The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The Government support the motion because it is necessary for the House to refer possible breaches of the rules to the Standards and Privileges Committee for investigation. The Government respect the privileges of the House and we will uphold them. They are crucial to the independence of Parliament and the strength of our democracy.
It would be wrong of me to anticipate the Committee's report and I hope that hon. Members on all sides of the House will wait until it has reported before passing judgment on my right hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mr. Byers). In particular, I urge Members to refrain from treating the matter as a party political question. I know that my right hon.
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Friend welcomes consideration of this issue by the Standards and Privileges Committee. Indeed, with the leave of the House, I would be willing to respond to any further points, as necessary.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): May I say how much I welcome the views just expressed by the Leader of the House? There is a well-established mechanism within the House for dealing with these mattersthrough the Standards and Privileges Committee. It is a Committee on which I served during the last Parliament, so I know how seriously it takes its responsibilities. Notwithstanding the comments of the right hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mr. Byers) in his personal statement on Monday, on which I say nothing at this stage, I believe that there is a prima facie case for investigation. It is right for the Committee to have the opportunity to investigate further. Although this is a House matter, I recommend that my right hon. and hon. Friends support the motion if it is put to a vote today.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): Select Committees of the House are set up to monitor the work of Government Departments. They must be able to do that fairly and freely. I know that we all support that idea and the work of those Committees has expanded because they have the support of the House.
It is neither the time nor the place to debate the wider implications of this matter, but it is clear that, in future, the House will have to consider the powers of Select Committees to ensure that the evidence given to them is not only reliable but can be verified. I hope that we will have the opportunity to return to that issue in future. In the meantime, on behalf of my Select Committee and myself, I support the referral to the Standards and Privileges Committee.
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): What a difference a few short months make in the Government's view of the world. It seems but a moment agothe mere passing of slight timethat I was standing at the Dispatch Box extolling the virtues of abandoning a council tax revaluation, only to be met with vitriol and abuse from Government and Liberal Democrat Members. In fact, it is only the Liberal Democrats who remain in favour of an immediate and complete revaluation. Three times that once great party has voted for revaluation and I suppose that those votes were not entirely wasted. In modern politics, we are supposed to have a degree of empathy with other people and the Liberal Democrats can now feel empathy with Labour Back Benchers, because they also now know how it feels to be let down by Labour.
The Government were steely in their determination to bring about revaluation and unwavering in their support for an immediate one. For example, the Prime Minister commented in the Daily Star on the Conservative pledge at the last general election to cancel revaluation. He said:
"it is intellectually and economically illiterate to suggest that one can have a system of council tax without a need for periodic revaluation. That is why we introduced arrangements for a regular, 10-yearly revaluation."[Official Report, 4 July 2005; Vol. 436, c. 51.]
I expect that he was surprised when, within 11 short weeks of those words, they blew up in his face. I would not have liked to have been in the Minister's shoes when he made the phone call to tell the right hon. Gentleman that all his hard work had been torn up as soon as he left office.
What has caused the Government's near Damascene conversion to the Conservative position? I say "near" because the Government propose a postponement, not a cancellation. There are two possible explanations for the U-turn. The written statement on 10 October announced that the Government intended to introduce legislation to postpone the revaluation for council tax in England. It stated:
"The case for council tax revaluation . . . is linked to wider questions about the structure of the council tax, and to the operation of council tax benefit. It is also relevant that there are a number of other imminent changes in the local government finance system, including the move to three year budgets, the review of the local government finance formula, and the creation of a dedicated schools budget."[Official Report, 10 October 2005; Vol.437, c. 56 WS.]
I was surprised only that the statement did not add that the revaluation had to be postponed because the letter "r" appeared in the month of September. Every single thing mentioned in the statement was known when the Lyons review was set up and revaluation was planned.
The second explanation therefore has a ring of truth, and it comes from the mouth of the Minister of Communities and Local Government. When asked outside the Table Office by one of his colleagues from the west midlands why the Government had postponed the revaluation, he said that it would be too difficult, too hot to handle and had to be dropped. It is a sad fact that, on occasions in this place, having a clear voice can be a disadvantage.
This is not a policy; it is a postponement for others to pick up when the Minister has moved on to pastures new. Many will agree with the judgment of the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich, who wrote in this week's Municipal Journal that the Government had a
Why revalue? A myth has grown up around the need to revalue, but it is a conventional wisdom that needs to be challenged. I know that because I was once seduced by the conventional orthodoxy. I was once persuaded that the emperor was wearing a shiny new suit rather than being naked of ideas or legitimacy. I was not alone. Even such august bodies as the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors have been persuaded that the emperor is not in the altogether. In its otherwise excellent brief prepared for this debate, it states:
"Fundamental to the fairness of the tax base for Council Tax is an up to date valuation list supported by frequent and consistent revaluations. The current valuation list is based on 1991 values. Since 1991 . . . average house prices have increased by some 216 per cent."
"Statutory revaluations will take council tax further towards being solely a property tax . . . Council tax was originally devised as a tax which was part property based and part service based."[Official Report, House of Lords17 July 2003; Vol. 651, c. 976.]
When the council tax was first introduced, there was no provision for revaluation. The purpose of a revaluation is to correct grossly disproportionate movements in the housing market. It may be that, over a 10-year period, those movements are negligible, and that going through the expense of a revaluation cycle is unnecessary. What matters in council tax valuation are comparative prices between different parts of the country. Those have remained unchanged for the last decade. That is why Northern Ireland has operated quite happily on valuations set 30 years ago and that is why Scotland's First Minister, Jack McConnell, has been at pains to make it clear that