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Rural Economy

Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 4:28 pm on 25th April 2001.

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Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker 4:28 pm, 25th April 2001

We now come to the main business today. The Speaker has selected the amendment standing in the name of the Prime Minister.

Photo of Colin Breed Colin Breed Liberal Democrat, South East Cornwall 4:38 pm, 25th April 2001

I beg to move, That this House notes that the current foot and mouth crisis has impacted upon a wide range of rural businesses and services, affecting almost every aspect of rural life; further notes that foot and mouth has hit a countryside already in decline as a result of years of neglect under successive Governments; urges Her Majesty's Government to provide realistic emergency support to the whole range of businesses affected to enable them to withstand this crisis; and calls on the Government to put in place long-term policies to regenerate British agriculture and to revitalise the rural economy as a whole. What started as an agricultural crisis has quickly developed into a rural crisis, and now foot and mouth disease is affecting almost every region in the country, with tourism most badly hit. If nothing else, the present epidemic has emphasised the interdependence of so many businesses, especially those located in rural Britain. However, not even large cities have been immune from the effects of that terrible animal disease.

With the stench of burning cattle, the spectre of huge burial mounds and the disgusting sight of slaughtered animals lying for weeks on farms before disposal—and still more new cases each day—it is difficult to accept that the crisis is under control. That is even more true when so many farmers and businesses are facing a wipeout and everyone fears for their future.

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon

Does my hon. Friend agree that my constituents should not have to bear the brunt of digging the Government out of the appalling mess that they have made of dealing with the foot and mouth crisis? Does he also agree that the burden should be shared and that unburied carcases should be disposed of in the numerous landfill sites up and down the country, not in pyres and huge burial grounds?

Photo of Colin Breed Colin Breed Liberal Democrat, South East Cornwall

We all recognise the considerable problems faced by people in Devon. They bear a huge burden, given the enormous numbers of animals that have to be buried or burned. An enormous backlog remains. I suspect that Devon could not take all the animals involved. There must be different and quicker ways in which dispose of them: I do not believe that we can wait three or four weeks to deal with perhaps 100,000 animals.

Dealing with the crisis still appears to be more of an administrative and bureaucratic exercise run from Whitehall than a management job on the ground. Too often, confused and delayed instructions come out of London, and they sometimes contradict decisions made close to outbreaks of the disease. Comparisons with the way in which Scotland and Wales, under devolved Administrations, have handled the problem are pertinent. They reinforce calls from Liberal Democrat Members for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to be absorbed into a new department of rural affairs. That would give focus, co-ordination and speed to the decision-making processes, and enable co-ordinated policy making for our rural areas in the future.

However, it is still annoying that so many issues remain unresolved that should have been finalised weeks ago. What is to be done for farmers whose cattle have gone over the 30-month limit during the period of restrictions? What about other animals that have passed their prime and lost their value? What about the cows that are drying off because artificial insemination men are not being allowed access to the farms?

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Does my hon. Friend accept that there is another question to be asked? Would not it be appropriate to consider easing the movement of animals in areas that are free from foot and mouth disease, but not unaffected by it? I am referring particularly to the movement of cattle from winter quarters to summer pastures, which at present is not possible. Does my hon. Friend also accept that cattle are being moved from my constituency for slaughter in places as far away as Somerset and Essex? Would not opening up local abattoirs make it easier to deal with those animals, and minimise the risk of spreading the disease?

Photo of Colin Breed Colin Breed Liberal Democrat, South East Cornwall

There is clearly a case for lifting some of the restrictions, and for redrawing some of the maps to allow some animals to be moved. That would relieve the pressure on the welfare disposal scheme, although there must be no compromise when it comes to ensuring that the disease is not spread. I hope that the Minister for the Environment will deal with that when he responds to the debate, as many farmers find themselves in the situation that my hon. Friend has described.

Farmers who do not have foot and mouth on their farms are also still suffering. In fairness to the Minister, it has to be said that he has acknowledged that and has acted to assure them that they will be assisted. However, if farmers had known what compensation and support they would receive they would not have spent so many weeks feeling so desperate

However, not only farmers have suffered. Other businesses are suffering too, and for help for them we find ourselves turning to a plethora of Government Departments, including the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and of course the Treasury.

The financial measures so far announced by the Government are inadequate, given the depth of the crisis facing thousands of businesses up and down the country. The vast majority of businesses affected have nothing to do with agriculture directly, but foot and mouth has brought much collateral damage that is uninsurable.

The massive loss of business has been concentrated in areas of the country that not only are recovering from bovine spongiform encephalopathy but which are in any case among the poorest areas. The loss of income, jobs and business will devastate the rural economy and have a significant effect on urban communities.

It is therefore especially disappointing that the Government have failed to explain some of the details of their support package. For instance, will any tax deferrals be subject to interest? I believe that the applicable rate could be as high as 8½ per cent. Will the Government provide any assistance for businesses deeply affected by the crisis which, despite being in or near a rural area, are not located in one of the parishes identified for support?

What about value added tax? The Government have said that the Treasury and Customs and Excise will be "sympathetic", but what does that mean? Sympathy was not what was experienced by one of my constituents who called the Inland Revenue and was told that if he did not pay up the bailiffs would be sent.

At any time of calamity it is right to try and learn lessons and seek new ways forward. However, in many respects, the country and the countryside are now at a crossroads.

Photo of Mr Brian Cotter Mr Brian Cotter Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson

Does my hon. Friend agree that the £200 million support package announced by the Government, reinforced two days ago by the Minister for the Environment, seems rather disproportionate given that we expect losses of billions of pounds in trade for tourism and small businesses?

Photo of Colin Breed Colin Breed Liberal Democrat, South East Cornwall

The Government have said that that package is a start, and we hope that there will be further proposals, with perhaps some announcements today. The amount of money currently spent will be dwarfed by the cost of the problem: businesses that fail will lead to unemployment, resulting in more unemployment and social security benefits to be paid. If money is paid out to enable those businesses to continue, the Government will not have to find the money to pay for those benefits.

The countryside is at a crossroads. Many commentators recognise the need for a national debate on how to manage food production in the future and ensure that the important rural economy is supported and enhanced, not decimated by this disease outbreak. There will be little future for many farmers and rural businesses if they do not receive adequate emergency financial aid immediately. The Government's modest attempts at emergency support have failed to recognise both the depth and breadth of the problem.

The Liberal Democrats have already published proposals for a combination of rate and tax deferrals, interest-free loans of up to £20,000, repayable over two years, as well as proper compensation for farmers whose business has been affected by foot and mouth but who do not qualify under present compensation rules because their animals have not been slaughtered. Such farmers include those with cattle now more than 30 months old, those who have lost out on agreed sales because they cannot move their animals and those whose cows are now drying off because they have not had access to AI men.

The businesses affected are widespread in their respective activity, geographical location and size, but collectively they are vital to the local economy and must have access to proper packages of financial assistance. The Government's proposals create an artificial divide. It is simply not fair that some are able to receive financial aid and others are not. I hope that the Minister will be able to clarify some of the problems that have emerged since the Government's announcements.

Let us take a few moments to consider the crossroads at which our country stands and look back down the road whence we have come to our present situation. Over 40 years of recent history, the word "markets" has kept cropping up. First, there was the Common Market; it introduced the common agricultural policy which was designed to address the future needs of food production in post-war Europe. Its intentions were honourable, but no one now believes anything other than that it has failed and that the continued failure of politicians to carry out meaningful reform over many years has contributed to today's crisis.

The global markets and the growth of international trading, with the freeing up of trade barriers, have produced many benefits but also substantial risks and have played an important part in today's problem. It is obvious that over the years we have become complacent and lowered our guard against this disease because we had not seen it for several decades.

Supermarkets have produced considerable benefits for consumers but their current trading practices have greatly disadvantaged many primary producers. They have contributed to the trend of local cattle market closures up and down the country.

All those factors have combined to bring our agricultural industry and the rural economy to the point of collapse. We cannot turn back the clock to some nostalgic era of Old MacDonald and his farm. The chocolate-box image of country life is not realistic. Foot and mouth disease has created a hiatus in production and we must take this opportunity to consider whether we really believe that we can continue in the same direction with no further thought. Is this a road to national prosperity or is it the road to ruin?

Many people now believe that to continue in the same direction, which would bring about further farm amalgamation and reduction in employment with greater pressure on land and animals to produce more and more for less and less, is a recipe for disaster—both for the rural economy and for the country at large. That is unsustainable. The simplistic attitude that one cannot buck the market and that the lowest unit cost delivers the best consumer benefit would wipe out small family farms and change the fabric of the countryside and its environment, as well as destroying rural communities. Yet that is what we shall sleepwalk into unless we make a radical reassessment of our priorities and unless Government policies across all Departments are attuned to those new priorities.

For many years, the Liberal Democrats have argued that greater prominence should be given to the environmental and social considerations of agriculture. Economies of scale can be created through building farmers' co-operatives and sharing expertise and technology. Money can be recycled within communities by reviving local markets; from farm gate to processor, to retailer to plate—all in the same locality.

Liberal Democrat plans for agriculture include more money for rural development and a single countryside management contract for farm support. We would cut red tape and introduce an early retirement scheme for tenant farmers, linked to a new entrants' scheme, to reinvigorate the industry and bring in new, fresh ideas. We have constantly argued for balance in the UK economy—recognising the value of small business and the interdependence of rural businesses with agriculture at the heart—as well as paying attention to competitiveness and profitability. We need to reinvigorate the countryside and not see it become dormitory accommodation for city workers, with more intensive methods of production and the loss of a genuinely rural population.

The rural economy is certainly under threat; it has become the victim of a thousand cuts over many years and is quite simply bleeding to death. This latest blow could be terminal, but I believe it is not yet too late—although we may not have much more time. Emergency measures in the wake of foot and mouth will merely stem the bleeding. Only radical policy changes will ultimately restore the countryside to full health. Inevitably, it will take time to achieve that.

What is needed first is a determined effort radically to reform the common agricultural policy; recent—almost cosmetic—changes are not good enough.

Photo of Mr Christopher Gill Mr Christopher Gill Conservative, Ludlow

The hon. Gentleman has twice mentioned reform of the common agricultural policy. He knows as well as everyone in the House that to reform the CAP in any meaningful way requires unanimity among the 15 nations. How is he going to get that?

Photo of Colin Breed Colin Breed Liberal Democrat, South East Cornwall

I was just about to suggest why we may get that co-operation.

The European Union must recognise the risks for everyone's economy in current trading conditions; any state—any European country—could be the next to suffer the same crisis as us. That reality will force more Ministers throughout the EU to realise that the CAP needs early reform.

Money in the CAP should be diverted from paying for production to paying for stewardship. Farm businesses must ultimately be self-supporting in their commercial activity, with Government providing only a safety net to weather storms. However, farmers are asked to do so much more—beyond such economic activity—and for that they must be rewarded.

Secondly, we need to recognise the risks of global trading and ensure that there are vigorous inspection procedures at all ports of entry to identify illegal and possibly contaminated food products, carried both commercially and by travellers, with prosecutions where necessary. We need to acknowledge that the rundown in so many sectors—such as port health authorities, Customs, farm inspections and state veterinary services—was a penny-wise, pound-foolish policy, and that greater resources must now be devoted to those important protections and that they must be maintained.

Thirdly, we need a proper labelling scheme to identify country of origin and to bring an end to misleading labels and practices. That, too, can be considered only on a pan-European basis because food has become such an international commodity. However, it can be achieved through firm negotiation.

Fourthly, we must use the existing options open to us to promote sustainable, safe and ethically produced food. That should include a more imaginative use of modulated funds for rural development to support the structure of family farms; an increase in the number of small, local abattoirs; and the creation of new local markets for their produce, recognising the important social, environmental and human health benefits that each can, in turn, provide.

The larger agribusinesses will, of course, continue, and their trading practices and scale of production will continue to make them best suited to supply the larger food processors and supermarkets. However, by supporting local markets, we will ensure greater consumer choice—not just a choice between Asda and Tesco, but the choice to purchase locally grown food from a range of local shops and markets or to patronise the supermarkets.

Our aim must be to ensure that in this country we grow safe, sustainable and ethically produced food that gives primary producers a fair return on their investment and a proper reward for their labour, after which competition should ensure that the consumer pays the lowest price. However, to achieve both those aims, the balance between supplier and retailer will need to be redressed, and there must be an end to the complex monopolies that were identified in the recent Competition Commission report on the supermarkets.

We need a retail regulator to be appointed, as part of the Office of Fair Trading, to ensure the dominance of one sector cannot be abused, with the consequences that we have seen in recent years.

A cheap food policy, which, every few years, entails massive compensation payments, business failures and the desecration of our environment, is in fact extremely expensive for the taxpayer and consumers, and makes life a misery for many small suppliers. It is, of course, very profitable for supermarket shareholders.

It is also time to review completely the uniform business rate, which now is subject to so many dispensations and anomalies and is so disproportionately unfair to small businesses that only a complete reappraisal of how we raise local business tax will do. The rural economy is made up almost entirely of small businesses, and they have been very hard hit by the UBR.

When this terrible crisis is indeed under control, it will not be enough to learn lessons about its administration and management. To write another report, such as that of 1967, the recommendations of which were observed for a few years and then forgotten, will not be enough. The end of the crisis will present an opportunity to build on a real vision of what the future of agriculture and the rural economy should hold. According to that, through a combination of sensible regulation, deployment of resources and a recognition of the vital part played by a balanced agricultural sector, we can deliver what the consumer wants, in a countryside that is attractive and sustainable, while ensuring that we do not again threaten the lives and livelihoods of those who rely upon this green and pleasant land.

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food 4:57 pm, 25th April 2001

I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof: 'notes that the current foot and mouth crisis has impacted upon a wide range of rural businesses and services, affecting many aspects of rural life; further notes that foot and mouth has hit a countryside that has suffered from lack of investment under previous governments; agrees that the first priority must be the isolation, control and eradication of foot and mouth disease; endorses the Government's commitment to rural communities as set out in the Rural White Paper and the England Rural Development Programme; welcomes the extra financial help the Government has made available to farmers and rural businesses affected by foot and mouth, including agrimonetary compensation for livestock farmers and the Livestock Welfare (Disposal) Scheme; welcomes the work of the Rural Task Force including its work to open up the countryside and business relief, deferral of tax and national insurance contributions, extension of the small firms loan guarantee scheme and new grants to Regional Development Agencies and tourism authorities; and calls on the Government to continue putting in place the long-term policies needed to regenerate British agriculture and revitalise the rural economy as a whole.'. I am sure that today's debate, which is entitled "The Rural Economy", will focus largely on the impact of foot and mouth disease on the rural economy. Indeed, that is reflected in the motion and the amendments that have been tabled. Foot and mouth disease has been an enormous blow to the farming community and the wider rural community.

All hon. Members feel huge sympathy for those farmers who have lost their animals and for all those who are suffering in rural areas and, in some cases, even beyond. Indeed, looking around the Chamber, I can see on both sides Members who represent constituencies that have been devastated by the disease. They have been greatly affected and have maintained regular contact with their constituents and, therefore, know at first hand the difficulties involved.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

As the right hon. Lady looks around the Chamber, she sees Members with urban and rural constituencies, and my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) made the very good point that the businesses that have suffered are not necessarily in what the Government call rural constituencies. Will she extend the rate relief scheme to all the businesses that are suffering, regardless of the arbitrary authority in which they happen to be?

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

The hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, who heads the rural taskforce, will respond to the debate. He made a statement in answer to a private notice question earlier in the week, and he will pick up the points made in this debate. However, the rural taskforce is doing a good job not only in the measures that it has already announced, but because it is taking stock of the situation as it develops. One point that has come home to us strongly is that, although some of the earlier predictions have come true, some of them were unfounded. Some attractions have done better than expected while others have done worse. For that reason, it is important continually to monitor the position and to be prepared to take measures as and when appropriate.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

On that point, will the right hon. Lady clarify the position in Scotland and in England? Is she aware that in Scotland the insane policy of slaughtering the hefted Cheviot flock will result, if it continues at the present rate, in the destruction of the entire flock? It is an irreplaceable asset in the Scottish economy. However, I understand that a different method is being used in, for example, Northumberland. Will she clarify the position and explain whether it is the same north and south of the border?

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

The hon. Gentleman said, "On that point", but his intervention raised an entirely different one. None the less, it is an important issue. As a Northumbrian, I am keen to ensure that the flocks of Cheviots on both sides of the border have the best possible chance of survival. That is why I support the measures that the Government have taken. He overstates the differences between north and south of the border. Discussions are taking place between the Administrations to try to ensure that we approach the problem in as co-ordinated a fashion as possible. However, we are conscious of the important issue that he has raised.

There are welcome signs that our efforts to bear down on the disease are achieving results. The continuing downward trend in the daily number of cases is particularly encouraging. It has gone down from an average of 43 per day in the week ending Sunday 1 April to 16 per day in the week ending Sunday 22 April. There were 13 more cases on Monday of this week and 13 yesterday. The House will be aware of some of the more encouraging statements about the course of the disease that were made last week by the Government's chief scientific adviser, Professor King. Following rigorous serological testing of all farms in the relevant areas, we have been able to lift infected area status from nine areas entirely. Others will follow in the days and weeks ahead.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

Will the Minister explain—perhaps later in her speech—the criteria for lifting the restrictions in certain areas? I have been told that restrictions have been lifted in certain counties that have had outbreaks but not in others. There seems to be inconsistency in the way in which the Government are lifting movement restrictions.

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

I am not aware of an inconsistency in approach. Guidance is available, and information is available on the MAFF website. Information has also been published about how restricted area status can be lifted. If the hon. Gentleman has specific examples, I would be grateful if he would draw them to my attention or that of another Minister so that we can respond to him. An overall framework is in place—it is partly a European as well as a UK framework—and I have seen the clear advice that farmers have received.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Conservative, South Staffordshire

I am sure that the Minister will agree that there is no cause for complacency and that we still face a crisis. In that context, when will the Government come to a decision on vaccination? Does she accept that the president of the National Farmers Union does not speak for all farmers and that the view that he advances is hotly contested by many in rural communities? The Government are there to lead; when will we have some leadership?

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman that we must not be complacent in dealing with the disease. Indeed, one of the lessons of the 1967 outbreak of which we are very conscious is the fact that, during that outbreak, there was a lull and guard was relaxed. The disease broke out again, so we must be careful that that does not happen in this case.

I have discussed vaccination with farmers around the country and many are not in favour of it, so the president of the NFU is reflecting their opinions. However, farmers and other groups are divided on the issue, sometimes within the same region. Even people in the hot-spot areas are divided. That makes the decision difficult. Despite criticisms from other parties, I notice that they have not made a clear policy statement on vaccination. That has been apparent in their media interviews.

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Labour, Workington

Will the Department seriously consider the vaccination of specialist breed sheep, in particular the herdwick sheep that will secure the survival of the breed? Many people in the Lakeland whom I respect have told me that that is possible without compromising our position on vaccination.

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

That is an important aspect of the debate. However, other measures and guidance are being made available on rare and specialist breeds. In particular, we want to provide adequate bio-security measures so that the animals are kept separate from possible infectivity.

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

That could include hefted sheep if they are kept on their territory and separate from infectivity.

Mr. Lembit Öpik:

The Minister will be aware that Ben Gill, the president of the NFU, is worried about the apparent inconsistency in the Government's policy on vaccination. That causes great stress in the countryside, especially among farmers. Will she seriously consider ensuring that a clear statement is sent to all farmers to explain the Government's position and the rationale behind it? I am sure that farmers would be grateful for that because the uncertainty is posing a considerable challenge to mental well-being in the countryside.

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

That is either being done or about to be done. We are conscious of the need to communicate with individual farmers directly on this important issue.

Photo of Eric Martlew Eric Martlew Labour, Carlisle

I believe that no matter what the Government say, they will not persuade the NFU to accept vaccination. As an MP from one of the hot spots, I favour vaccination. Obviously we will try to keep cattle in sheds for as long as possible, but are the Government still considering a fodder policy?

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

We are certainly considering the problems of fodder supply to some farmers in areas where they are being encouraged to keep animals housed for longer than usual.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I acknowledge that there are different opinions on vaccination, but does the Minister accept that many farmers, such as Graham Gulliver, a prominent farmer in Preston Bissett in my constituency, are worried that their motives are being unfairly misrepresented? Will she acknowledge that many of those farmers who are hesitant, to put it mildly, about vaccination are not being awkward or cussed; rather they are concerned about the future saleability of their stock and the importance of ensuring compensation for consequential loss?

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

The hon. Gentleman's comments bear out my contact with farmers in different parts of the country. We have not been imputing particular motives to farmers. A genuine debate about vaccination is taking place. Many of the market-related concerns are, without question, important. They have been a factor in our consideration of the problem and our unwillingness to impose a policy about which there are so many severe doubts.

Government policy has been based at all times on the best scientific advice. That advice was that we needed to pursue vigorously the cull on infected premises within 24 hours and on neighbouring farms within 48 hours, which we have been achieving in many areas. Those policies have clearly been effective, as shown by the falling number of cases.

Photo of Mr Richard Livsey Mr Richard Livsey Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

I was close to the Northumberland outbreak in 1967. Does the Minister agree that in that outbreak, immediate on-farm burial within 24 hours, rather than the use of mass burial sites, contained the disease? I have a huge problem on the uplands in my constituency, where 2,000 carcases were to be buried. That caused alarm, and there was a build-up of carcases when the spread of the disease could have been stopped.

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point and the concerns expressed by his constituents. None the less, we cannot make a straightforward comparison with 1967, when there were many outbreaks over a long period. When farms were smaller and we did not have the current environmental regulations, on-farm burial was a different option. We would be severely criticised if we allowed on-farm burial contrary to the environmental regulations that the House has adopted and which in many cases are part of European Union directives that we have freely and willingly entered into. For that reason, disposal routes are complex and giver rise to problems in many areas.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Liberal Democrat, Berwick-upon-Tweed

May I draw the Minister's attention to communities, which she knows, around Widdringon, Chevington and Cresswell in Northumberland that have seen thousands of animals burned in a beauty spot at Druridge bay and 100,000 carcases buried at Widdrington? Does she recognise that they need a break because they have been dealing with the problems of the whole region? There could also be some compensation, such as a council tax reduction for a year. There must be a mechanism by which we can recognise that those people have borne the brunt of the sacrifice.

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

I know the area well and I understand people's concerns, but I must say that the conditions under which animals were disposed of there were not unilaterally thought up by the Ministry of Agriculture but agreed by all the parties concerned, including the Environment Agency. Various requirements for siting were met, including those on wind conditions. Wind does change direction, but it is easier now than in 1967 to predict it, and we have used that knowledge very effectively.

We have made good progress in the last week or two towards clearing slaughter and disposal backlogs. It was clear that we were not keeping up with the numbers reported, but now there is a serious backlog only in Devon and that is being reduced by the day. There are no significant disposal backlogs in other areas.

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon

As the Minister knows, there is a problem in my constituency and in Devon more widely. She said that we should not be complacent. It is reported today that her Ministry's director of operations for the south-west has moved. Who is the new south-west director of operations?

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

I have not seen that report, but the directors of operations, who have been working very hard, are entitled to a break in their activities. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the operations directorate in Devon is a crucial part of the fight against foot and mouth disease. The arrangements in Devon to co-ordinate the efforts of the Ministry, the Army and the veterinary service will be fully effective and his constituents will not lose out from any temporary changes in the occupancy of the regional director's office.

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

The right hon. Lady will agree that it is important to try to keep rural businesses going in the crisis. Hon. Members have mentioned rural abattoirs. Is she aware of the extent to which the welfare slaughter scheme is dislocating the market for slaughter of animals for human consumption? There are abattoirs in the north of England that cannot obtain stock for slaughter even under the Government's rules because the prices under the welfare slaughter scheme, in which animals are bulked up and priced deadweight, are much more advantageous than those offered for live weight in the marketplace. Small businesses will not be helped if they cannot get hold of the animals, even when encouraged to do so.

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

Thanks to the television in my office in the Ministry of Agriculture, I followed the interesting exchange on that subject earlier this week between the right hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, who explained our approach to the welfare scheme, and particularly the reason why we introduced a new complementary scheme to allow meat to go into the food chain from infected areas. My right hon. Friend outlined various ways in which he wanted to proceed with the welfare scheme, and I know that he may well have more to say about that in the next few days.

On disposal, I should like to repeat the assurance that public safety must be our first priority. The Department of Health is leading work on the safe disposal of carcases; it is providing advice for those involved in disposal and, of course, additional guidance for the public. Last week, we announced further measures to ease farm welfare problems. I have just responded to the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) regarding the movement of healthy animals from surveillance zones; those animals can now be slaughtered for human consumption. Farmers will be able to move animals in a wider range of circumstances than previously. Although the movements require licences, local veterinary inspectors can now issue those.

We are aware that the livestock welfare disposal scheme made a slow start, but we are now getting on top of the backlog and expect to clear it in the next few weeks. I believe that approximately 53,000 animals were disposed of under the scheme in the first week of April, but the figure rose to 150,000 last week, which is a considerable improvement, and I acknowledge the efforts of everyone involved.

Photo of Dr Peter Brand Dr Peter Brand Liberal Democrat, Isle of Wight

The Minister will realise that my island constituency has been free of foot and mouth so far, and we hope to keep it that way through rigid barrier controls at our ferry ports. However, there is a problem, as it costs at least £300 to take animals from farm to abattoir, irrespective of the number taken. A collection point proposal has been put to her office but. apparently, the response was that, so far, there has been no time to consider such a proposal. Will she look at the proposal because the issue is becoming a serious problem for my farmers?

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

I will look at that issue again and write to the hon. Gentleman. However, our earlier reservations about collection points were based largely on veterinary advice on disease control. I will check whether that advice has changed, but I am not aware that it has.

A minute ago, I said that I would like to pay tribute to those who, in many cases, are working round the clock in disease control centres. I should very much like to stress that point, partly because of the many dispiriting and negative stories that affect people on the ground. I know that bad news is news and that good news is not news but, none the less, many things have been handled well, correctly and sensitively. Often, the people who carry out that work do not get the recognition that they deserve. In a previous incarnation I had ministerial responsibility for prisons, and I remember that people who often work in difficult circumstances on rehabilitating prisoners day in, day out get little public thanks, but the minute that something goes wrong, they find themselves all over the media, which can be distressing. There are parallels with the problem that we now face.

It was good to see in one of my local newspapers recently a notice inserted by a family whose animals had been lost as a result of foot and mouth thanking Ministry staff for the way in which they had dealt with that. I was rather amused to note on a visit to the Intervention Board that someone had faxed an ode to the staff to thank them for the way that they had dealt with his application under the livestock welfare scheme.

Photo of Mr Huw Edwards Mr Huw Edwards Labour, Monmouth

Will my right hon. Friend accept that there have been great difficulties with the Intervention Board? I represent a Welsh area, and it is difficult to find an official who deals with Wales. I have had problems that involve one of my constituents, Mr. Barry Lewis. After two weeks, he found that his application form had been lost. Eventually he had his stock slaughtered, only to be told the next day that it would be slaughtered this coming week. There have been serious problems, so will my right hon. Friend undertake a serious review of the board's workings?

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

What I said was said sincerely. I was not trying to disguise the fact that there have been difficulties and problems. Problems have been referred to me and to other Ministers. I am prepared to consider lessons of organisation. None the less, Ministry and Intervention Board staff have had to operate many different schemes at short notice—for example, the short-term movement scheme, the long-distance movement scheme and the livestock welfare disposal scheme. They have had to deal also with the slaughtering and disposal of infected animals and the problems related to contiguous farms and premises. It has been difficult to deal with those issues.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Opposition Whip (Commons)

I agree with the right hon. Lady when she pays tribute to those who are working so hard and who have answered our calls with great courtesy. However, on organisation, will she clarify the exact relationship between the Prime Minister, COBR—Cobra—the Ministry of Defence, MAFF and, above all, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, which controls the Environment Agency? There seem to be conflicting claims and differences of opinion on who takes decisions.

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I do not find this difficult. Many Departments are involved when there is such an outbreak. He referred, for example, to health, environment, agriculture and Army issues. Given the Army's involvement, the co-ordination that COBR provides is important. Given the scale of the problem that we face, it would be astonishing if my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister were not personally fully engaged.

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

I am conscious of the need to make some progress. I will give way for the last time. If I continued to give way, I would be denying Members the chance to speak.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The right hon. Lady has been extremely generous in giving way and I am grateful to her.

The right hon. Lady knows that the Ministry has made draft proposals, which I support, for banning the feeding of swill to pigs. However, the draft orders appear to include whey feeding, which is crucial to the pig industry and the cheese-making industry. There seems to be no evidential basis for banning the feeding of whey to pigs. Can she assure me that the Ministry does not intend to crucify those industries for no good reason?

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are not out to crucify the cheese-making industry. Knowing the excellence and variety of British cheeses, I am keen to see the industry expand. The consultation period on pig swill has expired, and we are considering the results. The issue that he mentioned has been raised, along with others, and an announcement will be made shortly about the results of the consultation and how we intend to proceed.

I conclude by referring to the part of the motion that concerns the need to consider long-term policies for agriculture and the rural sector. Both the motion and the Government's amendment mention long-term policies, although the official Opposition's amendment, which simply refers to immediate measures, does not. The long-term perspective is important. The Government are already active in that respect, both within the United Kingdom in terms of developing agriculture and rural policies, and in the European Union, where we are building specific alliances.

Despite the reservations expressed in an earlier intervention, agricultural reform is gaining momentum in the European Union, partly because of changes in attitude among certain Governments in Europe, partly because of the pressure from the World Trade Organisation, partly because of the expansion of the EU to take in countries of central and eastern Europe, and partly because of the concerns of the consumer and environmental considerations.

The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) rightly mentioned the various aspects of agriculture. Agriculture is about food production, and we are keen to ensure that our producers identify markets and opportunities for the future. At the same time, agriculture is about stewardship of the countryside, and we believe that the countryside and environmental aspects need to be factored even more fully into policy, particularly European policy.

I am optimistic about that. We have a better chance of agricultural reform in that direction now than at any time that those of us who have been dealing in various ways with the common agricultural policy can remember. That is encouraging. I can assure the House that we will be extremely active in pursuing that debate.

I welcome today's debate. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture hopes to make a statement on foot and mouth disease tomorrow. I believe that we are tackling the disease, as the figures now show. I believe that we are supporting the wider rural economy and taking forward the debate on the future of agricultural and rural policies in our country. For all those reasons, I strongly commend the Government's amendment.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 5:26 pm, 25th April 2001

I congratulate the Liberal Democrats on holding this afternoon's debate. It is the first chance that the House has had to consider foot and mouth disease after a two and a half week gap, part of which was the Easter recess. It is disappointing that in the nine weeks since the crisis started, there has not yet been a single debate in the House in Government time. There have been two full days of debate provided by the Conservative Opposition, and now half a day provided by the Liberal Democrats. Whether, contrary to what the Minister of State said, that reflects some reluctance on the Government's part to deal with the issues in Parliament and to be accountable to Parliament, others will judge.

I warmly welcome the more hopeful signs that have emerged in the past few days in relation to the scale of the crisis. Any progress that is being made towards getting control of the outbreak is very good news. I shall examine in a moment the extent of that progress and the reasons why it may have taken place.

In the two and a half weeks since the House last debated foot and mouth disease, there have continued to be a great many heart-rending stories of its tragic effects. I am sure that the entire House will want to join me in sending a clear message of sympathy and support to every family in the land who have suffered as a result of the disease or who may still face a threat from foot and mouth disease as it approaches their farm. That support must also extend, as the right hon. Lady said, to those who are working to contain the outbreak and clear up the terrible backlog of animals awaiting slaughter and of carcases awaiting disposal.

That backlog results directly from the Government's failure to act more promptly and effectively in the early stages of the crisis. It results from their refusal to bring in the Army at the time when we suggested it, and their refusal then to give the Army full control of operations on the ground, which seems to be happening belatedly and by stealth. The efforts made by service personnel, as well as by vets, slaughtermen and many others at the sharp end, are very much appreciated.

This week's news that a human case of foot and mouth disease may have occurred is, however, a worrying new development. The risks to personnel who are dealing with carcase disposal, and in particular with carcases that may explode, cannot be ignored. I hope that the Government will review the procedures that are being followed in order to minimise the risk of further human cases of foot and mouth disease.

I need hardly say that the confirmation that foot and mouth disease can affect humans, which contrasts with some earlier official statements and assurances, risks undermining some of the efforts that have been made in the past couple of weeks to boost the fortunes of our flagging tourism industry.

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's comment is justified. He will know that there is on record a case of foot and mouth that occurred in a human in the 1967 outbreak. Thus, although such an occurrence is extremely rare, it is not impossible, and I do not think that anyone has said otherwise.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am afraid that one of the mistakes that the Government have made almost throughout the crisis is to sound too optimistic and complacent about what is happening. Those of us who genuinely have the long-term interests of the tourism industry and rural businesses at heart know that nothing causes more damage than raising false expectations, which especially affect the tourism market, whether in north America or elsewhere. It was claimed frequently that the disease was under control when the number of cases was a tiny fraction of that which was reached at the end of March, but the fact that those claims were so patently unfounded at the time when they were made has reduced the effectiveness of the efforts of Ministers and other officials to try to rebuild confidence. Ignoring problems that are occurring, such as the one to which I have just referred, does nothing whatever to stimulate demand for visits to this country in places such as north America.

At the start of April, I set out the four criteria that should be used to judge whether the crisis has been resolved. First, the number of confirmed cases that arise daily should he on a clear downward trend. Secondly, the 24-hour report-to-slaughter target time for infected animals should be met. Thirdly, the geographical spread of the disease should be reversed. Fourthly, the movement restrictions on healthy animals should be lifted. When all four criteria have been achieved, farming can be said to have returned to normal. [Interruption.] I hear someone on the Labour Benches saying that all those conditions have been met. I can only say that that is an extraordinarily ignorant comment, and exactly the sort of remark about which I complained earlier. Anyone who has travelled in the countryside, especially in the west country, will know such a view is very far from correct.

Let us examine each criterion. First, as the Minister of State pointed out, progress has now been made on the number of cases that are confirmed daily. That is good news. However, will she or the Minister for the Environment tell us whether the presentation of today's figures is consistent with that of earlier ones? On Monday, Baroness Hayman wrote to my noble Friend Baroness Byford. Her letter stated that, although there had been 1,435 confirmed cases, there were 5,385 affected farms, so the number of farmers whose animals are being slaughtered is obviously substantially greater than the number of confirmed cases. On the same day, the chief veterinary officer was giving different figures to the Agriculture Committee. In view of that discrepancy, will the Minister of State confirm that no change has been made to the basis on which the figures are calculated?

On the second of my four criteria—the 24-hour report-to-slaughter target for infected animals—progress has again clearly been made, but it is hard to judge precisely how much, as the daily data for the past few days do not appear entirely credible. After several weeks when the daily reports suggested that approximately 30,000 to 40,000 animals a day were being slaughtered, Government figures appeared to claim that 700,000 animals were slaughtered in four days. That is approximately five times the rate that had been achieved previously.

After weeks of carcase disposals at a maximum rate of 40,000 a day, Government figures suggested that more than 1 million carcases were disposed of in five days. I assume that the figures involved some catching up, and that under-recording in the earlier period has led to bunching. However, that reduces the value of the figures, at least for the time being. It would be helpful if the Minister of State could confirm that the basis for the calculations has not been changed. I hope that that is case. If so, perhaps the Government could publish backdated daily figures that incorporate the revisions so that we can judge the trend. We cannot do that at the moment because of the bunching. If the data have been revised, it should be possible to produce more accurate daily figures. That would enable us to judge the trend more confidently.

The daily figures are relevant to assessing whether the target of 24 hours from report to slaughter is being met. I hope that information will continue to be given to hon. Members. On three occasions during the last three days before the Easter recess, I asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for an assurance that daily statistics would be published throughout the recess. We received no answer to those requests, and the daily figures were discontinued in the first week. After several days of widely reported protests from the Conservative party and others who were worried about the matter, the Government relented and began publishing the daily totals again. Discontinuing the information makes it hard to judge what the current pattern shows. Figures should be published on the same basis as in the early period.

It would also be helpful if the Government broke down the confirmed cases by constituency. I appreciate that individual Members of Parliament are notified, but if we are approaching a general election campaign, it is important to provide public information about the constituencies where cases are confirmed. Thus all the candidates can be informed in the same way as Members of Parliament are currently notified.

The third criterion is the reversal of the geographical spread. Again, I acknowledge that some progress has been made and that the Government have published a list of areas that can be declared free of infection. However, some setbacks have occurred, for example, in Glamorgan, which was previously free of infection. The overall picture is therefore mixed. Matters are improving, but the trend is not all one way.

The fourth criterion covers the movement restrictions on healthy animals. Again, I welcome the steps that have been taken to reduce them, but the Minister of State knows that curbs remain in place in many areas. They are needed and it is right to maintain them. I agree that there is a risk of premature relaxation, for understandable reasons, and that there is much pressure to lift the restrictions. No one wants to make the mistake that was made in the previous outbreak, when restrictions were relaxed too quickly in some places. The disease might begin to spread again as a consequence. We therefore support the retention of controls until it is clearly safe to lift them.

However, until the restrictions are lifted, it cannot be said that farming has returned to normal. Many farmers are finding it difficult to run their businesses as they would like, taking account of the seasonal factors.

Photo of David Borrow David Borrow Labour, South Ribble

Does the hon. Gentleman now believe that the outbreak is under control? He talks about lifting movement restrictions. If he were Minister, under what circumstances would he lift restrictions completely? Would he wait until there were no further incidences, or for a period after the final outbreak? Under what circumstances would he deem that movement restrictions could be lifted and therefore that the outbreak was under control according to his definition?

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I believe that most members of the public would judge whether the crisis had been resolved according to the criteria that I have set out. I share the Minister of State's view that it is impossible to lift all movement restrictions as quickly as some people would like because we rightly do not want to run any risk of a renewed spread of infection. However, it is impossible to say that the crisis has been resolved while those restrictions remain. A significant number of farmers are unable to operate their businesses as they normally would while such restrictions exist, and to claim that everything is back to normal when restrictions of that sort are still in place seems quite unreasonable.

Taking account of all those criteria, I do not believe that it is possible to say, as of today, that the crisis has been resolved or even that foot and mouth disease is fully under control. It is certainly not under control in Devon, to which I paid a visit last week. There, in particular, the problem of carcase disposal is still enormous. That is a symbol of the Government's failure to take control of this problem quickly. In Devon, there is still a huge backlog of carcases awaiting disposal, and it cannot be ignored. To ignore it would be environmentally damaging.

The rendering option, which was initially the Government's preferred solution, sometimes involves taking infected carcases through uninfected areas, running a risk of spreading the infection. In any case, the rendering capacity is clearly unable to deal with the scale of problem that now exists. Incineration, which appears to be the Government's other preferred option, is also environmentally hazardous, as people now increasingly recognise. Mass burial also carries its own health and environmental difficulties, and raises important questions about local consent and the acceptability of some of the proposals that are now under consideration.

We have said several times—and I remain of this view—that the better option. right from the start, is on-farm burial. That was the clear message of the 1967 report. The Minister of State quite reasonably made the point that environmental concerns have evolved since then. Nevertheless, what should have happened at the earliest stage of the outbreak was immediate consultation between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Environment Agency. The agency should have been asked to identify areas where it would not be possible to have on-farm burial because of a high water table or other factors. On-farm burial should have been the preferred option everywhere else.

On-farm burial allows the problem to be dealt with in manageable proportions. Instead of hundreds of thousands of carcases being transported to one particular site, a number of much smaller-scale sites could be used. Indeed, there could be more than one site on one farm if necessary.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I shall give way in a moment.

On-farm burial would have been the right option. That was the conclusion in 1967, and it was the recommendation that we gave. Unfortunately, our advice was ignored.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend said about on-farm burial. The failure of the Government to implement that policy has landed my constituents near Throckmorton airfield with a mass burial site that will have to take upwards of a quarter of a million carcases, and possibly many more if the absolutely abhorrent proposal to bring carcases from Devon to Worcestershire is pursued by the Government. The Government are not making their task any easier by failing to answer my parliamentary questions on the subject. Before the recess, I tabled about 30 questions and I have had no substantial answers to any of them. My constituents adjacent to that site are extremely anxious.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. Interventions are meant to be brief.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend raises a most important point on parliamentary questions. I have checked, and I have 15 questions to the Minister outstanding, nearly all of which were tabled before the end of March. After the recess, it was quite reasonable for Members on both sides of the House to expect that the questions that they had tabled some time earlier would have been answered on Monday this week.

The other point of which my hon. Friend reminds me is that if there are concerns about on-farm burial, it would be interesting to know whether the Environment Agency has carried out any studies to find out what the long-term effects were of the on-farm burial that was successfully carried out in 1967, and to see whether any damaging effects have occurred.

Photo of Mr Win Griffiths Mr Win Griffiths Labour, Bridgend

Does the hon. Gentleman not realise that there have been huge changes since 1967? Furthermore, as far as I am aware, the Environment Agency scoured the countryside in the infected areas in Wales to find suitable burial points, and failed to do so. The hon. Gentleman has underlined just how difficult it is to deal with the problem, and he should admit that the Government have done a damned good job in very difficult circumstances.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I do not think that anyone looking at the piles of carcases in Devon could agree with that last sentiment. I understand that the chief executive of the Environment Agency has said that a number of sites that could be used are not being used at present.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Opposition Whip (Commons)

The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) may be interested to know that I held a meeting with vets who had worked during 1967 and vets working currently. When large numbers of cattle were buried on-farm in Cheshire and north Shropshire, no detrimental effects on human health were recorded. My hon. Friend is right to ask for an investigation of whether any records were kept for those sites, and what the environmental consequences were. That was the clear recommendation of the 1967 report, and of the vets in Wem four weeks ago.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I entirely agree. I certainly do not consider it adequate, nine weeks into the current outbreak, simply to parrot the objection that on-farm burials involve environmental difficulties, unless it is backed up by proper studies and assessments that reveal risks of which we were not previously aware.

Let me now turn to measures taken to curb the spread of the disease. It appears that, belatedly, slaughter on suspicion—for which, again, we called at an early stage—is now being employed, and that it has been crucial to better progress.

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

Slaughter on clinical signs—in other words, slaughter on suspicion—was taking place before the hon. Gentleman suggested it.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

That statement will, I think, be disputed by a great many farmers.

Will the Minister of State explain some things to me? A case that may have appeared to be a confirmed case of foot and mouth disease may not have been recorded as such, because slaughter has taken place before confirmation of the infection has been obtained. If, in such circumstances, there has been a slaughter on suspicion, is there then a cull on contiguous farms, even if the infection has not been confirmed? When a case is confirmed and a cull on contiguous farms takes place, are the animals culled on those contiguous premises tested? If those animals are burned, is it the case that evidence that could show whether foot and mouth is under control or is still spreading may sometimes be destroyed by incineration?

The abiding impression gained by those who visit problem areas such as Devon—this is not just my experience, but the experience of every visitor to whom I have spoken—is that, even now, no one is really in charge. The Ministry is saying one thing, the vets are saying another, and the Environment Agency is saying something else. Unfortunately, when I was in Devon last week the Minister blocked my request to talk to Ministry vets. Two days before my visit I checked with the Minister's private office, and was told that I would not be allowed to enter the regional office in Exeter. I was not seeking any confidential information; if I had been, I would of course have approached the Minister himself. I simply wanted to hear the assessment of vets on the ground in an area where matters are clearly not under control.

Foot and mouth disease is not just a problem for farmers with infected animals; others are threatened too, and I am afraid that the Government's dither over vaccination has not helped. I accept that this is not an easy decision to make—opinion is divided among farmers, among vets and among scientists—but it is the job of Ministers to make such difficult decisions.

Some weeks ago, I set out three tests on which to assess whether vaccination should take place. Will vaccination eradicate foot and mouth disease more quickly than the present policies? Will vaccination reduce the number of animals that eventually have to be slaughtered? Will vaccination bring forward the date on which Britain regains disease-free status? I said then, and I say again now, that if the answer to at least two of those questions is yes, vaccination is clearly the right policy. If the answer to two or more of those questions is no, vaccination is not the right answer. If the Minister accepts that those are the right tests, what scientific advice has been given about them? If the Minister does not accept that those are the right tests, what tests are the Government applying to determine the policy?

It is now nearly four weeks since Downing street said that a decision on vaccination would be made in 48 hours. We are still waiting and the delay suggests confusion at the highest level in Government. Last week, the Government appeared to be edging towards a policy of vaccinating dairy cattle in Cumbria and Devon, without explaining how that would help or how it would work. Now they are backing away from that, in the face of a seeming veto exercised by the NFU. Who is making the policy? Is it the Minister, the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Defence—who apparently now chairs the Cobra meetings—or is it the president of the NFU?

Photo of David Borrow David Borrow Labour, South Ribble

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that Professor David King, the chief scientific adviser who is advising the Prime Minister on vaccination, made it clear that he would only support vaccination were it to be supported by the vast majority of farmers? In his scientific advice, the consent of the farming community is crucial. Is it also crucial to the hon. Gentleman's decision making?

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I find that an extraordinary way to make policy. A policy is either right or wrong. I have set out three straightforward tests by which the policy should be judged. If the Government think that those are the right tests, let them tell us what the advice is. If the tests are wrong, the Government should tell us what tests they are applying, but they should not have a policy that they are afraid to introduce if some people disagree with it. That sums up new Labour Government.

Many uninfected animals are suffering as a direct result of the foot and mouth crisis. Healthy animals cannot be moved because of the movement restrictions. Lambs are in the wrong places, pigs suffer overcrowding and much distress is caused. The Minister of State will recall that my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) proposed a welfare scheme in the first debate we had on this subject, on 28 February. The Government's scheme, when it emerged some weeks later, was welcome, but the evidence is that it is not working very quickly.

I heard this week from a farmer whom I visited in November, long before the foot and mouth crisis began. That farmer is within 3 km of an infected premises and, therefore, could not move any of her pigs. In a letter she faxed to me on Monday, she described the horrifying consequences of the overcrowding among her pigs, including tail biting and fighting. She was running out of money and feed, she could not borrow any more money and she had already extended her feed credit. She had written twice to her Member of Parliament, who had not replied. She contacted me because she had entered her pigs on the welfare disposal scheme three weeks ago and, as of Monday morning when she faxed me the letter, she had not received a response. I telephoned her, because her experience is by no means an isolated one. I am glad to say that matters have been resolved, because she has had a form D imposed and her pigs will be slaughtered on the farm.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend tempts me, but I shall not say. I wish to proceed courteously, so when I have had the chance to inform the Member concerned I may consider advising my hon. Friend.

One way in which to help to unblock the logjam of welfare cases would be to give local vets a greater role in authorising movements, and I believe that the Government have now adopted that suggestion. I am concerned that the Government have still not offered compensation to farmers who are prevented from selling their cattle as they approach the age of 30 months. Through no fault of their own, those farmers suffer an irrecoverable drop in the value of their stock when cattle pass that age and they deserve to be compensated for that loss. I hope that the Minister will address that issue quickly.

The Minister for the Environment is to wind up the debate, and it was he who announced some weeks ago that an inquiry would be held into the foot and mouth disease outbreak. I hope that he will be able to tell the House this evening about the nature and form of the inquiry that he has in mind.

It is now nine weeks into the crisis. Foot and mouth disease has inflicted hideous damage on farmers, tourism and the rest of the rural economy. The taxpayer is left with a huge bill. Our environment has been disfigured. Millions of animals, many of them healthy, have been slaughtered. Many other animals have suffered. The public have understandably been angered by the waste and distress involved. In due course, it will be possible to judge whether much of that suffering and damage could have been avoided. It is noticeable that in Ireland a swift, effective and co-ordinated response to the disease prevented a large-scale national catastrophe of the kind that we have experienced in Britain. I fear that it is already clear that if the Government had examined the lessons of the 1967 outbreak, taken the steps that I and others suggested at each stage in the crisis and reacted quickly on the scale and with the urgency that was needed, the disease would never have been spread so far, the cost would not have been so great and the damage would not have been so devastating. The time will come when those events are analysed and those responsible are called to account.

Several hon. Members:

rose

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. If those hon. Members wishing to contribute to the debate make their contributions brief, more will be able to catch my eye.

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Labour, Workington 5:56 pm, 25th April 2001

The House, and the country, will have noted that the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) did not tell us whether he was for or against vaccination.

The foot and mouth outbreak has been the most difficult issue that I have faced in 22 years as a Member of Parliament. I have more than 50 cases in my constituency, and the local tourism industry faces a crisis. Some 47,000 people in the county of Cumbria are directly or indirectly dependent on tourism. The trade is worth nearly £1 billion a year to our county. Some 20 per cent. of the total work force in Cumbria is involved in activity related to tourism. I believe that in terms of the effect on tourism, I have probably the worst affected constituency in Britain.

There has been no post-Easter recovery in my constituency. We have had a couple of good days, but we still have a real crisis. The figures that are reported to my office daily vary between a 60 per cent. and a 90 per cent. reduction in turnover, and the laundries and catering establishments in my constituency, which give me important information about the situation, report a substantial downturn in trade.

Cumbria has reacted positively. We have given evidence to the national taskforce through our own taskforce and we have called for a rural action zone. The meetings held in Kendal by the Cumbria taskforce are extremely important to Members of Parliament, and we are pressing its case for support for infrastructure costs in the future.

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech, and I can tell him that the circumstances that he is adumbrating are mirrored on Dartmoor, which is at a standstill.

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Labour, Workington

I understand that the hon. Gentleman's constituency is in a similar position. The answer is the restoration of trade, but we could introduce interim measures. Cumbria Crisis Alliance, a grassroots organisation that has sprung up in my constituency, and the local chambers of trade have produced some innovative thinking, some of which has already been reported to Ministers. We are thankful for the first stage measures introduced by Ministers on rate relief and tax concessions, and I have several recommendations for second stage measures that I hope the Treasury will seriously consider.

First, there should be an extension of the hardship relief from business rates scheme, especially in the Lake district national park. The period is currently three months; that needs to be extended, and soon.

I should like the £12,000 rateable value limit on property to be lifted. Tax assessments should average profits for the tax years ending in 2000 and 2001. That would allow current losses to be reflected as early as possible in tax payments.

I do not accept the Conservative proposition that a new borrowing scheme should be set up. However, I accept the principle behind that proposal, which is that there should be subsidised interest rates. The Treasury should seriously consider setting a borrowing ceiling of £10,000. Under certain conditions that I shall describe later, subsidy should be made available to help offset interest rate costs on borrowings made through established institutions.

I should like a job retention subsidy to be introduced to help keep people in employment in the tourism industry and related sectors. Such a subsidy would apply especially to live-in staff in restaurants and hotels in the Lake district. That would make a major contribution towards helping existing businesses retain the staff who work for them, or who have done so until recent weeks. A worrying advert appeared in my local newspaper only about two weeks ago. A firm in Edinburgh was advertising in Keswick for chefs. The implications will be readily identified by the House.

I should like free—if possible—or concessionary public transport arrangements to be established throughout the Lake district national park. Dealing with the crisis calls for real measures, but not necessarily a great deal of money. I should like all car parks in the Lake district that are open at present to be free of charge. I should like there to be free access—or, failing that, access at concessionary prices—to all environmental attractions, and even to lake cruises. That would be a major help in attracting tourists back to the area.

I should like help to be made available with the insurance premiums paid by businesses in my constituency. Such help would be of great assistance to guest houses, which, as commercial premises, pay substantially higher premiums than private houses.

I should like subsidies to be introduced to cover the advertising and promotion budgets of many businesses in the Lake district national park. Such subsidies should be based on the expenditure in those businesses' last two years' accounts, which means that vast amounts of money would not be involved.

I should also like the membership subscriptions to tourist associations and the Cumbria tourist board to be paid for many of the business in difficulty in my area. We should also consider underwriting the budgets of those local associations completely, if it is felt that that would be a better way to provide support.

How can we select the people to help? We have imposed on local authorities a requirement to asses the level of hardship where it occurs. I hope that the relevant criteria will be applied to the additional arrangements that I am calling for today.

My proposals apply to the Lake district, but they would also be valid in parts of Devon and central Wales. They would not be expensive. They are highly targeted, and do not amount to compensation. Someone should put a price on the package of measures that I have set out, as my resources are too limited for such a task.

I shall be leaving the House at the next election, but another hon. Member may well make the same speech in a couple of months, because the crisis will not go away. Everyone—people in Cumbria, hon. Members, and Ministers too—is trying valiantly to overcome the difficulties, but we face a major crisis. It must be dealt with, and I hope that my right hon. Friend, when he winds up the debate, will accept a proposition that I made the other day. That was that the organisations in my constituency that are wrestling with the problems every day should be allowed to give evidence directly to the national taskforce. I attended a taskforce meeting two weeks ago, and I was very impressed. The taskforce, with all its multi-ministerial representation, has a vital role to play.

Finally, I want to say something about vaccination. Peter Greenhill, chairman of the Mitchell's auction company in my constituency, has given me valuable advice about herdwicks, a variety of sheep. I advise Ministers to keep in contact with him, as he has a lot to say, especially about special breeds.

I do not know what the row over vaccination is about, especially with regard to meat consumption. Most cattle are vaccinated, and there is nothing new about that. If it is suggested that there should be special labelling of vaccinated animals, does that mean that all meat should be similarly labelled if the animal that it came from has been vaccinated? If so, almost every chop and other piece of meat in this country's butchers' shops would carry a label saying that the animal had been vaccinated.

As I understand it, some 40 vaccinations are already in use, and they apply right across the board. What is the difference between the foot and mouth vaccine and any other? The argument about vaccination and the need for compensation in connection with milk is nonsense. Vaccination is already an established practice, and vaccinating for foot and mouth would not amount to any change.

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon 6:06 pm, 25th April 2001

I shall begin by pretending for a moment that there has been no outbreak of foot and mouth disease, and sketching the situation in agriculture and the rural economy that obtained before the outbreak began.

It is worth remembering that agriculture was already experiencing the worst economic crisis for a generation, and 24,000 jobs had been lost in the sector. The total income from farming in 2000 was at its lowest for 25 years. According to Countryside Agency figures, per capita income declined from £10,600 in 1998 to £7,800 in 2000. Significantly, agriculture's contribution to the national economy is now below 1 per cent. That puts the cost of dealing with the crisis in context.

The value of tourism to the English countryside is estimated at £12 billion, £9 billion of which derives from day trippers. Tourism supports 380,000 jobs, and in Yorkshire alone, 135,000 people—7 per cent. of the work force—earn their livelihood from tourism. The total revenue generated from tourism is £3.34 billion, and rural tourism generates £1.7 billion. Those figures also put the matter in perspective.

Before the foot and mouth crisis began, the tourist industry was already suffering from the high pound and poor weather. In addition, the fuel crisis and flooding problems had already made this a very difficult year for the industry.

One third of all England's businesses—just under 600,000 enterprises—are in rural areas. They are often very small, offering part-time or casual employment on a seasonal basis. Such businesses are now subject to a new set of impositions that have nothing to do with foot and mouth disease. In my constituency, for example, the aggregates tax will hit the quarrying industry, and the climate change levy will also have an effect.

The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) set out the circumstances encountered by people in his constituency, and the situation in my area is similar. Employers who must pay additional fuel costs will not get them rebated through national insurance contributions because they do not pay such contributions in respect of a significant number of their part-time work force. In addition, local employers are having to deal with the red tape of administering tax credit, and there is a new threat that fuel prices will rise again. The cost of car use to rural households is estimated to be 25 per cent. higher than it is to urban households.

In addition, access to technological infrastructure is often difficult in rural areas. A constituent of mine in Malhamdale wanted to have an integrated services data network line installed to help him pursue his business, but he has been told that the cost would be in excess of £300,000.

In many rural areas, the quality of secondary education is extremely high—that is especially true in North Yorkshire—but the further education structure is often less good and requires real work.

There are also the particular problems of what I call the countryside's great hidden industry—the residential home and nursing home sector. Those problems arise from the inadequacy of funding for local authorities, which determine the level of fees payable to such homes. In North Yorkshire last year, 500 beds were lost. There has been an 11 per cent. increase in the national minimum wage. One can argue that such an increase is justified, but it cannot be passed on by a sector that greatly depends on fees paid by a public authority.

That sector is crucial in offering employment. It often buttresses employment in agriculture. The farmer's wife, for example, might work part-time in a care home, because care homes are the largest employers in some of the villages in my constituency. This is a crucial sector upon which the health service depends enormously to provide "seamless" treatment for people from hospital back in the community, and it is seriously under threat.

All that happened before the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. There is not a single case of foot and mouth in my constituency, but it is under siege because until very recently, every square inch of it was a restricted area, so no normal activity could take place. I have spent a lot of time recently going to Wharfedale, Grassington and Ingleton—the villages that depend on tourism. With due respect to the Prime Minister, York is not the gateway to the countryside. My constituency, like that of the hon. Member for Workington, is much more dependent on rural pursuits such as walking and access to the countryside.

The level of cancellation is over 80 per cent., and the results of that spin down to the local pub and the local restaurant. The patterns of delivery for the Theakston and Black Sheep breweries show that there is the opposite of an accelerator right through the rural economy. This is the deceleration effect that comes from the crisis in the tourist industry.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Conservative, South Staffordshire

Will that not persist right through the summer? The agricultural shows will have been cancelled in my right hon. Friend's constituency, as they have been in mine. People who depend on those for revival will not have them this year.

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The royal show is being cancelled, as are all my little shows in individual dales. They are a great focus of local activity.

It is important that the Minister for the Environment realises that the summer has already been shot to pieces for many of those businesses. The clients who would have booked for their summer holidays have already booked elsewhere. Businesses may be able to hang on over the summer, but come the back end of the summer and next winter, many will be in serious difficulties. Any help may almost be more relevant six or nine months from now than it is at the moment.

As for the Government's help, the suggestions on my list are very close to those made by the hon. Member for Workington. Although my constituency was a zone excluded from the list of benefits that he hopes to see introduced, our economic circumstances must be very similar. The £12,000 ceiling on the rateable value for businesses does not make sense. Indeed, it excludes some properties such as the larger pubs, which employ more people. They are having to lay off staff, but they want to hold on to their work force.

Many businesses are paying council tax and not business rates, and that needs equivalent relief. The Government aid to local authorities in respect of business rate relief for businesses with a rateable value of more than £12,000 is 75 per cent; for values below £12,000, it is 95 per cent. As for the wonderful principle that because businesses must pay 5 per cent. when the relief is 95 per cent., that means ownership of the scheme, my businesses would happily dispense with that particular proprietorial notion.

Craven is a tiny local authority, one of the smallest in the country, with a budget of between £5 million and £6 million. Without advertising the rate relief scheme yet, it has had 388 applications, 65 of which relate to properties with a rateable value of more than £12,000. If it were to grant them all, that would cost the authority £52,500. That may seem small beer, but against a total budget of less than £6 million, it is a significant sum. The resentment caused by the levels of relief offered in Wales and Scotland is intense—and I say that as someone who, as the hon. Member for Workington knows, is not inclined to play a particularly English nationalistic card in this matter.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My right hon. Friend has raised an important point. I wrote to the Minister for the Environment a fortnight ago on behalf of Stroud district council, which is very similar to the authority that my right hon. Friend has mentioned. A fortnight ago, Stroud council reckoned that it would be unable to reclaim £250,000 from the non-district rating pool. This is a very serious problem, and if the Government do not remedy it, the council tax payers in those small rural areas will have yet another year or two of council tax increases way in excess of inflation.

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have the identical situation in my constituency.

The Government must realise that devolution is not just about Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but about England as well. There is real concern at their apparent unwillingness to match the English interest with what is being offered elsewhere.

The eleemosynary instincts of the Inland Revenue are extremely welcome and very rare. However, for many of my businesses, going to the Inland Revenue and being charged for the privilege is not particularly relevant to their circumstances.

The Bellwin relief scheme ought to apply to local authorities, because this is an emergency. It cuts in when more than 2 per cent. of the budget has been spent. In North Yorkshire, in view of the money needed for flood relief and the effects of the Selby rail disaster, local authority expenditure is extensive. However, a local authority's normal expenditure depends largely on the number of teachers that it employs. It is curious that the Government's aid in connection with foot and mouth disease depends on the number of teachers on a local authority's books.

The climate change levy should be deferred. It is a pure imposition on small businesses in the tourist sector, because the national insurance rebate does not affect them. I agree with the hon. Member for Workington about support for payroll costs. Businesses want to keep their staff in work and keep them available. Those people often greatly need the extra income that those jobs provide. That would be the single most crucial piece of help that I could identify in my constituency, where businesses are under terrible pressure.

Providing investment grants towards the capital investment required to rebuild businesses would be a helpful contribution. If there are to be loans they will have to be interest-free or subsidised, because there is not the cash flow to service loans raised at the normal rate of interest.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Opposition Whip (Commons)

My right hon. Friend touches on cash flow, which is surely the most pressing issue facing those businesses. In the equestrian sector, a large riding school in my constituency, with 70 horses, has no cash flow at all. The arrangements for rates will be helpful down the road, but such businesses need a cash injection fast.

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

I agree with my hon. Friend. We have seen well publicised stories of riding establishments having to slaughter their horses because they cannot afford to maintain them. That is particularly telling in an epidemic in which the images of lambs in the mud, and calves, have featured so prominently.

Above all, we need the restoration of normality as fast as possible. However, we need to look beyond that, at the exit strategies from the crisis. There will have to be a recovery strategy. In agriculture, the costs of stock replacement may exceed the levels of compensation paid for stock. There will be a period before farms can be restocked, in which farmers must have a livelihood.

A great deal of nonsense has been and will be spoken about the impact of all this on the common agricultural policy. The Liberal Democrats' Ruritanian naivety—cliché-ridden naivety at that—was a singular non-contribution to this debate.

Diseases such as BSE and foot and mouth will push agriculture further in the direction in which it already knows that it must go. It must move into the environmental market, it must move into the recreational market, and it must move upstream and produce more quality food. In other words, the task of public policy makers is to define what those public goods are and how we pay for them, so that we are not dependent upon contradictory policies that promote production while also seeking to promote and support policies that militate against production.

When we come to that debate, I hope that people will show some sense and realism about the directions in which agriculture must go, and will not chase some new form of Elysian dream that will not have the faintest bearing on reality. In the meantime, very many businesses are suffering acutely. They will continue to do so for the rest of this year and beyond, and the aid must stretch to them while the crisis lasts.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Labour, Exeter 6:19 pm, 25th April 2001

I am pleased to follow the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), who as usual spoke a great deal of sense—if he does not mind my saying so. I was also pleased that he broadened the debate a little beyond the immediate impact of foot and mouth. The debate is on the rural economy, and if we were not holding it against the backdrop of that disease it might be rather different. For example, in my part of the world—Devon and Cornwall—unemployment is at a record low, whether in urban or rural areas. There is still big migration from urban to rural areas—those people are not moving to rural areas because life there is intolerable, but it is understandable that we are holding this sad debate against the backdrop of the current crisis; I shall restrict my remarks to that.

I was pleased with what my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, said about the trends of the outbreak. However, I am slightly puzzled by the approach of the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), who constantly lectures the Government that they need to learn the lessons of 1967. I fear that he may have to eat his words. According to the current epidemiological projections, if the present trend continues, this outbreak will have been far more successfully and quickly contained and eradicated than the 1967 outbreak, which went on for eight months with far more cases. The hon. Gentleman should be more careful when he draws parallels with 1967.

There seems to be some general confusion in the House about the meaning of the term "under control". My understanding is that the scientific definition of a disease being "under control" is when one outbreak generates fewer than one further outbreak. Under that definition, the disease has been under control for at least two weeks—even in somewhere like Devon—contrary to the suggestion made by the hon. Member for South Suffolk.

That is not to say that we do not have enormous problems. My right hon. Friends the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and the Minister for the Environment will be aware of the particular problem in Devon of carcase disposal. However, although the hon. Member for South Suffolk says that he has visited Devon, he does not seem to have learned very much. He displayed the most extraordinary ignorance of our geology and of the fact that, after the wettest year for 300 years, our water table is at a record high. In the constituencies that are most badly affected, such as that of the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett), there is the highest proportion of people with private water supplies. All the experts and the Environment Agency say that the suggestion made by the hon. Member for South Suffolk for on-farm burial is the worst possible environmental solution to the problem. I do not know where he gets his ideas.

During this crisis, most Members have learned that often there are no simple solutions and no easy answers. I know that, in Devon, the Army and MAFF have been working around the clock to try to find appropriate disposal sites. It has been incredibly difficult. We have not had the luxury of the large disposal sites in Cumbria. Sites have now been found, but as the Government and authorities have—rightly—listened to the concerns of local people, there has been a delay in the sites coming on-stream.

I associate myself with the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon that the Government should consider the possibility of taking away some of our carcases. I realise that Ministers would tell me, "You would say that, wouldn't you?", but there is now spare capacity in other parts of the country. The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff), who, sadly, is no longer in the Chamber, seemed rather reluctant to receive any of our carcases. I point out that, during a large part of the outbreak, we in Devon were taking carcases from his area into our rendering capacity, so there could be a generous quid pro quo. I urge the Government to consider that proposal. The situation is terrible. Human health problems could arise—as they have already done in some cases—with all those undisposed carcases left in the Devon countryside.

The crisis has been devastating and distressing for the farming community. It has also been hugely devastating for other industries—especially tourism, as has already been said. I am especially sorry for the small tourism industries in the areas most immediately affected and on Dartmoor, which do not automatically receive compensation. They face going out of business during the next few weeks unless more is done.

We were fearful about the Easter holiday. However, I am glad to say that we had a far better Easter than we had originally expected—partly thanks to some of the initiatives taken by the Government before Easter to encourage people to visit Devon and Cornwall and return to the countryside. In fact, takings in Devon were between 80 and 90 per cent. of those for the previous Easter. That is phenomenal achievement, given the terrible backdrop—[Interruption.]—although, as my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ) points out, the good weather helped.

That relative success masks a huge disparity. In cities like mine, Exeter, takings were up on the previous Easter; indeed, during the Easter weekend, one of the hotels had to send away 30 couples because it was full. The coastal resorts did extremely well. I spent much of the recess walking around the coastal path, where there were crowds. However, on Dartmoor and in the rural areas immediately affected by the disease businesses had a terrible time.

I associate myself 100 per cent. with the suggestions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), who, as usual, made a wholly constructive speech. It was full of practical, constructive suggestions, which I hope the Government will take on board. If they do not do so, some excellent tourism businesses on Dartmoor and in the rural areas of Devon will go to the wall. We have built up a high quality tourism industry during recent years; it brings enormous benefit not only to people from outside the region, but to people who live in cities such as Exeter, who like to go out and enjoy the countryside.

Those businesses will go to the wall unless they are offered some short-term help. More than anything, businesses want their customers back; they must get their customers back. We need a vigorous and well-funded marketing campaign for the rest of the year. Easter may have been better than we anticipated, but another bank holiday is coming soon, with another one after that. One swallow does not a summer make.

We need a vigorous marketing campaign—we also need access. I spent some time during the Easter recess trying to walk in Devon. I say "trying" because far too many footpaths and public rights of way are still unnecessarily closed—as is too much of our woodland. I implore the Government to step up pressure on local authorities, the National Trust and the Forestry Commission—or Forestry Enterprise, as it has been renamed—to open much more land to public access. That must happen in time for the May day bank holiday weekend in 10 days time. The limited reopening of footpaths just before Easter was crucial. If that had not happened in Devon, we would have experienced a far worse Easter and everyone would have gone to Cornwall or Dorset instead. I am sure people in those counties would have been pleased, but we would not have been.

I implore my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment to keep up the pressure on the Department of Trade and Industry for at least one extra bank holiday—preferably in the autumn. I know that it is not on the Government's agenda—as he repeats each time I ask him—but will he tell the DTI that we in Britain have fewer bank holidays than people in any country in the European Union except the Netherlands? Furthermore, our workers take less holiday—by an average of about a week. It is a complete myth to suggest that giving people more holidays makes them less productive; the opposite is the case. All the research shows that productivity is associated far more with investment in technology and training than with holidays. A work force who are not well rested and who are stressed perform far worse. As well as a much-needed fillip to our tourism industry, an extra bank holiday would go down extremely well with the public at large. That should be in our manifesto, as the Fabian Society suggests.

The medium and long-term situation also needs to be addressed. At present, I think it is too soon to put a price tag on how much the crisis will affect us. Two conflicting reports have been produced by universities in Devon. The first was issued by the university of Exeter early in the outbreak—when we all thought that it would be far worse than it probably will be—and suggested that it would cost the county 10,000 jobs. Since then, research has been carried out by the university of Plymouth, which is much less pessimistic. However, I urge the Government to make a close study of what they think the impact will be, and to listen to the suggestions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Workington.

I am sure that on both sides of the House we all hope that the medium and long-term impact of the disease will not be as bad as we feared at the beginning. It is very good that the disease has been brought under control and eradicated more quickly than many of us—even the most optimistic expected two or three weeks ago, but we are certainly not yet out of the woods.

May I make a plea for a couple of things? The first may not be popular in the countryside, but we need to hold such debates openly during times of crisis such as this: we need planning in rural areas. It is extraordinary that 75 per cent. of our land is in agricultural use, but accounts for only 1 per cent. of our gross domestic product—as the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon pointed out. Yet there is a housing shortage. It is not a popular thing to say, but we need more homes. Ministers may be aware of the storyline on the BBC Radio 4 programme, "The Archers", in which there is a big debate about a new housing development in Ambridge. I am with Roy and Hayley on this one. They are a young couple who are about to get married and desperately need a home, but the NIMBYs in Ambridge are trying to stop them getting one.

Our rural economy would be helped if we could have more homes. Farmers would also be helped if they were allowed to build two or three homes on their land. They would not then need taxpayers to compensate them for some of the losses that they have incurred. I hope that Ministers will take that on board. I know that it is a controversial suggestion, but we should debate such things; we should not be shut up by organisations such as the Council for the Protection of Rural England.

We need to restructure the Departments. That is not a slight on the work done by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, nor on that done by the Ministry. She is absolutely right—her staff have been working absolutely tirelessly in incredibly difficult conditions. They have worked miracles and, with hindsight, they will be judged much more fairly and favourably than they are currently being judged in the media.

It seems to be nonsense that a Department is dedicated to an industry that is responsible for just 1 per cent. of our gross domestic product, whereas tourism, which is far more important economically, is the responsibility of a small part of another Department, with no budget and very little clout. I hope that the Government will grasp that nettle after the next election. I am not sure what the answer is, nor whether I agree with the Liberal Democrat party's recommendations, but we need to consider that matter extremely seriously.

Finally, on the reform of the CAP, all power to my right hon. Friend's elbow. I agree with her that the change of Minister in Germany is hugely important. I know Renate Künast from my time as the BBC correspondent in Berlin. She is a very sensible woman, and I am sure that the Minister can do business with her. If we can get the Germans on board for a radical reform of the CAP, despite all the clouds and the gloom of this crisis, there could be a very bright silver lining.

Photo of Mr Ronnie Fearn Mr Ronnie Fearn Liberal Democrat, Southport 6:31 pm, 25th April 2001

Never before has the importance of tourism to the rural economy of the United Kingdom been more apparent; never before has the industry been so much in the forefront of the news; and never before has the future, the core and the infrastructure of tourism been so thoroughly under threat.

Britain's tourism industry, as we have heard, is the fifth biggest industry and comprises 120,000 businesses, more than 80 per cent. of which employ fewer than 10 people. The tourism industry makes £64 billion a year, of which rural tourism provides £12 billion. In rural England, tourism supports 380,000 jobs. A quarter of all holidays taken by British people in England alone are in the countryside, and those rural areas contain 39 per cent. of the known accommodation capacity in England, provided by 25,000 establishments.

Because of the crisis, British tourists have withdrawn into their own home territory, or they are booking holidays abroad, encouraged by other European countries, which have ploughed into our markets, advertising walking and rambling holidays. There is no need to withdraw from our own holiday pattern—beaches, rural areas, country bordering rural areas and, indeed, most holiday spots inland are accessible.

Much in evidence have been scenes in newspapers and on TV, both here and abroad, showing Britain on fire and the Army moving in, none of which has helped to stem any fears that tourists might have. In the USA, "Come to Britain" holidays have taken a nose dive. A wrong strategy was taken by the Government, who simply failed to realise that tourism would be hit far more than farming in the long term.

The lack of information supplied to tourism businesses in the first weeks of the crisis was absolutely appalling. The information is still inadequate and red tape surrounds many aspects of business. Why not ease the pressure by requesting the regulatory impact unit to carry out a snapshot study, with the Government acting quickly on the findings?

The British Tourist Authority now estimates that, in 2001, inbound tourism will be between 10 to 20 per cent. short of its original forecast. That will involve a likely drop in revenue of between £1.5 billion and £2.5 billion. In Cumbria, the trade is facing 350 redundancies, with many more in the pipeline, and 193 tourism businesses and attractions have reported losses to the Cumbria tourist board. Not only hotels and shops, but food suppliers, petrol stations and restaurants are beginning to see no light at the end of the tunnel.

The Youth Hostels Association, with which I am closely associated, faces losses of almost £6 million after being forced to close almost half its hostels. In Cumbria, 17 out of 24 youth hostels have shut down, yet I visited the area just after Easter and found the lakes and many countryside beauty spots thronging with visitors, acting very responsibly and enjoying themselves, too. I met hoteliers to discuss the future of tourism. They, and those in other businesses throughout Britain, have suffered a collapse in bookings and a drastic drop in cash income. That is exemplified by statistics that show that the inquiry rate from 19 February to date is about a third of that in the same period last year.

The statistics certainly show a drastic drop in bookings for September, October and into early next year. That was also highlighted on my visits to Torbay, Bath, Welshpool, Eastbourne, Weston-super-Mare and my own constituency—Southport. Tourist boards in all those areas are fighting back with positive moves, but they need more Government help. In Devon, the county council estimated that 1,200 jobs would be lost in agriculture and ancillary rural industries, while 8,700 jobs could be lost from its tourism sector and allied businesses. The reduction in income in the tourism sector was estimated at £196 million.

Nationally, the Liberal Democrats called immediately for a grip to be taken when we saw how easily businesses could head towards bankruptcy. We asked for a moratorium on VAT, or for it to be reduced, which would not only help the tourism industry, but bring us more in line with other European countries, especially Ireland, where an immediate upsurge in tourism occurred when VAT was lowered. We asked for a moratorium on business rates and suggested that repayment of arrears could take place over a long period.

We contacted the banks and an immediate response came, stating that full consideration would be given to those whose cashflow was in difficulty. The possibility of help with the payments for specific essential services, such as gas, water and electricity, was taken up and an agreement was sought for the banks to provide loans or grants, with lower interest rates than the Government's loan guarantee scheme.

Liberal Democrats have also urged that the recently published Rating (Former Agricultural Premises and Rural Shops) Bill should be implemented soon, instead of waiting until April 2002. An alarming aspect of the 50 per cent. mandatory relief is that it will not initially apply to pubs and garages. That needs to be amended urgently to protect those in rural areas who could go out of business very soon.

The British Tourist Authority has put a lot on its website, detailing a visitors' charter on which 1,100 attractions have already been entered. The BTA targets overseas visitors coming to the United Kingdom and has received a commitment from the Government for £2.2 million in additional funding towards its planned recovery activity. However, the BTA has made it clear to the Government that that is only the first part of further substantial investment. The second instalment of money, totalling £8 million, is already required to undertake tactical advertising and further PR activity. That £8 million is needed now, so why do the Government not release it?

The English Tourism Council has also prepared a recovery plan for tourism in the United Kingdom. It has been submitted to the Government in support of a bid for £35.5 million—the sum estimated to be needed to carry out the recommendations contained in the plan. Delivery will take place nationally and regionally. Together with the regional tourist hoards, the ETC has received £3.8 million to implement the short-term measures identified in the plan, of which it has passed on £1.4 million to regional tourist boards—but where is the Government's total commitment to the sum of £35.5 million?

In Devon, the county council has sought to compensate for the loss of visitors from within the United Kingdom by diversifying into the overseas visitors markets, the objective of which is to increase the number of visitors, and visitor spends, from the overseas markets to the rural sub-region. That will sustain employment opportunities and raise the quality of Devon and Cornwall's tourism sector. We applaud that, but much more needs to be done. Better communication is needed between the Government and the regional tourist boards so that contact is easily maintained and the situation is monitored directly. An additional bank holiday would assist small businesses to recuperate some of their financial losses, and that would be best timed in the autumn towards the end of September.

The impact of foot and mouth on rural tourism businesses, as defined by the North West tourist board, will affect the ability of regional boards to raise money for marketing this year. The industry will not have the funds to partake in marketing activities. Attractions also will not have the resources to take part in the national quality assessment scheme and accommodation will withdraw from the accommodation inspection scheme. The long-term effects of that will be a reduction in the quality offered and a downward spiral in our competitiveness. Subsidies already announced must extend throughout all those sectors. Tourist boards need to develop the case for compensation for tourism businesses, highlighting the scale and extent of foot and mouth's disastrous impact on visitor expenditure, local economies and special circumstances.

I particularly take on board the suggestions made by the Cumbrian representative, the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours). All such remedies will help rural tourism, which must and will survive.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Treasury) 6:41 pm, 25th April 2001

This has been an important debate. It has given the House a chance, after the Easter break, to discuss the biggest issue to have hit the countryside in possibly a generation. It has highlighted the real crisis in the countryside and Members—such as the hon. Members for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) and for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) and my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn), as well as the Minister of State, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo)—have understandably focused on that. I suspect that it will be my hon. Friend's last speech in the House as he is retiring when the election is called. As ever, he fought hard for the tourism industry.

It is not simply foot and mouth that is at the heart of the economic problems facing the countryside. The problems have been built on top of a crisis that is of longer making. Between autumn 1996 and autumn 2000, agricultural employment fell by 85,000. It fell by almost 20 per cent. even before foot and mouth hit home. In 2000, farm incomes fell to as low as £7,800 per capita—the lowest figure for 25 years, as the Chairman of the Select Committee on Agriculture rightly pointed out.

The crisis is not merely confined to farming. As my hon. Friend the Member for Southport pointed out, it has hit hard at tourism. The whole rural economy has been affected, as I and all hon. Members, whatever their party, will know from their constituents who face serious difficulties as a result of the impact of the disease. For example, there has been a huge impact on the St. Austell brewery because of the loss of trade in its pubs in Devon. Teagles, the agricultural machinery manufacturers, has had to lay off workers near Blackwater in my constituency. The problems have spread throughout the rural economy, so I cannot agree with the hon. Member for Exeter who said that, without foot and mouth, the debate would have been about how well the rural economy is doing. People in rural areas would not recognise that picture.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Treasury)

I shall make a bit of progress and then give way to the hon. Lady.

Rural post office closures have continued at the rate of 200 a year since the 1997 general election; rural pubs and shops are in decline; 70 per cent. of parishes are now without a general store; and 43 per cent. have no post office. Outside the commuter belt, rural Britain is characterised by lower incomes, more part-time work rather than bread-winning full-time jobs, a huge gap in areas such as my own between house prices and incomes and lower access to public provision for transport, hospital services or whatever. The hon. Lady may recognise that picture.

Photo of Ms Candy Atherton Ms Candy Atherton Labour, Falmouth and Camborne

We all accept that foot and mouth has caused particular problems, but would he be kind enough to tell the House what has happened to unemployment in his constituency since 1997?

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Treasury)

Unemployment has fallen, as it has in the rest of the country. However, as the hon. Lady knows, unemployment remains higher in our part of the country than in many others. Incomes remain 20 per cent. lower than the rest of the country and the gap in funding between our area and others has widened.

I do not want to suggest to the House that the problems started in 1997. The worst feature of this debate has been the amnesia of Conservative Members. They suggested that only a Labour Government have faced problems in rural communities. The truth is that the recession in farming started six years ago on the back of the BSE crisis that was so appallingly mishandled by the Conservatives when they were in office. Their bare-faced cheek in criticising this Government for their handling of foot and mouth is extraordinary.

Conservatives started the rundown of rural services, cutting schools, hospitals and bus services. They started not hundreds but thousands of post office closures. Worst of all, they established, although Labour has failed to reform it, the funding of public services formulae that mean that remoter rural areas—precisely those that have been hit hard by the foot and mouth crisis—receive lower levels of Government funding for education, health and local government than the national average let alone that received by the more privileged commuter areas that Conservative Members represent. In education Cornwall receives £100 less per pupil, and £100 per person less for the NHS than the average. Formulae introduced by the Conservatives have yet to be reformed by the Government.

Although it may be true that many Labour Members often show too little understanding of rural areas—Conservative Members make that allegation and they are not always wrong—the fact is that Conservative Members, who claim now to defend the countryside, first let it down because they took it for granted. As a result, it is no wonder that more Liberal Democrats represent the poorest rural constituencies than Members in any other political party.

Foot and mouth should now be the moment for change. The good news from the debate is that people in all parties have argued that case; the question is whether we shall see action. First, there must be a change in the Government's approach to helping businesses hit by foot and mouth. During the crisis in the countryside, I have not engaged in petty politics as to whether the Government did something a day or two late or a day or two early. The truth is that any Government faced by this crisis would have struggled, so we have sought to make constructive suggestions on how they could do better. It is always easy, when looking in from the outside, to find such suggestions, but the measure of a Government is whether they respond to them. In many cases they have but, in too many others, they have yet to do so.

I understand that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will make a statement tomorrow and it is a shame that we did not hear it before this debate. The House should have the chance to debate—and not simply question—that statement. We provided the opportunity for that to happen and, if the Government choose to make the statement after the debate, they should find their own time to allow for debate and for proper questioning of whatever measures they introduce. I hope that their policies will go along the lines of those that we have suggested.

The message that we read one day from the Prime Minister in the Western Morning News and that we hear in the statements that other Ministers make to the House is that more is yet to come, but that message is wearing rather thin. That is why the Western Morning News launched its "SOS SouthWest" campaign. People are frustrated to be told that help is on its way when they do not see it in place. They need to know whether they will have a job or a business in the future.

Like the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Member for Workington outlined a perfectly reasonable set of proposals. However, the Government have not yet shown that they have taken full measure of the economic crisis, although they have demonstrated that they appreciate the scope of the foot and mouth epidemic. I hope that the number of cases will continue to drop off so that we know that the epidemic is coming under control. The devastating knock-on economic impact on farms that continue to suffer consequential losses is not under control. We called for those businesses to be supported when the crisis started in February, but there is still nothing from the Government.

The Government do not understand the scale of the crisis that is affecting businesses, especially those that are not in the earmarked, designated rural areas. It hits as much in south Somerset, south Gloucestershire and Torbay as it does in the most rural parts of Cornwall and Devon. The impact is especially notable on tourism. That is why we argue for 100 per cent. rate relief for all affected businesses. Uniquely, we have drawn up plans for detailed interest-free loans of £20,000 to be provided over two years, similar to the model recommended by the hon. Member for Workington. There is no need for the Government to find the capital sums, as the Conservatives suggest. They must, however, help with interest payments, for which they could use existing models, such as career development loans. There is no reason why they should not do that for the businesses affected by foot and mouth.

The crisis is severe and the need for long-term reform is the issue on which hon. Members have been brought closest together. Even BSE did not achieve that. For the first time, there is general agreement that we need a model of farming that supports people in their jobs and family businesses and protects the countryside. We do not want a system that simply pays out for production, money which ends up in the pockets of supermarket chains, which make billion pound profits, and in those of the big agricultural businesses, but never in the pockets of those who most need it—the small farmers in the most difficult rural areas.

The Conservatives ask how we would achieve common agricultural policy reform, but how would they? Their policy is not to leave the European Union, although one Conservative hon. Member who complained about our approach seemed to suggest that it was. I agree that while it is necessary to have unanimity in the Council of Ministers, we are unlikely to achieve the far-reaching reforms that we need—there is always a vested interest that blocks them. We need to change the processes in Europe to undo those difficulties so that a single country with a single vested interest cannot block reforms that are in our best interests and those of many other European countries, on which we can find a great deal of common resolve.

It is not possible to maintain for ever the unfair funding formulae that discriminate against rural areas. Although they are not the Government's fault and they say that they want to reform them, Labour is four years into its term in office. There is no excuse for the fact that the Government's formulae assume that children, patients and businesses are worth less in far-flung rural areas. I hope that the Minister will respond to that problem, because long-term reform is needed.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (Environment) 6:53 pm, 25th April 2001

I congratulate the Liberal Democrats on their choice of debate and the discussion has been useful. Although the Government should be held to account for what might be the most difficult crisis of the past 20 or 30 years—perhaps the worst within the lifetime of most hon. Members—the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) was right to remind the House that it has occurred against the background of BSE. He also reminded us about the rundown of services in rural areas, which is not a recent event, but one which has been going on for a long time. Indeed, services deteriorated markedly under the previous Government.

The hon. Gentleman and others said that there has been no Government debate on the subject. I do not know how many statements my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has made, but I have delivered two and they allow for extensive and detailed questioning. Having been on the receiving end, I can confirm that that is a more effective way to hold Ministers to account than a more general debate.

I pay tribute to what the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) said. I assure him that VAT deferrals are not subject to an interest charge—that is a canard. The same applies to income tax that is deferred because of foot and mouth. It does, however, have to be demonstrable that that outbreak was the cause of the problem.

I have sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's comments on reform of the CAP, which was also mentioned by other hon. Members. The appointment of Renate Künast will undoubtedly change the centre of gravity in the Agriculture Council.

Tighter inspection at ports and identification of the country of origin of food products is largely covered by EU rules.

Hon. Members talked about returning to normality, but what do we mean by that? What is sustainable agriculture? Those issues will be discussed when the foot and mouth crisis is over and the Government intend to take a lead in those debates. Discussions have already begun on the regeneration package for the rural economy that we intend to introduce. Indeed, it was discussed by the rural taskforce this morning and will certainly be discussed again. However, we have deliberately held off because it is right to emphasise the importance of the eradication of the disease. We cannot get sidetracked.

Circumstances today are different from what they were before Easter, but we are not complacent and accept that we are not totally in control of the disease. That will not be the case until there are zero new cases. Considerable progress has been made, however, with 13 new cases in the past three days, 13 the day before and nine the day before that, which compares with the reported 40, 50 or even more cases that were occurring only three or four weeks ago. Although the takings in the rural economy over Easter were not as great as last year, they were at a much higher level than many people had feared. There have been losses, some of which are grievous, but this Easter most rural businesses took between 70 to 80 per cent. of their takings last year.

We have repeatedly said that the best way to assist rural businesses in trouble is to get the customers and visitors back. I hope that I carry every hon. Member with me in that sentiment. We have been trying extremely hard to achieve that goal. All or most rights of way are open in a fifth of local highway authorities. Even Cumbria, one of the hardest hit areas which has experienced great difficulties, opened 100 footpaths before Easter. Surrey and Norfolk have opened half or more of their paths. Some 1,000 miles of towpaths along the canals have been opened; East Sussex has opened Ashdown forest; the royal parks have reopened; and the National Trust has opened many of its most popular properties. The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes), today announced that the Government are providing an additional £4 million to local authorities to assist in opening footpaths and to provide fences, publicity and temporary staff where needed.

Disposal was mentioned throughout the debate. On-site farm burial was of particular concern. The Government's priority is clear. We are absolutely in favour, first, of rendering; secondly, of incineration at industrial plants where that is available and, thirdly, of burial on registered landfill sites. The problem with Devon is that none of those options is immediately available because full capacity has been achieved in each case in the county and adjacent areas. The only other alternatives are pyres or burning in open fields.

Burial on site is not possible for the reason given in the debate, namely the extremely high water table. We are considering moving carcases to landfill sites within a reasonable range, although we have to take account of the environmental impact of doing so. If there are 175,000 carcases—recent statistics indicate that the figure is probably lower, as most people believe, but it is still substantial—we cannot leave them lying in fields leaching disease into the ground, so we have to find a method of immediate disposal. If we cannot safely take carcases to alternative landfill sites, the only way to dispose of them is to burn them. I believe that we will complete that process fairly quickly, as we have done in Cumbria. The Government are doing everything possible to remove that backlog.

Photo of Colin Breed Colin Breed Liberal Democrat, South East Cornwall

Has any consideration been given to burial at sea?

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (Environment)

As far as I know, we have not considered burial at sea, but I doubt that it would be environmentally acceptable.

The hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) misunderstood on several counts. It is true that the series of figures on the website was discontinued for a short time in the first half of April. It was reintroduced on Good Friday and has continued ever since. The hon. Gentleman was right to say that the reduction in the number of animals awaiting disposal represented a catching-up exercise by the regional centres in recording the numbers that had been disposed of. That has allowed more accurate figures to be published. I am sure that he has a suspicious mind and is assuming, although he did not say so, that we are fiddling the figures. Perhaps that was such a common occurrence under the previous Government that he assumes that we are doing the same, but we are not.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned contiguous farms. In a slaughter-on-suspicion case, all susceptible livestock on the premises are slaughtered, but we do not cull on contiguous premises until we get the lab results. If the results are negative, a form B is served and restrictions are lifted, but of course no livestock are left on the farm. If the results are positive, we convert the slaughter-on-suspicion status to a confirmed close and then cull on the contiguous premises.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (Environment)

I am running into extra time and I do not want to get to a penalty shoot-out, but since the hon. Gentleman is a Liberal Democrat, I will give way.

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon

Will the Minister help the House and my constituents by stating how many carcases remain to be disposed of in Devon and how many the Ministry stated were awaiting disposal yesterday?

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (Environment)

I cannot provide those figures now, but we will provide more accurate and up-to-date figures. The latest figures available indicate that the number is substantially below 175,000. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture will deal with that point tomorrow.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Labour, Exeter

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (Environment)

I am sorry, but I really cannot because I still have a few remarks to make and we are running into the time for the next debate.

The lifting of restrictions in surveillance zones is covered by EU rules, and the procedures that we are following to lift infected area status reflect veterinary advice based on draft EU directives on foot and mouth.

My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) gave a constructive, fair and reasonable speech such as we have come to expect from him. He spoke of the financial assistance that he wants the Government to provide. I shall not detain the House now by giving the details of our £220 million package, but I will say more about two or three of the specific measures that he mentioned. We are prepared favourably to consider the averaging of profits to reduce tax, provided that it is understood that it may well turn out to be less helpful than many people expect. The same goes for the job retention proposal. We would need to seek agreement from the Department of Social Security that rather than paying benefits to people who are made redundant, the money should be used to keep people in work if possible. We are considering whether that is possible and consistent with the general social security framework.

I want to pay a compliment to the Cumbria taskforce. When I visited the county, I was very impressed by its work and by the practicality and range of its proposals. I hope that there will be further such proposals. I am always very glad to see my hon. Friend at those meetings.

The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) referred to the £12,000 rateable value threshold, but if I cannot have his attention. I will not go on. [Interruption.] I do not have time now, but later I will tell the right hon. Gentleman what I was going to say.

My hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) asked about taking the carcases in Devon elsewhere. We are considering that because it is a better alternative than pyres if we can find a method of doing so that is environmentally acceptable. We are giving short-term help to businesses to get back customers. We are stepping up the pressure on local authorities to open their footpaths and facilities. I made that point again to the Local Government Association at the rural taskforce meeting this morning.

Unhappily, the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn) made his valedictory speech to the House on tourism. The Government have just extended mandatory 50 per cent. rate relief to pubs, garages and village shops. On Monday, we will have the Second Reading of a Bill to extend it further. On extra tourist grants, I can say that the Government have already made available £6 million to the English Tourism Council for the tourist boards. As the hon. Gentleman said, we have given £2 million to the British Tourist Authority, and we are taking its advice about what more is needed. Last week, we had a very successful visit from travel operators from the United States and other key markets. That cost about £100,000, and the BTA said this morning that it thinks that its benefits already run into tens of millions of pounds.

The hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell painted a picture of decline, but I must point out that many villages and small settlements depend on rural post offices. The hon. Gentleman neglected to say that the Government have made available £270 million to prevent all avoidable rural post office closures. That is an important commitment. I agree with him that the foot and mouth disaster is an opportunity for change, and that is why we will be introducing a new package not only to kick-start the rural economy but to tackle the whole question of the future of agriculture.

I apologise for the length of my speech, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Government will take on board all the points that have been made. I have no doubt that there will be further discussions about the issue. We are determined not only to eradicate the disease in this country as soon as possible but to regenerate and revivify the rural economy in a manner that we have not seen for many decades.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 43, Noes 305.

Division No. 195][7.9 pm
AYES
Allan, RichardKennedy, Rt Hon Charles (Ross Skye & Inverness W)
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy
Baker, NormanKirkwood, Archy
Beith, Rt Hon A JLivsey, Richard
Bell, Martin (Tatton)McCrea, Dr William
Brake, TomMichie Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)
Brand, Dr PeterMoore, Michael
Breed, ColinOaten, Mark
Burnett, JohnÖpik, Lembit
Burstow, PaulRendel, David
Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies (NE Fife)Robinson, Peter (Belfast E)
Chidgey, DavidSalmond, Alex
Cotter, BrianSanders, Adrian
Davey, Edward (Kingston)Stunell, Andrew
Fearn, RonnieTaylor, Matthew (Truro)
Foster, Don (Bath)Thomas, Simon (Ceredigion)
George, Andrew (St Ives)Tonge, Dr Jenny
Gidley, SandraTyler, Paul
Harris, Dr EvanWebb, Steve
Harvey, NickWillis Phil
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)
Hughes, Simon (Southward N)Tellers for the Ayes:
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)Mr. Bob Russell and
Keetch, PaulSir Robert Smith.
NOES
Abbott, Ms DianeCunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Ainger, NickCurtis—Thomas, Mrs Claire
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)Darling, Rt Hon Alistair
Allen, GrahamDarvill, Keith
Anderson, Rt Hon Donald (Swansea E)Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Davidson, Ian
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale)Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms HilaryDawson, Hilton
Ashton, JoeDenham, Rt Hon John
Atherton, Ms CandyDobbin, Jim
Atkins, CharlotteDobson, Rt Hon Frank
Austin, JohnDonohoe, Brian H
Bailey, AdrianDoran, Frank
Banks, TonyDowd, Jim
Barnes, HarryDrown, Ms Julia
Barron, KevinDunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth
Battle, JohnEagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Bayley, HughEagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Beard, NigelEdwards, Huw
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs MargaretEfford, Clive
Begg, Miss AnneEnnis, Jeff
Beggs, RoyField, Rt Hon Frank
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C)Fisher, Mark
Benn, Rt Hon Tony (Chesterfield)Fitzpatrick, Jim
Bennett, Andrew FFlynn, Paul
Benton, JoeFollett, Barbara
Bermingham, GeraldFoster, Rt Hon Derek
Berry, RogerFoster, Michael Jabez (Hastings)
Best, HaroldGeorge, Rt Hon Bruce (Walsall S)
Betts, CliveGerrard, Neil
Blears, Ms HazelGibson, Dr Ian
Blizzard, BobGilroy, Mrs Linda
Blunkett, Rt Hon DavidGodman, Dr Norman A
Borrow, DavidGodsiff, Roger
Bradley, Rt Hon Keith (Withington)Goggins, Paul
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)Golding, Mrs Llin
Bradshaw, BenGordon, Mrs Eileen
Brinton, Mrs HelenGriffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Browne, DesmondGriffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Buck, Ms KarenGriffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Burden, RichardGrogan, John
Burgon, ColinGunnell, John
Byers, Rt Hon StephenHain, Peter
Caborn, Rt Hon RichardHall, Patrick (Bedford)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)
Campbell—Savours, DaleHanson, David
Casale, RogerHarman, Rt Hon Ms Harriet
Caton, MartinHealey, John
Cawsey, IanHenderson, Doug (Newcastle N)
Chaytor, DavidHenderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Church, Ms JudithHendrick, Mark
Clapham, MichaelHepburn, Stephen
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)Heppell, John
Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands)Hesford, Stephen
Hewitt, Ms Patricia
Clark, Paul (Gillingham)Hill, Keith
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)Hinchliffe, David
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)Hodge, Ms Margaret
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge)Hoon, Rt Hon Geoffrey
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)Hope, Phil
Clelland, DavidHowarth, Rt Hon Alan (Newport E)
Clwyd, AnnHowarth, George (Knowsley N)
Coaker, VernonHowells, Dr Kim
Coffey, Ms AnnHoyle, Lindsay
Cohen, HarryHughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
Coleman, IainHughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Colman, TonyHumble, Mrs Joan
Connarty, MichaelHutton, John
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)Iddon, Dr Brian
Corbett, RobinIllsley, Eric
Corbyn, JeremyJackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)
Corston, JeanJackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Cousins, JimJamieson, David
Crausby, DavidJenkins, Brian
Cummings, JohnJohnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)
Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)Morris, Rt Hon Sir John (Aberavon)
Jones, Rt Hon Barry (Alyn)Mudie, George
Jones, Helen (Warrington N)Mullin, Chris
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)Murphy, Rt Hon Paul (Torfaen)
Jowell, Rt Hon Ms TessaNaysmith, Dr Doug
Joyce, EricO'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Kaufman, Rt Hon GeraldO'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)O'Hara, Eddie
Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth)Olner, Bill
Kemp, FraserO'Neill, Martin
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)Organ, Mrs Diana
Khabra, Piara SPearson, Ian
Kidney, DavidPickthall, Colin
Kilfoyle, PeterPike, Peter L
King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)Plaskitt, James
Kingham, Ms TessPond, Chris
Ladyman, Dr StephenPope, Greg
Lammy, DavidPound, Stephen
Lawrence, Mrs JackiePrentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Laxton, BobPrentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Lepper, DavidProsser, Gwyn
Leslie, ChristopherQuin, Rt Hon Ms Joyce
Levitt, TomQuinn, Lawrie
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)Radice, Rt Hon Giles
Lewis, Terry (Worsley)Rammell, Bill
Liddell, Rt Hon Mrs HelenRapson, Syd
Linton, MartinRaynsford, Rt Hon Nick
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)
Lock, DavidReid, Rt Hon Dr John (Hamilton N)
McAvoy, ThomasRobertson, John (Glasgow Anniesland)
McCabe, Steve
McDonagh, SiobhainRobinson Geoffrey (Cov'try NW)
McDonnell, JohnRogers, Allan
McFall, JohnRooker, Rt Hon Jeff
McGuire, Mrs AnneRoss, Ernie (Dundee W)
McKenna, Mrs RosemaryRowlands, Ted
Mackinlay, AndrewRoy, Frank
MacShane, DenisRuane, Chris
Mactaggart, FionaRussell, Ms Christine (Chester)
McWalter, TonyRyan, Ms Joan
McWiiliam, JohnSalter, Martin
Mahon, Mrs AliceSavidge, Malcolm
Mallaber, JudySawford, Phil
Mandelson, Rt Hon PeterSedgemore, Brian
Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)Shaw, Jonathan
Marshall, David (Shettleston)Sheerman, Barry
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Martlew, EricShipley, Ms Debra
Maxton, JohnSimpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
Meacher, Rt Hon MichaelSkinner, Dennis
Michael, Rt Hon AlunSmith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)
Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)Smith, Angela (Basildon)
Milburn, Rt Hon AlanSmith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale)
Miller, Andrew
Mitchell, AustinSmith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Moffatt, LauraSmith, John (Glamorgan)
Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Morris, Rt Hon Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Soley, Clive
Southworth, Ms HelenTurner, Neil (Wigan)
Squire, Ms RachelTwigg, Derek (Halton)
Starkey, Dr PhyllisTynan, Bill
Steinberg, GerryWard, Ms Claire
Stevenson, GeorgeWareing, Robert N
Stewart, David (Inverness E)Watts, David
Stewart, Ian (Eccles)White, Brian
Strang, Rt Hon Dr GavinWicks, Malcolm
Stuart, Ms GiselaWilliams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)Wilson, Brian
Taylor, David (NW Leics)Winnick, David
Temple—Morris, PeterWinterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)Wood, Mike
Thompson, WilliamWoolas, Phil
Timms, StephenWorthington, Tony
Tipping, PaddyWright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Todd, MarkWright, Tony (Cannock)
Trickett, Jon
Truswell, PaulTellers for the Noes:
Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)Mr. Don Touhig and
Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)Mr. Mike Hall.

Question accordingly negatived.

MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House notes that the current foot and mouth crisis has impacted upon a wide range of rural businesses and services, affecting many aspects of rural life; further notes that foot and mouth has hit a countryside that has suffered from lack of investment under previous governments; agrees that the first priority must be the isolation, control and eradication of foot and mouth disease; endorses the Government's commitment to rural communities as set out in the Rural White Paper and the England Rural Development Programme; welcomes the extra financial help the Government has made available to farmers and rural businesses affected by foot and mouth, including agrimonetary compensation for livestock farmers and the Livestock Welfare (Disposal) Scheme; welcomes the work of the Rural Task Force including its work to open up the countryside and business relief, deferral of tax and national insurance contributions, extension of the small firms loan guarantee scheme and new grants to Regional Development Agencies and tourism authorities; and calls on the Government to continue putting in place the long-term policies needed to regenerate British agriculture and revitalise the rural economy as a whole.