Standing Committee B
Tuesday 8 May 2001
[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]
The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. The Bill is short, but we always need good chairing in Committee. I know that you will provide precisely that, and I hope that our proceedings will not mark the last occasion on which I work with you on a Bill in Committee.
I beg to move,
(1) in addition to the first sitting this day at half-past Ten o'clock, one further sitting, to be held this day at half-past Four o'clock, shall be allocated to the consideration of the Rating (Former Agricultural Premises and Rural Shops) Bill;
(2) the proceedings on the Bill shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at Ten o'clock this day.
The Programming Sub-Committee met at 10 o'clock. The resolution before us is simple, proposing that the Committee meets twice today and concludes consideration of the Bill by 10 pm. That is consistent with the programme motion to which the House agreed immediately after Second Reading on 30 April. The hon. Members for Ashford (Mr. Green) and for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) spoke against the programming motion then. However, they were co-operative this morning, so I hope that they will not detain the Committee too much on the motion.
We have 14 amendments and a new clause, marshalled into seven groups, to consider on this six-clause Bill. The resolution gives us about eight hours to consider them, which provides adequate time to debate the issues fully. I hope that it finds favour with the Committee.
Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): I add my welcome to that of the Minister, Mr. Benton, as it is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. Given the stage that we are at, ours may not be the most difficult and turbulent Committee over which you have presided. [Hon. Members: ``Oh?''] I hear noises from my hon. Friends and the Liberal Democrats that suggest that I am wrong, so I shall bear that in mind.
It is almost a tradition and certainly a habit for Opposition spokesmen to say, as is true, that they want to scrutinise and improve the Bill without causing unnecessary delay. I assure the Committee that that has never been said as fervently and sincerely as I say it today.
As was clear on Second Reading, we are in favour of the principle of the Bill, which builds on legislation passed by the previous Conservative Government and makes an inadequate but small improvement. However, the Bill has weaknesses. We regret the fact that there are no Government amendments, given that hon. Members from both sides of the House suggested detailed improvements on Second Reading. I had hoped that the Government would take some of them up, but all the amendments have been tabled by Opposition Members.
Given the events happening outside the Room this morning, the remaining stages of the Bill are likely to be truncated further. With that in mind, we shall speed the Committee along as much as we can. In return, I hope that the Government show flexibility in the Bill's remaining stages, here and in another place, and meet by agreement our detailed suggestions for improvements to it.
Many businesses will be examining the effects of the Committee's decisions. I hope that one of the last Acts to be passed by this Parliament can afford them, in the best way possible, a small measure of relief. For that to happen, the Government will need to show a degree of flexibility and give and take during the remaining stages of the Bill. However, in the interests of good order, we have no desire to oppose the programming resolution.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Benton. This is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship.
My remarks will closely mirror those of the hon. Member for Ashford. Given likely events elsewhere today, I feel a little like the forgotten elements of the Japanese armyI am carrying on the war on some god-forsaken island in the Pacific while everyone else is concentrating on other things. None the less, the Bill is important. As I said on Second Reading, I regret that it was not introduced earlier. If it had been, it could have been properly considered by now; indeed, it could nearly have been on the statute book. I hope that it is not too late to ensure that it is put in place.
As the hon. Member for Ashford said, the Bill can be improved. We have tabled amendments, which we are intent on discussing. The Bill is welcome, but it has flaws. If we can improve it in the short time available, we shall be doing our jobs as parliamentarians. It would be more sensible for us to deal now with the substantive matters in the Bill rather taking a great deal of time to discuss the programming resolution.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): I rise briefly to welcome to you to the Chair, Mr. Benton, and to make one substantive point. When the Programming Sub-Committee met at 10 am, there was cross-party consensus about the fact that the Committee need sit no later than 10 pm. That came about because of a mysterious thing known colloquially as ``the usual channels''. In other words, the Committee's progress was agreed in the same way in which every Committee in the House has been for many years. This morning's meeting was entirely unnecessary and highlighted the absurdity of the programming system that the Government have put in place.
The other absurdity of the Programming Sub-Committee is that it is not recorded. It is, therefore, necessary for me to repeat the remarks that I made at the Programming Sub-Committee, so that they are recorded and those in authority might take note of them.
I am slightly less happy than my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford about the speed of our progress. The Committee is sitting in the last week of the Parliament, and there is a presumption that progress on the Bill will be accelerated. That makes detailed consideration even more important than during the normal progress of a Billin peace time, as it were. The time that we take to discuss the Bill will depend very much on the messages that the Opposition get from the Government on some of the important amendments and new clauses that we have tabled.
I hope that the programme is adequate. I have doubts about it, but I hope that we shall find ways to make it adequate. However, if the Government hope for the Bill to become law and for a reasonable degree of co-operation from the Opposition in hastening it through its remaining stages, they must carefully consider accepting at least some of the amendments.
Question put and agreed to.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that copies of the money resolution that is applicable to the Bill are available in the Room.
Mandatory rate relief onformer agricultural premises
Mr. Heath: I beg to move amendment No. 7, in page 1, line 5, at beginning insert
`(A1) Section 42A(3) of the Local Government Finance Act 1988 (rural settlement list) is amended, by leaving out paragraph (c).'.
The amendment takes advantage of the fact that the Bill amends the Local Government and Rating Act 1997which amended the Local Government Finance Act 1988in order to make a necessary adjustment to the present arrangements.
The present Act stipulates three conditions for qualification as a rural settlement. First, a settlement should be wholly or partly within the area of the authority making the rural settlement list. Secondly, it must appear to the authority to have had a population of not more than 3,000 on the last 31 December before the beginning of the chargeable financial year in question. Thirdly, in that financial year the settlement must be wholly or partly in an area designated by the Secretary of State by order as a rural area for the purposes of the section.
Thus there is a triple qualification that depends not only on the size and position of the settlementthe geographic or demographic components of ruralitybut on the political decision of a particular Secretary of State who, not entirely randomly, I hope, designates particular local authority areas. The result is an anomaly: settlements that cannot possibly be construed as other than ruralsmall villages surrounded by green fields, farming communitiesbut that have the misfortune to be in a district council or borough council area that is not considered rural by the Secretary of State, fall through the net.
That happened in relation to the original rate relief and to the hardship relief for foot and mouth. Why should a village not be a village simply because the Local Government Commission has chosen to draw a sufficiently wide boundary line around a conurbation or major town in order to declare it to be non-rural? My hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) illustrated that, as I mentioned on Second Reading, by drawing my attention to the position of villages in south Gloucestershire, which is not considered to be rural. His constituency is not considered to be ruralthe villages are not villages under the terms of the Actsolely because a Secretary of State decided that the suburban elements of the district cancelled out the size of the settlements that fell outside of those areas.
Mr. Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. The area in which my constituency lies, north Somerset, is suffering especially in the present foot and mouth crisis because it is not designated or seen to be a rural area. My hon. Friend makes a valuable and relevant point.
Mr. Heath: Is it not preposterous to suggest that north Somerset is not rural? It flies in the face of reason to tell anyone who has been on the high Mendips that that is not rural. There are no doubt Labour Members who have the same problem; they could have within their constituencies rural communities that are not classified as rural simply because of the present system.
The amendment would strike out the relevant condition. The Secretary of State could still intervenethere would be no problem with thatif a local authority were spuriously to classify a settlement as rural. There are plenty of ways in which that could be done. However, to suggest that simply because one individual asserts that a local authority area is not rural, then no community or farm within it is rural and none of the population is a rural dweller, seems an extraordinary state of affairs, which the amendment would rectify.
I commend the amendment to the Committee and, if the Minister is not minded to accept it in the terms in which it is drafted, I ask him to consider the means by which rural areas are identified by the Secretary of State. He should consider whether there is a case for identifying parts of those local authority areas that are not entirely rural in nature as rural for the purposes of this and similar legislation. At the very least, he should revise the present list, because it is entirely inadequate and is unfair to many people whom I think the House would wish to support.