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Mr. Francois : From memory, I think that it was Lord Acton who said that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the problem with the amendment is that it does not give the Secretary of State absolute power, but gives him too much power? That is not counter-balanced by a requirement that a request for revaluation must be seen to have come from the local authority or authorities in question. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern?
Mr. Knight: My hon. Friend is right; I share his concerns. He has put his finger on the problem. If the amendment stated that an order may be made only where a billing authority has made the request, all my objections would disappear. It is as simple as that. It is a dangerous precedent if a Secretary of State can instigate a review without a local authority wanting it. That is why I cannot support the amendment.
I aim to be of assistance to the right hon. Gentleman. The amendment refers to "adjoining . . . authorities". It was pretty well known during the period of London government when the Conservative party was in power that particular favour was shown to what I believe are adjoining authorities, at one point at least, of Westminster and Wandsworth. Are we to allow for the possibility of that approach in future, with
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generosity and the distribution of largesse on the part of a Tory Government, should there ever be one in the first half of this new century?
Mr. Knight: In this debate I have left my political axe outside the Chamber. I would be against the amendment being put into the Bill even if we had a Conservative Government. It is our duty to build into legislation the checks and balances that prevent a Minister from any political party from abusing his position.
Sir Paul Beresford: Perhaps I can help my right hon. Friend with the intervention of the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), which was geographically and factually wrong. In the distribution of council tax, the inner London areaWandsworth and Westminsterregularly received the lowest or second lowest grants.
Mr. Binley : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has undertaken a redistribution from struggling midland counties to northern counties that are in many respects better off in terms of local government grant, exactly as has been described?
When considering whether we should allow a piecemeal approach, we should consider the wider issues of national planning. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) made a good point in saying that staff costs could be blown out of all proportion when a national revaluation was deferred. I accept that that would not be a consideration if amendment No. 3 were passed, because the staff costs would be much lower, but I do wonder why those carrying out the task must be employees of the state. Why not involve the private sector? Why can the service not be bought for the period during which it is required? That, however, is a debate for another day.
Another defect of the amendment is that it does not provide for an appeal process. If the Secretary of State is to instigate the review and if it will not rely on a trigger from a local authority, the local authority ought at least to have a voice. It should at least be able to ask not to be made to undertake a revaluation as a billing authority, and to list its reasons for not wishing to undertake the revaluation. The Secretary of State should then be obliged to consider those reasons.
My hon. Friend says, sotto voce, that that is right, but I am not reassured. That is not what I mean
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by an appeal process. We all know what would happen: a Secretary of State who made an order, perhaps for the wrong reasons, would simply whip members of his party to vote it through. We see that time and again. It is not an appeal process; it is what the late Lord Hailsham described as elective dictatorship, and I do not regard it as a satisfactory safeguard. If we are to accept the principle of amendment No. 3, we need a proper appeal process whereby the Secretary of State's decision can be challenged and he can be required to reveal why he has made the order. We have not yet reached amendment No. 4, but it at least requires the Secretary of State to
My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley did the House a service by allowing us to debate this issue, but the wording of his amendment renders it a wholly unsatisfactory vehicle, and I hope that he will withdraw it. Someone asked earlier why we should not refer it to the Lyons committee, but I should prefer it to be withdrawn completely, and I should like a rethink to take place.
Mr. Gummer: I too thank Mr. Speaker for ensuring that we were provided with the Local Government Finance Act 1992, on which the amendments rest. I hope that the House will never again have to debate without such information. I also hope that the cost of providing it, which must have been considerable, will be met not from the House of Commons appropriation but by the Minister, because it was incurred as a result of a change in the order of today's business. Governments should take seriously the cost of changes that are often made for not altogether wholesome reasons. I like to know that if people cause the cost, they pay the cost.
This is an important amendment and I came into the Chamber, what now seems like a long time ago, to support itbut the more I have heard the debate, the more I think that there are some key issues that need to be teased out. I hope that I can encourage the Minister to take the gravamen of the proposal seriously, even if he does not accept the format in which it is presented.
Mr. Greg Knight: I agree with my right hon. Friend that this is an important debateso does he share my disgust that at this moment in our proceedings, there is not one Labour Back Bencher, apart from a Parliamentary Private Secretary, in the Chamber?
Mr. Gummer: I was not going to draw attention to that. It was so surprising that a matter of such importance to the future of local government had not attracted even one person with any interest in the subject from the Labour Benches, that I had almost forgotten how to say so in a polite manner. That is outrageousunequalled, I would have thought. I cannot remember a local government debate of this nature in which the Government party has not had a single Back Bencher here. Perhaps they are all as confused as the one whom we heard from earlier
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord):
Order. The right hon. Gentleman is a seasoned speaker in this House, and I think that he would now like to come to the amendment before us.
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Mr. Gummer: I quite agree, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As you will have noticed, I was meaning to go on without mentioning the absence of Government Members, but I was led astray by my right hon. Friend. May I suggest, however, that the debate has been extremely valuable, and that you have missed a great treat by not having been in the Chair for most of it? At stake is an issue of huge importance, concerning the complex way in which the local government impost relates to the central Government grant.
The difficulty that my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) has addressed in his amendment is the difficulty that anybody has in understanding why the council tax in his particular locality is what it is. Council tax is subject to three differing pressures, one of which my hon. Friend has tried to address. The first, of course, is what the Government decide is a suitable sum for that local authority to have in grant. The second is what the local authority decides is a suitable sum to raise in council tax. The third is the incidence of that council tax as spread over the whole area.
My hon. Friend talked about the Government's determination in the Bill. I agree with that determination, and I only wish that the Government had agreed with me on the hustings in my constituency, when I explained so clearly why a revaluation would be entirely wrong at that time. I was told by my opponent, who belongedand, I think, still does belongto the Labour party, that a valuation was essential. As a country councillor, he was determined to explain to me that I did not understand the issue, and why we had to have a valuation. Now I understand that it was not essential, and that despite being a county councillor, he was wrong. I only hope that the Minister has written to him to explain how foolish he was to have accepted that doctrine from the Labour party during the election campaign.
Now there will not be a revaluation for the foreseeable future. However, in certain specific parts of the country there will be significant, untoward, out-of-kilter changes for houses that have been built relatively recently. That will cause real local problems, for which the Minister has no remedyand my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley has been trying to produce a remedy for him.
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