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8.32 pm

Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles): I shall address clauses 5 to 8 and schedule 2, which deal with the rate relief scheme for village shops, and are the only parts that affect Scotland. Like most hon. Members, I give the scheme a cautious welcome. It is, of course, but a drop in the ocean in terms of the community, economic and development needs of rural Scotland, but it is very welcome. I know that it will be welcomed by many of the small shops and post offices that will benefit from it.

The local authority in my constituency estimates that about 75 shops and post offices and another 50 sub-post offices in the Western Isles will be eligible for rate relief under this scheme. That gives the House some impression of the nature of the constituency and the importance of the scheme to helping those shops. They are essential to maintaining community life in what are very remote villages and districts by any standard--even European standards. Any moves that help to prop up the existence of such shops is to be welcomed.

I hope that the scheme will also be of assistance to mobile shops. They are not referred to in the Bill, and I am not quite sure how the scheme would apply to them, since by their very nature they travel from village to village and district to district, but they are just as essential to the lifeblood of remote and rural communities as resident shops. They not only supply produce of various kinds to the different villages they visit, but act as bearers of news, gossip and information from village to village, and help to tie many villages and districts together.

I know that, to people who find it difficult to move out of their villages, because they are elderly, on particularly low incomes or disabled, or face some other difficulty, mobile shops are a welcome sight when they come over the hill. If the Bill can help mobile shops as well, it would be very worth while. I hope that that is a point that we can explore in Committee.

I should like to make a couple of suggestions about how the rate relief scheme might be further improved. Like many others, I believe that the scheme ought to be extended beyond simply ordinary shops or general stores. Pubs have been mentioned. Petrol retail outlets in rural areas also need to be assisted by the scheme.

There is no doubt whatever that local petrol outlets are hugely important in rural areas because, by their nature, such areas do not have a developed public transport network. People rely more heavily on their cars to get around for essential day-to-day living than they do in urban areas, where there is access to tubes, buses, trains and other kinds of public transport. In rural areas, the car is essential to get about, which is why it is important that there is access to petrol--and nearby, so that they do not have to drive large distances to fill their tanks with petrol.

Rural petrol retail outlets are under increasing pressure. The Minister will know that the Trade and Industry Committee studied petrol retailing in its sixth report in the

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previous Session. One of the issues on which it focused was that great pressure, which is due to rural outlets having to bear increasing costs as a result of new environmental standards and the need to introduce new equipment. That is particularly onerous for people who have a very low turnover.

There is also the problem that the outlets usually have to pay a higher price for wholesale petrol. Those two things together mean that the consumer has to pay a much greater price than that paid in urban areas. I know that that is true throughout the country and not only in Scotland, but it is perhaps particularly true in the highlands and islands.

The gap between rural and urban prices in the highlands and islands is staggering. Last year, for example, the average gap between the price of petrol in the Western Isles and the price on the mainland of Scotland was about 8p per litre--about 36p per gallon. People in rural areas have to pay a great deal more for their petrol. In the Western isles, for example, people have to pay £1 million more a year than they would have to pay for the equivalent amount of petrol in urban areas.

Great pressures and problems bear down on retail petrol outlets in rural areas, especially in the highlands and islands, but to a greater or lesser degree throughout the country. We need to offer those outlets some support, and I hope that that can be done through the Bill.

Recommendation No. 9 in the Trade and Industry Select Committee report suggests that the Government should consider ways in which the taxation levied on petrol could be adjusted to ensure that petrol retailers in rural areas were not disadvantaged. That could be done in different ways: a rebate on the value added tax or duty that the retailers pay would be one method, and giving them access to the rate relief scheme would be another. I hope that we can consider that carefully in Committee, and extend the scope of the scheme in what I believe would be a sensible way.

The balance of the way in which local authorities and central Government pay for the scheme could be adjusted. If the scheme is taken up and both the mandatory and the discretionary elements are employed to the full, the balance would be about 75 per cent. from central Government and 25 per cent. from local authorities. For charities, the balance is slightly better--80 per cent. and 20 per cent. It would make sense to have a similar split in the scheme for rural businesses.

Clause 2 is not a Scottish clause, but I must make some comment on it. It concerns the abolition of sporting rates in England and Wales, and I was baffled by the Government's explanation that it was needed to bring England into line with Scotland. I well remember the Government arguing that the equivalent measure in the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994, which abolished sporting rates in Scotland, was needed to bring the Scottish position in line with the English, so their justification for the current measure seems bizarre.

It is a gross waste of money to provide a blanket exemption for sporting estates, and I warn English and Welsh hon. Members against going down that route. The exemption would account for a quarter of the total cost of the scheme--£5 million out of £20 million--and there is no justification for it on economic, social or community grounds.

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Since sporting rates were abolished in Scotland, there has been no evidence whatever of any benefit to rural communities, or that it has helped, as was argued during the passage of the 1994 Act, in the management of the estates. All that has happened is that money has disappeared into the pockets of those who own and control sporting estates--by definition, extremely wealthy people. I hope that the Committee will consider that carefully, and reject the provision.

Clauses 6 to 8, which contain provisions dealing with Crown property, affect Scotland and appear to be sensible in principle, but we shall have to look at the detail and to consider how they bear upon the operations of the Crown Estates Commissioners. I look forward to hearing more about that in Committee.

The Bill represents a small drop in the ocean in terms of the support that rural communities need, but it is a welcome drop.

8.45 pm

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight): My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mrs. Lait), the first lady member of the Government Whips Office, asked me whether I would speak in tonight's debate. No lady is ever to be denied in my life, but one who has such an interesting array of Whips at her disposal certainly commands my riveted attention.

I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to colleagues on both Front Benches, for the fact that I was not here for the opening speeches. I was attending upon one of Her Majesty's Treasury Ministers with the leader and two officers of the Isle of Wight council to discuss the minting of the Isle of Wight ecu, for the illegal sale of which the council is facing prosecution.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned, the Bill is all about subsidiarity. The Isle of Wight council recently spent nearly £15,000 on a MORI poll asking people on the island whether they would like a referendum on independence and how they would vote in such a referendum. On the first question, 71 per cent. said yes; on the second, 44 per cent. said that they would be against the independence of the Isle of Wight, 33 per cent. said that they would be in favour, 17 per cent. said that they did not know enough about it and 1 per cent. said that they would not vote.

It seems not untypical of the Liberal Democrats that the council now wishes to have an Act of Parliament allowing a referendum on independence, which would cost about £120,000, in order to pose a question to which it already has the answer, because a large majority have already said that they do not want independence. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats' prospective parliamentary candidate accused the leader and deputy leader of the council of forming a breakaway party that had not been authorised by Cowley street. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will therefore realise that subsidiarity is high on the agenda on the Isle of Wight at the moment.

Rating is at the heart of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) gave an excellent exposition of the merits of the business rate as it stands. He left out only one important point, a point that, if I may say so, is often missed by the Government. The fashion

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of the day when I came into the House--it was parroted throughout the country and not only in political circles--was to ask what the Government were doing for our manufacturing industry, yet so many people forget that the legislation setting up the business rate favoured, and still favours, manufacturing premises. I have not found a single manufacturer on the Isle of Wight who wants to do away with the business rate.

I can explain that to the House and give ample illustrations: the rates on the Isle of Wight were uncompetitive, we could not get people to invest in the island and set up factories there, and many of the large multiples and international companies were considering moving away to their spare capacity in other parts of the country.

Today, the Isle of Wight's business rates are pari passu--four square--with those of the rest of the nation, which is very helpful. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield also said, that gives businesses the opportunity to plan their budgets in advance. That is to say nothing of the extraordinary increases in the old business rate when the Liberal Democrat council had the matter all to itself.

The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel)--or is it Papworth, I can never remember which it is, but I know that it is something to do with bypasses--mentioned that Liberal Democrat councils were used to giving rate relief. When he generously gave way, I pointed out that I had never known the Isle of Wight council to use that facility.

When I was elected to the House, the Liberal Democrats suddenly started asking about the village shops that were shutting, and asked why I was not doing something about it. I pointed out to my local councillors that they already had the power to do something if they wished. There is nothing Liberal Democrats hate more than being given a solution that bursts the balloon of their protest and takes away the oxygen they need to shout about such matters. They have never used that facility to assist village shops. I have been able on rare occasions to negotiate with the council on behalf of businesses for time for them to pay in exceptional circumstances.

As of tonight, I have a new policy for winning the next general election. It is to be nice to Department of the Environment Ministers. There is no Department I have spent more time kicking, screaming and shouting at since I came into the House. If there is one outstanding reform that the nation needs, it is an end to the annual junket that runs from local authorities to Marsham street and back. Year in, year out it costs the nation millions of pounds and is ineffective.

When my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) put through the House the order that created the Isle of Wight unitary council, he ran from the Chamber with my protestations about the problems of the electoral cycle of the unitary council and the parish councils ringing in his ears. Such was my angst, I even offered him a free demonstration of one of my company's products. I should at this point declare my interest in both beer and burials.

Parish councils bring Government nearer to the people. They have never been capped, because they act responsibly. In many parts of the country, they are unpolitical. In my constituency, there is a strong tradition of not standing for parish and town councils on a political ticket, even when candidates are already elected party

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political representatives of local councils. It gives a much better standard of decision-making at the grass roots when people hang their political hats up outside the door on parish councils. My constituency much appreciates that.

Clause 20 more or less restores the position that existed before we passed the legislation that created the Local Government Commission and the unitary authorities. I welcome that. It is rare for a Member to have a Government Bill that is almost entirely and exclusively dedicated to his constituency, but that is the case with the alignment of the electoral cycle in the Bill.

Clause 11 allows a petition by the community to set up a parish council. It is unclear whether a time scale is involved, though some of the wording suggests that, where a community has already made a petition, it will suffice. Is a time scale involved? My hon. Friend the Minister knows, because of my representations, that East Cowes has made a petition. We all support its having a parish or town council. Will it have to go through the exercise afresh?

My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) talked about planning and parish councils. When I was elected for the Isle of Wight, I met our chief planning officer and pointed out that, if he required people seeking planning permission to bring an extra set of plans when they made their applications, it could be distributed to parish councils, which would involve them much more in the process. He said that he did not believe that it could be done, because it was ultra vires and outside the law. I pointed out that, when I had been a district councillor, we had required it.

Most people who wanted planning permission would not baulk at the legality of what was involved and would provide the extra set. Since we adopted that on the Isle of Wight at my suggestion, I have not heard of any developer or architect who has baulked at supplying additional plans for the parish council, so that it can be fully consulted in the planning process.

Clause 20, as the hon. Member for Newbury said, exclusively affects the Isle of Wight. It might be thought that there would be other cases, but we are the only unitary authority where the electoral cycles do not match. I welcome the fact that the Bill deals with that. On the Isle of Wight, we have many tiny parish councils whose precept comes to less than would their election costs if they had to have stand-alone elections. That is nonsense.

I should have been on the island tonight with the deputy chief constable for a first meeting about some neighbourhood watch arrangements. I know how much the Bill's anti-crime measures, such as closed circuit television and the appointment of parish constables, will be welcomed. Hon. Members with mixed rural and urban constituencies such as mine will have had representations from the community, generally speaking, about anti-social behaviour and vandalism rather than serious crime. The parish council can play a useful role in that respect.

We must guard against the district councils walking away from their responsibilities, and leaving it by default to the parish councils to get on with some of these duties. That would be wrong.

Rating relief for shops is welcome. Several hon. Members have asked about the pubs. In some cases, the pub has a dual role as village shop. I hope that that will not preclude them from this welcome rate relief.

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Finally, clause 3 activates the Government's long-standing policy of abolishing Crown immunity and Crown exemption. I welcome that, for a number of reasons. On the Isle of Wight, the Home Office owns the Albany, Camp Hill and Parkhurst residential estates, including roads and street lighting. Now the Home Office is trying to hand over the ownership to local residents.

I welcome the abolition of Crown exemption because of the major problem that arose when I entered the House in 1987, when I was landed with the difficulty that rating valuation officers had misjudged the rates on what were in the main residential properties for prison officers. The mistake amounted to several pounds per head of the population of the Isle of Wight.

I went to see Nick Ridley, who told me that the problem had nothing to do with him: I should go and see the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I went to see Nigel Lawson, who told me that it was nothing to do with him: I should go and see Nick Ridley. I am sometimes asked why I still languish on the Back Benches. It is because I shuttled endlessly between those two gentlemen and made myself extremely unpopular with them, which killed my prospects of advancement.

Eventually I was told that there was no legislative mechanism to put this major problem right. What was more, it had never occurred before. In desperation, I got in touch with the Cabinet Secretary. I felt that my constituents were getting a raw deal, and that no one wanted to help me out with it. In the end a solution was found; I was never allowed to be privy to what it was, but the debt was written off. That explains why I welcome the abolition of Crown exemption.

No speech of mine mentioning parish councils would be complete without paying tribute to Lord Mottistone, who has been an ardent champion of the cause of parish councils. He was chairman of the Parish and Town Council Association of the Isle of Wight, and his family enjoyed a long association with the councils as well. He tried to promote a private Member's Bill in the other place with the intention of marrying up these election dates. In no small measure, clause 20 is a tribute to his efforts.

This Bill is about a way of life and a form of government which are for ever England. It will ensure the continuation of that way of life on the Isle of Wight and in the other English shire counties.

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