Mr. Greg Knight: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I wish to put on the record the fact that the situation is more serious than you may realise. I went to the Vote Office today to ask for a copy of the Act and was told that it was not available, but I also went to the Vote Office yesterday and said that I wanted a copy of the Act before this debate commenced; I was assured that it would be available. A request for a copy of the legislation has been in force for more than 24 hours, yet we still do not have a copy of it.
Mr. Quentin Davies: On a separate point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Leaving aside entirely the shambles of not having the Act today, is there not an important issue to be dealt with if this is not to set a precedent for the future conduct of Parliament's business? Will you make a ruling that in future the Government must make sure that all the relevant documentation is available to Parliament at least 24 hours before the debate begins, not two-and-a-half hours afterwards?
Sir Paul Beresford:
For a moment, I feared that the carefully thought out suggestion offered by my right
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hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)that I speak for another two hourswould become a request from the Chair. One of the difficulties caused by my national background is that, like my previous countrymen, I tend to make speeches that are short and sweet.
Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): This is an interesting debate on an important amendment. The basic architecture of the Bill would put off revaluation. There is little difference between the Opposition and the Government on that. We think that postponement is a good thing because there is widespread concern about the revaluation originally set down in the Local Government Act 2003the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) was wrong about that. The Government have had a genuine change of heart on proceeding with revaluation and referred the matter to the Lyons review.
Mr. Francois: I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend, but he referred to the Local Government Act 2003, which is mentioned in clause 1(7) of the Bill. Is a copy of the 2003 Act available in the House this afternoon?
Mr. Quentin Davies: As my hon. Friend says, the Government's U-turn on revaluation in response to the arguments that we have advanced for the past year or so is welcome, but must not they still account for the money spentmisspent, ratheron the preparations
That seems to leave open several policy options. The Secretary of State may lay before both Houses an order for a national revaluation. Subject to the outcome of the Lyons review, I suspect that the Government will do that at some point.
The second option under the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), who is an acknowledged expert on local government, is to do something less than a national
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revaluation. Within the terms of the amendment, there are several options available in that respect. A regional revaluation would be possibleas we discussed in the Committee, house prices change nationally, regionally and sub-regionallyso that revaluation took place bit by bit. In effect, we have already had a regional revaluation in Wales. Some of the concerns expressed by my hon. Friends arise from the consequences of that revaluation. Revaluation county by county would also be possible: in a large county such as Hampshire, one could get the agreement of all the billing authoritiesthe districts and boroughsand produce a revaluation on that basis. It would also be possible on the micro-level, with revaluation only within a district or borough area.
Implicit in the amendment are major policy decisions on how to proceed, because council tax is one part of a jigsaw comprising council tax, unified business rate and the Government grant structure. Historically, both Conservative and Labour Governments have set a grant structure once they know what local billing authorities are collecting through council tax and the unified business rate, and various forms of redistribution go on. Members are often unhappy with the grant their area gets from central Governmentit is a common theme. I have never heard an hon. Member say, "My local authority has more than sufficient grant," and it has been argued that the way in which grant is distributed ought to be revisited. A national revaluation, as the Government propose, leaves open the possibility of moving resources between regions and councils, which makes it the logical thing to do from a national policy perspective. My concern about the amendment is that revaluing bit by bit will prevent us from seeing the national picture and making judgments on needs and on particular areas.
Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentlemen will not mind my intervening to inform the House that the necessary document is now in the Vote Office. It has taken only slightly longer than the half hour that Members expected. There is a slight error, which is being corrected, but the document is now in the Vote Office.
Sir Paul Beresford:
I am beginning to wonder whether I should do as was suggested earlier and give my speech all over again, because that might enable my hon. Friend to follow my argument. As I understand it, the system of valuation, revaluation and council tax banding gives two results. First, there is a distribution ladder within the banding system for redistribution of council tax itself. Secondly, the system is used to assess the ability to pay. I made it clear on Second Reading and very briefly today, in case I got stopped, that that would have to change and that it could be changed into a much fairer system that used Treasury figures on earnings and income tax paid within the billing authority areas.
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A national revaluation enables the setting of national policy objectives on the redistribution of money. That becomes much more difficult if revaluation is conducted on a regional, sub-regional or local authority basis. My fear as one whose county is not treated well by the grant system is that local revaluation might freeze an unjust distribution of the revenue support grant, which is one of the main political elements of that system.
Dr. Whitehead: The hon. Gentleman is right. In my previous intervention I should have referred to section 77 of the Local Government Act 2003, which derived in part from the 1992 Act. The 2003 Act is the one that requires regular revaluations to take place, which was the position of his party at the end of Second Reading. Is he saying this afternoon that because he does not feel particularly warmly disposed towards the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), he is in favour of regular revaluations, as laid down by the Local Government Act 2003, or he is not in favour of regular revaluations, as stated in the amendment moved by his party on Second Reading, or would he be prepared to cling to the lifeboat offered by the hon. Member for Mole Valley, which proposes some form of revaluation, but not necessarily that set out in the 2003 Act?