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LOCAL GOVERNMENT BILL STEAMROLLED THROUGH COMMONS - LORDS EXPECTED TO SCRUTINISE CAPPING RULES

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Hansard 24 March: Column 399 ...
Hansard 24 March: Column 399

The Local Government Bill completed its report stage and third reading in the commons despite protests from opposition parties at the details of a timetable motion, which took up the first part of the five hours of debate allocated to discussion of the amended Bill on the floor of the commons.

Eric Forth, Conservative MP for Bromley and Chiselhurst, indicated that the Bill could well be amended in the lords - and the government might have to change some of its attitudes.

Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs concentrated on the lack of detail in council tax capping criteria and the government decision - 'at the last minute' - to attach best value clauses for the police authorities to a local government Bill.

Former Conservative local government minister Paul Bereseford, MP for Mole Valley, attacked the government's undeclared capping criteria. He proposed an amendment which would have prevented govrnment limiting council tax if it had been endorsed in a referendum - such as that conducted by Labour-controlled Milton Keynes Council.

He said the Bill contained two different forms of capping. '...The council tax benefit subsidy limitation is a crude, universal form of capping. Worse than that, the capping of a number of local authorities at a point below the standard spending assessment level. The secondary capping is selective capping.'

Liberal Democrat Adrian Sanders, MP for Torbay, moved an amendement seeking to delay the 'iniquitous council tax benefit clawback' by a year and he sought to set a deadline for the end of all council tax capping by 2005.

He said: 'We happily concede that the new government genuiely believe that they are attempting to rebuild a relationship of trust with local government, but they need to give a date for the phasing-out of capping if they want to establish such a reputation. Capping should have ended the day after the general election. That is what local councillors expected. Labour councillors thought that it was going to happen, but it has not. We believe that capping should end as soon as posible...

'The amendments go to the heart of the relationship betwen central and local government. Is it to be based on trust in local people and local democracy, or on suspicion and fear of the cap? If the government are so sure that their best value policies for local government will be so successful that capping will fall by the wayside naturally, why not set a date for phasing it out?'

Local government minister Hilary Armstrong said: 'It was clear in the manifesto that in abolishing crude and universal capping, a Labour government, if elected, would retain reserved powers. We have done that. Council tax benefit subsidy limitation is not capping...I am not pre-empting any decisions that will be made this year, but it is reasonable that the government should have the power to intervene if the level of increase makes it necessary...It is important that the government take seriously their responsibility to local taxpayers, and will continue to do so'.

At one point there were no Labour backbench MPs in the chamber, but they arrived to vote down the amendments.

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