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Mr. Bayley: Is my hon. Friend aware that, according to the Register of Members' Interests, the Secretary of State for the Environment used to be an adviser on legal and parliamentary affairs to the Country Landowners Association? Does my hon. Friend agree that the Secretary of State might have made a mistake about the role to take when the Bill was drafted, by proposing a significant tax exemption for landowners on their country estates?

Mr. Dobson: I have made it a general principle that, although the Secretary of State usually devotes about 10 minutes of every speech to personal attacks on me, I do not indulge in personal attacks on him.

Many people remain concerned about other treasured aspects of the rural landscape, including hedgerows. After 17 years of promising protection for hedgerows, the Government are at long last consulting on draft regulations. They spent 17 years drifting before they could start drafting. In the meantime, more than 200,000 km of hedgerows have been rooted out. At the present rate of loss, every existing hedgerow will be gone within 20 years.

Existing measures to protect other landscape features are all too frequently overridden. The privatisation and break-up of the power industry has resulted in an increase in power lines that otherwise would not have occurred. The much contested proposal to build a duplicate line of pylons down the vale of York is just one example.

Although they have done nothing about those matters, the Government have found time and space to include one extraordinary measure in the Bill: the proposal to do away with the business rate on shooting and fishing rights,

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which have been subject to rates for more than 100 years because they are a valuable asset. That rating is now to be abolished, at a cost of about £5 million. The Government have introduced 22 new taxes on everyone else, but they have now decided to bung £5 million to their friends at the top end of the shooting and fishing market.

I challenge the Government to say whether the concession will benefit ordinary anglers or shooters. Are they really claiming that a fishing licence will cost less? It is a racket. The £5 million concession will bring most benefit to the wealthiest and least benefit to the poorest, so it is a good example of Tory priorities.

The Government have tried to explain that away by saying that the Bill brings England and Wales into line with Scotland, but when they proposed abolishing the tax in Scotland, they said that it was to bring Scotland into line with England and Wales. It is a tax concession for the landed gentry, a backhander for the best-off.

The Government claim that the field sports industry is worth £2,700 million a year. A £2,700 million industry does not need £5 million a year. The measure is intended to help not the industry but a limited number of toffs.

The concession is designed to please the House of Lords. It could be a pay-off to the hereditary peers who turned up to support the Government changing the law to make it more likely that homeless people would have to live in cardboard boxes. They are the stately hypocrites of England.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): Does the hon. Gentleman realise that the business of sporting rights works both ways? For example, if the owner of Hagg wood let that wood to the Forestry Commission, but did not wish to exercise his shooting rights, he would still have to pay the rates on it. Those who have land that they let and who, for various reasons, do not wish to exercise their sporting rights--of whom there are many--will also be better off under the proposal.

Mr. Dobson: The hon. Gentleman raises two issues. First, it is not clear whether the Church Commissioners pay business rates, although the right hon. Member representing the Church Commissioners, who also represents Hagg wood, might be able to enlighten us.

Mr. Michael Alison (Selby): I do not know whether to catch the hon. Gentleman's eye to respond to some of the points that he raised, or yours, Madam Deputy Speaker. I hope that, in due course, I shall successfully catch someone's eye and nail many of the misrepresentations and false points that the hon. Gentleman has made.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes): Order. If the right hon. Gentleman seeks to intervene, that must be a matter for the hon. Gentleman who has the Floor. If he seeks to catch my eye during the debate, I shall of course bear it in mind.

Mr. Dobson: I am perfectly willing to give way to the right hon. Gentleman, but perhaps it would be better if I dealt with the points raised by the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson).

The fact that somebody pays a tax does not make it a terrible burden. When the tax was abolished in Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home

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Robertson) spoke against its abolition, pointing out that he was probably the only person in the Chamber who actually paid it, because as a big landowner he had shooting rights on which he paid £100 in tax. As he pointed out, someone with so much property will usually be sufficiently well off not to have to go cringing to the Secretary of State and ask to be let off at the expense of others.

Mr. Matthew Banks (Southport): It is marginal and hardly worth collecting.

Mr. Dobson: The Secretary of State told my hon. Friend the Member for York that it would be entirely marginal, but apparently it is so marginal that we can ignore it if we are making that argument, yet the Secretary of State is also trying to tell us that it is crucial to the future of the field sports industry. The Government will have to make up their mind.

I have a great deal of respect for the right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison), but I must tell him that, to the best of my knowledge, I have said nothing about Hagg wood but the truth. I take great care with what I say. Until now, people have been able to use the wood without let or hindrance, going where they like. Even a combination of the Church Commissioners and the Forestry Commission cannot do away with certain rights of way through the wood. However, we have been told that, if the wood is sold, as part of the transaction the Church Commissioners will refuse to allow people the access that they have had before. They will be confined to the rights of way. That greatly diminishes the amenity.

All the hereditary owners of grouse moors and fishing rights will get a tax cut, but there are other sports in this country. Sports clubs that serve hundreds of thousands of less well-connected communities will still have to pay their rates. If the Government are interested in sport, why not pass a measure for all sporting industries rather than just one? It is a measure for the privileged few, with no money for anybody else.

At the very least, the concession should have been made available only to owners who intended to permit genuine public access to the land. If the Government do not support amendments that we shall table to secure such access, they will confirm that they remain the party of the privileged. The Prime Minister may want to go back to the old grouse moor image, although I think that he will have his work cut out.

While the Government have been in power, there has been a big increase in unemployment in rural areas. Many of those working there are badly paid. But for the opposition of the agricultural workers section of the Transport and General Workers Union, ably assisted by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang), even more people in rural areas might have been receiving low wages, because the Government wanted to get rid of the agricultural wages board. They eventually gave up when they finally had to concede that the farmers did not want rid of the board.

No current debate on rural areas can avoid a mention of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which has been extremely damaging. It is probably the biggest catastrophe to hit rural Britain this century--there are only three years left in the century. The Government's handling of the issue has been inept from start to finish. They have

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lurched from complacency to panic, gone back to complacency and then panicked again. They are still nowhere near resolving the issue. Their crass ineptitude has made life well nigh impossible for farmers and others working in rural-based industries. The Government's handling of the beef crisis has made them the toast of the vegetarian movement.

Despite that, the Secretary of State attempts to portray the Tory party as the party of rural England. He gets upset when Labour Members refer to rural affairs. He is out of date and out of touch. These days, the Labour party represents communities in every part of England, from the centres of the largest cities to the smallest hamlets, through suburbs, market towns and villages. Rural England is not a no-go area for Labour. Throughout England, many predominantly rural areas have elected Labour representatives to parish, district and county councils, to the Westminster Parliament and to the European Parliament. That is one good reason why our policies include practical answers to the day-to-day problems faced by communities throughout rural Britain.

The leader of the Labour party represents Sedgefield--a mainly rural constituency in the north of England. His predecessor, John Smith, grew up in rural Scotland. His predecessor, Neil Kinnock, grew up in and represented a fairly rural part of Wales. There is nothing recent or strange about Labour's commitment to rural areas.

Labour covers the whole country, and our policies, including those on local government and rating, address the problems of the whole country. That must be right, because on planning policy, housing policy, environment policy or rating policy, we cannot separate what happens in towns from what happens in the country. They affect one another and they always will.

Consider the way in which the decline of market towns harms their residents and those from miles around. Leek, in Staffordshire--known as the Queen of the Moorlands--ought to be a prosperous market town, but it is a shadow of its former self. It had its own county court 20 years ago, but it has lost that, along with its Crown post office and its jobcentre. Its tax and benefits office is under threat for the second time. Magistrates courts in Biddulph and Kidsgrove have closed recently, and it is feared that Leek magistrates court will follow suit. Banks are withdrawing from the town, and more and more local people are forced to travel elsewhere for work. The cattle market has been badly hit by the BSE crisis. That is just one of the market towns in trouble under the Tories.

Town and country depend on one another. Their relationship is symbiotic--they live off one another to their mutual advantage. However, the countryside exists not just to serve the needs of towns and townspeople. It is also the place where local people live, die, work, play and have their being.

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