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Mr. Pickles: Will the hon. Lady confirm that on three separate occasions the Liberal Democrats voted in favour of revaluation, and on those three separate occasions the Conservative party voted against? It is a matter of record.
Sarah Teather: There has never been a specific vote on revaluation in the House. We supported the 2003 Local Government Bill because we supported much of what was in it, but there was never a proposal on revaluation. It cannot be claimed that we have not been clear on the council tax point. In every debate on the subject in the House we have said that we do not want a council tax, we want a local income tax. The Conservatives simply cannot accuse us of not being consistent on this point.
Mr. Binley: The hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), I think in September, said that if there were two full-time earners in the house, they would pay more council tax. Does the hon. Lady recognise that a sizeable number of two-earner households are young married people, and will she therefore confirm that the Liberal proposals will mean that they will pay more in local income tax?
Sarah Teather: The hon. Gentleman must have taken a highly selective quote from my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable). It depends entirely on how much the two earners are earning and how big is the house in which they live. He must accept that under the council tax system at the moment, many two-earner households, with a combined income of £15,000 or £16,000, are paying over £1,000 in council tax. It would be a very different situation under a local income tax.
Mr. Pickles: The hon. Lady made the astonishing statement that there had been no votes in Parliament when the Liberal Democrats had voted in favour of revaluation. I draw her attention to 10 September 2003, 17 July 2003 and 10 March 2003. Would she now care to withdraw that rather ridiculous assertion, which, frankly, does nothing to add to the dignity of her Front-Bench status?
Sarah Teather: The hon. Gentleman will have to demonstrate the detail of that to me outside of the debate. I was not in the House at that stage. My understanding is that the Liberal Democrats voted in favour of the 2003 Bill and there have been no detailed proposals on revaluation. We will discuss that on another occasion. The hon. Gentleman will have to be clear that I cannot address the detail of his concerns now.
Let us go back to 1998 when the Conservatives were casting around for a replacement to the rates. We suggested one: local income tax. Then there was the poll tax, which we also opposed. We argued for a local income tax. Instead we got the council tax, which we opposed. We argued for a local income tax. A theme is developing here. In fact, we have been arguing for a local income tax for more than 20 years. It has been in every Liberal Democrat manifesto since 1983.
The Conservatives have tried to suggest that we have been inconsistent on revaluation, but we have not. It is simply fairly incidental to us. If there were no council tax, there would be no revaluation. Or to put it another wayrevaluation or no revaluation, council tax is a terrible tax that must be scrapped.
It is worth rehearsing the evidence of council tax unfairness once more, jut to make sure that people have the whole point. It is easy for people to forget the reality for people struggling on low incomes or fixed pensions who find it difficult to pay their bills each month. Many people come to my surgeries each week asking which bill they should pay firsttheir water rates, their rent or their council tax. It is easy to forget what this means to real people's lives.
Council tax penalises the old and the low paid. Remember, it was brought in as a replacement for the poll taxthe most regressive system imaginable. It was only in contrast to the poll tax that council tax appeared to have an element of fairness and was accepted by the British people. Nearly 15 years on, it has become painfully apparent that council tax is not a fair tax. That is why there are protests, demonstrations and petitions up and down the country and in this place. That is why pensioners feel the need to go to prison in protest rather than pay their bill. Council tax is Britain's most unfair tax. The Conservatives invented it, so it is hardly surprising that they still think it is good enough. But it is a tax that Labour should be ashamed of. The poorest 10 per cent. of pensioners pay nearly 10 per cent. of their income in council tax, and that is after council tax
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benefit. Up to 1.8 million pensioners do not claim the benefit that they are entitled to, often because the forms are so baffling and humiliating.
Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Lady said something that I find impossible to let pass. She said that the poorest pensioners would pay 10 per cent. of their income on council tax, and that is after council tax benefit. She must know that the poorest pensioners receive 100 per cent. rebate for council tax. How then can they, after council tax benefit, be paying 10 per cent. of their income?
Sarah Teather: The poorest among those who pay council tax and who claim the benefit still pay a larger proportion of their income than the richest in the population, so the calculation is perfectly acceptable.
As I have said, a couple who are living on as little as £16,000 a yearthey might work full-time on the minimum wagecould still find themselves paying more than £1,000 a year in council tax. How can that be fair? How can a Labour party member defend that situation? The poorest 20 per cent. Spend four times as much of their income on council tax as the richest 20 per cent. A pensioner couple on a modest pension could find themselves paying as much council tax as an investment banker who lives next door. Earlier this year, the "Gloucester Citizen" newspaper uncovered the case of a retired farmer who makes ends meet by running a bed and breakfast, and who pays more council tax than his near neighbour, Prince Charles. It is staggering that a Labour Government can stand up in this House year after year and defend the Tory tax.
Reading the debates from 199192, when the council tax was introduced, has been an education. The Labour party used to make a convincing case that it cared about the poor, working people struggling on low incomes and pensioners. What did Labour Members say when the council tax was introduced? The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) called it a "pig in a poke" taxI am not sure what that means, but it does not sound very nice.
"Why are the Government . . . skewing their new proposals so that the richest are protected from paying their fair share? Do not they realise that every pound that the rich do not pay will be added to someone else's billthe bills of precisely the same people who were so hard hit by the poll tax?" [Official Report, 23 April 1991; Vol. 189, c. 904.]
Mr. Betts : Returning to the issue of fairness, will the hon. Lady explain how foreign national millionaires living in this country, who currently pay council tax towards the local services that they receive, will pay anything under her proposal?
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