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10.45 pm

Before we move on to the detail of the amendments, I shall share with the House the early results of my survey. So far I have only had 200 or 300 returned, but they are from exactly the sort of businesses that we are talking about. The people who replied say that year on year, their income has declined. In four consecutive weeks, first two, then another two, then four, then six, said that their income had declined by 100 per cent. compared with this time last year. Out of perhaps 100 returns so far, the income of about 10 per cent. of the shops had declined by 100 per cent. Others declare varying rates of decline.

A few comments from the survey might be useful. For example, Mr. and Mrs. Pask from the County Stores wrote:

Mr. Poole of the Wilts Printing Works wrote:

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and Mr. Ivory of the Old Dairy Saddlery in Tockenham wrote that he had laid off two people already. Kate Short, of the Blue Door Art Gallery--art galleries would not be covered, either--wrote:

Richard Bridge described

Those are a small sample of many such comments from all over the constituency. I shall ensure that the Minister has sight of the full results of the survey if he is interested, when I have them all in and have collated them. I fear that that may be after the election--so it may well be my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford to whom I will send those results, rather than the present Minister.

The exercise was a fascinating survey of precisely the kind of businesses that would benefit from the Bill. Specifically excluding stores other than food stores rips the whole heart out of the Bill. I am talking about sweet shops and antique shops of all kinds. People drop in and buy a few things, such as a present to take home with them. That sort of purchase is essential in places such as Wootton Bassett, Chippenham, Corsham and Lacock. People pass by, go and see the local tourist site, and then drop into a shop to buy something. That sort of purchase is essential to the people who are really suffering.

Those people were suffering even before the foot and mouth crisis, partly because of the cost of living in that part of the world. Now they are suffering terribly. We are not seeing the Americans, or the other passing tourists. The three big horse events in the area--the Badminton horse trials, which 250,000 people attend every year, the Cheltenham festival, and the Bath and West show--have all been cancelled. Hundreds of thousands of people who would normally have come into my area at about this time of year are not there. The little shops are suffering as a result.

That is why I welcomed the general thrust and purpose of the Bill, and liked the sound of its title when I first heard about it. It is only when one looks at it in more detail--it is a shame that we had less time than we should have had to consider it in Committee yesterday--that one finds that it excludes anything that is not a qualifying food store, and anything that sells confectionery or supplies food in the course of catering. Those seem to me major exceptions that wreck what would otherwise be a perfectly sensible Bill.

The Bill will go to the other place for further consideration tomorrow, and I know that many of the Members there will have stores such as those that I have described very much in mind. I therefore hope that by the time the Bill gets there tomorrow, the Minister will have listened carefully to those considerations and will think carefully about the amendments that my hon. Friends have tabled to clause 3. I hope that he will bear in mind the fact that the proposals in the consultation paper were made before foot and mouth, and although they may well have been reasonable at that time, things were not as bad in those days as they are now.

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In the light of the foot and mouth crisis, and the kind of catastrophe that is affecting businesses such as those that I have described in my constituency, I hope that--late as the hour is tonight, and early as it will be tomorrow in the other place--the Minister may yet consider expanding the terms of the Bill so that all the businesses that have been so badly affected by the foot and mouth crisis can be helped by the provisions of this otherwise perfectly reasonable Bill.

Mr. Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare): I also support the important amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green). It is difficult, in the light of the crisis in the countryside, to see why the rate relief assistance should be confined to food shops. The hon. Gentleman asked who are we to decide what sort of business will be important in the future or which areas may require certain types of business to be viable. For example, a small village by a canal may require a shop selling equipment for boating or fishing. Many villages need a chemist or hardware shop, because those goods are not always available in food shops. Information will be important in the future, and villages will require internet centres. Many other services could be vital. Jobs are also important: for example, a local potter or craftsman may wish to sell his products in a small shop in a village.

I hope that the Minister will seriously consider the amendments, because it seems unnecessary--in view of the small amount of relief that will be provided--to confine the relief to food shops. My village has a shop that sells small items of pine furniture and little items of an antique nature, and that is important to people locally and it keeps jobs in the rural community. I especially support amendment No. 4 and look forward to hearing the Minister's comments on it.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Robert Ainsworth): These four amendments concern the definition of food shops, to which the Bill will extend mandatory rate relief. Amendments Nos. 2, 3 and 5 would delete references to "food" in clause 3 and in the title of the Bill. On their own, they would have no practical effect, because a qualifying store would still be defined by reference to the sale of food. However, that would be altered by amendment No. 4, which would replace the definition of a food shop with a new order-making power to allow mandatory relief to any shop providing essential goods and services, as defined by the Secretary of State by order. That would have the effect of making the introduction of the Bill more complicated.

An order would still be required under the new power to extend mandatory relief to food shops other than the sole general store. As for other essential goods and services, mandatory relief can already be extended to them under the existing order-making powers, which we used recently to cover pubs and petrol stations. The hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) said that the purpose of his amendments was to improve the Bill but, as with other amendments he tabled in Committee, they would widen the scope of the proposals. The Bill is not intended to provide rate relief to all small businesses. It is intended as a measure to provide relief for shops providing essential food in small rural villages.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) said that there were 60 villages in his constituency. For one tantalising moment, I thought that he was going to give

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an example of one for which the provisions of the Bill would need to be extended. However, he went on to talk about shops serving the tourist trade, and about antique shops and sweet shops. The hon. Member for Weston- super-Mare (Mr. Cotter) spoke about internet services, potters and craft shops.

The Government aim to introduce measures to amend rates for all small businesses, and those matters remain to be discussed. Last year's rural White Paper dealt with the matters covered in the Bill, and commitments were made. The Bill allows us to address problems that we know exist in those small villages where the sole general store gets mandatory rate relief. Councils in rural areas feel obliged to extend concessionary rate relief to other food stores in those villages, and the Bill deals with that. It does not extend to non-essential small businesses, no matter how desirable they are.

If the Opposition believe that the Bill should extend wider, they must say how they would pay for that, given that they are committed to a programme of massive public spending cuts. Moreover, the previous Conservative Government introduced the national non-domestic rates system in 1990. Small businesses in rural communities have experienced crises for a long time, but the previous Government did absolutely nothing to help. They did not introduce a measure along the lines of the Bill, or any measure to deal with the problems encountered by sole general stores, pubs and petrol stations. The Conservatives believe the Bill to be inadequate, so why did they do nothing when they were in government?

Mr. Gray: I shall try to ignore the party political polemic into which the Minister has allowed himself to slip. The previous Government did not act in the way that he suggested for the simple reason that there was no foot and mouth disease outbreak during our period in office.

The Minister said that he thought that I had not mentioned any essential store in the countryside that would not be covered by clause 3. It may sound a little foreign to someone representing Coventry, North-East, but the horse industry is essential in my area. I mentioned Mr. Ivory's saddlery in the village of Tockenham, and I could have spoken about a horse supplier in Malmsbury for whom the cancellation of the various events that I mentioned earlier has caused great difficulty. The closure of paths has meant that no hunting is taking place, so businesses in the horse sector are in severe crisis. The Bill does not help them at all.

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