HC Deb 20 March 2001 vol 365 cc191-210 3.30 pm
The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher)

I wish to report on the work of the rural taskforce, which held its second meeting this morning. We all agreed that our first priority remains to eradicate foot and mouth disease as soon as possible. The situation remains an extremely serious one. Its effects are very serious for farmers and the wider rural community, especially in tourism. The rural taskforce, which has representatives from a range of rural interests and Departments, is working urgently to develop measures to alleviate those impacts.

I must commend the response of the public who have been very anxious to avoid spreading the disease. However, large parts of the country are not affected, and people wrongly believe that the whole countryside is out of bounds. That has had a devastating and unnecessary impact on many of the businesses that depend on visitors to rural areas. The best way of helping rural businesses is to encourage their customers to return as quickly as possible to the many places where it is safe to do so.

The taskforce has therefore agreed on a number of actions to achieve that. First, last Friday we issued new guidance to the public on what they can do safely in the countryside and what they must not do. The basic message is that the public should stay away from livestock and their pastures, but that there are still plenty of things to do and places to visit in the country without risking spreading the disease.

Secondly, an increasing number of rural properties will be opening to the public again very shortly: English Heritage is announcing today that more than 200 properties will be open from 1 April; the National Trust will announce shortly that it will be opening about 150 properties between now and 1 April; and British Waterways will be reopening many of its canals starting next week. In all cases, that follows a very careful, in-depth review agreed with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Thirdly. local authorities and national park authorities will be considering where footpaths can be safely opened. I hope that there will shortly be a much wider availability of footpaths for the public outside the infected areas.

Fourthly, we are mounting a public information campaign to ensure that the message gets through to the public about what they can and cannot do, and about the benefits that they can bring to rural businesses by their visits to the countryside—particularly to rural and seaside towns and villages, hotels, guest houses and tourist attractions in rural areas.

The Government, in conjunction with the tourism industry, are setting up a public information telephone line which will steer callers to more detailed help on what attractions are open. Extra funding will be made available to tourist boards to promote rural attractions.

We are also developing a preliminary package of measures to alleviate the immediate financial hardship of small businesses in rural areas which have been badly hit by the sudden decrease in visitors and other knock-on effects of the foot and mouth outbreak. In preparing the package, we have met and listened to a wide range of rural interests.

The first stage measures are as follows. First, we can offer help through the rates system. We will consider help through the rates system by increasing the central Government contribution to rate relief, from 75 to 95 per cent., for small businesses in rural authorities in the areas of greatest need and that are suffering genuine hardship because of foot and mouth. Affected businesses can also apply to the Valuation Office Agency for a temporary reduction in their rateable value.

On Friday, we presented a Bill that will extend mandatory 50 per cent. rate relief to all food shops in small rural settlements. We will also lay regulations to extend mandatory 50 per cent. rate relief to sole village pubs and garages with a rateable value of less than £9,000. Local authorities will also consider using their existing powers to allow deferred payment of rates. We are also announcing a three month extension to the deadline for business rate appeals.

Secondly, we can help through the tax system. As a first step, Ministers have asked Inland Revenue and Customs officials to take a very sympathetic approach to businesses experiencing financial problems as a result of the outbreak. The revenue departments already have power in specific circumstances to defer payment of taxes and national insurance contributions and to agree extended arrangements for time to pay. They will make maximum use of this flexibility for agricultural, transport, tourism and related retail businesses in the countryside, which cannot pay debts because of cash flow problems, where cash flow assistance, through rescheduling tax or national insurance contribution liabilities, would help.

Thirdly, we are considering with the Small Business Service and the banks how we can ensure continuing credit for small businesses badly affected by the impact of foot and mouth disease, including the use of the small firms loan guarantee fund. The Small Business Service, through a national helpline, will provide more information on the package of support available and access to the network of local business links.

Fourthly, we can help through the benefits system. Jobseeker's allowance may be available to employees and self-employed people out of work as a result of foot and mouth. The Department of Social Security will be making its procedures as fast and as flexible as possible.

I have had constructive discussions with the major banks. It is clear that they fully understand the problems faced by businesses from all sectors affected and they are being proactive in contacting their customers who are likely to be in trouble. They have made it clear that they are keen to support their customers wherever possible. They will look, on a case-by-case basis, at mechanisms such as extended lines of credit, capital repayment holidays and other measures. I would encourage all bank customers in difficulty or expecting problems to contact their local bank manager as soon as possible to discuss what options may be available.

Finally, I would like to pay tribute to the important role that the voluntary sector is playing in relieving rural distress. I can announce today that the Government will match the public donations that have been made to them for this purpose.

I should stress that this is a preliminary package. The taskforce will continue in being as long as it is needed. I look forward to making further announcements in due course.

Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells)

I thank the Minister of State for his statement. Many people in the countryside will have been awaiting his response today with mounting anxiety. It was a week ago that we first called for action to help businesses more broadly affected than those in the agriculture sector, including a call for business rate cancellation, on which the Minister commented today. It is now four weeks since the crisis started and it is clear that, on all sides, the extent of the crisis has been widely underestimated. The countryside is now risking meltdown and permanent loss of businesses, enterprise and employment. [Interruption.] Labour Members may not know about that, but Conservative Members do; we have many examples of enterprises that are threatened with going out of business imminently. The loss of employment will create enduring suffering in the countryside. It is important that all parties in the House address the question with great seriousness, and in a spirit of bipartisanship.

Against that background, the measures announced today will be widely welcomed, as far as they go. I have only just heard the Minister's statement, and the detail needs to be studied, but I have no doubt that the measures will command our support if they are delivered rapidly, and without bureaucracy and delay. However, businesses in the countryside need help now, not in a few months. The Minister was right to say that cash flow is their problem, and speed is of the essence.

Many people will be concerned that many of the proposals outlined by the Minister are conditional in nature and subject to further consultation. They will look for an accelerated time scale for the measures' implementation. It is hard to avoid the impression that the Government are still in the process of catching up with the crisis. We appreciate that the situation is fast moving, but the matter is now of the utmost urgency. When will the cash relief affect the bank accounts and overdrafts of affected businesses? That is the acid test.

In that context, I have a number of questions for the Minister. Will he undertake to look at the bureaucracy and the processes through which businesses must go, for example in applying for temporary rate relief? That process normally takes some weeks. Unless action is taken, however, businesses could go bankrupt in that period of time, especially given that Easter is approaching,

Does the Minister believe that the total tax relief, which he has presumably agreed with the Treasury, goes far enough? Will he give the House an idea of the Treasury estimate of the cost and financial commitment of the total package? That would give hon. Members an opportunity to judge the extent to which his announcement represents a real change.

For many businesses, the loss of cash flow will be irrecoverable. Overdrafts are rising, and tax deferral will merely add to the rising debt. Will the Minister consider going further than deferrals, and perhaps announce his support for enabling local authorities to provide a business rate holiday for the duration of the crisis for those businesses directly affected by it? The livelihoods of the owners of those businesses are at risk. The Opposition have advocated that proposal, and the Minister's statement was not clear on that point.

Again in a spirit of bipartisanship, may I raise the question of the climate change levy? I appreciate that that has been a matter of contention in the House, but I wish to set that to one side. I recognise that the levy has been approved by the House, but does the Minister consider it possible to contemplate a deferral of its implementation? The cost of the climate change levy to agriculture alone is estimated at £17 million. The Cumbria tourist board and others have called for a deferral. The levy is due to be implemented on 1 April, and will adversely affect many of the businesses that are already suffering.

The Minister will know that there remains widespread confusion about public events. Horse racing events in agricultural areas such as Lingfield are continuing, but other events, such as Crufts, have been cancelled. Hon. Members of all parties will have received letters from people who have been given apparently contradictory advice by local authorities and other bodies. My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) gave me the example of the Sutherland Lodge activities centre in his constituency. The local authority has advised that all school outings should be cancelled, and as a result the future of the business is at risk.

Is it possible to provide further clarity in Government guidance about the holding of public events? That would enable people in this country—and foreign tourists thinking of visiting from abroad—to be clear about which public events are likely to proceed, and which are likely to be cancelled.

On the vexed question of the pending county council elections, the Minister will be aware that all the political parties involved in Cumbria and Devon have called for a postponement of them in those areas specifically. Many people in the areas worst affected are living under a state of siege. They would find it insulting if politicians were seen to be engaging in a partisan battle during the local elections. It is time, surely, for all parties to pull together in those areas. Have the Government considered our suggestions for deferring local elections, or for taking the powers to defer local elections in those areas, if necessary, so that a decision can be made in the next few days, depending on the way the crisis develops?

I appreciate that the role of the Environment Agency, for which the Secretary of State is responsible, falls at the outer edge of the subject covered in this statement, but the issue is critical to the industry. There is widespread frustration at the reluctance to authorise the burial of carcases. A report in 1969 recommended burials as the fastest and most effective method of disposal, and preferable to burning. Yet reports from all parts of the country suggest that the Environment Agency has adopted a negative and unconstructive attitude towards burial. We appreciate that the agency is now affected by European legislation, but will the Secretary of State undertake to meet the Environment Agency to discuss this and see what can be done to accelerate the process of burial where it is appropriate and where it can be undertaken without adverse environmental effects?

Finally, will the Secretary of State accept that it is critical to have greater clarity from the Government on the extent and severity of the crisis? It is vital that the extent of the problem is not understated. Some in the Government have given the impression of wanting to downplay the crisis, while others have emphasised its seriousness. With hindsight, it may have been unwise for Ministers to have briefed last week that the situation was "under control". The Secretary of State spoke of safe zones on the "Today" programme last Wednesday. I do not know what has happened to the concept of safe zones, but the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport did not seem to have heard of them that same afternoon. That may be just one example of what has hitherto been a somewhat confused approach.

We appreciate that the situation is fast moving, and we welcome the Government's more encouraging response today. We will support remedies that bring fast relief to business. However, let there be no doubt that this is a national crisis that requires a national emergency response and a nation that speaks with one voice.

Mr. Meacher

I believe that we fully understand the extent of the impact of the outbreak. Given the efforts of my colleagues in MAFF to deal with the containment, control and extermination of the disease and the measures that we are bringing forward to help non-farm businesses, I do not believe that we have in any way underestimated the gravity of the situation. I believe that we have reacted rapidly and effectively, and that is the significance of today's statement.

I am grateful for much of the sober response of the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman). However, to refer to a "meltdown" is completely over the top and inappropriate and does not help in making a serious and proper response to the situation. Something like 1 per cent. of livestock have been affected. Of course, the implications go far wider, but we should keep things in perspective.

We accept that the Government will command support for their measures if they are delivered quickly. That is why I have had urgent discussions with the banks and have brought forward measures that will provide rate relief. Concern about the rate demands at the end of the month is, I think, people's prime financial anxiety. We are effectively meeting that anxiety with the proposals that we have made today.

I take the point that we should reduce bureaucracy in every possible way at this time. I stressed that repeatedly in my statement. The process of getting rate relief will be accelerated and prioritised. On the cost, I cannot give the house an accurate overall figure, because it depends on assessments made on a case-by-case basis. However, tens of thousands of small businesses will benefit from the measures that I announced today. Whether local authorities are able to offer a business rate holiday is a matter for their discretion, within the parameters of the extended scheme that I offered today.

The climate change levy, as the hon. Gentleman correctly says, comes into effect in less than a fortnight. I remind him that, overwhelmingly, it will be larger and non-rural businesses that will certainly have liabilities under the levy. I repeat that the measures being demanded of them are cost-effective; over time, those measures will benefit the bottom line of businesses by improving their energy efficiency. Although there is a short-term issue to be dealt with in respect of foot and mouth, the longer-term climate change issue remains with us all the time. We should not abandon measures that are necessary for that purpose.

On sporting activities, of course we want the clearest possible information about the availability of sporting and other public events. That depends entirely and specifically on the advice of the chief veterinary officer. We hope that he will make clear his views on the holding of such events as quickly as possible.

Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman says, it is not the case that all parties in Cumbria and Devon have sought postponement of the county council elections. That is certainly not so in Cumbria. I do not believe that there is a justification for taking such action at this stage. Certainly, we have to take account of the future course of the disease and we have to listen to what people are saying, but to send a message—especially abroad—at this point in time, that the whole country, or major parts of it, is in quarantine and that democracy has been suspended will not give a true or accurate image of our country.

Finally, on the hon. Gentleman's last point, I realise that there is an issue in relation to the Environment Agency and the disposal of carcases. The valuation of carcases can take an unduly long time, but we are looking at ways to speed up that process.

Dr. Jack Cunningham (Copeland)

May I tell my right hon. Friend that in my rural constituency in Cumbria his statement and these first steps to bring help to businesses will be warmly welcomed? Is he aware of the importance not only of the Government giving a clear, coherent message about the countryside, but of regional and local agencies doing the same? For example, is he aware that more than 100 visitor attractions in Cumbria and the Lake district are still open for business as usual? There is no reason that people should not go to them.

It is important that the Government attack the foot and mouth outbreak more aggressively and urgently bring more resources to bear on the problem in Cumbria and elsewhere. As long as the outbreak continues, rural businesses—large and small—in Cumbria and elsewhere will suffer; they are already suffering very, very seriously—especially the tourist industry.

May I also—[Hon MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Oh, yes. May I tell my right hon. Friend, the House and the Opposition spokesman that there was a Cumbria-wide crisis meeting yesterday in Kendal? All parties and all MPs attended. At no time was there a call from anyone for the suspension of elections, so the Opposition spokesman is totally wrong on that point. Indeed the meeting called for a non-partisan approach to these mattters.

Finally, let me tell my right hon. Friend and the House that the statement by the Leader of the Opposition that the chief executive of the Cumbria tourist board has called for the cancellation of elections is also completely untrue.

Mr. Meacher

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for what he says. I am sure that he is right to say that the Government's clear and coherent message has to be reflected regionally and locally. Indeed, the helplines that we have put in place for local authorities and business are designed precisely to try to achieve that. I take note of the fact that, as he said, more than 100 visitor attractions are still open. That information is useful because there is a widespread perception, which is wholly wrong, that they are all closed. That is not the case, and many more can be reopened.

We are deploying all the resources at our disposal to try to contain and eradicate the disease, especially where the outbreak is greatest—in Cumbria Devon and along the Welsh border. I take note, as did the whole House, of the correction that my right hon. Friend gave to the statement made by the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall)

I welcome the Minister's interim statement and hope that it represents the first step in explaining to the House how the Government will assist businesses, which will be affected for a long time. I know he agrees that clarity is important in enabling the public and business people to gain access to the support. That is vital. We do not need more bureaucracy and administration; we need more management of the resources and better use of the existing channels.

Specifically on the right hon. Gentleman's discussions with the banks, does he agree that they have an opportunity to show just how supportive of small businesses they are? Is he aware that there is evidence to suggest that they are already pulling out of some projects for which they had originally shown support? On rate relief, will special support be provided charities? They already receive 80 per cent. rate relief, so the modest increase may not assist them greatly. Will he confirm that the proposals include the deferment of VAT payments for one or perhaps two quarters? Will he also confirm that this is just the interim statement and that he expects to return to the House in the not-too-distant future to explain what progress the taskforce has made?

Mr. Meacher

On the hon. Gentleman's last point, I certainly confirm—as I twice said in the statement—that this is a preliminary statement. I appreciate the point about the need for urgency and rapid response. That is the reason why I have made this first step announcement today, but there will certainly be other statements, as and when necessary, in the light of further revelation of need. That is the criterion by which we shall decide what further action to take. Of course, as I said, it is very important that people should find it easy to gain access to the support. We are doing all we can to ensure that there is simplicity. We are running a massive advertising campaign to let people know, by using a single telephone number, where they can get help, so that they can be directed locally to precise and specific assistance.

I met the banks, and they said that they were being proactive and were seeking out among their clients those whom they thought might be in difficulty. I am concerned to hear the hon. Gentleman suggest that they might be pulling out of some projects. I should be pleased to know whether that is the case. I believe that they should be held to their word, and those who are involved in those projects should beard their local managers about the consequences of such action.

Of course rate relief is not primarily aimed at charities, and the hon. Gentleman should not belittle the increase in aid—from 75 to 95 per cent.—that the Government are offering. The proposals on VAT payments are primarily aimed at the next quarter, but a further quarter could be included if that were to prove necessary. There are flexibilities in the system, such as deferment and rescheduling, and we shall use them, on a case-by-case basis, where we can.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley)

My constituency has a mixed economy, in which farmers and tourists are very important. We need a clear and loud message that we have confidence in the countryside as part of the economy. In particular, the X Paragliding Company is entirely situated on National Trust land. It has not just had a cash flow problem—it has had no cash at all because the National Trust has been closed for business. I am very pleased to hear my right hon. Friend say that, within a week, we shall know more about the opening of National Trust land. What advice can I give to my constituents who are now suffering greatly from the lack of paragliding—although the snow may have prevented that from happening any way? How quickly will we be able to tell them which National Trust areas will be open for business?

Mr. Meacher

My hon. Friend is quite right to say that confidence in the countryside is an issue of great importance. If confidence returns and people realise just how far they can take advantage of the attractions and the beauty of the countryside and return to it in complete safety in the knowledge that they are not transmitting the disease any further, there will be no better way of bringing relief to rural businesses in their thousands. People may not visit the countryside for that motive, but that will be the consequence. It is an extremely important lesson for everyone in the country to understand.

With regard to paragliding, the advice that I have received from the National Trust is that it intends to open 150 properties after it has carried out a case-by-case analysis. That is the way that everything is being done; there are no blanket restrictions and there will be no blanket openings. Those properties should open in the next week or two, so I suggest that my hon. Friend advises her constituents to contact the National Trust. It will give precise advice about local areas.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon)

Although I welcome part of the Minister's statement, does he really understand the true depth and extent of the fear, despondency and crisis in my constituency? I have questions on two specific issues. First, why will the Government not call out the Army in real numbers to bury the carcases that have been lying around for days in Devon? Why are they culling healthy animals in Cumbria and not dealing with the backlog in Devon? Secondly, how can we have county council elections in Devon on 3 May when many county councillors and many candidates from all parties are farmers? How can there be a proper democratic process in Devon? When will the Minister listen to the voice of Devon?

Mr. Meacher

We are listening to the voice of Devon; indeed, I intend to visit Devon for a whole next day Thursday. Of course, we are listening to Cumbria, to Powys and to Devon. Those areas are hardest hit and we take careful note of all the information that we have about them from MAFF and other sources.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that we should call out the Army to get rid of the backlog of carcases. I said in my statement that we recognise that that is a serious issue. However, we do not at this stage believe that that is the right or necessary solution; we believe that there are better ways of dealing with the problem and we intend to put them in place. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will make very clear the Government's proposals on that.

With regard to elections, I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern when so many of his constituents and those in the surrounding area find it difficult to move around at this time. I repeat that I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but I genuinely believe that to take such a decision at this point would be deeply irresponsible. If there is the widespread belief in the United States that BSE is exactly the same as foot and mouth, the message that some parts of England cannot even hold democratic elections will be taken extremely badly and it will be utterly counterproductive.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

There is a real crisis in my constituency and it is very hard to put into words what is happening in such towns as Keswick, where businesses, hotels, outdoor centres and shops have found that their turnover has dropped by 90 per cent. The whole turnover of some businesses in my constituency has been wiped out, so we cannot underestimate the significance of the package that my right hon. Friend has introduced. It will be appreciated in so far as it meets some of the central requirements and requests of the tourist authorities in the county.

In the detail of my hon. Friend's statement, he mentioned the countryside and rural areas. Can he assure us that the towns to which I referred will be included in those rural categories? There must be no mistake in the mind of the public, especially when it comes to taxation deferment and rates relief, which is what will concern people.

May I Pass on a constituent's suggestion that was made to me on the telephone this morning? He has a simple solution, for which I think he has a case. He said, "Why not subsidise attractions?" My right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) referred to 100 attractions in our area. Why not subsidise those? That would bring people back to our areas to fill the boarding houses, hotels and restaurants and could well be a less expensive way of dealing with a problem that might turn out to be very costly in the long term.

Mr. Meacher

I do not underestimate the seriousness of the situation facing many farms and non-farm businesses, especially in Cumbria. When I was in the east and west midlands on Saturday, I met many representatives of small businesses who said that turnover had dropped by 50 or 70 per cent. and, in one case, by 90 per cent. I understand the problem. The question is how we can best respond to it quickly. That is what the Government have been addressing. There is no specific panacea; the package relies on a combination of measures that give well targeted, practical, short-term and effective help to tens of thousands of firms. That is our intention.

The package does apply to towns and small settlements in the countryside. Indeed, one matter under consideration is how far we can accelerate the application of the measures in the rural White Paper, especially in regard to parishes and small village settlements and the promotion of market towns. We have provided £37 million for that purpose which, if we lever in money, could be £100 million. If we manage to introduce that money quickly enough, it, too, will be an effective measure.

We will certainly consider promoting attractions, but we believe that it is much better to allow the local tourist board, under the direction of the English Tourism Council, to receive extra funding for that purpose, which we propose to provide. That is the best way to get more people to visit attractions and it will reduce the need for direct subsidies. No one wants subsidies; people just want to return to norma1 business. Carefully targeted extra funding can achieve that.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes)

Although I welcome the statement, which is a step in the right direction, may I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) said about the Army on Dartmoor? It is a permanent home to an enormous military contingent and there are three live firing ranges and dry training areas. The Army are all around the moor, in the moor and on the moor, but they are not helping the farmers. That is madness.

The South Hams, which is part of my constituency and that of my hon. Friend, has no foot and mouth disease and a huge tourism industry, but people from American and the midlands in particular believe that it is a no-go area. The attractions are open and people can walk on the sandy beaches. The Government could help by clearly stating that it is business as usual in the South Hams and that people from the midlands, the north and the United States in particular are most welcome.

Mr. Meacher

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about the use of the Army on Dartmoor. I have already responded to that point. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture will certainly be taking account of this exchange, and I am sure that he will have heard what the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) said. I repeat that we entirely accept that there is a serious problem and that it is totally unsatisfactory to have carcases lying around for several days. The question is how the problem is best dealt with, and that is primarily a matter for my right hon. Friend. He will have heard those comments, which of course are not unique but have been made by many others, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that he will respond to them.

On the second point, it is precisely the aim of my statement and of the rural taskforce that the Government can open up the countryside where that can safely be done and so long as the basic rules are obeyed. My statement will be followed up with all the institutions that can assist, and there will be massive advertising campaigns so that the message is put across. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that the Government are doing their best not only in this country but abroad. The British Tourist Authority is increasing its advertising in areas that have seen the biggest drop in the numbers of tourists coming to the UK—the United States, the Republic of Ireland, Germany and France There is a big campaign to set the record straight and to state that it is far from true that the countryside is out of bounds. In fact, the great majority of it is in absolutely no sense a no-go area.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Before I call another Member, I appeal for short questions. That will be very helpful indeed.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy)

The measures offered by my right hon. Friend and the speed with which he has acted will be much appreciated by my constituents. The delegation that I led to the Wales Office last week to meet the Under-Secretary of State was seeking such actions. Will my right hon. Friend take note of the widespread effects that the cancellation of this year's Urdd National Eisteddfod in Cardiff will have? Will he note also the knock-on effects of the cancellation on Llandudno in my constituency? If the 2002 Eisteddfod is cancelled, the area will lose about £2 million. Will he therefore ensure that effects on the whole of Wales will be considered by the taskforce?

Mr. Meacher

I am aware of course that the outbreak has had devastating effects on many national and public events, not least the one to which my hon. Friend referred. I understand that the Under—Secretary of State for Wales has written to her about what was said at their meeting. We want to ensure that festivals with international as well as national significance should be able to go ahead. I repeat that our actions must be guided by MAFF's veterinary advice. As soon as it is safe to reopen venues or to allow events to go ahead, the Government are extremely keen that we should do so, but we must rigorously accept the advice, whatever it is.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Everyone who has known the Minister over the years will know that he made his statement today with complete sincerity. However, at lunchtime we heard the Leader of the House saying that it is not people who are in quarantine, but only animals. Does that not give rise to the suspicion that the Government do not yet appreciate that they have a national crisis on their hands?

I assume that the right hon. Gentleman will have made an assessment of the consequences for a tourism industry that may well find that in certain parts of the country the summer season is already lost. I assume also that he will have made some assessment of the effect that that will have on farmers who may not be able to start up their proceedings again for six or nine months. Given that we have a national crisis on such a scale, what measures is the right hon. Gentleman thinking of introducing, other than those announced today which are very small and specific? Where in his thinking is the sense that we are dealing with a national crisis that needs a national response?

Mr. Meacher

The hon. Gentle man has not fairly characterised the tone of my statement or my responses. I recognise, as all Ministers have, that this is a very serious situation. I do not think anyone attempts to underplay it in any way. However, the issue is how we handle it, and how we contain and eradicate the disease.

The hon. Gentleman is almost certainly right in saying that there will be significant losses of international tourism in the summer, and that for many farm and non-farm businesses the effects could continue for some considerable time. That is why I said—taking account of the demand of the House for an urgent statement so that the immediate requirements could be put in place and everyone knew what they were, and so that the helpline could be set up within a matter of days—that I would then judge whether it was right to introduce further measures over the next few weeks. Obviously the content of such measures would depend on the course of the disease, and on further and clearer revelations of the degree of economic damage that the situation has caused.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's commitment to publicise the fact that many of our tourist attractions in the countryside are still open: for example, in Amber Valley, the midland railway museum, the national tramway museum, the Denby pottery visitors centre and the industrial heritage sites. Will he ensure that nothing is done to muddy the message that Derbyshire and other parts of the country are still open for visitors?

Will my right hon. Friend also note that my constituency is a mixed urban and rural area, and confirm that those who are suffering—such as businesses and those providing holiday accommodation—will be eligible for relief? For example, if the Pentrich rock and blues bikers festival does not go ahead, the local town could lose £500,000 worth of business. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that all businesses in such mixed areas will be eligible for relief if they are suffering?

Mr. Meacher

I repeat that many attractions remain open, and we believe that many more can open without risk. I understand that Derbyshire has been particularly affected. As with other areas, we are keen to see it opened up again where it is safe to do so. That is the message that I am giving all over the country.

With regard to the festival to which my hon. Friend referred, I must make it clear to the House that the statement that we have made is highly significant, and that it is also a preliminary one. It does not mean—the Government have never said that it meant—that there will be full compensation for everyone or every institution that has suffered economic loss. No Government are in a position to offer that. We need targeted measures for businesses at risk of going down, to keep them afloat and to provide them with the essential support to get through this situation. That is what the package is designed to do.

Jackie Ballard (Taunton)

Tomorrow afternoon, a crisis meeting is to be held in Porlock of representatives of Exmoor businesses. This situation affects not only those who provide tourist accommodation or services to tourists, but those who rely on passing trade from visitors to the national park, such as garages and pubs, whose takings have slumped dramatically.

Although the measures that the Minister has announced will be welcome, they will deal only with some of the short-term cash flow problems. They will not help people to pay their immediate bills for the basic necessities of life. Deferring payments will not deal with the long-term cash flow problems. What message would the Minister like me to pass on from the Government to those Exmoor businesses at their meeting tomorrow, to give them some hope for the future?

Mr. Meacher

I hope that the hon. Lady will pass on the message that the Government are listening, responding and providing immediate emergency help in a manner that is directly relevant. I have already been around the country a good deal, listening, and I have included in the statement the matters of most concern that were expressed to me.

The hon. Lady is right to say that this is not just about tourist attractions. A vast range of small rural businesses, pubs, shops, bed and breakfasts and hotels have been affected. I have said that transport and haulage contractors can also gain benefit under this package. I do not believe that, as a result of the application of the package, people will still not be able to pay for the immediate necessities of life. If they had to meet new rate demands and demands for VAT and PAYE payments on the dot when they came in, however, they would be in trouble, and we are finding every possible means within the current legislative system to defer some of those payments and to relieve them of their immediate liability. Of course that will leave a greater problem in the longer term, and we shall consider that later on.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak)

First, may I correct the impression that my right hon. Friend may have given? There has been a single outbreak in south Derbyshire, but the Peak district, whose tourism is dependent on 22 million visitors a year, is not affected by foot and mouth disease in any way and is open for business. Indeed, last Thursday I was at a conference for representatives of the Peak district tourism industry, who have put together a package that they wish to have implemented. My right hon. Friend may have read their proposals, because those which he announced today exactly match those of this vital tourism area.

Finally, will my right hon. Friend look at imaginative ways of making sure that some of our attractions reopen? I am thinking of Peveril castle in Castleton, which has been closed because it uses four sheep full-time to keep the grass down. If those sheep could be moved, the attraction could be reopened.

Mr. Meacher

I am sure that the people responsible for the four sheep will take note of the obvious solution and move them pretty quickly. On the general point about Derbyshire, I agree that is vital to stress that the Peak district, which has about 22 million visitors a year, is totally unaffected by the crisis. When I said that Derbyshire had suffered, I meant that many people in that attractive part of the country who are dependent on the tourist business have been hit secondarily, as their takings have been affected. The statement is designed to assist people in that position.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

May I ask the Minister how best to address a short-term crisis with long-term environmental consequences, particularly in forestry? Christmas to Easter is the maximum planting period; many small businesses across rural Britain have commenced planting, only to be told that they are now in an infected area. In turn they have had to inform customers and clients that they have been in an infected area, even if they are not carrying the virus, which is putting their businesses in crisis. More importantly, we will lose a whole season's planting of trees if we are not careful.

Mr. Meacher

I appreciate that people are in that situation. Again, what I have said about rate relief and the assessment of the situation by revenue departments and Customs and Excise is relevant. Those people will be treated as sympathetically as possible concerning those statutory payments. If there are other means of assisting them, we are very glad to use them. Those who are right inside the infected areas are grievously afflicted; most of them are farmers, who get agreed compensation for animals that are slaughtered, but people who are not farmers, and do not have livestock, have also been seriously affected. The hon. Gentleman referred to a particular category to which we ought to pay further attention.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

The reality in Cumbria is that the economy will not recover until we get on top of the disease. Will my right hon. Friend tell the Agriculture Minister that a senior MAFF official needs to go to Carlisle to take charge of the problem? As for the remit of my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, the Cumbrian economy is badly damaged. It is not in meltdown, and it will recover, but the speed of that recovery will depend on the assistance that Cumbria receives from the Government. I am glad to see my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury in the Chamber

Will my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment agree to meet representatives of Cumbria county council when they come down here to explain what is necessary to get the Cumbrian economy back on its feet?

Mr. Meacher

Cumbria, and in particular the area around my hon. Friend's constituency, Carlisle, has been one of the most affected areas in the country. I repeat that we are extremely anxious to do what we can to help. I would be willing, I think, to meet a delegation that my hon. Friend brought from his constituency, so long as it was not treated as a precedent for my meeting everyone else from all over the country who comes from an infected area. One must be careful about these matters.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

The Minister will meet only those from Labour marginal seats.

Mr. Meacher

I am very happy to meet people from any kind of constituency, irrespective of the political nature of that constituency or the majority. People can get a little overheated about the issue, which is an extremely serious one. Public opinion outside is not assisted by some hon. Members treating it as political kick-about.

I am glad to help my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) in any way that I can. I suggest that he gets in touch with me with particular proposals. I do not want to offer tea and sympathy. People want practical help, and if they can suggest ways in which we can provide that, we will listen.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

The Minister's statement began with a few dos and don'ts, then he gave a list of things that he was considering, studying and deferring, but the only item of substance in the statement was an element of rate relief. That was the guts of it. How exactly will that work? When will he publish clear rules and guidelines? What is his budget for it? Will it be administered by the county layer or the borough layer? What do people have to prove in order to qualify? Exactly what details must they gather in order to secure the qualifying relief that he announced this afternoon, and when will it start?

Mr. Meacher

Those are perfectly fair questions, and I will give fair answers. Of course, we will produce those details. The statement was produced ultra-quickly, because that is what the public demanded. We will produce the answers to those questions very soon, and I mean very soon, because we want the scheme to be in operation as quickly as possible.

However, to dismiss the rest of the statement as a deferment or a consideration of this, that and the other is wrong. If the hon. Gentleman studies the detail, he will see that the cumulative impact is considerable. In particular, those who deal with the victims of the outbreak will receive case-by-case and very favourable and sympathetic assistance, not only from the revenue authorities, but from the banks and the Small Business Service. The hon. Gentleman should not dismiss that with a shake of his head. It is extremely important and will provide genuine assistance.

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)

I welcome the positive statement from my right hon. Friend, but mixed messages are being sent. Loch Lomond, in my area, depends heavily on tourists and the message to hill walkers is that it is unacceptable to be in the countryside, whereas the message to skiers is that it is acceptable. I welcome the public information campaign that the Government are about to undertake.

To talk about abandoning any elections would put out entirely the wrong message. We must remember that during the second world war, we had elections, while we were still prosecuting a war against the Japanese. In 1974 we had a three-day week, but we had an election, which was called by the Opposition. The message must be that the United Kingdom has not shut down—it is open for business seven days a week.

Mr. Meacher

My hon. Friend is right. We need to clarify where people can safely go. I have said that repeatedly, and it should be made clear across the piece—given the earlier reference to skiing that may not be an appropriate metaphor. There should be clarity about all kinds of activities. We will provide a helpline so that if people still have doubts after reading the guidelines, they can get specific and detailed assistance from the helpline. On the question of elections, my hon. Friend put the case exactly. To suspend elections is a sign of crisis, which is out of all proportion to the state that we are in.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

The Minister not only dealt with short-term help, but spoke about a Bill that was published yesterday, .which is presumably supposed to deal with the long term. First, what is the extent of that Bill and will the aid that it provides apply throughout the United Kingdom? Secondly, what is his definition of a small rural settlement?

Mr. Meacher

The Rating (Former Agricultural Premises and Rural Shops) Bill, which we published on Friday, provides for an extension of mandatory 50 per cent. relief to village shops, pubs and garages under a prescribed rateable value. We are considering to what extent we can fast-track the measure so that its benefits are not only available in the long term, but can apply in the immediate short term. If we can do that, we will. The general definition of a small parish settlement is a settlement with a population of fewer than 3,000 people.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that his detailed but interim statement will be widely welcomed throughout north-east England. It will be especially welcomed in my Teesdale constituency, where most tourism businesses are micro-businesses that currently have devastating cash flow problems. I should like, however, to issue him with two constructive warnings. First, Ministers will need to have a firm grip to ensure that the clear message that he has given today rings out with equal clarity and cogency throughout the whole country and from all agencies. Secondly, Ministers must have the same grip in respect of money, if it is to get quickly to the people who need it.

Mr. Meacher

I entirely accept my right hon. Friend's constructive warnings. It is always hardest to give assistance to micro-businesses, which are at the end of the line of small and medium enterprises and are not always plugged into their information requirements. That is the purpose of the massive advertising programme that we are about to start—I hope that we will do so before the end of the week—in the newspapers and on the radio. It will be parallelled by similar campaigning abroad as soon as the British Tourist Authority can provide it.

With regard to my right hon. Friend's strictures for Ministers, I assure him that we are conducting a joined-up campaign within Whitehall. Ministers from several other Departments are members of the taskforce, and I have been in constant contact with them during the past few days. Whether it is MAFF, the Department of Trade and Industry or the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, all those other Departments are putting their weight behind the campaign, which is a good example of Government working through close co-operation.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

Given that Cumbria is the most affected county, will the Minister tell us whether a Cumbrian serves on his national taskforce? If not, will he consider appointing one? I welcome his remarks about business rate valuations and appeals against them, but is he aware that Ulverston Inland Revenue valuation office already has an 18-month waiting list for current cases? What can he do to speed that up? Furthermore, Cumbria county council, which is run by the Labour party, estimates that the region's economy is already losing £15 million a week. What is the estimated value of the package that he has announced for the nation for, say, the next three months?

Mr. Meacher

The membership of the rural taskforce, which is already large and has between 20 and 25 members, involves all relevant interests. If the taskforce had to be formed on a geographic basis, it would have to have members not only from Cumbria, but from Devon, Powys and the Welsh borders, and Dumfries and Galloway, as it is dealing with a UK effort. Such a requirement would become impossible, although that does not mean that we are not deeply aware that Cumbria is one of the two areas that has been most affected by the outbreak. A great deal of our effort is now directed to it. On the speeding up of rate claims in Ulverston, we are, as I said, postponing for three months the period for receipt of rating appeals. If we can assist in the handling of those claims in any other ways, we shall certainly consider them.

The hon. Gentleman says that the losses in Cumbria amount to £15 million. I am sure he is right; they are considerable in many parts of the country. The thrust of my statement is that the best way to assist people is not to increase Government expenditure, though that is necessary in the immediate short term, but to get people to accept that they can safely go back into the countryside and spend their money as they wish at rural businesses, shops, B and Bs and hotels. That is what the statement is designed to achieve.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Foot and mouth strikes cloven-hoofed animals—ones that we are familiar with and others such as the antelope. The elephant can also be affected. My question is about zoos. Will special consideration be given to the plight of zoos, which are major visitor attractions? If the outbreak drags on for long, it could put some out of business.

Mr. Meacher

I am concerned about that. When I was in the east midlands, I met an owner who had closed her zoo. When I asked why, she said it was because of the fear of the disease spreading to it. I also asked where the nearest livestock were. She replied, "18 miles away." I then asked whether she had sought local veterinary advice, and I hope that she will do so. It is not for me to decide, but I believe that many nature reserves and zoos can open, although that depends on local advice.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

The Minister's recommendation to spirit away sheep will be studied with interest by the Minister of Agriculture.

The Minister talks about affected areas, but does he realise that many areas with no foot and mouth outbreak are none the less grievously affected and may be in an exclusion zone? He also talks about jobseeker's allowance. Does he realise that many people have a job, but have no work? Companies have no business but want to keep their staff, so will he consider whether jobseeker's allowance can be used to help people who remain technically employed, but are not earning wages because their companies cannot pay them? Are local authorities eligible for the Bellwin scheme in respect of significant expenditure incurred in managing elements of the foot and mouth outbreak?

Mr. Meacher

Of course I realise that many areas outside the immediately infected areas—what are sometimes called the designated areas, in a 10 km radius—are almost as acutely affected, because so many paths, buildings and access routes are closed. Again, we are content to accept local advice as to how far some of those areas, under some conditions, can be opened up. I repeat, however, that that is a matter for local veterinary advice. Assisting areas outside the infected areas is the whole point of my statement.

I hope that right hon. and hon. Members took note of my statement, because many people do not understand that self-employed persons can, under certain conditions, be entitled to jobseeker's allowance if they have no work. The right hon. Gentleman referred to a particular situation that I have not considered and it is for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security to take a view on the matter, but we shall certainly consider what might be done for companies that have no work as a result of the foot and mouth outbreak, but which do not want to lose their trained staff.

The Bellwin scheme is implemented under closely prescribed conditions, as is of course necessary, and it was used in the example of flooding. It may have application in this example. That, again, is a matter that we want closely to consider in the next few days.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the people at Bolsover castle and Hardwick hall will be pleased about the preliminary statement made today and the money involved, because they contrast sharply with what happened during the pit strike of 1984 and 1985? In all those beleaguered pit communities, businesses went under and shops had to close, but there was not one penny piece from the Tories and, to show their thanks, they closed all the pits and made the problem even worse. Does he agree that the only reason he is able to hand out money today is that we have run the economy 10 times better than that lot did when they were in power?

Mr. Meacher

My hon. Friend always makes a powerful political point forcefully and eloquently. We all have our views about the pit strike. It is certainly true that the current economic situation makes it easier for the Government to respond, and we shall do so as fully and as effectively as the circumstances require.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

The owner of a local riding stables rang me this weekend to say that she is going out of business. We have not yet had a case of foot and mouth in Lincolnshire, but every footpath has been closed. What plans does the Minister have to work with county councils to ensure that we fight this disease where it is breaking; out, and can open footpaths and bridleways through arable areas? Could the Minister also answer the question that has been posed and tell us what the package is worth because it is important that relief is not spread too thinly over the whole country?

Mr. Meacher

We have been going for an hour and 10 minutes, and I keep repeating that the whole point of this statement and of the rural taskforce is to bring aid to people in those parts of the country outside the immediately infected areas who have been seriously hit by an economic downturn which has been no fault of their own. It has been dramatic, and they have no defence against it. We recognise that they need assistance. The best way to assist them is to get people back into those areas by making sure that they understand that it is safe. We must get rid of people's serious misconception, which is perhaps due to their feeling of patriotism and their desire to help the country. They thought the best way to do that was to keep out of the countryside, but we now know that that is wrong; and it has had a devastating effect. I hope that we will all take a non-partisan approach and join together to get that message across in all constituencies. Hon. Members will certainly have the assistance of Government through an advertising campaign, and of the tourist boards and local authorities. We are all trying to ensure that we get across a clear message.

I have already answered the question about bridleways and footpaths. They will be opened if it is safe to do so. I have asked the Local Government Association and all local authorities to consider case by case whether they can open the footpaths in their area. I have no doubt that over the next week or two the great majority of them will be safely opened.

Mr. Nick Ainger (West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire)

I thank the Minister for his statement. It will he warmly welcomed in my constituency, which has a large tourism industry. Some attractions are due to open at Easter, but the guidance and advice that they are receiving is unclear about whether they should open or not. Bearing in mind the fact that Easter is only three weeks away, will he ensure that clear guidance is given to those attractions, because we want them to open for business as quickly as possible?

Mr. Meacher

My hon. Friend raises a point that has been of great concern to the Government. People are now making their Easter bookings. Many small rural businesses have a fairly hard time during the winter months, but in the spring and summer their earnings manage to pay back the winter losses. It is critical that they have the full benefit of visits and the increased custom that comes when people are enjoying themselves and taking recreation in the countryside. That is exactly why it is so important to get this message across, and why the Government are doing all in their power to ensure that people realise that they can safely visit those attractions this Easter.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not be tempted to open access to farmland in some of the finest dairying areas in the country, in Somerset in my constituency. Does he realise that a great many businesses are not directly related to tourism but their turnover is nevertheless being decimated? That applies not only in small villages, but in the market towns to which the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell Savours) referred. I hope that the Minister's package will deal with. that.

A specific problem relates to the Royal Bath and West show, which is due to open in a few weeks' time. It is far more than just an agricultural show; it is a major showcase and shop window for hundreds of rural businesses. Will the Minister meet representatives from the show to see how they can ensure that the show not only takes place, but takes place successfully?

Mr. Meacher

I have made it clear repeatedly that, while we want as much of the countryside as possible to be opened, we must make certain that that is done with caution. We must ensure that paths across farmland or pastures that might be used by livestock are not opened. Everything must be considered on a case-by-case basis, and the case referred to by the hon. Gentleman may well be one in which such action would simply not be advisable. I entirely accept that it should not be undertaken until it is safe for that to happen.

According to the English Tourism Council, the tourism industry receives about £12 billion a year from visitors to the countryside, especially in spring and summer. It is an enormous industry, and it is crucial. We are not concerned just about tourism, however. I have mentioned haulage and transport, but other rural businesses not seen as directly connected with tourism would certainly be covered by my proposals.

It is not for me to say whether the royal agricultural show should take place. I suggest that its sponsors speak to local MAFF and veterinary officers, and identify conditions under which it could safely be opened. As long as those conditions can be met, no one will be more pleased than me if the show goes ahead; but if it is decided that they cannot be met, we must accept that judgment for safety reasons.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

As the Minister knows, I wrote to him last week commending two or three items that he has included in his package. They are good short-term measures, but they are only short-term. May I urge the Minister to look further? Direct financial compensation will be needed, owing to the disastrous position of many rural businesses.

Does the package cover Wales? Last week, Wales Office Ministers were not even invited to join the taskforce.

Mr. Meacher

As I said a few minutes ago, given the magnitude of the economic impact of this outbreak, no Government would be in a position to compensate each and every business for all the losses it has suffered. What we want to do is enable people to survive the crisis and not go under—to get to the end of it, and then begin to recover their economic strength. If more measures are needed to achieve that, we will certainly consider them.

I understand that a Welsh representative was at the meeting of the taskforce. I stand to be corrected if that is not so, but an invitation was certainly issued. Representatives of all devolved Administrations are invited, and a Welsh representative was present this morning.

I am keen for this to be a United Kingdom initiative, although the work of the taskforce primarily concerns England. It hardly needs to be said that foot and mouth is no respecter of boundaries, and I am keen that we should all act together: that will make our action more effective. It is, however, for the devolved Administrations to decide on the implementation of what is agreed in their own way.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I have allowed questions on the statement to continue for nearly an hour and 20 minutes, but we must now move on. I thank the Minister for his patience.