My hon. Friend makes a good point. That has exacerbated the position for small businesses.
While the market mechanism has responded in boom conditions, it has completely failed to respond to recession. In a free and fair market, rents for leasehold premises should have taken account of all the relevant economic factors and fallen accordingly. Instead, they have defied the laws of economic gravity, remaining on top of the outrageously high plateau they had reached in 1990, while the spending power of their customers has been gutted. The market, it appears, is neither free nor fair.
It is a chilling fact that, if sales grow at an annual level of between 0 per cent. and 4 per cent., in line with the Government's target for inflation, it will take up to 15 years for that growth in sales to catch up with the increased rents that most small businesses now pay—provided that there are no further rent increases. Many businesses will not survive for that long.
There are three roots to what is, essentially, economic dyspepsia. I want to draw each of them briefly to the Minister's attention, since urgent reform is, I believe, essential if any sort of future for hundreds of small businesses in my constituency—and, indeed, countrywide—is to be secured.
The first is the iniquitous upwards-only clause—a remnant, long overdue for abolition, from the days of double-digit inflation. At a time when one of the main challenges facing the Government is how to adapt to a new age of falling prices and disinflation, it seems utterly ludicrous that rents, unlike any other commodity, and, as we all know, unlike house prices, can move upwards only and are prevented from falling to reconcile demand with supply—the very core of the market mechanism.