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Mr. Campbell-Savours: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Would you advise the Secretary of State?

Madam Speaker: That is a point of frustration rather than a point of order. I was rather enjoying the exchange.

Mr. Gummer: Thank you very much, Madam Speaker.

I ought to address the serious point made by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, for the following reason. If, in the course of previous discussions in this House, anyone has inadvertently said something that was other than exactly right, of course I and my right hon. Friend will look at the record and ensure that the House is made fully aware.

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I am not introducing this measure merely because it brings England and Wales into line with Scotland: I am introducing it because I think that it is necessary for the health of the countryside. It is something that we have insisted would be valuable. It will not cost the taxpayer a great deal, but it will remove an enormous amount of frustration and some pretty difficult arrangements that have to be made in order to follow up matters. It will recognise--it seems--an important matter for the countryside.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries): I should like to clear up this minimal issue that the Opposition have raised. If they knew anything about sporting rating, they would know the difference between rating in Scotland, which was extremely high before we made the change, and the infinitesimal level in England. Naturally, we brought the Scottish level down to what it ought to be--which was nil. I am so glad that my right hon. Friend has made such a positive statement about country sports in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Gummer: I thank my right hon. Friend, but I will ensure that any scintilla of difference is ironed out. I hope that the House has noticed that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras was more interested in trying to trip up my right hon. Friend for something that he may or may not have said some time ago than in welcoming an advantageous measure for the country community. We are faced with an Opposition who neither know about nor are interested in the environment, and we now know that they have the same attitude to the countryside.

Mr. Bayley rose--

Mr. Graham rose--

Mr. Gummer: I think that I ought to give way first to the hon. Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde (Mr. Graham), but I shall not forget the hon. Member for York (Mr. Bayley).

Mr. Graham: I am most grateful to the Secretary of State.

I represent an area with many rural communities, but I also travel the length and breadth of Scotland--I even have a holiday home in Scotland--and see many rural communities suffering because petrol stations are closed most of the time in the winter and businesses cannot compete.

I welcome a measure that will help those communities, but it has taken far too long for the Government to respond to the needs of rural villages. I am delighted that something is being done for Scotland, but how much will it cost local authorities? Will they need to employ people to discuss the discretionary rates; will there be more bureaucracy to deal with; will the Government simply allow everything to rumble on and cost us all a fortune; or will there be genuine help for local communities?

Mr. Gummer: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support. However, he criticises the timing of a measure that his party has never even suggested; I have been under no pressure whatever from that quarter. One can see why, when the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras does

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not even know about the countryside. I sense anger from the Opposition Benches, perhaps because I am striking home.

On local authorities, even in the case of the discretionary grant, 75 per cent. will be paid for centrally from the Treasury, and the mandatory grant will be wholly centrally paid for. At this rate, I may never get to the part of my speech dealing with parish councils, but I hope that they will play a part in England and Wales in deciding on which occasions it would be sensible to have a discretionary grant; they will put their point of view to the district councils, which can then decide.

I shall now give way to the hon. Member for York, after which I must make some progress.

Mr. Bayley: I am most grateful to the Secretary of State.

I want to raise an issue concerning shooting rights in Hagg wood in Dunnington, a village just outside my constituency, which is a wood that my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) knows extremely well, because he was born and grew up in the village and lived there much of his life; it is quite wrong for the Secretary of State to suggest that he does not understand rural life.

Hagg wood is owned by the Church Commissioners, but the Forestry Commission has a 999-year lease on it. For many years past, my constituents and residents in Dunnington have been able to walk and ride in the wood and to use it for recreation. Now, because the Forestry Commission is selling the land, the Church Commissioners feel that they can no longer extend open access, as they want to exploit the shooting rights. Instead of being able to ride in safety in a wood, children will have to ride on the roads, and people will no longer have access.

Has the Secretary of State considered the effect that this provision in the Bill will have in closing access to countryside and woodland to the general public, and will he ask the Secretary of State for Scotland to ask the Forestry Commission to delay the sale, so that the matter of shooting rights and access can be sorted out, and access can continue should the wood be sold?

Mr. Gummer: Of course I shall be happy to talk to my right hon. Friend, but the provisions in the Bill make no difference to the circumstance to which the hon. Gentleman refers, because the shooting rights are there in any case; the question is whether rates are paid on them, and that is a matter that must be marginal to a decision of the Church Commissioners. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and I shall investigate the matter and ensure that my right hon. Friend does so, too.

The Bill has an important provision on Crown exemption, which will bring Crown property, such as the buildings of Government Departments, within the rating system. That is a very important change. I do not think that the Government should be protected against the normal effects of the cost of running a business. Such buildings are technically exempt from rates, although, since the late 19th century, the occupiers of Crown property have paid a contribution in lieu of rates. That is a different sort of contribution. It does not mean that they have the same reaction to the rating system as normal businesses. It is necessary that they should. The Bill ends that exemption.

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The House recognises that parish councils come in all shapes and sizes. There are very small ones, such as Snape in my constituency, but the parish council of Felixstowe, which is called the town council, covers an area containing more than 20,000 people. It is a much different business from the village of Snape. Between them are towns of other sizes, such as Aldeburgh or Woodbridge, all of which have what are technically parish councils.

Many urban areas have parish councils. The question is how to provide for them to play a better part in the community. Many would like to do something more. I do not expect that to happen in Stone parish in the borough of Swale in Kent, because it has no population. That is one end of the scale. Parish councils with more than 20,000 people may want to do much more than they do now.

At present, such parish councils are significantly restricted. I am not seeking to give them duties that they must carry out but to offer them opportunities to choose to carry out things that they feel that they could do. For that reason, and because we found in the response to the rural White Paper that many parish councils want new powers, the idea is that the powers will be permissive. The powers will not be forced upon the parish councils; they will choose.

The powers will give additional opportunities in respect of five matters: first, to establish and support a car-sharing scheme; secondly, to pay revenue grants for a community or voluntary group running a bus for the benefit of elderly or disabled people; thirdly, to grant taxi fare concessions for people in the categories covered by local authority concessionary fare schemes; fourthly, to investigate transport needs and publicise public transport services; and fifthly, to fund traffic calming works to be carried out by the highways authorities.

Those five powers are necessary for many local parish councils to be able to things from which they are currently prohibited by law. I believe that the House will generally welcome that.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill): Can the Secretary of State explain why the Bill would allow parish councils, no matter how small, to raise a precept for extra public expenditure while his colleague the Secretary of State for Scotland is utterly opposed to a Scottish Parliament raising extra funds for its expenditure? Do not Cabinet members talk to each other?

Mr. Gummer: The hon. Lady has totally different views. We are talking about local councils close to people, and about people who know the people who are running the council. They know perfectly well whether they are prepared to pay. The hon. Lady is putting forward a fictitious and fake proposition: that there should be a Parliament for Scotland that would raise money but would not contribute to the wealth or economic advancement of Scotland. It would drive people out of Scotland, because they would be much more likely to site their businesses where they did not have to pay the tartan tax.

The Opposition are attempting a sleight-of-hand by making sure that Scottish Members of Parliament are different from English Members of Parliament. Scottish Members, under the hon. Lady's proposals, would have

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votes on English matters in the House of Commons, whereas English Members would have no votes on Scottish matters. That is unacceptable to my constituents and to all English constituents.

What is more, the hon. Lady's ideas would take away from this country its enormous advantage in the world of being a United Kingdom, able to fight for its position collectively, not just in the European Union but in the councils of the world. The hon. Lady would not just damage Scotland; she would charge the Scots for the damage she does. Her policies are unpopular in the United Kingdom in any event. [Interruption.]

It is interesting to see how many Opposition Members feel uncomfortable about the devolution proposals, and to note how many Scottish Labour Members are beginning to worry about the extra taxation that would be involved. They know that taxes will be higher under a Labour Government anyway. The hon. Lady's constituents do not want her to be a half Member of Parliament, which is what she would be if her party came to power.

Some parish and community councils already do many of these things. However, parish spending on transport and crime prevention--matters of tremendous importance to many villages--is currently limited to £3.50 per elector--the sum that parishes can raise for general purpose spending. The new powers will give parishes the freedom to increase their precept beyond that limit to cover the costs of new community transport initiatives.

The same is true of crime prevention. Crime and the fear of crime are highly relevant to rural areas, just as they are to the inner cities. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) might like to listen to this, even though he does not represent a rural area. It would be nice to find him caring about rural issues, since the principal Opposition spokesman on these matters has clearly forgotten whatever youthful touch he may have had.

We have taken the opportunity here to give parish and community councils in England and Wales a new power to help the police and support local crime prevention efforts. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong) has not been listening to what I am saying. We are increasing the £3.50 expenditure limit, so other parts of general spending are not excluded. The hon. Lady should listen and not talk so much. She continually tries to help out the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, because she, unlike him, has some rural interests.

The new provision will give parishes a new and separate statutory power to raise money so as to be able to help police authorities in their fight against crime. In so doing, parishes will be able to set conditions governing what their money is spent on, subject to the agreement of the chief police officer in the area concerned.

We have not been prescriptive. We want parishes to choose, but consultation will be important. I said at the beginning that one of the problems attending recent discussions of local government reorganisation was the number of promises made by larger councils to consult smaller ones. Some of those promises appear not to have been fulfilled. It is hard to see, for instance, how Lancashire county council has carried the promise through. But we have a list of the promises that have been made. I intend to insist that consultations continue.

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That is why, in the Bill, we are taking powers to enforce consultation between tiers of government when people refuse it.

In this context, planning is significant. Parish councils have an important part to play in planning. They can make recommendations to the district council, but it is, of course, for the district council to decide. The problem is that the latter usually does not tell the parish council why it has chosen to disregard its advice. If the district council has to explain its reasons, it is more likely that a consensus on planning matters will emerge. I know that the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) would agree with me here, and I also see the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) nodding in agreement.

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