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Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): Does not one of the most peculiar aspects of the clause feature in the proposed new subsection (6CA) in subsection (3)? Line 8 contains the words "excluding confectionery". If there were two sweet shops in the same village, they would not be able to claim rate relief. That strikes me as bizarre, but in villages such as Lacock in my constituency it might well happen.
Mr. Green: My hon. Friend has drawn attention to a point raised in another of our Committee debates. As he knows, we engaged in an extensive discussion about why the Government were so anxious to exclude any shop with a microwave oven that could heat up meat pies. We also discussed whether the exclusion of confectionery shops was in any way sensible. The definition of confectionery is not available--I have looked at the original legislation, and it is not there--so the Government will be excluding some shops that may well provide essential services in villages.
I think the Government will regret their action. I think that, if they leave the Bill as it stands, they will not receive even the meagre credit that they perhaps deserve for finally introducing the Bill. There will be villages in which the shop that people regard as their essential store--the shop that they want to keep open, and consider to be a valuable part of village life--cannot stay open, precisely because of the unnecessary restrictions that the Government have included in various parts of clause 3.
The amendments seek to help the Minister achieve what I imagine to be his aim by sweeping away the loopholes--and the restrictions--that the Government have, with unnecessary ingenuity, sought to introduce. They remove the restrictive definition of a food store, and redefine an essential shop, in ways that I shall discuss later. In fact, they serve various purposes. First, and perhaps most important, they are deregulatory. I am sure that those running small village shops and suffering an ever-increasing burden of red tape would welcome a deregulatory alteration in the Bill. Perhaps even more relevant, however, is amendment No. 4, which seeks to be forward-looking in the definition of an essential service.
At present, the Government are stuck in an unfortunate backward-looking mindset. According to clause 3, the only essential village shop is a food shop. No doubt historically food was ultimately the one thing that people looked for in village shops, but, as the Minister will know, what can be provided in local shops, and what needs to be provided as a local service, is changing more rapidly than ever before. My amendments seek to enable the Government to modernise. I use that word deliberately to entice the Minister.
The Minister will know as well as I do that food is an essential service. No one would deny that quality of life in any village is enormously improved by the existence of a food store, but there are many other essential services. In the House and outside, we have had many intense discussions about benefit payments, particularly through electronic means, and how to preserve village post offices. Other members of the Government are, rightly, deeply concerned that those who may not be well enough off to afford a computer, or who may not have easy access to a large town where there are internet cafes or libraries, should have internet access. Those are examples of services that will be as essential as the provision of food. The full range of civilising opportunities that are available to those who live in urban areas should be available to those who live in rural areas. That is at the heart of amendment No. 4.
Of course, that small list cannot be regarded as exhaustive because, in the years ahead, other services will be regarded as being essential to preserving commercial activities in a village. The chief merit of amendment No. 4 is that it does not seek to be prescriptive--to lay down what is an essential service in a village shop. It says that a shop will be eligible if it provides
None of us can know what is the key to keeping people spending money in small rural communities. I make no apology for returning to that point because we are seeking to maintain a commercial infrastructure in small rural communities. We do not know what people in those communities will want to spend money on in future. With the amendment, we do not need to. The House can afford a modest level of extra protection to those village shops without attempting to second-guess the future.
Throughout the stages of the Bill, which has been rushed through so expeditiously, we have attempted to make it more generous. This is the last group of the amendments that the House will discuss. I very much regret that the Government have rejected all our previous suggested improvements, albeit with one or two hints from the Minister that they will consider some of our exceptionally sensible suggestions. Nevertheless, despite the Government's consistent rejection of our proposals, Opposition Members are generous at heart and will continue to rehearse the arguments about how the House can make better laws--a skill that we shall soon be practising full-time.
Mr. Gray: I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) on such a comprehensive review of the necessity for the amendments, especially as, from the sound of his voice, he seemed to be suffering just a bit towards the end of his remarks. To carry on in those circumstances seems to be noble beyond the call of duty, and I congratulate him.
I am glad that the amendments in this group have been selected because they go to the heart of what is wrong with the Bill. I do not say that in an unfriendly or ungracious manner. Although the Bill is, as we have said on many occasions, a small and inadequate measure compared with the size of the problem currently facing rural areas, hon. Members representing rural constituencies such as mine very much support the broad thrust of its objectives. Therefore, when I attack the Bill, I do not mean it in an ungenerous sense. I make it plain that we support its broad thrust.
Including the word "food" in clause 3, which deals with village shops and stores, cuts the heart out of what could otherwise be very useful provisions. We are talking about rural villages with fewer than 3,000 people but with more than one non-food store. I thought that, in considering amendment No. 2, it might be useful to consider some precise case studies which I conducted recently in my constituency in the aftermath of the foot and mouth crisis.
My constituency has three or four largeish towns, but about 60 villages that are precisely like those described in the Bill and which have been very severely affected by the crisis. [Interruption.] I am sure that the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) knows the Cotswolds and perhaps even those 60 villages very well from her time at Cheltenham Ladies college. Then again, perhaps Cheltenham Ladies college does not give its students sufficient away days to discover the area. It is a
As I said, we have 60 villages across my constituency, and they are precisely the type of place that has been affected by the foot and mouth crisis in tourism, especially because of the cancellation of Badminton and all the rest of it. They are precisely the types of places that would benefit from the Bill's provisions.
Immediately after the crisis began, I went round to those villages, taking with me 2,000 copies of a survey asking them exactly how bad they had fared in the aftermath of the foot and mouth crisis. I dished out the survey to pubs, cafes, garages and tourist shops in villages such as Castle Combe, which hon. Members may remember is the very famous village where they filmed "Dr. Doolittle", and Lacock, which is a very picturesque village. They are small villages with only two or three shops, some of which admittedly are antique shops. I have already heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford that the Government seem to have it in a bit for antique shops.
Although some of the shops sell antiques, most tend primarily to be a combination of the small tourist shop and the classic village shop. Confectionery is very important in that context, as people who go to Lacock, Castle Combe and Corsham like ice creams, for example. I should be interested to hear from the Minister whether ice cream is included in his definition of the word confectionery, which is excluded from the Bill. It seems sad to me that those confectionery shops, into which the tourists flock in Lacock to get their ice creams and sweeties to eat, will be excluded. If the village shop has the temerity to have a microwave to heat up the Cornish pasties so beloved of the tourists, it will be excluded, and that seems wrong to me.