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Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South): Why not?

Madam Speaker: Order. I do not have that authority, and the House knows it.

Mr. Home Robertson: I am grateful to you, Madam Speaker. Although a Scottish Office Minister is visiting the scene of devastation in my constituency, another Scottish Office Minister is in the Chamber. Would it not be helpful if he could take this opportunity to explain whether the Scottish Office will do anything about the situation?

Madam Speaker: Order. Points of order are directed to me, not to Ministers. The hon. Gentleman is asking a question of the Minister, and that is not the procedure that we follow here. When Scottish Office Ministers answer questions, the questions are listed on the Order Paper. Points of order are directed to me.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. George Kynoch) rose--

Madam Speaker: I can see that the Scottish Office Minister wishes to be helpful to the House.

Mr. Kynoch: Madam Speaker, perhaps Opposition Members are totally unaware of normal emergency procedures. In fact, the emergency planning department in the Scottish Office has been in contact with all the local authorities, and Lord Lindsay has, on the instructions of the Secretary of State for Scotland, visited the areas. We continue to monitor the situation.

Mr. Nick Ainger (Pembroke): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I wonder whether you have received any notification from the Secretary of State for Wales that he will make a statement about today's announcement that the Gulf oil refinery in my constituency will close in the

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summer, with the loss of 350 direct jobs and the loss of a similar number of jobs in the wider community? As you know, my constituency is one of the areas of the United Kingdom with the highest levels of unemployment and the lowest pay. I merely wonder whether the Secretary of State has recognised the seriousness of the announcement and told you that he will make a statement?

Madam Speaker: I have not been informed that a statement will be made, but, of course, the hon. Gentleman will have every opportunity in coming weeks to raise the issue in an Adjournment debate or in parliamentary questions directed to the Secretary of State for Wales.

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Orders of the Day

Local Government and Rating Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

3.36 pm

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. John Gummer): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

When we published our rural White Paper last year, we made clear our continuing commitment to a living, working and thriving countryside. We said that we were not interested in a museum countryside, but in a workaday countryside, in which people could live, work and make their money from the countryside. We said that it was as important for the countryside to thrive between Monday and Friday as it was over the weekend. We therefore said that we should avoid prescriptive, inflexible policies imposed from outside, and that we needed complementary action by all levels of government in order to achieve our overriding objective of securing a sustainable future for our countryside.

The Local Government and Rating Bill represents the first fruit of the Government's endeavour on the rural White Paper, and is manifest proof of the Government's commitment to rural life, rural businesses and rural government. It extends subsidiarity and will mean a welcome boost for rural businesses through a rate-relief scheme. It will mean new powers for parish councils on crime prevention and transport, and better consultation between principal authorities and local councils.

When discussions were held about local government reorganisation, many county and district councils promised that, in future, they would take much more notice of parish councils. They promised all types of participation, partnership, devolution and subsidiarity. Some of the councils have delivered on the promises they made, in their desire to maintain their position, but other councils have been less assiduous in doing so. In the Bill, we seek to ensure that the participation and subsidiarity that are so much a part of a sensible local government system shall be continued.

To deal with the problems of rural England, however, we start with the village shops. If villages are to flourish in a living, working countryside, they require shops in which people can buy a range of daily necessities. That requirement is particularly true for older people, for the young and for those who cannot afford a vehicle or who do not have contact with someone who has one.

The problem in England and Wales is that, for some time, the nature of communities has meant that more people have chosen to shop elsewhere, so fewer people use the village shop. That has increased pressure on the village shop. The Bill will provide much-needed financial help to those businesses by reducing their non-domestic rates bills.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): The Minister put his opening remarks about rural post offices in the specific context of rural England. Will he clarify exactly where the Bill stands, not only in regard to post offices but generally? There seem to be contradictions running through it. The preparatory notes state:

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However, clause 35 states:

    "Sections ... 9 to 31 extend to England and Wales."

Those two statements are contradictory. The title of clause 25 is

    "Application of Part II to England only",

yet some clauses in part III are dependent on part II, which should apply to Wales. The Bill appears confused, to say the least.

Mr. Gummer: The hon. Gentleman is right about the confusion. We are trying to meet concerns that should interest him in particular, as they involve the difference between the Principality and England. I am particularly keen to ensure that those differences remain, so parts of the Bill refer to England and Wales. Other parts of the Bill clearly refer to Wales.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will raise any particular concerns, but the explanatory notes to the Bill make it perfectly clear which part refers to which. He will find that some parts of my speech--particularly when I am referring to the English White Paper on rural matters as that was my responsibility--will differ from others when I am referring to the Welsh White Paper, which was the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales. I shall try to make sure that it is clear, at least in my speech. If the hon. Gentleman requires further explanation that goes beyond what is already in the Bill, I shall be happy to assist him.

In both England and Wales, the village shop has a particular role to play that is not restricted simply to providing the necessities of life, although that is important. It also provides a centre where it is noticed if someone has not collected their pension or if someone has not been seen for a couple of days. The village shop is the centre of a web of information that should not be lost.

The rating causes real problems, because the village shopkeeper is unable to diminish the cost. He may be able to deal with other overheads, perhaps with careful husbandry, but he cannot affect the rates. That is why we sought to do something about what is often the most onerous part of the overheads.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster): I am delighted that my right hon. Friend is dealing with village shops, about which we have corresponded for many years. May I press him a little further on schedule 1? Schedule 1 refers to the hereditament which benefits the local community. Few amenities are of more benefit to the local community than a really good local garage. I have one in my constituency, and this morning I received a letter from a constituent saying:

I know that because, if I want to know the time of a funeral or if someone is ill or any other information, I have only to ring Lambs of Hornby. I very much hope that it will be eligible for the discretionary rate reduction under the Bill.

Mr. Gummer: I can assure my hon. Friend that the village garage to which she rightly refers can be helped by the discretionary rates scheme that we are proposing today. Those village garages that double as the village

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shop, selling a significant quantity of groceries and the like, may well qualify for mandatory rate relief. [Laughter.]

Those Opposition Members who find the subject amusing clearly do not understand how central it is to rural life. I understand that some Opposition Members do not have rural communities in their constituencies. One or two of them do, and I have noticed how they have given cross-party support to our proposals. I hope that they will ensure that those of their hon. Friends who are not so interested might at least let us talk about those issues on which we are agreed. There are many other issues about which we can argue.

Happily, we have been able to ensure that the mandatory rate relief of which we have been talking extends not only to England and Wales, but also to Scotland.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Why is Northern Ireland to be excluded from the benefits that will arise from the Bill?

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