In view of the importance of the matter to small businesses and shops in rural Wales, why has there been only a five-week consultation period? Why have organisations that represent people who live in rural Wales, such as the young farmers clubs, Merched y Wawr and women's institutes, not been invited to comment? Will the Minister give an assurance that, in view of the inconsistencies in the definition of rural area, whereby areas such as Ruabon, Llanwern, and Margam are defined as rural, but areas such as Llanrug, Felinheli, and Criccieth are not—which must be wrong—he will look at the definition again and ensure that businesses such as bakeries and rural pharmacies are included in the provisions so that they have a future in rural Wales?
The original list of consultees was extensive. The hon. Gentleman will agree that, in view of all the publicity for the rural White Paper, it would be surprising if any group that wanted to put forward its opinion was not aware of the matter. Any group that has sought a copy of the document will have been provided with one by the Welsh Office.
As to the hon. Gentleman's latter point, our proposals envisage covering 519 communities—84 per cent. of the land area of Wales. In addition to the definition that we have used, which is the only accepted definition that originates from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, we propose to define a further 17 appropriate communities, which would bring in settlements such as Newcastle Emlyn, Usk and Bala. I am aware of the settlements that he mentioned, and we will consider them as part of the consultation process, but no other respondent has made a similar point.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the 50 per cent. relief scheme for shops and post offices will be widely welcomed throughout Wales, covering, as it does, 84 per cent. of the land area? Has he had the full endorsement of the Opposition parties or are they, as I suspect, about to hijack the proposal for electioneering purposes? Will he confirm that some thousands of small businesses in Wales already receive transitional relief as a result of the revaluation last year?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, especially about the welcome that has been given to the proposals. He is too optimistic in imagining that we will hear much about policy from the Opposition. The principal Opposition party is most nervous about giving any details about anything until it has become well-established Conservative policy. I doubt whether Plaid Cymru's policy of local income tax and extra corporation tax will sit at all well with small businesses in Wales.
When he analyses the responses to the consultation, will the Minister examine the undoubted decline in private ownership of shops in towns and villages in rural Wales? Does he recognise that, once the consultation is completed, the introduction of rate relief, especially for village post offices, is urgent, because they continue to close and villages are losing their services?
The hon. and learned Gentleman and I are of like mind about the importance and desirability of making progress on that matter. He will welcome our latest planning guidance. which is equally relevant to village shops and other rural businesses, and in which we have introduced a sequential test for local authorities when they consider out-of-town shopping developments. They should consider in-town, edge-of-town and then out-of-town developments. That is much more succinct than the extant guidance.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. He makes that point most appropriately. Small businesses in Wales are worried, as are the people whom they employ. They know that the Opposition's policy of a minimum wage and the social chapter could increase unemployment in Wales by between 40,000 and 80,000, which, at the top end, would almost double unemployment in Wales.
Perhaps the Minister should concentrate on the present and leave the future to us. Why is he answering this question when, last week, the Welsh Office put out a press release that said that all rural affairs were being pulled into one portfolio and that the Minister responsible would be the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans)? Perhaps that is another unforced reorganisation in the Welsh Office. On rural affairs, does he share our concern about reports such as that by Peter Midmore of Aberystwyth university that the immediate, direct cost of bovine spongiform encephalopathy to the rural economy would be the loss of 1,000 jobs and £80 million of production? We want an urgent debate on the crisis and, in particular, an opportunity to examine the Government's response to it. Why is the Welsh Office so reluctant to give in to our calls for a meeting of the Welsh Grand Committee? Do the Government not understand the seriousness of the situation in rural Wales or are they running away for fear of answering for their policies?
I am amazed at the hon. Gentleman's claims. I am answering the question under the basic premise of my day-to-day responsibility, under the Secretary of State, for local government financial matters.
As for the hon. Gentleman's second question, I do not have the study that he mentions before me, but I certainly share his concern about the scale of the problem, which is betokened by the fact that the Government have already committed more than £1 billion to respond to the problems faced by our farmers and everyone else involved. The hon. Gentleman asked about the Welsh Grand Committee. There is certainly no reluctance on the part of the Government to have a meeting on the subject that he mentions—or on any other subject—but what we find difficult to understand is why Labour Front-Bench spokesmen are trying to eliminate the rights of Back Benchers at such a meeting of the Welsh Grand Committee.