Rating (Agricultural Premises and Rural Shops) Bill

– in a Public Bill Committee on 8th May 2001.

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[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Photo of Hilary Armstrong Hilary Armstrong Minister of State (Local Government and Housing), Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (Local Government) 10:30 am, 8th May 2001

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. The Bill is short, but we always need good chairing in Committee. I know that you will provide precisely that, and I hope that our proceedings will not mark the last occasion on which I work with you on a Bill in Committee.

I beg to move,


(1) in addition to the first sitting this day at half-past Ten o'clock, one further sitting, to be held this day at half-past Four o'clock, shall be allocated to the consideration of the Rating (Former Agricultural Premises and Rural Shops) Bill;

(2) the proceedings on the Bill shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at Ten o'clock this day.

The Programming Sub-Committee met at 10 o'clock. The resolution before us is simple, proposing that the Committee meets twice today and concludes consideration of the Bill by 10 pm. That is consistent with the programme motion to which the House agreed immediately after Second Reading on 30 April. The hon. Members for Ashford (Mr. Green) and for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) spoke against the programming motion then. However, they were co-operative this morning, so I hope that they will not detain the Committee too much on the motion.

We have 14 amendments and a new clause, marshalled into seven groups, to consider on this six-clause Bill. The resolution gives us about eight hours to consider them, which provides adequate time to debate the issues fully. I hope that it finds favour with the Committee.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I add my welcome to that of the Minister, Mr. Benton, as it is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. Given the stage that we are at, ours may not be the most difficult and turbulent Committee over which you have presided. [Hon. Members: ``Oh?''] I hear noises from my hon. Friends and the Liberal Democrats that suggest that I am wrong, so I shall bear that in mind.

It is almost a tradition and certainly a habit for Opposition spokesmen to say, as is true, that they want to scrutinise and improve the Bill without causing unnecessary delay. I assure the Committee that that has never been said as fervently and sincerely as I say it today.

As was clear on Second Reading, we are in favour of the principle of the Bill, which builds on legislation passed by the previous Conservative Government and makes an inadequate but small improvement. However, the Bill has weaknesses. We regret the fact that there are no Government amendments, given that hon. Members from both sides of the House suggested detailed improvements on Second Reading. I had hoped that the Government would take some of them up, but all the amendments have been tabled by Opposition Members.

Given the events happening outside the Room this morning, the remaining stages of the Bill are likely to be truncated further. With that in mind, we shall speed the Committee along as much as we can. In return, I hope that the Government show flexibility in the Bill's remaining stages, here and in another place, and meet by agreement our detailed suggestions for improvements to it.

Many businesses will be examining the effects of the Committee's decisions. I hope that one of the last Acts to be passed by this Parliament can afford them, in the best way possible, a small measure of relief. For that to happen, the Government will need to show a degree of flexibility and give and take during the remaining stages of the Bill. However, in the interests of good order, we have no desire to oppose the programming resolution.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Benton. This is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship.

My remarks will closely mirror those of the hon. Member for Ashford. Given likely events elsewhere today, I feel a little like the forgotten elements of the Japanese army—I am carrying on the war on some god-forsaken island in the Pacific while everyone else is concentrating on other things. None the less, the Bill is important. As I said on Second Reading, I regret that it was not introduced earlier. If it had been, it could have been properly considered by now; indeed, it could nearly have been on the statute book. I hope that it is not too late to ensure that it is put in place.

As the hon. Member for Ashford said, the Bill can be improved. We have tabled amendments, which we are intent on discussing. The Bill is welcome, but it has flaws. If we can improve it in the short time available, we shall be doing our jobs as parliamentarians. It would be more sensible for us to deal now with the substantive matters in the Bill rather taking a great deal of time to discuss the programming resolution.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

I rise briefly to welcome to you to the Chair, Mr. Benton, and to make one substantive point. When the Programming Sub-Committee met at 10 am, there was cross-party consensus about the fact that the Committee need sit no later than 10 pm. That came about because of a mysterious thing known colloquially as ``the usual channels''. In other words, the Committee's progress was agreed in the same way in which every Committee in the House has been for many years. This morning's meeting was entirely unnecessary and highlighted the absurdity of the programming system that the Government have put in place.

The other absurdity of the Programming Sub-Committee is that it is not recorded. It is, therefore, necessary for me to repeat the remarks that I made at the Programming Sub-Committee, so that they are recorded and those in authority might take note of them.

I am slightly less happy than my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford about the speed of our progress. The Committee is sitting in the last week of the Parliament, and there is a presumption that progress on the Bill will be accelerated. That makes detailed consideration even more important than during the normal progress of a Bill—in peace time, as it were. The time that we take to discuss the Bill will depend very much on the messages that the Opposition get from the Government on some of the important amendments and new clauses that we have tabled.

I hope that the programme is adequate. I have doubts about it, but I hope that we shall find ways to make it adequate. However, if the Government hope for the Bill to become law and for a reasonable degree of co-operation from the Opposition in hastening it through its remaining stages, they must carefully consider accepting at least some of the amendments.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

I remind the Committee that copies of the money resolution that is applicable to the Bill are available in the Room. Clause 1 Mandatory rate relief onformer agricultural premises