HL Deb 08 July 1991 vol 530 cc1282-308

House again in Committee on Clause 3.

[Amendments Nos. 20 and 21 not moved.]

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 22: Page 2, line 39, after ("Wales") insert ("solely").

The noble Baroness said: I shall speak also to Amendment No. 33. Although they are not in the same group Amendments Nos. 23 and 34 represent a fall-back position.

Amendments Nos. 22 and 33 seek to ensure that valuation remains in the hands of the Inland Revenue staff, who are skilled and experienced. If they have been able to work and enjoy public confidence for so long as regards the concept of notional rents they will have less difficult and laborious work as regards the concept of capital value.

On Second Reading the Secretary of State indicated that he expected to involve private sector valuers. We on this side of the Committee have fears about what that might mean. The important point is that the poll tax has destroyed confidence in the integrity of local government finance. There is no doubt about that and it is a point to which we may well return. Therefore, it is extremely important that that integrity is restored. That will be done only if people have every confidence in the professionalism, objectivity and training of the valuation staff. The people who have the skills are the staff of the Inland Revenue.

We should like the Minister to comment on what is meant in this context by "professionals". If it is the Government's determination not to keep valuation within the hands of the Inland Revenue but to go outside, does the Minister mean by that term local estate agents, the office boy or more trained people? Following the enactment of the Bill will measures be taken to prevent the private sector valuers handling both the initial valuations and appeals in respect of the same property? If one employs private sector valuers possibly drawn from estate agencies what assurances will there be that they will not have a vested interest in pushing up property prices knowing that at the point of sale their commission will increase accordingly?

In Amendments Nos. 22 and 33 we seek to restore confidence in the process of valuation. Without that confidence we can see appeals proliferating. We believe that the best way to do that is to keep valuation in the hands of the staff of the Inland Revenue, who have expertise, objectivity, professional training and an ability to make comparisons across the country through their professional bodies. I beg to move.

Viscount Astor

Would it be convenient to speak also to Amendments Nos. 23 and 34 as the subjects are related?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Although I indicated that there was an argument for grouping them together I still have a faint hope that the Government will accept Amendments Nos. 22 and 33. In that case Amendments Nos. 23 and 34 will not be necessary. They represent a fall-back position and for that reason they have been grouped separately.

Viscount Astor

These amendments seek to prevent the Commissioners of Inland Revenue appointing persons who are not in the service of the Crown to assist them in the valuation. We intend to use the best professional expertise to undertake the work involved in allocating properties to bands. We shall use the private sector where it can use its skills to do a speedy, cost-effective job. By the same token we shall use the public sector when it can do a speedy, cost-effective job. The reason for that is simply to get the best deal for taxpayers. It would be wrong to rule out the opportunity of using the private sector where to do so would provide better value for money.

I can, however, reassure the Committee that we shall ensure that persons who do not have the appropriate expertise and qualities to undertake a sound and cost-effective job are not involved. There are a variety of jobs to be done. All offers of assistance will be considered and decisions will be taken on the most cost-effective use of all the resources available.

These amendments seek to stifle our quest for using the best expertise in a cost-effective way and therefore I urge the Committee to reject them.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I thank the Minister for that reply. I am slightly alarmed that his emphasis was not on professionalism, objective skills and established standing. His emphasis was on words and phrases like "speedy", a "cost effective job" and the "best deal for taxpayers".

Viscount Astor

I said "appropriate expertise" and I must stress that. That must be grouped with cost effectiveness. However, the first criterion must be "appropriate expertise".

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

In the light of that, I am happy to withdraw the amendment. I shall press the Minister further as regards the next amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 23: Page 2, line 40, after ("Revenue") insert ("or persons appointed to assist them who are members of the bodies specified in subsection (4) below").

The noble Baroness said: We are aware that as regards the valuation of houses, there will be the same anxieties which have been raised by my noble friend Lord McIntosh about the precise value of one property compared with other properties in the same street. That will lead to two questions in the eyes of most taxpayers. First, they will wish to know who is carrying out the valuations; and secondly, they will wish to know whether they have a right of appeal. My noble friend Lord McIntosh has already argued that without individual valuations, both questions will have an additional edge.

We believe also that if the valuations are not carried out by those with the appropriate professional expertise—those belonging to a professional body whose performance can be monitored—their integrity and reputation may be called into question by members of the public. If the Minister will give an assurance that the Government expect that only those who are members of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors or members of the Institute of Revenues, Rating and Valuation will be employed, then I shall withdraw the amendment. If he cannot give such an assurance, then I shall wish to develop my case further.

Viscount Astor

The Bill provides that the valuations shall be carried out by the commissioners of the Inland Revenue in England and Wales and local assessors in Scotland. They will ensure confidence in the valuations and consistency across the country. These amendments seek to require that the only people who can help with the valuations are members of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors or members of the Institute of Revenues, Rating and Valuation. We are determined to use the best professional expertise available to carry out the allocation of properties to bands in the most cost effective way and in a manner which will deliver the introduction of the council tax in April 1993. We are naturally considering the role of members of both the RICS And the IRRV.

It cannot be right for us to rule out asking people who are not members of those bodies to assist in the task. However, I assure the noble Baroness and the Committee that we shall rule out persons who do not have the appropriate expertise and qualities to undertake a sound and cost effective job. That is an important point.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Will the Minister be kind enough to tell the Committee what he means by "appropriate expertise"?

Viscount Astor

We are talking about expertise in valuation. That expertise must be looked at very carefully. At present I cannot give the exact criteria which may be used but I repeat that all the people used must have the expertise and qualities to undertake a sound job. All offers of assistance will be considered and decisions will be taken on the most cost effective use of the resources available. I repeat that the valuations will be carried out by the commissioners of the Inland Revenue in England and Wales and by local assessors in Scotland. They will ensure confidence in the valuations.

Baroness Hamwee

The words, and more particularly the tone, of the Minister indicate that the Government cannot tell us what will be the necessary expertise and qualifications, either professional or otherwise, of the people who will be involved in the exercise. I believe this is a panic measure to pull in anyone who may be able to meet the criteria.

I am in two minds as regards these amendments. I realise the need to get on with the exercise and I am not accusing anyone of making the wrong decisions for the wrong reasons. However, I fear that the wrong people may be used in order to speed up the exercise. I do not believe that the Minister is able to give us any more assurances at present. However, I hope that he will realise that Members on the Benches opposite feel seriously about this matter. It is not only a matter of expertise; it also concerns professional confidence. One may have as a neighbour an estate agent who may have the appropriate expertise. However, one may be very worried about his vested interest in arriving at the right valuation for properties in his area.

Viscount Astor

This is not a panic measure, but we must not rule out drawing on all available resources and people. It would be a great mistake to rule out many people who could assist in this exercise. I urge the Committee to reject the amendment.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Like the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, I am very unhappy about the Minister's words and the tone of his reply. He gave the impression that the Government will be grateful for any help they can get and hope that it will be qualified. That sounds to me to be far too vulnerable.

8.15 p.m.

Viscount Astor

I did not say that I hope that they will be qualified. I said that we shall be looking only for qualified help. That is totally different.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I accept the noble Viscount's refinement but when I asked him to explain what he meant by "qualifications" he was unable to give a definition. Clearly, they are not qualifications objectively perceived or he would have given me a definition. Therefore, it will be a subjective assessment as to whether or not the people used are qualified. Given my unease and the unease registered by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, as regards vested interests and lack of confidence in estate agents' judgments—we have all had experience of gazumping and so on—I am fairly sure that we shall return to this matter on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 24:

Page 2, line 45, at end insert: ("(2A) In carrying out the valuation, the Commissioners or local assessors (as the case may be) shall furnish to any occupant of domestic property which is subject to valuation information relating to—

  1. (a) the process of valuation;
  2. (b) rights of appeal in respect of an individual valuation;
  3. (c) rebates and discounts, including rebates up to the full amount that would otherwise he payable in respect of certain persons following amendment of the Social Security Act 1986").

The noble Baroness said: This is a highly virtuous amendment which will ensure that householders receive information about the process of valuation, the right of appeal and rebates. Essentially it is a right-to-know amendment. It aims to ensure that people know of the judgments entering into their local taxation.

Following the Widdicombe Report, the Government rightly required local authorities to send out the fullest information about their budgets. The Government laid down in considerable detail what information should be contained, in what form it should be laid out and even the size of paper on which the information should be contained.

Similarly, local authorities and government have worked together fairly successfully to ensure the widest possible knowledge of housing benefit. People should know how budgets are arrived at by means of the information going out with poll tax budgets. It is important that they should know how the relative share of their payments is arrived at; in other words, the valuation and what considerations enter into it. Therefore we are asking, as the first part of this amendment indicates, that all members of the public who are paying bills should be eligible for information regarding the process of valuation. The share that they pay and how that figure is arrived at is an important piece of information, as is the budget of the local authority.

Secondly, the amendment asks for a right of appeal. Given that valuation is to be street by street and, as we heard in previous discussions, not necessarily by people whose integrity is beyond dispute—whether it is the Inland Revenue or members of a professional chartered body—it will be important as a way of restoring confidence in local government that people know what the appeal machinery will be. Preliminary research from the Paisley college suggests that 25 per cent. of all valuations will be in the top or bottom 5 per cent. of bands; in other words, at the edges of the bands. There will therefore be considerable interest in seeing on which side of those bands properties fall.

Thirdly, the amendment seeks to circulate information about rebates and the right to 100 per cent. rebates. Obviously the amendment will date from April 1993. We hope—and it may be possible to return to this at Report stage—that the Government will consider the abolition of the 20 per cent. contribution from April 1992.

We all know that the poll tax has been brought into disrepute for many reasons, but primarily for two. First, it was perceived to be unfair and, secondly, it was seen to be difficult to collect. The 20 per cent. rule was responsible for both of those states. By requiring students, single parent families, elderly pensioners and the infirm to contribute 20 per cent., irrespective of their means, was seen as being profoundly unfair and income support levels did not for the most part protect people from that change. The 20 per cent. contribution also brought the poll tax into disrepute over and above the fact that it was unfair and it contributed to the administrative chaos of poll tax. The 20 per cent. has become uncollectable.

In an authority like my own—Norwich—25 per cent. of the population are on the 20 per cent. payment scheme—students, the unemployed, women carers, and the like. Half of those people move within a year and many students move perhaps twice a year. Every time a payer moves it takes six letters, all of them required by government and each costing £2 or £3 a time, to register a single change of address. If the payer moves twice it doubles the amounts. If arrears have to be chased on a couple of payments, let alone take people to court for liability orders, the costs soar.

As the Audit Commission reported, and as my noble friend Lord McIntosh said, the 20 per cent. payer pays on average £6, yet it costs £15 to collect that sum. The more dutiful the local authority is in chasing arrears and taking people to court, the more losses it incurs. That is before taking into account the legal burden of 4.5 million summonses and 3.2 million liability orders, of which barely 200 have so far reached the stage of a means assessment by the courts which themselves are breaking down under the strain.

In an authority like Norwich one-third of our soaring poll tax collection charges go in chasing the 25 per cent. of the population who are supposed to pay 20 per cent. but who contribute barely 5 per cent. to total revenue. We do not want to be told by the Minister, as on previous occasions, that everyone must contribute, however modest their means. The Secretary of State made clear that he does not share that belief and that, given household arrangements, all contribute as of now. I am confident that the Minister now shares the view of the present Secretary of State and we welcome that embodiment in the new tax from 1993. We are asking that that scrapping of the 20 per cent. rule should be introduced as quickly as possible and preferably from April 1992. Every local authority treasurer wants it and every local authority association wants it. The Secretary of State entirely accepts the principle and we know that we could introduce it very speedily indeed.

I wonder whether Ministers fully appreciate the damage done to the integrity of local government finance by the 20 per cent. rule in particular and the poll tax in general. If we are to establish a widespread perception that local authority taxes are reasonably fair and collection reasonably efficient, we shall have the Minister's support for the amendment. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee

Perhaps I may briefly speak to the amendment. The objectives identified by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, are those of which I am sure the Government approve; namely, an endeavour to provide the best value for money and not to waste money, quite apart from the fairness and unfairness arguments that have been quite rightly put forward. Many local authorities are frustrated at the amount of time, energy and manpower wasted on this exercise.

Baroness Blatch

I hope that I may be forgiven for being confused about the way that the noble Baroness responded to the amendment. The amendment requires information relating to the process of valuation, rights of appeal, rebates and discounts. It says nothing about scrapping the 20 per cent. rule or the way in which the community charge has worked. It relates to the supply of information to people. I believe that the amendment is premature and perhaps I may explain the position.

The amendment seeks to require the Commissioners of Inland Revenue and local assessors to supply information to any occupant of domestic property relating to the process of valuation, rights of appeal and rebates and discounts. I must tell the Committee that we are committed to ensuring that the council tax is properly understood by the public and that they are aware of the process of valuation, their rights of appeal and their eligibility for rebates and discounts. But I must also tell the Committee that such matters as right of appeal, rebates and discounts are for the main Bill which we propose to introduce in another place in the autumn.

I am sure, however, that the Committee wish me to place on record that there will be a full procedure for appeals. We are now considering all the points put to us during the consultation period about this and many other matters connected with the council tax. When we come to consider the machinery of appeals in this Chamber we will no doubt be in a much better position to discuss the sort of information occupiers of property will need in order to exercise their rights of appeal.

I am sure also that Members of the Committee wish me to place on record our intentions for how the rebate system will work. We propose that for individuals or couples on income support, or with equivalent levels of income, rebates will meet 100 per cent. of their liability to the council tax. There will be no minimum contribution. As with other benefits, we envisage that people on incomes above the income support level will contribute on a sliding scale. Claimants will have access to the full range of information that is available to them for other benefits. But again we can consider the details when the main council tax Bill comes before this House.

There is also the question of discounts. We have proposed a system of personal discounts. Households with two or more adults would pay the basic council tax for their property. Single adult households would pay less through a personal discount and some households would receive two discounts. Where the first or second adult in a household is in one of the categories that are now exempt from the personal community charge that person will give rise to a discount. We also propose that where the first or second adult in a property is a student, student nurse, apprentice or youth training trainee, each will receive a full personal discount. The details will be in the main Bill. I call on the Committee to reject the amendment.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I am happy to have the assurance of the Minister, as I am sure we all are, that the Government are at one with us in seeking to ensure that the information is widely spread.

It is important that the amendment should be tabled at this stage—I go back to a point raised by other Members of your Lordships' Committee tonight —because the integrity of local government finance has been extremely damaged by the passing of the poll tax legislation. Just five years ago only 2 per cent. of rates went uncollected. People automatically expected to pay. There was no question about that and any arguments concerned the precise nature of the budget not its mechanism. As a result of the poll tax, particularly the 20 per cent. rule and arguments regarding who is eligible to pay, that integrity has been destroyed. Something that took 50 years to build up has gone in two years. The figures that I had just a couple of months ago indicate that 40 per cent. of all adults were in debt to their local authority, sometimes for only one or two payments but sometimes for very much more. That damage to the automatic assumption of integrity in the local government financial system has been severely imperilled. We must restore that integrity if local government is ever to run smoothly and properly again.

The amendment is tabled to ensure that people are provided with adequate and proper information about valuations, appeals and rebates, including full rebates. We hope for some kind of undertaking from the Minister that we can perhaps introduce full rebates earlier rather than later to make amends for the chaos that we continue to face, or go some way towards meeting it. We may wish to come back to the matter at Report stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

8.30 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 25: Page 3, line 1, at beginning insert ("Subject to subsection (1A) below").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment I shall speak to my Amendment No. 32. I also understand that it is for the convenience of the Committee if I speak also to Amendment No. 30 standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough. The issue is summarily called "regional banding" and it attracted a great deal of attention at Second Reading, particularly through the speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, and the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, from the Government Benches.

I confess that in a purist way I was not very enthusiastic or supportive of those amendments. I took a view rather similar to that which Mr. Nigel Lawson expressed in an article in the Daily Telegraph on 4th March this year. He said: Nor, of course, as some have subsequently alleged, would it"— that is, a local property tax based on capital values— penalise those who live in localities where property values are particularly high. For the greater the tax base in any locality the lower would be the percentage tax required to raise the revenue that is needed". That is the purist's position and, on the whole, that was the view I took at Second Reading. However, I have become convinced, from looking at the details of what the Government are saying about their proposed council tax, that that will not be the case. There will be a great deal of injustice caused by the lack of any positive effort such as we propose in Amendment No. 32, to, ensure that there is broadly equitable distribution between regions of the burden of local taxation". There are three reasons for that in increasing order of importance. First, there is the crudeness of the seven-band system itself and the fact that so many people with very different types of property will find themselves in the same band. Therefore that escape route, if one can so describe it, between rateable value and rate poundage will no longer be available.

Secondly, there is the problem of gearing. The fact that business rates have been taken away from local authority control means that now 86 per cent. of local authority expenditure is in effect determined by local government. In turn that means that for every pound that a local authority wants to spend above its fixed standard spending assessment, it will have to raise £7. Thirdly, and most important of all, there is the indication that the Government are going to use house prices as the basis for setting the standard spending assessment.

I listened as carefully as I could to the Minister's explanations earlier this evening about that matter and I am still unconvinced that the Government are going to avoid that trap. If they fall into the trap of using house prices —in other words, the basis of the council tax—as in turn the basis for determining the resources element of a local authority's budget, in effect it will be pulling itself up by its own bootstraps. Then we fall into the trap that we talked about in relation to Hackney, where there are relatively high prices for houses because of the location, but people are living in those houses who will never have a hope in hell of buying their own houses under the "right to buy" system if, for example, they are council houses. Under any criterion of ability to pay, they would certainly fall way below what would otherwise be possible or reasonable.

That is the strength of the argument used by the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, and the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, when she spoke about the differences between Windsor and Maidenhead on the one hand and Slough on the other. That is the extent to which it has become clear that the version of the council tax proposed by the Government will not achieve justice. Something will have to be done to ensure, again in the words of Amendment No. 32, a broadly equitable distribution between regions of the burden of local taxation".

I am sorry that my amendments are more wordy than the admirably brief amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, but I believe that we are a little more explicit in what we are seeking to achieve, although I accept that we are seeking to achieve the same thing. I hope that one or other of the amendments will find favour with the Committee. I beg to move.

Lord Gisborough

As has already been stated, the widely recognised disadvantage of any tax based on capital values is that it hits disproportionately people who live in areas of high house prices. Just because someone lives in an area of high property values does not mean that he has a high disposable income. On the contrary, it means that he is likely to have higher mortgage repayments to meet along with higher living expenses as well as the example which was given a moment or two ago.

Thus, wherever one lives in England the bands will be the same. In areas with high property values people will be paying more whatever type of property they live in. In areas of high house values, such as the South East, the great majority of people will be in the top band, whether they have a small detached house or a duke's castle. It will invite the accusation of unfairness — the very cry that did so much to destroy the credibility of the community charge. By having national banding the Government are creating their own ambush into which they are determined to walk.

However, although residents in London and the South East will pay more, they will not get a higher standard of service. That is because the more a council can raise through the council tax, the less government grant it will get. Residents in London and the South East will be paying more for a standard level of service, and the extra they pay will in effect go towards subsidising the level of services enjoyed by residents in other parts of the country, which will include me.

That does not seem fair, and regional banding of the valuation will avoid such an anomaly. That is because the bands will be based on average regional house prices and people living in similar properties will fall into similar bands wherever they live. A household in London in a one-bedroom flat will pay roughly the same as a similar household in, say, Manchester, if its local council provides a standard level of service.

In addition to being demonstrably fairer, regional banding will also increase accountability, which is a key objective in the Government's reform of the local government finance system. If taxpayers can expect to pay the same for a standard level of service wherever they live, it will be easy for them to see whether their local authority is being efficient in delivering services. Under national banding, however, even the most efficient London boroughs will have to charge their residents more because house prices are higher than the national average. That blurs accountability.

Regional banding has one other significant advantage over national banding, in that it will avoid the necessity for periodic revaluation. The need for revaluation under the rating system was a key element in its unpopularity and the necessity for a national revaluation was the main impetus behind the decision to reform the local government finance system which led to the introduction of the community charge.

There are huge regional fluctuations in the housing market year on year. For example, between 1987 and 1991, house prices in London increased by just 6 per cent. compared to 34 per cent. in the UK as a whole and 84 per cent. in the North West region. Regional fluctuations of this magnitude mean that, with one single banding range for England, houses will have to be revalued regularly as they move into higher bands.

With regional banding that problem will be avoided. As regional property markets fluctuate in relation to one another, the regional bands will move correspondingly. The only time that there will need to be revaluations will be when the prices of certain houses within a region increase or decrease relative to houses within the same region. That is likely to be a much less common phenomenon, and, anyway, the effects of the revaluation will be localised and will be much more readily understood.

Finally, regional banding preserves all the fundamental principles of the council tax, but mitigates the disadvantages inherent in any tax system based on the capital value of properties. Getting the basis of valuation for the council tax right is the key element in guaranteeing its successful introduction and ensuring that the new system stands the test of time.

Baroness Hamwee

Like other Members of the Committee I support the amendment, but not with a huge degree of enthusiasm. It is promoted by the London Boroughs Association, which is Conservative-controlled. By any standards I do not believe that it can be described as a hotbed of radicalism. Therefore, I hope that the amendment will be considered seriously, with the anxieties of the association being taken to heart. The noble Lords, Lord Gisborough and Lord McIntosh of Haringey, have said much of what I wanted to say and I shall not repeat it, given the hour. Perhaps I may mention my own borough of Richmond, not because it is the best and nicest borough, but it is one where it is considered that everyone is rich and everyone lives in a big house and can afford the tax. That is not so.

Among the most salutary experiences that I have had in local government was attending local meetings at the time of the introduction of the poll tax. A resident said, "I'm going to have to break the law. I've never broken the law in my life, but I'm not going to be able to cope with the poll tax". I fear that that experience will be repeated with the new council tax. I am told that in my own borough only I per cent. of homes are likely to fall into the lowest band, with 34 per cent. in the highest band. That is not because people can afford to pay the tax but because of the prices of houses in our borough in London and the South East, as the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough mentioned. The LBA's figures show that under the national banding scheme about 31 per cent. of houses in greater London would fall into the top band, whereas under the scheme that the LBA is promoting only some 15 per cent. would fall into the top band. I think that those figures are worth taking to heart.

Baroness Blatch

These amendments give me another opportunity to explain why the Government have proposed that there should be national rather than regional banding for the new council tax.

First, I should like to say a few words about the community charge. We have proposed that the community charge should be replaced by the council tax because many people were not persuaded that the community charge was fair. Many people considered that there should be a reflection of people's circumstances in the bills they paid.

The principle underlying the community charge was that unless one was entitled to a rebate or reduction one should pay the same bill whatever one's circumstances and wherever one lived in a district or wherever one lived in the country. Differences in circumstances would be catered for in national taxation and especially in income tax. However, the community charge was, as I said, not perceived to be fair arid people thought that property was a good basis for local taxation.

Even though property does give a good basis for local taxation people did not want a return to the rates with all the unfairness of that system which we got rid of in 1989 for Scotland and 1990 for England and Wales. We had no desire to return to a system which penalised those who sought to improve their property and which, even more importantly, led to demands for disproportionate sums, often from those who could ill afford to pay. Such people were often pensioners with modest means living in the family home they had built up over many years. We did not want a return to the distress that the rates caused such people.

We thought long and hard before coming up with our council tax proposals. We believe that they meet all the concerns which led to the perception that the community charge was not fair and which discredited the rates. Our proposals are for a banded tax based on property values. Properties with a similar value would be in the same band. The tax would be based on the readily comprehensible principle that if a council spent at the standard level then a couple living in a property with the same value would face the same council tax.

Of course, that means that those in properties where values are high pay more. I do not duck that issue. Indeed it is in that way that we reflect the individual circumstances which were not taken into account in the community charge. I believe that is the right approach.

However, there is a vital further ingredient to our proposals, and that is the maximum difference of two-and-a-half times between the bills faced by properties in the first band and those in the seventh band. This will mean that sums will not be demanded out of proportion to the circumstances of the individuals concerned. That will be true both within regions and between regions.

It has been suggested that our proposals require Londoners in particular to pay more than their fair share. Let me tackle that accusation head on. Our proposals are designed to ensure that everyone pays their fair share, no more and no less. Before we came forward with our proposals we considered the position of London in great detail and are satisfied that we have achieved a fair deal for residents in the capital. What our proposals mean is that in any street a detached house with a high value is likely to pay more than a flat with a low value. We believe that is fair.

It is perhaps at this very local level that one can most clearly see the foundation for our proposals but I should like, if I may, to consider how the logic carries through to individual districts, regions and the whole country.

In any borough those in a three bedroom house in an attractive location next to the common or on the heath for example, are likely to pay more than those in a three bedroom semi-detached house in a much less attractive location; perhaps, for example, backing on to the bus garage, the gas works, or a railway line.

The same logic applies across London. In boroughs like Kensington and Chelsea, or Barnet, where prices are generally high, the average property is likely to face a higher tax than in boroughs where prices are generally lower, like Haringey or Tower Hamlets.

Within the South East the average tax in the Medway towns or in East Kent will be less than in Surrey; and across the country in high priced areas the bill for an average property will be more than in low priced areas for a standard level of service. On the basis of our estimates the bill for an average property in Rochester, in Medway in the South East, will be low; about the same as Middlesbrough in the North. The bill for an average property in Enfield in London will be at about the level of the national average, and about the same as Blackpool in the North. The bill for an average property in Tunbridge Wells in the South East will be above average, and about the same as Harrogate in the North.

These differences reflect differences in circumstances between those areas which are reflected in house prices. In short, anywhere in the country someone with a home valued at, say, £50,000 will face a lower bill for a standard level of service than someone with a home valued at, say, £150,000.

Regional banding would mean that economic circumstances, as reflected in house prices, would not be reflected in the bills people pay. Regional banding would mean that those in the North with a property which was valued at a similar level to one in the South would pay more. At worst, this amendment is about special pleading for London. A resident of Middlesbrough would pay more than one in Rochester; a resident of Blackpool would pay more than one in Enfield; and a resident of Harrogate would pay more than one in Tunbridge Wells.

We do not believe that the public would perceive it to be fair that a resident of Harrogate living in an average house for that town valued in Band E and a resident of Tunbridge Wells living in an average house, similarly in Band E, should pay more simply because he lived in the North rather than the South East.

The anomalies of regional banding would be particularly stark at the boundaries between regions. For example, on the boundary between the South East and the South West an identical house, valued at the same level, in a Hampshire village would face a substantially lower bill than its neighbour in a Wiltshire or Dorset village.

To sum up, the effect of regional banding is to force areas where properties are generally lower priced to pay more. At the margin, it means that identical properties with identical values can pay different amounts. Of course, the Bill in its current form does not preclude regional banding and we shall consider very carefully all the points put to us on this issue before finally deciding the pattern of bands. However, I have to say that we are not convinced that regional banding would be fair.

Before I conclude I should like to refer to something that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, has said twice during our proceedings on this Bill. He said that £1 extra from spending means £7 extra from council tax. If a local authority wants to spend £1 extra it has to raise £1 extra; if it wants to spend £1 million it simply raises an additional £1 million. That is the underlying principle of our proposals. I ask the Committee to reject the amendment.

8.45 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I am frankly astonished that the Minister should seek even now to take this historical view of the history of local government finance under this Government. I am astonished that she should seek to repeat the arguments for the poll tax which she, as my noble friend Lady Hollis rightly says, is one of the last people to call the community charge. I am astonished that she should still seek to persuade the Committee that the poll tax failed only because people misunderstood it rather than because it was inherently unsound. I am astonished that she should fail to recognise the strength of the arguments which have been put notably, if I may say so, by the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, against the capital value system which is now being proposed.

With one breath the Minister is seeking to assure the Committee that the differences between the bands are not very great and that therefore there will not be too many appeals and that there will not be anything like the degree of differentiation which she sees as being damaging. With another breath she is seeking to persuade the Committee that differences are great and that these are properly reflected in house prices and house values in different parts of the country. She cannot have it both ways.

What is clear is that the noble Baroness has no answer to the charge that the standard spending assessment in particular will be related, in some way as yet unspecified, to house prices. That is what will produce the injustice of an unalloyed and unmitigated reliance on house values. The noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, saw that very clearly. Nothing the Minister said has detracted from the strength of that argument. It is necessary to seek the opinion of the Committee on the amendment.

8.50 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 25) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided Contents, 31; Not-Contents, 40.

Division No. 3
Addington, L. Hughes, L.
Airedale, L. Lockwood, B.
Beaumont of Whitley, L. McIntosh of Haringey, L.
Blease, L. Mason of Barnsley, L.
Campbell of Eskan, L. Mayhew, L.
Clanwilliam, E. Monk Bretton, L.
David, B. Prys-Davies, L.
Dean of Beswick, L. Rea, L.
Dormand of Easington, L. Redesdale, L.
Gallacher, L. [Teller.] Rochester, L.
Gisborough, L. Sefton of Garston, L.
Graham of Edmonton, L. Shackleton, L.
Grey, E. [Teller.] Tordoff, L.
Hamwee, B. Whaddon, L.
Harris of Greenwich, L. Winstanley, L.
Hollis of Heigham, B.
Aldington, L. Hesketh, L. [Teller.]
Arran, E. Hives, L.
Astor, V. Howe, E.
Belstead, L. Long, V.
Blatch, B. Lyell, L.
Blyth, L. Mackay of Clashfern, L.
Borthwick, L. Marlesford, L.
Boyd-Carpenter, L. Milverton, L.
Brabazon of Tara, L. Mottistone, L.
Caithness, E. Mountgarret, V.
Carnegy of Lour, B. Pym, L.
Carnock, L. Reay, L.
Cavendish of Furness, L. Seccombe, B.
Davidson, V. [Teller.] Skelmersdale, L.
Dundee, E. Strange, B.
Ferrers, E. Strathmore and Kinghorne, E.
Fraser of Carmyllie, L. Ullswater, V.
Grantchester, L. Waddington, L.
Harmar-Nicholls, L. Wynford, L.
Henley, L. Young, B.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

8.58 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 26: Page 3, line 2, after ("may") insert ("by a date not later than 1st August 1991").

The noble Baroness said: I shall be brief. The amendment seeks to require the Secretary of State to prescribe by 1st August 1991 those assumptions, principles and dates which will apply for the purpose of compiling and maintaining the valuation list. It is meant to be a probing amendment designed, if we can, to extract information from the Minister on the valuation process. It is important that the assumptions, principles and so on are determined soon, as the DoE says that the valuation process will be completed by autumn 1992, a little over a year away.

I hope that the Minister will feel able to address some of the following questions. For example, how will the value of property be defined? At what date will values be determined? Will the principle applying to non-domestic rates apply whereby values were those existing the year before the valuation list came into force, and, if so, will this freeze regional variations in house prices at that date? Further, can the Minister give an indication as to what other assumptions and principles will be prescribed? I beg to move.

Viscount Astor

As the noble Baroness said, this amendment seeks regulations relating to the assumptions, principles and reference date for the valuation to be made by not later than 1st August 1991. Subject to the enactment of the Bill, we are of course keen to make rapid progress with the task of allocating properties to bands. We have been asked many times when we intend to make the necessary regulations. Our responses have made clear that we intend to do so as soon as possible.

I have to say that the precise timing will depend first and foremost on the passage of this Bill through this House another place. Until and unless the Bill is passed and receives Royal Assent there can be no regulations to make. Our intention is to make the necessary regulations as soon as possible after enactment. It may be that it is possible to do so before 1st August 1991. It may be that it is not. We are keen to make progress; but we are also keen to ensure that the job is done properly. If it takes longer to get the regulations right, we will take longer. It cannot be right for our hands to be tied to making regulations before; 1st August—only three weeks from now—when the Bill is still before this Chamber for consideration in Committee. I must stress to the noble Baroness that the making of the regulations depends upon the passing of the Bill. That is the important point.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I thank the Minister for his reply. However, I must confess that I am somewhat puzzled by his remarks. First, I should have thought that the broad sweep of principles and assumptions would already have been banked within the DoE, especially in view of the assurance given by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, when we discussed Amendment No. 17; namely, that although there may be some hesitation about empowering local authorities to begin general preparations for the Bill, they were nonetheless authorised to start immediately in terms of procuring the information required for valuation purposes. The noble Baroness was careful to separate those two aspects. It seems now that that cannot be done. Therefore, the consent is meaningless if we do not have the bounds, or the circumscriptions, so to speak, of central government's assumptions behind the valuation principle.

I must accept what the Minister said. Obviously, there is no point in pressing the matter today. Nonetheless, I must say that I do not think that it bodes well for the speediness, the smoothness, and so on, involved in introducing this new Bill if the basic assumptions upon which valuations are to be based cannot yet—and certainly cannot now—be prescribed by law, as the amendment suggests.

It seems to me that the noble Viscount's response is quite contrary in spirit to the comments made by the Minister in regard to Amendment No. 17. However, if he says it cannot be done, then it cannot be done. I can only say that we on this side of the Committee are extremely surprised by his reply. In the circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 27 to 29 not moved.]

Lord Gisborough had given notice of his intention to move Amendment No. 30: Page 3, line 5, after ("prescribed") insert ("regional").

The noble Lord said: This amendment has been discussed. However, I should like to make just one point. I believe that my noble friend the Minister missed the point where the object is to have banding so that the bands run right through to cover different sorts of houses within an area. The complaint, which was not dealt with, is that in high-banded areas almost all the houses will be in the high band, so there will not be many bands. There will just be a single band of high value for the whole area. I cite as an example Ditchling, or a similar high-value village. As I said, I do not wish to move the amendment. However, I should like to reserve the right to return to the matter at a later stage.

[Amendment No. 30 not moved.]

Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 31: Page 3, line 5, at end insert ("as specified in Schedule (Banding of Property) to this Act.").

The noble Lord said: Before I begin, I feel that I should apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, for inadvertently trying to deal with the non-movement of his amendment. Once one acquires the habit of not moving amendments, it is very difficult to lose it.

In moving this amendment I shall, with the leave of the Committee, speak also to Amendment No. 40 which is the substantive amendment. Because of the narrow scope of the Bill and the very few opportunities which exist for us to express what are—worse than concerns—our fears about the direction in which the Government are moving, based on their statements which are not contained in the legislation, we are forced to propose a number of alternatives which may seem sometimes to conflict with the Government's proposals.

The Committee has just decided that it does not want to pursue a policy of regional banding. I am not sure whether this is a better amendment. However, I believe that, under any circumstances, what we propose here—a banding system with 14 bands—is enormously fairer and more equitable than what the Government propose. I commend the amendment to the Committee on that basis.

Members of the Committee have already indicated how, in some parts of the country, there will be very heavy proportions of the electorate who will fall into a very small range of bands. Perhaps I may put forward some further examples, one of which I have already mentioned. In Hackney which is, after all, a very poor area, 70 per cent. of households with two or more people will fall into the top three bands —that is bands E, F and G—of the seven bands proposed by the Government. In Rotherham, also a relatively poor area, 84 per cent. of households will fall into bands A to C; that is, the bottom three bands.

If one has that sort of disparity between one part of the country and another where average incomes will not be that great and where, as we have heard, there will not be any regional system and people in bands A and G will be paying the same in Rotherham as in Hackney, we are then approaching again, to some extent, the poll tax.

In responding to an earlier series of amendments, the Minister made great play about the differences between one area and another. However, I put it to her that a system that leaves 1.3 million properties in the top government band can only be described as a system designed to defuse the inevitable rage of Conservative voters if they found that, once more, after several years of being let off the hook, they were forced to pay for local government services in accordance with their ability to pay and their use of local authority services, because it is a well-established fact that richer people use local authority services more than poorer people.

With the amendment we oppose the degree to which the Government, although purporting to return to ability to pay as a criterion for local government finance, are not doing so. They are not tempering the wind to the shorn lamb; they are tempering the wind to the shorn wolf. That is the position in which we find ourselves. We object to that, which is why I am moving the amendment. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee

I support the amendment for the reasons given by the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, when discussing Amendment No. 30. He identified the problem of large numbers of households being in relatively few bands, and that is the problem addressed in the amendment. On Amendment No. 30 the Minister gave assurances, but they will work only if there are sufficient bands with a sufficient spread. If, for instance, a relatively small home rented from a housing association is in the same band as a six-bedroomed, three reception room house in half an acre of garden, that will cause a major problem and, as has been said so many times today, will bring the council tax into disrepute.

Baroness Blatch

I shall start by giving one or two facts. First, there is no area where more than half the properties will be in the top band. My noble friend Lord Gisborough referred to areas of the country where all dwellings would be in the top band. As I said, there is no area where more than half the properties will be in the top band. Secondly, it is worth noting what the percentages are: 19 per cent. in the lowest band; 16 per cent. in the next band; 20 per cent. in the next band; 17 per cent. in the following band; 13 per cent. in the next band; 8 per cent. in band F; and only 7 per cent. in band G.

The Government have proposed seven bands. The idea behind banding is to avoid the problems of detailed valuation which plagued the rates. For banding to be effective, there can be a few broad bands only. That is the logic of our position. As the number of bands increases, so the detail and the disparities increase. The more bands there are, the greater is the administrative task involved and the greater the likelihood of disputes and appeals. We have proposed seven bands as a balance between the benefits of a few broad bands and our desire to ensure that the council tax is related to the value of property.

Noble Lords have suggested that we have 14 bands. They would do well to remember that the greater the number of bands the closer the system becomes to the rates. It has been suggested a number of times since the debate started—not necessarily today—that the Government considered 14 bands. We did not. Our proposals are designed specifically to avoid disproportionate bills in London, the South East and elsewhere in the country. A couple living in a dwelling in the seventh band would pay two-thirds more than a couple living in a property in the middle band. A couple living in a property in the first band would pay two-thirds of the bill for a middle band property. Overall, bills for couples in the seventh band would be two and a half times as much as those for couples in the first band in the same local authority area. That will, unlike the rates, avoid disproportionate bills for high price areas.

People living in Barnet, where there are a large number of homes priced above £160,000, will know that despite the high value of their property the amount they are being called upon to contribute is limited to two-thirds more than the national average for spending at a standard level. Contrast that with the position under rates where they would have been called upon to pay at least twice as much—in many cases three, four and five times as much. I understand that noble Lords opposite propose that there should be no ceiling, and so that sum could be multiplied even further.

It is a myth that all those living in expensive property can afford to make a limitless extra contribution to local government. Many of course have high levels of income, but they pay their fair share in income tax—much of which is used to pay revenue support grant to local authorities. For those who do not have high levels of income, penal rates are unfair and a considerable hardship to many, particularly elderly, people.

Under the amendments there would be no fewer than six bands for properties which are in the highest of our seven bands, and for those at the top, properties would be assessed, and I quote, "with no upper limit". It has been argued that such a system would remove an unfairness from our proposals.

First, let me say that there are only 7 per cent. of properties across the country in our top band. This is of course highly variable between areas, but a further five bands might have only a very small number of properties nationally. However such bands are constructed, the benefit to the rest would be tiny. If there were six top bands instead of one, the effect might at best be to reduce the bills for the rest by less than 1 per cent. The fact is that skewing the system in this way to make those at the top pay more does very little for the rest.

The number of bands is not laid down on the face of the Bill. We are still considering the many responses to our consultation that we have had on the issue of more bands, especially at the top. When we have fully considered the responses we shall come forward with our decision. But it would be premature for the number of bands to be prescribed in the Bill. Both for that reason and for the reasons of principle I have outlined above, I call on the Committee to reject these amendments.

9.15 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

The number of bands may not be prescribed on the face of the Bill, but Ministers in another place have made themselves absolutely clear. They said, "Yes, we intend to go on consulting but we will have seven bands because it is our firm intention to have seven bands".

The Minister seems to think, or has been encouraged to say, that because we are looking for a valuation system which reflects more accurately the differences in property values in the country, somehow we are looking for a one-for-one relationship between property values and the level of the rates—the level of what I the Minister would call the council tax. That is definitely not the case. We have made it clear from the beginning that considerations other than property value will be taken into account. We have made it clear from the outset that fair rates include an element of consideration of income levels. That has been written into the amendments to the Bill this afternoon and evening.

Thus, to try the scare tactic of assuming that someone who has a house worth £500,000 will necessarily pay 10 times as much as someone with a house worth £50,000 is wide of the mark. That is not the case at all. It may well be that if someone's income is more than 10 times as much as that of another person with a house worth £50,000 they will pay more than 10 times as much. But on the whole it is more likely that the system we shall propose will be a tax much more closely related to ability to pay and in which property values are only the starting point.

Baroness Blatch

I do not believe that I misinterpreted the noble Lord. He now suggests that if people earn very high incomes they may well be required to pay more. Does that mean that we shall all have to declare our incomes to the local authority and have a separate register in addition to the valuation in order for the local authority to know that someone is earning five or 10 times as much as someone else at the bottom of the scale? The noble Lord commented that if somebody earns 10 times as much, they may be required to pay 10 times as much. That can be done only if one's income is known.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

The Minister has had the opportunity to read the policy statement with the same attention as I gave it. She knows perfectly well that there are well-established ways in which it is possible, for example, to allow people to apply for rebates on the basis of low income. That in turn could be assessed by the Inland Revenue without the local authority knowing what the income is.

There is no reason why there should be disclosure of information about income beyond the Inland Revenue. This matter has been discussed in policy statements over a period longer than the past 12 months. I am sure that the Liberals, who support the policy of local income tax, will support me in saying that there is no element in a local income tax of disclosure to any third party of what an individual or household income is, any more than with income tax itself. That is a complete red herring and it is a pity that the Minister thought fit to raise the point.

We cannot get away from the fact that the whole of the council tax is designed to be as flat a tax—in other words, as close to the poll tax as possible—as the Government can get away with. That is what they intend. They are doing this to protect the 7 per cent. of households which have properties in the top band and the much larger proportion which have properties in the other high bands. The Government are doing it in order to save Conservative votes and they are doing it in about as unscrupulous a way as I have ever seen in politics. I am sorry that Ministers whom I personally respect should find themselves in this position. At this time of night I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 32 to 35 not moved.]

Clause 3 agreed to.

Clause 4 [Information about properties in England and Wales]:

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 36: Page 4, line 9 at beginning insert ("Subject to subsection (2A) below,").

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 36 I wish to speak also to Amendment No. 37. This amendment follows up a theme that has already been raised in the previous speech of my noble friend Lord McIntosh about the disclosure of information. It seeks to prohibit electoral registration material being used for valuation purposes. After all, for valuation purposes the only information that the valuer needs at the beginning of the process is a list of addresses. That is in the public domain. The fear that is held—I think it is a well-founded fear—concerns the cross-use of such information. People fear that it may be used, for example, to police one-person discounts for council tax thereby encouraging the second adult to fall off the register. In other words, people may disenfranchise themselves. That has certainly been so far the experience with the poll tax.

I believe that the Home Office found in some 37 constituencies in 1989–90 that the number of people on the electoral register fell by around 1,000 in each of those constituencies. If one grosses up those figures, one discovers that something like half a million people came off the electoral register in England and Wales alone. The Home Office also noted a further fall in the poll tax register in 1990–91 of some 110,000 people in England alone. I am sure that none of us wishes that evidence to be repeated in the case of the council tax. However if it were to be repeated, people would lose not only their local vote but their general election vote. This is clearly a democratic issue but, as I am sure the Minister will appreciate, it is also a civil liberties issue. We are concerned about the fact that data gathered for one purpose may be used for another and about the right to protection against that possibility.

I am sure we would all agree that privacy should not be limited only to those who can afford to pay for it. Although this amendment refers specifically to the electoral register, I hope that we can extend the principle to other forms of data if the Minister finds the amendment acceptable. I beg to move.

Viscount Astor

This Bill is about the allocation of properties to bands. It concerns the characteristics of property. It is not concerned with who lives in the property. It is certainly not concerned with whether people are on the electoral register. But it would be wrong to limit in this way the information which the commissioners can use for the purpose of the valuation. It would not be sensible, for example, to bar the use of information about property addresses, whatever the source of that information.

Of course we have proposed that there should be a personal element to the council tax. We believe that there should be a system of personal discounts to reflect the number of adults in each household as well as the value of the property. We have suggested that households with two or more adults should pay the basic council tax bill for their property. Single adult households should pay less through a personal discount and some households would receive two discounts.

We consider that a significant advantage of the discount approach is that it does not require a register of council tax payers. Households simply pay a reduced amount through a discount where there is only one liable adult or two discounts where there are none or where the property is unoccupied.

We are considering the responses to consultation on all these issues and it is premature to consider what information could or should be considered for the main legislation to introduce the council tax. What is clear, however, is that these amendments are superfluous to the purpose of this Bill and I urge the Committee to reject them.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I must confess that I was again somewhat disappointed with the Minister's reply. Let us be clear that for the purposes of this Bill valuers do not need individual names and therefore they do not need to refer to the electoral register for valuation purposes. The Minister has said that for the purposes of the Bill all the valuers need is a list of addresses and not a list of individual names. To seek individual names, therefore, which is what the electoral register provides, is necessary only for purposes over and beyond that of valuation—in other words, for cross-checking eligibility for rebates, payments and other such matters. That is why Members of the Committee on this side of the Chamber regard this as a civil liberties issue.

I hope that on reflection the Minister will want to think further about the matter and perhaps move in some way at a later stage, because I believe that he would meet a number of civil liberties concerns if he were to concede that point.

Finally, the Minister said tonight that this proposal was premature. He also said that it was premature to ask about the qualifications of surveyors; it was premature to ask about the principles of valuation; it was premature to discuss in greater detail a number of issues tonight. Yet somehow, although we are not allowed to discuss these matters, to have the information required or make preparations until after this Bill becomes law—by the winter or spring of next year—this complex new tax, which will require elaborate work, is due to be in place within 12 months. The responsibility and burden for that will fall upon local authorities.

I believe that Ministers and their advisers are inviting all sorts of trouble by not being able to offer to the Committee tonight perfectly proper information which should already have been considered if we are to accept and support the timetable which Ministers expect us to abide by. Nonetheless, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 37 not moved.]

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 38: Page 4, line 25, after ("days) insert ("or such other longer period that may be specified in the notice").

The noble Baroness said: This is a very minor amendment and I shall not delay the Committee for long. As the Bill stands local authorities and housing associations are required to submit information within 21 days. We feel that that is a rather tight timetable and would like it specified that the information should be supplied following consultation, or such other longer period that may be specified in the notice".

Much of the data will be computerised. However, we all know the problems that have been experienced with the poll tax. As a leader of a council and chair of a finance committee who has lived through the introduction and implementation of the poll tax, I do not take those concerns lightly. I hope that the Minister does not either. This modest amendment would go some way to giving local authorities in particular and housing associations and other similar bodies which hold a large stock of housing a little more flexibility in returning the information that is required. In turn that will ultimately reduce the number of appeals and the pressure on the system. I hope that the Minister will feel able to accept the amendment. I beg to move.

Baroness Blatch

The amendment seeks to give the option of extending the length of time allowed for a notice of information to be completed by an owner or occupier. The Bill already allows owners and occupiers 21 days to comply with a notice of information and makes clear that no one who has a reasonable excuse for failing to observe the time limit will be penalised. We intend to keep bureaucracy and form filling to a minimum. The process of allocating properties to bands should generally be fairly straightforward. In many cases whole streets with broadly similar characteristics will be in the same band.

Valuation officers will not need to send out forms to every property. The forms which are sent out can easily be completed within 21 days. To allow more time would be unnecessary. I call on the Committee to reject the amendment.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

The Minister may have misunderstood the point of the amendment. We are not dealing with forms being sent out to individual properties which are tenanted. The presumption is that those forms will go to the landlord rather than to the occupier. Local authorities may hold a stock of 40,000 or 60,000 houses. A housing association may hold a stock of 20,000 properties. In those cases the limit of 21 days is very tight.

Obviously records are computerised, but I repeat that experience of the poll tax has shown that the problems of computer software, forms, printing systems and the like make it extremely difficult to produce the information which will obviate much of the need for appeals. We are not asking that local authorities specify the time. We are asking that the Government should be able to extend the time allowed, particularly in the case of larger bodies which hold a large housing stock in order for the system to run more smoothly. I hope that the Minister may be able to respond to that point.

Baroness Blatch

The Bill states: A person on whom a notice is served under subsection (3) above shall supply the information requested if it is in his possession or control, and shall do so in such form and manner as is specified in the notice and within the period of 21 days beginning with the day on which the notice is served". The amendment simply seeks to extend the period. We are talking here about an individual.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

Is the Minister saying that a local authority or housing association is not a person within the meaning of the Bill? We have always understood that a person included an organisation. I have never heard the interpretation that a person means an individual.

Baroness Blatch

I am told that a person could be a local authority, but a local authority could certainly answer within 21 days.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My authority has perhaps 20,000 houses. Other authorities, such as Sheffield or Newcastle, have perhaps 100,000 properties and have elaborate information which a valuer will quite rightly need to know in terms of, for example, improvements, access to drainage, size of gardens and access to garages. Between us, we could come up with a long list of information. It must be accurate for valuation purposes. We have not been told the principles, we are not allowed to make the preparations and nor can we be confident that the valuers are professionally qualified in ways that we would accept. Given all the points that we have established tonight, it is absurd to ask a local authority to produce that kind of information, possibly affecting 100,000 properties, in 21 days. We simply ask that, where a local authority can put up a good case to government that it needs more than 21 days, the Government will accept that. The primary reason for that will be the amount of stock held. Perhaps the Minister will comment further.

Baroness Blatch

The information will predominantly be requested from house owners and occupiers. It will occasionally be necessary to go to a local authority or perhaps to a housing association, but those occasions will be much less frequent because most of the information will be sought from owners and occupiers.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I accept that, but local authorities hold about 4.5 million or 5 million properties in stock.

Baroness Blatch

Most of the house owners and occupiers will respond in the normal way. We are talking about the residual number of people who for one reason or another do not respond.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

The Minister must distinguish between owners and occupiers. It makes a huge difference. If the occupiers are to answer, they will answer only for one property and will do so without difficulty within 21 days, but she cannot simply lump owners and occupiers together. As my noble friend said, local authorities have a stock of about 5 million homes. Housing associations have a stock of about 500,000 homes. If they are in large estates and represent large portfolios, the difficulty of producing information of that kind will he that much greater. This is the only place in the Bill—everything else is tentative—where a period such as 21 days is specified. I do not want to encourage my noble friend to divide the Committee, but I urge the Minister to say that she will look at the matter again between now and Report stage.

Baroness Blatch

I believe that I have a reputation for always saying that I shall continue to consider matters between stages of a Bill. I understand that there is no greater owner of municipal housing than Norwich City Council with which the noble Baroness is associated.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

It has the highest percentage of municipal housing.

Baroness Blatch

As the noble Baroness says, it has the highest percentage of municipal housing. Predominantly, the occupiers of those houses will respond to the request for information within 21 days. It will only be in cases of difficulty that the local authorities will be required to provide the information.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

We cannot push this matter any further tonight because there is a gap between us as regards our understanding of the Bill. I am sure that the Minister will query the matter further with her advisers, as we shall do. Perhaps we can discuss the matter, because that is not our understanding. If our understanding is correct, I hope that the Minister will reconsider her views before Report stage. There is no point in trying to press the matter further tonight because we are too far apart on our understanding of the Bill.

I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 4 agreed to.

Clauses 5 and 6 agreed to.

[Amendment No. 39 not moved.]

Clause 7 agreed to.

Schedule agreed to.

[Amendment No. 40 not moved.]

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment.

House adjourned at twenty-four minutes before ten o'clock.