Deborah Spicer is the latest business leader to raise concerns about the activities of unscrupulous surveyors who are persuading business people to sign long-term contracts, which are not in their financial interests, and then pursuing them through the courts for payments.
Ms Spicer said: “It’s clear there’s still a lot of confusion about business rates and it would be good to see the Government come up with a simpler system, which people can understand.
“I’d also like to see the Government do more to raise awareness of the activities of bogus consultants and to take strong action against offenders, because that would hopefully give businesses more confidence to report these things when they happen.”
Her concerns are shared by senior figures at Colliers, the investment management company, who have warned that growing numbers of businesses, including Colliers clients, are being approached by rogue rating surveyors promising to obtain a marked reduction in their business rates bills.
Ms Spicer was the director of 1884 Wine & Tapas Bar in Hull when she was approached in 2018 by an agency which offered to secure a reduction in the restaurant’s business rates.
The representative told her he could gain a business rates reduction provided the company paid 25 per cent of any rates savings the agency was able to secure.
She said: “We asked three times whether we would have to pay anything up front. Each time we were told we would not. Their representative filled in the form and I signed it based on what he had told us. I did not have time to read it so took his word.
“Over the next few days their office called me twice to ask me to send a copy of my rates bill. They seemed to be in a real hurry and I started to worry because things didn’t seem right.
“I looked into the process myself, talking to some of our business contacts, and realised they wanted the information so they could register my business on the Government Gateway.
“My advisers explained to me that the rates relief which the representative had promised to secure was something we were entitled to anyway and we didn’t need to pay anybody to get that. My advisers also explained that it was illegal for an agent to register on behalf of a client.
“Thankfully we were able to resist their strong arm tactics because we had a lot of business customers including a business rates specialist, and were able to get honest advice from them just in time.”
Ms Spicer added: “The whole episode was really stressful.
“I’d heard about firms like that trying to con small businesses and you always think you won’t get caught, but it’s easy to let your guard down when things are really hectic.”
She added: “It doesn’t surprise me that this is still going on because so many businesses are even more vulnerable now than we were then.
“Not many of them really understand the business rates system and the confusion has increased because of talk of rates reviews and then the pressures of the pandemic.
“Also, all businesses now have so many other things to worry about and are likely to welcome anything which will lighten the load.”
Kevin Hollinrake, the Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton, who is also co-chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Fair Business Banking, said: "It is simply wrong to leave unsuspecting small businesses at the mercy of rogues."
"We have recognised this in other areas and have extended consumer protections to small businesses mistreated by banks and utility providers and should legislate to do the same in this sector."
A Government spokesperson said: “Firms should be aware of unsolicited approaches on business rates and report anything suspicious to Action Fraud.
“Many businesses may automatically qualify for business rates relief to reduce their bill.
“More information is easily accessible on the Government’s website.”
There are number of existing rules that apply to business-to-business contracts.
The Business Protection from Misleading Marketing Regulations 2008 apply to business to business transactions and this prohibits advertising that misleads traders.
The Misrepresentation Act 1967 may also apply to business-to-business contracts. It states that if someone has entered into a contract following misrepresentation by the other party they would then be entitled to rescind the contract.
The spokesman added: "The Treasury published a Call for Evidence, which ran from 21 July 2020 to 31 October 2020, as part of its Fundamental Review of Business Rates, to gather views from stakeholders on all elements of the Business Rates system and a number of alternative taxes.
"An interim report was published in March 2021, summarising responses from the Call for Evidence. A final report of the Fundamental Review will be published in Autumn 2021."