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I must turn to the interest that the hon. Member for Meriden expressed in our council tax policy, as she made so much of the Lyons report in her speech. That gives me a chance to set the record straight. We have no plans to revalue properties in this Parliament. We have no plans to introduce new higher and lower council tax bands in this Parliament. We have no plans to replace bands altogether with a system based on the individual value of each home. The Tory policy on council tax seems to consist of tabling endless parliamentary questions
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about patios and bathrooms while dreaming up stories to scare people about spies in the sky and inspectors who are going to kick the door down. If one were to believe them, one would think that every home has a helicopter hovering above it taking pictures of patios and every bed has a home inspector lurking beneath it. One of my favourite parliamentary questions is the one tabled by the hon. Member for Meriden that asks what is the Valuation Office Agency’s definition of a bathroom and whether a room with a shower but not a bath is classified as a bathroom.

People could be forgiven for having expected the hon. Member for Meriden to set out the Conservatives’ policy on council tax today: would they keep it, would they scrap it, or would they reform it?

Mr. Redwood: The Secretary of State is struggling, so I shall help her. Does she agree that any council candidate who supports a local income tax and implies that it will be cheaper is guilty of two sins of deception? The first is that council elections do not settle the introduction of a local income tax. The second is that it will not be cheaper.

Ruth Kelly: On that point, we can agree.

Mrs. Spelman rose—

Ruth Kelly: I shall give way to the hon. Lady, who is obviously keen to set the record straight on bathrooms.

Mrs. Spelman: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the Secretary of State to mock the device of the parliamentary question that is open to hon. Members to elicit factual information from the Government— [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I cannot hear the hon. Member’s point of order.

Mrs. Spelman: Is it in order for the Secretary of State to mock the legitimate use of the parliamentary question as a method of enticing from the Government vital information about their tax plans, perhaps not in this Parliament, but immediately after a general election?

Madam Deputy Speaker: Having heard the hon. Lady’s comments, I have to tell her that that is not a point of order for the Chair.

Ruth Kelly: I would not have drawn the House’s attention to the hundreds of parliamentary questions that the hon. Lady tables if she had anything else to say about the council tax, but I am afraid that she has not. I waited for tonight’s debate with great anticipation, but yet again I am none the wiser.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Since the Secretary of State is pressing the other council tax party for answers on council tax revaluation among other things, will she say whether she agrees with Sir Michael Lyons that

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He says that he understands the Government’s reasons for delaying the decision until after the general election. What are they?

Ruth Kelly: The hon. Gentleman could not have expected me to be any clearer than I have been. We have no plans for revaluation in this Parliament. Michael Lyons is welcome to his view—after all, he prepared an independent report for the Government—but we will not revalue in this Parliament.

Local government plays a vital role in our communities. The Labour party has a clear, ambitious and workable vision for councils to thrive in future and a strong record on which to build. Political parties will ultimately be judged on results, not rhetoric, and on policies, not posturing. The warm words of Conservative Members count for nothing with those who remember the cold comfort that a Tory Government brought to councils.

Perhaps that is why the Conservative party is so poorly represented not only in major cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle but in Scotland and much of Wales. If the Conservative party is serious about localism, it needs to match its words with action. If it is serious about making local services more responsive, Conservative councillors need to show it. If Conservative Members want to make a genuine difference, surely it is time they stopped scaremongering and supported the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill. I invite them to do that now. There is no response.

Mrs. Spelman: The Secretary of State has ignored a major issue in the Bill about which we have had no comfort from the Government. She is willing to grant herself the power to direct councils to restructure. That is a draconian power, to which we strongly object. She knows that that forms the basis of strong opposition to the measure.

Ruth Kelly: The hon. Lady considers that to be an incredibly important issue—so important that she did not raise it in her speech. She did not note the fact that the Tory-controlled Local Government Association understands the reason for the power, which is temporary, so that if local councils make unitary proposals, we can ensure that they are workable and coherent across the piece. If the inclusion of the power was the reason for her lack of support for the Bill, perhaps she will change her mind. I made a commitment at the time to table an amendment to restrict the power of restructuring and, together with the Local Government Association, we have now made clear our intention.

Soon, many people throughout the country will have a clear choice. For those who believe in investment over cuts, a clear vision for Britain’s communities and a party that puts its money where its mouth is, there is only one choice—Labour on 3 May.

8.14 pm

Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): Liberal Democrats greatly welcome the time that has been set aside for the subject of the debate. If we want a healthy democracy and a responsive and participative society, with effective and efficient services, we must have strong democratic institutions at every level, especially
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in local government. There could hardly be a better time to debate the future of local democracy and local government than 10 days before the biggest round of local government elections in England for four years, and on the eve of some historic local government elections in Scotland, for which a proportional voting system will be used for the first time.

This evening we have a chance to examine the competing plans of the political parties for strengthening and enhancing democracy and for better participation in our society. It is an opportunity to consider parties’ plans for delivering effective local services and improving the well-being of our local communities.

It was therefore a genuine disappointment to be presented with the Conservative motion. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), did her best, but even her best could not disguise the fact that the motion contains only half an analysis of the problem, no diagnosis and no effective remedies. For long sections of her speech I thought that she was reading a succession of Conservative election leaflets. She paid little attention to the severe and serious problems that we should be addressing when we discuss the future of local government.

The Conservatives’ first motion today took up only 18 lines on the Order Paper, and their second only nine lines. It is a pity that they did not find another few lines to add to their second motion to give us a clue, a faint hint or even the ghost of an inkling of what they believe should be done to ensure a secure future for local government.

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): It is interesting that Liberal Democrat Front Benchers oppose the Conservatives. In my constituency, the Liberal Democrats are in power on the council for the second time. The first time, they went into coalition with us when we temporarily lost control in 2002. Now, strangely enough, they are in coalition with the Conservatives after we temporarily lost power last year. Where do the Liberal Democrats stand?

Andrew Stunell: The Liberal Democrats stand on our policies of fair local government services properly provided and service to the community. I am proud to say that we implement them in every part of local government where we have the power and opportunity to do that.

The hon. Member for Meriden, despite her best efforts, could not say what the Conservatives intended to do and we are therefore left with having to examine the Conservative party’s record. That raises an important question. How on earth have the Conservatives got the cheek to table a motion on the future of local government given the huge part that they played in bringing it to its current plight? The hon. Lady is right that local government is over-centralised and prescriptive. In many ways, local government services and local democracy are diminished compared with 10 years ago, and especially 20 years ago. What exactly does she plan to do about that? What does she believe is wrong now?

We heard some of the things that the hon. Lady believes are wrong. Some were amusing. Apparently, revaluation is wrong. Let us consider what will happen in this place after the next general election. We believe that we know what the Labour party will do—it will
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revalue and change the council tax; we know what the Liberal Democrats will do—introduce a local income tax; but we have not the slightest idea what the Conservatives will introduce. They are against revaluation and rolling revaluation; they are against changing the bands; they want council tax to be cut; they want local government and local democracy to walk on water. The hon. Lady has evidently forgotten that the Conservatives were responsible for the Act of Parliament that introduced council tax, after they had abolished—after introducing—the failed poll tax. That very Act includes the provision for revaluation that she seems to be so against.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con) rose—

Mr. Dunne rose—

Andrew Stunell: I am a bit surprised that the hon. Lady did not make the entirely different point that she rather doubted whether the Government could find enough inspectors to carry out all these revaluations of which she speaks. I have observed that a number of Conservative Members want to intervene. Who shall we take? I will take the hon. Gentleman at the back of the Chamber.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Gentleman has made it quite clear that it is his party’s policy to have a local income tax. The flaw with it, apart from the cost, is that it needs a redistributive mechanism, because the tax base is not conveniently where one wants the funds to be distributed. What discussion has he had with the Inland Revenue and what does he believe the compliance cost of a local income tax would be? What confidence does he have in the Inland Revenue in respect of the redistributive element in the light of the mess that it made of the working families tax credit?

Andrew Stunell: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman got right the way down the Conservative briefing on that point, but he certainly asked a number of interesting questions— [Interruption.] Let us be absolutely clear. The nature of the questions strongly suggests to me that he has not taken the opportunity of reading what Sir Michael Lyons said about local income tax: it is a thoroughly practical tax with many advantages, but will take some time to introduce. It is rather like the reform of the council tax that the Labour Government are talking about and very different from the fossilised, “stay as you are” solution that the hon. Gentleman’s party is currently recommending.

Let us deal with the issues that the hon. Member for Meriden said were at the heart of the problems facing local government. Unitary authorities seem to be the problem. Well, the Conservatives thought of unitaries first. They introduced them in Wales and Scotland and they have introduced them in Avon and Berkshire. Indeed, four Conservative county councils are currently bidding for unitary status. Unitaries have their place, especially where there is clear local support and validation. I fully understand that— [Interruption.] I am expecting an intervention any second from the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) to the effect that what I am saying does not apply in Shropshire. Let people sort out their grief locally, as those matters should be decided at local level.

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Paul Farrelly rose—

Mr. Dunne rose—

Andrew Stunell: I shall take the intervention of the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) first.

Paul Farrelly: The hon. Gentleman seems about to move on to forms of local government, but I have not quite finished with council tax. I am not sure what gimmick the Liberal Democrats will propose from year to year. They have a policy one year, and if it does not work they change it. I remember that one year in Newcastle-under-Lyme the Liberal Democrats promised everyone £100 back from their council tax bills. The cheque was inconveniently dated 1 April. How can anyone believe what the Liberal Democrats say from one election to another when they flip-flop as it suits them between Tory and Labour?

Andrew Stunell: That has obviously come from the Labour party briefing and is, of course, completely mistaken. We have supported local income tax to my certain knowledge for 22 years and the policy may go back even further than that. What we definitely need for our local democratic institutions to function properly is a secure source of locally determined income. The flaw in the existing council tax and, to an even greater extent, in the fossilisation of it proposed by the Conservatives is that such a secure source would be restricted. Indeed, they would mean a cutting back of the opportunities for local democracy to flourish. I believe that I promised the hon. Member for Ludlow that I would give way to him.

Mr. Dunne: The hon. Gentleman seeks to characterise the past 10 years of Conservative action over council tax, so I draw to his attention the fact that residents in South Shropshire, which has been Liberal Democrat-administered for the past four years and partially so for the whole of that period, have had to suffer the second largest increase in council tax in the country—beaten only, I believe, by Kingston upon Thames, which is another Liberal Democrat-controlled council. The reason why the hon. Gentleman wishes to deflect attention from council tax to local income tax is that Liberal Democrats cannot manage council tax efficiently for their residents.

Andrew Stunell: If the hon. Gentleman looked at the record of Liverpool city council or, indeed, that of my colleagues in Islington in north London, he would see a very different picture. He should take a look at the percentage increases as compared with cash increases. I would not mind betting that the council tax in South Shropshire is currently lower than it is in some of the flagship authorities that the hon. Gentleman is so proud of.

Mrs. Spelman: The original legislation that brought in the council tax made provision for revaluations, but under certain circumstances where there was a disparity between regional house prices and the ratios prescribed between the different regions of the country. The fact remains that the ratio between the regions is the same today as it was when council tax was introduced, so there is no need at present for a revaluation.

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Andrew Stunell: I find the hon. Lady’s argument rather tenuous. If that is the case and it is the core of what she is arguing, it is surprising that she did not make the point in her speech. If she is arguing that we need some sort of regional variation to council tax plans based on property prices, she could well have said it in her speech and perhaps we could have examined the proposition.

Martin Horwood: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Conservatives are demonstrating that they have not really read the Lyons report at all, which is quite clear that revaluation should have taken place? Sir Michael Lyons also clearly said:

and that it would be more progressive and more popular.

Andrew Stunell: I certainly agree with Sir Michael on that, if not on every other proposition that he has put forward, and I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing that to the House’s attention.

A number of other factors handicap local democracy and local councils and it is interesting to reflect on things that the hon. Member for Meriden did not mention. She did not mention capping. Of course, the Conservatives thought of it first. She did not mention the arbitrary abolition of local authorities, because the Conservatives did that as well. She did not mention explicitly charges for council services, though she did mention rubbish collections. What she did mention was the pressure on social care for local authorities. Of course, she is right about that, but what she did not say was that it was her Government who introduced charging for social care at local level in the first place. That charging is creating some of the difficulties that have already been illustrated in the debate. I make the point in passing that if we had the same policy for free nursing care south of the border as they do north of the border there would be a very different set of pressures on people.

The hon. Lady is right that there has been excessive centralisation, but it was certainly triggered and, in some ways, masterminded by the Government whom she supported. I remember as a member of a county council 20 years ago how responsibility for the police, magistrates and probation were taken away and how the district council had buses confiscated. That was centralisation of a different order indeed.

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