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The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Phil Woolas): Following representations from my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) last July, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House asked the Procedure Committee whether it would look at the application of the sub judice resolution in respect of coroners' courts and advise on whether there should be some extension of the discretion allowed to the Chair. He welcomes the Committee's inquiry, and looks forward to its findings with interest.
Ms Keeble: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. Would he be prepared to give evidence to the Committee himself, particularly in regard to coroners' courts, where no one is on trial and there is usually no jury? It would be quite wrong, when no one's right to a fair trial is being infringed, for the sub judice rule to prevent MPs from asking questions about matters of acute general public concern.
Mr. Woolas: I congratulate my hon. Friend on her campaign on this issue, which is important to her constituents and to those of other Members. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will look carefully at her request regarding the Procedure Committee's inquiry. It is true that coroners' courts do not determine the guilt or innocence of individuals, but they do reach important findings, and there is perhaps a risk of prejudicing their proceedings through statements being made in the House. I am sure that the Procedure Committee will note what my hon. Friend has said, and that it will pay careful heed to the evidence that she has given.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Is the Deputy Leader of the House aware that the Procedure Committee, which I chair, is currently undertaking an inquiry into the sub judice rule and into matters relating to coroners' courts? The Committee plans to make its report to the House before Easter. May I also say to the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) that there is still time for right hon. and hon. Members to submit evidence directly to me or to the Committee Clerk and, if necessary, to request to give oral evidence in person?
I am sure that the whole House is grateful to the Committee Chairman for those remarks and for the inquiry that his Committee is undertaking. These are important matters because, when a coroner's inquest is adjourned, members of the public and Members of Parliament, through the House's resolutions on sub judiceare debarred from
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commenting on its proceedings. That is the difficult situation on which the Committee is being asked to make recommendations.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD): I welcome the current review, but is the Minister aware that much of this discussion took place in the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege back in 1999? Its report made a number of recommendations, including one that the two Houses of Parliament should bring the same rules into force, because there is an anomaly in regard to the way in which the sub judice rule is dealt with in each House. Does the Minister also recall the Committee's strong recommendation that
Mr. Woolas: I am aware of that report by the Joint Committee. Indeed, when my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House referred the request from my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North to the Procedure Committee, along with a request from the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, that request was copied to the Procedure Committee in the House of Lords, because of the important questions that it raises. For the two Houses not to act in tandem would create further complications and, perhaps, further injustice.
Sir Archy Kirkwood (representing the House of Commons Commission) : In its report on connecting Parliament with the public, the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons suggested that the United Kingdom Youth Parliament should be able to meet and debate occasionally in the Chamber when Parliament is not sitting. However, my hon. Friendif I may call him thatwill be aware that there is a long-standing convention in the House that Mr. Speaker shall have exclusive jurisdiction over the use of the Chamber.
Has the hon. Gentleman read the poll in today's edition of The Herald, which shows that 80 per cent. of young people aged between 16 and 20 surveyed are very interested in the politics of crime and punishment? Does he not think that that would be an excellent debate for the Youth Parliament to have in this very Chamber?
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Sir Archy Kirkwood:
I am aware, as is the Commission, of the need to try to engage greater interest among that age group in particular, and we are also aware of the valuable work of the United Kingdom Youth Parliament. The hon. Gentleman might not know that Committee Room 10 is already used very effectively by the education unit, and it is on a much
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more sensible scale for the number of youngsters often involved. I say to him in the spirit of compromisealthough we have to be careful about the practicalities and precedentsthat if the representatives of the United Kingdom Youth Parliament want to get in touch with the Commission and the education unit, I am sure that we will be able to promote their interests in a way that is beneficial to both parties.
Ms Debra Shipley, supported by Vera Baird, Alan Howarth, Geraint Davies, Mr. Andy Reed, Mr. Simon Thomas, Mr. Ernie Ross, Mr. Graham Allen, Mr. Paul Burstow, Mr. Paul Tyler, Angela Eagle and Mr. Robert Walter, presented a Bill to make provision regarding the marketing, promotion and sale of food and drink to and for children; to make provision for education and the dissemination of information about children's diet, nutrition and health; to place certain duties on the Food Standards Agency; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 8 April, and to be printed [Bill 56].
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require local authorities to develop plans to support small shops; to amend the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to impose additional planning requirements in relation to large shops and shopping centres; to make provision about retail purchasing by local authorities and other public authorities; to amend the Local Government Finance Act 1988 in relation to non-domestic rates for small shops and related business; and for connected purposes.
Small shops are at the very heart of our local communities, providing vital services to local residents and a wide choice of goods and services. A study produced by the Council for the Protection of Rural England in 1997 highlighted some of the most important functions provided by small shops, which can apply equally to small retailers in urban and rural environments.
The survey showed that small shops provide a lifeline for those in need, such as the elderly, the young and those without transport, and provide valuable opportunities for human contact. For some people on their own, particularly the elderly, the only conversation they may have all day is with the shop assistant in their local store, so the friendly and intimate experience of shopping in a small outlet is one that they particularly value. Just last week, I met a lady who sees that as a particularly important and satisfying part of her job, as do many such people.
Small retailers provide a market for local produce and suppliers, thus providing consumers with more choice and recycling money back into the local community, and they also provide important job opportunities in such communities. A report published by the Department of Health at the end of 1999 as part of the Government's neighbourhood renewal strategy summarises the important role that small shops play in poorer or isolated locations:
"Thriving local shops can provide employment for local residents and a pathway into new schools and training opportunities, can reduce crime and can improve health by providing a range of quality goods including food, at affordable prices."
In a 2002 report, "Ghost Town Britain: Death on the High Street", the New Economics Foundation revealed that between 1997 and 2002, specialist stores such as butchers, bakers and fishmongers shut at the rate of 50 per week. Assuming closures have continued at that rate, I would maintain that more than 20,000 specialist shops have closed since Labour came to power.
An increase in the number of local bank branches and post offices closing has also accelerated the decline of local shopping parades as consumers look elsewhere to access the financial and shopping facilities that they need, often in out-of-town shopping centres. In August, the New Economics Foundation launched its "Clone Town Britain" survey amid fears that Britain was becoming a nation of clone towns, suggesting that "identikit urban environments" and chain stores are squeezing out local identity and individuality.
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To some extent, those changes reflect developments in lifestyles and consumer tastes. Many of us, including me, appreciate the convenience of shopping at a supermarket or shopping centre and of meeting all our needs under one roof. Supermarkets in particular can provide shoppers with access to cheap food and goods, and competition between the major players is therefore of benefit to the consumer in helping to keep prices down. Currently, however, there are concerns about the consolidation of the grocery market by the larger supermarkets and about the operation of the supermarket code of practice, particularly in relation to the treatment of suppliers. That has led the Association of Convenience Stores, Friends of the Earth and others to call for a full market review by the Office of Fair Trading.
Research conducted on just over 1,000 consumers for the Association of Convenience Stores in October 2004 showed that 63 per cent. thought that the growth of supermarket-owned convenience stores gave consumers less choice about where to shop. Therefore, it seems that while people want the convenience and cheap goods that supermarkets provide, they also want the diversity and friendly service that small local retailers provide. That is why we must act to prevent a further decline in the sector.
My Bill seeks to address that by requiring local authorities to develop retail plans for their area, as proposed by the New Economics Foundation, building on proposals outlined under the Local Communities Sustainability Bill. That was highlighted in a report on small shops published by the Better Regulation Task Force in July 2001, which said that
"small retailers continue to have concerns that planning decisions that allow out of town stores to be built do not fully cost and assess the impact on local retailers and employment in the surrounding area."
Recently, in my constituency, I was approached by small retailers in one parade of shops who were extremely concerned about a planning application that had been submitted to site a supermarket express store in the area. Although those plans were subsequently rejected, it is imperative to ensure that local authorities take sufficient account of concerns raised by small retailers and consumers in reaching their decisions. Without the Bill, that cannot always happen. It is therefore imperative that we encourage local authorities to take a sustainable approach to economic planning and require them to consider both small retailers and consumers in their plans, including the need to ensure social inclusion and diversity in the retail sector. Such plans could be implemented in several ways, but it would ultimately be up to each local area to decide what worked best for it.
My Bill would also call for local competition policy, again as proposed by the New Economics Foundation. Normally, competition policy is addressed nationally, but it would be applied locally under my Bill. The national predominance of a chain is meaningless in deciding whether a supermarket will drive local shops out of business. Such an application of the law would also empower local communities to make decisions about the future of their areas.
Under the proposals, local communities would also have the final word in any decision on whether to allow the construction of a large shopping centre exceeding a
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certain size. My Bill would also implement the recommendation made by the New Economics Foundation to require local authorities to use tools such as those developed by the foundation to track local spending and then favour local retailers whose businesses ultimately leave more money recirculating in the local economy, especially in poor areas.
Finally, my Bill would also provide rate relief for shops and businesses with a rateable value of less than £25,000. The proposal would be revenue-neutral, with larger businesses required to cover the cost in accordance with an upward scale. Research published by the Department of the Environment in 1995 showed that business rates represented 30 per cent. of the profits on businesses with turnovers of less than £100,000more than twice the proportion for large businesses. The Government have acknowledged that that is a problem for retailers, and stated in their response to the Better Regulation Task Force report on small shops that
While the Government themselves have recognised the problem, their proposed rate relief scheme, which would provide relief for small firms with a rateable value of less than £10,000, will not do a great deal to address the problem. The Federation of Small Businesses has argued that the threshold is too low. Following the recent revaluation of commercial properties, it warns that many small shopkeepers may experience a considerable increase in their rates. It goes on to say that a shop in the south of England faces an average 29 per cent. increase in its rateable value, which could mean an increase of about £1,800 in the final rates bill.
My Bill seeks to address the effect of the recent revaluation and the disproportionate burden that business rates place on small shops by increasing the threshold at which rate relief is available for smaller retailers. The measures that I have proposed are essential if we are to ensure that there is no further erosion of Britain's independent retail sector, and I therefore commend the Bill to the House.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Brian Cotter, Malcolm Bruce, Mrs. Annette Brooke, Sue Doughty, Andrew George, Mr. Parmjit Singh Gill, Mr. Mike Hancock, Mr. David Heath, Dr. John Pugh and Sarah Teather.
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