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Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman's prejudices extend far and wide, from my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) to Coventry. They know no bounds.

The hon. Gentleman suggests that the only reason that the previous Government did nothing was because they did not have a foot and mouth outbreak. What about the numbers of village schools, post offices and essential village shops that closed when the previous Government were in power, during which time they did nothing?

The Bill is not about foot and mouth. The Government have introduced other measures to deal with the problems of foot and mouth, such as hardship rate relief, deferred rate payments and reductions in rateable value to reflect temporary reductions in property values. This measure seeks to underpin essential services for people living in

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small rural communities, and I should have thought that it was in the interests of the Opposition to give it their support and allow it to pass through. To do so, they should withdraw these unnecessary amendments.

11 pm

Mr. Green: The Minister's speech was extraordinary. He started by ignoring the fact that everyone on the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Benches thought that this was a sensible group of amendments. As he ploughed through his speech, he realised that that was an unprofitable road to go down, so he went on to say that the Government did not want to accept the amendment because it was not part of the Bill's original intention. That is fair enough. Of course it was not--that is why the Bill needs to be amended and improved. That is the purpose of amendments.

We are not arguing about why it might be better, as the Minister said, to leave the Bill as it was. The Minister simply referred to the original intention of the Bill and to what was promised in the rural White Paper, but he will recognise that circumstances have changed and worsened radically over the past 12 months since the White Paper's publication. A more generous response may be needed now, even if the Government thought, in good faith, that their response was adequate when they published that White Paper. So that argument was not particularly convincing.

Least convincing of all was the early statement in the Minister's speech, which he returned to at the end, about the purpose of clause 3 and about the reliefs being introduced to help shops that provide essential goods or services. Those are precisely the words used in amendment No. 4. I took them from the phrase that the hon. Gentleman and the Minister for Local Government and the Regions used repeatedly on Second Reading and in Committee. They said that the underlying purpose of the rate reliefs proposed in clause 3 was to help preserve the provision of essential goods and services in rural areas. It seemed to me not incompatible with the Government's aims to insert an amendment that would make that explicit, thus making the scope of the Bill's provisions wider and more generous.

Mr. Leigh: Traditional food shops in small villages have had to diversify. They cannot remain in business simply by selling food. We are really talking about gesture politics. How many village shops in rural areas and small villages will the Bill help? It will not provide the means by which village shops can be saved, because they have already had to diversify.

Mr. Green: My hon. Friend makes the powerful point that sensible and forward-looking village shops are already diversifying. The purpose of the amendments is to highlight that future generations of village shops may be very different animals, providing a different range of essential goods and services--to use the phrase that the Minister used several times.

The provision of essential services should be at the root of what we are trying to do. The purpose of the modest amendments is to enable the Government to achieve what they say are their own ends, but clearly they reject

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that idea. I sensed that, with characteristic honesty, the Minister accepted that his arguments were not going well because he resorted to cheap, party political polemic, which had been notably absent from our discussions of the Bill at every stage. I took it as a compliment on the standard of the arguments that have been made from those on the Opposition Benches that the Minister could not make any points in argument against what Conservative Members and the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Cotter) have said, and had to resort to party political insults.

I very much regret the tone and content of the Minister's response, but we are seeking to make progress with the Bill, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Order for Third Reading read.

11.5 pm

Mr. Robert Ainsworth: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

This is a short but useful Bill. We have had an opportunity to debate its two substantial measures, and the wider issues that they raise, at Second Reading last week, in Committee yesterday, and again today. I am grateful to hon. Members for their co-operation in ensuring the Bill's rapid passage. We all want the benefits that it will bring to rural businesses to be in place as soon as possible.

The Bill will provide help to farmers who wish to diversify, and to village food shops and the communities that they serve. In both cases, it will reduce their costs by cutting their rate bills by at least 50 per cent.

These measures must not be viewed in isolation. They are part of our wider policies to support farming and rural communities. They arise from last year's action plan for farming and the rural White Paper, which are delivering further support to those communities.

The measures in the Bill were originally proposed last year. They are not specifically in response to the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, but the assistance that they will provide to farmers and to village food shops will now be even more welcome to those rural businesses. I commend the Bill to the House.

11.7 pm

Mr. Green: I am grateful for the Minister's generous words about Opposition Members' co-operation during the Bill's rapid passage through the House. Of course we have co-operated with the measure, because the Conservative party is the party that represents the British countryside and those who live and seek to have their livelihood within it. If there were any last scintilla of doubt attending on that proposition, I would merely point out to the House that throughout this Parliament there has been a group called the Labour rural group of MPs, which claims to be 168 strong, and of those 168 champions of rural Britain, none, as far as my memory serves me, has contributed to our debate over the past couple of hours. That tells us all that we need to know about the attitude of those Labour Members who seek to represent rural constituencies.

As we reach the Bill's final stage in the House, Opposition Members have continued to make what we genuinely believe are constructive suggestions to make

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the Bill more generous and practical and to widen the scope of its provisions. It would then provide more assistance than the modest amount of help it currently offers.

Given that, in Committee, the Minister and his colleague the Minister for Local Government and the Regions said that several of the suggestions that Conservative Members had made were in principle worth looking at, it is genuinely disappointing that we have not seen a single Government amendment during the course of this week. The Government are aware of the pressure points that we have identified and the improvements that could be made to the Bill.

We in the Opposition have worked very hard. Despite the very fast passage of the Bill--its stages have been taken on successive days--we have tabled amendments at every stage. Given the resources available to the Government, I cannot believe that it would have been beyond their ken to do the same and make some of the improvements that, I suspect, they will realise need to be made. I am not speaking exclusively about the amendments tabled by Conservative Members. We voted in favour of one amendment that was tabled in Committee by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). Sadly, he is no longer in his place, which is a shame because I wish to pay him tribute for moving that extremely sensible amendment. I wish to do so not least because I suspect that it would be a valedictory tribute given that we do not expect him to grace our debates after the general election.

Mr. Gray: When my hon. Friend mistakenly referred to the fact that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) was no longer in his place earlier this evening, the hon. Gentleman reacted with anger and bitterness, saying that my hon. Friend's comments were disgraceful and that he had been here, but was speaking to Mr. Speaker. We now find that the hon. Gentleman has gone home to bed. Is that not disgraceful?

Mr. Green: My hon. Friend makes his point. I have no desire to criticise the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Cotter rose--

Mr. Green: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. We are getting slightly off the subject, so perhaps it is as well to remind the House that, on Third Reading, we should discuss what is in the Bill, not what is not in it.

Mr. Green: I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for that guidance. The Bill would have been improved if the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome had been accepted in Committee. I shall happily give way if the hon. Member for Weston- super-Mare (Mr. Cotter) still wishes to intervene, but I am making no personal criticism of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome; I am simply saying that he will lose his seat to his Conservative opponent.

This small and modest Bill will do some important things, but everyone admits that it is relatively insignificant compared with the scale of the problem that

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faces those who seek to make and preserve their livelihoods in rural Britain today. As we know, the Bill will introduce 50 per cent. mandatory rate relief for five years for land and buildings that had previously been used for agricultural purposes. The relief will be limited to properties with rateable values of less than £6,000. The Bill will extend the 50 per cent. mandatory rate relief on sole rural shops and post offices, which was introduced by the previous Government, contrary to the slightly wild statements that the Minister made previously. Again, it states that those shops must have a rateable value of not more than £6,000.

I repeat that we support the Bill in principle because it will provide some small help, but there are many problems and criticisms, the bulk of which relate to the Bill's basic details. First, as has been said several times during the debates, the limit on the rateable value of less than £6,000 is inconsistent with the Government's view of small businesses in other parts of the economy.

The Minister made the point in an earlier debate that the relief was supposed not to be general, but targeted on small businesses. Yet it is targeted on businesses with a rateable value of less than £6,000, whereas small businesses are defined in the most recent Green Paper on the subject from the Department of Trade and Industry as those with a rateable value of less than £8,000. Four years on, we are still not being treated to the joined-up government that we were promised.

The DTI and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions evidently take a fundamentally different view of what constitutes a small business. Regrettably, when dealing with the small business sector that faces the worst crisis of any of the crises faced by small businesses--those attempting to survive in rural areas--those in the DETR have chosen a less generous definition of such businesses than their colleagues in the DTI. The Minister will be aware that that is inadequate.

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