HC Deb 02 July 1997 vol 297 cc219-34

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Betts.]

9.47 am
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

May I take the House back to the less contentious issue of high street shops? I am grateful to the Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry for coming to the House to spend some time on these important matters. The issue may not be highly charged politically—and I do not want to make a highly charged party political speech of any kind—but it is important, early in the new Parliament, to recognise that there are problems facing small family retail businesses, particularly in the high street, throughout the United Kingdom. It is also an appropriate day to raise the matter, because the Budget may have significant ramifications and consequences for small retail businesses. The Minister has time to nip across the street before lunch and insert the odd paragraph in the Chancellor's speech. The importance of the financial or economic context in which small retail businesses must survive should be recognised.

At the time of the election, going around my constituency in south-east Scotland, I was struck by the number of people who were concerned about the blight that they felt was beginning to affect some high streets. They spoke of the acute need for support for the built environment throughout the nation. When I made further inquiries, I was surprised to find that that feeling existed not just in south-east Scotland, but throughout the country.

The Government said in their election manifesto that they were anxious to give small businesses a major role, and I hope that the Minister will recognise that retail shops are an important part of the small business sector. I am not talking about rural or village shops, or post offices; their needs were addressed in the previous Parliament. Nor am I thinking of shops in small towns. In the previous Parliament, the Select Committee on Trade and Industry produced a valuable report on larger conurbations; we await the Government's response, which I hope will be positive and will give succour to small retail shops. I am more concerned about small communities—market towns such as eight or nine in my constituency, including Hawick, Kelso and Jedburgh—containing between 5,000 and 15,000 people. The economic centre of such a community is its high street, where historically—for centuries, in many instances—the retail sector has existed.

Those high streets are the backbone of the local community, functioning as a social meeting place as well as providing retail goods. People need a place where they can meet and exchange news, views and gossip. Social intercourse is as important to the local community as the business that is done in the high street. In my constituency, there is a real danger of blight in such areas. Blight is a pretty drastic word, but the situation is now serious.

Once the problem had been drawn to my attention, I took note of what had happened in the recent past. One of the difficulties that bedevil the Government relates to the collection of statistics about, for instance, turnover and closures. There are some statistics—small newsagents have been monitored carefully by their trade association, and the community pharmacy campaign has been investigating individual sectors—but I suspect that the Government will find it hard to establish the way in which the trends are developing and the problem is building up.

There is anecdotal evidence, however. Anyone who wanders along the high streets of the United Kingdom will see that the atmosphere of diversity, wealth and colour is not what it was. Most premises are occupied either by banks and other financial institutions or by off-licences, which are doing very well. I know that the Government are concerned about that. There is an increasing number of charity shops, which is also causing concern.

The reasons for what is happening are many, varied and complicated. As I said at the outset, the Budget is an important part of the equation: the economic climate is a vital aspect. In my area, there are signs that things are beginning to pick up. Long may that continue, and I hope that the Government will use this afternoon's Budget statement as an opportunity to promote such developments.

Sociological factors are also having a dramatic effect on the high streets. Increased mobility enables people to travel further in order to shop and I fear that the situation will get worse before it gets better. Competition from supermarkets has also had an effect. In some market towns, there is a supermarket at one end of the high street—serving a useful function, it must be said—and an open market with a car park at the other end, functioning at the weekends. Twin pressures are exerted by the organised power of big commercial businesses such as Sainsbury, and competition from market traders and stallholders. Those pressures may have been underestimated in the past. Transport policy is another problem. The difficulty of convenient parking on the high streets is a major disincentive: in the past, people were much more willing to walk to and from shopping centres.

One of the main reasons why some high streets have suffered so much is that, because of financial constraints, local authorities have found it difficult to organise strategies to enhance local areas and underpin the high street environment. I hope that, if it achieves nothing else, this debate will lead to the recognition that not just central Government but local authorities have a vital role to play. I hope that the Government will acknowledge that. I also hope that central Government and local authorities will consider the effect of non-domestic and water and sewerage rates on the economic viability of some small family businesses.

I know that it will not be easy, but it would be a real step forward if a tax system could be established for the small retail sector that was more directly related to profitability. At present, if some of the small family businesses in the high streets of my town were required to pay rates on the basis of what they had earned at the end of the year, they would be receiving handouts from the local authority. Some are on the very margins of profitability. The issue is not simple and it is not new, but this Parliament should give it urgent attention.

Local authorities have an important function in setting the rules for planning and development. The previous Secretary of State for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), is a man with whom I have little in common, but he did some sensible work—perhaps too late—in trying to redress the balance between town centres and out-of-town supermarket development. The physical environment is extremely important for our high streets.

Tourism is an extremely and increasingly important industry and is promoted by a positive high street environment. Tourists look forward to being able to take advantage of a pleasant and interesting high street; those in south-east Scotland are not finding what they expect. We ignore at our peril the impact on the tourist industry of letting our market town centres fall into too much decay.

Corner shops and high street shops are increasingly a soft target for crime. The plate-glass window is an inviting target on Friday nights when people have drunk too much and are showing youthful exuberance, to put the kindest possible construction on it. The insurance companies have begun to put enormous premiums on replacing those windows, some of which are curved and extremely expensive. That knocks the stuffing out of family businesses that have to replace glass at great cost three, four or half a dozen times a year and to pay increased premiums. That is dispiriting, debilitating and demoralising.

In the middle term, the next 10 or 15 years, we face the prospect of additional pressure from electronic shopping. Information technology is moving on and we have electronic banking. The President of the United States was properly encouraging people to think about global marketing for small companies, and there may be some advantages in that, although I do not see how the sale of children's shoes in the high street could gain much benefit from access to the Internet.

None of those points will be new to the Minister, but they are worth putting on the record. The problems are getting worse and putting increasing pressure, day by day and month by month, on people trying to earn a living as retailers in small market towns.

My constituents are concerned about charity shops. I understand the emotional reaction, as people are worried that their high streets and market squares are being taken over by those shops and feel instinctively that they are responsible for the degradation. That analysis is superficial and wrong, because charity shops have a valuable role to play.

My generation and that of my parents and grandparents had more extended families and a hand-me-down system of recycling children's clothes, and five or 10 years ago some local charity shops were offering a valuable service in replacing that system, but things have moved on a long way since then and major national charities with big merchandising departments now take advantage of rate relief and the empty spaces in our high streets. Of course, we all support the causes for which they raise money, and I recognise, because they tell me so with monotonous regularity, that they are also under great pressure because of the national lottery.

The extent to which charity shops are filling gaps in high streets is beginning to be a matter for concern. The Government should examine carefully some of the rate exemption rules and whether they are being observed as punctiliously as they should be. I have no evidence for it, but my constituents feel that charity shops are taking unfair advantage of some of the exemptions.

Charity shops have an indirect impact on the downward spiral in high streets because they can afford rents that would fall if they were not there; in their absence, the owners of empty shops would be prepared to consider rent reductions to a level at which a bona fide small family business would be viable. They are unwittingly distorting free market processes.

We do not want to be antipathetic to charities and we want to keep the best of what they provide in our high streets, but we must recognise that there are now too many of them and that they have an indirect collective effect on the economies of our high streets.

I accept that it is not easy for the Government to have a hands-on, direct impact and transform the situation overnight—there are many underlying causes of the problem and the background is complex—but will the Minister acknowledge that there is a difficulty? I am sure that she does not need any extra tasks, but I hope that she will commit herself to a serious examination of the problems and lend a listening ear to those in the sector.

One of the problems that bedevil the sector is the fact that it does not have a united voice and an overarching view; it does not have access to the public relations machine of Sainsbury and other supermarket chains. The Federation of Small Businesses does valuable work, but it finds it difficult to bring together the many strands of the sector to give it the authority that it would like.

Will the Minister explain how the Government intend to deal with the cross-departmental nature of the problem? She is not in control of crime or local government, so the House would be grateful if she could explain how the different departmental perspectives can be brought to bear on the problem. On Budget day, we do not need to be told again that there are difficulties with money, but a little pump priming could go a long way.

A cross-departmental task force would give us some confidence that the Government are serious about dealing with the situation, although I know that they are reviewing much of the legislation, and one would expect nothing different from a new Administration, after 18 or 19 years of government by another party.

Although others have tried before her, will the Minister consider the problem of how non-domestic rates are unrelated to profitability? We have precious little time to find a solution to that, if we are to make some positive improvements to the lot of small retail businesses. The Minister should consider the use of local partnerships, probably spearheaded by local authorities, which could be pump-primed. That would enhance the built environment. Local enterprise companies also have a role to play in encouraging small projects to renew the built environment of high streets.

It is a hard but important task. I hope that the Government will commit themselves to studying the matter seriously during the current Parliament. They should work with those who represent the needs of small businesses in high streets to make some progress. I know that my hon. Friends and I will be constantly at the Government's shoulder to put pressure on them at every opportunity, so that the problem can be addressed robustly and effectively in the years to come.

10.10 am
Mr. Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak in this important debate, which has great relevance to the people of Motherwell and Wishaw. I agree with much that the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) said: there is a need for a coherent policy for town centre regeneration.

The need for a coherent policy to encourage small retail shops is abundantly clear, especially in the main street of Wishaw. The retailers of Wishaw have been left to pick up the crumbs left from years of industrial decline and falling disposable incomes. At the same time, they have had to face the problems of spiralling overheads and a dwindling customer base.

The debate also allows me to make my maiden speech in the mother of Parliaments. I have the great honour to be elected as the first locally born and bred Labour party Member for the constituency of Motherwell and Wishaw. To be able to represent the community in which one has been brought up and where one lives is a great honour and it is a source of great pride not just to me, but to my family, friends and neighbours.

I should like to acknowledge the members of the Motherwell and Wishaw constituency Labour party who worked tirelessly for my election. I should also like to thank the voters of Motherwell and Wishaw who gave me and my party their trust on 1 May. I look forward very much to working on their behalf in the years to come.

The man whose footsteps I follow, Dr. Jeremy Bray, is not only my predecessor but a close family friend. I was his parliamentary election agent in the general election campaigns of 1987 and 1992. I am sure that all hon. Members would like to join me in wishing Jeremy and his wife, Elizabeth, a long, happy and healthy retirement.

Jeremy Bray was born in Hong Kong in 1930. He enjoyed a truly global education, which started at Eastnor village school in Herefordshire. He then attended Clefoo missionary school, China; Aberystwyth grammar school; Kingswood school, Bath; Jesus college, Cambridge and, finally, the illustrious Harvard university. He was a journalist, economist, mathematician and author.

Jeremy first entered Parliament as the Member for Middlesbrough, West in 1962. In 1965, he led the campaign against cigarette advertising. It seems that it has taken some of us nearly 32 years to catch up with Jeremy's advanced thinking.

My predecessor enjoyed various stints as Parliamentary Secretary—in the Ministry of Power in 1966 and in the Ministry of Technology in 1967, a post which he held until his resignation in 1969. He lost his seat for Middlesbrough in the 1970 general election, but re-entered Parliament as the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw in October 1974. Later, the constituency was renamed Motherwell, South. He was reappointed Labour's science and technology spokesman in 1989 and held that post until 1992.

To me, Jeremy Bray's finest performance in the Chamber was in April 1990 when, still recuperating from a life-saving heart bypass operation, he determinedly turned up to speak in defence of his constituency steelworks at Ravenscraig. Those works and its 10,000 steelworkers ultimately suffered from what they described as a death by a thousand cuts. To his great credit, Jeremy fought against every cut along the way. I had the honour and privilege to be Jeremy's parliamentary election agent and I now have the even greater honour of being his successor.

Until recently, Motherwell and Wishaw was at the heart of industrial Scotland. Indeed, to many we were the heart of it. The area played an integral part in a proud industrial heritage. That heritage gave conception to the famous steelworks of Lanarkshire, Dalzell, Clyde Alloy and Ravenscraig. They all played a crucial part in the manufacturing sector of Scottish life but, today, after years of dereliction, only Dalzell remains in operation.

The steelworks had a fiercely proud and efficient work force who prided themselves on their steel-making expertise. Indeed, as a Ravenscraig steelworker for 14 years, I hope that in my new parliamentary career I am able to find the same level of friendship, honesty, professionalism and dedication among my fellow parliamentarians as I did among my fellow steelworkers at Ravenscraig.

When those same steelworkers were about to retire or be made redundant, they used to say, "Listen son. You can take the man out of the steelworks but you can't take the steelworks out of the man." How right they were.

Motherwell and Wishaw, and Lanarkshire as a whole, might have lost the steelworks, but we have not lost our steel determination to rebuild our communities and create a new dynamic base for the manufacturing service sectors that will become the new heartbeat of our resurrection from industrial decay and decimation. Our small retail shops have a major part to play in that resurrection.

The regeneration of Motherwell and Wishaw, and of Lanarkshire, has already started. Inward investors realise the potential of an area where workers have shown their ability to adapt to modern technology and work practices. The area, which is at the heart of west central Scotland, is rich in skilled labour and modern purpose-built units and has a first-class infrastructure. It is an area in which people look after their neighbours and recognise the importance of family ties. They genuinely want to create a better life style for their children and their children's children.

Motherwell and Wishaw is made up of two towns with their own distinctive areas. Forgewood, Jerviston, Flemington and Muirhouse are among those in Motherwell and Craigneuk, Netherton, Coltness and Pather are among those in Wishaw. The constituency is also home to the old mining communities of Cambusnethan, Waterloo, Overtown, Carfin and New Stevenston on its outer edges.

As hon. Members have probably gathered, Motherwell and Wishaw is not an area of leafy country villages and rolling meadows, but it is a constituency with a heart and with feeling. It has a steel determination to rebuild itself for the new century and the new millennium. As a new Labour Member with a new Labour Government, I very much look forward to playing my part in its resurrection.

10.18 am
Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy) on his maiden speech. His comments about Ravenscraig will have struck a great resonance in many of Cornwall's tin miners, who suffered at the same time—it was not that long ago. I remember our feelings of solidarity with that part of the country although, of course, we were a long way away from it.

Small family retail shops have been the mainstay of shopping centres for decades and have provided jobs that contributed directly and indirectly to the local economy. Until recently, a number of small shops in my constituency took produce from local suppliers up and down the Tamar valley, where small horticultural operations provided them with fresh fruit and vegetables, but the rapid decline of the small shops and the prosperity of our town centres has knocked out many small horticultural operations and so caused even more job losses. The combination of high rents, the foolish introduction a few years ago of so-called upward only rent reviews, the imposition of the uniform business rate and the extraordinary growth of out-of-town supermarkets even in very rural areas have all contributed to the loss of small retail concerns from our high streets.

The latest competition, as my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) mentioned, comes from charity shops. I am certainly not against charities trading in the high street. In many respects, they provide a useful service to the community, but their enormous growth in recent years has had some detrimental effect. They have affected some towns in Cornwall, where they have put out of business long-standing second-hand shops and shops that traded in used furniture. They are helped by their ability to use voluntary labour and to receive business rate relief. They sometimes pay higher rents, but they can also pay lower rents because of the value of covenants on leases. Many landlords greatly value the opportunity of leasing premises to a national charity rather than to a small family firm that may be considered vulnerable. All that makes for uneven competition.

Many local councils try to raise additional income—using one of the few means possible—from their car parks. As local councils' responsibility for the rates of retail operations has been removed, they have raised car parking charges. Perhaps they have had slightly less interest in the health and prosperity of the main street because of the operation of the uniform business rate. Not unnaturally, more shoppers choose to avail themselves of free parking in out-of-town centres, being unwilling to pay ever-increasing car parking charges in our towns.

Sales by small retailers have declined considerably over the past 10 years with the rise in out-of-town retailing, and more and more in-town units are being left empty.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

I agree with my hon. Friend about the effect of the uniform business rate on smaller towns. Does he agree that a significant problem for market towns in constituencies such as ours is that they fall between the assistance that is available from the Rural Development Commission, rural development area status and so on, and the urban programmes that apply to larger towns? While that does not fall within the responsibility of the Minister, she may wish to make that point to her colleagues. Our market towns are suffering from competition from larger conurbations.

Mr. Breed

I agree with my hon. Friend. That is one of the many issues that need to be addressed in a comprehensive review.

The situation in the high street has been made worse recently by the amalgamation of building societies, some of which have moved from the high street, and the reduction of the number bank branches. Often, such units are harder for ordinary retailers to occupy. They stand empty, gathering dirt and dust and creating blight on the high street. Town centre planning policies must take account of those new developments, which affect almost every high street in every town. They are changing the shopping scene and the way in which we use our high streets.

I hope that the Government will urgently consider ways to support the remaining small retailers. They have a distinct function, particularly in respect of competition. They are fighting a difficult battle, but if there is not to be a further drift to what would be almost a monopoly for the large supermarket retailers, which now have some 60 to 70 per cent. of all retail sales, some provision needs to be made for small retailing units in our high streets.

The former Government recognised the problems of small village post office stores. Many grateful post office storekeepers in my constituency were very pleased. Although it came rather late in the day and was rather modest, that initiative addressed the problems. Virtually the same problems are hitting our high streets. Some towns are considering the use of town centre managers to co-ordinate the activities of retailers in the high street by bringing them together to market themselves more forcefully to local consumers to provide some measure of competition for large out-of-town retailers, but they need additional assistance. If the retailing centres that form a valuable part of our smaller towns are not to decline further and family businesses are not to continue to close, they need support.

10.26 am
The Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry (Mrs. Barbara Roche)

This has been an important and interesting debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) on having chosen the topic. I thought that the debate would range far and wide, and it did, but it focused on some real concerns. Many issues were raised and much of what the hon. Gentleman said chimed with what was said by other hon. Members. I hope to be able to respond as fully as possible. The headline topic for this debate is small retail shops. The feelings expressed by many hon. Members show how socially essential we believe small independent retailers can be.

We had the privilege of hearing the excellent maiden speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy). He paid a sincere and well-deserved tribute to his predecessor, who is a friend of us all. I have no doubt that what he said about his constituency, his pride at having been born and brought up there and his great feeling for the area will mean that over the years he will be a fine and able representative and make an outstanding contribution to the work of the House. We also heard a good contribution from the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed), who echoed some of the concerns that have been mentioned.

The contribution of this vital sector is important. Small retail shops provide the variety, choice, vitality and diversity that consumers desire. It is that vitality, diversity and convenience which the public—the people we represent—miss so much when those shops disappear. I shall explain later how the new Government are determined to improve matters by forging an effective partnership with all sectors of business in this country.

I shall first put the United Kingdom's retail sector into context. Retailing is vital to our economy. Sales of about £160 billion mean that it accounts for almost one quarter of gross domestic product expenditure. Retailing gives direct employment to almost 2.5 million people, with many others providing services to support that activity. The retail sector also accounts for more than 30 per cent. of the UK's commercial property portfolio. Those are impressive statistics.

Mr. Kirkwood

It is helpful to place the sector in context and show its importance and value, but is the Minister satisfied that the statistics available to her are disaggregated to the extent that she can identify what is happening in the high street? The statistics are important and powerful, but I suspect that the vast majority of that value is generated by much bigger businesses than some of those on which we are focusing this morning.

Mrs. Roche

It is interesting that those independent outlets contribute about 25 per cent. of the figure—they play a significant part.

Today's debate has provided us with an opportunity to acknowledge the significant part that small retailers play in our day-to-day lives. Many people enjoy having the daily newspaper delivered through their front doors, although I suspect that hon. Members' enjoyment depends on what the daily newspaper has to say. Unlike the independent newsagent, however, we do not have to get up at 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning to organise deliveries. At the other end of the day, when people drop in at their local convenience store to buy essential items that they need, they may meet a shop owner who has already been working for more than 12 hours. It is a hard, competitive and difficult life. As the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire and others have said, competition from larger supermarkets and other retailers has made business even tougher.

The hon. Members for Roxburgh and Berwickshire and for South-East Cornwall mentioned the problem of crime, which is a real problem for many of our small retailers. The Forum of Private Business, one of our small business organisations, has done a great deal of valuable work on this subject, which is a matter of concern. There clearly needs to be close co-operation between the police, local authorities and the business community to ensure that our town centres are as safe as possible. I know that when my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary introduces the crime and disorder Bill in the near future he will have those considerations very much in mind.

The reasons why retail competition is so strong are as many and varied as the topics in today's debate. Changing life styles and expectations, differing family circumstances, new product ranges and consumer services, the growth of supermarkets and other large stores, have all combined to produce a dynamic sector. If one stands still in retailing, as in any business undertaking, one loses ground.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

The Minister spoke about crime, a subject which causes as much concern in small shopping centres as in large town centres. The outgoing Administration made grants available through the Home Office for closed circuit television in many centres. Does the Minister agree that that programme should be developed and extended in future? There is plenty of scope for partnership between local authorities, retailing organisations and local traders groups, but financial prompting is often needed. Perhaps the Government will see their way to providing it.

Mrs. Roche

In opposition, we always supported closed circuit television, which can be very useful. In the Wood Green shopping area in my constituency, we are about to install closed circuit television after an enormously successful pilot project. A possible assault on a police officer was prevented and a missing child was returned to its parents. I agree that close co-operation between all the major players is necessary and I will bring the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

While considering the good things that the sector has to offer, we must acknowledge that there has been a substantial reduction in the number of retail businesses in the past 10 years. Almost 50,000 retail businesses have disappeared in that time, the vast majority of which have been single shops. While some of those businesses may have been taken over by larger retailers, the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire graphically described, through the example of Hawick, what many hon. Members will also know from their constituency mailbags and surgeries—that a large number of those small retail businesses have been forced to close. That has brought severe hardship to the shop owners and their families, as well as in many cases the loss of lifetime savings and even retirement nest eggs. The policies of the previous Administration have certainly contributed to the pain suffered by independent retailers.

I do not intend to dwell at length on the failures of the previous Administration, but I feel that I must comment on the approach taken to planning policy, an important subject which the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire outlined. The latter part of the 1980s saw a virtual free for all on retail planning which led directly to the disappearance of high street diversity and a reduction in consumer choice. I acknowledge that two attempts were made in this decade to reimpose tighter retail planning guidelines and that the sequential test for new retail shopping developments, together with impact assessments, now provides local planning authorities with a much sounder base against which to judge planning applications.

As my ministerial colleagues have made clear, we do not propose to review the English retail planning guidelines at present, although we are concerned to see them applied firmly and consistently and to monitor their effectiveness. However, the review of the Scottish retail planning guidelines which started in March is continuing.

Those stricter guidelines were too late, however, to save many small independent retailers. It was a classic case of leaving the stable door open for too long. While I accept that consumers have welcomed some of the new out-of-town developments, the consequences of the then Government's planning guidelines for small high street retailers cannot be over-estimated. There are too many examples of shopping centres and high streets closing. People do not go to areas where there are boarded up shops, and a vicious circle is created. People do not want to go to shops in those areas, so the shops close and crime proliferates. We all have experience of that as constituency Members of Parliament.

What do the new Government want to do? First, we have made it abundantly clear that we regard small firms as vital to the success of an enterprise economy. A healthy, vibrant small business sector creates wealth and employment and generates new ideas and products—small retailers fall within that category. We are determined to deliver the right conditions so that small retailers and other small businesses can thrive and grow.

The Government are firmly committed to making Britain a prosperous and competitive nation. Last month, my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade outlined the Department's agenda to achieve that. It is a programme to forge a real and effective partnership with business. The "Competitiveness UK" agenda comprises a number of different elements and I assure hon. Members that the role of small and medium-sized enterprises, especially small retailers, will be part of that agenda.

Unified business rates have been mentioned today and there is no doubt that the system is widely disliked and perceived as being unfair. That message came out loud and clear at the "Your Business Matters" conference set up by the previous Government. It also emerged from the report undertaken by the Institute of Directors, which brought together some of the comments made during that consultation process. The small retail sector has certainly had to bear the burden of that system.

We are committed to carrying out a full consultation with the business community about returning to a locally set rate. One of the advantages of localising the system is that it gives a locus for the major partners—local authority, police and business community—to get together on many issues, such as closed circuit television, cleaning up town centres or other exciting initiatives in the high street. Where the local authority, police and business community—especially the small retail sector—all work together, the effect in terms of delivering an enhanced service cannot be underestimated and we strongly support such collective efforts.

Several hon. Members mentioned the growth of charity shops—an issue which is frequently raised by the retail sector. Our debate has been a well-balanced one and it has been acknowledged that the alternative to the presence of charity shops would probably be vacant premises, boarded-up shop windows and a generally rundown appearance. However, I also understand the strength of feeling among small retailers who regard charity shops as unfair competition.

This is a sensitive issue and Parliament has previously recognised the importance of charity shops to the fund-raising efforts of charities. In the United Kingdom, we are proud of the generous support that so many people give to various charities. Specific legislation allows, in certain circumstances, a partial and discretionary relief on rates. Charity shops are, of course, a valuable source of revenue for the charities concerned and I am sure that we have all seen reports of how charities' funds have dropped dramatically recently. Charity shops often enjoy the benefits of being staffed by volunteers and of reduced rentals for the property.

I can only say that we have no plans at present to change the current overall position on charity shops, but we will keep in close contact with hon. Members on both sides of the House who wish to raise these issues and with the business community in general and the small retailers sector in particular.

I have already touched on town centre improvements. Combinations that bring together local authorities, police, business, chambers of commerce and other organisations help town centres to grow and prosper.

We will also work within Europe to ensure that British views are heard and respected. We will shortly complete the Government's response to the EU Green Paper on commerce, which was published late last year. Cross-departmental work was mentioned and I assure the House that, in co-ordinating the Government's response, we are ensuring that such work and consultation take place.

We shall also be seeking other ways to help the UK retail sector where resources permit. I was very pleased that among the recent announcements of winning bids in the sector challenge was a successful bid from the Booksellers Association. The Booksellers Association project is based around improving members' competitiveness by creating an Internet site which delivers information both to members and to the public. The association has a broad membership of which some 2,000 are single site shops and a key objective of the project is to ensure that those small retailers add value to their businesses by helping them to compete more strongly.

We are also considering a proposal for support for a project aimed specifically at small grocery shops. The project will aim to increase the awareness of the benefits of using modern technology in those shops. I am sure many hon. Members will wish to join me in paying tribute to the small grocery shops which, in many towns, are the cornerstones of their communities and, moreover, are now run by members from our ethnic minority communities. They make a great contribution not only to the commercial viability of our towns and villages, but to the social fabric of our lives. Pensioners and other people who may not have ready access to a car find such shops extremely helpful.

New technology has been mentioned and I believe that it can play a significant part in the lives of small retailers. I recently visited a well-established, family-run business in my constituency and went behind the scenes to see how everything was baked fresh on the premises. New technology is playing its part in that business.

Mr. David Heath

Has the Minister's Department considered the potential of lottery terminals which, for better or worse, are in many shops nowadays? They are an underused information technology connection which could provide a much wider shop floor to isolated or small shops. Is that something her Department has considered?

Mrs. Roche

No, but I was about to say that in our manifesto and in the documents on the small firms sector that we produced in the run-up to the general election we discussed our ideas for what we called the enterprise zone, whereby small and medium-sized enterprises could be put on-line with a dedicated site on the Internet. In that way, small businesses would have access to information that might be of great use to them. If the hon. Gentleman will write to me on that subject, I shall be only too pleased to consider his comments and bring them to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage. Plans for the enterprise zone are under way and the hon. Gentleman may find the proposals of great interest when they are launched.

The Government are also pushing forward with help for small retailers in respect of training. Advice and support are, of course, available to all firms through training and enterprise councils—local enterprise companies in Scotland—and business links. Small firms may receive assistance to improve their in-house capacity to train or to work towards the investors in people standard. We certainly want to see more initiatives to help the independent owner-manager, because in the past owner-managers have been somewhat left out of some of the training initiatives. As the Minister responsible for small firms, I am concerned to ensure that we do not forget the training and skills that owner-managers wish to acquire as their businesses grow and prosper and they want to move forward.

A number of projects are already examining the needs of small retailers. Five projects involving groups of small retailers, under the skills challenge, are nearing completion. Meanwhile, a management development project currently under way in Lincoln aims to design and deliver a retail management development programme for owner-managers of small retail outlets. The programme also involves branch managers of larger retail organisations in Lincoln and the surrounding areas. The programme draws on sector standards and aims to improve the competence of the participants, thereby helping them to improve the performance and competitiveness of their stores. I welcome such projects. There is much to be gained in retailing and other aspects of business life from small and large firms working together for their mutual advantage.

We have had a very good debate today, although it is difficult to do full justice to the importance of the independent retail sector in such a short time. I nevertheless thank the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire for bringing the subject to the House today; I also thank other hon. Members for their positive contributions.

I hope that I have shown that the Government are already taking action to help small retail shops and are determined to push on by tackling other areas such as business rates. That will involve many Departments working together in the type of co-operative initiative for which the hon. Gentleman has called. We shall make sure that that co-operation is enhanced; our response to the EU Green Paper on commerce gives us the context in which to do that.

There is clearly a great deal of interest in the House in this subject. We will certainly give it the full attention that it deserves. Our small shops are vital to life in the United Kingdom, and they deserve our support—and the support of constituency Members of Parliament at local level. I can assure the House that the Government will give these shops all the encouragement that they need to enable them to succeed: they deserve no less.

10.51 am

Sitting suspended.

11 am

On resuming

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I draw to your attention a very serious matter relating to the deliberate release of information about the contents of the Budget to journalists before the Budget has been delivered to the House? Can you confirm that the last time that a Labour Chancellor deliberately released contents of the Budget that he was about to deliver in the House he subsequently felt honour bound to resign as Chancellor of the Exchequer?

Earlier today, I was contacted by journalists who told me that they had received explicit confirmation from the Treasury that the Budget would, among other things, include the abolition of tax relief on private medical care for the half a million elderly people in this country who provide for themselves. There is, I think, no precedent for the Treasury giving such advance briefing on such matters, and in today's Financial Times there is a statement that, following market stories about the possible abolition of advance corporation tax credit,

A senior member of the government said: 'The markets are bonkers … we are pressing ahead. This is, of course, an extremely market-sensitive matter, as well as a matter affecting the authority of the House. Can you confirm that when, in the past, the contents of Budgets have been leaked by those who have not been authorised to do so, there have been police investigations of the matter? Would it not be appropriate in this case that you or Madam Speaker authorise an investigation, establish who is the senior member of the Government who has been leaking matters to the press on highly price-sensitive issues, have them brought to the House and have the details of your investigation brought to the House, so that we may know why the Treasury is now behaving in such an extraordinary fashion for which there is no satisfactory precedent?

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. On the occasion in 1947 when something similar occurred—leading to the resignation of Sir Hugh Dalton—subsequent to the matter being raised in the House a Select Committee on the Budget Disclosure was set up. As things develop today, as the information becomes clearer, would you not accept that that course should be followed and that the matter should be thoroughly investigated, because this is not only a matter which affects the markets but a great contempt of the House?

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You may recall that in September 1996 it was widely leaked in the press that profit-related pay would be phased out in the November Budget—which did happen—allowing a large number of companies to set up PRP scams before the Budget. No disciplinary action was taken against the Ministers responsible and no investigation was undertaken by the House or by the Treasury. This is synthetic froth; the House should get on to the debate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

First of all, it is not the responsibility of the Chair to rule on matters which occurred in the past. As to the present matter, it seems to me that it is a Government matter and not one on which the Chair can rule as to what has happened. Ministers will have heard what has been said and doubtless there will be opportunities, today or subsequently, for further comment on the matter.

Hon. Members


Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You will be presiding over the Budget statement this afternoon and in your capacity as Chairman of Ways and Means you must surely be deeply disturbed by what has been said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley). May I ask you to suspend the sitting to make investigations and then to report back to the House as to whether you are satisfied that the Budget has been leaked? If it has, it is a situation wholly without precedent because, despite what my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) correctly said about the late Dr. Dalton, the circumstances in that case were very different.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I do not believe that this is a matter on which the Chair can rule. If the alleged leak has taken place, it is a matter for the Government to pursue; it is for the Chair to determine that the Budget statement will still be delivered in the normal way.

Mr. Lilley

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I entirely accept that this is a matter relating to the Government, in that the Government are the culprits, but the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford—

Sir Patrick Cormack


Mr. Lilley

I am sorry. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) was that on previous occasions such things have been dealt with as a matter for the House and investigated by a Select Committee of the House. Surely it would be appropriate to consider whether we should take similar procedures on this occasion to investigate the deplorable insult to the House and the dangerous treatment of the markets by the Government.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. What is the position? No allegation has been made by a member of the Opposition that the Chancellor of the Exchequer leaked the Budget. That has not been alleged. What has been alleged is that some minor official in the Treasury may have made a statement that was subsequently commented on by a member—possibly—of the Government to a journalist. In other words, we have a series of hearsay statements which the Opposition are seeking to turn into a major scandal. They will fail.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman may be unaware that the Financial Times states: A senior member of the government said". It was not an official. As you will know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, A senior member of the government is the code for the Chancellor himself.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

This is not an matter that can be debated at this moment. There is a subject for debate before the House at present. I do not believe that it is for the Chair to rule as to whether subsequent action is taken. Any decision which might or might not be justified for the purposes of investigation by a Select Committee or any other means would not be determined by the Chair.

Obviously, there will be other opportunities for such a matter to be raised if it is justified, but I can see no point in these proceedings continuing further at this time. We must move on to the debate.

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