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Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury): Is not the main offence of the Bill that it gives the impression that the Government are doing something for the countryside and for rural England following the foot and mouth disaster when practically nothing is being done? The bottom line is all spin and no substance. Will my hon. Friend make sure that he explains to the House what the Conservative Government will do to help rural shops and rural village post offices? [Interruption.] In the coming weeks, it will be extremely helpful for rural England to know exactly what we are offering to it in clear contradistinction to the Government, who are all spin and no substance.
Mr. Green: Let me cheer up my hon. Friend and, indeed, the Minister, who was shouting from a sedentary position, by explaining not only our proposals for helping village shops and other businesses under threat from the Government, but where the money would come from. I made the point that these small steps are welcome, but they are inadequate.
The House has spent time dealing with the detailed problems in the Bill, but it is important that we deal with the Bill's sins of omission, namely those provisions that would improve the Bill and that we have urged on the Government. The House will be aware--the Minister certainly is--that a Conservative Government would save money by abolishing the regional development agencies and the regional assemblies that add layers of bureaucracy to political life in this country without providing benefits to rural or urban areas. Some of the money that we would save by doing that would be used for our practical proposals to help businesses in the countryside. We are about substance and not spin, so we would use the money sensibly.
For example, there are just under 10,000 post offices in rural areas. At present, under this Government, they are closing at a rate of nearly two a day. We propose to cut an average of £1,000 from their business rates, with many of the most vulnerable paying no business rates under our proposals. On the specific issue of rural shops, we propose a similar cut of £1,000 in the business rate for a shop serving a particular local community.
The advantage of our proposals--which we will also extend to vulnerable garages and pubs in rural areas--is that the funding will not put any pressure on local authority funding in the way that the Government's proposals do. That point has been made by several Conservative Members, and it is vital because, in many rural areas, small district councils are already under extreme financial pressure. If those councils are to give help to the vulnerable businesses that, I suspect, all Members want to help, they will be under great pressure to cut essential services or increase council tax to unacceptable levels. Our proposals are better for small businesses and for small district councils.
We also have detailed proposals for the equestrian industry, which has so far been very unhappy with the Government's proposals. Several of my hon. Friends speak with passion and great expertise on the subject of the equestrian industry and I am sure that the House will
To help farm diversification, we have also suggested slashing the bureaucratic obstacles that make diversification so expensive and difficult for farmers. As the Minister has pointed out, we are all aware of the need to balance environmental protection with the business needs of rural areas. That is why we have proposed much greater devolution of planning decisions to local levels where decisions can be made in the full knowledge of local environmental conditions. In the end, decisions will be taken by the people who have to live with the consequences of them rather than by remote Ministers and bureaucrats in Whitehall. Within that general pattern, we believe that genuinely redundant farm buildings of up to 1,500 sq ft can be allowed to be used for commercial purposes, allowing small-scale non-farming operations.
We also think that it is a shame that the Government are missing a huge opportunity with this Bill. We have made proposals for emergency interest-free loans to relieve the cash flow problems of rural businesses affected by the foot and mouth crisis. By contrast, the Government's proposals under the small firms loan guarantee scheme involve a complex and lengthy application procedure and, even more important, charge interest rates of 8.75 per cent. Small rural businesses affected by cash flow problems simply cannot afford to take on new interest-bearing loans, especially when the interest payable on those loans is higher than the interest that they pay on existing loans from their own banks. Our proposals--which, sadly, the Government have neglected to take up in this Bill--would provide businesses with an essential cushion to get them over the problems of the next few months. It is a terrible wasted opportunity that they have not been included in the Bill.
The Minister will be aware that the Bill does little to tackle some of the unfairnesses that are emerging from the crisis in the countryside. There is unfairness between England and Wales about the size of the ceiling for emergency rate relief--the figure is £12,000 in England, but £50,000 in Wales. There is a potential unfairness built into this Bill between businesses set up more than 12 months ago as farmers tried to diversify and businesses that will be set up under the Bills's provisions. There is unfairness in the discretionary element of the rate relief available, simply because some local authorities will be able to afford it better than others and big authorities will have an advantage over smaller ones.
The Bill is better than nothing, but it is less good than it should be. It offers a small degree of palliative care to some extremely fragile businesses. We will do everything we can, within the bounds of proper parliamentary scrutiny, to ensure that the small amount of relief that it proposes is available to businesses as soon as possible. However, we have proposed a set of measures that would make a real difference to hard-pressed farmers and struggling small businesses in rural areas and provide some hope in the current catastrophe facing the British countryside. I welcome these small steps by the Government, but I urge them to adopt some of our more radical proposals before it is too late.
Mr. Peter Temple-Morris (Leominster): It is a pleasure for me to participate in the debate. Although it is not for me to estimate the exact date of a certain event, I suspect that this speech will be something of a swan-song. Although the Bill is not extensive in itself, it is very much to do with wider rural questions and the wider rural package that the Government have proposed, so it is perhaps fitting that the hon. Member for Leominster--whatever side of the House he might sit on at the present time--should speak in a rural debate.
Indeed, I was flattered that the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green), who speaks for the Opposition, should remark on my conscientious presence in the Chamber throughout the Minister's speech. I was here not necessarily as a Labour Member of Parliament, although I am very proud to be such; I was here for my constituency. I have always sought--as, I think, the hon. Gentleman knows--to represent my constituency from this side of the House in exactly the same, I hope, conscientious way as I did from the other.
I shall talk a little about my constituency because it more than qualifies me to make the comments that I shall make. The most encouraging thing that the hon. Gentleman did was not to approach the matter in a party political knockabout way, and I compliment him on that. It is utterly proper that the Opposition should make proposals, although I do not know how they would pay for them in the context of their overall commitments, but I shall not be distracted on to that matter. The important thing is that he has done what, in essence, he had to do--welcome the principle of the Bill. He said that it is a step in the right direction. I would add that, as my right hon. Friend the Minister made very clear, the Bill is part of a package, virtually every element of which is subject to review.
Another point to consider before we reach any closing debate on such issues is that we are dealing with very wide matters involving agriculture, foot and mouth disease, the environmental aspects of rural areas and the benefits, or otherwise, to those who live in them. In this regrettable and tragic outbreak, there is a need to reach a conclusion so that we can understand and, to an extent, quantify the damage before taking any final decision on what help is given and, incidentally, what help goes where. We should have a vigorous debate on the balance of rural and environmental support, defining each in the context of the other, and so on.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman would agree that a thorough review must take place when we are over the immediate tragedy, and I dare say that it will have to go well beyond FMD, although FMD nationally and internationally will form an integral part of it. However, we must undoubtedly review the support in that context. I welcome the Bill because people will increasingly go out of small farming--perhaps regrettably, but necessarily--and into rural business. That aspect of the Bill is commendable.