Prescott's Mickey Mouse tours

Deputy Prime Minister stands accused over expensive junket to Disney World for council tax valuers
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Indy Politics

John Prescott has been accused of wasting taxpayers' money by sending council tax valuers on "foreign jaunts" to some of the globe's top holiday destinations, including Disney World in Florida.

The Tories last night accused the Deputy Prime Minister of reigniting the row over foreign junkets after it emerged that council-tax valuers have booked into conference sessions in Vancouver in Canada, the historic city of Prague, Alicante in Spain and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.

Next month, an adviser to the Deputy Prime Minister will attend a conference at a four-star Disney World theme park hotel. The member of the Valuation Office Agency (VOA), which advises Mr Prescott on property values for tax purposes, will travel to Florida to gather information on assessing whether households should pay more council tax in the UK.

The Disney World conference will include tickets to the Florida theme park. It will take place at the four-star Coronado Springs Resort hotel, which comes with free transport to "all areas of the Walt Disney World Resort", costs about $230 a night and comes with a Mayan-style pyramid towering over an elaborate swimming pool.

Members of the VOA, which advises Mr Prescott on valuing property for council tax, spent £4.1m on travel, food and hospitality last year. Figures obtained by the Conservatives show they spent £27,000 on foreign travel in the past three years.

The junketing will also take the council tax valuers to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia in August and Vancouver in Canada next month.

In Vancouver, a room has been booked at an upmarket hotel in the most luxurious shopping area, Robson Street.

Last year, the council tax valuers were represented at conferences in South Africa, the Czech capital Prague and Alicante in Spain, a popular resort for British holidaymakers.

The Disney World conference will include a session on using aerial and satellite photography for "mass appraisal" of the value of people's homes.

The Tories seized on the information and said Mr Prescott was sending his experts overseas to "pick up tips on how to increase council tax bills on hard-pressed families" when council tax bills are re-evaluated in England.

Earlier this month, The Independent on Sunday revealed that tax valuers had been told to use satellite or aerial images to snoop on householders' attempts to improve their homes. Images of new garages and conservatories taken from space would be used to hike up council tax bills and other property levies.

A database being created by Mr Prescott's department would contain details of every house in Britain to help tax inspectors assess new council tax charges.

Caroline Spelman, the Tory spokeswoman for local government, said: "Labour may claim to have postponed council tax revaluation, but in reality it is well under way by stealth. These foreign jaunts at the taxpayers' expense expose that John Prescott has tax-raising plans in store. "

The Government is planning to compile a database of every home in Britain, which will include details of what kind of roof and how many bedrooms each house has.

The VOA includes property experts, such as surveyors, whose job is to assess how much a property, domestic or commercial, is worth. Their advice will form the basis of future council tax bills.

A VOA spokeswoman said it only attended conferences "when the subject matter is relevant to our work and we believe that we will have opportunities to learn from others' experiences". Usually it only sends one senior delegate.

Mr Prescott has faced criticism over junkets in the past, including scuba-diving in the Maldives as part of a £6,925 trip to Rio, São Paolo, Miami and Washington.

IF IT'S FEBRUARY IT MUST BE...

ALICANTE

Officials attend 2005 'Revenues, Rating and Valuation' meeting in area famed for beaches and wine

IF IT'S AUGUST IT MUST BE...

PRAGUE

After 2005 conference on 'Property Tax in Transition' officials enjoy a five-star hotel at €136 a night.

FEBRUARY AGAIN, IT MUST BE...

VANCOUVER

After the conference on 'Taxation of Public Infrastructure', officials will stay in a smart mid-town hotel.

AUGUST AGAIN, IT MUST BE...

KUALA LUMPUR

To attend 'International Property Tax Institute Conference' while enjoying a luxury hotel.

FEBRUARY 2007, AND IT'S...

FLORIDA

Officials will stay in Disney World, at a £140-a-night hotel, for a conference on 'Integrating Geographical Information Systems'.

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