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Mr. Borrow: Will the hon. Gentleman clarify the position of the Conservative party? Is it in favour of a 2007 revaluation? If not, why has it tabled an amendment that would have the effect of ensuring that a 2007 revaluation takes place?—[Interruption.]

Mr. Syms: Labour Members doubtless fought very hard in their constituencies during the election, but our position in that election was that we opposed revaluation for the first term of a Conservative Government. Unfortunately, we did not win, but our position remains perfectly clear: we are opposed to revaluation. We want to make clear our displeasure at the direction of Government policy, particularly given that many of our constituents are concerned about grant distribution, banding and the question of a more progressive council tax. Many other such issues concern my hon. Friends, and we wish to register our displeasure at the way in which the Government have conducted their policy.

Tom Levitt: The hon. Gentleman is describing a most extraordinary position. In effect, he is saying that he is relying on losing the vote at 10 o'clock in order to maintain his policy.

Mr. Syms: I am always hopeful when I go into the Division Lobby, but heads would doubtless roll—probably not mine—if we won this evening's vote.
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The council tax is an issue that concerns many of our constituents. Many petitions on the council tax have been handed into this House by various campaigns, and many people are asset rich but income poor. The salience of this issue has increased, and Government policies in recent years have led many to believe that the council tax is becoming a stealth tax. We will register our disappointment at the direction of Government policy in recent years. I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to support our amendment.

9.37 pm

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): What a letting of the cat out of the bag we have   witnessed this evening! With all due respect to Her   Majesty and her relationship with her Loyal Opposition, I would ask for my money back. The once-great Conservative party has been reduced to something of a pickle. The amendment before us in the name of the right hon. and learned Gentleman the   Leader of the Opposition is worth quoting:

That is a consistent position—since 7 April. Of course, were the amendment accepted, revaluation would be reintroduced with effect from 1 April 2007.

Although this point has been made several times today, let me emphasise that the Conservatives' strategy since their U-turn in the spring has been to scaremonger. That campaign has been based—another Conservative Member also let the cat out of the bag in this respect—on exploiting the fear of many, especially pensioners and the low paid, that because the value of their house has increased, it follows that a banding increase will take place. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Woolas: The Conservatives should listen to the argument. They get very excited about revaluation. It brought an end to their Prime Minister, Mrs. Thatcher, and they know the damage that that caused them.

The second myth that has been perpetuated, and which was repeated in some of last weekend's newspapers in a rehashed story from some dim and distant period during the summer recess, is the amazing revelation that—surprise, surprise—in valuing a property, valuers take on board the attributes of that property. Well, blow me down, the number of bedrooms is taken into account in the valuation of a property. Presumably, whether a property has a swimming pool, a conservatory, an attic or a golden garden shed will also be taken account in the valuation. Of course, the valuation office also takes into account certain attributes that work in the opposite, negative direction. If a property is located in front of a chemical works, for example, the house price may well go down—goodness me! If the front of a house has a bad view, the value of the property may go down. As I say, Madam Deputy Speaker, blow me down with a feather!

Her Majesty's loyal Opposition, who are fighting among themselves over the election of a new leader, based on the premise that they must have credible
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policies, have tabled an amendment before the House, the effect of which would be the precise opposite of what they have argued. The party's spokespersons have repeatedly said over the years that we cannot have a property tax without a revaluation, but they are now telling the House that we must have a property tax   without any revaluation. That is not so much a U-turn—at least we are honest about ours—as a double U-turn.

Let me remind the House that, in opening the debate for the Conservatives, the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) said, first, that he agreed with the postponement. That is what he said and that is what the Bill does. Secondly, he agreed that we should not have a 10-year limit in terms of the revaluation cycle. Thirdly, he said that his only problem was with the secondary legislation, to which I shall return in a few moments.

But the Opposition have tabled an amendment that would have the effect of going ahead with revaluation, though they agree with the postponement. They are going to the country saying that they want to put forward credible policies, yet they obviously do not have them. I suspect that the amendment before us was written in the Whips Office. In the rush to get away last Thursday, the Whips realised that they had to amend the motion on the Opposition day debate that they called, and I suspect that today's amendment was written in haste. I also suspect that the words used at the Dispatch Box in today's debate will feature in many a local election leaflet drawn up by my party as we approach next May. They are quite probably already in a "Focus" leaflet and on their way out.

The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar, repeating something that he read in the newspapers this weekend, said that we are introducing a tax on views, but valuation officers have always taken the attributes of a property into account.

Mr. Borrow rose—

Mr. Woolas: Here we have an expert to confirm my point of view.

Mr. Borrow: Did my hon. Friend see the photographs in the newspapers over the last few days of a fairly modest bungalow—in Dorset, I believe—that was up for sale for about £1 million? The bungalow looked similar to many properties in my constituency and, doubtless, in my hon. Friend's constituency. Does he believe that all those properties should be in the same tax band?

Mr. Woolas: My hon. Friend, who is an acknowledged expert in valuation, makes a valid point, which brings me on to the next myth that the Conservatives have been trying to peddle—the idea that somehow or other, one's council tax band is based on an absolute and not a relative value. Many hon. Members will be familiar with the differences in house, flat and apartment prices between Westminster and their own constituencies. Are we to say that council tax should be based on absolute and not relative prices? I do not think so, yet that is the rather cynical myth that was perpetuated by the Conservative party in the run-up to
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the general election. It explains their U-turn of spring this year and it explains why they are now in a complete mess in respect of one of the most important domestic policy issues that we face.

I shall reply to some of the other points that have been made in what has been a very interesting debate. The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar said that it was an established fact that prices have aligned across the country. He also repeated what he has said elsewhere that the variations in price would mean that revaluation would cause chaos. Both statements cannot be true. Either prices have aligned, which would mean no turbulence would be caused by revaluation, or we would need revaluation because prices have not aligned. Which is it? I suspect that the answer depends on which camp one is talking to, and it will be interesting to see the result.

The Conservatives also suggested that Northern Ireland was a guinea pig. That is another urban myth and completely misunderstands the point that Northern Ireland is moving from a rental to a capital base for its property tax. One does not hear the Conservatives' point made by Members from Northern Ireland, and I   suspect that it is made for entirely political reasons.

The hon. Gentleman also claimed that council tax benefit take-up has declined during this Government's term. Well, I agree, but I find the answer as to why in The Mail on Sunday.

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