HC Deb 14 March 2001 vol 364 cc1021-37 3.30 pm
Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport if he will make a statement on the consequences of foot and mouth disease for the rural tourism industry.

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Chris Smith)

The tourism industry has been badly affected by the foot and mouth outbreak. The industry is a huge and successful part of the economy. It employs about 1.8 million people and contributes as much as £64 billion to the economy. We have been in close touch with industry representatives, the English Tourism Council, the British Tourist Authority and other parts of government during the past two weeks and have been carefully assessing the impact. We have also been in close contact with the Scottish Executive, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly. The impact is mainly on rural areas throughout the UK, but the problem also affects our towns and cities, as visitors from Europe and elsewhere are deterred from coming here at all. That loss of business should be debated with sensitivity and care.

Early on, we agreed with the ETC and the BTA that we were determined not to fuel the damaging media coverage that is already so badly affecting our overseas markets and day visitors. Stories of cancellations and loss of business have to be reported, but they will not help the industry to achieve bookings, especially overseas, where the context is less well understood.

Within the Government, I have been making the position absolutely clear, reporting the difficulties faced by the industry as they have grown and ensuring that the needs of this vital part of the economy are known. I reported to the Cabinet this morning.

As we approach the Easter break—usually a time when a large number of bookings are made—all those involved are very worried about the loss of trade. People in many hotels and attractions have been laid off, businesses are closed and some parts of the countryside are very quiet indeed. The holiday season is gradually starting again and the usual growth in bookings is not materialising. The ETC has advised us that the loss of business is probably of the order of £100 million a week and has suggested that the impact might even reach £250 million a week if the outbreaks continue well into the main season. Those are serious losses.

In everyone's interest, the first priority must be to tackle the disease itself. Our discussions with the industry suggest that it understands fully the need to control the outbreaks of foot and mouth disease, not only to secure agriculture in rural areas but because the image and success of the countryside as a tourist destination is so closely tied up with it. The farming community does so much to look after the countryside that visitors and tourists enjoy visiting. It has the fullest support of the tourism industry, walkers groups and all those who enjoy recreation in the countryside. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will make a full statement about that tomorrow.

It is also very important, however, to convey the message that visitors can still find a great deal of hugely enjoyable recreation outside our cities. Rural Britain is not closed, as some would have us believe. The opportunities offered in market towns and villages, and in touring by public transport and by car are all still there to enjoy.

It would also be appropriate for me to say something about sport. The Government are not recommending the cancellation of any sports event. Any decisions will be for the governing bodies of sport, which should take a common-sense approach that is, above all, proportionate to a realistic appraisal of the risk involved. Therefore, sporting activity, just like any other activity, should not take place within infected areas. However, events elsewhere need not be affected, provided that reasonable precautions are taken.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting is in Devon now. I will be in Cumbria on Friday and Saturday meeting representatives of the tourism industry. My hon. Friend has been told that more accurate and detailed information will help people organising activities to decide how to stage them, and help visitors to decide where and when to travel. That applies equally to sport. We shall put that matter to the rural economy taskforce to be addressed urgently, as one of its first tasks.

I assure the House that the impact on the tourism industry in rural Britain will be properly addressed and that, when the time comes and the outbreak is over, we will do everything that we can to restore the image of Britain and the British countryside as a tourist destination.

Mr. Ainsworth

I thank the Secretary of State for his reply. Many people in the tourism industry and across rural Britain will find it highly unsatisfactory that, rather than offering a statement to the House on the present crisis in rural tourism, Ministers have had to be persuaded to come here by the Opposition. However, I assure the Secretary of State that Conservative Members will give every support to sensible measures aimed at limiting the scale of the crisis and offering help where it is needed.

It is certainly true, as the Secretary of State said, that plenty of tourist and visitor attractions that are not in rural areas are still very much open for business. However, no part of the rural economy is immune to the consequences of foot and mouth disease. Its effect on farmers has obviously been devastating. As the Secretary of State rightly said, the Government's first task has been, and remains, the containment and eradication of the disease. However, it in no way belittles the problems of farmers to recognise that tourism represents as much as 20 per cent. of economic activity in large areas of the countryside and that it is responsible for up to 400,000 jobs overall. Many of those jobs are now at risk. Employees are already being laid off or asked if they will take unpaid leave.

In areas such as Devon, Cornwall, mid-Wales, the Lake district and the borders, business in hotels, guest houses, restaurants and pubs is reported to have declined by up to 80 per cent. in the Past two weeks. There is clearly an immediate and pressing problem with cash flow, which needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

The Secretary of State did not comment on the idea of establishing action zones or safe zones. That idea seems to have been floated by a Minister in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. We have to express some reservations about such a scheme.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

He did not mention it.

Mr. Ainsworth

I would welcome the Secretary of State's comments on the issue, because the Minister for the Environment was broadcasting to the nation on the "Today" programme this morning that safe zones were the answer to the problem. How will a safe zone be defined? Is not the corollary of creating safe zones the creation of unsafe zones? The disease is still spreading. What if today's safe zones become the unsafe zones of tomorrow? The Secretary of State has also said that the Government intend to set up a taskforce. A taskforce will not achieve anything at all.

To deal with the pressing problems of cash flow, have the Government considered the British Hospitality Association recommendation that VAT should be deferred for three months for the worst-affected businesses in rural areas, such as hotels? If so, what action will be taken? Clearly, the business rate is a major fixed item of expenditure. The bills come in regardless of the collapse in trade, so is not it time that the Government considered offering business rate relief for a limited period to small rural businesses affected by the crisis' Has the Secretary of State considered that? If so, what action will be taken?

Has the Secretary of State considered the Federation of Small Businesses' suggestion that the Government might follow its example and make loans available to businesses affected by the crisis? I appreciate that it is not easy to define which tourism businesses, or businesses of any sort, should be eligible to benefit from such relief measures, but there is no reason to exclude everybody from help just because that is difficult.

As for the medium term, what proposals do the Government have for putting in place a recovery plan for the rural economy and rural tourism businesses? For example, what extra funds will be at made available to the BTA to restore confidence in our main overseas tourism markets? A major marketing effort will be required to attract overseas tourists back to Britain, but, above all, people in rural Britain and in tourism businesses affected by this appalling crisis want action from the Government to deal with the situation.

I note that the Chancellor has revealed that the Government have underspent their budget this year by £1 billion. If this desperate crisis is not a reason to spend some of that money, I would like to know what is.

Mr. Smith

This is of course a time for addressing serious problems seriously and the majority of the hon. Gentleman's remarks were certainly in that spirit. May I tackle the main points? The first is the notion of establishing safe zones, which I did not speak about and which is not specifically on the agenda at present. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture is in charge of Government policy on the management of the disease and he will address the House tomorrow on precisely how the disease can be combated, particularly in those areas where no outbreaks have yet occurred.

On compensation through a variety of possible means that the hon. Gentleman suggested, those are matters that we shall wish to address in due course. Ultimately, it will be for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to make decisions about them, but we shall consider seriously the impact that has been felt across the rural economy and how best to address that impact. The recovery plan for rural tourism matters for our overseas markets and, in particular, our domestic markets. We shall be in close discussion with the ETC and the BTA about how the best possible promotion of rural tourism can be put in place as soon as the outbreak is over.

Perhaps the most important message of all—I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman agrees—is that the countryside is indeed open for business. For example, South Hams district council in south Devon has just issued an extremely good notice to visitors, setting out clearly what they can and cannot do. Among the things that visitors can do are exploring towns, taking river boat trips, walking on beaches, visiting castles, abbeys, gardens and garden centres, looking around pottery centres, visiting the aquarium in Plymouth, playing golf, visiting local antique shops and art galleries and enjoying locally produced food and drink.

A variety of good-quality tourism activities are available to people right across rural Britain. The more consistently we put that message across, the better for our hard-pressed tourism industry.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

I commend my right hon. Friend on the frank and sensitive way in which he has dealt with the private notice question. May I remind him, however, of the seriousness of the situation? No mention has yet been made of tourism in the northeast of England, where we are trying to solve our unemployment problems in what is a rapidly growing and very job-intensive industry.

Will my right hon. Friend also bear in mind the fact that there are now 160 Labour Members with a significant rural hinterland? This is an important issue for all Members; it is not cared about exclusively by the Opposition.

Mr. Smith

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. Tourism is an increasingly important issue for the north-east.

Over the past five to 10 years, the rural economy has become much more bound up with tourism. The growth of farm tourism, for example, has been a major element in the expansion of tourism activity in rural areas, and it has been almost completely wiped out during the foot and mouth epidemic. These issues are gravely affecting many parts of the country, and they need to be taken seriously.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)

First, does the Secretary of State accept the BTA's estimate that if this goes on for another three weeks, the industry as a whole will have lost upwards of £2 billion? Whereas in many industries that loss would be concentrated, in the tourism industry 120,000 small businesses risk not just loss of profit but bankruptcy. Does the Secretary of State agree that there is no case for seeking to divide the interests of the farming community from those of the tourism industry, and that it is imperative to recognise that speedy eradication of the disease is in the interests of both?

Secondly, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the Government have an immediate task to carry out—indeed, he has begun to carry it out this afternoon—in conveying the reassuring message that Britain is still open? That message, however, must be delivered abroad as well as domestically. At present, 45 per cent. of inquiries about foot and mouth disease are being made to our offices abroad.

Finally, while I endorse what the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) said about funds for promotion and marketing abroad, does the Secretary of State accept, in regard to the recovery plan for the industry, that it is also vital for individuals whose continuance in business is imperative if our industry is to be sustained to be given early indications of financial reliefs? Tax reliefs may be the easiest way of relieving the pressure, and enabling such people to sustain their fragile businesses.

Mr. Smith

The right hon. Gentleman is correct to identify the potential financial losses overall. According to our best estimates at the moment, around £100 million a week of business is being lost; but that figure will start to rise substantially during the Easter weekend, and subsequently during the main holiday season. If the present situation continues, there will be considerable financial losses.

The right hon. Gentleman is also correct to say that there is no case for dividing the interests of the farming community from those of the wider rural economy. The best answer for all in the rural economy, be they farmers or non-farmers, is for us to get the outbreak under control as rapidly as we can, and to see the back of foot and mouth disease so that we can restart both normal agricultural and normal tourism operations.

The right hon. Gentleman is right, however, to identify two tasks that are especially important. The first of them is immediate—getting the reassurance message across to people that there is no reason at all why they should cancel holidays in the countryside or not regard the countryside as a place to visit, enjoy and find recreation. We will be very strongly putting across that message in the coming days.

Secondly, we have to examine the need for a recovery plan once the outbreak is brought under control. As I said, we are working very closely with the BTA and ETC on doing that.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I appeal to the House for brief questions.

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)

I thank the Secretary of State for sending the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting to Devon today. However, may I stress to him that it is not only a rural problem? The city of Exeter depends on the tourism industry for 2,800 jobs and for £85 million a year. The south-west tourism industry is telling me that, first and foremost, it desperately wants accurate information to be disseminated from a central point. Although many parts of the south-west are not no-go areas, the impression is being given that people should not go there. We have wonderful beaches, wonderful coastal paths, and, as my right hon. Friend said, wonderful towns and cities. Will he therefore ensure that accurate information is disseminated so that people start coming back to areas that are not affected?

Mr. Smith

My hon. Friend is right to say that this is not just a rural problem, as people who may have booked rural holidays would usually in the course of such a holiday seek to encompass visits to towns and cities. Additionally, much overseas business is being affected by the general impression that is being given, despite the BTA's best efforts to try to correct those impressions, and much overseas business comes to the towns and cities. My hon. Friend is also absolutely right to identify the giving of accurate information as an essential thing that we have to do. The rural economy taskforce is urgently examining that matter.

Mr. Laurence R thertson (Tewkesbury)

The Secretary of State mentioned sporting events. He will be aware that, this week, my constituency has lost the biggest horse-racing programme in the entire racing year, which is costing the race course about £8 million. He will also be aware of the knock-on effect in my constituency, and in surrounding constituencies, on guest houses, hotels, restaurants and shops that have lost an entire week's business. Yesterday, the Leader of the Opposition came to speak to some of those people in my constituency. What message can the Secretary of State give me to take back to people whose businesses, which rely on this week above all other weeks in the year, have been devastated?

Mr. Smith

I of course understand entirely the difficulties that are facing those businesses and to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Decisions on whether to proceed with sporting events, including racing events, are entirely a matter for the sporting authorities themselves. The Government have not insisted or recommended that any particular sporting event should not be held. That is a matter that the sporting authorities will have to consider carefully against the obvious common-sense rules about the proximity to livestock, the way in which people get there and so on. Those are the common-sense rules that should apply. I am afraid that they apply to everything, of whatever size and scale.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Will my right hon. Friend emphasise the fact that, despite all the bad publicity, the Lake district towns are still open for business and that those who have visited our towns historically should keep coming? There is no problem in the towns. However, may I also welcome his visit this weekend to the Lake district, particularly to my own constituency, and express support for the proposition that he fully consider the possibility of safe zones being introduced in the county of Cumbria?

Mr. Smith

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to identify the continuing roles that towns in areas such as the Lake district can play as tourism destinations. I look forward to meeting later this week some of his constituents who have been affected by the foot and mouth outbreak in Keswick.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

Will the right hon. Gentleman have a word with his colleague the Minister for the Environment as he appears to know nothing about the safe zones that were being announced on the "Today" programme as I was getting up this morning? Would the Government please co-ordinate on that matter?

I received a fairly helpful reply during the Budget debate from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who said that the Government would consider using funds to begin returning the countryside to a proper structure at the end of this terrible epidemic. Will the Secretary of State consider how people can substantiate their losses? It is terribly difficult to do so, but those who produce accounts and who have had severe losses could present last year's accounts in comparison with the figures achieved this month. In that way, they could begin to justify why the Government must try to assist them with their cash flow, simply to keep them going. That is not a political point, but a plea for something that the country needs. The Government must help.

Mr. Smith

As regards the right hon. Gentleman's comment on safe zones, I must tell him that there was no such announcement. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture is considering what policy should be developed for the important areas of the country in which there have been no outbreaks. He will have something more to say to the House about that tomorrow.

The right hon. Gentleman made a second point about substantiating losses. Issues regarding direct or indirect compensation are ultimately matters for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. We shall, of course, give those matters careful consideration, but our immediate tasks remain the dissemination of right and unbiased information to the public and ensuring that we do all that we can to stamp out the outbreak.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the lesson of BSE is that top priority must be given to ensuring that those parts of the rural environment, such as Norfolk, where there have been scares but, as yet, no outbreak the disease must remain disease free? Despite the commercial pressures, we must take care to balance the just demand for publicity for positive movements by people with our long-term interests. We know from the BSE crisis that getting that balance wrong can result in a very great cost.

Mr. Smith

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why the primary duty of the Government lies, as it has since the first day of the outbreak, in making sure that the outbreak is brought under control. We must not let it expand beyond the cases that may have already incubated before it was identified.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

Does the Secretary of State appreciate the contradiction in what he has said about containing the epidemic, while encouraging people to go to the countryside? Farmers in my constituency—those who fear foot and mouth and those whose animals are suffering from it—do not want to see people tramping about. On the other hand, tourism and farming are intertwined because of bed and breakfast, farm shops and the diversification of farm industries. All those things are hit by the crisis, and it will take a long time to sort matters out. If the Government do not set up a compensation package to raise the pressure from incomes and cash flows, there will be no infrastructure for tourism in rural areas.

Mr. Smith

There is no contradistinction between containing the epidemic and encouraging people to visit the countryside. We will very clearly continue to insist that people do not walk across fields, come into close proximity to livestock or walk along country paths, but there is a whole host of activities that can be enjoyed in the countryside. The best possible thing that we can do for the rural economy at this precise moment is to encourage people still to visit the countryside, to engage in activities that do not put livestock at risk or spread the disease, and to say that rural Britain is not closed to visitors.

Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby)

My right hon. Friend knows only too well how important tourism is to my constituency. Indeed, both he and my hon. Friend the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting have recognised the great work of the Scarborough tourism forum. With that in mind, will he comment on the possibility that small businesses, which, obviously, make up the bulk of tourism across the country, may be the best vehicle for marketing the better quality message about what is open?

In the terms of the Yorkshire Post, the start of the season is Easter. We really need to ensure a good start to the season—this year in particular. Will he have urgent discussions with people such as representatives of the Yorkshire tourism authority, to ensure that it works with small businesses?

Mr. Smith

Representatives of the Yorkshire tourist board, along with those of all other regional tourist boards, will be meeting my hon. Friend the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting tomorrow to talk through some of the issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Quinn) is right to stress that the message on what can and cannot be done must be clear. That is why having a central and accessible point of advice is so important. We are urgently working on that.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

The Minister will know that a quarter of all the foot and mouth outbreaks are in my constituency in the Lake district. Agriculture, tourism, and the haulage, retail and all other sectors have been ravaged. I understand that, across the border, Dumfries and Galloway unitary authority is issuing forms to all businesses that are affected, so that they can state their monetary losses in order that the Scottish Parliament may one day reimburse them. Will the Minister look carefully at that and ensure that we, just south of the border in the Lake district, who are suffering even more, are not at the end of the day at a financial disadvantage to our colleagues and friends just north of the border? Will he in the longer term consider a massive advertising campaign once again to attract people to Britain and to get people back into the countryside, when it is safe to do so?

Mr. Smith

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said just a moment or two ago to the House, we will of course be looking with great care and very great sympathy at what more can be done to help the rural economy over the next few weeks.

On an advertising campaign, the right hon. Gentleman is right to say that we must ensure that, as soon as the outbreak is over, the message "Come back to the countryside" is loud and clear, for both the overseas market and, even more important, because the vast majority of visitors to our countryside comprise domestic tourism, for British people who may be considering taking a holiday there.

Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster, Central)

Last weekend, I met members of Doncaster's Strawberry Island boat club and members of other boat clubs around south and west Yorkshire. Although, obviously, they were very understanding about the fact that it is difficult in the present circumstances to allow movement of boats, they were concerned about the long-term effects on the hire boat industry. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he is in touch with British Waterways and representatives of the hire boat industry and that he is aware of their concerns? Perhaps he can make the issue an item on the agenda of the meeting to which he referred with the Yorkshire tourist board.

Mr. Smith>

We are indeed very much aware of the impact on recreation on waterways. We are taking close account of it. We will discuss it with the regional tourist boards when we meet them tomorrow.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

Does the Secretary of State agree that the ramifications for the tourist industry are not restricted to this island but also apply to Northern Ireland? It is now clear that the consequences in misery and financial loss far beyond the farming community are incalculable. At one time, the country enjoyed a high health status because restrictions were placed on movement of animals into and out of it. Those firm controls were swept away by Europe on the ground that they were a restriction of trade rather than a health issue. Is it not clear that such restrictions always have been and always will be a health issue? Will the Government go back to their colleagues in Europe and tell them that they wish to have the former strict conditions on movement of animals and plants restored?

Mr. Smith

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the ramifications for tourism spread right the way across the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, tourism had been picking itself up dramatically in the wake of the Good Friday agreement and the maintenance of a more settled peace in Northern Ireland. To see that progress now put at risk is obviously extremely disappointing.

The hon. Gentleman's question about the movement of animals is of course a matter for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I am sure that he will have noted carefully what the hon. Gentleman had to say.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley)

I declare an interest as president of the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway Preservation Society. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, especially as my constituency is at the moment completely free of foot and mouth, the Worth valley railway specifically and the Brontë area more generally remain an excellent destination for Easter tourism?

Mr. Smith

My hon. Friend is right. As I have said, there are many activities that can still safely be undertaken in the countryside, and we need to encourage as many people as possible to take up those opportunities.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

My question is linked to the one asked by my namesake, the hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton). Leisure tourism linked to the inland waterways is important to my constituency and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, but it has been halted by the closure of the towpaths. Was the Secretary of State as surprised as I was to learn that no representatives of British Waterways or, for example, the British Marine Industries Federation have been asked to sit on the much-heralded rural economy taskforce? Will he speak to his colleagues about that as a matter of priority, and ensure that steps are taken to assist that part of the leisure sector to survive this dreadful period by helping with business rates, talking to banks about cash flow or other such steps?

Mr. Smith

I shall of course draw the hon. Lady's point to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends. However, the fact that those organisations have not attended a meeting does not mean that their concerns are going unnoticed. We are very concerned about the impact on inland waterway recreation. We will continue in close discussion with representatives of the inland waterway organisations.

Mr. Nick Ainger (West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire)

Five years ago, my constituency suffered the devastation of the Sea Empress oil spill, which had a massive detrimental effect on our tourist economy. One of the ways in which the effects were ameliorated in the short term was significant increases in the tourism marketing budgets, funded both by the Wales tourist board and the insurers. That certainly had an impact and improved the situation quickly. Can my right hon. Friend reassure me that IN wales as well as England will benefit from any additional marketing? Will he reassure me that the rural economy taskforce will include representatives from not only the Wales Office but the National Assembly for Wales?

Mr. Smith

On the benefit that Wales could get from a marketing campaign, the marketing of Wales specifically as a destination is a devolved matter and would be one for the WTB. However, the British Tourist Authority, which has oversight of the marketing of Britain as a whole, including the wonders of Wales, will ensure that Britain is marketed as soon as the outbreak is over. There is Welsh representation on the rural economy working party, and Welsh representatives attended the meeting that took place earlier today.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

The Secretary of State will be aware of the coruscating impact and deep sense of foreboding in the Yorkshire dales among thousands of businesses that are wholly dependent upon tourism. There are two things that he can do in short order. First, he can give local authorities the means to relieve business rates. Secondly, he can instruct the regional development agencies, which the Government created, to help small businesses that fear that they may not meet their obligations. He will reassure people in the Yorkshire dales if he makes it clear that he does not want large numbers of people meandering around the area in their cars as if it were an open area where one could choose between the parts that were infected and those that were not.

Mr. Smith

We shall carefully consider issues such as business rates. As I said earlier, it will ultimately be a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Regional development agencies may well have a good role to play, and we shall seek to discuss that with them.

The message must be crystal clear on the way in which visitors conduct themselves. We do not wish visitors to go on to farmland or into proximity with livestock. However, there are many other activities in which visitors can engage in the countryside, and we want to encourage them to do so.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

The Secretary of State knows that, unfortunately, my constituency has a huge infected area. He will be aware also that it is one of the most popular destinations for spring holidays. In those circumstances, I am confident that my constituents will share his view that it is important not to overreact.

Will the right hon. Gentleman consider the lending institutions, banks and building societies that are overreacting? I have evidence of a lending institution that has forthwith withdrawn funding facilities. Will he make urgent representations to banks, building societies and other lending institutions to take a more balanced view, as he has done?

Mr. Smith

Yes and yes. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important not to overreact. The message that can usefully go out from all parties in the House is that we should not do so. That would fundamentally undermine the very rural economy that we are trying to protect. I would want to make representations to lending institutions about the need to consider sympathetically the needs of rural businesses.

Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton)

May I welcome my right hon. Friend's recognition of the scale of the problem? Nowhere is that more relevant than in Plymouth, and the surrounding Devon and Cornwall area, where tourism is a vital activity. I thank him for sending the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting to Devon, including Plymouth, today. I believe that, as we speak, she is concluding her visit to one of the jewels among our tourist facilities: the national marine aquarium.

In promoting the important message that the public should consider what they can do in rural areas and cities such as Plymouth, I urge my right hon. Friend to take a leaf out of the book of local ramblers in the area that 1 represent, who instead of rambling across Dartmoor are donning their boots and walking along some of the roads in Plymouth, which have some of the most beautiful vistas in the United Kingdom, as he well knows.

Mr. Smith

My hon. Friend is right. I remember my visit to the national marine aquarium a year or so ago. The message must be clear: there are plenty of activities for people to do; please come to rural Britain.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) mentioned the Yorkshire dales; the same problems exist in the Derbyshire dales. More than 20 million people usually visit the Peak district. At the weekend, a representative of the Peak park said on radio that people should not go into the towns. Why has not the Department issued clearer guidance so that everyone knows the exact criteria that the Secretary of State mentioned? This afternoon, he has conveyed mixed messages.

Mr. Smith

The hon. Gentleman could not have been listening because I could not have been clearer about our message. If someone from the Peak district said that no one should come to Derbyshire, I cannot agree. Last night, a representative of Buckinghamshire county council was asked on "Newsnight" whether Buckinghamshire could be "reopened". He replied: I wouldn't welcome it at the moment. I cannot endorse such an attitude. We want to ensure that people visit the countryside and engage in safe activities, of which there are plenty.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Does my right hon. Friend recall that the busiest weekend for hotels in my constituency has been ruined by foot and mouth disease, which led to the cancellation of the Wales-Ireland rugby match? Hotels in urban Newport are a centre for visitors to the area's hinterland, which includes the Wye valley and the Brecon beacons, and the other marvellous attractions of rural and urban south Wales. Is it not wrong to suggest that there is a division between rural and urban tourism, which are inextricably intertwined? If assistance is provided, is not it right to give it to those in rural and urban areas? We could get into the grotesque position whereby a large, prosperous rural hotel, which could be part of a multi-million pound international chain, receives assistance while small, struggling hotels in my constituency and other urban areas get nothing.

Mr. Smith

My hon. Friend is right. There should not necessarily be a distinction between our approaches in urban and rural areas because some urban settings are also experiencing the impact of foot and mouth disease.

As I said earlier, it is up to the governing bodies of sport to decide whether events should go ahead. I am pleased to note that, so far, the France-Wales match, which is due to take place at the weekend, is still on.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

As of 11 am today, Cheshire has become unsafe. Our first confirmed case has occurred in Baddiley in the south of my constituency. The Secretary of State should carefully consider consulting the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food about banning much more movement in rural areas. First and foremost, we must stop the spread of the disease. Travelling around the country, whether it is tourists or lorries carrying dead carcases from Devon to the Widnes rendering plant, should be restricted. We have a national emergency, and we should introduce measures accordingly.

Mr. Smith

It is important to follow strictly the veterinary advice that we receive. That advice is clear: in some circumstances, movement of people or animals is dangerous and poses a risk and should not therefore be permitted. However, other activities are perfectly safe and can be permitted. We must distinguish clearly between them.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire)

It is already possible for councils to provide relief on business rates in cases of hardship. Will my right hon. Friend remind his colleagues of those powers and encourage them to provide the resources to enable councils to do that?

We encourage diversification from pure farming activities in rural areas. Regrettably, some people, including some of my constituents, must consider that possibility earlier than they might have done. Will the Government consider targeting some of the money for diversification on aiding business reconstruction and change in some of the areas where it is most needed?

Mr. Smith

In relation to my hon. Friend's second point, much of the rural development money to which he refers will come on stream from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food quite rapidly—it will come on stream very soon. Many people may want to consider taking advantage of it.

In relation to local authorities, any advice that is given to them will be a matter for the Deputy Prime Minister and the funding of any such initiatives will be a matter for the Chancellor.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon)

I do not think that the Secretary of State is fully aware of the nature and extent of the crisis that is developing in the countryside. If it continues into the Easter holiday period, thousands of rural businesses will go bankrupt. I was pleased to hear him say that he was looking into inland waterway holidays and narrow boat holidays, but is he aware that British Waterways has closed the whole of the inland waterway network and all towpaths? Although none of us wants to take undue risks with the spread of the disease, will he look, or have his Department look, into whether absolute closure is entirely necessary? Can there be some selective and progressive lifting of the restrictions, subject always, of course, to the fact that people must not walk on farm land and must stick to roads? If they do that, perhaps the risk of the spread of the disease in that way will be minimal and there could be some relaxation of the regime.

Mr. Smith

I am very much aware of the extent of the problems that are being experienced. I made sure that I made that clear in my initial response to the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth). There are many waterways where parts of the waterway can be accessed via roads and tarmac, so we need to look sensitively at where access can be achieved, without any risk to animals or to the rural environment. Those are precisely the sort of things that we will talk with the waterways authorities about.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

As my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) said, Cheshire has had its first outbreak today. Fortunately, my constituency is still free of foot and mouth, but does the Secretary of State accept that what the farmers and the people of our rural areas want is the eradication of the disease as quickly as possible? Fanning in my constituency is predominantly livestock farming. To make an income, many farmers have had to open bedand-breakfast facilities. The inland waterways are an important part of tourism, and part of my constituency lies in the Peak park, but we do not want people to come to such rural areas at the moment because they are likely to bring foot and mouth with them. Does he accept that the great problem in the rural areas is cash flow? If the Government could help those affected through the business rate or in any other way, such as through intervening with lending institutions, I should be grateful.

Mr. Smith

We have made it crystal clear—indeed, I have made it crystal clear today—that the first and most important priority is to eradicate the disease. That has to remain the bottom line; it governs everything that we do in respect of our response to the epidemic However, the message that we are getting very clearly from people, including farmers and people running small businesses throughout rural Brtitain, is that they do not want people to get the idea that rural Britain is a no-go area. It is not. Many things can be usefully and productively done in rural Britain. We w ant to encourage people to do those things. We do not want to encourage people to engage in risky activity.

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay)

Seaside resort hoteliers who observe these proceedings will be disappointed that there has been no specific mention of seaside resorts, which, de facto, not being rural areas, are all open for business; the season is beginning very early. I endorse everything that others have asked the Secretary of State to do, but I have one further idea. A number of language schools in seaside resorts are suffering because of misinformation from foreign Governments. What are our embassies doing about that? Will he speak to the Foreign Secretary to ensure that they do all that they can to put right the bad messages that are going out?

Mr. Smith

The embassies and high commissions abroad, as well as the British Tourist Authority, are actively seeking to counter misinformation and to put out information about what is happening and the vast number of things that can still he enjoyed. Language schools are part of that fabric of activities that are still very much on the agenda. On seaside resorts generally, I would hope that some might seek to benefit from the present difficulties, as recreation on the beach and in the town at seaside resorts is still very much possible. I hope that that message will be sent clearly as well.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

Nothing the Secretary of State has said today convinces me that he really understands the urgency of the situation that he faces, particularly in relation to the inland waterways sector. My constituent, Mr. Edward Helps of Alvechurch Boat Centres Ltd., faces the complete loss of all his business—not 80 or 75 per cent., but 100 per cent.—for many weeks and months ahead. What would the Secretary of State say to Mr. Helps?

Mr. Smith

I understand the difficulties that face many in the rural economy particularly those running small businesses, be they on inland waterways, be they small hotels, guesthouses or farms that have become heavily reliant on bed-and-breakfast income. Those enterprises are being severely affected by what is happening. That is why we need to ensure that the best quality of accurate information is available and why we need to look carefully and sympathetically at what measures can be taken over time to try to assist those affected.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

The Secretary of State has completely missed the point. North Shropshire, touch wood, is currently a foot and mouth-free zone. Two miles away, there is foot and mouth in Cheshire. Bed-and-breakfast bookings are down by 100 per cent. and holiday park bookings by 80 per cent. The one area where the Government can help is with liquidity. How many telephone conversations has he had with the Chancellor to discuss VAT? How many conversations has he had with the Deputy Prime Minister about business rates? How many banks has he rung to talk about liquidity? He can help, but he does not appear to have done anything.

Mr. Smith

This is not the time for partisanship.

Mr. Paterson

But what has he done?

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman asked a question. He is now getting the answer.

Mr. Smith

It is a time for seriously addressing serious issues. I am in regular contact with my right hon. Friends the Chancellor, the Secret ary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. That is precisely why we have brought together all the relevant Ministers with outside organisations in the rural economy working party. We are urgently addressing precisely those issues. If, rather than ranting, the hon. Gentleman took time to look at what is happening, he would see that we are addressing the serious issues.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

In recent hours, I have been talking to a hotelier in my constituency whose bookings are down by 70 per cent. I have talked also to a rural publican whose bar receipts are down by 90 per cent. When they hear the Secretary of State saying that rural Devon is not a no-go area, there will be stark staring disbelief. Does he realise that the Government are not powerless in the matter? There are fiscal levers that they could use. They could consider income tax or VAT, or the remission or delayed payment of business rates. He has said nothing about that today. I am sorry to have to say this but, in all my years in the House, I have never heard a Secretary of State speak on a subject with so little grip on it. His idea of a response to this crisis is to find a piece of countryside where the disease has not yet struck and walk around it with impunity. That is incredibly wrong. To blame the crisis in the tourism industry on the press is not realistic. We want to hear from him even now. He cannot say that he has done anything, because if he had done something he would have told us about it. He should go away and discuss with his ministerial colleagues what can be done.

Mr. Smith

What the hon. Gentleman has just said is a complete and utter distortion of what I have said and what the Government have done. None of us are advocating—

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)


Mr. Smith

None of us are suggesting that anyone should get out of their car and walk across fields or agricultural land or in proximity to livestock. We are very clear—and have been from the word go—that those aspects of countryside recreation are not acceptable. However, we are seeking to encourage legitimate and safe recreation in rural Britain. I am very sad that the hon. Gentleman does not seem to share that ambition. He raised some other points about different ways of assisting rural businesses in the face of this crisis. Of course, we are looking sympathetically at all possible options. That is why we have the rural economy working party. It is why my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer and others are looking at these issues to see what can best be done over the next few days and weeks.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I am going to call the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) and then we must move on. However, I can give those who have not been called today an assurance that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food assures me that he will make a statement tomorrow and I shall call them then.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

Small businesses in my constituency are almost entirely in agriculture and tourism and they are suffering dreadfully. Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming a private initiative in my constituency by Sir Ray Tindle, the owner of Cambrian News, to provide £250,000 to help those small businesses? Will the Government consider match funding and similar private initiatives and the deferring of VAT payments and business rates? Finally, although I agree with his comments on coastal towns such as Aberystwyth, the Secretary of State is in danger of sending out a mixed message today about other rural areas. In most of my constituency one can hardly move without falling over a sheep. I do not understand the Government's current guidelines on rural tourism. Will he release clear guidelines for rural areas and make sure that the media also know about them?

Mr. Smith

In relation to the hon. Gentleman's point about the assistance fund, we are looking at these issues very carefully. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said, we shall do whatever we can to help. Of course, we understand that the rural economy is suffering very badly indeed.

In relation to the hon. Gentleman's point about mixed messages, there is no mixed message. The message is very clear indeed. Some activities in rural areas are dangerous and cannot be permitted—activities that bring anyone into proximity with livestock, cross open land, enter fields, traverse agricultural land or go into farms. Those activities are rightly prohibited to halt the spread of the disease, but many other activities are perfectly legitimate and can be undertaken. The message that those activities are allowed is extremely important because if we do not give out that message, not only will we deprive large numbers of people of being able to enjoy themselves and take their recreation in the countryside, but we will also do yet further damage to the rural economy.