will come into effect on 1 April 2023 based on rental values on 1 April 2022. We chose to delay the revaluation by a year and bring forward the one-year tone date to allow time for the property market to adjust post-Covid. The introduction of three-yearly revaluation cycles and a one-year tone date will ensure that future valuations are more closely aligned with current market values and they should, therefore, take account of any potential changes as a result of the pandemic.

The bill does not apply to changes to the physical state of a property or whether a property should or should not be included in the valuation roll, nor does it remove the ratepayer’s right of appeal. It will be for appellants to decide whether they want to pursue or withdraw their Covid appeals. We recently extended the disposal deadline for appeals by one year to 31 December 2023. That recognises that the bulk of appeals remain outstanding and that appellants may not feel that they are in a sufficiently informed position until Parliament has finished its scrutiny of the bill. The extended deadline will enable appellants who have made an appeal on Covid-19 grounds to make an informed decision about whether to pursue their appeal or withdraw it once the Parliament has completed its scrutiny.

We all know that Covid-19 had a major impact on the economy. In Government, we responded swiftly and on an unprecedented scale to support businesses through the pandemic when they needed it most. Businesses have benefited from more than £4.7 billion of support from the Scottish Government since the start of the pandemic, including around £1.6 billion of Covid-related rates relief. We were the only Government in the UK to provide 100 per cent rates relief for retail, hospitality, leisure and aviation for the past two years. To help those businesses to get back on their feet and prevent a cliff-edge return to full liability, we continued retail, hospitality and leisure relief at 50 per cent for the first three months of 2022-23, capped at £27,500 per ratepayer.

The Covid-19 pandemic was unprecedented and its impact could not have been anticipated. Although our economy is recovering, there are still challenges and issues arising from the pandemic that require our attention. On non-domestic rates, we did what we could with the powers that we had to ease the economic effects for many. Now, we have had to act both to mitigate the impact of large volumes of appeals and to protect the public finances more generally. The bill will maintain the integrity of the non-domestic rates system and the stability of the public finances. It will provide clarity, consistency and fairness to all ratepayers.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the Non-Domestic Rates (Coronavirus) (Scotland) Bill be passed.

16:27  

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

I start by giving the cabinet secretary my best wishes for her maternity leave. Nothing could lighten this debate more, to be quite honest.

I thank the organisations that contributed to the Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee’s work on the Non-domestic Rates (Coronavirus) (Scotland) Bill, and I thank our clerks for the work that they have done.

The passage of the bill has not been controversial. There has quite rightly been cross-party understanding of why it is needed. We are all acutely aware of the significant impact that the pandemic has had on businesses and on the workload of assessors across Scotland, and of the significant and unsustainable backlog that has built up. As has been stated, since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been more than 49,000 non-domestic rates appeals. That compares with pre-pandemic levels of about 5,700 appeals being lodged.

Scottish Conservatives accept the main principles behind the bill, which are that we should extend the rule to cover both net annual value and rateable value, and to cover the period back to 2 April 2020—the date on which the Scottish Government amended the definition of “material change of circumstances” to exclude changes in economic circumstances.

As I stated at stages 1 and 2, the bill is a sensible measure to update Scotland’s non-domestic rates and appeals system. We have also seen changes in England and Wales to mitigate the impact of the pandemic in this regard.

The Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee agreed that, because of the level of scrutiny of the order, an extensive programme of evidence taking was not necessary. During the bill’s passage through Parliament, we have heard concerns from a number of key stakeholders, and I welcome the fact that the minister has engaged with them. Those concerns come from businesses that operate in different sectors of our economy. It is clear that we need to look at how we can improve the appeals system to ensure those rights in the future, and I believe that the Government can take that work forward.

I welcome the minister’s assurances that the bill will not remove the right of appeal. That is important for many businesses, and it is a welcome step forward. Finally, I welcome the extension of the disposal deadline by a further year beyond 31 December. That extension was asked for and—importantly—the request was accepted.

The UK and Scottish Governments have both provided unprecedented levels of support to Scottish businesses during the pandemic—for example, the provision of 100 per cent rates relief for all eligible retail, hospitality and leisure properties. That is a huge amount of support, which has been very welcome. However, those sectors are already reporting that they are not recovering to the levels that they thought they would. Just today, there were reports in Edinburgh that accommodation bookings for the festival are not where businesses thought that they would be. We know, therefore, that many Scottish businesses are not out of the pandemic hangover quite yet.

The support that was provided, which amounted to around £10 billion in 2020-21, and the announcement that the support scheme would be extended by another three months, followed by a nine-month period of relief at 66 per cent, have been very much welcomed by businesses. Taken together, those support measures have, across Government, been worth £16 billion to the sectors. It is worth reflecting on how both the Scottish and UK Governments have stepped up during the pandemic period.

During the consideration of the bill, I have put on record a number of my concerns about how support schemes have been administered and how we must learn lessons in that regard for the future. There are businesses in much the same field that have been either winners or losers in being able to access support, sometimes simply because they are in different council areas.

It is clear that the processes that councils have used have not been universal. I hope that that issue is coming out of the assessor process, and that the Government will consider it as well. We all hope that we will never face a similar public health emergency again. Nevertheless, we must take forward the learning from the pandemic in that regard.

I turn to the important issue of support for businesses as we move forward. Scottish retailers have called on the Scottish ministers to lower business rates in Scotland permanently. Firms in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors were fully exempt from non-domestic rates during the pandemic until 31 March. I welcome the SNP ministers’ extension of rates relief for the first quarter of the financial year, but we need to consider what additional support could be made available to those sectors that are clearly not recovering to the levels that they thought they would be.

It is clear that the pandemic has had a negative impact not only on our town centres but on many rural communities. Local businesses that were thriving before Covid have closed, are struggling to pay their bills or are finding that the way in which their business operates has completely changed. Significant consideration needs to be given to how businesses can adapt to what is now a very different environment.

As I have said, Scottish Conservatives want the Scottish Government to continue business rates relief. I want to put that on record.

Scottish Conservatives will support the bill to update Scotland’s non-domestic rates legislation and we support the committee’s recommendations, too. The legislation is similar to that which has been passed in both England and Wales and is, I believe, the most straightforward way to sustain an already overwhelmed appeals system. As I said, the Scottish Conservatives will support the bill at decision time.

16:33  

Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

Scottish Labour will support the bill at decision time, as we did at stages 1 and 2.

As we also did at previous stages of the bill’s journey through Parliament, we echo the concern of the Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee and a number of stakeholders about the lack of formal consultation prior to the introduction of secondary legislation. However, I note what the minister has said at various stages about consultation with the sector being an on-going issue on which he and other ministers have been working. Nevertheless, we call on ministers to restate that the omission of a formal consultation does not set a precedent for future legislation.

Non-domestic rates, which are also known as business rates, are a form of property tax on businesses that helps to pay for local council services. The amount of tax that is paid is based on the rateable value of the property, and the rateable value is based on comparable rental value in the years before the valuation takes place. As the minister said, rateable values are reviewed every few years. If it is passed, the bill will ensure that the impact of Covid-19 cannot be used in determining the rateable value of a non-domestic property from 2 April 2020 to 1 April 2021, unless the impact resulted in a change to the physical state of the property.

The Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee looked at the issues that are raised in the bill when we looked at the Valuation and Rating (Coronavirus) (Scotland) Order 2021. The order does the same thing as the bill, but covers the period from 1 April 2021 onwards. Scottish Labour supported the order at committee. As the minister and Miles Briggs mentioned, the Welsh and UK Governments have made the same change across the rest of the UK.

Scottish Labour absolutely accepts that allowing consideration of a large volume of appeals would have significant workload implications for assessors and valuation committees. We highlight assessors’ concerns about potential litigation for appeals relating to the two weeks prior to 2 April 2020, and we flag up the general concerns around assessors’ workload that we heard in evidence to the committee.

Stakeholders have expressed fears that the policy decision sets a precedent in terms of retrospective changes to tax policy. Scottish Labour plans to hold the Government to its assurances that the principles of certainty and engagement would underpin any future non-domestic rates policies.

The Government could do more to support our towns and high streets through Scotland’s local tax system. We have heard from the Scottish Fiscal Commission and others that we lost almost 20,000 small businesses during a single year of the Covid crisis. Many more will surely follow if the Government does not adequately support small businesses through the recovery phase. We have repeatedly called for retail, hospitality and leisure properties in Scotland to be in receipt of the same 50 per cent rates relief that is being offered to businesses in England in this financial year.

We have also called on the Scottish Government to level up the business rates that are imposed on large warehouses such as are used by the majority of online retailers, in order that we could reduce the rates that are paid by bricks-and-mortar stores from 2022-23. That would support our high streets, which Miles Briggs spoke about.

Aside from some concerns around the process, we welcome the bill and we will support it at decision time. We look forward to a more wide-ranging debate on how to use the non-domestic rates system to support our high streets and struggling small businesses.

We move to the open debate.

16:38  

Willie Coffey (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley) (SNP)

I am grateful for the opportunity to say a few words in support of the bill. I note that there have been no further amendments lodged at stage 3. The stage 2 amendments were minor and our committee supported the bill unanimously. It is only a few weeks ago that I spoke in the stage 1 debate.

It is worth reminding ourselves that the bill’s purpose is fairly straightforward: it is to ensure fairness for all Scottish ratepayers. In doing that, it will protect the integrity of the non-domestic rating system from wholesale changes and numerous appeals that could otherwise take place.

The bill proposes that the effects of Covid cannot be used as a factor when considering a property’s rateable value, and would not be admissible in terms of material changes of circumstances. That is in line with what is being done in our neighbouring jurisdictions in England, Wales and Northern Ireland—as a few members have already mentioned. If that were not the case if the bill were not passed today, Scotland alone would have to bear the potential losses. One colleague noted that MCC can still be deployed but only in relation to physical changes to a property or if some other major change can be demonstrated. The route is still open for those types of appeals, although not on the basis of the impact of Covid.

The prospect of a huge number of Covid-related appeals coming in probably filled the assessors—and us—with dread. The serious point about having to deal with that and the potential impact on local government finances could not be overlooked. The bill takes care of that issue by providing the much sought after commodities of clarity and consistency of purpose in lawmaking.

We must not forget the comments that were made by the Federation of Small Businesses as we progressed the bill. Those comments reminded us that few of our smaller businesses are likely to be among the appellants because they often do not have the resources or the time to lodge appeals. The risk would be that we could create an imbalance in relation to who could lodge and be successful in appeals—which might be the larger corporates and supermarkets that, it might be argued, did much better during the Covid period than the small business sector did. The consequence of that could be that MCC appeals might target support where it is needed least. I think that the committee was agreed on that point—as members are today.

I understand that, since the start of the pandemic, 50,000 non-domestic properties have appealed on the basis of a material change of circumstances. If those appeals were to be successful, that could significantly reduce the level of public finance that comes in to support local services; that is not to mention the impact of getting through such a volume of work. The financial memorandum that is attached to the bill sets out how its impact will help to avoid that significant level of risk.

A couple of issues were raised during the Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee’s work on the bill in relation to whether there had been sufficient consultation with stakeholders. The minister was clear in his original remarks at the committee that he had announced his intentions a full year ago, in June 2021, and that extensive consultation had taken place.

It is recognised that the Scottish Government had to act quickly to get financial help out to businesses and that, by and large, that was successful and a much needed source of support. The bill simply provides the clarity and assurances that are necessary to maintain public services, and to ensure that the levels of finance that are needed to deliver them are stable. That will maintain our aspiration to deliver a fairer country by building on the integrity of our non-domestic rating system in order to protect the revenues of our local authorities at this crucial time.

I am happy to support the bill at stage 3. I look forward to the remaining members’ speeches as we conclude our consideration of the bill today.

Thank you, Mr Coffey. That neatly concludes the open debate. We now move to closing speeches.

16:43  

Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

There is unanimous support for the bill, in recognition of what it aims to achieve, so there is not a lot more to add. Instead, I will take the opportunity to talk about businesses.

Miles Briggs spoke of the support for businesses from the UK and Scottish Governments during the Covid outbreak. There is no doubt that businesses have suffered. According to the businesses in Scotland statistical release, it is estimated that, between March 2020 and March 2021, the number of businesses in Scotland fell by 19,805—a drop of 5.4 per cent. That is a worry.

The FSB says that

“this trend implies that the crisis has been particularly difficult for the self-employed and new start businesses. However, Scotland also saw a decline in registered businesses over the same period, with 790 of these firms lost.”

It is clear that businesses are still facing huge financial uncertainties. Parts of the economy have experienced two or even three rounds of closures. Every round of restrictions leaves businesses with smaller cash reserves, increased debt and great uncertainty. Businesses still need as much support as they can get in order to help to rebuild Scotland’s economy.

Retail, hospitality and leisure properties will be in receipt of 50 per cent rates relief, up to a maximum of £110,000, in England and Wales in order to support those sectors on their road to recovery from the impacts of the pandemic. Perhaps the minister could look at the fact that the Scottish Government is offering only three months of half rates. That is why Scottish Labour believes that it is fair that we should consider how to support businesses further and provide similar support to prevent economic disadvantage and ensure that such businesses can help to rebuild Scotland’s economy.

The minister also has the privilege of wearing the planning hat. We know that the pressures in that area are not just about Covid. For many years, out-of-town centres were supported by local planning authorities, and we can see the impact that those have had, along with online shopping. My point is that people have to choose to go to town centres and often have to pay to park their cars—it is not as easy as it is for them to just drive into a large out-of-town shopping centre, park their car, walk to the shops and do their shopping. We need to rethink, and there is an opportunity here for us to do that.

Another point that I made at stage 1, which I will make again here, is on valuations for small businesses. At the previous revaluation, I dealt with many such businesses that were putting appeals in. They found it difficult to understand why they had a certain rateable value pinned on to them in comparison with those in other towns where there were larger shops and other premises. At one point I was even told that, because a particular shop was on a busy street, that had led to higher rates being imposed. However, the fact that no cars could stop there because there was no parking on that busy street meant that it just did not add up.

If we can bring greater transparency to revaluation, we should do so, because that is important. I am also keen to work with the minister to look at town centres. As he will be aware, across mid-Scotland and Fife, there are real issues about the future of those.

I call Douglas Lumsden for a very generous five minutes.

16:47  

Douglas Lumsden (North East Scotland) (Con)

Thank you for being so generous, Presiding Officer.

Non-domestic rates continue to be one of the biggest issues for our local authorities, especially in the north-east of Scotland. I have met many local businesses, to speak to them in order to understand the issues that they face.

As my colleagues have mentioned, the Scottish Conservatives are supportive of the bill in its mirroring of what has happened in the rest of the UK. It is a sensible measure to update the non-domestic rates appeals system. However, I feel that much wider reform is needed. We will continue to press the Scottish Government to meet business leaders to discuss the further reforms that are required.?

Although the bill is welcome, it falls short of providing the help that thousands of businesses need, due to the failed system. During the debate in April, I pointed out that, in 2017, businesses in the north-east of Scotland faced huge increases in their rates bills when the valuation was assessed at the peak of oil and gas activity, only for new bills to arrive just as the sector faced one of its biggest slumps. The courts ruled that there had been no material change in circumstance and that businesses would have to wait for the revaluation to take place. Then that was delayed by a year because of Covid, despite calls from many business leaders for the revaluation date to be brought forward. As the minister pointed out, revaluation was the time for the market to be fixed. The delay was so disappointing for the businesses that were waiting. We continue to have a situation in which the non-domestic rates income from businesses in Aberdeen is greater than that from businesses in Edinburgh—a city with twice its population. Many businesses in the north-east simply cannot believe that that is the case.

The Scottish Fiscal Commission forecasts that were released last month gave worrying news to businesses up and down Scotland. They showed that non-domestic rates income was set to increase by 30 per cent over the next five years, from £2.7 billion to £3.6 billion, at a time when growth will be minimal, which left many people wondering where the extra £900 million will come from.

The forecast also showed that some businesses last year voluntarily handed back Covid business rates relief funds to the tune of £126 million. That was the right thing to do for places such as Asda, Sainsbury’s and Boots, whose income seems to have increased. Some may have thought that that cash would go to local authorities to help struggling businesses on the high streets or that it could have been used to plug some of the non-domestic rates overdraft, but no—instead, the devolved Scottish National Party Government used it simply to plug other holes in its budget. Those were business rate support funds and should have been used just for that purpose.

I welcome the contributions from members from across the chamber. First, I agree with Miles Briggs in sending the cabinet secretary my best wishes for what I am sure will be a busy and joyful summer. Miles Briggs also mentioned that the right to appeal has not been removed. Of course, we welcome that. He also mentioned support. For me, that just masks a failing system.

The issue of town centres was mentioned by Miles Briggs and by Alex Rowley. Town centres have faced difficulties over the past few years, and we have an opportunity to fix some of those things with a new system. Miles Briggs also asked for greater transparency over the appeals system, which would be welcomed by so many.

Mark Griffin mentioned warehouses that are used by online retailers who pay very little in non-domestic rates, compared with others. That highlights that change is needed.

The current system of business rates is outdated, and we need to look at a much greater and broader reform. High streets in our local towns and villages struggled for years before the pandemic and have struggled right through it. We have to look at and work with our local businesses to develop a system of rates that works for them and encourages growth. We need to put the voices of business at the heart of our policy making, and I do not see much of that from the SNP-Green devolved Government. Although I welcome the aims and outcomes of the Barclay review, many have viewed its remit as too tight and not wide ranging enough to give the freedom to look at the full picture.

In summary, we welcome the bill as a first, small step. However, more needs to be done. The Scottish Government has the powers. It needs to stop sitting on its hands and use them.

I call on the minister to wind up the debate. Mr Arthur, I would be grateful if you took us to just before 5 o’clock, please.

16:52  

Tom Arthur

I thank colleagues for their contributions to the debate and for using the opportunity, given its consensual tone, to offer their views on matters pertaining to non-domestic rates and other issues in my portfolio more widely. I will seek to address some of those points in my closing remarks.

First, I turn to Mark Griffin’s contribution, in which he asked me to reiterate the Government’s commitment to consultation and engagement and to providing certainty and consistency with our framework for tax principles. I take the opportunity to do so. As I said during my committee appearance and the stage 1 debate, any legislation responding to the pandemic is responding to exceptional circumstances. However, in the new framework for tax, which we published last December, we have set out clearly the approach that we will take to decisions on taxation. That can provide a useful framework not just for the decisions that Government takes but for people in the Parliament more widely and for stakeholders, in engaging with ideas around how we can reform and improve the Scottish tax system.

I recognise the specific points that Miles Briggs raised about the appeals process. At the start of next year, we will transfer from the valuation appeal committees to a new tribunal system.

I also recognise Miles Briggs’s point that the response from the Scottish and UK Governments was unprecedented and was absolutely required in supporting business. I recognise that there are calls for further support. Members will recognise that our budget is fully committed for this year but, of course, if any further business support becomes available from the UK Government and results in Barnett consequentials, we will carefully consider how that can be used to support business more widely.

The issue of town centres was mentioned, and Alex Rowley referred to the planning system. As members will be aware, we are in the process of considering the extensive responses that we received to our public consultation and the parliamentary scrutiny on draft national planning framework 4.

I reiterate and make clear that I am happy to meet with any member—I have already had opportunities to engage with some members directly—over the coming weeks or over the summer to discuss draft national planning framework 4, because, ultimately, this is an opportunity. It will be the biggest change to planning policy perhaps since the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1947 was passed. Planning will be essential to meeting our ambitions for our net carbon reductions by 2030 and 2045.

I recognise that our town centres face many challenges, but they can provide solutions to many of our problems. We want to see more 20-minute neighbourhoods, more diverse and thriving town centres and strong regional economies that build community wealth. I am very keen to consider how the non-domestic rates system can play a part in that, and I take the points that members have raised on the matter seriously.

Our small business bonus scheme, which is the most generous such scheme anywhere in the UK, has taken and is taking 111,000 properties out of rates altogether. The Federation of Small Businesses noted that the scheme has been a lifeline for many firms. It is essential that we continue to support businesses the best way that we can. That is why we commissioned the Fraser of Allander Institute to carry out an evaluation, and we very much welcome its report. In response to that report, we are convening a short-term working group that will consider the report’s recommendations on collecting information in order to make possible a more robust assessment of the small business bonus scheme in the future. I am happy to confirm that the group will meet for the first time at the end of this month.

As I said during my opening speech, Covid-19 was unprecedented. We know that it was challenging for businesses, and every decision that the Scottish Government has taken centred around ensuring that our businesses and communities got the support that they needed when they needed it.

The intention of the bill is to maintain non-domestic rates as a credible and robust system of taxation and to deliver fairness for all ratepayers. The material change of circumstances provisions are not the right mechanisms for ratepayers to seek reductions in rateable values due to the effect of Covid-19, and we made that clear as early as June 2021, as Willie Coffey noted in his remarks.

The bill makes it clear that when calculating rateable value of properties on the current valuation roll, which is the 2017 valuation roll,

“no account is to be taken of any matter occurring on or after 2 April 2020 that is (whether directly or indirectly) attributable to coronavirus.”

That corresponds to the date on which we excluded changes in general economic circumstances from the definition of material change of circumstances, and it is consistent with the approach that is taken across the UK.

At the next revaluation, in April 2023, all relevant market-wide economic changes to rateable value will be considered across all rateable properties. That is the appropriate manner in which any effect of Covid-19 on the property market should be reflected. We have strengthened revaluations following the independent Barclay review of non-domestic rates to ensure that they more closely reflect market circumstances.

As I mentioned in my opening remarks, the frequency of the revaluation cycle is now three years, the time between the tone date and revaluation is reduced to one year and we have delayed the revaluation by one year. Those changes have been broadly welcomed by the business community in Scotland.

To ensure that valuations are better understood and more transparent for ratepayers, which was a point that Alex Rowley raised, we have taken steps to require the publication of a draft valuation roll on 30 November and the inclusion of additional information for a large share of properties that will indicate the rental information that is used to calculate the basic valuation rate.

We are committed to making non-domestic property valuation more transparent and intelligible, and we will explore how more property classes and information might be covered in subsequent revaluations. Transparency, certainty, consistency and fairness are all essential features of the non-domestic rates system in Scotland, which the bill supports and delivers. I hope, therefore, that the Parliament will pass the bill at decision time.

That concludes the stage 3 debate on the Non-Domestic Rates (Coronavirus) (Scotland) Bill.