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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Don Touhig): As at 1 May 2005, the whole trained strength of the regular Army was 102,260. The trained strength of the Territorial Army is 25,900; that includes 1,430 mobilised TA and 1,080 non-regular permanent staff.
That figure for the Territorial Army represents yet another fall. While Territorials greatly
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welcome the opportunity to support their regular counterparts, does the Minister accept that the Territorial Army is now grossly overstretched? Does he further accept, in relation to the review that he mentioned in answer to a previous question, that it is essential to address the size of the establishments of the individual units, particularly in the infantry? A company of 100 men is simply not enough to develop recruits within the establishment, to send people abroad as part of the deployment, and still to have a critical mass left to do the essential training that the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) mentioned earlier.
Mr. Touhig: I know of the hon. Gentleman's deep interest in these matters and take on board the point that he makes. However, let me say to him that whatever size the TA arrives at, and whatever tasks it is assigned, it needs to be relevant, usable and above all fully integrated into the Army's readiness cycle. That is the view of the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), and I concur with it.
Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would it be in order to ask whether you have had any communication from the Home Secretary about coming to this House to give a statement on the increasingly worrying situation of the 90 hunger strikers from Zimbabwe, and particularly the case of Timbha Mqhubeli, who has now been on hunger strike for one month? This is a very serious situation. Have you heard anything from the Home Secretary?
Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday, I visited Yarl's Wood detention centre in my constituency and met several of those who are currently refusing food. They are extremely distressed at reports of the situation in Zimbabwe, and their concerns about what might happen to them on their return appear to be vindicated by a story in this morning's edition of The Times. Have you received any communication from the Foreign Office to the effect that the Foreign Secretary wishes to address the House on whether the situation is safe for detainees to be deported there?
I can tell the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) that when Ministers wish to make a statement, they inform me, and they have not informed me today. Had it been the case, we would have heard from Ministers today. If hon. Members, including Back Benchers, feel that matters are so urgent and of such deep concern, there is nothing to stop them putting in a request for an Urgent Question. That does not mean to say that I would grant it, but it is a facility that I can use. However, Back Benchers have not done that.
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We sought this debate on local government taxation because the subject of council tax and local government finance was notable by its absence from the post-general election Queen's Speech, although it is anticipated that the Government will take measures to reform local government finance in this Parliament. We seem to have been waiting interminably for the outcome of the Government's review of local government finance, and while the issue of council tax burns the Government continue to fiddlein this case, the figures.
It is the moment when people write their cheques for the council tax that they associate most directly with the role of local government. However, that is an increasingly misguided association, because since 1997 the Government have riven apart the connection between council tax and the provision of local services. It is certainly not the case that the cost of local services is met by local taxpayers; now, local taxpayers merely top up the Chancellor's coffers. From the Chancellor's point of view it makes perfect sense: by turning local authorities into tax collectors, he hopes to escape the blame for a whopping 76 per cent. increase in council tax.
However, the electorate are increasingly sophisticated. According to MORI, 78 per cent. of the population blame national Government for council tax increasesand they are right. Furthermore, they know that the figures are being fiddled. The Government have systematically engineered the redirection of central funding from efficient Conservative-run councils to inefficient Labour-run councils.
At the same time, the Government have set about loading unfunded cost burdens on local authorities and transferring costs and duties from national Government to local government. I call that stealth taxation by statute. The net effect is that receipts to the Treasury from council tax have increased by more than £9 billion since 1997. Without doubt, council tax has been used as the ultimate stealth tax. While pensioners protest on the streets, the Chancellor is coining it.
Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend's flow, but is she aware of the deep anger not only in my constituency but throughout Hertfordshire, where pensioners are finding that their council tax bills have nearly doubled under the Government? Does she share their concern?
Mrs. Spelman: I share that concern and feel it deeply. We all read the headlines about people being threatened with prison for not paying their council tax. We are all lobbied by organisations that call for the abolition of council tax and we all witness the growing disregard for local government among voters.
Instead of trying to arrest the drift, the Government are moving in the wrong direction and hastening it. The warning signs are so clear and the symptoms are so obvious that ratcheting up council tax must be part of a broader plan. How else can we explain the forthcoming revaluation, which is hanging like a sword of Damocles over people's heads? Despite claims that it will be revenue neutral, the revaluation shows every sign of punishing people simply because the value of their property has appreciated.
Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): Is it Conservative party policy that there should be no revaluation? If so, how is leaving the level at that of 1991 compatible with a system that is based on property values?
Mrs. Spelman: I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman's colleagues are sorry to lose him, with his expertise and knowledge, from the Front Bench. However, he knows as well as I do that the point of revaluation should be to address growing disparities in property prices when they arise. Those disparities are narrowing.
Let us consider the Welsh revaluation experience. Four times as many homes moved up a band as went down. The revaluation, which the Government solemnly promised would be revenue neutral, was used to jack up council tax bills by 10 per cent. in the first year alone.
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