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Mr. Chope: My right hon. Friend makes a good point but unfortunately I have no figures to illustrate it. All I can do is to illustrate the costs of a national scheme with its inherent inflexibility. As I understand it, despite the fact that that role has been withdrawn from the VOA, the Minister said in Committee that 600 staff would leave the agency between 30 March and 30 June 2006. What are those 1,200 staff doing in the meantime? Why were they not made redundant immediately, given that the function that they performed was removed? The Minister may feel for the families and the employees
Mr. Chope: I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sure that you are right that the House has noted our concern about the plight of people who are seduced into jobs that they believe to be long-term only to find that that is not the case.
Certainly, Madam Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend's amendment would require a much smaller cohort of staff who, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said, could be
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sent around the country at the behest of the Government to carry out a rolling valuation. The amendment has two great virtues. It is not perfect, but it is much better than nothing, and it demonstrates the imagination that Conservatives bring to the subject, given our constituents' frustration with the fact that the Government insist on maintaining an unfair system that penalises many of them.
Mr. Greg Knight: You will be aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I raised my concern at the outset about the absence of a copy of the Local Government Finance Act 1992. May I place on record my gratitude to you, the Speaker, the Clerks of the House and everyone involved in producing that document? In the past few minutes I have received a hot copy fresh off the photocopier. It is nearly 2 in thick, and consists of more than 200 pages, so I do not know how I am supposed to digest it while addressing the House. I believe that the Speaker will support my view that that must never be allowed to happen again.
Mr. Forth: I appreciate my right hon. Friend's frustration. Even though his ability to digest material his legendary, he may wish to concentrate on the provisions in the Act that are explicitly referred to in the Bill and the amendment. I have done a little work on that, and I hope to help the House with the fruits of my labour later. If my right hon. Friend concentrated on section 22 of the Act, referring to section 21 on which it rests, that would naturally lead him to the amendment and the Bill itself. My right hon. Friend need not be alarmed
Mr. Knight: I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) for his advice, and I shall peruse the Act in greater detail as we proceed. However, given that I asked for a copy yesterday, it is not satisfactory to have to mug up and refresh my memory of an Act of Parliament that I helped to steer through the House as a Whip.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) for initiating this debate. Whatever one's view of the sloppy drafting of his amendment, this is an important debate. There are merits in the broad principle of his amendment, because it has often been impossible for Governments to conduct national revaluations. The revaluation scheduled for 1938 was deferred for two years, but the second world war broke out, so it never took place. A revaluation was scheduled for 1952, but it was deferred until 1953, and was eventually carried out in 1956. A revaluation was scheduled for 1961 under a Conservative Government, but it was deferred until 1963. The Labour Government that followed deferred the 1968 revaluation.[Interruption.] Indeed, that Government did not carry out a revaluation at all, and it was Edward Heath's Conservative Government who carried out a revaluation in 1973. Throughout our history, therefore, there have been occasional problems with getting national revaluations off the ground. If we
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cannot undertake a national revaluation we should consider whether it is worth undertaking a regional or partial revaluation.
I therefore do not oppose the principle behind my hon. Friend's amendment but, given its poor drafting, I am afraid that I cannot support him. I have explained why in my interventions. A politically motivated or malevolent Secretary of State, for example, may decide to make a blatant political order to carry out a revaluation of properties in areas that voted for another political partyperhaps the Conservatives or the Liberal Democratsto teach the residents a lesson. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst asked about judicial review, but I am not confident that such a review would work in those circumstances, because that Minister would be unlikely to say publicly that the basis of his decision was his wish to punish voters, even though that was the motivation behind his order.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The right hon. Gentleman is talking about a politically motivated or malevolent Secretary of State. He was the well-regarded MP for Derby, North when, for many years, the Conservative Government were politically motivated against my adjacent county of Leicestershire. Does he not agree that they were notorious for their politically motivated council funding?
Mr. Knight: You will stop me if I stray too far in responding to that question, Madam Deputy Speaker. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's allegation. For a period, I was sponsor Minister of the city of Derby, and I did whatever I could, whenever I could, to bring more money and investment into the city.
Make no mistake that bullying takes place. Birmingham city council has removed one of the Government's precious bus lanes to reduce congestion, and the Secretary of State has threatened the council with loss of grant unless it reinstates that lane. Ministers do make threats to local authorities, so my concern is not exaggerated or far-fetched.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley described me as paranoid on this issue. I would put it this way: I am rightly concerned about corruption of power. Are we to pass a sloppily drafted amendment that gives a Secretary of State the unfettered right to make an order in any circumstances that he chooses? The amendment puts no limitations on the exercise of his power; nor does it say that he has to consider what has happened to property values or to population movement. I am deeply concerned that the provision could be used in an unfair way.
Mr. Gummer : My right hon. Friend is making a serious statement and, more serious, it is now almost universally accepted that such pressure, such institutional corruption, is part and parcel of the means by which the Government operate.
I am making a serious point and I do not make it lightly. In the process of legislating, we should
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come to the Chamber to put our concerns on record. I have some sympathy with the principle behind the amendment, but because the House is not a debating society and because we are making legislation, I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley that I cannot support him if he pushes the amendment to a vote. I fear that, potentially, the amendment would give unbridled power to the Secretary of State, who might use it in a malicious way against certain local authorities.
Mr. Gummer: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the other problem is that the amendment could be a means whereby the Secretary of State could cover up the fact that the real reason for the heavy cost of local government in particular areas was the manipulation of the grant, rather than the incidence of the council tax?
I cannot grasp why my hon. Friend felt it necessary to use the words "adjoining billing authorities". If the amendment merely referred to a number of billing authorities and omitted "adjoining", I could understand that approach. As I said when I intervened on him earlier, the use of a limiting word in the amendment means that the Secretary of State may not be able to make orders for comparable billing authorities.
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