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Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Indeed, I made it earlier in an intervention. The Secretary of State could use the power for punitive reasons. For example, instead of council tax capping an authority, he could use the threat of the power to encourage it to keep its percentage increase of council tax down to a level that he deemed acceptable. Again, I would think that totally reprehensible, but one can imagine a certain Secretary of State—not the Minister for Local Government—who is very honourable, doing exactly what my hon. Friend says.

Mr. Bone: As I said earlier in the debate, I have a particular interest in this matter because Wellingborough has had the biggest increase in council tax since the council tax was introduced. My concern is that the proposal would be a backdoor way of increasing the amount that my constituents have to pay in council tax.

Sir Paul Beresford rose—

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I will give way to my hon. Friend in a moment, although I think that I can answer what he is about to say—that a revaluation per se does not necessarily give rise to an increase in council tax, although it probably will do so for the very reasons that I mentioned. Even if it does not give rise to an increase in council tax immediately, the revenue support grant will be reduced to support the redistribution mechanism about which I have talked. I therefore have a lot of sympathy with the point made by my hon. Friend the
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Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone). I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley wants to contradict me.

Sir Paul Beresford: I thank my hon. Friend for the opportunity to do so. I think that he fails to understand something that I have stressed time and again. The aim of a revaluation locally is a fairer distribution within the local area, but a national revaluation will make a difference to the way in which the grant is distributed, which was also a point that I made. Ability to pay should therefore be estimated on a basis of tax paid or income earned within billing areas, which has already been done by the Treasury.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend has huge knowledge of the way in which local government works and I am hesitant to contradict him. The way of the world, however, is that a revaluation will put considerable pressure on a local authority to increase council tax. To stick to the mechanism whereby council tax should not go up, if the revaluation causes an increase in the entire list the rate of council tax would have to go down. I cannot imagine many councils explaining to their council tax payers that they have put the rate of council tax down in order to keep the council tax the same. The way of the world is that the valuation would go up and the council tax rate would stay the same, so the actual amount payable would go up. I do not know whether my hon. Friend wants to come back on that point—he is shaking his head. It is not necessary. There we are. The whole purpose of this kind of debate is to get differences of opinion out in the open—parler, to speak, is what Parliament is all about. I am pleased to take part in this debate.

I have almost come to the end of my speech, but suffice it to say that when the Lyons' committee comes to report on this matter—next year, I gather, in tranches—I hope that the Government will take it very seriously. We have had some excellent debate this evening. There is a lot of merit in the principle proposed by my hon. Friend—that there should be an ability to have local revaluations, provided that it is under the democratic control of locally elected councillors. I hope that the Lyons' report will deal with that matter.

Before I conclude, I want to deal with the problem of appeals. At the moment, appeals only take place in the categories that I have mentioned. Were there either a local or national revaluation, however there would be a lot more appeals. That would increase the work of the Valuation Office Agency, and perhaps it would be useful to sub-contract that to the private sector, too. Appeals take time, cost money and cause a lot of angst to our constituents, so we should try to get valuation lists accurate. Where changes do not take place for individual streets and houses within individual streets, whatever revaluation takes place under my hon. Friend's proposal or any future Government proposal the number of individual differentials could be kept to a minimum and the number of appeals reduced.

Mr. Francois: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point about appeals and I should like to draw a brief analogy with the planning system. As resistance is hardening to many planning applications, particularly but not exclusively in the south-east, the Government
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are running out of planning inspectors to adjudicate, so it often takes more than a year to obtain a public inquiry as there are not enough planning inspectors to go round. That is becoming a real problem in the planning process, so does my hon. Friend agree that it could be an additional problem in the valuation system?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend, with his huge knowledge of such matters, is right. The Government are having to produce a special planning grant to try to encourage local authorities, such as mine, that are extremely short of staff due to high housing costs to employ planning officers. The same would apply for valuation officers in the listing authorities. Of course, as has rightly been suggested, the solution would be to employ the private sector to do the work. There would then be no need for a permanent overhead.

The amendment is premature. It contains many good intentions, as is always the case with proposals made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley. However, we should wait for Sir Michael Lyons to make his report and reconsider the amendment in due course.

Mr. Forth: This obviously essential debate has raised many subjects, and I should like to touch on a few of them in my brief contribution. I made a note that we have talked about local accountability and flexibility, the relative costs of different approaches, the impact of local developments, whether anomalies could be better corrected nationally or locally, the Valuation Office Agency and the role of the Secretary of State, to say nothing of appeals, which my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) has just mentioned. All are relevant and I shall touch on them as I go through my speech.

To set a context, we need to establish the provenance of the matter. That takes us back to the beginning of the debate, when Mr. Speaker very graciously and with enormous efficiency was able to produce the missing Act—if I may call it that: for we started the debate without the very Act on which the whole matter is based. Fortunately, we now have it and I want to ensure that the House understands that the amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) refers to an order under subsection (1A), which in turn refers to the Bill where subsection (1) of clause 1 refers to section 22B of the Local Government Finance Act 1992. That is where we got into immediate difficulty, as we were all wondering how on earth the debate could be properly conducted without the missing Act. It is fair to say that initially we were floundering in a mist, which is unusual for us as we are always clear-eyed and sharp of mind. On this occasion, however, we started at a disadvantage.

Mr. Speaker sorted all that. He waved his wand. He exuded and exerted his authority and the Act was quickly to hand.

Mr. Bone: I have a copy of the Act. It is a bundle of photocopied sheets and it looks as though there are about 1,000 pages to go through. Is not it a bit late to do that?

Mr. Forth: I shall help my hon. Friend. I am glad that he made that point, although I do not need to go through
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1,000 pages—not yet anyway, unless I am tempted. I zeroed in with my laser-like focus on the very parts of the Act that form the foundation of the Bill from which the amendment flows. He will be able to see that direct connection, as I hope will everyone else in the Chamber.

In section 20, we find the genesis of the whole matter that we are discussing. It states:

We can see immediately that the matters dealt with by the amendment flow from clause 20. Section 21 spells things out:


So we can begin to see how we are building up the approach, the philosophy and indeed the bureaucracy—to which we shall return later; it has of course been touched on already.

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