Foot and Mouth (Rural Economy)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 20th March 2001.

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Photo of Mr Archie Norman Mr Archie Norman Conservative, Tunbridge Wells 3:30 pm, 20th March 2001

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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