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Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I absolutely understand the importance of the noble Baroness's question. She will know that the commission was not unified in its view on how best to progress this. The Government understand why, because of course we have to work together energetically with the private sector to make sure that the gap is narrowed. If we are successful, as I believe that we will be, in demonstrating to the private sector the wonderful contribution that women make in the workplace, using the public sector as an example, it would be a very
 
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foolish private sector employer that did not avail itself of the excellent and extraordinary talents that women bring to the workplace.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, does the Minister agree that more flexible working for both sexes—I stress both sexes—would be one way of getting rid of the gap between the earnings of men and women? It would also enable much better use to be made of the younger period for having children, because, as we all know, most people now put off having children to a later age.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness, so I commend very much what the Government have done on paternity leave, as well as maternity leave, to enable both sexes to discharge their proper duties in caring for children and enabling that to be honoured in a way that makes sense for our communities. Indeed, some of the most successful businesses, both public and private, make flexible working available for their staff, and that has undeniably been to their benefit.

Baroness Pitkeathley: My Lords, the report gives welcome recognition to the disadvantage that women suffer in caring not only for children but for disabled or older relatives. The Government have made welcome progress on that front, but what other progress do they plan to make in enabling access to pensions for women following caring responsibilities and in enabling them to combine full-time or part-time work with caring duties?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, my noble friend will be aware that the issue has been given anxious consideration by the Department for Work and Pensions, among others, and it will continue to be an issue that is addressed. We very much understand her point about caring for older people and the difficulty that women face, in particular, when they have to care for children at one end of the scale and older people at the other. We shall certainly keep the matter very much in mind. Bearing in mind the time, I should be more than happy to write to her about the specific details of her question.

Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill

3.30 pm

Lord Grocott: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing on the Order Paper in the name of my noble friend Lord Bach.

Moved, That the amendments for the Report stage be marshalled and considered in the following order: Clause 1 Schedule 1 Clauses 2 to 17 Schedule 2 Clauses 18 to 28
 
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Schedule 3 Clauses 29 to 31 Schedule 4 Clauses 32 to 51 Schedule 5 Clause 52 Schedule 6 Clauses 53 to 78 Schedule 7 Clauses 79 to 85 Schedule 8 Clauses 86 and 87 Schedule 9 Clause 88 Schedule 10 Clauses 89 to 103 Schedules 11 and 12 Clauses 104 to 107.—(Lord Grocott.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Council Tax (New Valuation Lists for England) Bill

Read a third time.

Clause 1 [Dates on which new valuation lists must be compiled for England]:

Baroness Hanham moved the amendment:

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, so far as we are concerned, this is the remaining part of this legislation. I am moving just one amendment to this very small Bill, which has engaged us all in a great deal of interesting discussion.

The remaining matter on the table today relates to the possibility that the Government may wish to make amendments to council tax banding without a revaluation having taken place or before it takes place. Under the Bill, revaluation is being postponed for a number of very good reasons, not least of which is the fact that Sir Michael Lyons has yet to report. We do not disagree that there should be a postponement. In fact, we think that postponement should be eternal and that, if revaluation goes, it should never come back, but that will remain a disagreement between us and the Government.

However, one area is already a legislative possibility—that is, that council tax banding can be changed and amended within the period before revaluation. The amendments that could be made to council tax value were agreed under the Local Government Act and are now on the table. But it is inconceivable that council tax banding could be done without current and real valuations, and in this amendment we say that no changes should be made to
 
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council tax banding unless and until there is revaluation. That is the purpose of the amendment. It is short and to the point. I beg to move.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Baroness Andrews): My Lords, I wish I could be as short and as succinct as the noble Baroness. I appreciate, as she said, that this is a short Bill, but it has given rise to significant and very helpful debates. For that reason I am very grateful that we have had the opportunity to return to this matter at Third Reading. I am afraid that I shall have to reiterate some of the arguments I put in Committee and on Report about this amendment because it remains technically unworkable and, in effect, unnecessary. I believe that in concept it is unwanted not just by the Government—noble Lords would expect me to say that—but also by the noble Baroness's own party and by local councillors and taxpayers who, as a result, would find themselves with a council tax system that is tied for ever to increasingly out-of-date valuations with no legislative scope for reform.

Again, I have to explain, as I did in Committee and on Report, why the amendment leaves us with an unworkable system. Two major flaws are at issue and I shall deal with each of them in turn. The first relates to the concept of a compiled list and what it means specifically as defined in the Local Government Finance Act 1992. The amendment is based on retaining that notion. The second flaw is the removal by this amendment of any mechanism for a specific date to be set for revaluation.

Through this amendment, subsection (1A) of the Bill would read:

The essential point is that "compilation" means in law the coming into force of the list. It is followed up by a very strict process and a timetable which attaches, not least, to the publicising of the list. That is the problem. In layman's terms, it means not simply that the Valuation Office would be required to revalue properties at the prevailing values at the time, without there being at that stage any changes to bandings, but that a new statutory valuation list must come into force for each billing authority in England before any changes can be made to the band values, to the number of bands or to the proportions across bands. The new compiled list would have legal force, and properties would have to be reascribed at their new values to the existing council tax bands, and council tax paid accordingly. That is what the law requires us to do.

The effect would be disastrous. As I explained both in Committee and on Report, this would inevitably mean that the vast majority of properties would move up the bands, probably by more than one band, by the pure virtue of house price inflation. More than that, we would see a bunching of properties towards the top end of the scale, dramatically reducing the level of differentiation between properties of different values and people of different means. I know that noble Lords opposite are very concerned about that.
 
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Inevitably, it would build inequity into the system and would penalise many of our most vulnerable taxpayers.

The logical sequence of the process should be revaluation to give us up-to-date values, reform informed by that and reflecting changes which in banding are necessary and fair, and then compilation, the coming into force of the list. Almost perversely, the amendment dictates revaluation, compilation and then reform and I am sure that is the opposite of what the noble Baroness intends. The technical effect of the amendment is perverse; compilation is surely the culmination of the process and not the mid-point.

I remind the noble Baroness that on Report she said,

I agreed then and I agree again because reforms should not and cannot be an afterthought to revaluation. That is the situation that this amendment would predicate. It would require new, revalued lists to be compiled and bills to be issued to taxpayers, because the legislation says they must be, before any reforms could be implemented or, if I understand the intention behind the amendment, even contemplated. The noble Baroness went on to say that the amendment was,

That may be the intent, but it is not the effect.

The second, and very significant, technical drawback to the amendment is its removal of any provision to set a specific date for a future revaluation. The current drafting of new subsection (1A) reads:

This amendment removes the concluding phrase,

As other parts of the Bill remove the previously planned revaluation date of April 2007 and the 10-year maximum cycle of revaluation after that, we are left with no mechanism through which any future revaluation can be initiated; and because of the link that the amendment makes between revaluation and reforms, there is no possibility of ever reforming the system in the very way that the intention behind the amendment envisages. So if we were to accept the amendment, far from bringing certainty to the process—we spent some time talking about the need for that in Committee and on Report—it would lock up the present system for ever, with no possibility of either revaluation or reform at any time in the future.

Beyond those technical problems, why do I suggest that the amendment is unnecessary? I recognise the noble Baroness's true intent and what she is seeking to achieve. She said on Report :


 
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The idea is to ensure that revaluation and reform always go together as one package with reform being informed by a prior revaluation.

I tried my hardest during that debate to reassure the noble Baroness that I cannot see that there would be a situation where the two would not go hand in glove. To revalue without reforms would lead to perverse changes in the balance of the system of the sort I have just described, and to reform without revaluation would be extremely difficult as the necessary information on which to make informed decisions would not be available. The amendment is unnecessary because it does not add anything useful. It takes away valuable flexibility in the system that may, in some unforeseen circumstance, be needed in the future.

Finally, I also said that the amendment was unwanted; not just by the Government but by the noble Baroness's own party. In Committee, I quoted Mr Pickles, who was speaking from the Opposition Front Bench on Second Reading in the other place. He was espousing his party's belief that revaluation is unnecessary and that inequities in the system could be remedied, if need be, without revaluation. He said that matters relating to council tax banding and people's ability to pay, for example,

I am afraid that this amendment directly contradicts, and renders unworkable, the policy which Mr Pickles described.

I have repeated myself, and I hesitate to go on doing so, but I must stress once more that the Government have always been clear about the link that they see between reform and revaluation. It was expected that Sir Michael Lyons's work looking at reforms to local government finance would be fed into the 2007 revaluation.


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