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Mr. Bercow: The hon. Gentleman really ought to make up his mind. I say to him beyond peradventure that his attitude makes Dr. Pangloss look a pessimist. How does he justify the Government's refusal to introduce honesty in food-labelling legislation, whereby consumers can know both the country of origin and the method of production of all the main ingredients so that they can make a free and informed choice of what to buy?
Mr. Temple-Morris: I seem to remember being asked that question as a Conservative Member when the Conservatives were in power. As for labelling in shops and supermarkets, it is infinitely better than it has ever been. Indeed, I am always clear about the origins of what I am buying. The Minister concerned has been tightening up regulations on labelling.
I know that the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) is well practised, but I could not resist giving way to him. I am sorry that I hesitated to do so at first, but perhaps I was overcome by my own oratorical efforts and was anxious to complete my speech--[Interruption.] Well, he has made his point now and I have dealt with it. I wish him many more happy interventions; I am sure that he will be making them in opposition for a long time. Finally, I thank the House for occasionally listening to me over the years and my constituents for putting up with me.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) who, if I may say so, brought urbanity to his rural subject. Having listened to him carefully, I have the impression that the picture in Leominster is different from what we are experiencing daily in Somerset. The hon. Gentleman would be
The Bill was not introduced in response to the present crisis. If it had been, it would be even more inadequate. It was introduced in response to an old anomaly in the effects of the uniform business rate, to the closure of shops in small communities--which has been going on for a long time--and to the difficulties that many in the agricultural industry are experiencing in diversifying. Whatever the response to the present crisis, it is extraordinary that everybody is gripped by the urgent need to do something for our rural areas, apart from the Treasury and the business managers of the House.
It is extraordinary that the Bill has been introduced at such a late stage. As the Minister said in her introductory remarks, the Bill had its genesis partly in the action plan for farming that was drawn up a year ago. We then waited for the rural White Paper, which eventually appeared in November. However, after that, nothing was done to put any proposals into effect. The Government finally got round to publishing the Bill on 16 March and it was introduced in the House, but we have had to wait until now for it to see the light of day. I suspect that we might not be discussing it now had I not asked the Minister for the Environment the other day when it would be debated on the Floor of the House. The right hon. Gentleman realised that it was rather embarrassing for the Government that a Bill that they had introduced purporting to give support to rural areas had not even been debated in this place.
I shall not labour the point about whether we need primary legislation. I was not convinced by the Minister's reply, which was based on something that we have heard before from this Government--an assertion that the lawyers know best. Our role in this place is to question what Government lawyers say about legislation; we need to be told the reasons for any course of action and consider whether it is right. No doubt, we shall return to that in Committee.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Robert Ainsworth): Does the hon. Gentleman not appreciate that if a piece of primary legislation states specifically that relief is for a sole business in a community, it is not possible to undo that without primary legislation?
Mr. Heath: I understand that perfectly well. I did not want to extend the argument as we will have to return to it in Committee, but I question the distinction that is still made between a food store and a general store. The qualification on sole business is on the general store, not the food store. Why does the Minister's point not apply to the public house or the petrol station? The distinction is not a matter for a long debate on Second Reading. [Interruption.] The Minister says from a sedentary position that I am wrong. He will have to establish that to the satisfaction of members of the Committee. Let us have that debate at the appropriate time.
The Bill does not address the basic inequities of the uniform business rate. Some of us have argued ever since its introduction that it was based on an erroneous premise and was unfair in its application. It is biased against the interests of small businesses, particularly small high street businesses in villages and market towns in areas such as the one I represent, and it benefits large retailers--supermarkets and hypermarkets--which are laughing all the way to the bank because the overhead that the uniform business rate represents reduces the opportunities for competition.
I would have liked to see a Bill to reform the uniform business rate and make it fairer than the present system. If that is not possible in one leap--and why it should not be, I cannot imagine--perhaps we might at least have had some form of tax allowance for a certain turnover or income in order to take smaller businesses out of the uniform business rate net entirely or to reduce its impact on them. That would have been a fair approach. Instead, the Bill tinkers at the edges to make exceptions piecemeal and on an interim basis. It is unfortunate that we cannot address the basic problem.
Mr. Evans: Can the hon. Gentleman remind the House whether it is still Liberal Democrat policy to scrap the council tax and business rate and replace them with a varying rate of local income tax throughout the country?
Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman knows that it is still our policy that local income tax would replace council tax. We are discussing the uniform business rate, which militates against rural areas and small businesses. It was introduced by the Government whom he supported and its reform is long overdue.
The problems with the Bill have been outlined by the hon. Member for Ashford. I shall deal first with the aspects relating to agricultural premises. I am greatly in favour of means of support for rural businesses deriving from agriculture. The re-use of agricultural premises in the form of diversification is consistent with what my colleagues and I have been arguing for many years in the context of common agricultural policy reform. We are in favour of support for rural economies and rural societies, rather than simple commodity support. It is important for us to make that move, although the Bill is a very limited part of that process.
The Bill contains no definition of agricultural premises or of agriculture. It does not purport to address that, as the matter is covered by other legislation, but it is time that we grasped the nettle and stated what agriculture is. Some of the businesses that are currently excluded from the definition of agricultural businesses should be included, because times have moved on.
I am pleased that the hon. Member for Ashford raised the topic of third-party use, but I am less pleased with the fact that we had no clear answer on the point. I do not read the measure as applying to third-party users. The Minister indicated that it applied to tenant farmers. We knew that.
Mr. Gray: It is worth repeating that, when I intervened on the Minister for Local Government and the Regions to ask her about the matter, she made it absolutely clear--tomorrow's Hansard will confirm this point--that the relief applied not only to farmers who own their land and to tenant farmers, but to any other business that rents the premises. Thus, a farm could convert a barn into a small office and rent it to an outside interest in industry that would benefit from the reduction in rate relief. I agree that that is not what the Bill says, but I point out that the Minister said that it would have that effect.
Mr. Heath: I wish that I could rely to the same extent on the Minister's words, but I do not interpret the Bill in the same way. We will have to explore the matter further in Committee to make certain that the Bill achieves the intention that she described.
Concern was expressed about the five-year expiry period, but the Minister appeared to misunderstand the point that was made. Surely, the question is not whether businesses can benefit from rate relief for longer than five years, but whether a business that wishes to take advantage of rate relief in, say, the fourth year after enactment of the Bill will be subject to a five-year or one-year period of relief. Clearly, the period can be extended by the Government, but that will not impress a bank manager who is presented in the fourth year with a business plan that can extend to only one year. We need clarification and we must press the Government for it. I suspect that they have good intentions, but that they have not written them into the Bill.
The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) spoke about the business of whether diversification is always good or bad and about the wrong uses to which it can be put. I feel strongly that rate relief is an economic and fiscal measure, and not a means of policing environmental and planning considerations. The planning regime must be sufficiently flexible, but also sufficiently robust, to deal with those issues, which should not be the subject of measures such as the Bill.