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Rating (Former Agricultural Premises and Rural Shops) Bill Programme (No. 2)

9.36 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Robert Ainsworth): I beg to move,

The motion gives the House two hours to complete consideration of this small but important Bill. It was considered in Committee yesterday morning, and the Committee completed its line-by-line consideration in just under two and a half hours. This evening, the House has only one group of amendments to consider. I hope that all hon. Members will agree that two hours will allow sufficient time for a full debate of the issues before the Bill is sent on to another place.

I urge hon. Members to agree the motion, so that we can begin consideration of the amendments.

9.37 pm

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): Few Bills, other than those covering genuine emergencies, can have had so little time devoted to them in Committee or on the Floor of the House as has been devoted to this measure. I remind the House that the Prime Minister promised this Bill on 30 March 2000. It did not have a Second Reading until a week ago, so we have already suffered a long delay because of the Government's incompetence in turning the Prime Minister's promise into a Bill.

As the Minister said, the Committee yesterday had only two and a half hours--

Mr. Ainsworth: We had all day but did not need it.

Mr. Paice: The Minister says from a sedentary position that the Committee had all day but did not need it, but, if he were to be frank, he would acknowledge that some matters received extremely cursory attention because of the pressure to make progress, as I shall describe in a moment.

Mr. Jim Dowd (Lord Commissioner to the Treasury): The hon. Gentleman was not there.

Mr. Paice: I may not have been in the Committee, but I am perfectly able to read the Hansard report of the sitting. I have done so, but I suspect that the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd) has not.

The Opposition have supported the principle behind the Bill, as we made clear on Second Reading--indeed, I called for this measure three years ago--but the Government are again confusing support for a principle with support for the detail of a measure.

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Many matters arise from the Bill with which the Opposition do not agree, some of which were considered yesterday, such as the definition of rural areas and rural businesses and the level of rateable value. In respect of the latter, the Government advanced rather obscure arguments in favour of the figure of £6,000, but a figure of £9,000 for pubs and petrol stations appeared in secondary legislation only two or three weeks ago. Considerable concern has been expressed about how a shop should be defined. That is the subject of the amendments that we shall debate shortly, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) will move. There was much discussion on Second Reading about the definition of a shop, the fact that takeaway food and confectionery were excluded and what percentage of the business those items could account for if the exclusion was to have effect.

There is also the issue of the Bill's impact on existing businesses. The equestrian sector--riding schools, livery stables, stud farms and many other equestrian activities--will be greatly affected.

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is debating the Bill, but we are on the programme motion.

Mr. Paice: I am endeavouring to explain why I do not believe that there is sufficient time under the motion, Mr. Speaker, but of course I heed your admonition.

The equestrian sector of rural industry will be seriously affected, yet when the Bill was in Committee yesterday, that sector was debated for only 10 minutes. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) moved an amendment and, almost in the same breath, was persuaded to withdraw it, without any substantial debate having taken place. Yet it has been said on Second Reading and in Committee that the Bill will affect equestrian businesses because the existing businesses, which receive no rate relief other than the traditional stud farm relief--introduced by the previous Government, I am pleased to say--will be competing with new equestrian businesses that will secure the rate relief under the Bill. Nothing in the Bill as it stands corrects that unfair situation. No one could contend that the 10 minutes of debate that this subject received in Committee yesterday was adequate to deal with what everyone accepts is a substantial rural business--indeed, it is the second largest rural business after farming.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about equestrian businesses. In retrospect, I regret that I was weak enough to accept the rough looks that I was receiving across the Floor. Labour Members had heard that the Prime Minister had gone to Buckingham palace and were so excited by this momentous event that they were determined that the Committee's proceedings would end by lunchtime. In retrospect, I wish that we had given the subject much more time during the afternoon. Not only are these immensely important issues for the countryside, but the rates charged for equestrian businesses are extremely complicated and would have benefited from detailed examination.

Mr. Paice: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As he knows, I have taken a close interest in the industry ever

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since I have been a Member of this House because of my constituency involvement with the racing industry. It is a very important sector of the rural economy.

My hon. Friend was persuaded to curtail debate yesterday to some 10 minutes, which he now regrets.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): I was talking only today to someone who runs an equestrian centre. The industry is suffering hugely because of the foot and mouth crisis, with bridleways being closed. The lady to whom I spoke is going out of business.

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is talking about the Bill, not the programme motion.

Mr. Leigh: I was just going to say--

Mr. Speaker: I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was just going to say anything.

Mr. Paice: I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) will seek to catch your eye later, Mr. Speaker, and may be able to debate the Bill in more detail. A lot of points will need to be made on Third Reading.

The programme motion deals not only with amendments but with the time allocated for Third Reading. My hon. Friends the Members for North Wiltshire and for Gainsborough, who obviously have cogent and important points to make on Third Reading, may be prevented from doing so by the timetable motion.

Mr. Robert Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman has, among other things, suggested that there was not sufficient time to debate the Bill in Committee. He said that he has read Hansard, despite not being in the Committee. I refer him to the point in the Committee's proceedings when the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) said that there was cross-party consensus that no more time was needed beyond 10 pm. I remind the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) that the Committee finished before 1 pm.

Mr. Paice: The Minister falls into his own trap. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire said that there was consensus that there was no need to go beyond 10 pm, yet the business was curtailed at 12.55 pm, which shows that he was right that those matters should have been debated in Committee until 10 pm last night, but were not.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Is not the Minister making the error, which Ministers habitually make on these occasions, of supposing that the adequacy of consideration in Committee is synonymous with adequacy of consideration on the Floor of the House? I did not have the good fortune to serve on the Committee. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need adequate time to justify our inclusive approach in relation to these matters, compared with the rather narrow, undesirable, priggish exclusivity of the Government?

Mr. Paice: The only aspect of my hon. Friend's intervention to which I would take exception is the

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generality with which he used the word Minister. I would say "Ministers of this Government" because, although my hon. Friend was not in the House at the time, I can assure him that Ministers in the previous Government did not adopt that approach.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), I did have the honour to serve on the Committee. Does my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) agree that, in tune with what the Father of the House said earlier this afternoon, the true scrutiny role of the House should be performed on the Floor of the House rather than in Committee on an upper corridor?

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