HC Deb 15 September 2003 vol 410 cc660-2

Lords amendment No. 21.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to consider Lords amendments Nos. 36, 37, 41, 42, 47 to 49 and 54.

Phil Hope

I beg to move that this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

The amendments deal with the fear that, if we passed clause 76 in its original form, Welsh authorities would have a less flexible power to provide council tax discounts on second homes than would English authorities. The principal amendment, Lords amendment No. 21, will replace the existing provision in Wales and give the National Assembly for Wales the ability that we are giving the Secretary of State to prescribe classes of dwellings in the case of which billing authorities can reduce or remove the nationally set discounts.

Subsections (3), (4) and (5) of the new section 12 to be inserted in the Local Government Finance Act 1992 are transitional provisions. They preserve the effect of existing regulations prescribing classes of dwellings for which Welsh billing authorities can reduce the 50 per cent. discount to 25 per cent. or zero, and preserve the effect of any existing determinations to reduce discounts made by Welsh authorities. While the new section 12 will give Welsh authorities more flexibility, the transitional provisions ensure that Welsh authorities are not forced to make new decisions if they would not have decided differently under the new powers.

The other amendments, with the exception of Lords amendment No. 43, are consequential on Lords amendment No. 21. It should be noted that Lords amendments Nos. 36, 37, 41 and 42 amend clause 127, enabling the National Assembly for Wales to choose when to begin the new powers in Wales.

Lords amendment No. 47 is merely a consequential amendment to clause 76, to ensure that in England any reductions in council tax liability under regulations made under section 13 of the 1992 Act—for instance, reductions relating to disabilities—are additional to any discounts under the section 11A inserted by clause 76.

Mr. Hammond

I assume that the Welsh Assembly has asked for the inclusion of this measure, and did not ask for its inclusion at the time of the Bill's original publication. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister by what process the Assembly either determined that it needed the primary legislation to do what it wanted to do, or decided that it wanted a power that it had not wanted previously.

If I read them correctly, Lords amendment No. 21 and the consequential amendments simply place Wales on the same basis as England following the changes in the 1992 Act made by clause 76.

I was not involved in the Committee stage, but I have the impression from reading the reports of it that what little consideration was allowed for this part of the Bill—given the desperately inadequate time allowed owing to the knives introduced by the timetable motion—focused principally on the issue of who would keep any extra money that was raised. The answer, as we might have anticipated, is the Government, rather than the local authority. However, it seems entirely reasonable to give similar powers to Welsh authorities, although I assume that it is a matter for the Welsh Assembly, as it seems to be more about housing policy than about revenue raising; clearly, the authorities themselves will not benefit in terms of the additional revenue but they will be able to use the provision as a tool of housing policy. I for one am very happy for Wales to have equality of treatment with England.

8 pm

The job of the Opposition is to find something to say about all these things, even when there is not obviously anything much to say, but I have found something to ask the Minister, he will be pleased to know. I understand that the title of the clause is not technically a part of the Bill but it seems a little odd that the clause is headed "Second and empty homes: England" when the second part of it will deal with second and empty homes in Wales. Perhaps he can confirm that it is within the scope of minor amendment, printing or whatever for the heading, "Second and empty homes: England" to be changed to "Second and empty homes: England and Wales" or possibly just "Second and empty homes." It would be a little anomalous if we passed a measure headed "Second and empty homes: England" when the second half of its text was devoted to second and empty homes in Wales.

Mr. Edward Davey

I do not think that there is much to say on these amendments. I think that the National Assembly for Wales has asked for them. It is important to devolve more power to it. We on the Liberal Democrat Benches would like the Government to go even further. I would certainly like the National Assembly to have the power to determine the form of local taxation. I know that there is a movement in Wales against the unfair council tax and that many people in Wales would like a tax related to ability to pay. If anything, while these are welcome powers, they do not go far enough because they do not devolve further powers to the National Assembly over the local government finance regime for Wales. However, that is perhaps going wide of the debate and I am conscious that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may bring me to order. There is nothing wrong with the amendments. They go in the right direction and I just hope that the Government will go even further on the path of devolution at a later date.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

I too welcome the amendments. Clearly, they are necessary and it is right that there should be parity with our friends in England. I never understood the logic behind allowing a discount for a second home. It beat me throughout the years that I thought about it. I am pleased that it is being dealt with. The provision can be used as a tool in housing policy and so on. I am pleased, therefore, that the Government are going to extend the provisions to Wales.

I echo what has just been said. I hope that there will be further devolution, stronger devolution, and that these matters will come within the ambit of the National Assembly without having to be referred to this Chamber. That said, I am pleased that the proposals are on the table and I am sure that they will pass into law without much hindrance from anyone in the Chamber.

Phil Hope

I am grateful to hon. Members who have supported the proposals, including the hon. Members for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) and for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). Two questions have arisen. One was, how did the Welsh Assembly change its mind? That is devolution for you. It is up to the Members of the Welsh Assembly. If the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) wants to write to them, he is perfectly entitled to do so.

Mr. Hammond


Phil Hope

I knew that I should not have suggested that he write to them.

Mr. Hammond

I am sorry but it is just that the Minister said on the question of why the Welsh Assembly changed its mind, "It just did." If that is the answer, that is fine, but it is not necessarily obvious that the Welsh Assembly has changed its mind. It might be that it always wanted these powers, and it became evident that there was a need for primary legislation to get them, as opposed to the Assembly deciding after the legislation had been published that it wanted to go down that route.

Phil Hope

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. "Do not know" still has to be my reply. He will have to ask the Welsh Assembly whether it was something that it always wanted to do, whether it changed its mind or whatever. Thankfully, the measure is in the Bill.

The hon. Gentleman raised a technical point about a clause headed "Second and empty homes: England" referring to Wales. That will obviously be a matter for the parliamentary draftsmen, who will no doubt note what he said.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 22 to 25 agreed to [One with special entry].

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