§ 6.16 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty)
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat the Statement made by my right honourable friend Mr Michael Meacher in another place earlier today. The Statement reads as follows: "Mr Speaker, I wish to report on the work of the Rural Task Force, which held its second meeting this morning. We all agree 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 both farmers and the wider rural community, especially in tourism. The Rural Task Force, which has representatives from a range of rural interests and government departments, is working urgently to develop measures to alleviate these impacts.
"I must commend the response of the public who have been very anxious to avoid spreading the disease. But large parts of the country are not affected and people wrongly believe that the whole countryside is out of bounds. This has had a devastating and unnecessary impact on many of the businesses which depend on visitors to rural areas. The best way to help rural business is to encourage its customers to return as quickly as possible to the many places where it is safe to do so.
"So the task force has agreed on a number of actions to achieve this.
"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 are announcing today that over 200 properties will be open from 1 April. The National Trust will announce shortly that they will be opening around 150 properties between now and 1 April. British Waterways will be reopening many of their canals, starting next week. In all cases this follows a very careful in-depth review agreed with MAFF.
"Thirdly, local authorities and National Park Authorities will be considering where footpaths can be safely opened, and I hope that there will shortly be a much wider availability of footpaths for the public outside the infected areas.
1336 "Fourthly, we are mounting a public information campaign to ensure the message gets through to the public about what they can and cannot do, and the benefits that they can bring to rural businesses by their visits to the countryside, and, in particular, 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 phone. This will steer callers to more detailed help on what attractions are open. Extra funding will be made available to the 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 drop in visitors and other knock-on effects of the foot and mouth disease. In preparing this package we have met with, 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 per cent to 95 per cent for small businesses in rural authorities in areas of greatest need that are suffering greatest hardship as a result of foot and mouth disease. We will be announcing our proposals shortly.
"Affected businesses can also apply to the Valuation Office Agency for a temporary reduction in their rateable value.
"Yesterday we presented a Bill which 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 shall take steps 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 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 NIC 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 1337 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 are taking action through the benefits system. Jobseekers' allowance may be available to both employees and self-employed people out of work as a result of foot and mouth; and the Department of Social Security will be making its procedures as fast and flexible as possible.
"I have also had constructive discussions with the major banks. It is clear that they fully understand the problems being faced by businesses from all sectors affected and they are being pro-active in contacting their customers likely to be in trouble. They 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 should like to pay tribute to the important role the voluntary sector is playing in relieving rural distress. I can announce today that the Government will match the public donations which have been made to them for this purpose.
"I should stress that this is a preliminary package. The task force will continue in being as long as it is needed, and I look forward to making further announcements in due course".
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
§ 6.22 p.m.
§ Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer
My Lords, in view of the extended nature of the previous debate, I may not be able to stay throughout the debate on the Statement and I apologise to the House for that. I am going to Brussels with Sub-Committee D and have already booked a seat on the train. Therefore, I ask for the understanding of the House. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for allowing me to speak before her on the Statement.
We welcome this package of measures and the fact that the Government have moved quickly to introduce some certainty into the situation regarding rate relief and associated matters. However, I say immediately to the Minister—I repeat what I said last week—that on these Benches, we are disappointed by the Government's blanket approach to this issue. Clearly, some areas are in extreme crisis—for example, Devon, Cumbria and Powys—while much of the nation is barely affected by it. The Statement does not recognise sufficiently the very regional nature of the problem. I hope that when this package of measures is applied, authorities in the worst affected areas will be able to take much more extreme measures, in particular in deciding which businesses should be eligible for rate 1338 relief. The Minister listed a number of businesses but clearly in some areas, such as Devon, all businesses are now affected.
There is also the question of what message the Government wish to give those coming from abroad to use our tourist facilities. On their televisions and in their newspapers, people from abroad are still seeing piles of animals burning. That makes it very difficult for the Government to succeed in putting across the message that the countryside is open. The Government must achieve a very difficult balance in that respect. On these Benches, we want to see the revival of tourism but the issue of which regions are worst affected needs to be dealt with extremely frankly.
However, if that is done, it will be clearly understood that the North West and South West are difficult areas in which to walk and, after all, that is why most people visit, for example, the Lake District and Dartmoor. Again, I ask the Government to consider using the contingency fund in a major way, particularly in those areas where tourism, small businesses and agriculture are most affected. That could perhaps be done through the regional development agencies. There really is a case of extreme need in those areas and I believe that consequential compensation is the only route there.
I must declare an interest as my husband is chairman of the Exmoor National Park Authority. But there is much concern in Exmoor about the existence of a confirmed case at South Molton. The authority has no power to close minor roads through open land where stock graze and it feels that that is necessary. Access needs to be restricted in infected areas with diversions via minor roads into uninfected areas. It believes also that it is a necessary to disinfect essential vehicles entering an uninfected area, with support from army services personnel. I make a special plea for Exmoor because of the large deer herd there. That is a problem which is particular to that area.
These are the short-term measures. In the medium or long term, again, I urge that the steps which the Government have taken to encourage British supermarkets to buy British produce should come into effect rapidly. Those steps would include the provisions the code of conduct and the recommendations of Food from Britain which, in their response to the rural White Paper, the Government said would encourage supermarkets to stock regional produce. When farmers can no longer export, that is absolutely crucial.
§ 6.27 p.m.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place earlier today. I pay tribute to the members of the task force who have come forward with these first proposals. We welcome the Government's commitment to match the donations given by individuals and charities in response to this disaster. I add my thanks to all those in the voluntary sector who have given money or who are supporting those families which have been devastated by these recent events.
1339 While some of the measures outlined today bring hope to some businesses, by far the biggest help that the Government could give would be to bring this foot and mouth outbreak under control. The Statement does not announce any new measures on that front. It refers to the rate relief and possible deferred payment of taxes and national insurance contributions, and other help to rural businesses. Those concessions are indeed welcome. But will the Minister assure the House that those reliefs will be speedily available, with the minimum of red tape, particularly bearing in mind that the rate billing season is now upon us?
Does not the Minister accept that there is total confusion throughout the country as to whether or not the countryside is open to visitors? Does he accept also that farmers and those involved with the outbreak are furious that members of the public wander across country lanes and footpaths, many of which have restricted notices displayed? How can members of the public make and have a considered judgment when MAFF is going in one direction, the DETR in another and the DCMS going in yet another direction as to what is or is not possible?
Mr Meacher said earlier today in the debate in the other place that he accepted that decisions on whether to close or keep open footpaths will be made locally. Does the Minister accept that that will only add to the difficulty and confusion? That will make practically impossible the running of any national hotline which is set up.
What is or is not open to visitors? Mr Meacher even suggested that people could visit areas that were livestock-free, but how will the general public know what animals have been or are likely to be in certain fields without greater direction? What about wildlife? The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, referred to wildlife and in particular to deer. If the disease spreads on the wind, as currently believed, in addition to direct contact, how can the Minister balance the words in the Statement? How are walkers to know which fields have livestock and which have not, and how will overseas visitors be briefed?
Why have the Government shied away from persuading the Environment Agency to relax its administrative procedures and to permit more and speedier burials? That matter, which was the subject of a strong recommendation in the report on the 1967 disaster, has not been addressed properly by MAFF or DETR.
The mounting of a public information campaign is vital. Visitors from abroad assume that our whole country is affected. I suspect that they will not change their views until a clear announcement is made that the disease has been eradicated. Many visitors are fearful of the implications that the disease may have upon them when they return to their own country. Can the Minister comment on that and tell the House what proposals there are?
We welcome the extra funding that is being made available to the tourist boards. The Statement refers to the sole pub, shop or garage in villages, but some small villages of fewer than 3,000 people have more than one 1340 pub. The Statement suggests that such places will not be helped. Is that correct? The Statement also referred to the job seeker's allowance, saying it "may" be available. Surely, it should say "shall" be available. Who has the discretion?
Already 118 people have been made redundant in Dumfries and Galloway as a direct result of the foot and mouth disease. Can the Minister give the House the figures for England and Wales? What help is to be given to employers who have to bear the costs of redundancy? What happens to businesses that technically still have staff and want to keep them but are currently financially unable to pay them?
While the measures set out in the Statement are welcome, does the Minister accept that the biggest help that the Government can provide is to bring this outbreak under control? 'The Statement is helpful in parts. It provides help for rural businesses. But do the Government accept that it produces no specified new money to help to fight the disease? We have had contact with farmers in affected areas who tell us that they have no or, at best, little confidence that the Government are in control of events. Their personal experience shows us that inadequate resources have been supplied. They are also frustrated by the many delays that they are experiencing. That is in stark contrast to the approach taken in France and in Northern Ireland.
§ 6.33 p.m.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I appreciate the seriously qualified welcome given to the Statement from the two Front Benches opposite. Clearly, there are anxieties, but I do not believe that it is useful to say that there is total confusion or—
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, "total confusion" may be fed by irresponsible comment both in the media and in political circles.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord will give way. I understand what he is saying but I assure him that there is confusion. The Government should understand that. We are in London, although we go home to various parts of the country, and there is confusion.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, we have a difficult and complex situation because circumstances differ in different parts of the country. It is important that people realise what the situation is in the parts of the country that they visit. Government advice has been geared and is being geared to providing that information, for example, through the Countryside Agency, the tourist boards and so forth.
Counties in areas that have not been affected, as well as those that have been affected, have taken measures to close all rights of way, and other bodies, such as 1341 English Heritage and the National Trust, have closed properties even when there has been no evidence of a potential problem for a particular property. Those bodies have said, as we have said, that a more selective approach to the matter needs to be taken and that we should look at those areas where it is possible to open properties, paths, tow paths, canals and so on where there is no danger of the disease being spread. That approach will reassure people in the locality that we are not closing down the countryside; it will reassure people who want to visit the locality that they can enjoy certain activities in the countryside; and it will reassure people that prosperity can be spread to those areas of the countryside that are being damaged more than they need to be on any continuing basis.
It was right that such bodies were exceptionally cautious to start with, but we can now take an approach that will allow those businesses that can operate to operate. We can send a message to the public that many of the attractions of the countryside—stately homes, the seaside, restaurants, hotels and in many cases gatherings—can take place without danger of spreading the disease.
That situation will be different in different parts of the country. As the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said, there is a particular problem in relation to Devon, Cumbria, Powys and some other areas where clearly the measures that we have announced today would need to be applied more intensively. We have now given the local authorities the ability to do that.
The idea that different messages are coming from government is not correct. This Statement and all other Statements have been agreed between my department, MAFF and the DCMS. The English Tourist Council is likewise putting the same message on its information systems. However, it is clear that we must, as a top priority, contain and eradicate this disease, but at the same time we must not, by default, close down the rest of rural industry and services.
Therefore, this is not a blanket approach, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said; in fact, it is a selective approach that focuses the attention of the eradication process and of the restrictions on movement in those areas most directly affected or in adjacent areas. It is important that we assure tourists, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said, that there are opportunities available to them. In the short term we must look at the package that we have produced today, in terms of immediate measures to relieve the pressures, particularly on small businesses in rural areas, because those are closest to the margin and are therefore those with the most acute cash-flow difficulties; but we must also look at the long-term effects as to where the more substantial, wider measures may be necessary to deal particularly with the worst affected areas.
In relation to Exmoor, for example, the local highways authorities have the ability to close roads, and no doubt the Exmoor National Park, in conjunction with Devon and Somerset councils, could close roads. I understand that not many local authorities have used those powers and primarily they 1342 have not done so on their own veterinary advice. Nevertheless, the powers are in place and if the danger is perceived as particularly acute there is no reason why such restrictions or closures of roads could not take place.
I endorse the final point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, in relation to the appeal to supermarkets and other food distributors to "buy British" in this period and to try to sustain some of the produce from our agricultural and horticultural sectors.
The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, referred to the Environment Agency. It is certainly true that there has been frustration about the way in which that agency's procedures have operated. The Environment Agency is well seized of that. However, it is important to recognise that the agency has a big responsibility. Burying the carcasses can often be seen as the quickest way of disposal, but the Environment Agency must assess the long-term pollution effect of that. It is taking steps to speed up the way in which it does that and to be as flexible as it can with farmers and others in trying to dispose of livestock in that way where it is appropriate. However, it has wider and longer term responsibilities in that respect.
In relation to all government agencies—to social security and the tax authorities—we are attempting to speed up the bureaucratic processes in order ensure that the aid referred to in the Statement and previously is delivered as rapidly as possible to those who most need it. We have gained the co-operation of the banks as regards private finance.
Many of the decisions as regards particular rights of way, restrictions or movements will be made locally. Those local decisions must be based on veterinary advice. It is important that the advice given to local authorities, to farming enterprises and to MAFF co-ordinates the information and it is important that people recognise that the situation will be different in different parts of the country. The point of the package is to minimise the devastating impact on farming in many of the areas and also to ensure that the rest of the rural economy, which employs many more people than farming, does not suffer unduly from the knock-on effects of the disease.
The announcement of itself does not deal with the measures directly to eradicate the disease, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. However, we have intensified those measures, particularly in the worst affected areas, and there is a clear determination to use all facilities, including the use of troops and private-sector resources, in order to eradicate and contain the disease. That remains our top priority, but it is also necessary to look after the rest of the rural economy and to take into account the serious impact the disease is having, particularly on the tourist trade.
§ Lord Rotherwick
My Lords, the Minister said that the primary objective of the rural task force is to eliminate foot and mouth disease. He also said that the Government would soon inform the general public of 1343 the areas of the countryside to which they could return safely. However, that would exclude livestock and pastures. I am anxious that that advice should include areas frequented by wild deer, as mentioned by the noble Baronesses, Lady Miller and Lady Byford.
In the outbreak in Bicester in Oxfordshire the M40 is guarded on both sides by deer fencing. Fifteen miles away, where I live, it is normal to shoot about 200 wild deer in a year. It can therefore be seen that a considerable number of wild deer in certain parts of the country are vulnerable to foot and mouth.
Will the Government ensure that the general public are made aware of the problems relating to wild deer? Will the Minister ensure that the areas which the general public are allowed to use will not include footpaths next door to arable fields and woodlands which are frequented by muntjac? Will he also ensure that the general public are aware of the muntjac, which frequent people's gardens?
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I believe that I can reassure the noble Lord on that count. The first line of the information on what one should not do reads:Do not go near cattle, sheep, pigs or deer wherever they are".That includes wild deer and deer which are corralled. Therefore the information is clear.
§ 6.45 p.m.
§ Viscount Bledisloe
My Lords, I declare an interest in that I farm a livestock farm not far from some outbreaks of foot and mouth disease and I have a tourist attraction which would, but for the present situation, be about to open. I want to ask the Minister two specific questions.
First, will he ensure that no footpath which is currently closed is reopened without close consultation with those who farm the land over which those footpaths run? I am sure he recognises that a farmer who realises that his livestock is at risk of total slaughter will be absolutely infuriated if he feels he is exposed to the slightest additional risk by the reopening of a footpath merely to allow people to wander and derive a little pleasure. It may imperil his entire enterprise and it is a recipe for confrontation. Any sensible farmer, including myself, who felt that there was a risk would keep the footpath closed, whatever the local authority said.
Secondly, the Minister said that tourist boards will have funding enabling them to make plain to the public which tourist attractions are open. Will he confirm that that funding will extend to making plain which tourist attractions are not open? There is a considerable problem as regards those who have spent money advertising their attractions and who are now faced with the difficulty of informing people they will not be open. They have wasted their money on advertising, so can the Minister assure them that the tourist boards will assist them in informing people that the attraction is not open?
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, decisions on the opening of footpaths in areas where there has been a blanket 1344 closure of all rights of way will be for the local authorities. They will necessarily take into account the views of landowners and veterinary advice. Some rights of way are closed but could now be opened and all those considerations must be taken into account. The general advice is that footpaths which cross areas where there are livestock or wild deer should not be reopened.
The tourist boards' information states what is open and what is not. The problem is that a large proportion of the population and foreign visitors believe that the whole of the countryside is closed. We need to correct that as facilities open, but it is intended that there should be comprehensive information on where people can and cannot go.
§ The Lord Bishop of Guildford
My Lords, coming from Surrey, a county which thankfully has not yet been affected by the disease, I can say that its rural communities are affected by what is happening across the country. This year's county show has been cancelled and I have recently cancelled a major youth event which was due to take place on Easter Monday because it is impossible to determine which footpaths are available and which are not.
I am concerned lest we believe that the only places which are in anxiety and need help are those which are directly affected. Will the Minister accept that farming and rural communities across the country are feeling the pressure and need a sense of support?
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, yes. The fact that, understandably and rightly, decisions have been taken to close rights of way and restrict movement throughout the country means that many farming enterprises, industries and services throughout the country are affected by the disease, no matter how far away they may be from the nearest confirmed outbreak. Therefore, the measures which we are debating will support small businesses in rural areas and will apply to all areas which are affected by a restriction. The point I made in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, was that more help will be needed in the areas of higher devastation but the facilities for help exist across the country.
§ Lord Walker of Worcester
My Lords, I declare an interest as a farmer in Worcestershire. Is the Minister aware that over the next two weeks it is probable that 1 million ewes that are now grazing will lamb? At the moment the Ministry of Agriculture tells the farmers concerned that they cannot transport their ewes to the lambing sheds, but agrees with them that ewes lambing in the open, sodden pastures on which they are now grazing gives rise to an animal welfare issue and it is much better if the Ministry culls the sheep concerned. Therefore, we face the potential slaughter of 1 million healthy sheep because the Government say that they should not be transported to lambing sheds. The farmers have said that they will send them in sealed lorries which are sprayed before they move, on routes where there is no foot and mouth disease either side of the road, and yet they have not been given permission 1345 to do that. They find it very difficult to understand why during this particular period the Government urge more of the urban population to travel to the countryside but farmers cannot deliver their ewes to the lambing sheds.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, neither I nor the Government have stated that the urban population should move in areas where there is livestock, let alone infected livestock, and to say otherwise is a complete distortion of our advice. We are saying that there are places and businesses in the countryside which are open and can be used, but not in the vicinity of livestock, whether healthy or infected by the disease, or adjacent to areas affected by the disease. The task force is dealing with the impact on businesses other than agriculture.
The Government's top priority is to restrict the spread of this disease. The most obvious way in which the disease is spread is by the movement of animals. Therefore, MAFF has taken the decision to restrict the movement of animals. We recognise that in some cases that will have a fairly devastating effect on the farming community in those areas, but the top priority is to restrict the most obvious way in which the disease is carried. There may be different situations in different parts of the country and MAFF, based on the best veterinary advice, will have to take separate decisions according to the outbreak of the disease and the pattern of movement within those areas.
I am not able to comment on the precise restrictions in Worcestershire, but the priority of MAFF, as well as local authorities, must be to restrict movements of livestock.
§ Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen
My Lords, I welcome the Statement, but can my noble friend explain a little further the position of the leisure and tourist industries, particularly in small market towns? I think particularly of East Anglia where, thank goodness, so far there has not been an outbreak of foot and mouth disease. I am also very aware of the way that small market towns, such as my home town of Market Rasen, have been hit. Obviously the same restrictions apply there, and the people who run hotels, inns and shops are extremely worried. Can my noble friend explain how these measures will help the leisure and tourist industries in the market towns?
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, the measures announced today relate primarily to businesses within small rural communities, but we are looking more widely at businesses which have been affected in larger settlements. It is clear that what is happening on farms and in the countryside can have a devastating effect on businesses in both large and small towns which are based in the centre of rural areas. It is the job of the task force to look at the way in which we can relieve the pressure on the tourist industry and other businesses in those areas as well.
§ Baroness Masham of Ilton
My Lords, with Easter approaching, what advice can the Minister give in 1346 relation to caravan parks? An example is Skipton which is an important area of sheep farming. There is a large caravan park situated between two areas affected by foot and mouth disease: Hawes, which has three cases, and an area near Bradford in South Yorkshire, which has two cases. I declare an interest in asking the Minister whether he is aware that I had hoped to open my riding and trekking centre at Easter. At the moment, like many people, I am in limbo, with the welfare of farm animals taking priority. There is also a herd of deer involved. Everyone in Yorkshire is very worried as foot and mouth is a creeping paralysis which strangles initiatives and livelihoods. Does the Minister agree that this is an impossible situation for some people?
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, the exact position will depend on the geography and the nature of the movement involved. If one is within 3 kilometres of an infected area, clearly movement will be totally restricted, and there may be restrictions beyond that. Any business that is fairly close to an infected area needs to obtain veterinary advice from MAFF and the county. There will undoubtedly be serious restrictions on enterprises of that kind, and one of the points of the package announced today is to limit the financial strain to which such businesses are subject.
§ Viscount Cranborne
My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the British Pig Association. I also have considerable interests not only in farming but in a large number of businesses of the kind that are covered by the Statement. I should like to put two questions. First, in view of the happy consensus in this House that the first priority is to eradicate the disease as the best way to help people affected by it, when the Government come to consider whether burying rather than burning carcasses is a sensible way to address the problem in a number of cases, is there any EU restriction to prevent that, if that is what the Environment Agency decides is expedient?
Secondly, is the noble Lord content with the arrangements to police the import of food, particularly meat, into this country? At first sight, it appears that our arrangements are rather less rigorous than they are in a number of other countries, including our partners in the European Union. In view of at least the possibility that this outbreak of foot and mouth disease, and the outbreak of classical swine fever in East Anglia earlier in the year, resulted from lack of controls on imported meat, is it sensible for the Government to give a little more attention to that aspect as well?
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I have already touched on the role of the Environment Agency. Clearly, there will be a mixture of burning and burial in disposing of carcasses. I have said that the Environment Agency must speed up its procedures. The agency must look at the total effect in the medium and long term on the particular piece of landfill; and in particular it must look at the water table. Such European regulations as apply to this area relate to the effect on the water table. 1347 Whether or not EU legislation applied, we would wish to take that into account. That is the main concern of the Environment Agency in its cautious approach to burial.
The general view of my colleagues in MAFF is that there is a fairly tight regime in operation in relation to meat imports. It is not clear where this virus originated. It is clear that, however tight the regime, there may well be areas for improvement to which the Government will give their attention.
§ Lord Sandberg
My Lords, as a former banker I was very glad to hear that the Government had talked to banks and received a sympathetic reply, but I was sad to note that there was no reference to any approach having been made to the Bank of England. Speaking for myself, I believe that the Bank is very reactive in its decisions. Surely, at this time it should be proactive and provide some help to small industries by giving more serious thought to lowering the interest rate.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, in the immediate situation that we have been talking to the banks about, the small businesses within rural areas would be more concerned with deferrals of interest, interest holidays and delaying loan repayments than with the precise rate of interest. That, as the noble Lord knows, raises somewhat wider issues. The Bank of England is independent on such matters.
§ Lord Taylor of Blackburn
My Lords, perhaps I may ask my noble friend a question following on from what the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, asked regarding orders of priority. For example, in the North West we have the Blackpool Zoo, Knowsley Safari Park and Chester Zoo, These places are now closed and the staff are redundant. Will they qualify for compensation in the same way, even though there is no foot and mouth disease in the area?
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, in general, relatively large enterprises, such as zoos, would not benefit from the proposed package. Clearly, as we move to the next stage, we need to look at those areas of the tourist trade which have been particularly affected and see what best we can do. A significant number of zoo animals are susceptible to foot and mouth. Therefore, it will be necessary for zoos to remain closed for some time, whatever the situation on foot and mouth in other areas. So there will be an issue to be addressed there. But this particular package is unlikely to affect those particular rather large zoos.
§ The Earl of Caithness
My Lords, does the Minister agree that the confusion is highlighted by having a different regime in Scotland? Will he instil in the Environment Agency some sense the importance of making the right decision the first time? It instructed a friend of mine at 10.30 a.m. to dig a pit to bury stock. At 4.30 p.m. it said, "No, you cannot bury the stock". He had to fill in the pit. The next morning he was instructed to reopen the pit and start burying.
1348 Will the Minister also answer the question of my noble friend Lady Byford about the number of redundancies in England and Wales as a direct result of foot and mouth?
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, that last question is impossible to answer. Clearly, the impact is both immediate and longer term. We do not have figures that relate to the knock-on impact of the disease across the whole of the rural and tourist economy. Such figures are not capable of being produced until the crisis is over. It is to be hoped that the job losses will be short term.
The different regimes in England and in Scotland are a consequence of devolution, on which I appreciate that some noble Lords are not particularly keen. Nevertheless, it is important that decisions are taken locally. That means locally by the Scottish authorities, both at national Scottish level, including the Scottish environmental authorities and by the Scottish county and other local authorities. That probably means that there will be slight differences of treatment in different parts of the country. However, the (thankfully so far) relatively small areas of Scotland affected are different topographically and in terms of their agricultural nature from areas in England and therefore one would expect some decisions to be slightly different.
In relation to the Environment Agency, as I have said, we want to speed up the process of decision-making, but that sometimes means that one makes decisions too fast. I am not sure whether it was the Scottish or English Environment Agency to which the noble Earl was referring, but I hope that we can avoid conflicting advice and avoid mistakes. In all these cases speed is important, but it is also important that the decision is robust and meets all the requirements. I hope that people will recognise that, like the MAFF veterinary service, the county and other veterinary services, the Environment Agency is doing its desperate best to ensure that the situation is contained as much as possible. A great deal of work is being done by huge numbers of government people who are working 18 and 20 hours a day in some cases. So we are committed to containing the disease. The package is intended to ensure that the knock-on effects of the disease are minimised as far as possible. Nevertheless, some desperate situations will arise, both in the farming community and in the rest of the rural area. We need to do our best to minimise that.