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Mr. Rogers: You are perfectly right, Mr. Speaker. I was going on to say that I was grateful that time was being made available. The Opposition complained that the Government were not making time available but, the fact is, we need to have a programme motion so that the Bill can benefit rural constituencies. The Opposition are trying to hold up a Bill that will benefit people in rural constituencies.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Rogers: No, the hon. Gentleman has had plenty of time to participate and I am sure that he can do so again later. It is no good the Opposition bleating about the fact that a Labour Government are introducing legislation. We need a programme motion to get that legislation through. If we do not, people in rural constituencies will suffer and those who run stables, shops and small businesses in rural areas will not be able to get any help. It is important that we support the Government's programme motion and congratulate them on what they are doing.

Question put and agreed to.


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Rating (Former Agricultural Premises and Rural Shops) Bill

Not amended, considered.

Clause 3

Rate relief for rural food shops

10.20 pm

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 3, line 3, leave out "food".

Mr. Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 3, in page 3, line 6, leave out "food".

No. 4, in page 3, line 7, leave out from "consisting" to end of line 20 and insert--

'of the provision of essential goods or services to the community in which it is located, such goods or services to be prescribed by the Secretary of State by order'.

No. 5, in title, line 3, leave out "food".

Mr. Green: The purpose of the amendments is consistent with the aim of the Opposition throughout the proceedings on the Bill, which has been to improve it. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) who, sadly, is no longer in his place, and who has not taken part in any of the previous debates on the Bill, was wrong to say that the Conservative party was seeking to delay the Bill. We have said that we support it in principle. We did not oppose it on Second Reading. We have discussed the efficacy of the Committee stage. Nothing could be more inaccurate than the statement that the Opposition were trying to delay the progress of the Bill.

At every stage through which the House has passed extremely quickly this week, we have consistently sought to improve the Bill. Earlier we heard an interesting debate about whether the Bill was modest or important or both. The truth is that it is both. It is important that some relief goes to businesses, whether farm diversification businesses or village shops, that are suffering as never before under the Government's policies. Equally, it is apparent, not just to those of us on the Opposition Benches, but to the many organisations that represent the bodies that will benefit from the small help given by the Bill, that it goes nothing like far enough. The amendments seek to do what we have sought to do at every stage of the Bill: to give it teeth and to add to the generosity of the benefits that will be given to businesses under the Bill.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): How much?

Mr. Green: The hon. Gentleman, too, has not taken part in any of the previous debates on the Bill. If he will contain himself, he will see what benefits would accrue from the amendments.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Does he believe that he was right to use the word "generosity"? Would not the word "necessity" have been more appropriate?

Mr. Green: I was trying, as ever, with generosity of spirit to be kind to the Government. They may think that

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they are being generous to the rural businesses that are suffering so much, but of course that is not the case. They have introduced this rather inadequate Bill and, as we heard, there was a huge delay between First and Second Reading, which is why we are having to go through the various stages of the Bill with indecent haste.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: How much?

Mr. Green: The amendments are designed to improve clause 3 by making it less restrictive. Throughout our proceedings on the Bill, we have tried to improve the parts relating to farm businesses that wish to diversify, and we have tried to extend the Government's restrictive definition of the village shops that will benefit from the small amount of rate relief.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: How much?

Mr. Green: The hon. Gentleman keeps shouting, "How much?" from a sedentary position. If he bothered to read the amendments, he would realise that I am seeking to extend the number and type of shops that would benefit. I am sure that, with his characteristic diligence, he has read the notes from the Library. The Government's proposals entail advantage to the various businesses of £16 million over five years. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) has already observed, that adds up to just over £3 million a year. I am sure that the hon. Member for Workington has assiduously read the Hansard of the Second Reading debate, so he will know that the Government's agencies for the countryside say that the tourism industry alone has lost something like £2 billion during the foot and mouth crisis. Indeed, his own constituents have suffered as much as anyone during this dreadful outbreak.

The amendment would remove the unnecessary restrictions imposed by the Government on the type of village store that can receive this modest rate relief. The essential purpose of all four amendments is to widen the definition of "a qualifying food store." Under clause 3, the only stores that can benefit from the rate relief provided in this Bill and in the Local Government Finance Act 1988 which it amends are narrowly defined food stores. The Government have explained why they believe the definition should be so narrow and confined to a store that is "wholly or mainly" involved in selling food. I genuinely believe that they are being unnecessarily restrictive. Without the amendments, the ultimate purpose of the Bill will be partially negated.

It is not a matter of controversy across the House that the underlying point of the Bill and the legislation that it amends, which was passed by the previous Conservative Government, is to help those shops that provide an essential service to village communities, as far too many village shops and services have closed. Successive Governments have sought ways to mitigate the many problems that face such stores, and to find practical solutions that will enable them to carry on in business.

With the amendments, I want to draw back the veil that the Government have placed over this issue. They define these essential services as predominantly food shops. They have said that the underlying purpose of the Bill is

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to ensure that all the essential services that contribute towards a decent, coherent, civilised society should be as available to those who live in small, rural communities as they are to those who live in large, urban communities. That is a wholly admirable aim. My complaint about the Bill and the reason for these amendments is that, as currently drafted, the Government's definition of a shop does not serve that admirable aim.

The Minister and his right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions have said that they want to avoid loopholes and to prevent shops from slipping in at the edge. They rejected previous amendments in which we sought to replace the word "mainly" with "in part". The Government regarded as ineligible a food shop with 40 per cent. of its turnover from food sales, because they thought that that would be exploiting a loophole.

On Second Reading and in Committee, the Government made it clear that, for reasons which escape me, they have a particular horror of antique shops being included in the definition. It is clear that either the Minister or his right hon. Friend has had a bad experience in an antique shop, because they have a wholly unjustified dislike of them. Regardless of their slightly odd personal prejudices, that is not an adequate basis for policy making by a responsible Government. Much of clause 3 is a characteristically ingenious attempt to plug the various loopholes that the Government say they are extremely anxious to avoid. In Committee, both we and the hon. Member for Weston- super-Mare (Mr. Cotter) pointed out that a large part of clause 3 was devoted to preventing a shop from installing a microwave oven in which people could heat up meat pies. It seemed to me that, without my amendments, clause 3 was almost more designed to be restrictive than to be permissive. That struck me as being the wrong emphasis in a Bill that sought to help businesses.

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