The Government support the conclusion of Sir Michael Lyons’ independent inquiry that council tax is not broken and should be retained. We have already implemented many of Sir Michael’s proposals through the local government White Paper and will respond to more of his recommendations in the coming months.
Does the Secretary of State fully accept Sir Michael Lyons’ criticisms of the council tax benefit system, with £1.8 billion of benefit unclaimed in the last financial year and a fall of 10 per cent. in take-up in the past decade? If she does accept those criticisms, when and how will the necessary reforms be introduced?
I accept the hon. Gentleman’s contention that we ought to do more about increasing the level of council tax benefit take-up. One of the key conclusions of Sir Michael Lyons’ report is that the key to fairness in the council tax system is not revaluation or the introduction of further bands but ensuring that there is maximum take-up. That is why my Department is working very closely with the Department for Work and Pensions on improving the process. For example, anyone who applies for a pension credit will now have their council tax benefit details taken and processed at the same time, thus doing away with the need for a claim form. We are examining further measures and considering the scope for making council tax benefit an automatic rebate.
Notwithstanding the hyperventilating headlines in such papers as the Daily Express, the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, is it not the case that by the time the first council tax bills are produced for the next Labour Government in 2011, the council tax system will be in its third decade? Is not reform of banding long overdue, particularly as regards revaluation, which can be done on a revenue-neutral basis that will minimise the numbers of winners and losers, unlike the disaster that we saw in Wales?
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s concern about how council tax is being implemented and about revaluation and rebanding. As I have made clear on several occasions, we have no intention of revaluing in this Parliament; nor do we have any intention of restructuring the banding system, which would naturally go hand in hand with revaluation, in this Parliament. However, Sir Michael Lyons says that even if we did go down that route, which we are committed not to do in this Parliament, that would not make the council tax system substantially fairer than it is at the moment. Clearly, there would be winners and losers, but the key to making the system fairer is to encourage greater take-up of council tax benefit.
Does the Secretary of State accept that all parties have something to learn from the results of the recent local elections? Will she therefore ensure that, in the reforms to the current council tax, any disincentive to maintain the weekly refuse collection is removed? Growing evidence shows that a weekly collection is not only desirable but essential for health and safety.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s concern for his constituents, but it is right that local people and communities make such decisions with their local council. It is also right to increase our rates of recycling. Local councils may decide that the weekly bin collection is one aspect of their policy and may want to introduce other measures to increase the rate of recycling. That is their prerogative, but whatever is done should be done in close consultation with local communities.
If the Secretary of State has set her face so strongly against revaluation, rebanding or abolishing the tax, what exactly will she do to lift the burden from the 2 million households already mentioned? Does she accept Sir Michael’s figure of 40 per cent. in relation to existing council tax benefit lying unclaimed? He proposes an extension, but what precisely will she do? What is her time scale? Is it not time for some action, not more spin?
I think I have made myself clear. If the hon. Gentleman reads the Lyons report—I am sure he has already done so—he might reflect on some of the evidence presented in it. I have been reflecting especially on chart 7.3, which clearly shows that council tax can be made much less regressive if there is full take-up of council tax benefit. We must ensure that those who are entitled to claim council tax benefit do that. That is why our programme, working closely with the DWP, is so important to increasing the fairness of the council tax.
If the activities of the Valuation Office Agency are so benign and the likelihood of a revaluation is as remote as the Secretary of State suggested, why did the Government fight like cats in a sack to prevent those dangerous documents “Dwelling House Coding: An Illustrated Guide” and “Digital Photography User Guide” from being released into the public domain until the information was dragged out of them by use of the Freedom of Information Act 2000?
The hon. Gentleman knows that we put extensive material into the public domain about the definition of bathrooms, digital photography and every other aspect of the valuation office’s work. We have even published a document to satisfy Conservative Members’ endless curiosity. The valuation office’s powers have not been changed since the Conservative party introduced them in 1993. We have no intention of introducing revaluation in this Parliament. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues should stop scaremongering, examine the facts and make a judgment based on them.
My hon. Friend makes his point in his own way. However, Sir Michael Lyons has concluded that a property tax—in other words, a council tax—should be a strong feature of the current local tax regime. Indeed, every major industrialised country has a property tax. Of course, we must not only work with the system that we have got, but try to increase levels of council tax benefit.
Does the right hon. Lady understand that any implementation of the Lyons recommendations now requires consensus across the political spectrum? Given the massive drop in the number of Liberal Democrat council seats and the total disappearance of Labour councils from many parts of the country, and given that the Government lost their mandate last Thursday and the Secretary of State lost her parliamentary seat, does she accept the new reality?
I can certainly agree with the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s set of issues—the Liberal Democrats did not fare well on Thursday. We should bear in mind, however, the fact that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said:
“I think the way to judge us”
“to look at Greater Manchester…Are we making progress in places like Bolton”?
Well, I regret to inform the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) that we increased our majority in Bolton, taking seats from the Conservatives.