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Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): We have had a good debate, featuring many ex-Ministers and many future Ministers, as well as Members with great experience of local government. It has been such a good debate that many people rushed in at the end to make their own speeches. They must have been terribly impressed by the earlier contributions of Members on both sides of the House.
I want to concentrate on what has been said by Back Benchers. The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) made an interesting and honest speech, stating candidly that he thought the revaluation should go ahead. The speech will bear some rereading, as it contained some interesting comments aimed at Ministers. The hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) demonstrated his experience with the Valuation Office Agency and made some interesting points, particularly about the cycle of revaluation between council tax and the unified business rate. I think that many people took his speech on board.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) made a typically thoughtful and independent-minded speech. Much of it was not party policy, so I will not go into the details, but he made a good point about the balance of funding between council tax and the unified business rate. No doubt the Lyons review will have to take account of that.
The hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) showed his experience of local government, as a former leader of Manchester city council. He said that the council tax had been born out of the difficulties of the poll tax in earlier years. I have some sympathy with his view. It is rather like blaming Napoleon for the introduction of income tax: taxes are normally introduced as a result of crises rather than serene weather and careful thought.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), a former Minister and someone who knows a great deal about these matters, spoke of his concerns and of how he thought council tax ought to be
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varied. His speech, too, was not party policy, so I shall pass on to the hon. Member for Hove (Ms Barlow), who made a characteristically good speech and dealt extremely well with a Liberal Democrat intervention about local income tax.
My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) was an eloquent defender of her constituents. She spoke of the increase in council tax in her area, and of all the pressures that must be borne by a growth area with additional housing such as Basingstoke and other parts of Hampshire.
The hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) again showed his experience of local government. He took us from Merton to Wakefieldit was a long, long, long journey, but eventually we got there. The hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) again showed his local government experience and provided a history lesson about the 1992 Act that introduced council tax.
My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) made the valuable point that, if the value of one's house is high, that does not necessarily mean that one is able to pay, and made a plea on behalf of his constituents that ability to pay should be taken into account. My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) made a similar point, echoing the concerns of his constituents in Essex.
The debate got even better because 100 per cent. of the Welsh Conservative party contributed to it, which is unusual, bearing in mind that this is an English Bill, but it shows the salience of the council tax issue for our neighbours in Wales, who have just been through a revaluation. There is no doubt that the Government considered some of the outcomes of the revaluation in Wales before they determined what to do.
My hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) talked about the concerns about revaluation and the hefty rises in his constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) said that assurances were given to the Welsh Assembly that the process would be revenue neutral and it was not. My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) echoed the concerns about the revaluation in Wales. He talked about the rising anger and the 9 per cent. uplift in the yield post revaluation.
The hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) again showed his experience as a leader of Leicester city council and talked eloquently and concisely about his concerns. He did not want the revaluation to be put off for too long, but talked a great deal about function and funding and supported the Government's review and the Lyons review.
The hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) came in and did a reasonable job of keeping the debate going. The hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) did extremely well to speak for well over 30 minutes and, on the whole, to keep in order. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) showed the benefits of the Library brief, taking us into the history of revaluation. He made the salient point that revaluation, whether under the rates system or the council tax system, has always meant Governments of all political colours facing difficult choices and they do not always make the right one. I am sure that as he made an eloquent speech and made some good points, he will soon get a well-deserved promotion to the Government.
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The debate is of the Government's own making. Revaluation was not part of the 1992 Act, but the Government decided in July 2001 to revalue council tax on 1 April 2007. That was in the Local Government Act 2003, for which many Labour Members voted. Conservative Members voted for a reasoned amendment. I had the pleasure of serving on the Committee that considered the Bill. The fact that the Government have changed their minds and are accusing all sorts of people on the Opposition Benches of changing their minds has a lot to do with the fact that they decided to go down that political avenue and have now thought better of it.
We heard a lot about kicking issues into touch and about panic attacks. It is probably sensible for the Minister to put off revaluation because the salience of the council tax issue is high and increasing. The Welsh experience is a useful one. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors estimates that, if we had the same uplift following the English revaluation as occurred in Wales, that would mean £2 billion extra in council tax, and that council tax for 7 million out of 21 million council tax payers would go up. Those are big figures, which have no doubt concerned the Government and were one of the reasons why they decided to kick the issue into touch.
Revaluation itself is a costly exercise. In 2004, the cost was estimated at £108 million and, in 2005, at £178 million. We got so far as to spend nearly £60 million, of which £45 million, we heard, was spent on software. I am not sure that we received an answer about the value of the software if the revaluation is put off, and I hope that the Minister will reassure us on that.
We heard that the Valuation Office Agency has taken on nearly 1,400 staff to deal with revaluation, many of whom will be on short-term contracts. We have not heard very much about the cost of those appointments. The Government said that there would be savings and, of course, there will be savings, but there will be further costs to come from shortening the contracts of 1,400 staff.
The hon. Member for South Ribble said that, within the cycle, it would be possible to use those staff and others to undertake a revaluation of council tax and then to get back to the cycle for the revaluation of the uniform business rate. However, the whole thing is now out of synch.
Council tax is an important issue because a lot of people feel that the basis of its funding and the distribution between the various regions of the UK is not fair. The gearing effect, about which we have heard much today, means that it is difficult for local authorities to keep the rate of increase in council tax down to the rate of inflation. As we have heard, since 1997 council tax has increased by well over 76 per cent., which is why the issue is particularly salient politically. No doubt that is why we have ended up with a Bill to put off the revaluation.
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The Opposition are concerned because the Government have some form in terms of the way in which they distribute grants. Over the past eight years, we have been concerned about how money is redistributed to the various regions, which is one of the reasons why we want to show our displeasure in a vote tonight. We are concerned about the impact on many areas in terms of grants.
The other concern is that the Government have taken powers to change the bands, and to introduce more bands, to make council tax more progressive, which can be done by altering the various elements in a revaluation. If we have a revaluation and new bands are introduced at that point, we will have a very different tax from that introduced in 1993. There are concerns about the way in which the process will be dealt with and we need reassurances about a transitional relief scheme. When there are winners and losers, it is important to offset the increases for a period so that people become used to the new rate.
The Sunday newspapers referred to the Valuation Office Agency's computers, particularly the various codes being put in to value housing. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) went into detail about the issues of concern raised by The Sunday Telegraph and there is concern about the amount of information going into computer software and how it will be used to vary particular bands.
If we get to a situation where a view across a golf course or over the sea, or the condition of people's patios and gardens, starts to play a role in council tax, people will be suspicious that revaluation will not be a neutral exercise but will instead raise a great deal of money. Those concerns need to be addressed. There is concern over council tax and over the distribution of grant.
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