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Mr. Jack: The Minister was very generously dealing with the points that hon. Members have raised today, many of which concerned clause 1 and the question of whether third parties who invested on a farm would be eligible for help. Clarification of the point is needed, and I should be grateful if he would provide it.

Mr. Ainsworth: Small businesses that fall within the definitions and scales provided in the Bill--in relation to exempt agricultural businesses and non-exempt agricultural land, for example--will be eligible. The businesses do not have to be run by farmers themselves. Farmers may well have someone else to run the businesses on those premises, thereby constituting diversification. That is not necessarily a problem, but we may need to spell things out in Committee and make people understand exactly what we are proposing.

Conservative Members said that they would do a lot more were they to get back into power. They went on to say that the main way in which they would pay for that would be to abolish regional development agencies, by which they would save more than £100 million. However, the administration costs of RDAs was only £62 million last year--8 per cent. of their total spend--most of which was spent on the wages of those employed on regulatory programmes.

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If the Conservatives are to transfer the powers and funds of RDAs they will have to keep the staff in employment, and because they will lose the economies of scale, they may employ far more and at a far higher cost than is the case at present. Even that ignores the fact that the Conservatives are effectively double counting savings that do not exist, because the shadow Chancellor has already spent the money from the abolition of RDAs. It is already part of the £16 billion worth of cuts that will pay for the tax cuts that the Conservatives are promising.

Are Conservative Front-Bench Members telling us that they will not follow that programme and would not make those tax cuts because the money that the shadow Chancellor has already spent on them will be redirected to additional assistance for the farming industry? They must say one thing or another--they cannot simply double count money that is probably not there in the first place.

In conclusion, the Bill takes forward important measures that provide rate relief for rural businesses. It will help farmers to diversify into non-agricultural activities by reducing the costs of doing so, and it will ensure that all food shops in small villages benefit from mandatory rate relief in addition to the sole general store. These measures are not the answer to the recent problems facing the countryside, but they are part of a continuing programme introducing measures to assist diversification, the strengthening of the rural economy and the viability of life in small villages. The Bill is part of the proposals contained in the rural White Paper last year. Our countryside needs effective measures to eradicate the current foot and mouth problem as well as on-going assistance, and that is what it will get from the Government.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

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Rating (Former Agricultural Premises and Rural Shops) Bill (Programme)

8.37 pm

Ms Hilary Armstrong: I beg to move,

I do not intend to delay the House for too long. The motion suggests a sensible timetable for the consideration of this small but none the less important Bill. It provides that Standing Committee consideration will be concluded on 8 May--that is, in two sittings--and that the remaining stages be concluded in about four hours. In line with the new programming procedures, the terms of the motion have been agreed through the usual channels, giving the Opposition parties a real say in how Government business is to be conducted.

8.38 pm

Mr. Green: The Minister deserves a small award for chutzpah when she says that the programme motion gives the Opposition parties an opportunity to contribute. It has become apparent in the course of our debate this afternoon how much improvement the Bill needs.

The Government and their business managers will no doubt be relieved that I am not about to make the speech that they are accustomed to hearing from this Dispatch Box about their appalling conduct over programme motions--although it is richly deserved every time it is delivered--because we believe that time is of the essence in delivering relief to rural areas. We have made it clear throughout the debate that we have no desire to delay even the small and peripheral measures contained in the Bill because we welcome any help for rural businesses in the current crisis.

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When the Under-Secretary wound up on Second Reading, he was honest enough to say that the Bill would not solve the problems. I part company with him when he says that it is part of an on-going programme, because it is so far the only concrete measure that the Government have produced to help rural businesses, although I agree that it is an aid--albeit a relatively small aid--in the face of the crisis that rural businesses now face.

I also wish to pick the Minister up on his claim that today was the first opportunity the Government have had to introduce the Bill, and that they have rushed it through. Not only have we had a mysterious six-week gap between First Reading and today, but the Minister knows--as does every other hon. Member--that when the Government introduced the Bill on First Reading, they assumed that today we would be two days away from a general election. The idea that the Government ever intended to get the Bill on to the statute book before an election is so much hogwash, and the Minister need not try to convince the House otherwise.

We do not intend to oppose the programme motion, but it is important to set out some of the issues that the Government should address before remaining stages, especially if they are to be rushed through. The Government will have heard hon. Members raise several issues today--especially the fact that in relation to the equestrian issue the Bill as it stands would be incoherent and perverse, and would not achieve the Government's purposes. On several other issues, hon. Members on both sides of the House have reached the same conclusion about the Bill's effect but Ministers have assured us that the effect would be different. We need some clarity, especially about farm buildings that are not used by the farmer himself and on the issue of fairness, both geographically and in terms of businesses set up at different times--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot have a repeat of the Second Reading debate. I remind him that we are considering the programme motion.

Mr. Green: I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I sought to explain to the Government that we are not opposing the programme motion, but that several important issues remain to be addressed in Committee. The Government will also need to table amendments before the Bill reaches Committee, because the programme motion will truncate the normal length of the Committee stage. It is therefore important that the Government take seriously the issues that have been raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House. The programme motion will mean that we will rush through all the remaining stages of the Bill, and it is clear that it must be severely improved if it is to achieve the Government's ends--which we share--of making a small improvement in the desperate condition of so many businesses in rural areas.

8.43 pm

Mr. David Heath: I, too, shall be brief. We have all heard the standard speech on programme motions which has been repeated week in and week out recently, and the fact that we accept this motion does not make our criticisms of the Government's approach any less valid. They have consistently failed to consult appropriately or to try to reach an accommodation with Opposition parties about areas of dissent.

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In the case of this Bill, the difficulty is compounded by the fact that we know that it has been sitting on a shelf somewhere since 16 March and could have been introduced earlier as a matter of urgency. Many of us have argued that it is a matter of urgency and that, however modest its intentions, it should reach the statute book as early as possible. However, I admit that the time made available in the programme motion is not dissimilar to that which would have been available had we dealt with the matter as secondary legislation in the same way as other amendments to the rating regime, so it would be wrong to suggest that there is a need for prolonged consideration in Committee or on Report.

Having said that, I ask Ministers to take careful account of the points made by the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green). The consideration period is being truncated and we do not want unnecessarily to extend our debates, but Ministers should, where possible, consult with representatives of the Opposition parties to agree on clarificatory wording before the Bill is discussed in Committee. There is no great division between any of the parties on the content, but there is a division on the interpretation of some provisions.

Some of us detect ambiguities and, while Ministers may not at the moment be prepared to accept that they exist, if they reflect, they may realise that, potentially, they do, and that it would be far better to agree a Government amendment to deal with them rather than take up time in Committee or on Report.

I do not intend to divide the House and I hope that we will be able to proceed in good order so as to put the measure on the statute book ahead of the events of the next few weeks. My party is happy to make sure that, with the Government's co-operation, the Bill will achieve what they claim it will, however modest that may be.

Question agreed to.

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