§ 11 am
§ Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell)
In the context of the present foot and mouth crisis, this an extremely important debate. I know that a large number of hon. Members will be hoping to catch your eye or to intervene, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hope that that will show the cross-party concern that exists about the impact of foot and mouth on the wider economy in the south-west and other parts of the country.
There have been many statements and debates on the matter in the House. Yesterday, much of the debate focused on the impact on the farming community. That is why today I am raising the subject of the tourism industry, but that does not reflect any lack of concern for the farming industry, which is being devastated. The disease is no less devastating for the surrounding rural communities, especially in its effect on related businesses and tourism. I am not taking the opportunity to make any party points. We all understand that we need to find solutions to the crisis. Any Government would be struggling to cope with the scale of it. That is not to say that I have not had criticisms and suggestions to make.
As regards tourism in the south-west, there have been cancelled accommodation bookings; restricted access to accommodation and attractions; forced closure of environmental and animal-based attractions in urban as well as rural areas; a dramatic fall in inquiries about holidays and breaks; perhaps a tarnished image that will last for some time, at least overseas, if not in the United Kingdom; and a perception that the region is currently closed for business.
§ Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)
I have listened to my hon. Friend's list. Does he accept that every single one of those problems also exists in rural Wales and, I imagine, across the United Kingdom? Does he agree that one of the reasons for that is that internationally, people do not understand that foot and mouth poses no danger whatever to human health?
§ Mr. Taylor
My hon. Friend is right. A huge communications exercise needs to be conducted. I shall return to the matter later.
§ Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire)
Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik), the Welsh Assembly has produced a charter for responsible tourism, which sets out clearly what people can and cannot do during the foot and mouth outbreak. I commend it to my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) as a way forward for the south-west.
§ Mr. Taylor
I thank my hon. Friend. I will take the opportunity to discuss some of the positive measures that have been undertaken in the south-west.
For many years, I have fought against the perception that because the south-west is an area of sunshine, sand and sea, it is a comfortable place to be. In many parts of the south-west, there is severe poverty, and no more so than in my area in Cornwall, with high levels of 276WH unemployment, seasonal jobs, very low wages and problems of access to local transport. Much of the south-west is classified as a rural priority area. Cornwall has objective 1 status, because we have some of the highest levels of need anywhere in the European Union.
The foot and mouth crisis is impacting on an already poor area that is highly dependent on the tourism industry. The outbreak could not have come at a worse time, following the BSE crisis; swine fever last year; the strength of the pound, which has hit tourism hard, as well as hitting farming and exporting industries; and appalling disruption to rail services in most of the southwest. I have not been able to use the train regularly for months—it simply is not running down to my part of the world. [Interruption] It is a disgrace, as the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) says. On top of all that, we have had the wettest weather for more than 130 years and possibly In recorded history.
The crisis comes at a time of the year when cash is at a minimum in tourism-related businesses. Most of them survive on their income from the Easter period through to the end of the summer. During the winter and early spring, they invest in improvements to accommodation and in advertising so at this time of the year their resources are at a minimum. In the rural communities most significantly Affected, tourism makes up 30 per cent.—a third—of local income, compared to 10 per cent. from farming
The combined impact of all those factors represents an economic catastrophe facing the area. The regional development agency estimates that the total net loss to the south-west could easily be £1 billion or more, with tourism bearing the brunt. The industry in the southwest is larger than in Scotland and Wales together. In 1999, more than 12 million people took holidays in and trips to the region, which were worth almost £2.5 billion and accounted for 100,000 jobs. Other estimates put losses as a result of foot and mouth as high as £2 billion. In the most seriously affected areas, 30 per cent. of gross domestic product could be affected.
There is also an incidental impact on the farming community—as if I[...] had not suffered enough as a direct result of the disease. In Cornwall particularly, and in much of the south-west, farms are reliant on diversification and their role in the tourism industry. Many farmers generate more than half their income from that.
§ Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for initiating the debate and allowing me to intervene. In Dorset, we have tended to close all the farmland and all the paths, yet the Government are telling us to make sure that everyone can go to the beaches. Unfortunately, they often need to cross farmland to get to the beach. Is that a problem in the hon. Gentleman's, constituency, and how has it been dealt with?
§ Mr. Taylor
The hon. Gentleman is right. The problem is serious throughout the south-west. Access was closed on a blanket basis on MAFF advice at the start of the outbreak. In Cornwall, there is no access to more than 90 per cent. of the coast. Although some of the routes cross lard used by livestock, some could be opened. The matter is under review, but the process is 277WH extraordinarily slow. That impacts on the costs borne by local authorities and others. I shall ask the Minister what scope there is for help to be given to local authorities. We have spoken at length in the House, rightly, about the impact on business, but local authorities must devote huge resources to get the footpaths opened as quickly as possible and make sure that the right advice is given.
§ Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)
The hon. Gentleman has identified the factor that may be doing more damage than anything else: the blanket closure of all our footpaths, whether or not they go anywhere near livestock. I hope that when my hon. friend the Minister replies, she will say what exactly the dangers are. There are those who say that the danger posed by people walking on footpaths has been greatly exaggerated. If that is the case, should we not be moving much more quickly to open some of our beautiful and very important footpaths?
§ Mr. Taylor
The hon. Gentleman is right. The impact is huge, and we need to find ways to make rapid progress to open up access where it is safe to do so. However, the first priority must be to contain the spread of the disease. If anything is done that puts that at risk, it will ultimately be worse not just for the farmers but for the tourism industry as well. That is why tourism organisations and all those who are dealing with the outbreak have said that their first priority is to support the containment of foot and mouth disease and to back the farming community on which it directly impacts.
The second priority must be to safeguard the long-term interests of the tourism industry and the related small businesses that are being hit. Such businesses are characteristic of the rural community, but they do not have large amounts of money to help them to survive the crisis. Most of them—I hope that they will not take this wrongly—have a pretty hand-to-mouth business existence and do not make huge profits. They work very hard and they employ local people, but all that is falling down around them.
That is why the third priority must be to limit long—term damage. These problems are not merely short-term; if such businesses close, many of them will never reopen.
§ Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes)
The problem in Devon is that nobody knows what is closed and what is open. Last week, we heard the Minister for the Environment say that it was business as usual in Devon and the west country and that everything was open. However, I have just been phoned from Dartmoor by my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls), who said that everything was closed. People who want to walk across fields in Devon do not know whether it is legal to do so. The situation has been muddled because the county council has not made clear statements and MAFF has not given clear directions.
§ Mr. Taylor
The provision of proper information at the right time is a huge issue, which I want to emphasise in this debate.
I should like to give some examples of how foot and mouth is hitting the region, as they will help to show what must be done. An enormous number of 278WH accommodation bookings have been cancelled, not only in farm accommodation, but in seaside towns. Although coastal towns are not directly affected by foot and mouth, their bookings are disappearing because of the belief both here and abroad that they are closed down. The Best Western hotel in Newquay, which specialises in student holidays from other parts of Europe, has had £50,000-worth of bookings cancelled. So far, the cancellations extend into June and are due mostly to the closure of coastal footpaths and the Pentire headland, as well as the negative pictures of burning animals in the region.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) has seen exactly the same thing in Torquay. Indeed, the situation there is arguably worse, as Devon appears as just one big red splodge on the maps that are shown on the evening news. One would think that the whole place was covered in yellow "do not pass" lines.
It is crucial that locations are reopened as soon as possible, but the right campaigning is also needed to promote the opportunities that are available in the affected communities. As hon. Members can imagine, many people have asked me to raise their concerns in this debate. The problem is hitting not only areas that have foot and mouth, on whatever scale. One person from Exmoor stated:There are no outbreaks of Foot and Mouth on Exmoor at the moment, (and I hope it stays that way) but the tourism industry is suffering just as badly as the other areas are suffering.My wife and I run a small Bed and Breakfast business … We take up to eighteen guests. and normally in March/April and onwards we are very busy. For the last four weeks we have had no guests at all, and it does not look as if we will have any in the foreseeable future. We have had to date £15,000-worth of business cancelled. Enquiries for the summer and autumn have also stopped coming in.",
§ Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. I should like to endorse his remarks, as the problems that he describes are seriously affecting towns such as Bournemouth. There is no foot and mouth in and around Bournemouth, but all the local attractions have been severely affected. The New Forest is closed, as well as Studland in the Isle of Purbeck, which is closed partly because deer graze on the dunes. Hengistbury head is closed because there are some sheep there. My area is just as affected as those to which the hon. Gentleman refers, and the letters that I am receiving from my hoteliers bear out everything that he says.
§ Mr. Taylor
The hon. Gentleman is right, although he will agree that we should concentrate also on the huge number of attractions and hotels that are still open.
I should like to give another example from my constituency. As I said, we do not currently have foot and mouth, and I hope that it stays that way. However, the Rosevine hotel says that the footpath along the coast into Portscatho, the local village, is closed. The path is 400 yards long, but the alternative route is a car journey of three and a half miles. The path has never been grazed by livestock in living memory and it provides no access into livestock areas, but it remains closed. The hotel has lost 84 per cent. of its bookings, and has already lost a total of £19,000.
§ Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives)
Does my hon. Friend share my concern about a parallel outbreak involving a 279WH contagious human disease? I refer to the spread of benefit-of-hindsight disease, whose symptoms are brass neck and severe memory loss. The human race is also being affected by the disease of panic, which is out of place. As my hon. Friend points out, there are no outbreaks in Cornwall, so we should establish ourselves as a livestock island and a disinfected route through which humans can make their visits and enjoy their holidays. Cornwall is open for business, and we must shout that out loud from this place. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing us the opportunity to do so.
§ Mr. Taylor
I agree with all that my hon. Friend says.
I should like to give a further example of how badly businesses are affected. I have received a fax from somebody in Dartmoor,who says:Our last customer was on the 27th of February. The bunkhouse has been shut since then thus its income is zero. We are no longer operating courses and holidays on the moor, we have managed to run a couple of groups in Sussex and in South Devon but we have no more bookings. We would normally bring about 1500 people to Dartmoor each year—this year it is likely to be less than 200 and they will be at the end of the year.If this crisis is not brought under control very soon we are going to lose the summer bookings. It is doubtful whether we can survive until September without an income but if we did and we lost all summer income we are unlikely to survive the winter!This problem is destroying tourist businesses and we need urgently to shout from the rooftops the opportunities that are available.
§ Mr. Taylor
I shall continue to give way to hon. Members. I hope that they will bear in mind the fact that their interventions will extend the length of my speech, but I am aware that it is helpful to allow everyone to make their points.
§ Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate at such a crucial time. Does he agree that decisions about which locations stay open and which stay closed rely on detailed scientific advice? Local authorities and councils do not have the necessary expert scientists, so will he confirm that central Government must concentrate on the matter and give authorities the most detailed possible advice and guidance about what should and should not stay open? Furthermore, does he accept that emergency powers should be given to councils, to enable them to move stock from small areas of common land, whether or not it is infected, so that such areas can be opened and stay open?
§ Mr. Taylor
My hon. Friend represents an area which has been hit hard by the outbreak, so he has direct experience of the positive efforts that have been made and also of the difficulties that are dragging us back. I agree absolutely that the Government have a key role to play in providing resources, back-up and information to the local authorities and to other emergency planning groups. That is largely why I sought to initiate this debate. In my county, an extremely good group is working out of county hall to bring together all the 280WH relevant services. I think that that is happening in most other areas. The group is struggling, however, as it does not have the necessary expertise. It is under-resourced, as the problem is costing a lot of money—a point on which I shall comment further in a moment.
There is some good news. For example, the National Trust is now reopening properties in Cornwall. It is concentrating on car parks that provide access to beaches, provided that they are located within non-risk areas.
The hugely successful Eden project is in Cornwall. Many people are visiting it, but they are mostly local because those outside the county wrongly believe that Cornwall is closed. Newquay zoo has reopened, but the enforced three-week closure has cost it £40,000. Only seven years ago, the current owner won the national small business award for turning a failing business around. Like other attractions, the zoo has been closed for the winter and relies on the income stream that begins to flow at this time of year. It is terrified of the impact of the adverse publicity.
Foot and mouth disease is affecting not only holiday businesses but businesses linked to them. For example, Millmans coaches, which is based in Dartmoor and has 16 coaches, has asked me to raise its case. Millmans usually take schoolchildren from the midlands and the south-east to residential centres on the moors. That cannot currently happen because the moors are closed. Devon county council has cancelled all extra-curricular activities and agriculture colleges are cancelling field trips. The company's bookings have inevitably been cancelled. It has lost some £20,000 and it is in serious danger because of cash-flow problems.
§ Mr. Nick Harvey (North Devon)
My hon. Friend made the point that some small tourist businesses have just come through the winter months when they have almost no income. They are reflecting on the prospect of earning little if any income in the next few months. Does my hon. Friend agree that the benefits system is too inflexible to respond to those dire circumstances? Other hon. Members and I have fought cases in the past on behalf of constituents who have no money in the winter but are told that the income must be averaged over the year for benefit purposes. If they have no cash at the end of the winter period and will not now receive any, it is essential to fine-tune the benefits system to help them through these terrible times.
§ Mr. Taylor
It has long been a problem in the tourist industry that work comes in relatively short blocks, whereas the benefits system assumes that people are either in full-time, permanent, long-term work or not in work. That needs to be changed. I pressed the previous Government to change the system, and I hope that the current crisis will spark some rapid action at least on some temporary measures. It is not only businesses that are affected but those who are employed by them. Many people in my constituency depend on summer business in the local hotel or restaurant. Most of them find that they are not being taken on or that they are being laid off.
As I said earlier, Cornwall is largely unaffected by the infection, but Carbeil caravan and camping park stated in a letter to me: 281WHEnquiries for information and literature for our Park and Cornwall in general have become non existent".That refers to future bookings. The letter continues:"No bookings are being received. These should start to come through now, not just for now but for the whole of the Summer months.Coastal Paths are closed; this is our main source of income at this early start of the season".That is a key point. At this time of year, walking holidays maintain the business. The 1etter goes on to say that the proprietorsDesperately need Easter trade but need money to finance advertising".They cannot advertise to try to deal with the problem because, as they say in their letter:If we are spending what little money we have on advertising will the enquiries/bookings arrive? A difficult question in normal pre-season incentives".They simply do not know what to do.
My office has received distressing phone calls from people in genuine personal need. They do not knock the Government; some try to cast blame, but all are desperately anxious about their future. My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Õpik) referred to our negative image abroad. The impression is given that the country is closed and that people cannot visit it. The British Tourist Authority hr s highlighted the problem, but I do not believe that it has the resources to overcome it.
Let me cite a couple of examples from colleagues. My hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) has been contacted by the City of Bath further education college, which received a fax cancelling a visit of a group of German students. The fax states:"Much to our regret we have to cancel our stay at your college from 28th March to 12th April 2001 because of foot and mouth disease. The Ministry of Agriculturethat is the German Ministry of Agriculture—has given advice to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs to stop all trips to England within the near future.It is no wonder that we have a serious problem if such advice passes between German Departments and filters down to affect bookings.
My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) had his attention drawn to the position of a coach company in Wincanton in his constituency. It has been forced to cancel a trip for students from Sexey's school in Bruton and King Arthur's school in Wincanton to Lahnau, their twin town in Germany. The coach company has therefore lost business. The mayor of Lahnau told the students that, on the basis of advice from his regional government, they must not come to Germany. Some extreme and incorrect information is being spread abroad. National American television is telling people that it is their duty as citizens not to travel to the United Kingdom.
The problem is currently being tackled by newspaper advertisements, which resemble the sort of information that was published in 1950s and told people to wrap themselves in brown paper and hide under the stairs in the event of a nuclear alert. Not many people will be attracted to sunny Devon and Cornwall by such adverts. Of course, accurate information must be provided. All 282WH parties have connections with major advertising companies, which are doing all sorts of work, in some cases free of charge. Surely the Government can do better than the full-page. black-and-white adverts.
I appreciate that the tourist associations, with Government support, are planning advertising campaigns in due course to overcome the negative impressions that may remain when the crisis ends, but we need positive advertising now to persuade people to go ahead with bookings and to explain the time scale. We should promote success stories—for example, Torquay and Newquay, which are as open as they have ever been, and new, vibrant attractions such as the Eden project. There is no reason why people should not visit them.
We desperately need to provide the back-up, resources and information to help the opening of the coastal footpaths and to promote other attractions that can be visited safely. The bridleways, cycleways and footpaths in Cornwall total 25,000 miles. They comprise 6,000 paths including 300 miles of coastal path. There are nearly 1 million annual visitors, and walkers bring in £10 million to Cornish tourism. However, almost all the paths are closed and the county is struggling to find the resources to reopen them.
South West Tourism provides regular updates and distributes supplements in the region's daily newspaper, the Western Morning News, which covers Cornwall and Devon. The supplements explain what is open and what people can do. However, they do not reach people from other areas. Only the Government can properly tackle that problem. It is fantastic that so many local organisations, businesses and others are pulling together to get through the crisis, but they cannot do it alone.
Let us consider compensation. The Government have made some announcements, but they are too limited and they affect only the smallest communities. They do not cover all the businesses that are being hit; frankly, they are insufficient. I appreciate that the Government are considering further action, but let me make one suggestion. There is an urgent need to make money available to affected businesses. The Government could cover the cost of the interest. They should be flexible about evidence, but if businesses can show that their problems are related to the crisis, money should be made available. The Government could pay the loan costs and the banks could administer the scheme. Although the banks claim that they are being helpful, they have to operate under commercial constraints. Only the Government can intervene to take the matter further.
The Minister should take a hand in sorting out the diabolical problems with rail services to the south-west. We have suffered a double blow. Not only are direct routes to much of Devon and Cornwall closed, but much of the rolling stock has been transferred to Wales to provide a more frequent service there. That has meant the loss of modern inter-city high-speed trains in and out of Cornwall. That causes further delay and does nothing for the image of access to the county. People believe not only that the countryside is closed but that when it is open they will have to travel on a 40-year-old train. That is unacceptable. Great Western Railways, with Government encouragement, could do something about that now. A bit of good news would be extremely welcome at the moment. 283WH I wanted to raise the issue of the local authorities and their problems, and I hope that the Minister has taken those points on board. Many local authorities are now spending large sums of money. Cornwall has just authorised £61,000 for the schemes in which it is involved so far; it has authorised £25,000 a week for further work during the crisis; and £250,000 has been set aside since the middle of March. The local authority does not even know whether the Bellwin scheme or some other scheme will help to provide compensation for those costs. It needs to know what funds it can make available, as that will make a difference to what can be done. It has other responsibilities such as education and social services, and it needs to know how to balance its spending.
I have given a large number of hon. Members the opportunity to intervene, and I know that others would like to speak. I understand that it is not easy to come up with quick answers, but I must say to the Minister that quick answers are what those businesses urgently need. Better adverts would at least make a start in showing that the Government understand that those businesses are open and that they want customers. Customers can safely come to the south-west, but the businesses need a bit of help to win those customers back.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook)
Order. It might be helpful if I advise the House that the convention is to start the Front-Bench contributions 30 minutes before the termination of the debate, in this case at 12 o'clock. That gives us 29 minutes in which to hear from six hon. Members. Many hon. Members have already made interventions, and I ask everyone, please, to bear in mind the constraints under which we operate here, so that all hon. Members who wish to can make a contribution.
§ Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) on securing this debate, and I echo his concerns for the farmers. Although I do not want to detract from that, I want to concentrate on tourism and the impact that the foot and mouth crisis has had on Swindon. It is important to focus on the positive side of this issue, because there is still a great deal for tourists to enjoy. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the region being closed for business, but we should not use that term, because there is so much in it that is definitely open. That is certainly true for tourists in Swindon.
I see Swindon as the gateway to the south-west: it is sometimes described as the place where the Cotswolds meet the west country. We undoubtedly have some problems because of foot and mouth. Our wonderful country parks are closed. Lydiard park—in which one could normally learn about the chequered history of the Bolingbroke family in one of the finest small historic houses in the country—is closed at the moment. Coate water, where people who are mobility impaired and others can take beautiful walks, is also closed because of foot and mouth. So, too, are the farmers' centre, and Broome Manor golf course, where international golf champions have trained. 284WH Although we have those problems, Swindon is definitely not closed for tourism. I want to emphasise that today, because Swindon's tourism trade has grown magnificently over the years and we are keen for that to continue. Indeed, we have an ambition to be the fastest-growing tourist destination in Britain. That may raise some eyebrows here, because Swindon has been well known as a boom town and the fastest-growing town in Britain—it is sometimes cited as the fastest-growing town in Europe—but we now want to share that success with tourists from Britain and abroad. We are being very successful in doing so. Last year, we raised about £216 million from the tourist trade, an increase of 73 per cent. since 1997. Tourism is now the second-largest employer in the borough, supporting about 6 per cent. of jobs; it is very important to us.
Many people do not know about the attractions of Swindon. We are not as good at advertising as some places. We have one of the best collections of 20th-century art and ceramics outside London, thanks to the work of the borough council. After the war, Swindon was the first local authority to build a purpose-built art gallery, and it is one of only a handful of local authorities to have collected a nationally significant contemporary art collection, to which it is still adding and which is one of the most important collections outside London.
That foresight is reflected in many areas of the borough council's work. It was the first local authority to adopt a percentage for art policy, and the first to establish and finance an arts centre. It is the only local authority to run a national dance agency, and many of the dance organisations in this country have their roots in the work started in Swindon. We have our own Billy Elliots now: people who came in off the streets of Swindon, never having danced before, now dance in the west end and on Broadway, with companies such as Rambert and others. That facility is in Swindon for people to enjoy.
Swindon has a world-class railway museum, well funded by the national lottery, that has been cited Wiltshire's family attraction of the year by the "Good Britain Guide". The McArthur Glen designer outlet at Great Western village was given two regional tourist board attraction of the year awards. These are all very much open to the public. For younger people, the Brunel rooms, where Billie Piper first performed, is just one of the many venues providing a good evening's entertainment in and around Swindon.
We are aware of the bigger issues involved with travelling to Swindon, and there are some problems with the railways, although the situation has improved recently. We do not have the on-going problems that areas further into the west country are experiencing. We are keen to continue to support the tourism trade, for the reasons that I have outlined. It represents an increasing success in the town.
I want to ask the Minister to comment on a couple of issues that could help tourism in Swindon and across the south-west. First, there is the big issue of getting information out about the foot and mouth problem. Even when that problem did not exist, there was a problem with information. The national helpline was set up for people to call. but sometimes that is tricky because it does not have the information that people on the ground have. If queries could be put through to the 285WH local tourist information centres, that would be the best thing. Our centre in Swindon helps about 180,000 people a year, and it has detailed, on-the-ground knowledge.
Secondly, different people are running websites, and Swindon, too, is launching its own tourism website—it might even be up and running today.The English tourist board and the British Tourist Authority both run websites. If all that information could be co-ordinated across the country, it would be helpful.
Swindon is often the butt of criticism, but I have just given the House a flavour of the rich cultural activities that it has to offer. I invite all hon. Members to come and visit us as soon as possible and if anyone is free on 3 May, our literature festival will be running then. Hon. Members might want to come and hear a very good poet, Jenny Joseph, who is the author of the award-winning poem, "When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple". There will be culture throughout, and Swindon is open. Please come and visit us.
§ Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes)
The hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) has done a great service to the House. I agree with everything that he said, and I should like to thank him for putting it so succinctly. I have cut my speech by at least 50 per cent., as I do whenever I speak. My speeches are always improved as a result.
The Minister for the Environment recognised the gravity of the situation in his statement on 20 March. I liked that statement because it represented a step in the right direction. However, it was a very small step. The seriousness of the situation in South Hams and the part of Torbay that is in my constituency, which the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) will tell me is about one third—
§ Mr. Steen
The hon. Gentleman says it is a quarter. The seriousness of the situation can only be guessed at. I am worried stiff about the business prospects in my area. Easter will be a watershed. I fear that media sensationalism has given people the misconception that vast areas of Devon are no-go areas full of mass burial sites and closed footpaths. People need the facts, not the latest culling figures. If they do not come to Devon for its countryside and seascape, they certainly do not come for its night clubs.
Let me give an example of how crazy the situation is. In Torbay, a footpath on Churston common, which is on one side of a road, is closed. Immediately on the other side is a massive golf course, which is open for business. That is sheer madness—people do not know what they can do. One of my councillors who was walking on a footpath with his dog was told that that was illegal. Dartmoor is allegedly open to the public, but my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) has just rung me from there to say that it is closed. He cannot stop his car. He cannot go into the car parks. He cannot go walking.
In spite of the whole of south Devon, including South Hams, Teignbridge, Torbay, Plymouth and Exeter, being free of foot and mouth, I believe that Devon 286WH county council has closed all the footpaths, although nobody knows. People are not coming to Devon, and understandably so. The Minister for the Environment said in his statement last week that the countryside is open for business and that tourists should go there, but that is no good if those who go to the countryside are told that they cannot stop, cannot go into car parks and cannot go walking. Tourists do not know where they can go walking, but they can play golf. Golfers are very welcome, but if people walk across a footpath with a dog, they are not welcome. That is sheer madness—it has to be put right, and the Minister could do it.
Let us consider two hotels in my constituency. The Thurlestone has four stars and 67 rooms—it is one of the best in the area. It has been in the same family since the 1890s, is highly regarded and has every possible facility, including a golf course where people can play. It has a swimming pool and people can swim there. It has grass and greenery and people can walk there, but if they go outside the hotel they cannot walk on the footpaths. The Royal Castle hotel in Dartmouth has three stars and 25 en suite rooms—it is one of the oldest in my constituency. I gather that its figures are down by between 12 and 15 per cent. on this time last year. Much more worryingly, it has noticed a 50 per cent. decline in bookings compared with the same period last year. My view is that seasonal staff will suffer as they will bear the brunt. Also, where will students go when they want jobs this summer?
Health and safety regulations cost a fortune to enforce. Why can they not be relaxed? If I may say so, since they were introduced, the instance of food poisoning has increased. If we got rid of or relaxed health and safety regulations, we could be sure that food poisoning would decrease.
Hotels are braced for a meagre season and they have enormous overheads to sustain. The hotels in a tourist area are intrinsically immersed in the whole rural community and even though south Devon is clear of foot and mouth, the disease pervades the very fabric of the community. Everyone feels affected: the roads are empty in South Hams, the caravan sites are deserted and Devon is like Britain on a Sunday in the 1960s—very little is moving.
Woodlands leisure park is usually visited by 400,000 people each year. The owners are already very worried men—they are all former farmers—and they have closed the park for a month. Pennywell farm, which is another tourist attraction, cannot understand why MAFF has sent out a directive saying that schools in Devon should not arrange visits to farms or farm attractions. Pennywell is deserted and its owners bereft because MAFF has told schools that they must not visit their farm.
Can the Minister please put that right? Can she please make sure that MAFF corrects that message and does not send out any more? If Devon county council has closed footpaths, people should know which ones and there should be clear information as to why. Most people believe that closing footpaths makes not the slightest difference to foot and mouth, which is mostly a wind-borne virus. People who have not gone near an affected area are perfectly safe to walk on those footpaths, are they not? 287WH The problem is that we are relying on the public to have common sense. I suggest to the Minister that a lot could be done to relax those draconian measures, which should not apply to footpaths away from livestock. People should be able to walk on a public footpath on one side of a road and play golf on the other without having to draw a distinction between the two.
Besides advice from MAFF, the Government could do a number of things to help. If prudent and responsible action has been taken to prevent the spread of disease and attractions have closed voluntarily, the Government could underwrite a business interruption insurance. They could help with committed costs such as feed and business expenses and veterinary and medical bills incurred by farms and tourist attractions. They could suspend all business rates until the emergency is over.
The Government could also contribute the equivalent of jobseeker's allowance to affected companies while they are closed. That would prevent the loss of trained and experienced staff. On marketing funds, they could help to relaunch Devon in 2001. There is also the VAT problem, which could be alleviated by immediate suspension of VAT on entry tickets to tourist attractions until the end of October.
Have those measures been thought about? The Government have to take action, because my area is bleeding to death—not because it has to, but because of totally false and conflicting information that people do not understand and cannot grasp. The Government may not be responsible for this appalling disease, but they are responsible for not clearly stating what the situation is.
I ask the Minister to make perfectly plain in her winding-up speech exactly what the Government are doing to make people understand that south Devon is not closed for business, that the tourist attractions and hotels are open and that people can walk in the countryside without fear of prosecution or of encountering the problems associated with spreading foot and mouth. The Government have a responsibility to make a clear statement, but they have not done so.
§ Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) on initiating a debate on a matter that is crucial to all our constituencies in the south-west. Reference has been made to Cornwall, the South Hams and Torbay being disease free. That is true for the bulk of the end of the far south-west peninsula, including my constituency.
I want to make some brief points about the role of cities in the south-west in re-establishing confidence in tourism in a way that helps the countryside. Often, town is set against country, but nothing could better illustrate the way in which each relies on the other for a thriving economy than the current circumstances. The hon. Gentleman emphasised the scale of the tourism industry in the south-west, which is second to none in the United Kingdom in its importance to the economy.
The health of the economies of cities such as Plymouth depends on a thriving economy in the surrounding area. An example that came to my 288WH attention over the weekend was featured in our regional BBC television programme "Spotlight on Westminster". A fishing tackle business in Exeter street has just been decimated by the impact of the crisis on fishing in the surrounding area. There will be many more such examples unless we can get some confidence back in our tourism industry, but there is every reason to expect that we can achieve that, and the historic cities of the south-west have a key role to play.
Disease-free areas such as those to which hon. Members have referred can become bases from which tourists can undertake visits with confidence and we must provide imaginative, up-to-date signposts to the other facilities that are open for business in affected areas. I recommend that my hon. Friend the Minister work with all the people who, I know, are beavering away on the local taskforce to emphasise that ours is not a can't-do peninsula, but a can-do peninsula. I often refer to Plymouth as a can-do city and I shall give brief examples to illustrate that.
I believe that the Minister visited our area recently, and is aware of the importance of the national marine aquarium. The aquarium, which attracts some 400,000 visitors a year, demonstrates more than any other attraction in our city the magnificent experience that can be had. On 7 April there will be a presentation entitled "The Jewels of Plymouth Sound", showing some of the creatures that can be seen on the shores of the west country—octopus, cuttlefish and, I understand, a fish called "Tom Pot blenny". The aquarium was featured in last Monday's edition of, The Daily Telegraph.
Opposite the aquarium is Dartington Glass, which provides an important industry in the constituency of the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett).
I want the Minister to realise that such tourist attractions can be promoted in an upbeat way. They can serve as can-do signposts, encouraging people to visit Plymouth and Cornwall with confidence. Perhaps there could even be a twinning arrangement between industries and tourist attractions that are open for business, and others that are not so evidently in that position. Perhaps the aquarium and Dartington Glass, for instance, could signpost that Buckland Monochorum is very definitely open. It is a beautiful garden centre with one of the United Kingdom's finest gardens, which will be featured throughout the country on gardening programmes this summer.
Plymouth also offers much in the way of water sports, and, in the evenings, one of the country's pre-eminent regional theatres, the Theatre Royal. We should make much more use of such amenities. People often try to set town against country, but in the present circumstances we can help each other by being imaginative in promoting our area. The same is probably true of all our cities. The hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) said that hers had much to offer, but so have Bath, Bristol—with its splendid millennium projects—and Wells.
Let me make a final suggestion, which arises from an experience that I had. Earlier, someone referred to the advice that is given abroad. When I visited Turkey at about this time last year, I met members of the Turkish tourist industry. They were extremely concerned about information that we had posted on our Foreign Office 289WH site describing the state of tourism in Istanbul, and mentioning the dangers of mugging and theft on the streets. They were at pains to demonstrate that that simply was not true.
I hope that the Minister can reassure us that not only our own sites and advice, but all web and internet information that is available across the world, are being monitored to identify both inaccurate information and opportunities to promote the can-do approach that we must make every effort to implement in the south-west peninsula in the next few days and weeks.
§ Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)
I too congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor). The debate could not be more timely.
My constituency—along with that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill), and those of my hon. Friends the Members for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser), who are also present—is well known to Members. We welcome the conferences of all three political parties nearly every year: we appreciate their business, and look forward to their return.
We in Bournemouth and Dorset have the greatest sympathy for our colleagues in tourism and farming in the south-west, who face devastation. No amount of compensation can make up for the trauma and loss that the rural economy is experiencing. Dorset has been fortunate so far, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West has said, we know from those who run smaller hotels and guest houses in Bournemouth that they are being hard hit by the closure of the New Forest, Hengistbury Head and the nature reserves along the River Stour.
I fear that the entire tourist industry will soon be hit as this national crisis develops. Given last year's fuel crisis, foot and mouth could not have come at a worse time for British tourism. Visitors to Britain are already in decline: there were 2 per cent. fewer last year than the year before, while the number continued to rise in Europe and throughout the world, by 6 and 7 per cent. respectively. Much of that is due to the strong pound, which I accept we can do little about. "You cannot buck the market," as someone once said. But the problem is also due to our high VAT, compared with the competition. We can do something about that, by doing what the French do and offering lower VAT rates for smaller hotels.
Having the most expensive petrol in the European Union does not help much either. The Government are, of course, entirely responsible for that.
§ Mr. Christopher Fraser (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)
Does my hon. Friend agree that the application of the minimum wage and the working-hours directive have had a very detrimental effect on small and medium-sized businesses in the south-west, compounding the problems that he has mentioned?
§ Mr. Atkinson
My hon. Friend is right. When faced with the national minimum wage, small businesses—especially those that the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell described as leading .a hand-to-mouth existence—may choose to employ fewer staff, or even to go out of business. 290WH It is clear that if British tourism is to maintain its vital contribution to the British economy, this Government and the next must restore our competitiveness with the rest of the world. During the present crisis, every little helps—for example, the "business as usual" and "the countryside is open" campaigns. However, as with farming, no quick fix can restore British tourism once the crisis is over. We shall need massive new investment, private as well as public.
The British Tourist Authority and the English Tourism Council, fully backed by the Government, need to plan now to re-promote tourism to Britain—especially in America and Europe, but also among our own people—as soon as the crisis is over. Those plans must not apply just to the areas that are hardest hit, or to those that have been in decline for many years, deserving as they are. Instead of assisting particular areas on the basis of European Union criteria, we should be helping particular industries in their entirety. Tourism, like farming, is one such industry.
A common tourism policy that does not discriminate between areas should not only invest in the regeneration of areas that have run down; it must invest in success, by which I mean resorts such as Bournemouth. To date, Bournemouth has done well to maintain investment from its own resources without major public funding or European Union assistance, but it remains a struggle. It is frustrating, given Bournemouth's courageous investment nearly 20 years ago in an international centre to encourage year-round conference and exhibition trade, to see Birmingham—along with Blackpool and other resorts —making similar investment with the help of considerable public and European funding. We in Bournemouth suffer as a result of unfair competition from subsidised competitors.
This year's standard spending assessment of nearly 6 per cent. for Brighton, compared with Bournemouth's 3.8 per cent.–which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West pointed out at Prime Minister's Question Time on 7 March, is responsible for an increase of nearly 10 per cent. in our council tax—encourages us to conclude that we are suffering from not just unfair competition, but political discrimination.
§ Mr. Butterfill
Does my hon. Friend agree that the fact that we have the second-lowest police grant in the United Kingdom has forced our council tax payers to subsidise the police? That, too, has pushed up our council tax.
§ Mr. Atkinson
My hon. Friend is right, and I hope that his comments will be noted by council tax payers as another way in which this Government are discriminating against us.
Bournemouth is making the case to the Government for its development as Britain's world-class resort, based on its diverse range of markets and quality products that continue to receive so many national and international awards. I believe that the Minister was present, last month, when that campaign was launched. She will know that not only does Bournemouth have world-class potential, but that its surrounding sub-region includes the New Forest national park and the Dorset Jurassic coast—which is located in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset and is short-listed 291WH as a world heritage site. As we all know, beyond Dorset lie the undoubted attractions of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall.
My appeal to the Minister is to use the opportunity of the crisis facing tourism as well as agriculture to begin to lay the foundations for a tourism strategy for England and Wales that is fair, does not discriminate, backs winners as well as losers and invests in success as well as failure, and to recognise the potential of Bournemouth not only by words and praise, but by deeds and funds.
§ 12.1 pm
§ Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay)
Tourism in the United Kingdom is worth about £61 billion. It is a growing industry, although it is not growing as fast here as it is in other countries. We always refer to it as a great growth industry, but the fact is that parts of the industry are in decline and have been for some time.
It is important to make it clear that there is a real difference between seaside resorts and rural tourism. Seaside resorts have been in decline for some time. On 4 December 1998, I was lucky enough to initiate an Adjournment debate on the problems facing seaside towns. The situation that I described in that debate has not changed. Seaside towns still have to contend with competition from package tours. They are end-of-the line towns to which people go because there is something to visit and not simply because they want to go somewhere. They also have 180-degree economies, unlike market towns, which have 360-degree economies, and tend to be in peripheral parts of the United Kingdom. They have poor transport links and tend to have local government that has been underfunded for years.
Since that debate, various reports, studies and action plans have been published. However, we have seen little action. We have certainly not seen any money.
The tourist resorts themselves have done a great deal to try to diversify away from dependence on tourism. They have moved into the care homes sector, where they have experienced problems with social services funding. They have also moved into the language school sector. The schools have been a great success in many tourist resorts, but they have been hit hard by the foot and mouth crisis.
Seaside resorts have even become involved in high-tech industries. However, in the past five weeks, in my constituency and in that of the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), 1,400 manufacturing jobs have been lost. On top of that has come foot and mouth, creating a sense of crisis. Indeed, with our football team at the bottom of the league, we are at rock-bottom.
The serious point is that we have had an urban White Paper and a rural White Paper and that we should now like to have a seaside resort White Paper. At last we have a Government who have recognised that seaside resorts have a problem and tweaked the lottery criteria to try to help. However, that is all they have done. We need more action—a need fuelled by the foot and mouth crisis.
There has been much investment in new tourism markets, but that investment irks many people from seaside towns. They do not object to the development of 292WH new farm-tourism markets or investment in attractions such as the national aquarium, which the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy) mentioned, or in other inner-city developments, but they do object to the fact that investment is being made in new markets in new tourism areas while the areas with experience in tourism are not receiving the same investment. For many of our seaside resorts, the difference in investment levels is making a bad situation worse. I believe that investment should match the level of tourism expertise.
The foot and mouth crisis has created some new problems. Other hon. Members have already mentioned the misrepresentation of the crisis in the south-west. As people cannot get to poor old Cornwall without going through Devon, Cornwall will have no chance at all if people are put off going to Devon. However, large parts of Devon are open for business. It is important that we concentrate on what is open, not on what is closed. Torbay is very much open for business, as are all the seaside resorts around the country.
There are various problems in respect of how rural tourism and seaside tourism are treated. For example, it has been acknowledged that rural tourism has problems, and the Government have said that they will provide assistance to deal with them. Additionally, the banks have said that they will help rural businesses, although we shall have to wait and see whether that happens. Moreover, this morning, South Western Electricity said that it will help farmers and farming businesses. Our regional newspaper is even running a "green welly day" campaign to help rural areas.
It is right for organisations to take such action. However, when a hotel loses a booking, there is no compensation. When a guest house goes out of business, there is no Government support. There is no "yellow flip-flop day" for landladies and other people working in tourism in my constituency, but perhaps there should be. There has to be some recognition that we are all in this together and that the assistance that is available should extend well beyond the rural areas and into the seaside areas.
We have to advertise and inform people about the real situation. Today,I spoke to a publisher and was told that, for about £ 1.5 million, he could produce and distribute to every one of the United Kingdom's 23 million households a four-page newspaper to get the message to everyone that they should come to the seaside resorts—particularly, I should hope, to Devon and Torbay. I believe that £1.5 million is nothing compared with the sums that are being lost. It is estimated that foot and mouth is costing my constituency about £3 million to £4 million per week in lost tourism revenue. As the Minister said, across the south-west, £17 million is being lost each week.
We need immediate cash flow assistance, as is being provided in rural areas. In the medium term, we need a major marketing relaunch of the British tourism industry and particularly of the seaside tourism industry. In the long term, we must examine the infrastructure—rail, road and air links—of our tourism resorts, particularly the coastal resorts. We should also build on the expertise and tradition of the industry in areas that have welcomed visitors down the ages. If we are to expand into new markets, let us have the same 293WH investment levels in the established areas and not leave them out on a limb. Tourism is all that some areas have, and tourism is in serious trouble.
§ 12.7 pm
§ Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) on securing this timely debate. He and other hon. Members have given examples of the problems is that they have experienced in their south-west constituencies. They have also used the widest definition of the south-west that we could have hoped for. The south-west is a massive tourist area. Recently, South West Tourism produced figures stating that, in the south-west, the industry is estimated to be worth about £6 billion annually. Additionally—I had not appreciated this—about 25 per cent. of United Kingdom domestic tourism spending is spent in the south-west.
It is therefore not surprising that hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber have said that. in the past four or five weeks, as the foot and mouth crisis has taken hold, tourism businesses in their constituencies have been devastated by the cancellation of bookings and the loss of visitors who may have planned on staying for a day, an evening or a short break. The crisis has put off visitors both from within Britain and from overseas. Many of the businesses affected are small and medium-sized, and they cannot withstand they difficulties with cash flow that they are experiencing.
The Minister could not attend the British travel trade fair seminar last week, as she was promoting Britain in the United States, although her Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed), was there. The interesting point was made that many charities are also affected, especially the Youth Hostels Association.
I remember many happy days spent youth hostelling in the south-west, in the constituencies of some of the hon. Members present for this debate. I travelled by bicycle—I am sure that there is a story in that that the media might like to take up—but the point is that charities, too, are in financial difficulties. The problem is widespread.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
I should declare a non-pecuniary interest, in that I am a vice-president of the Youth Hostels Association. The hon. Gentleman's analysis is spot-on. Does he accept that the rates relief being given to businesses is of no use to charities? That is a particular problem in the south-west.
§ Mr. Greenway
I agree: the charities already get that relief. The hon. Gentleman will know that the YHA already has a capital structure plan in place, and I hope that it will be possible to find other ways to help it and similar charities. The effects of the crisis will be devastating. We want young people to get out into the open air, which is what I enjoyed when I was young. I hope that the Minister will take that on board.
South West Tourism has made it clear that the losses are cataclysmic. It estimates losses for March alone at between £70 million and £80 million, and this month's losses are likely to be as much as £125 million. As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) said, Easter will be a watershed for many businesses. 294WH However, all the hon. Members who have contributed to the debate have emphasised that there remains a lot for people to see and do in the west country. Much of the coast is not affected, and the numbers of visitors going to attractions make the point graphically. For example, the Roman baths and pump room in Bath normally get 905,000 visitors a year. Although not quite in the million club, the attraction draws a staggering number of people.
Other attractions, such as Crealy Country in Exeter, Flambards theme park, and the Woodlands leisure park in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes, also draw huge numbers of people. The national marine aquarium in Plymouth gets more than a third of a million visitors every year, and almost a quarter of a million people visit Bristol's museum and art gallery. Those examples demonstrate that there are places for people to visit that are unaffected by foot and mouth, and we should promote them.
I was also favourably surprised to learn that the Tate gallery in St. Ives—which I do not think is in the constituency of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler)—gets 180,000 visitors a year. There are no problems at all with foot and mouth in that part of the world.
§ Mr. Greenway
I agree, and I shall speak about that in a moment, but first I wish to touch on zoos, a matter in which I have a constituency interest. The west country has several zoos of national importance—at Bristol, Paignton and Newquay—and it also contains the Combe Martin wildlife park, and Longleat, with its famous lions. There is a similar zoo and theme park in my constituency: Flamingo Land draws more than a million visitors a year.
Some zoos have closed voluntarily, while others have been closed for the winter period. Flamingo Land is due to reopen on Sunday 1 April, but it has received no advice from MAFF about what to do. Farmers with property surrounding zoos are petrified that people will bring foot and mouth and that their animals will be affected. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will help zoos and wildlife parks throughout the south-west. Will she ensure that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is aware of the problems that those attractions face? They need urgent advice and action on their behalf.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) made a significant contribution to the debate. I enjoyed meeting the tourism people in Bournemouth last autumn, and I hope that he will let me know how the area's world-class destination campaign is progressing. I was greatly attracted by what the local tourism industry was trying to do.
We welcome the Government's announcement of a business rates scheme, although it is limited and will not greatly help the major attractions, which have rateable values way in excess of £12,000. This morning, I was surprised to discover that the rateable value of Flamingo 295WH Land is £363,000—up by 51 per cent. this year. I dare say that attractions in the south-west area are similarly affected.
We welcome the rates announcement, but the Government need to go further. They should support businesses with cash flow problems with interest-free loans, as proposed by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. The hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell in effect supported that suggestion in his opening remarks. We would expect a reasonable ceiling to be fixed, perhaps of £10,000. Our calculations suggest that a loan scheme would require an outlay of around £500 million, although only the interest-free element would cost the Exchequer in the long run. Such a scheme would make a huge difference to many small concerns.
The Minister for the Environment has suggested that help would be given with regard to postponing value-added tax, national insurance and pay-as-you-earn payments, but the anecdotal evidence is that that help is not being given. One person apparently told his local Customs and Excise office that he had been informed that he did not have to pay his VAT bill, only to receive the response that the office had not heard anything about the scheme. Clear instructions must be issued in that regard.
We welcome what the Prime Minister has said today, but the message must be clear that visitors must keep away from livestock. An element of confusion is still apparent in the message being given out by the Government. The problem is not confined to areas that have foot and mouth, as areas without the disease are also affected. Cornwall, Dorset and south Devon do not have cases of foot and mouth, and they do not want it.
The key is to keep people away from livestock while promoting those attractions that people can attend. For example, local education authorities must stop cancelling school visits and Government Departments must stop cancelling conferences.
I shall conclude with the four requirements that I believe that the Government must meet above all else. First, they must eradicate foot and mouth disease, as the tourism industry knows better than anyone. Secondly, the Government need to open up rural assets such as the coastal paths as soon as it is safe to do so. Thirdly, they must give more funding to the English Tourism Council, and to the regional and sub-regional tourism organisations. Finally, the British Tourist Authority must have a budget and a plan—as my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East said—to re-promote and re-brand Britain when the crisis is over.
§ The Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting (Janet Anderson)
I too congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) on securing this debate, which could not be more apt. The presence of so many hon. Members shows that the House is very concerned about the situation in the tourism industry.
I shall not refer by name to every hon. Member who contributed, as there is not much time left and there are many important matters to deal with. However, I reassure all hon. Members that I came to this debate from a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Prime 296WH Minister at No. 10 Downing street; he understands clearly—as do we all—the impact on the tourism industry. We want to do what we can to help.
The first priority, of course, has to be to get foot and mouth under control—whatever it takes. That is not only in the interest of the farming industry; we are now aware that it is in the interest of many people. As Tourism Minister, I am sad that the importance of the tourism industry to the local, regional and national economies should have been brought to the fore in this way. However, I am glad that it has been brought to the fore, because now people understand. Rural tourism is worth £12 billion a year; nationally, tourism is worth £64 billion and employs almost 2 million people. It is the fastest growing industry in the world and, perhaps most important, we estimate that one in four of all new jobs created during the past 10 years were in tourism, hospitality and related activities. I reassure everyone that we understand the importance of the industry. I shall deal with what must be the main priorities—what people want most of all.
When I went to Devon, I visited the constituency of the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) and went to the tourist information centre. I visited a hotel on the edge of the national park. There was no reason why people should not go to it, but, because they were confused, it had been empty for two weeks and the proprietor estimated that she had lost about £50,000. It is clear that better and more accurate information has to go out to people.
Today, my Department is issuing clearer guidance as to what can and cannot be done. We have set up a website to co-ordinate all the websites; my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) mentioned the need for that, and "www.co-ordination.gov.uk" does so. If it does not, please let me know so that we can look at it again. There is a helpline—0845 607 1071—to give people information about what they can and cannot do. The regional tourist boards and information centres will help as well.
§ Mr. Ian Bruce
In effect, everyone is being told, "Keep off the grass" because there might be animals nearby, yet almost all my tourism businesses rely on holiday camps and campsites that have often been grazed by sheep, but where there is no foot and mouth. Is the Minister saying that once livestock have been moved from such land, it is safe to go there and that we should encourage people to do so?
§ Janet Anderson
The short answer is "Yes, it is", although I shall have to check. One of the problems with tourism is that so, many issues and policies that impact on it are matters for other Departments—although I do not make that point as a cop-out—so my understanding is that the advice being issued by MAFF isDon't go on farmland or open country or walk dogs, even on a lead, unless you are sure that the land isn't used by cows, pigs, sheep, goats or deer.I think that once the livestock have been moved off the land, there is less of a problem.
Many hon. Members referred to footpaths. I am pleased that, as they may know, the current restrictions on rural rights of way expire on 31 March. Today, Suffolk and North Lincolnshire announced the 297WH reopening of some of their footpaths. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, who heads the rural taskforce established by the Prime Minister, has ordered a ring round of all county councils to ask them which footpaths are open and which paths they can open and to make a health risk assessment because we want more paths open. We very much want the message that Britain is open for business to go out. I understand—not least from my visit to Devon—how important the coastal footpaths are.
We are pleased that the National Trust has announced that it has already opened 160 of its properties. English Heritage will open 200 on 1 April. British Waterways is considering what it can do. We are putting the emphasis on the fact that Britain is open for business.
The hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) mentioned that I could not be at Birmingham last week. I am sorry about that, but I had taken it upon myself to make a two-day visit to the United States. We went to New York; we held media interviews back-to-back; we talked to the travel trade press and tie tour operators. I am very glad that we did so, because they were obviously under a misapprehension. The United States is so important to us—it is our most important market. Last year, 4 million visitors came from it to the UK; they spent £2.5 billion.
One problem is that people in the United States confuse foot and mouth—or hoof and mouth, as they call it—with BSE or mad cow disease . They thought that they could not eat our food or drink our water. At a lunch with the travel trade press, I listed all the places that are still open and told them, "There are all sorts of things you can still do in Devon and Cornwall." There are numerous examples, such as the Eden project or the national marine aquarium, which I have visited, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy).
I referred to several cities that American tourists like to visit and pointed out that they were all open for business. A journalist said, "Yes, but how do you get from one to the other?" I replied that our roads are not closed and that our public transport system is still working—[Interruption.] It may come as a surprise to hon. Members to learn that people in the United States like our public transport system; they think that it is better than theirs.
I had to reassure people that there is not a funeral pyre of animals in every field and that we are talking about only a small percentage of our livestock. I hope that that message has got across.
Hon. Members referred to school visits. We have made an approach to colleagues in he Department for Education and Employment pointing out that clearer information is needed. I am told that the DFEE has issued advice to local education authorities and schools that they must take decisions in the light of local situations, taking into account advice from the MAFF chief vet on visiting the countryside. Perhaps clearer advice is needed, so I shall see whether that can be provided.
In the short time remaining, I want to deal specifically with the south-west, which is one of the country's most important tourist regions. It follows that tourism is one 298WH of the most important sectors in that area. The hon. Member for Ryedale cited the relevant figures, so I shall not repeat them.
There is no doubt that the foot and mouth outbreak has hit the rural tourism industry in England hard. South West Tourism estimates that losses are running at about £20 million a week. When the debate finishes, I shall visit Cornwall where I shall stay until tomorrow afternoon to see the situation for myself.
§ Mr. Matthew Taylor
There are two key issues that would make an immediate difference. The first is to sort out the advertising campaign; as I said, words—the black and white method—do not do the job. Secondly, as the Minister is flying to Cornwall, she will avoid the problems on First Great Western, but perhaps she could ask her team to do something to tackle the appalling situation on the railways. Not only do trains not run into Cornwall, but even when they do, they are old ones.
§ Janet Anderson
I know what the hon. Gentleman means, because I have travelled on those trains. His example is good. I cannot go anywhere to talk about tourism without someone raising the transport issue. That is why one of the most important initiatives taken by the Department, since I have held my current position, is to set up an annual tourism summit with Ministers from every Department. Two summits have been held—the most recent was on 6 March. They are tightly-knit meetings that enable my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and me to tell our ministerial colleagues that when they take decisions about transport, planning or employment law—to which the hon. Member for Mid—Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser) referred—they should remember the impact on tourism.
Hon. Members will be aware that the Prime Minister has set up the rural taskforce, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, which is meeting as we speak. My right hon. Friend has announced to Parliament a preliminary package of measures for which businesses that have been badly hit by the foot and mouth outbreak will be able to apply. Of course, that does not mean that we are not continuing to monitor the situation to see whether more needs to be done. We are in no doubt about the cash flow problems faced by such businesses because there is no income. We want to do all that we can to get the visitors back. I shall visit the Lake district to help with that.
§ Janet Anderson
It is a nice job. Usually, we do not have crises in my job, although when they arise we get to grips with them. I reassure the hon. Gentleman on that point.
299WH The package announced by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment includes help through the rates system, including enhanced discretionary and mandatory rate relief, although I take on board the comments of the hon. Member for Ryedale on visitor attractions. There will be help through the tax system, including the offer to defer payment of taxes and national insurance contributions and the measures on VAT. If that message has not got through to Customs and Excise, we need to ensure that it does. I thank him for raising that issue. With the Small Business Service. we are working on a national helpline to give advice to small businesses.
We are trying to make procedures in the Department of Social Security as fast and flexible as possible. We are increasing Government support for the rural stress network and matching donations made by the voluntary sector.
I will take up the point that the Youth Hostels Association is a charity to see whether we can do anything more about that.
In government, we shall do all that we can to continue to monitor the situation and to help the businesses that are affected and, ultimately, to get visitors back to the areas where it is safe for them to go—to give out the message that Britain is still open for business.