Previous SectionIndexHome Page

David Howarth: The main point of the amendment is to encourage the Government to be consistent from one year to the next so that the reasons they give one year are not contradicted the following year. Those reasons do not have to constitute an objective rule but they should be consistent over time.

Mr. Woolas: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. I believe that the provision to require the Secretary of State on the appropriate occasion to justify his or her decision or proposal to the House is sufficient. I stress that I studied the points that he made in Committee after that debate and that I understand them, but I believe that the amendment would inevitably lead people to conclude that there must be a golden rule.

Revaluation is not simply about reflecting divergence in prices across the property market. The case for revaluation is simply to ensure that property values are fairly reflected in council tax bandings and that values are up-to-date and can be sensibly handled by the Valuation Office Agency and other interested parties.

Above all, we are interested in fairness but it does not depend on passing some sort of arbitrary test on the level of divergence. Indeed, if the focus were to be too heavily weighted towards divergence as the overriding factor predicating a revaluation, according to the amendment, a virtual annual revaluation of all properties would have to take place in order to assess divergence.

I agree with the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) about the resources implications. The assessment would have to consider not only the national but the regional and local picture to reflect the fact that divergence can and does happen, and has an impact at the micro level—the billing authority level—as well as regionally and nationally.

I have no doubt that many individual householders would be tempted by the process to enter into some sort of annual debate about whether the Government should revalue that particular year according to whether they would win or lose—the hon. Gentleman mentioned winners and losers—by that specific set of figures. That would not offer any prospect of a sound basis on which to make the important decision of when to revalue.
1 Dec 2005 : Column 472

The right way forward is for the Government, in the light of the Lyons inquiry and our response to that, to propose and justify a date for revaluation to Parliament, and for Parliament to consider the merits of the date and the justification by the process of debating the affirmative order for which the Bill provides. On that basis, I ask hon. Members to oppose the amendment if the hon. Gentleman pushes it to a Division.

Mr. Forth: The amendment has a superficial attraction. If one reads it quickly and not too deeply, it sounds rather good, especially to those of us who would love Secretaries of State to come to the House as frequently as possible to give an account of themselves. Goodness knows, some of them do it little enough. However, on reflection I am not sure whether the amendment would work in that way. On what basis would the Secretary of State report after having made the decision? How would the reasons that the Secretary of State would be obliged to give, under the amendment, be communicated to the House? You and I can bet, Mr   Deputy Speaker, that it would not be through an oral statement, because these days we have the trendy new process, which was sold to us as an improvement, called the written ministerial statement. More and more ministerial statements are smuggled on to the Order Paper in written form, which means that nobody can question them. I can predict with absolute certainty that that will be the vehicle chosen by Secretaries of State to fulfil the requirements of the first part of the amendment.

One immediately runs into a difficulty. If I thought that there was any way of getting any Minister to come to the House, give a proper account of himself and be questioned, I would be all for it. I would not mind if the House spent almost all its time questioning Ministers on this and that—it would give us less time to pass increasingly silly Bills from the Government and elsewhere. I have no objection in principle to mechanisms whereby Ministers must come to the House and give reasons, but that is not what the amendment says. It leaves unspecified the way in which reasons would be given to the House for the decision taken once a year.

Mr. Chope: My right hon. Friend refers to once a year, but does he accept that, if we read the amendment carefully, it will be possible for the review to be done in December of one year and in January the following year, thereby negating the whole purpose of it?

Mr. Forth: That would be possible. As my hon. Friend and I know, when one drafts such an amendment, one must try to think through all the possibilities.

David Howarth: That point is dealt with by using the term "calendar year". I do know what I am doing when I am drafting.

Mr. Forth: I am not sure that that answers my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), but we should not get bogged down as it is not the most important aspect that we should consider.
1 Dec 2005 : Column 473

In relation to subsection (1C), we must confront the issue of cost, which the Minister raised. If we read the subsection quickly, it does not sound too bad, but its reference to

gets us into difficult territory. If the exercise is to be meaningful, the information will have to be comprehensive and accurate, and one is immediately confronted with the problem of the mechanism and the cost of doing that because, otherwise, it would be extremely counter-productive. The Minister rightly pointed out that we are talking about national, regional and, I presume, local variations, all of which would have to be covered to make the provision of any use. That cannot be done without cost.

It is one thing to wave one's hand and say that the job can be done with existing staff, but I am not sure that that is the case. Under the amendment, a mandatory annual exercise would require an annual assessment of the degree of divergence in relevant property values—

David Howarth: Relevant.

Mr. Forth: I will help the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), who is speaking from a sedentary position, and get him into Hansard again, thereby making his long afternoon worthwhile. He seems to think that the word "relevant" solves the problem. I am not sure that it does. It raises a host of other questions as to what would be relevant. Perhaps he would like to tell us what is in his mind when he uses the word "relevant". He said that he was a superb drafter of amendments, so I shall give him the chance now to demonstrate that skill.

David Howarth: That would be a question for the Minister.

Mr. Forth: So the hon. Gentleman will now touchingly trust the Minister to interpret the words in his amendment. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what would be relevant.

Mr. Woolas: Were price divergence the criteria, the relevant property information would include every property, which, I presume, would involve a national valuation exercise every 12 months.

Mr. Forth: This might be a little moment in parliamentary history. We have had the hon. Member for Cambridge proposing an amendment to the House without knowing what his own words meant. He then told the House, through me, that he would trust the Minister to interpret the amendment, and the Minister immediately obliged us by telling us from the Dispatch Box what it meant. This is an exciting development in parliamentary procedure.

David Howarth: Now that the Minister has said what is in his mind he can be held to account for it, which he could not be previously.

Mr. Forth: This Minister has obliged us with his interpretation of the hon. Gentleman's amendment, but
1 Dec 2005 : Column 474
that will be relevant only for as long as this Minister is in post, which we all hope will not be terribly long. In any case, this Minister is exercising powers presumably delegated to him by his Secretary of State to give his interpretation, but we do not know whether the Secretary of State agrees with it. Until we can tease out from the Secretary of State whether the Minister's view is the departmental view, I am not sure that we are any further forward.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): The Minister cannot have views that are separate from those of the Secretary of State; the right hon. Gentleman suggests a constitutional enormity.

Mr. Forth: I am not sure that in this Government such constitutional certainty applies, but I shall not be tempted into that subject, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I know you well enough to know that you would prevent me from doing any such thing.

Let us assume that we all now know what "relevant" means. The Minister has helped us. He said that in his view—and the hon. Member for Cambridge has told us that that is the only view that matters at this stage—for this purpose the relevant property values are every property in the kingdom. We now know the scale of the exercise with which we are confronted—to fulfil the requirements of the amendment, a gigantic bureaucratic exercise would have to be undertaken every year. Why? So that the Secretary of State could slip a little written ministerial statement on to the Order Paper giving the reasons for his decision on whether there should be a revaluation.

I am not sure that that takes us much further forward. All too often, that is the trouble with amendments that are supposed to add value. I am not talking merely about technical faults or drafting errors, which are entirely forgivable as we do not all have the resources behind us that the Government have. And, goodness knows, even when the Government try to draft a Bill these days, they end up having to make hundreds of amendments due to errors here and there. We are simply talking about the efforts of humble Back Benchers who try to improve Bills with amendments such as this one yet, sadly, on this occasion the amendment does not pass muster.

I cannot claim to have analysed the amendment in great depth. I merely glanced at it, but if I can identify such a degree of deficiency by that superficial approach, goodness knows what would happen if we had the time—alas, sadly, we do not—to look at it in any depth or at any length. This is but the briefest analysis.

When I read the amendment I wished I had tabled one of my own. It would have been more interesting, and probably more relevant, if instead of the Secretary of State initiating the process and carrying it through, some impartial body, detached from Government, could have been charged with that responsibility. We are in an era—are we not?—of quangos, NGOs and all the other acronyms that are supposed to give a view different from Government. I have doubts about that, as usually if bodies are Government-funded their view is not terribly different from the Government's. However, if we used that approach, we might at least be able to rely somewhat more on the process outlined in the amendment.
1 Dec 2005 : Column 475

All in all, I am not terribly impressed with the amendment. I am not very taken with it, and if the hon. Member for Cambridge is rash enough to try to put it to a vote I suspect that he may find that he has embarrassingly little support.

Next Section IndexHome Page