Mr. Syms: I do not want to stray too far, not because I do not want to answer the hon. Gentleman, but because I want to discuss amendment No. 3. On Second Reading of the Local Government Act 2003 the Opposition moved a reasoned amendment. I sat on the Committee which considered that Bill, as did the hon. Gentleman, I think. We had concerns about various aspects of that Billwe agreed with some parts but not with others. At present we do not see the need for a revaluation. That is why we broadly support what the Government are doing.
Sir Paul Beresford: My hon. Friend is very patient. I would hate to shorten his speech, but one of the difficulties with his argument is that he does not recognise a lifeline when one is thrown to him and he is starting to blow bubbles from underwater. He ought to recognise my earlier point that the ability to pay is the second way in which the valuation and the spread of valuation is taken into account for the national distribution, under the Government's present formula. That would have to change, and it could easily be changed and improved, as I have already suggested three times this afternoon.
I thank my hon. Friend for putting that again on the record. The Lyons review is examining a range of issues, including banding and alternative ways of raising money via local government. The council tax as we know it may, therefore, not remain in its existing form in the future, particularly when we come to whatever date it may be for a future revaluation. The revaluation that we are putting off today was to have taken place in 2007. If we have a revaluation in 2010 or 2011, it may be with wholly different bands, they may be
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progressive, and there may be changes and amendments to the system. My hon. Friend would like further reform of the manner in which we raise money, and I understand that.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I draw the attention of the House to the fact that I am a chartered surveyor, a fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and involved in practice in this matter. We now have a copy of the relevant Act that we are seeking to amendthe Local Government Finance Act 1992, and section 22B of that Act, as amended by section 77 of the Local Government Act 2003. There has been some comment in the House about that, so for the edification of the House I quote subsection (6) of section 22B, which states:
"is compiled under this section, the listing officer must take such steps as are reasonably practicable in the time available to ensure that it is accurately compiled on the date on which it is to be compiled."
Mr. Syms: My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) is speaking about the widespread public concern about Government inspectors and I do not intend to comment on that subject, as I wish to speak about amendment No. 3.
Mr. Syms: There is no doubt that the cost of a national revaluation is a little under £200 million£170 million or £180 million. I think the Government would acknowledge that. When my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley moved amendment No. 3, he said that one of the advantages would be that a revaluation could be done in smaller chunks by moving slowly throughout the country, doing particular regions, and there might be benefits in that. I accept that that might be true.
Sir Paul Beresford:
I thank my hon. Friend for taking another risk by giving way. In fact, that is not what I said. Although what he suggested is conceivable, there is
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an opportunity to delay or even stop national revaluations by carrying out revaluations only in those areas or billing authorities where it became a necessity because of the spread across the banding system.
Mr. Syms: That is an interesting argument. Given the various options that amendment No. 3 allows, how would that be actioned? Would it be by public consultation? Would the Member of Parliament need to have an Adjournment debate? Would the billing authority, having decided that things were seriously out of kilter in its area, have to petition Parliament to be a special case for revaluation purposes? I cannot see that happening, but I can see that the moment one moves from a national revaluation on a particular date to a local revaluation, that raises a number of questions such as in what order, when, which authorities are included, why a particular authority is included, the appeal structure, what happens when one area undergoes a rebanding process but an adjacent area does not. Would there be complaints from residents in that area?
Mr. Forth: Does my hon. Friend not find at least slightly attractive the idea of a small expert hit squad of valuers moving seamlessly round the country valuing each district or region, instead of some massive bureaucracy attempting to value everything at once? With the nip and tuck approach, that little squad could apply the same principles around the country.
Mr. Syms: That is a point. The Government acknowledged in Committee that putting off the revaluation meant that 1,250 people who worked for the Valuation Office Agency would have to be made redundant. Many of them are on short-term contracts. An issue raised on Second Reading was how
Mr. Gummer: Perhaps I can help my hon. Friend get back to the amendment. Does he accept that although this may not be the right amendment, the Government need to embrace the concept that we need a mechanism for going to specific areas where there is such great change that any alternative would be very much worse? Will he ask the Government to do precisely thatto take that element out of the amendment, so that it can be done?
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. The difficulty is that if the current structure of council tax were settled, we could move away from a national revaluation, as the amendment suggests, and carry out regional or sub-regional revaluations, as we would still get similar bands A to H in each area. Under the Lyons review, the Government are considering alternatives, andthis is relevant to the amendmentthey have the powers to vary the number of bands or make them more progressive, less progressive or whatever the Government want to do. If there was a
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partial revaluation in one area of the country on bands A to H, but at a later date the policy changed so there was different banding in a different area, that would cause immense debate in the House. Until we settle the form of local government finance and the manner in which it is introduced, we cannot move from the concept of a national revaluation to the concept of a local revaluation. The Government are right that the Lyons review needs to examine all the options and report on them.
If amendment No. 3 were drafted more cleverly, the Government might want to consider it. In that case, the Secretary of State would have to return to the House and lay orders for a national revaluation. Perhaps the Lyons review should examine the matter. When the Minister replies to this important, short and specific debate, perhaps he will say that the Lyons review should consider amendment No. 3 very carefully. There are major changes in relative values and house prices, and they may occur in particular areas rather than nationally.
We must consider a range of issues, and I understand the strength of feeling among my hon. Friends on the Back Benches. I have not made up my mind how I would vote on this one: my general instinct is to say, "No", but there are good reasons why the Government should throw the matter to the Lyons committee for further consideration. I shall listen to the rest of the debate, take into account hon. Members' points and advise my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley which way we would go, if he were to feel so strongly about the issue that he presses the amendment to obtain the opinion of the House.