“All of these changes will require substantial changes to systems and processes at the local level, and we are extremely concerned that not enough time is being allowed for all of these policies to be properly thought through and implemented.”

I could not put it better myself.

Local authorities are being asked to cope with not only changes to non-domestic rates, but the localisation of council tax benefit at the same time. That will require new IT systems, which are unlikely to be ready, and more changes to local council revenues.

1.45 pm

Alison Seabeck: There are only three, possibly four companies in the UK that are capable of producing the sort of software that local authorities might require. Clearly, they will have a capacity problem if they are faced with hundreds of local authorities wanting individual systems. That is concerning.

Helen Jones: My hon. Friend is right—there will be a capacity problem. Again, it would have been useful to hear witnesses from the relevant companies and consider the time scale they need.

Councils will also have to cope with changes to their revenue. It is likely that some people who receive a cut in their council tax benefit will not be able to pay, and collection rates will fall. That will affect some local authorities far more than others. The change also brings with it the possibility of more claims, because we are moving from perceiving something as a benefit to its appearing as a reduction in the council tax bill. All those with expertise in benefits say that it is likely that more pensioners will claim. That is a good thing, but local authorities need time to adjust their budgets because they face a 10% reduction in the amount of money available, coupled with protection for pensioners, and the possibility of more claims.

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Mr Raynsford: My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. She is considering the changes to the benefits scheme and she highlights the fact that an increase in pensioners’ claims as a result of the changes would be a further problem for local authorities. Indeed, it will be a major problem for them, because they will not receive the funding to pay for it that they get under the current benefits scheme. They are being asked to budget in advance, with all the uncertainties, knowing that the downside risk remains with them if the financial position is not as good as they thought when they budgeted. There is no safety net in the benefits part of the system for authorities that find themselves in difficulty. That is a fundamental problem, which is arousing real concern in local government circles. It is extraordinary that the Government are not giving an opportunity for those serious problems to be understood.

Helen Jones: My right hon. Friend is, of course, right. Throughout the Bill, financial risks are transferred to local authorities. The Government set the system but transfer the financial risk elsewhere.

Let me return to the problems with IT systems. Earlier, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) mentioned that only a few firms provide those systems. Interestingly, Capita has sent an e-mail to benefit and council tax managers to set out its concerns about the timing of the system. The manager who sent the e-mail writes:

“I think the most important point to make is that I remain concerned and disappointed that the timetable remains unchanged meaning that primary and secondary legislation will not be passed until the summer / autumn / winter 2012. Without the framework and detailed regulations underpinning both the local schemes and means for ensuring that pensioners now and in the future remain protected or treated equally, it is impossible to commence planning for software changes.”

That is the system with which the Government are expecting local authorities to cope.

There are other changes in the Bill—provisions on tax increment financing, on the rating of empty properties, and on exemptions from the scheme for renewable energy projects—for which local councils need time to plan, adjust their budgets and rethink the way they do things. Those measures require changes to how councils organise themselves and changes to IT systems. Many local authorities are making it clear that they believe the Bill does not give them sufficient time to prepare for those changes.

May I make a suggestion to the Minister—it is meant to be a helpful one? I try to be helpful occasionally even if the Whip is giggling away. Why not run the proposed system as a shadow system for one year to see how it works and iron out the glitches? Why not continue with the old system for a year but give local authorities an indication of what they would have received under the new system? That would allow any problems to be ironed out and the system to work properly.

Above all, the Opposition are saying that Ministers ought to take note of the people who must implement the changes on the ground—the people who collect the rates, who design the systems, who administer council tax benefit and deliver the services. If the Government rush the implementation of the Bill and it all goes wrong, chaos could result. They need to take the opportunity to test the system properly and to think

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things through. If they insist on introducing this hugely complex system, they need at least to give themselves time to run it properly and ensure that local councils can adapt their systems properly. That is why I have moved amendment 20 today. It might be helpful if I tell the Committee at this point that the Opposition intend to press the amendment to a Division.

Mr Syms: I, too, have been an Opposition politician. Opposition politicians often argue that Bills taken on the Floor of the House really ought to be taken in a Public Bill Committee; and when there is a Public Bill Committee, they argue as eloquently as possible that the Bill ought to be taken on the Floor of the House. When Opposition politicians are not sure what to do about a Bill, one thing they say is that it has not been considered for long enough. They then try, as amendment 20 does, to delay the commencement date, because that is a good substitute for hearing their views on such reforms. If they can press an amendment, such as amendment 20, to a Division after a debate, that is very good, because in that way they cannot discuss some of the important issues in, say, schedules 1, 2 and 3. Perhaps we will end today not quite knowing where the Opposition are on some of those issues.

The reality is that we probably have the most centralised system of local government in the western world. The Bill is a step in the right direction for devolving power. Perhaps it does not go far enough, but we will doubtless see as the Committee progresses over its three days what assurances we get from the Minister on the pace at which the Government are going.

I am confident that the Government’s instincts are right. My experience of local government officials is that they must always second-guess central Government. Some are pretty good at it. Rather than prevaricating, if we are to change the system, the sooner we do so, the better. I therefore support my hon. Friend the Minister.

Mr Kevan Jones: The reason the Bill is being taken on the Floor of the House is that there is no business—the business is in a logjam up in the other place.

It is important that the Bill gets detailed scrutiny. As my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) said, in a Public Bill Committee, we would have been allowed not only to scrutinise the Bill, but to take evidence from councils, professionals and others with such expertise. We will not have that opportunity. As one who sat on one of the very first pre-legislative scrutiny Committees back in 2001—it was on the Civil Contingencies Act 2004—I was converted and became a great fan of such pre-legislative scrutiny. That Committee was given the chance to look at the proposals in detail, and as my hon. Friend said earlier, the Bill will bring about a radical change in local government finance in this country.

We had just over three hours last week on Second Reading.

John Healey: Two hours for Back Benchers.

Mr Jones: As my right hon. Friend says, we had two hours on Second Reading for Back Benchers. What we will see with this Bill is what we have seen with a number of Bills. They fly through the House at the speed of light only to land in the other place to be picked apart

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slowly but surely because of their terrible drafting and the draconian implications they will have for many of our constituents. I can foresee exactly what will happen with this Bill. When we look at the next few weeks of business programmed for the House, we can see that we could have unlimited time to debate the Bill, but time will be limited, and the Government will push the Bill through with undue haste because they are determined to do so.

As has already been said, the time scale set out in the Bill leaves councils with a huge dilemma, which is why I support amendments 20 and 21 to 25. I said this on Second Reading, but I will say it again: the Bill is highly political in the sense that the Government are shifting blame from themselves to local councils under the guise of localism. A good example of that in the Bill is the administration of council tax benefit. The measure contains a poison pill. Local councils must defend their decisions on implementing a 10% cut locally. Clearly, the Minister and the Secretary of State will turn round and say, “It’s not us, Guv; it’s local councils.” That has been the Government’s approach to responsibility throughout. It is nothing to do with localism; it is a highly political and cynical attempt to deflect the blame from where it should lie—it should lie with the Government, not local councils.

John Healey: My hon. Friend makes an important point that counters the assertion of the hon. Member for Poole (Mr Syms). He said that Opposition Members argue that the Government are going too far too fast with the Bill because we do not know what to say about it. Does my hon. Friend agree, to the contrary, that the local authorities that must implement the Bill are worried about the rapid time scale? Authorities in Yorkshire and the Humber have told us that they are concerned about

“the rapid timetable for these reforms, given the huge levels of complexity involved and the radical implications they will have on councils’ ability to fund services to local communities”.

That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) was so right to table the amendments.

Mr Jones: I agree totally with my right hon. Friend. The Bill also has the backdrop of councils having to introduce draconian cuts—County Durham must take £125 million out of its budget over the next four years.

That is alongside the uncertainty in the Bill. Neither hon. Members nor councils know about the regulations, and they will not know exactly how the rebate system will work. When they are budgeting for future years, it is important that councils know what they can do. The time scale in the Bill means that they are walking into the new arrangements blind. They do not know what they must deduct, because we do not have the regulations before us.

George Hollingbery: Having spent 11 years as a local councillor, I can reflect on the fact that in almost no year that I can remember did we have any certainty about our finances. It was all entirely settled by national Government through an incredibly complex system that nobody understood. I am stretched to understand why the hon. Gentleman thinks the new system will be any more confusing.

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2 pm

Mr Jones: I do not know when the hon. Gentleman left local government, but we introduced three-year budgeting, which helped local councils. I agree that under the old system, when I was a councillor in the days when the Tories were last in government, the biggest problem for councils was having to guess what their annual budget would be. I am not sure whether three-year budgets were introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford), who is in his place, but they gave councils some certainty. The Bill will add more uncertainty. Councils will be asked to second-guess what the system will be, and we will have no opportunity to scrutinise it before it becomes law.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): It is precisely that uncertainty that is unsettling a number of local authorities, including Tameside metropolitan borough council in my constituency. Had we had the opportunity to scrutinise properly the impact of the Government’s changes on various local authorities as part of the process of deliberating on the Bill, we would have been able to assess the winners and losers across the country. Despite the picture that Ministers paint that everybody is a winner and nobody is a loser, the reality is quite the contrary. Over the coming years, as the new mechanism operates, the gap between authorities that win and those that lose will widen. I believe that areas such as mine, and no doubt my hon. Friend’s, will be the losers.

Mr Jones: I agree, and that uncertainty will be a problem not just because councils will not know what the rebate is going to be. It is quite clear that Durham is not going to gain from the new system, and it was interesting to hear the Secretary of State and the Minister say last week that the area would be a net gainer. However, the Secretary of State failed to tell the House—he is very good at that—that he was referring to the last five years’ figures, for some of which time the economy of County Durham was growing. Now, under the coalition Government, it is—

Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): It is a relative change.

Mr Jones: It is not at all. If the hon. Gentleman comes to my constituency and says that to the 21% of young people who are unemployed, I am sure they will find it very amusing. It is quite clear that given the economies of regions such as the north-east, if local authorities do not know what their compensation will be, they will not be able to make plans.

It is interesting that Government Members seem quite quiet this afternoon, including the Liberal Democrats, who claim to be the party of local government.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Not for very long.

Mr Jones: No, and that is possibly because they will have to explain to northern councils why they are supporting measures that will have a terrible effect on their budgets. They sidestep that issue and say that it is all because the matter is covered by the coalition agreement, and then we have the usual deathly silence from them. We need to

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remind all our constituents on every possible occasion that such draconian cuts could not be got through the House without the support of the Liberal Democrats.

Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): Would the hon. Gentleman like to tell the House whether he agrees with the principle of local authorities retaining more of their business rates? That is what we are meant to be discussing, and I would very much like to hear his view.

Mr Jones: I think the hon. Lady represents Dorset, and there is a big difference between Dorset and parts of County Durham. Even though there are some very beautiful parts of County Durham, I am sure that Dorset’s economic activity shows it to be far more affluent than parts of County Durham. I support local decisions being taken at a local level, but I do not support a system in which her constituents in wealthier areas will gain at the expense of constituencies such as mine that need support for economic development.

What we heard last week on Second Reading from Government Members was absolutely disgraceful. Conservative Member after Conservative Member referred to local councillors not being interested in economic development. I have to say that I have never yet met one who does not want to increase the economic vibrancy of their area. They put a lot of effort into doing that, and such comments show again the prejudice of Government Members.

The changes to council tax benefit will be a nightmare for councils not just because of the localisation of the system but because of its top-slicing—

Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): Speak to the amendments, will you?

Mr Jones: I am sorry, but I think you are chairing the Committee, Mr Amess, not a Liberal Democrat Member who usually has very little to say, and frankly when he does it is not very interesting.

I am talking about the time scale of what is being introduced. We will have to work out the methodology of how the funds are to be distributed. We hear, for example, that pensioners are not going to be included, which will have an effect on some poorer councils, such as the eastern part of County Durham, with large ageing populations. The time scale for the system’s introduction is very limited, and there is uncertainty about exactly how it will happen. Instead, the Bill should have included the schedules, procedures, mechanisms for redistribution and so on.

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): The hon. Gentleman seems to be arguing that because there is uncertainty, the Bill should be delayed. May I remind him of the words of the chairman of the Local Government Association, which I am sure he has read? He stated:

“The current system of funding local government is incredibly complex and does not meet the needs of all the people we serve.”

He also said:

“Now more than ever, we need to put in place a funding system that will support local public services and generate economic growth.”

Is that not an argument for progressing more quickly rather than for delaying?

Mr Jones: The Conservative party needs to learn lessons, because every time it has dabbled in local

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government finance it has got its fingers burned. The hon. Gentleman talks about the current system being complicated, but the proposals in the Bill cannot exactly be said to be very simple, and it is clear that it will centralise power into the hands of the Secretary of State and take it away from local councils.

Mr Raynsford: We have heard a rather partial and not very accurate account of the LGA’s view. Perhaps the hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) has not read its briefing. I will not go into the details, because interventions must be brief, but it states that

“the LGA supports amendment 60 which would postpone the introduction of the scheme by 12 months.”

Mr Jones: Ten out of ten to my right hon. Friend for picking that up.

Graham Stringer: None out of ten to the hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher).

Mr Jones: Or perhaps minus one for being selective in his quotation. It is not the first time that the Conservative party has been selective in using quotes.

Christopher Pincher: One fact that is absolutely undeniable is that Durham’s business rate growth has been greater than the national average, so the Bill will help the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, not hinder them.

Mr Jones: I am sorry, but when the hon. Gentleman gets his briefing notes from Conservative central office or wherever, he should perhaps examine how the figures are presented. The Secretary of State is very good at presenting figures. They are actually the figures for the past five years, when we had a growing employment base in County Durham.

Mark Tami: And a Labour Government.

Mr Jones: Indeed. Now, we see that the latest unemployment figure is nearly 7.8% for my constituency and nearly 12% for the north-east in general, and businesses are closing. Is the hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) saying that those businesses are somehow going to grow over the next few years as a result of this measure? In fact, councils will lack certainty about how much they will get. The local authority is one of the biggest employers in County Durham, but there has been a reduction in the numbers of people. I think the policy is that by cutting back in local government and public services, all these new jobs will rush forward from the private sector, but today’s figures show that 67,000 people have left the public service in the last quarter, while only 5,000 jobs have been created in the private sector.

As I said on Second Reading about my constituents in the north-east, the Bill will actually help the affluent south. Clearly, it is a damn sight easier to attract business to the likes of Westminster and other economic hotspots in the south-east of England than to parts of County Durham. That is no criticism of the work that local councils do to attract jobs—for instance, with the council’s full support, the area has succeeded in attracting Hitachi trains to Newton Aycliffe in County

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Durham. I know of the tremendous work that my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) did on that campaign.

The Bill is being rushed through with undue haste. We are expecting councils and local people to walk blindly into the future. The parties in government sometimes try to portray this as a simplified system, but it is not; it will be a centralised and bureaucratic system. We cannot allow a situation to develop in which local people or local government do not know how much money they will get or how the system will work in practice.

Andrew Gwynne: Is not one merit of pausing, delaying and taking stock of the changes that it would allow us to get the baseline starting point absolutely right for each local authority, which is crucial, and is it not the case that using the 2012-13 formula grant model, including the damping, to determine the baseline will, for local authorities such as mine in Tameside, lock in the funding losses arising from the damping exercise and the disproportionate reduction in funding from the 2011-12 and 2012-13 settlements?

Mr Jones: Yes. That would have come out had we had proper pre-legislative scrutiny in Committee. It is the same for County Durham. Under the funding settlement introduced last year by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, County Durham lost about £10 million. That will be in the system for ever more now because of the measures in the Bill. Surprisingly, Wokingham council, Surrey council and many others gained from the system. That injustice will be written into the Bill for ever.

Mr Mike Hancock (Portsmouth South) (LD): I declare an interest as a member of Portsmouth city council and the executive member for economic development. The hon. Gentleman states that the Bill will greatly damage local authorities. Will he reflect on why, over 13 years, the previous Labour Government, who received similar complaints from local authorities, did little or nothing to assist them by putting local finance on a proper footing?

Mr Jones: That is not true. We did. We had a three-year settlement and an increase in the settlement. Through the regional development agency in the north-east, we were putting money into areas such as Country Durham so that they could work with local councils to attract new businesses. I know that the hon. Gentleman does not necessarily agree with everything that the coalition does, but unfortunately, in places such as the north-east, it is taking away the main driver, the RDAs, that local councils could work with to attract more businesses to the north-east.

Mr Hancock: My recollection of those years was that money was taken away from the city of Portsmouth, where there was high unemployment and great deprivation, and that the benefits went to places such as County Durham. We felt for a long time that the formula was very unfair and we campaigned to get it changed, but the Labour Government turned a deaf ear to the pleas from authorities such as Portsmouth which were trying to make a rational case for equalisation and a much fairer distribution.

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2.15 pm

Mr Jones: But Portsmouth council received a year-on-year increase in its grant. It is interesting to hear a Liberal Democrat argue that deprivation should not be important to how local government money is spent. I would not be surprised to hear that from the Secretary of State because, frankly, I do not think that he cares—for instance, his support for his own Conservative areas at the expense of areas such as the north-east is highly political.

Mark Tami: Does my hon. Friend recall the piles of Liberal Democrat leaflets over many years calling for more and more expenditure? Now that they are in government they are taking a slightly different approach.

Mr Jones: Exactly. Not for the first time, some of those chickens are coming home to roost. Hopefully, we will have fewer Liberal Democrat “Focus” leaflets claiming credit for everything that goes right and criticising everything else that the previous Government did. Some of those northern councils had Liberal Democrats, but thankfully, in places such as Newcastle and Sheffield, the electorate have seen through them.

In conclusion, the timetable for the Bill needs to be rethought. As suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), if we can take witnesses at this stage, we should consider doing so, because otherwise the same will happen as has happened with a lot of Bills this Session: the Bill will be rushed through here only to be held up in the other place, where the ladies and gentlemen will give it the proper scrutiny that it deserves.

Mr Ward: I want to make just a few comments. I also consider it regrettable that the Committee stage is being taken here and not in one of the Committee Rooms. The quality of debate might have been better in that environment.

I am sympathetic to the amendments on deferment. I want to discuss that point in particular. After many, many years of seeking the change for which most in the House have called, we have before us a radical and important shift in the relationship between local government and central Government, but we face a potentially enormous change of not just a financial nature but a constitutional nature. One of the concerns that I guess we all share is about the unknown consequences of the redistributional impact.

Yes, there are tariffs and top-ups, and we welcome the application of the retail prices index to the baselines for business rates and local authority funding—that is welcome—but actually local government finance is not too complex. Yes, the formula and weightings are complex. We all know about the complexities of what goes into the computer and the figures that come out, but its purpose at the moment is actually pretty simple: to redistribute funds to authorities on the basis of need. That is pretty simple. But we are moving from that system to a new system.

We all welcome, I think, the principle behind localisation. The trouble is that, with many of the things we are facing, the easier it is to accept something in principle, the more difficult it is to challenge the consequences. Because we are talking about such a strong principle, which many of us hold, we are willing to accept some of

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the consequences, or potential consequences, when we are not fully aware of what they will be. There may or may not be a change if we move from a system based on the allocation of funds by need to one based on allocation by growth in business rates. However one thing we do know is that if things go wrong, it must, by definition, be one that, with the total pot—

Graham Stringer: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Ward: Let me just finish; I shall not be much longer.

I understand all the measures that are built in, but if the total pot is the same and there is a redistribution, it must be to the disadvantage of the beneficiary authorities that receive most of the formula grant. That is a concern, and although it might not affect those authorities for the first few years, because of the baseline protection, the unknown consequences—

Andrew Gwynne: Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Mr Ward: Let me just get through this.

The Bill is not too complex. One of the arguments against having witnesses—it would have been useful to do that—is that we will get the opinions of only those witnesses. The truth is that nobody knows what the outcome of this will be, because it is dependent on the growth in business rates, while the strategy of rebalancing the economy will have implications for different parts of the national economy.

John Healey: On a point of order, Mr Amess. Any written evidence submitted to a Public Bill Committee, and not just the oral evidence taken in its opening sittings, will be circulated to all members of that Committee. May we have your guidance, and then the reassurance of the Minister or the House as appropriate, that any written evidence submitted to this Committee of the whole House will be circulated to all Members, who may all have an interest in participating?

The Temporary Chair (Mr David Amess): The Standing Order on written evidence does not apply to Committees of the whole House, so I am afraid that I shall have to disappoint the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr Mike Hancock: Further to that point of order, Mr Amess. Is it not possible for the House itself to decide that it would be appropriate for evidence supplied to this Committee to be circulated to all Members?

The Temporary Chair: I hear what the hon. Gentleman has said, and I think that this is something that could be considered on another day. Perhaps it is something that we could put to the Procedure Committee.

John Healey: Further to that point of order, Mr Amess. As the Chairman of this Committee, you will have noticed that the programme order suggests that there will be at least two more part-days for our proceedings. Will you do your best to ensure that the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) is put to the right authorities, so that, if agreed, a decision can be put in place for the final two of these three days in Committee of the whole House?

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The Temporary Chair: I will reflect on the point that the right hon. Gentleman has made, and obviously those on the Treasury Bench have heard it. What is proposed might not be possible because of time constraints, but I will certainly reflect on it.

Mr Ward: Just to conclude—

Mr Kevan Jones: Good.

Mr Ward: You and I are going to have to have words later.

The Temporary Chair: Order. I would remind all hon. Members that this is the mother of all Parliaments, and we conduct ourselves in a civilised way. I am aware that something has been happening that is outside what is normal debate, but I would ask hon. Members please to calm down.

Mr Ward: The issue that I want the Minister to consider is not so much to do with the resets—whether they should be every 10 years or every three years—because the reset implies that something needs changing, and the truth is that we do not know whether anything will. What is much more important, as we venture into the unknown, is how quickly everything is reviewed. That might be after one year, or two years, and not necessarily the three years proposed by the amendment. We need to have clear evidence as soon as possible about the impact and the consequences of what is proposed in the Bill.

Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate, Mr Amess. I just want to pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) about the principle of this Bill. I think that he said that most people in the Committee agree with it. I agree with the principle that local authorities should do all they can to promote economic prosperity and growth in their areas. I am not sure that I necessarily agree with the principle of retention and localisation of business rates, although I will not repeat my concerns about that point, which I expressed on Second Reading last week.

I support the amendment tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench, because it is overly optimistic, shall we say, of the Government to think that they will be able to get this legislation through and that councils will be able to put the requisite systems in place to introduce the new system of finance in 2013. If we are to have this new system, the commencement date should be moved back, to 2014.

Last week on Second Reading we heard a lot about how the issue of local government finance had been much debated and how the previous Government commissioned the Lyons review. We had an historical “tour de force”, going through the history of local government finance, even referring to the work of Layfield in the 1970s. Government Members seemed to suggest that there was a case for just getting on and doing something to localise business rate retention, but doing something for the sake of it is not the same as doing something because it is the right thing to do and because it will work. The complexity of the new scheme that is being proposed will not make the system of local government finance any more transparent to local councils

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and councillors, or even the general public, because what we have before us is a system with a whole range of baselines, tariffs, top-ups, levies, set-asides and safety net payments.

Andrew Gwynne: My hon. Friend mentioned the issue of setting the baseline. It is absolutely crucial that we get that right, so that local authorities are not put at an immediate disadvantage. She talked about the tariffs and top-up system. However, the introduction of the new system is also predicated on every local authority in the country having the same council tax base and the same ability to raise income from council tax if it faces a reduction in its business rates. Local authorities such as Tameside—where more than 90% of the properties are in band A or B—do not have the same ability to raise extra income from council tax, should they lose out on the business rate formula.

Heidi Alexander: My hon. Friend makes a very fair point, and if I am correct, those on our Front Bench have tabled amendments for debate later that deal with exactly that point.

We need to take longer to scrutinise the Bill and for the proposals within it to come into force, because I would contest that this Government do not know whether they are coming or going in relation to local government finance and the retention of business rates, or how this proposal will stimulate growth in local economies.

Mr Kevan Jones: What is clear from the Bill is that the Secretary of State will not only retain but increase his powers to interfere in local government finance. The question of how a future Secretary of State should use those powers will be of great concern to many councils.

2.30 pm

Heidi Alexander: I think it will be, and that very point was made last week. The Government claim to be localising but they are, in effect, centralising.

I thought one of the most telling points on Second Reading last week related to where the Government are coming from with this Bill and what they understand local authorities to be doing to promote economic development. The most telling point was when the shadow Secretary of State stood up to expose this Government’s inconsistencies on what local authorities are doing currently. He pointed out that one document published by the Government said:

“We know that local authorities are keen to grow their local economies”,

while another said:

“local authorities are generally reluctant to...promote economic growth”—[Official Report, 10 January 2012; Vol. 538, c. 91.]

The Government are speaking with a forked tongue on this issue, and if the rationale is not clear, why are we going through this process of rushing to get this measure on the statute book and forcing local authorities to implement a scheme that might not have the impact on local economic growth that the Government want?

I think the Government are unclear about what local authorities are doing now to promote economic development, and I think they are unclear about the

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impact of their own cuts on economic development services in councils, which, as we all know, are a non-statutory service. I know that difficult decisions are having to be taken. My local authority lost a town centre management team, which was a liaison point between the business community and the council. That happened precisely because the Government imposed unfair cuts on local authorities in Lewisham to the tune of £80 million over the next three years out of a £270 million revenue budget.

When the Secretary of State came before the Select Committee in September last year, I questioned him closely about what he anticipated local authorities would do differently from what they are doing now to encourage economic growth and development in their areas as a result of this proposal. I argued that these measures were being rushed through, that we need more time and that the Government need to be clearer about what they are doing. Let me share with the Committee what the Secretary of State said to me when I questioned him in the Select Committee. I had to question him three times. I was asking a specific question about what local authorities would do differently. The Secretary of State said:

“I think they would see the reward.”

I said:

“No. What would they do?”

He then said:

“Please do not badger me like this; I am a sensitive man.”

[Interruption.] Well, the Minister says that it was a joke, but I can tell him that the Secretary of State’s following paragraph most certainly was a joke. To be honest, it was a complete load of nonsense. The Secretary of State could not answer my question, and he started to talk about sea shanties. I think this cuts to the heart—[Interruption.] I know, it was mad; I could not fathom it at all, to be honest.

My point is that Ministers are not clear about what they expect local authorities to change as a result of the new system of local government financing. They may have started with the best will in the world, but we have a hugely convoluted and complex system that, as I said earlier, contains a whole series of assumptions about baselines, about which authorities are tariff authorities and which are top-ups, about how much the set aside is going to be and for how long it will apply, about how much the levies will be, about who decides on what counts as disproportionate gain, and so forth. The position we are left in is vague, opaque and no clearer than under our current system.

John Healey: My hon. Friend is making a powerful case about the volatility, the unpredictability and the rogue factors that can throw out revenue from a business rate base. Is not the real argument for delaying the commencement of these provisions connected to that, combined with the fact that 2013-14, when this system is supposed to come into place, is also year three of local councils having to deal with the spending review settlement introduced by this Government? The finances are very tight, so predictability and certainty will be key to councils planning their way through that. Those are the really powerful arguments that my hon. Friend is making to justify putting back the commencement, as recommended by our Front-Bench team.

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Heidi Alexander: My right hon. Friend expresses the case incredibly well; I agree with everything he said.

Have we not seen examples in this Parliament of the Government taking a pause—taking a break—and saying, “This is quite a complex piece of legislation”? I am referring to the Health and Social Care Bill. While this Bill might not be as sexy—I do not really think that the proposed changes to the NHS are in any way sexy; indeed, I think they are destructive and very controversial—these proposals are very controversial as well. I suggest that the Government pause and listen to what local authorities are saying.

John Healey: My hon. Friend amplifies her case. On Second Reading, she told the House something from which this Committee would benefit. I believe she pointed out that the ninth largest business in her borough was the local police station, while the biggest business rate payer was a business with a small office above a bowling alley, which happened to be the national headquarters of a national firm. That illustrated perfectly how contingent a local council’s business rate take is on accidents and other contingencies of business location and so forth. It showed how unpredictable and volatile the business rate stream can be.

Heidi Alexander: I was not going to repeat my comments on Second Reading, but my right hon. Friend tempts me into reiterating some of my remarks about the differing ability of different councils to promote and develop their local economies. Sometimes the business rate take will be dependent on a whole range of different things, not just on what a local authority is or is not doing. I suggest that Ministers go back to their geography lessons and learn what we all learned at school about why businesses locate in different parts of the country and how success can breed success so that areas with a large business rate are likely to grow much faster than those with a smaller rate. I know that the Government propose to check disproportionate growth and the effect of having a larger business base to start with, but it is undoubtedly the case that different parts of the country have different abilities to attract and grow businesses.

The Government’s policies are making those differences even more explicit. Last year saw the National Insurance Contributions Bill, which gives a national insurance holiday to small businesses that are starting up outside London and the south-east, so it is not really a level playing field for local authorities. A small business setting up in, say, Middlesbrough or Birmingham might be able to get a tax break, while a similar business setting up in Lewisham might be operating in exactly the same type of area, employing exactly the same number of people with the same turnover and the same profit margins, yet not get such a break. Is that company as likely to locate in an area where there is a tax break as in one where there is not, like London?

Alison Seabeck: My hon. Friend makes her point well. The Government’s left hand does not know what their right hand is doing. Let us consider transport policy and the potential impact of transport infrastructure investment in benefiting one area over another. No high-speed rail link is proposed for Plymouth, for example. Even though Plymouth is struggling and needs good transport interconnections, the money is not going there. Such issues are hugely important in businesses’ decisions about where to locate or expand.

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Heidi Alexander: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I tried on Second Reading to make some of those points. Local economies grow because of a range of factors, including transport and the availability and type of land—it is not all about what a local authority is doing. One can argue that a local authority should foster economic growth through its planning policies and decisions, but the vast majority of councils across the country do that already. The partial retention of business rates will not stimulate local authorities to think, “Hang on, we need to look at our planning policies to decide what more we can do to foster economic growth.”

George Hollingbery: As I mentioned on Second Reading, I had exactly that reaction from Havant borough council, which is by no means a wealthy council. When I explained the changes, it was enthusiastic and said explicitly, “We will now have to re-examine how we plan. We will have to think about what we will do to stimulate business.” It was excited and believed that the proposal would make a difference to its policies towards businesses in the local area.

Heidi Alexander: I have not had the same reaction from my local authority, although the hon. Gentleman and I represent very different parts of the country. If the Government’s proposal prompts local authorities to think more positively about what they can do, that is all well and good, but it is not the whole answer. I would also urge caution, as developments need to be appropriate. The benefits of increased business rates as a result of new commercial development, arguably in unsuitable locations, might drive more local authorities to grant planning permission for unsuitable developments. We need the right development in the right place, with local government financed in a way that allows it to provide the services needed by the local population.

Andrew Gwynne: My hon. Friend is getting to the heart of why a pause is needed for deliberation on the possible impacts across the country of such far-reaching changes: some local authorities might have an over-reliance on one sector in developing economic regeneration plans. In my local authority, Tameside, the largest business rate take is from IKEA, the second largest is from Morrisons, and the third largest is from the Crown Point North retail development in Denton. The three main beneficiaries of the proposal would therefore be retail developments. There is no capacity for more retail on such a scale in Tameside without destroying the market across Greater Manchester, of which Tameside is an integral part.

Heidi Alexander: My hon. Friend is right to ask whether the proposal will result in the development and business growth that the country needs. There are only so many supermarkets and out-of-town retail centres that the country needs. It was suggested on Second Reading that the kind of economic growth that we would ideally like has a lower business rate take. In my constituency, I am struck by the small companies that start up in people’s homes—Lewisham does not have large tracts of land where businesses are located. The Government need to think hard about the development that the proposal would stimulate. I support the amendment.

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2.45 pm

Mr Mike Hancock: Like many Members, I was disappointed by how the proposal has been handled. One reason why I voted against the Bill on Second Reading was that I felt it unfair that something as important and precious as local government should be treated in such a cavalier way. Rather than being dealt with on the Floor of the House, a Bill of such size warrants close scrutiny in Committee, including oral evidence sessions. I am delighted, Mr Amess, that you are prepared to take to the usual channels the important proposal that the evidence that has been submitted should be offered to all Members of the House.

During my 40 years’ experience of local authorities, every Government have used local government as an excuse. Time after time, they have talked about devolving power, but they have devolved nothing more than blame, and responsibility without resources. That has plagued local government for four decades. I regret that once again a matter as important as the future of local government finance is being bulldozed through the House in this way. It is unfair, and it will lead to great problems.

Ministers cannot begin to understand how difficult times are for local administrations that have to put together a budget for not one but three years. As we have heard, implementation will come when the third year of the round of cuts will bite deepest in many local authorities. Do Ministers truly believe that a local authority such as mine, Portsmouth, which daily challenges the market to bring inward investment to the city, is not doing all it can to make it clear that we are open for business and actively to support economic development projects? We would welcome anyone to come and see what the city has to offer. It is an insult to local government to suggest that such activity is not happening, and I resent being party to a coalition that is giving that impression. I am surprised, to say the least, at the comments from the Local Government Association, and disappointed that it is not being more forceful in defending the rights of local authorities and challenging this type of legislation.

I hope that there is still time for Ministers to think again. I chaired Committee proceedings on the Health and Social Care Bill, and was delighted at the end of those Committee proceedings, which were the longest since 1997, that the Government gave a commitment to the House and the Committee that they would take time to think again. The implications of much of this Bill leave too many unanswered questions. There is no detail about how the safety net will be implemented and how such judgments will be made. We are told that local authorities will be able to apply to be beneficiaries of the safety net procedures, but not when they have to make that application, how long a decision will take, or exactly when or how the money will materialise. Such questions would have been dealt with in Committee in greater detail. Ministers would have been able to give members of the Committee detailed responses to questions. However, three days’ consideration on the Floor of the House does not give experts in the Department enough time to brief Ministers properly to answer legitimate points raised by hon. Members. That cannot be the right way to deal with as important a matter as local government finance.

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On Second Reading, the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) spoke about the Layfield report. I remember hearing Frank Layfield express his views on local government finance. At the time of his report, we all thought that it would be the turning point, that there would be proper transparency about local government financing, and that all local authorities, irrespective of where they were in the country, would be able to say, “We get a fair deal from Government.” It was said that everyone would know the formula for the funding of local government, but here we are, nearly 40 years on, and it is still hidden in mystique. The Bill perpetuates that situation although the formula should not be anything other than transparent, and council and business rate payers demand that transparency. I am at a loss to understand why the Government, whom I support, are not prepared to give local government the trust that it deserves, and reveal how they are calculating the formula.

I do not want to see the disparity that was referred to by the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) between his city and the city of Portsmouth, because I believe that the problems of poor people in my city and those who are striving to keep their businesses alive are the same as those faced by his constituents. We need an equal share of the resources that are available to local government, but they must be decided on the basis of a formula that is readily available for examination. Such a formula does not exist at present, and unfortunately the Bill does not make me feel at all enthusiastic about the possibility that it will exist in the future. For that reason, I have grave reservations about my ability to support it at any stage.

Mr Raynsford: Let me first draw attention to my interests as declared in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and specifically to my role as a columnist for the Municipal Journal—the MJ.

I hope and believe that when the Minister sums up, he will have to reflect on the fact that every Member who has spoken—with the sole exception of the hon. Member for Poole (Mr Syms), to whose contribution I shall return in a moment—has expressed real reservations about the timetable that is being adopted, in the context of both parliamentary consideration of the Bill and implementation of the measures contained in it. That is fairly remarkable, given that it was supposed to be a flagship Bill granting local government more freedom, and a measure that local government should welcome. Indeed, the hon. Member for Poole, whom I have known for many years and for whom I have a great deal of respect, made that the key point of his argument. He seemed to be saying, “This is a step in the right direction: let us get on with it, because it gives more discretion to local government.” The hon. Gentleman must wonder—as, indeed, I hope Ministers will wonder—why, if the Bill is of such benefit to local government, local government is so apprehensive about it. He must wonder why Members on his own side of the House, albeit on the Liberal Democrat Benches, have been so critical of the timetable. Let us think about that.

It is not just the organisation representing London councils, which happens to be Labour controlled at present, that has been highly critical of the timetable and has urged delay. I must remind the hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher), who suggested that the Local Government Association was wholly in

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favour of rapid action, that in its evidence it specifically supported an amendment that would delay implementation of the benefit changes until 2014. Even the LGA, a Conservative-controlled body, has expressed strong reservations about the timetable, while local government experts from whom we would normally expect to hear in evidence sessions are amazingly critical.

A week ago there was a very good article in Public Finance by Sarah Philips, who was an adviser to the Lyons inquiry and knows the issues thoroughly and deeply. She made some telling comments, such as these:

“The government’s repeated use of the term ‘local’ in relation to the planned changes hasn’t been enough to persuade councils that these will be an improvement. Current local government funding is incomprehensible, but these proposals taken together are even more complex and opaque. They have been criticised by councils, commentators and the communities and local government select committee—on most of the criteria the government set for itself and others… ‘Rich’ councils were looking forward to keeping most of their business rates and being free of central control. ‘Poorer’ councils were hoping for some continuation of equalisation, to recognise the huge range of needs and council tax revenues and their limited scope to increase business rates.”

Many of my hon. Friends have made the same points during the debate. Sarah Philips continues:

“The proposed tariff and top-ups and central levy limit incentives for growth, yet do not give much hope that services in ‘poorer’ areas can continue undiminished—or that it will be possible to prevent a two-tier system.

The proposals acknowledge only implicitly the risks of localised funding. In Europe and Australia, many smaller authorities and those in poorer areas have struggled to provide quality services and many have gone bankrupt or merged. The plans threaten the technical and financial viability of small district councils. Losing Housing Benefit will remove an economy of scale with processing the council tax support—limiting the ability to maintain a corporate centre.”

Those are just some of the comments that have been made by a real expert on local government finance—an officer who is clearly extremely anxious about the implications of the Bill. I hope that Government Members who have suggested that we should get on with it will pause to think about the serious risks attached to such action.

The hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) said in an intervention that local authorities had had to cope with annual changes in settlements in the past. As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), our Government changed that and adopted a three-year cycle, but in any event there is a fundamental difference between an annual change in the settlement—which affects the actual amount of grant that an authority will receive for that year—and a complete change in the administrative system. The separation between council tax benefit and universal credit will require the establishment of a whole new administration and an entirely different system for the making and processing of applications, along with different computer programmes to determine eligibility and provide for the granting of discounts.

Mr Kevan Jones: Another element contributing to the uncertainty that will characterise the proposed new system is the possibility of fluctuations in business rates throughout the year. The Secretary of State implied that councils would somehow be compensated if a large employer disappeared—Alcan in Northumberland, for instance, is unfortunately being closed—but the Bill contains no details about that compensation.

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Mr Raynsford: There are certainly no details about how the compensation arrangements and the safety net procedure will work. Nor is there any indication that central Government are prepared to accept that they are putting local authorities in an impossible position by proposing that they should take all the downside risk of a serious increase in demand for council tax benefit in any one year which they cannot themselves have anticipated.

What will happen to a local authority if a local business closes? What will happen if there is a serious rise in unemployment in the district, and as a consequence a large number of additional claims for council tax benefit are received? The authority will have no safety net. All that the Government propose is the possibility of some sharing or pooling arrangement with neighbourhood authorities to offset the risk. That is not compensating local government; it is local government having to help itself out in order to cope with the risk that is being transferred to it by central Government.

Alison Seabeck: I must first draw Members’ attention to my indirect interest in the interest declared by my right hon. Friend. I should have done that earlier, but I did not get around to it.

Might not a pooling arrangement lead to different problems popping up in different authorities at different times during the year? Exactly when and how will the safety net begin to operate in all those individual instances, and will authorities really want to share such a degree of risk?

Mr Raynsford: There are two different elements. One is the safety net system, which the Government have outlined without giving us the details, and which is designed to cope with circumstances in which there is a serious reduction in non-domestic rate revenue because of changes beyond a local authority’s control. That safety net exists, at least in principle. There might also be changes in benefit demand. Indeed, both of those elements might arise, as there might be a reduction in business rates because of the closure of a business and an increase in benefit claims because the people employed by that business are now out of work and therefore require help with their council tax. There could therefore be a double whammy. There is no safety net from Government to help local authorities with the second element. Instead, there is only the suggestion that there might be some pooling of risk, which is an unacceptable response to a very serious problem.

3 pm

Mr Kevan Jones: I agree with my right hon. Friend. There is also no detail as to how the pooling of risk will work, such as whether it will be a voluntary system or enforced by the Government. In my region of the north-east, Newcastle and Sunderland would probably pool together only if they were forced to do so by Government diktat.

Mr Raynsford: I am not going to go into the relations between different local authorities. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) and I are constituency neighbours and I am sure our local authorities would want to co-operate in the most friendly way, although I am not sure whether that attitude would be replicated by all authorities in other parts of the country.

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I was responding to the comments of the hon. Member for Meon Valley by observing that this change is much more complex than just an annual change in the settlement. Substantial administrative change is involved, too. Capita is a company that provides a lot of revenue services and undertakes benefit work for local authorities so it might be expected to see business opportunities in this change, but it is sounding the alarm about the risks involved in trying to programme this major change on an impossibly tight timetable.

A lot of detail is involved in the specification of the scheme, and the Government will impose the requirements that there are to be no losses for certain categories of participant, no inconsistencies in respect of the universal credit, and no disincentives to work. It is difficult to see how that can be achieved if there is to be a 10% cut in the overall council tax benefit. Pensioners are to be entirely protected and they represent more than a third of recipients, so it is hard to see how the other recipients, those of working age who are in employment or looking for work, will not be subject to cuts. How can a commercial company, such as a software firm, that is helping local authorities to prepare to administer these schemes possibly get arrangements properly in place under such circumstances? That is the real challenge to the Government.

As I said on Second Reading, the Government are risking a repeat of the fiasco that occurred when the housing benefit scheme was first introduced by a Conservative Government in 1982-83. That was rushed. The detailed specification and implementation arrangements were not available in time and there was chaos across the country. There were appalling examples of people being left without money for weeks and months, and people facing eviction from private homes because they were not getting the benefit they ought to have had. There was huge hardship, and there were also serious problems in authorities throughout the country.

I say in all sincerity to the Government that they are taking a very serious risk in pressing ahead with these changes to a very tight timetable without giving Members the opportunity to scrutinise and question the detailed arrangements, such as the specification of the scheme and the safety net. We are not being given the opportunity to test the provisions so as to find any weaknesses, yet local government will be expected to implement them to an impossibly tight timetable.

I say to the hon. Member for Poole that the Opposition are not using the timetable issue as an excuse. There is a genuine anxiety that is shared across local government. We must remember that the change will affect not only local authorities but their residents. Some 6 million people receive council tax benefit, which is one of the largest numbers of recipients of any category of benefit in the country. All these people are being put at risk by the Government’s unwise timetable.

I urge the Minister to give further thought to that point, and to heed the Select Committee’s sound advice to defer implementation for a year. I also know that Liberal Democrat Members have reservations, and I therefore urge them to do the right thing by joining us in opposing this rushed and unwise timetable.

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Robert Neill): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Amess. You and I know something of local government from our experiences of it over the years. We therefore know that the issue of local government finance has been around the houses, as we say in our part of the world, for a very long time. At long last, something is being done about it.

I say to the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) that I do not accept the premise that underpins her arguments. Throughout this debate the Opposition have raised specious arguments and engaged in manufactured indignation. The reality is that the Government are bringing forward a serious and important reform, which the Opposition are seeking to delay. That is not in the interests of local government, who suffer under the thoroughly unsatisfactory, opaque and unfair system Labour bequeathed, which denied local authorities the opportunity to have a portion of the business rates localised for their benefit. The Opposition want to delay the introduction of a valuable growth incentive for local government, which would also encourage national growth, so be in the interests of the national economy.

Helen Jones: Will the Minister give way?

Robert Neill: Let me make a little more progress first.

It is a little cheeky of Opposition Members to say that this change is being rushed forward. Much of the first part of the hon. Lady’s opening speech was taken up with a complaint that somehow less scrutiny of a Bill is possible if it is considered on the Floor of the House, when every Member can participate, than if it is sent upstairs into Committee. Is there a precedent for that, however? Yes, as a matter of fact there is, and it was under the previous Government. Their Digital Economy Act 2010 had 50 clauses, three of which were taken on the Floor of the House. That did not happen in the early part of the Session either; instead, that contentious Bill was considered in the wash-up. I will not take any lessons from the hon. Lady’s specious arguments, therefore.

Helen Jones: As the Minister argues that it is important to get these provisions through quickly to provide incentives for economic development, what does he think local authorities would be doing after they are introduced that they are not doing now?

Robert Neill: The hon. Lady fails to grasp the basic principle underlying the Bill. The problem at present is that local authorities have no incentive to encourage growth. Instead, they potentially have a burden. They have no ability to grow the tax base.

Mr Kevan Jones rose—

Robert Neill: I will give way again shortly.

Unfortunately, throughout this debate Opposition Members have articulated their old mindset. It is a mindset that does down local government, and I find that surprising given the experience some Opposition Members have of that. They do not seem to recognise that most local authorities want to advance their local economies even though they currently get no revenue benefit from doing so. We will make a key difference by giving them a tool to get such benefits.

Several hon. Members rose

Robert Neill: I give way to my hon. Friend.

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Mr Syms: Is not one of the major changes that there will be an incentive for ordinary rate payers and electors to support a particular scheme? There is currently no incentive for them to do so because there is no financial benefit for people who contribute to local government.

Robert Neill: My hon. Friend is entirely right. Unfortunately, under the previous Government there was a belief that we had to create an increasingly centralised and complex system to deliver results. The party that is criticising us now brought in capping and the comprehensive area assessment, which trammelled local authorities rather than freed them. I can understand, however, why this is a sensitive topic for Opposition Members. In their 1997 election manifesto they said they would localise the business rate, and they spent 13 years not doing so. Some of the principal architects of that commitment are sitting on the Opposition Benches in today’s debate, so I can understand that they might have a bit of a guilty conscience.

Heidi Alexander rose—

Robert Neill: I shall give way to the hon. Lady, as she may not have been here during that time—although I do not entirely exempt her from what I said.

Heidi Alexander: I certainly was not here when the previous Administration were in government, but I would like to give the Minister another opportunity to answer the question put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) from the Front Bench about what exactly a local authority would be doing differently under these proposals from what they are doing now. If this is about planning policy, what evidence does he have to suggest that granting permissions for extra commercial floor space results in an increased business growth take?

Robert Neill: The hon. Lady must simply not have been listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms), who made the point perfectly that our proposal is a desirable and a good thing. I know it is difficult for her to get this point, but two things are involved. First, we are giving an incentive back to local authorities. Secondly, we are giving local authorities an additional tool in the box of their financial levers. I would have thought that she would have recognised that from her long experience in local government.

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab) rose

Robert Neill: I will give way once to the hon. Gentleman and then I shall make some progress.

Graham Jones: The Minister talks about business growth, but given the changes in the national planning policy framework does he agree that this measure may be an incentive to develop commercial premises on greenfield sites, more so than in the past, and that it might override planning priorities?

Robert Neill: Absolutely not, and to see that the hon. Gentleman has only to think about two things, the first of which is planning policy. Any planning application has to be in accord with the planning policies that are set out—both in the local plan and in our new national planning policy framework—which give protection against ideas such as he mentions. Secondly, we cannot create a

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market and demand where there is none, although perhaps he does not get that fact, and so neither of the things he mentions would occur. Our approach enables and incentivises local authorities to work much more closely with their business communities on an ongoing basis.

It is very surprising to hear such a degree of criticism from Labour Members, because they need only look at what is done in most of the United Kingdom’s competitor countries to see that, in general, a closer alignment of local funding mechanisms with local business growth advantages the local economy. That is a basic proposition and they just do not seem to want to take it on board.

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): Unfortunately, this debate seems to have got muddled and become a discussion of two lots of dates. One relates to the retention of business rates, a move which I wholeheartedly support; I believe that we should get on with it as fast as we can. However, we also need to address the issue raised by the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) about the implementation of systems to provide council tax benefit. Hon. Members from all parts of the House, and those in local government, have genuine concerns about that implementation and about the ability of local authorities to develop the systems to provide the localisation of council tax benefit. Will the Minister give an answer on that issue?

Robert Neill: I shall deal with both those points and give a little detail as to why the suggestion that we are rushing is not well-founded. It is worth remembering that the Government consulted widely on this proposal, and let me deal first with the point about business rate retention.

Last year, we set out a detailed consultation document outlining our proposals, and the local government information unit has recognised that we have amended a number of our proposals on tariffs, set-asides and top-ups to reflect those matters. We issued eight highly detailed technical papers, to which we received some 461 substantial responses. The idea that there has not been very full engagement with the local government sector simply does not hold water. Indeed, there have been collaborations and discussions between officials of my Department and the local authority organisations throughout the process. To deal with the design of the systems and the regulations that go with them we have set up an official-level working group, which includes representatives of the Department, the Local Government Association, the Society of District Council Treasurers, the Society of County Treasurers and the other financial bodies—so the point is specifically being worked on. The timetable is challenging, but the ability to return a proportion of the business rates to local government is a really important tool, not only to give local authorities greater resilience in their funding streams, but for ensuring national growth.

Graham Jones rose

Robert Neill: I have given way to the hon. Gentleman once already.

It is also worth remembering, in the context of other points made, that we are sticking to the existing timetable that applies to the local government finance settlement process. I understand the frustrations of my hon. Friends

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the Members for Bradford East (Mr Ward) and for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) about the suffering that everyone in local government has undergone in the past few years, but I do not think that keeping the current flawed floor blocks and formula grant model for another year would benefit anyone. I can certainly assure them that we will work with the local government sector and the professional members and officers as we go forward.

Before the new scheme is introduced in April 2013, local authorities will be consulted on their baseline funding at the end of 2012, and after a debate in this House, where scrutiny will be provided, they will receive their final settlement early in 2013. So there is no change to the current timelines that local authorities have to work on. Of course there is plenty of precedent for developing regulations as the Bill is taken forward, and they, in turn, will be subject to scrutiny in this House. This is an enabling Bill, just as the Local Government Finance Bill was in 1988; we are following the precedent.

3.15 pm

Helen Jones: This interesting debate has had some detailed contributions from my hon. and right hon. Friends, many of whom have extensive experience in local government. All we have really heard from Government Members is the hon. Member for Poole (Mr Syms) saying, “These are the normal Opposition tactics.” It is quite right for an Opposition to highlight flaws in a Bill, and this Bill is full of flaws. The Minister gets very excitable but he has not provided an answer on these flaws. He will not provide an answer as to why it is so important to get these provisions up and running in 2013 and what local authorities would do differently in terms of economic development then from what they do now.

Robert Neill: Why did the hon. Lady’s Government never follow through on their election pledge and localise the business rate, when they had 13 years to do so?

Helen Jones: Coming from a member of the party that nationalised the business rates in the first place, that question shows real cheek. It is no good the hon. Gentleman getting so aggravated now when his party nationalised the rates in the first place.

The Minister will not answer questions on other points, either. He will not answer the question about the lack of certainty for local authorities in the provisions. He knows that it might not be possible to bring them in on time, and so does the Secretary of State, as clause 1 retains the power to delay implementation. If the Government were confident about being able to bring the provisions in at the right time, they would not need that power.

My hon. Friends have made the case very clearly for how complex and opaque the proposed change is, for the risks it poses to the whole local government system and for the unforeseen consequences that might result. I have heard nothing from the Minister to change our minds, so we will therefore seek to press the amendment to a Division.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

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Ayes 246, Noes 316.

Division No. 424]

[3.18 pm


Abbott, Ms Diane

Abrahams, Debbie

Ainsworth, rh Mr Bob

Alexander, rh Mr Douglas

Alexander, Heidi

Ali, Rushanara

Allen, Mr Graham

Anderson, Mr David

Ashworth, Jonathan

Austin, Ian

Bailey, Mr Adrian

Bain, Mr William

Balls, rh Ed

Banks, Gordon

Barron, rh Mr Kevin

Bayley, Hugh

Beckett, rh Margaret

Begg, Dame Anne

Bell, Sir Stuart

Benn, rh Hilary

Benton, Mr Joe

Berger, Luciana

Betts, Mr Clive

Blackman-Woods, Roberta

Blears, rh Hazel

Blomfield, Paul

Blunkett, rh Mr David

Brennan, Kevin

Brown, rh Mr Gordon

Brown, Lyn

Brown, rh Mr Nicholas

Brown, Mr Russell

Bryant, Chris

Buck, Ms Karen

Burden, Richard

Burnham, rh Andy

Byrne, rh Mr Liam

Campbell, Mr Alan

Campbell, Mr Gregory

Campbell, Mr Ronnie

Caton, Martin

Chapman, Mrs Jenny

Clark, Katy

Clarke, rh Mr Tom

Coaker, Vernon

Connarty, Michael

Cooper, Rosie

Cooper, rh Yvette

Corbyn, Jeremy

Crausby, Mr David

Creagh, Mary

Creasy, Stella

Cruddas, Jon

Cryer, John

Cunningham, Alex

Cunningham, Mr Jim

Cunningham, Tony

Curran, Margaret

Dakin, Nic

Danczuk, Simon

Darling, rh Mr Alistair

David, Mr Wayne

De Piero, Gloria

Denham, rh Mr John

Dobbin, Jim

Dobson, rh Frank

Docherty, Thomas

Dodds, rh Mr Nigel

Donaldson, rh Mr Jeffrey M.

Donohoe, Mr Brian H.

Doran, Mr Frank

Dowd, Jim

Doyle, Gemma

Dromey, Jack

Dugher, Michael

Eagle, Ms Angela

Efford, Clive

Elliott, Julie

Ellman, Mrs Louise

Engel, Natascha

Esterson, Bill

Evans, Chris

Farrelly, Paul

Field, rh Mr Frank

Fitzpatrick, Jim

Flello, Robert

Flint, rh Caroline

Flynn, Paul

Fovargue, Yvonne

Francis, Dr Hywel

Gapes, Mike

Gardiner, Barry

Gilmore, Sheila

Glass, Pat

Glindon, Mrs Mary

Godsiff, Mr Roger

Goodman, Helen

Greatrex, Tom

Green, Kate

Greenwood, Lilian

Griffith, Nia

Gwynne, Andrew

Hain, rh Mr Peter

Hamilton, Mr David

Hamilton, Fabian

Hancock, Mr Mike

Hanson, rh Mr David

Harman, rh Ms Harriet

Harris, Mr Tom

Havard, Mr Dai

Healey, rh John

Hepburn, Mr Stephen

Hermon, Lady

Heyes, David

Hillier, Meg

Hilling, Julie

Hodge, rh Margaret

Hodgson, Mrs Sharon

Hoey, Kate

Hopkins, Kelvin

Howarth, rh Mr George

Hunt, Tristram

Irranca-Davies, Huw

James, Mrs Siân C.

Jamieson, Cathy

Jarvis, Dan

Johnson, rh Alan

Johnson, Diana

Jones, Graham

Jones, Helen

Jones, Mr Kevan

Jones, Susan Elan

Jowell, rh Tessa

Joyce, Eric

Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald

Keeley, Barbara

Kendall, Liz

Khan, rh Sadiq

Lammy, rh Mr David

Lavery, Ian

Lazarowicz, Mark

Leslie, Chris

Lewis, Mr Ivan

Lloyd, Tony

Long, Naomi

Love, Mr Andrew

Lucas, Caroline

Lucas, Ian

MacShane, rh Mr Denis

Mactaggart, Fiona

Mahmood, Mr Khalid

Mahmood, Shabana

Malhotra, Seema

Mann, John

Marsden, Mr Gordon

McCabe, Steve

McCann, Mr Michael

McCarthy, Kerry

McClymont, Gregg

McCrea, Dr William

McDonagh, Siobhain

McDonnell, Dr Alasdair

McDonnell, John

McFadden, rh Mr Pat

McGovern, Jim

McGuire, rh Mrs Anne

McKechin, Ann

McKenzie, Mr Iain

McKinnell, Catherine

Mearns, Ian

Michael, rh Alun

Miliband, rh David

Miller, Andrew

Mitchell, Austin

Moon, Mrs Madeleine

Morrice, Graeme


Morris, Grahame M.


Mudie, Mr George

Munn, Meg

Murphy, rh Mr Jim

Murphy, rh Paul

Murray, Ian

Nandy, Lisa

Nash, Pamela

O'Donnell, Fiona

Onwurah, Chi

Osborne, Sandra

Owen, Albert

Paisley, Ian

Pearce, Teresa

Pound, Stephen

Qureshi, Yasmin

Raynsford, rh Mr Nick

Reed, Mr Jamie

Reeves, Rachel

Reynolds, Emma

Reynolds, Jonathan

Riordan, Mrs Linda

Ritchie, Ms Margaret

Robinson, Mr Geoffrey

Rotheram, Steve

Roy, Mr Frank

Roy, Lindsay

Ruane, Chris

Ruddock, rh Dame Joan

Sarwar, Anas

Seabeck, Alison

Sharma, Mr Virendra

Sheerman, Mr Barry

Sheridan, Jim

Shuker, Gavin

Simpson, David

Skinner, Mr Dennis

Slaughter, Mr Andy

Smith, rh Mr Andrew

Smith, Angela

Smith, Nick

Smith, Owen

Spellar, rh Mr John

Stringer, Graham

Sutcliffe, Mr Gerry

Tami, Mark

Thomas, Mr Gareth

Thornberry, Emily

Timms, rh Stephen

Trickett, Jon

Turner, Karl

Twigg, Derek

Twigg, Stephen

Umunna, Mr Chuka

Vaz, rh Keith

Vaz, Valerie

Walley, Joan

Watson, Mr Tom

Watts, Mr Dave

Whitehead, Dr Alan

Wicks, rh Malcolm

Williamson, Chris

Wilson, Phil

Winnick, Mr David

Winterton, rh Ms Rosie

Wood, Mike

Woodcock, John

Woodward, rh Mr Shaun

Wright, David

Wright, Mr Iain

Tellers for the Ayes:

Tom Blenkinsop and

Mark Hendrick


Adams, Nigel

Afriyie, Adam

Aldous, Peter

Andrew, Stuart

Arbuthnot, rh Mr James

Bacon, Mr Richard

Baker, Norman

Baker, Steve

Baldry, Tony

Baldwin, Harriett

Barclay, Stephen

Barker, Gregory

Baron, Mr John

Barwell, Gavin

Bebb, Guto

Bellingham, Mr Henry

Benyon, Richard

Berry, Jake

Bingham, Andrew

Binley, Mr Brian

Birtwistle, Gordon

Blackman, Bob

Blunt, Mr Crispin

Boles, Nick

Bone, Mr Peter

Bottomley, Sir Peter

Bradley, Karen

Brady, Mr Graham

Bray, Angie

Brazier, Mr Julian

Bridgen, Andrew

Brine, Steve

Brooke, Annette

Browne, Mr Jeremy

Bruce, Fiona

Bruce, rh Malcolm

Buckland, Mr Robert

Burley, Mr Aidan

Burns, Conor

Burrowes, Mr David

Burstow, Paul

Burt, Alistair

Burt, Lorely

Byles, Dan

Cable, rh Vince

Cairns, Alun

Campbell, rh Sir Menzies

Carmichael, rh Mr Alistair

Carmichael, Neil

Carswell, Mr Douglas

Cash, Mr William

Chishti, Rehman

Chope, Mr Christopher

Clappison, Mr James

Clark, rh Greg

Clarke, rh Mr Kenneth

Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey

Coffey, Dr Thérèse

Collins, Damian

Colvile, Oliver

Crabb, Stephen

Crockart, Mike

Crouch, Tracey

Davey, Mr Edward

Davies, David T. C.


Davies, Glyn

Davies, Philip

de Bois, Nick

Dinenage, Caroline

Djanogly, Mr Jonathan

Dorrell, rh Mr Stephen

Dorries, Nadine

Doyle-Price, Jackie

Drax, Richard

Duddridge, James

Duncan, rh Mr Alan

Duncan Smith, rh Mr Iain

Dunne, Mr Philip

Ellison, Jane

Ellwood, Mr Tobias

Elphicke, Charlie

Eustice, George

Evans, Graham

Evennett, Mr David

Fabricant, Michael

Fallon, Michael

Farron, Tim

Featherstone, Lynne

Field, Mark

Foster, rh Mr Don

Francois, rh Mr Mark

Freeman, George

Freer, Mike

Fullbrook, Lorraine

Fuller, Richard

Gale, Sir Roger

Garnier, Mark

Gauke, Mr David

George, Andrew

Gibb, Mr Nick

Gilbert, Stephen

Glen, John

Goldsmith, Zac

Goodwill, Mr Robert

Gove, rh Michael

Graham, Richard

Grant, Mrs Helen

Gray, Mr James

Grayling, rh Chris

Green, Damian

Greening, rh Justine

Grieve, rh Mr Dominic

Griffiths, Andrew

Gummer, Ben

Gyimah, Mr Sam

Halfon, Robert

Hames, Duncan

Hammond, rh Mr Philip

Hammond, Stephen

Hancock, Matthew

Hands, Greg

Harper, Mr Mark

Harrington, Richard

Harris, Rebecca

Hart, Simon

Haselhurst, rh Sir Alan

Heald, Oliver

Heath, Mr David

Hemming, John

Hendry, Charles

Herbert, rh Nick

Hinds, Damian

Hoban, Mr Mark

Hollingbery, George

Hollobone, Mr Philip

Holloway, Mr Adam

Hopkins, Kris

Horwood, Martin

Howarth, Mr Gerald

Howell, John

Hughes, rh Simon

Huppert, Dr Julian

Hurd, Mr Nick

Jackson, Mr Stewart

James, Margot

Javid, Sajid

Jenkin, Mr Bernard

Johnson, Gareth

Johnson, Joseph

Jones, Andrew

Jones, Mr David

Kawczynski, Daniel

Kelly, Chris

Kirby, Simon

Knight, rh Mr Greg

Kwarteng, Kwasi

Lamb, Norman

Lancaster, Mark

Lansley, rh Mr Andrew

Latham, Pauline

Laws, rh Mr David

Leadsom, Andrea

Lee, Jessica

Lee, Dr Phillip

Lefroy, Jeremy

Leigh, Mr Edward

Leslie, Charlotte

Letwin, rh Mr Oliver

Lewis, Brandon

Lewis, Dr Julian

Liddell-Grainger, Mr Ian

Lidington, rh Mr David

Lilley, rh Mr Peter

Lloyd, Stephen

Lopresti, Jack

Lord, Jonathan

Luff, Peter

Lumley, Karen

Macleod, Mary

Main, Mrs Anne

Maude, rh Mr Francis

Maynard, Paul

McCartney, Jason

McCartney, Karl

McIntosh, Miss Anne

McLoughlin, rh Mr Patrick

McPartland, Stephen

McVey, Esther

Mensch, Louise

Menzies, Mark

Metcalfe, Stephen

Miller, Maria

Mills, Nigel

Milton, Anne

Moore, rh Michael

Mordaunt, Penny

Morgan, Nicky

Morris, Anne Marie

Morris, David

Morris, James

Mosley, Stephen

Mowat, David

Mundell, rh David

Munt, Tessa

Murray, Sheryll

Murrison, Dr Andrew

Neill, Robert

Newmark, Mr Brooks

Newton, Sarah

Nokes, Caroline

Norman, Jesse

Nuttall, Mr David

Offord, Mr Matthew

Ollerenshaw, Eric

Opperman, Guy

Paice, rh Mr James

Parish, Neil

Patel, Priti

Paterson, rh Mr Owen

Pawsey, Mark

Penning, Mike

Penrose, John

Percy, Andrew

Perry, Claire

Phillips, Stephen

Pincher, Christopher

Poulter, Dr Daniel

Prisk, Mr Mark

Pritchard, Mark

Pugh, John

Raab, Mr Dominic

Randall, rh Mr John

Reckless, Mark

Rees-Mogg, Jacob

Reevell, Simon

Reid, Mr Alan

Robathan, rh Mr Andrew

Robertson, Mr Laurence

Rogerson, Dan

Rosindell, Andrew

Rudd, Amber

Ruffley, Mr David

Russell, Sir Bob

Rutley, David

Sanders, Mr Adrian

Sandys, Laura

Scott, Mr Lee

Selous, Andrew

Shannon, Jim

Shapps, rh Grant

Sharma, Alok

Shelbrooke, Alec

Shepherd, Mr Richard

Simpson, Mr Keith

Skidmore, Chris

Smith, Miss Chloe

Smith, Henry

Smith, Sir Robert

Soames, rh Nicholas

Soubry, Anna

Spelman, rh Mrs Caroline

Spencer, Mr Mark

Stanley, rh Sir John

Stephenson, Andrew

Stevenson, John

Stewart, Bob

Stewart, Iain

Stewart, Rory

Streeter, Mr Gary

Stride, Mel

Stuart, Mr Graham

Stunell, Andrew

Sturdy, Julian

Swayne, rh Mr Desmond

Swinson, Jo

Swire, rh Mr Hugo

Syms, Mr Robert

Tapsell, rh Sir Peter

Teather, Sarah

Thurso, John

Timpson, Mr Edward

Tomlinson, Justin

Tredinnick, David

Truss, Elizabeth

Turner, Mr Andrew

Tyrie, Mr Andrew

Uppal, Paul

Vara, Mr Shailesh

Vickers, Martin

Villiers, rh Mrs Theresa

Walker, Mr Charles

Walker, Mr Robin

Wallace, Mr Ben

Walter, Mr Robert

Ward, Mr David

Weatherley, Mike

Webb, Steve

Wharton, James

Wheeler, Heather

White, Chris

Whittaker, Craig

Whittingdale, Mr John

Wiggin, Bill

Willetts, rh Mr David

Williams, Mr Mark

Williams, Roger

Williams, Stephen

Williamson, Gavin

Willott, Jenny

Wilson, Mr Rob

Wilson, Sammy

Wollaston, Dr Sarah

Wright, Simon

Yeo, Mr Tim

Young, rh Sir George

Zahawi, Nadhim

Tellers for the Noes:

Mark Hunter and

Jeremy Wright

Question accordingly negatived.

18 Jan 2012 : Column 797

18 Jan 2012 : Column 798

18 Jan 2012 : Column 799

18 Jan 2012 : Column 800

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Temporary Chair (Mr David Amess): Before the debate starts, I should tell the Committee that I was fairly lax about the range of the debate that we have just had, so if hon. Members wish to contribute to the clause stand part debate, I hope they will bear that in mind.

Robert Neill: I will endeavour to deal with the clause stand part debate as swiftly as I can. Clause 1 sets up the necessary part of the scheme. As is often the way with a finance Bill, it establishes the framework, which is then covered in the regulations. Schedule 1, which we shall come to shortly, sets out most of the detail. I suspect that the issues between us have largely been debated in relation to the amendment and the principle. I am happy to respond to any points that hon. Members may wish to raise.

Helen Jones: The Minister is right to say that the clause sets out the framework for the Bill, and that earlier we debated most of the issues between us. I welcome the fact that the regulations will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure in the House. That is helpful, but we stick to our view that the Government are trying to introduce the provisions in the Bill too fast and that there is still a great deal of uncertainty for local councils. We will debate those issues on further amendments so I shall not detain the Committee now.

Annette Brooke: I want to place on record, in the debate on clause 1, how important it is to reform local government finance, to do it in a timely fashion and to do it in such a way that it both incentivises and equalises. Those principles are firmly embodied in the framework. We have heard it said that the retention of business rates will not incentivise. I wonder why the previous Government introduced LABGI—the local authority business growth incentives scheme—which rewarded local government for business expansion, but not very efficiently. It was not a built-in system, which has to be better. I therefore found some of the comments odd, in the light of that recent policy.

Mr Dave Watts (St Helens North) (Lab): There is general consensus that the local government system of funding needs to be reviewed, but does the hon. Lady agree that people will be suspicious if that has not been done through independent analysis and by people who can be trusted to make the right decisions? That is what previous Governments have done and is exactly what this Government are not proposing to do. They intend to impose a system that has not been scrutinised.

Annette Brooke: I believe the Minister explained earlier how the detailed proposals would be scrutinised later in the process of setting the 2013 terms of the revision. What I want to see in the end is a more transparent

18 Jan 2012 : Column 801

scheme. That is extremely important, so that local councils are not continually trying to find little bits here, there and everywhere that they can come up and lobby about. We need clarity. I am pleased with the framework.

Robert Neill: I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke). It is important that we move forward. The hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) is right. The affirmative procedure will apply to the matters that come under the Bill. It is worth saying that the degree of transparency on the one hand and fairness on the other is governed by, for example, the changes to the central and local share split, which will come through shortly, and the operation of the tariffs and top-ups. Those will be included in the local government finance report, and that too will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny in the usual way each year, so it is a clear and transparent system.

Mr Raynsford: What circumstances led the Government to include subsection (7), which allows the Secretary of State to substitute a later financial year for the implementation date of the Bill, and in what circumstances might they make use of it?

Robert Neill: That sort of belt-and-braces procedure is not at all uncommon. It is our firm intention to press ahead with implementation from 2013 so that local authorities and the national economy can benefit from the Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole said, the desirability to move to a more transparent system away from the existing model was recognised by the Lyons inquiry, which was set up by the previous Government. It recommended a move towards a localisation of the business rate, and we are taking an important step in that direction.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 1

Local retention of non-domestic rates

John Healey: I beg to move amendment 46, page 11, line 31, leave out ‘may not exceed’ and insert ‘should equal’.

The Temporary Chair (John Robertson): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government amendments 1 and 2.

Amendment 44, page 11, line 32, at end add—

‘(5) Such an amount should only be paid in place of other grants to local government if the Secretary of State is satisfied that the overall needs of local government will be met.’.

Amendment 45, page 11, line 32, at end add—

‘(5) The amount debited under subsection (3) must not be greater than any amount debited under subsection (3) for the previous financial year.’.

Amendment 19, page 12, line 20, at end insert—

(c) in determining the central share and the local share for any relevant authority, the Secretary of State must have regard to—

(i) the level of need in that authority,

(ii) the likely capacity of the authority to benefit from business rate growth, and

(iii) the council tax base of the authority.

18 Jan 2012 : Column 802

Any assessment of the level of need in the authority shall include—

(iv) the ranking of the local authority in the Index of Multiple Deprivation,

(v) the level of unemployment within the authority’s area,

(vi) the proportion of adults with a limiting long-term illness within the authority’s area,

(vii) the number of adults in receipt of social care within the authority’s area,

(viii) the number of looked-after children within the authority, and

(ix) the level of child poverty within the authority’s area.’.

Amendment 37, page 12, line 20, at end insert—

(c) The Secretary of State must for each year, and for the subsequent two years in relation to each billing authority in England, determine an indicative share for the subsequent two years.’.

Amendment 38, page 12, line 20, at end insert—

(c) the percentages referred to in (a) and (b) above shall be determined following full consultation with local government.’.

Amendment 36, page 13, leave out lines 1 to 4.

Amendment 39, page 15, line 17, leave out from ‘must’ to end of line 19 and insert

‘prepare and publish an assessment of the level of need in each local authority, as defined in paragraph 4(c) above. The Secretary of State must—

(a) lay the report containing the assessment before the House at least 14 sitting days in advance of the publication of the Local Government Finance Report, and

(b) notify such representatives of local government as the Secretary of State thinks fit of the publication of the report on need and the detail of the basis of calculation in the Local Government Finance Report.’.

Amendment 26, page 17, line 37, at end insert—

‘(4A) The Secretary of State must also lay before the House of Commons his or her assessment of the impact which any such report will have on the level of service provision in any local authority to which it applies.

John Healey: It is a pleasure to serve on this Committee of the whole House under your chairmanship, Mr. Robertson, and that of your colleague, Mr. Amess.

Amendment 46 is a probing amendment in an important group of amendments that the Committee will discuss. I have a number of questions for the Minister, which I hope he will be able to answer when he replies, but if not, I hope that he will answer in writing, as would usually be the case. I notice that two of the amendments are among the 17 that the Government have already tabled at this very early stage to their own Bill. In this case they correct not just drafting errors, but quite serious errors in basic sums. The Minister can speak to those himself when he contributes to the debate.

Amendment 46 and the rest of the group reflect four consistent concerns about this part of the Bill on business rates. First, it will create a greater uncertainty for local government in its flow of funding and its ability to plan financially, and therefore its capacity to cope with the funding squeeze now and foreseeably in the next few years. It undermines an essential stability in funding for sensible longer-term planning and sensible long-term service reform and change.

18 Jan 2012 : Column 803

Secondly, the amendments reflect the distrust of central Government with regard to the use of the business rates funding stream as a cash cow to help to cover the cost of failures in economic policy when revenue streams from other sources fall off, as we have seen during the last 12 months.

3.45 pm

Thirdly, they reflect unease that central Government will make decisions without local authorities, the people affected or this House being properly consulted or given an opportunity to make their views known as part of the process. Fourthly, they reflect a concern that many of the most important decisions in the operation of the new system will be made by central Government, rather than local government. I recognise that there is localisation in the Bill, but too much of it is the localisation of risk and responsibility, rather than of resources, and too much of it is central Government offloading blame for potential service cuts and service failures in future.

The all-party Local Government Association has stated:

“What councils, their residents and local businesses want is a fair and simple funding system that gives councils greater financial autonomy, supports local services and encourages economic growth.”

We all back that aspiration, but there are doubts that the Bill will achieve any of those aims effectively, let alone all of them. London Councils, which supports the changes in principle, is even more direct in its criticisms. Among its reservations, it states in a briefing for Members that

“the Bill as drafted creates a fiendishly complex system in which the level of the business rate incentive is uncertain and unpredictable—this undermines entirely the Government’s aims of promoting local economic growth via the business rate base and delivering a clear link between local authorities and local businesses.”

The concern at the heart of amendment 46 relates to the difference between the total payments from local businesses via local authorities in respect of the central share, set out in schedule 1 in proposed new paragraph 2(1)(c), and the central allocation of those funds for local government use, set out in proposed new paragraph 2(4). The concern is that the difference between those two totals will in future be taken by the Treasury. The concern is shared by the normally cautious LGA, which states:

“Local Government will not have access to the full real terms growth in business rates in 2013-14 and 2014-15 through the mechanism of the ‘set-aside’ even though they will now use proportional shares rather than a government forecast.”

However, my concern is about what will happen beyond 2014. On that point, the LGA states:

“The Government’s proposals indicate that the set-aside will continue beyond 2015. There is little rationale for this, as the main justification for the set-aside was to ensure that the scheme functions within the spending control totals issued in 2010”—

meaning the Government’s spending review—

“and therefore works alongside the deficit reduction programme. Continuing the set aside beyond this point reduces the incentive to grow business rates and acts as a form of central government control in a system which is designed to do the opposite.”

That means that in future a locally raised revenue stream will be appropriated centrally to cover costs currently borne by the national Government. In other

18 Jan 2012 : Column 804

words, it will create a slush fund for the Chancellor for the first time in 2015, which incidentally is likely to be a general election year.

I have several further questions for the Minister. What is the projected yield from business rates in 2015 and for each of the following five years? Secondly, what falls within the definition of

“for the purposes of local government in England”?

Those are the purposes for which the Bill allows the Government to use any surplus yield. Thirdly, what guarantee is there that the Government will not use this funding stream as a substitute to cover the costs of their current funding responsibilities in policing, employment support services, skills, national housing investment, universities, particularly to support innovation and research and development, health, in particular to cover the costs of elderly people, or housing benefit? What guarantee is there that local business funding, via local authorities, which is designed to pay for local services in the first instance, will not be used to substitute for those central Government costs?

The Bill contains a big change that is being forced through too fast. It is a reform that builds unfairness into the system like a ratchet. It means that in future, essential local services such as care for the elderly and for vulnerable children, street cleaning, waste collection, road maintenance, and fire and rescue services will no longer be funded on the basis of need or population, but on the basis of the ability to raise tax and pay for the costs locally.

Mr Watts: If an area faces the wholesale closure of some of its industries, that obviously creates demand for the local authority’s services. Is it not a fact that such a local authority will lose money by the transfer to central Government and through the loss of business rates, and will therefore be less able to respond to the needs that are created by the wholesale closure of those industries, which we have seen in parts of the country?

John Healey: My hon. Friend, as a former leader of St Helens council, knows a great deal about the local government finance system and the pressures on local government. He may not have heard my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) in the last debate refer to what has just been described as a double whammy. In other words, there may be a loss of potential income at the same time as, and as a result of, the event that causes a greater need and demand for the services that have to be funded through that revenue stream. That is a concern.

I want to ensure that the Committee is clear that this is a fundamental shift in the basis of our funding calculations and in what local councils in England have to spend. The system will no longer work on the basis of need. It will not take account of the fact that there are three times as many looked-after children in South Tyneside as in Surrey or that there are five times as many children in poverty in Middlesbrough as in Wokingham. It will not take into account the capacity of a local area to raise resources, in particular through council tax. It will not take into account the fact that Bexley and Barnsley have a similar population, but that Bexley raises £37 million more in council tax each year. It will take no account of the fact that Brent has a similar population to Rotherham, but raises £22 million more each year in council tax.

18 Jan 2012 : Column 805

Mr Kevan Jones: Is my right hon. Friend surprised that we are returning to having a Conservative Government who are quite clear that they will reward the areas that vote for them and write off whole swathes of the country, including the north-east?

John Healey: Like my hon. Friend, I am not surprised by that. I seriously question whether the scheme will work even on its own terms, but I support the principle of a system that provides some rewards and incentives to local authorities so that they better support growth in business, jobs and the economy. The cost of doing that in the Bill and under the new system is very great given that they take no account of need or resources, and do away with the decades-old principle of equalisation.

Mike Freer (Finchley and Golders Green) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman knows the high regard in which I hold him from when he was in his former positions in the Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government. We had fruitful conversations when he was a Minister and I was leader of a large council. However, I must tell him that Bexley has to raise so much more money than Barnsley because when he was a Minister, he fiddled with the equalisation formula to force affluent southern councils to raise council tax to subsidise northern councils. That is why there is such inequality.

John Healey: The hon. Gentleman has a lot of experience of local government and was a distinguished leader of a council in north, not south London. However, no one could tell that from the comment that he has just made. As to my fiddling the figures in the local government formula, my goodness, many people say that Labour should have learned many more lessons more clearly from the extent to which the Tories did that before 1997.

Bob Blackman: Before the previous intervention, I think the right hon. Gentleman was comparing council tax raised in the London borough of Brent with that in the unitary authority of Barnsley. Has he got figures for looked-after children in those two boroughs? I assure him that the London borough of Brent includes some of the most deprived areas in the whole country and, sadly, huge numbers of looked-after children.

John Healey: The very point that I am making is that the current system, complex as it is, takes account of resources—an area’s capacity to raise revenue, especially through council tax—as well as the needs of the population in that area for the essential services that local authorities provide. The formula covers both and is based on the principle that I outlined.

Mr Watts: If the Government were truly serious about taking need and the ability to raise funds into account, they would have had an independent assessment, outside the political arena, to ensure that grants for local authorities in future reflected need. Comments from the Government Members are always about how much one local authority gets compared with another, and always ignore need. The reason for higher funding is that the need exists.

John Healey: Whatever side of the House we are on, we should endorse the principle that objective, sometimes independent, assessment is the basis for better decisions.

18 Jan 2012 : Column 806

I have never been one for saying that important decisions, which should be taken by politicians, who then are accountable for them, should necessarily be outsourced to independent experts who do not have the direct accountability that we and members of the Government have, but my hon. Friend makes an important point that is relevant to our discussions. It is impossible to make any sensible assessment, let alone a sound, independent assessment, of what the system will mean for the future. That makes our discussions and the decisions that we are required to make as members of the Committee difficult. We are making big decisions, largely in the dark, and we are being asked to give members of the Government significant regulation-making powers that will define the most important dimensions of the way in which the system works and what is available for people in different areas.

I want to underline the point that spending to meet increased need in future will have to be funded by the business rates increase. The council tax freeze and referendum start to remove that as a realistic alternative source of additional funds.

4 pm

George Hollingbery: I am in the Committee as much to learn as to speak to the amendments and would welcome a refresher. The right hon. Gentleman makes the case that there is no accounting of need in the future funding system. My reading of the Bill is that there is. He can argue that the reset period is too long, but there is a reset period—of 10 years—and therefore, need will be reassessed. Likewise, there is a safety net, such that if the business rate increase in a certain area goes a certain amount below the retail prices index, the Government will intervene. Is that not the same as a needs assessment?

John Healey: The hon. Gentleman is right—there will be resets—but we do not know after what period or on what basis, so there is no guarantee that the accounting of need in the current system, which will be frozen at the point when the new system starts, will be reflected in a formula for, assessment of, or decisions on resetting. He might want to pursue that point with his hon. Friend the Minister.

Andrew Gwynne: My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point, but does he share my concern that, if, as is suggested, the reset period is set at 10 years, the gap between the poorest and the most affluent authorities will widen and the disparities will worsen in that period? Does that not reinforce his argument that need must be a fundamental part of the overall formula, as does the capacity to raise additional income using the council tax and the council tax base?

John Healey: My hon. Friend is right—I am about to make a similar point on relatively affluent areas becoming relatively more affluent under the proposed system.

The Government’s declared intention is for a 10-year gap between resets. I have my doubts about whether a reset after that period will be capable of restoring a proper reflection of need or a proper fairness in the system. We will speak later to amendments that would create much shorter reset periods, but they would not change fundamentally how the system will work to build in an advantage for already affluent areas with a higher business base. That advantage will just get bigger over the period between resets.

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Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): It is very easy to talk about resets here and now as an academic exercise, but when the time comes to do something that fundamentally alters the tax take of different authorities up and down the country, Governments of any persuasion might think twice. We should perhaps think of the history of council tax revaluations. They are not easy, but they have an impact on individual councils, and they are sometimes dismissed.

John Healey: My hon. Friend is really saying that we have not had a council tax revaluation. The problem he describes is a problem for any Government, but Governments will experience a similar problem with business rates as a result of the Bill.

Andrew Gwynne: My right hon. Friend rightly talks of the unfairness of the possible reset in 10 years’ time exacerbating the problems for local authorities, particularly those such as mine, which need the ability to raise income locally and for acute local needs, such as those in Tameside and the Reddish part of Stockport, to be reflected.

In fact, is it not worse than that for such areas? There is almost a double whammy. For those authorities, we must not only get the reset procedure right, but set the initial baseline correctly. All of that is based on the unfair funding settlements and cuts to local authorities such as Tameside and Stockport, but if we get the procedure and the baseline wrong, 10 years down the line, the real unfairness will set in.

John Healey: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. It is certainly clear from how the cuts to local government have fallen in this Government’s first two years that certain areas, including his and mine, have borne a much greater burden than others.

The other part of the double whammy, to use my hon. Friend’s expression, is designed into the system, and it should give the Committee cause for concern. It is that the local distribution of the business rates is very uneven. For instance, Kensington and Chelsea has a much smaller population than Rotherham or Barnsley—I represent part of both those boroughs—but raises five times as much in business rates as Barnsley and three and a half times as much as Rotherham.

The opportunities to grow the business base are also uneven. I have looked back at the latest gross value added statistics published by the Office for National Statistics just before Christmas. Last year’s figures showed a difference of more than 3% between growth in London and that in Lincolnshire, Cornwall or Merseyside. In other words, it is clear that from year one the gap between affluent and less affluent areas will grow. The business rates base, and therefore income for councils, will grow faster in some areas than others, as it has in the past.

Even if there were the same rate of growth in all areas, the relative size of the business base income, which is higher for some councils than others, would mean a greater actual cash income for some councils. The top-up and tariff system that the Government are designing will reduce, but not remove, that disparity. If it did remove it, it would remove the incentive element that they want to build into the system.

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Having been a local government Minister for two years, introduced the first ever three-year settlement for local government and altered the formula to better reflect needs and resources, I know that there are always winners and losers from any change. The whole House knows that. However, the councils that have a big business rates base, a strong council tax take and high levels of growth will be win-win-win councils, and those that do not will find that they are lose-lose-lose councils. That is the unfairness that is built into the design of the new system. It will increase divisions and tensions in our country.

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman not recognise that the current system also has a whole lot of disincentives for local authorities built into it? Over years gone by, it has disincentivised many local authorities. It is perhaps all too easy to make comparisons between relatively affluent central London authorities and those in relatively long-term impoverished areas of the north of England, but the scheme that is being put in place is intended to challenge those disincentives. Although I accept that elements of it will not provide as much transparency as many of us would like, it is at least a step in the right direction.

John Healey: The extent to which it is a step in the right direction remains to be seen. There is an element of its direction that is right, which is the desire to see greater incentives for local councils to support the growth of their business base, and greater rewards for doing so. How those incentives will work is weak and potentially perverse, but the principle is nevertheless in the right direction. The potential practical problems that we are beginning to tease out are part of the debate that we need to have.

Andrew Gwynne: My right hon. Friend is being incredibly generous in giving way. Is there not another problem that has not been properly addressed in the legislation? It takes no account of the complexities of sub-regional economies. For example, many of my constituents in Tameside and Stockport work in the city of Manchester or other local authorities. The scope for economic development in Greater Manchester is concentrated in the city centre, around Manchester airport, Trafford park, the Trafford centre, the media city and Salford quays, and not necessarily in Tameside or Stockport to the same extent. Although there are facilities for pooling business rates where local authorities agree, if they do not agree, will not authorities such as mine be disadvantaged?

John Healey: They will indeed. As my hon. Friend states, there is a double disadvantage to areas such as his. He paints that picture and concern very vividly.

Graham Jones: My right hon. Friend is being generous with his time. I want to add a third whammy and take up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne). Large parts of the country will have no incentive at all because they are in shire and district areas, where the district authorities will probably be the planning authorities that will make the business decisions, yet the shire authorities deliver 85% of services, including fire and police services, and might have little say in how much they take from

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business rates in terms of business growth. It will be difficult for them to increase their base if district authorities act unproductively or do not co-operate.

John Healey: My hon. Friend is right, and I suspect that it will be one of the Minister’s biggest headaches in the system. I doubt whether he will come to the conclusion—although perhaps he should—that the real answer is unitary authorities across the country. [Interruption.] But I sense that I may be tempted into territory that falls well beyond my amendment and the whole group of amendments.

Heidi Alexander: My right hon. Friend was talking about the principles and practicalities at the heart of the Bill. Does he agree that the real problem is that because the proposed system is so complicated—with central and local shares, top-ups, tariffs, set-asides, safety nets and levies—the incentive for a local authority to do anything differently could be marginal? Even if we accept that the incentive is there, it is so complicated that councils will not be sure whether it will be worth doing something differently anyway. Is that not the real problem?

John Healey: My hon. Friend is right. She made that point powerfully last week in her Second Reading speech, which was one of the best that the House heard. Whether for children or councils, incentives need to be simple, and the rewards and rules need to be clear, but the system that the Bill will introduce falls far short of those basic objectives for any system of rewards and incentives.

Mr Watts: Is there not another issue here for the local authorities with the lowest business rates take? The Government have indicated that they believe that those local authorities have low business rates take because they are not interested in developing businesses and do not do all that they can to attract businesses to their areas. Does my right hon. Friend consider that perverse, given the problems in areas such as St Helens and many others, including his own? The major concern of local authorities in those areas is to bring in as many jobs as possible, but because of their location, the skills base and other things, it is extremely difficult. It is insulting for the Government to pretend that it is because of a lack of effort by local authorities.

John Healey: A number of colleagues have made that point, about local government in general and their local authorities in particular. It is hard to point the finger at any council and say that it has not bust a gut in recent years to see its economy grow and jobs created, because that is to the benefit of their local area and the local people they serve, and that would also be the view of most Members. I still think there is a case for trying to design a system that rewards local people, via their local councils, where they are successful in that. Under the last Government, we attempted to do that through the local authority business growth incentive scheme. The system that we are now discussing is clearly a new way of doing that, but its fundamental flaw is that it tries to fix the whole funding system for local government at the same time as using the same, single tax stream to create that incentive. The new system is trying to do too much with that one funding system,

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creating contradictions and tensions, which lead to the sort of complexities that the Minister is trying to counter in the design of the system.

4.15 pm

Bill Esterson: My right hon. Friend makes the point about the new system trying to do too much, which goes back to what my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Mr Watts) said. The evidence is that the potential economic impact of local councils in trying to develop business locally is perhaps only 20% of the total impact, with far more of the impact coming from the private sector. The new system is putting an awful lot of responsibility on to local government for generating new business, therefore putting a huge responsibility for the generation of business rates on to local authorities, when there is relatively little that they can do, particularly in areas such as St Helens or Sefton, or my right hon. Friend’s area.

John Healey: My hon. Friend is right. One of the strengths of this debate, as shown by contributions from all parts of the Committee, is exemplified by what he has just said. He has served as a councillor in north Kent and brings that experience and perspective to this debate. He now serves as the Member for Sefton Central, in the north-west of England, and also brings that perspective, reinforcing his point.

I want to draw the Minister’s attention to the future position of fire and rescue services. Can he provide me and other Members who are interested with details about his modelling and assessment of future revenue streams? Can he say how many and which fire authorities will be top-up authorities in future, and how many and which will be tariff authorities? There is concern among senior fire staff that if the incentive that this system is designed to deliver works as the Government say it will, the top priority for councils in the future will be those functions for which they are responsible that help to build business growth. However, those who serve in our fire and rescue services—services that do not directly contribute to economic and business growth—are concerned that a consequence of that will be that in future they will not get the priority for funding that the proper protection of their area may deserve because they do not contribute to business growth. Let me quote a chief fire officer who fears that that may—but not necessarily will—happen. He says:

“I am concerned that the proposed funding model could foster an antagonistic relationship between the fire authority and the local authorities if they begin to see us as a service which takes money from the business rates but does not actively participate in the business growth agenda.”

There is a strong case for fire and rescue services to be funded in future on the same basis as the police, with a very clear, consistent and comprehensive assessment of risk, need and resources built into the allocation of funding for fire services in England. What we start to see with the fire and rescue services, in common with the rest of local government, is concern about the uncertainty—what it means, what the funding is likely to be and how hard it makes it to plan sensibly for the future, particularly the ability to plan and manage within diminishing resources, which by and large is accepted. As another senior fire officer told me, stability is the most important factor. The Minister could do the

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Committee and many in local government a favour by giving a clear and strong reassurance this afternoon about the stability and predictability of the system in future.

I am conscious that there are a number of other amendments in the group and that other right hon. and hon. Members want to speak to them, so let me return to my starting-point of amendment 46. It is a probing amendment, but it contains a proposal that all revenue raised from what is a tax on businesses designed to pay for local services should provide funds for local government—not for national priorities or services around which the cloak of local government can be loosely thrown at their funding streams and categorised as local government. Post-2015, this will build in a real localising ratchet. Post-2015, when the business rates take is projected to be bigger than the sums distributed to local councils, it will mean that where central Government want to use funds to cover non-council services, they will have to transfer the responsibility and devolve the power and control for those services to local government in order to use the business rates revenue to help fund them. Thus my proposal will mean Ministers truly putting their money where their mouths are. It will mean putting into reverse the post-war centralisation of government that this country has seen, and it will mean making the localist rhetoric a reality.

Mark Field: I am not entirely convinced that we are debating quite as revolutionary a change in local government finance as the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) would have us believe. As he rightly says, there has been periodic centralisation of local government finance in the post-war period; this Bill is a step, but only a relatively small step, in a different direction.

I am concerned that some provisions will not provide the overall transparency that all of us desire for local government finance. The worry, as we all know, is that council leaders across the country who get and understand the system will then work it to the benefit of their own local authorities, while neighbouring authorities with similar sets of needs will not reap the same benefits. I believe that has been the case since time immemorial, and I suspect it is a problem that exists in any political system. However much we try, it is difficult to discount the articulacy of those who understand and work a system. As I say, I am not as convinced or as concerned as the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne. I hope he will forgive me if I focus my comments on issues that have come from the lobbying of one of the two local authorities in my constituency, and in so far as we work here, we all have a vested interest in this authority—Westminster city council.

Mr Watts: Is not the real worry that unless a duty and responsibility are placed on Ministers to ensure that needs are assessed and catered for within the grant system, which under these proposals they will not be, the worst aspects of the hon. Gentleman’s worst fears might come to fruition?

Mark Field: There is a duty, although it will apply to potentially different sets of needs. I think one of the most destructive elements of local government has been

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the almost constant lobbying—whether it be for three-year settlements or the annual settlements of the past. Although we might return, well before 2022, to specific concerns about elements of need that have rightly been referred to, the idea of having a 10-year period is a positive route forward in providing certainty for local authorities.

Westminster city council strongly supports the principle of allowing local authorities to retain a proportion of the business rates generated in their area—no one seriously suggests that either of my two local authorities should retain all their business rates, although there are common councilmen in the City of London, and members of Westminster city council, I am sure, who would rather like the idea, but even I would not suggest that that would necessarily be an entirely sensible way forward. As other Members have rightly pointed out, local authorities have played an increasingly important and integral role in supporting and growing businesses locally.

Bill Esterson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for acknowledging that the most wealthy local authorities, in terms of business rates, could not possibly keep all those rates. What sensible balance can be struck to ensure that some local authorities do not struggle because of loss of income and that local authorities who are worried, for good reason, have their fears allayed?

Mark Field: I will be coming to that later, and will be asking the Minister to clarify the matter.

I would like the Minister to address a number of concerns. Why have the Government decided to cancel out any natural inflationary growth in the business rates programme? Why are increases in what might be described as revaluation growth not included in the Bill? A major revaluation has particularly affected London local authorities in recent years. Why does the Bill fail to provide for an adjustment in the growth calculation, in order to remove the negative effect of valuation appeals, which might become much more prevalent once the Bill is on the statute book? Under the proposed reforms, every local authority, as has been pointed out, will become a tariff—contributory—or top-up recipient authority, relative to its annual grant. In that regard, I take on board the comments of the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne in relation to the responsibilities on fire authorities. One key question considered through the consultation was whether tariffs and top-ups should be uprated annually by the retail prices index. As the Minister knows, the Bill proposes that business rates will continue to be uprated annually, but taking the same approach to tariffs and top-ups would cancel out any natural inflationary growth that might otherwise have been expected by local authorities.