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Mr. Woolas: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We have already had some confusion this afternoon, when the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) referred to the Deputy Speaker as the Deputy Prime Minister. It seems that a mistake has been made and I will correct it immediately. The website should of course refer to the Deputy Leader of the House, who made the announcement during business questions—hardly the secret slipping out of an announcement.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) for drawing the House's attention to this error. I had no idea that my influence stretched so far. At the end of a busy parliamentary week, perhaps we should content ourselves with the thought that to err is human, to forgive is divine.

Mr. Forth: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This is emphatically not the end of the parliamentary week because as you well know, important legislation will be before the House tomorrow. I am sure that all Members present will be present tomorrow for that important work.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I perhaps slipped into the thought that it is drawing to the end of my parliamentary week. The House's arrangements are good enough to allow one Deputy Speaker not to be on duty on a Friday. I know that, as ever, the right hon. Gentleman will be assiduous, as will other Members.

Order for Third Reading read.

5.19 pm

Mr. Woolas: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I can assure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that your influence reaches to the very heart of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

This is of course not the biggest Bill ever to come before this House, but its provisions are important to the future of local government in England. That importance derives from the time and space that they give us to allow Sir Michael Lyons to complete his inquiry into local government function and funding. The Bill also enables the Government and Parliament to consider his recommendations properly. We will be able to consult on them and debate them fully before we move forward with a reformed council tax system and the revaluation that follows from that.

We debated the Bill extensively on Second Reading—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but perhaps the hon. Member for Alyn and
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Deeside (Mark Tami) could conduct his business arrangements outside the Chamber, if he is not taking part in the debate.

Mr. Woolas: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

We also had some interesting exchanges in a short but nevertheless productive Committee stage. Sadly, however, the sensible debate in the House of the principles of revaluation and the relative merits of different timings—and indeed of local area revaluations, the subject of the amendment moved earlier by the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford)—has been in contrast in recent weeks to a stream of the most ridiculous misinformation and scaremongering promulgated through certain sections of the popular press.

It is sad, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I have to inform you and the House that I am told by the Valuation Office Agency that those stories have given rise to serious concerns amongst agency staff. They are worried that, in going about their legal business and carrying out the duties given to them by the House—and by the Opposition when they were in power and introduced the Local Government Finance Act 1992—they may face verbal, and at worst physical, attack by members of the public. Perhaps not surprisingly, in the circumstances, those members of the public have themselves been fired up and worried by ridiculous stories about allegations of snooping and invasion of privacy.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): Will the Minister give some examples of incidents of physical or threatened abuse?

Mr. Woolas: I took care to say that the stories have led VOA staff to fear such attacks, but I will give examples of intimidation in a moment. For example, my officials have received calls from worried householders, most recently an 84-year-old gentleman. He had read the confused and confusing stories and wanted to know why "inspectors" would be coming to his home, forcing their way in and taking photographs of his bedroom and personal belongings. One article said that those photographs would be given to burglars to help them target properties.

In all conscience, I cannot allow this situation to remain unchallenged. With your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to attempt to put the record straight once again, for the benefit of the House, of members of the public who take such misinformation to be true, and of VOA staff who are daily faced with the consequences of these grossly unfair and misleading reports.

Sir Paul Beresford: The Minister will accept that most hon. Members who understand this matter know that what he is saying is correct. Does he agree that the problem may have more to do with journalistic licence than with statements made by hon. Members?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before the Minister replies any further on this point, I must remind him that, although I understand what he is anxious to do, an
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amendment on this matter was ruled out of order. On Third Reading, we should concentrate on what is in the Bill, and not on what might have been in it.

Mr. Woolas: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hope that you will allow me to give the hon. Member for Mole Valley the assurance that he asked for. I deliberately said in my opening remarks that we had had a sensible and principled debate as the Bill made its way through the House.

The Bill does three things, and three things only. It effectively postpones the 2007 council tax revaluation exercise. Despite the confused messages coming from Opposition spokesmen and spokeswomen, we are postponing revaluation. We have made it clear that we do not believe that it will happen in the lifetime of this Parliament.

The Bill removes the requirement for subsequent revaluations to take place at intervals of no more than 10 years. Finally, it gives the Secretary of State power to set the date of revaluations by order, subject to affirmative resolution in the House. That is all that it does. There are no proposals for new powers for VOA staff. Indeed, the existing powers to carry out inspections have been in place since before the second world war and were affirmed in the Local Government Finance Act 1992. One of the reasons why those powers exist is to help the VOA to stop people avoiding paying their tax.

Sir Paul Beresford: Many of us feel that a property-based tax for local government purposes has some positive advantages, but one difficulty with the vague way in which the Minister approaches the issue—we do not know whether there will be a revaluation—is that it could make one suspect that he is sliding away from a property-based local government tax.

Mr. Woolas: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, because it gives me the opportunity to say again in the House that the Government's policy is to postpone, not to cancel, the revaluation. The property-based council tax is the basis of the review by Sir Michael Lyons and I referred again to the desirability of reforming the council tax system and the measures that go with it.

The important thing to recognise is that the staff and contractors of the Valuation Office Agency have no powers to forcibly inspect a property for council tax valuation purposes. The VOA does not forcibly enter people's homes—it does not have either the legal power or the desire to do so. For a member of the VOA to take photographs of the inside of a property would be extremely rare and it would only ever be done with the express permission of the householder. In fact, the VOA has clear guidance for its staff about on-site inspections. It expressly states that photographs can be taken only with the permission of the householder, and must not show people, details of security systems, or valuable possessions.

The basis on which property is valued for council tax purposes is the same now as it was when the council tax was introduced. The VOA seeks to assign a market value based on the variables that operate in the market. If one property has a scenic view and another overlooks
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a chemical plant, it is likely that the one with the scenic view will attract a higher relative market value than the one with the view of a chemical plant. There is nothing new or surprising about that. If one property has an attribute that leads to its market value being higher than its next-door neighbour, it is only fair that that should be reflected in its banding. This has always been the case and nothing has changed since 1992.

As I mentioned in Committee, the fact that the VOA is capturing property attributes in a database using codes does not indicate some sinister, new, Big Brother database. It is simply the most effective and efficient way of capturing data in a form that can be used by the valuation model to come up with a fair and justifiable valuation, on computers, rather than on paper. That process has previously been done manually by a valuation officer. I recall that estate agents had to be hired quickly to ensure that the council tax could be introduced to replace the unpopular poll tax. The only difference now is that the valuation officers have the benefit of modern technology to support them in their task.

I wish to use this opportunity to reassure hon. Members and members of the public—I hope that they have paid attention to the debate or will read the reports of it—that suggestions that people who are unable to pay their council tax will be sent to prison are not true. People who wilfully refuse to pay may be imprisoned under powers that have existed for many years, but that is entirely different from the position of someone who is unable to pay. Nobody has ever been jailed for being unable to pay, nor would they be.

Only last weekend, at the very time that winter fuel payments and £200 cheques for pensioners' council tax rebates were landing on the doormats of millions of pensioner households, there were stories touting a survey about the impact of council tax increases on the elderly. That survey was mentioned by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope)—incidentally, he was the Under-Secretary who introduced the poll tax in the late 1980s—and by its own admission, it excluded council tax benefits and rebates for the elderly. I should say in acknowledging the point made by the hon. Member for Mole Valley that the reports of that survey have led to yet more anxiety among the elderly.

The Government have already said that we will use our capping powers against councils with excessive council tax increases and budgets, as we did this year and last year. I give that reassurance to those who may be anxious about council tax.

Almost 2.5 million people aged 60 or over now receive council tax benefit, which provides a rebate of up to 100 per cent. of their bills. In addition, £100 was given to households with someone aged 70 or over in 2004–05, to help them with their council tax bills. For 2005–06, households with someone aged 65 or over are receiving £200, which is paid with the winter fuel payments unless they are already entitled to a 100 per cent. council tax rebate.

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