Rating (Agricultural Premises and Rural Shops) Bill

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Mr. Green: I am merely attempting to make concrete the problem of the definition of confectionery. I have adduced the microwave problem, and the hon. Gentleman has now introduced into the debate the Jaffa cake problem. It is a serious problem, and I hope that the Minister can clear it up.

Mr. Heath: I agree that Jaffa cakes are a significant problem. Are cake shops included? The country must be told, and I hope that the Minister will help us to do so. If he is not clear about the definitions, it might be better to support an amendment that eliminates the exclusion.

Amendment No. 4 deals with an ambiguity in the provision. [Interruption.] Although the Minister will assert that it does not exist, many hon. Members think that it does, including Labour hon. Members. [Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. It is difficult to hear the hon. Gentleman, as several conversations are being held in the Committee. If hon. Members must converse, they should do so sotto voce.

Mr. Heath: Thank you, Mr. Benton.

On Second Reading, there was some confusion about the provision. My amendment also addresses the great issue of microwaves—and also, possibly, that of Jaffa cakes—by seeking to make it clear that a business that covers the excluded areas in its trading will not be disqualified from the rate relief that would otherwise be granted.

At present, the provision is ambiguously phrased. Although it could be construed as Ministers wish, it could also be construed differently. If the words that I have suggested were added, there would be no doubt that only those companies that deal exclusively with confectionery—whatever that may be—or with catering, which is defined, would be excluded from the provisions of the Bill, and that, with regard to the general food store, including those retail enterprises within the main business would not be a disqualifying factor.

That is a sufficient explanation of the purpose of my amendments. I am also happy to support the amendments of the hon. Member for Ashford, as an unholy coalition has developed this morning, although I suspect that it will be short-lived.

Mr. Robert Ainsworth: The five amendments concern the extension of mandatory rate relief to all village food shops. Amendment No. 14 changes the overall definition of a food shop. Amendments Nos. 3, 4, 5 and 15 concern the exclusion of confectionery and catering from the definition of a food shop.

Amendment No. 14 would extend mandatory relief to any village shop that sold food as only a small part of its business. The clause would allow relief for any small business shop whose business is mainly—meaning more than half—the selling of food.

The hon. Member for Ashford represents the bright end of the Tory rainbow in the Committee, but the issue of the microwave on the side does not apply. That ensures that relief is given to shops that provide food to their local rural community. The amendment would allow any small shop in a village to exploit a loophole by selling a small amount of food: for example, an antique shop could become eligible for rate relief by selling the occasional can of beans.

Amendment No. 3 would delete from the definition of food shops the exclusion of confectionary and catering, allowing sweet shops, tea rooms, restaurants and takeaways to get mandatory rate money. The purpose of the relief is to ensure that isolated rural villages maintain the presence of services essential to the local community. Although businesses such as those referred to may bring economic benefits to a village, they do not provide essential community services such as the provision of basic food stuffs.

12.30 pm

Hon. Members have asked me whether a legal definition of confectionary exists. There is no such definition in law, but in 1968 there was a court case on purchase tax in which it was held not to include baked food. In that case, confectionary was described as any form of food normally eaten with the fingers and made by a cooking process other than baking, and which contains a substantial sweetening matter. I do not know whether that helps the Committee. The exclusion of confectionary was not included in the original legislation and has so far not presented a problem of interpretation for local authority officers.

I am a great supporter of businesses such as we are discussing. As hon. Members can probably see, I am a great supporter of the local chip shop, and it is not unknown for me to enter a confectionary premises or even, on the odd occasion, a restaurant. However, the legislation is not intended to provide a tax break for such businesses; it is supposed to assist shops providing essential services in small rural communities.

Amendment No. 15 would, similarly, extend mandatory rate relief to takeaway food shops, although sweet shops, tea rooms and restaurants whose main business was serving food on the premises would remain excluded from that relief.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome will be disappointed to hear that amendments Nos. 4 and 5 would make no practical difference to the effect of the Bill. Shops that are mainly food shops but have a subsidiary activity in the provision of confectionary or catering would qualify for mandatory relief under the Bill. There is no need to specify that the exclusion applies only to premises whose businesses are wholly or mainly involved in confectionary or catering, because that is already implicit in the requirement that the business is wholly or mainly for the sale of food, which allows any other activity in the smaller part of the business. Therefore, the clause allows for relief to the Jaffa cake syndrome or the microwave option. If the main business is the provision of food to a rural community, the business will be eligible for relief.

To accept the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Ashford would change the legislation, allowing for non-food premises selling the odd item of food to apply for relief. That is not the purpose of our proposals, so I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Heath: Before the hon. Member for Ashford gets to his feet, I should say that I expected the Minister to dismiss amendments Nos. 4 and 5. The difficulty lies simply in the wording—the issue is a semantic one of whether ``excluding'' qualifies the

    ``business consisting wholly or mainly''

of ``food for human consumption''. An exclusion normally refers to the immediately preceding item in the sentence, but not in this case. That is where the ambiguity lies, but I do not intend to press my amendments to a Division at this stage. I ask the Minister to reconsider the wording, to ensure that no ambiguities are present that could be misused.

Mr. Green: I merely observe that the Government seem to have it in for antique shops. Every time Ministers search for a definition of an evil business of the sort that they do not want to help—as the Minister did on Second Reading, and as the Under-Secretary has just done—they think of antique shops. I shall be drawing that fact to the attention of such shops during the next few weeks. I hope that the Government get what they deserve from that section of the community as well as from the many others who are looking forward to the election.

The serious point is that the Government seem to have a slightly old-fashioned view of the village store. As the Minister explained, they are seeking to close loopholes that allow shops to do other things, such as selling food on the side, as a way of gaining rate relief. Welcome though such relief may be, it is a relatively minor improvement to the viability of such businesses. The number of village retail outlets of all kinds has contracted over the years. It is therefore important that the various kinds of village shop should not be defined in legislation. The shops that survive will be much more wide ranging, but the Bill is marching in the wrong direction. The Government seem to want to segment village shops—some being virtuous and others, such as antique shops, not being virtuous—by saying that only certain shops will be acceptable.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman accuses us unfairly of being down on antique shops. He will know that local authorities are free to give discretionary relief to small businesses which they believe are beneficial to the local community. The Bill simply attempts to underpin the viability of basic food stores in small villages.

Mr. Green: Increasingly, the Bill will not do that. It is a wider issue. The village retail outlets that will survive will have to be more varied, and the more pressure they are under the more varied they will have to become. The problem with the restrictions imposed under the Bill is that they face backwards, not forwards.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is the Government's declared intention greatly to increase the amount of business done in village stores on the internet. That is one way in which they can maintain their profitability and viability, but at what point does business in hyperspace become ``wholly or mainly'' part of that business?

Ms Armstrong: When it is an essential service.

Mr. Green: From a sedentary position, the Minister says that it is when it becomes an essential service. Under the Bill, however, if it is an essential service other than a food retailer, it will lose the relief. The Minister has shot herself in the foot. The Government are being unnecessarily petty in seeking to close loopholes; in deciding what village shops will have to do to survive, they are opposing the march of progress.

We have aired an important matter. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 4 and 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6

Short title, commencement and extent

Mr. Green: I beg to move amendment No. 8, in page 3, line 31, leave out from `force' to second `the' in line 32 and insert

    `, in relation to England, on 30th October 2001, and, in relation to Wales, on such day as'.

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