Rural Scotland

– in the Scottish Parliament at 3:47 pm on 22nd March 2001.

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Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament 3:47 pm, 22nd March 2001

The next item of business is a debate on motion S1M-1771, in the name of Ross Finnie, on rural Scotland, and two amendments to that motion. I invite members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative

It is, but I apologise to you and to the minister for making it at the start of the debate.

Given the delay that we have had in starting the debate, which is of national importance, is it possible for you to ensure that we get the full 90 minutes for the debate?

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

Not quite. The Parliament decided this morning to move decision time to 5.15 pm. I have looked at the number of members who wish to speak and, if all members stick to their time limits, we should get everybody in. I am reasonably hopeful of that.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat 3:53 pm, 22nd March 2001

I am pleased to open the debate about the Scottish Executive's approach, not only to the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, but to the impact of the outbreak on the rural economy, which is briefly outlined in our motion.

The Scottish Executive is committed to supporting and maintaining sustainable rural communities. That commitment was demonstrated by the early creation of a rural affairs department and further by our now distinctive approach to rural issues, the benefits of which are clear from the way in which we are reacting to the crisis. Five years ago we would have seen the current outbreak as simply an agricultural problem. Today we recognise that it is a problem for all rural areas, their people and the sectors that are reliant on them. The effects of the outbreak are far broader than to affect just agriculture. Our response recognises that.

This is not an issue just for my rural affairs department. It extends to other departments such as development, enterprise and lifelong learning, and local government. I have been asked to chair a ministerial committee on rural development to co-ordinate the Executive's response. That committee will use the information emerging from our economic impact assessment group to fashion a response.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

During First Minister's questions, the First Minister said that the Executive understood the arguments for consequential compensation, and the Minister for Rural Development has just talked about the importance of economic impact assessments. What is the definition of consequential compensation and when is it likely to reach the surface? Mr Finnie promised a month ago that he would look at compensation issues, but we have no hard and fast details to show that any is coming.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

I well understand the points that John Swinney raises. This is a very serious issue. However, I hope that Mr Swinney will agree that, although one or two individuals and business groups have presented helpful information, it is important that we take a moment or two before we act. A month ago, neither he, nor I, nor anyone else was aware of the extent to which the outbreak would put a grip around rural businesses. We are daily assessing the short, medium and long-term impacts and we will present our proposals to the chamber when we have completed that work. That will not take long, as I do not intend that the exercise should go on, but it is nonsense to suggest that we have a clear view of the precise impact on the affected sectors or the measures that will be required to assist those sectors. I assure Mr Swinney that we are clear about the importance of compensation, but it would be wrong of us to jump without having a clearer picture and a factual basis for judging our action.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

I must move on—I will let John Swinney back in later.

Our priorities for co-ordinating our approach are threefold. The first and foremost priority is the eradication of the disease through measures to rid the farming community of the virus as effectively and swiftly as we can. Secondly, we must provide immediate hardship relief to those individuals, businesses and communities who are most seriously affected. Thirdly, we must ensure the recovery of our rural areas with proposals to kick-start the rural economy once the immediate crisis is over.

I cannot emphasise enough that our immediate priority—our first base—is the eradication of the disease. We have taken the difficult decision to introduce a cull. We believe that we are now on the road to the most effective method of eradicating the disease.

We have had to place restrictions on livestock movements and on access to the countryside. I am only too aware that leisure activity and tourism in the countryside has been badly disrupted by those measures. However, I want to dispel any false impression that restricted access and its impact on the tourism industry is down my list of priorities.

My department issued guidance on 7 March to all public and private land management bodies, asking that decisions on access should be made and reviewed on the basis of risk. Since then, my officials and members of the State Veterinary Service have worked closely with the relevant bodies in Scotland to provide more information, assist with clarification, ensure that there is a common understanding of the key factors that must be considered when risks are assessed and, most important, to move the whole process forward at a practical level.

Many bodies are already carrying out risk assessments on the basis of the original guidance, but I hope that the new development will provide an agreed model to assist the process. We have carried out the most recent consultation with the stakeholders—private bodies, the National Trust for Scotland and other organisations. I think that we have now finalised most of that work and I will announce tomorrow—in collaboration and co-operation with the stakeholders—an agreed set of measures which I hope will add clarity to what was stated on 7 March and will assist the tourism and other industries.

It is entirely appropriate that access should be treated differently in Scotland. After all, we have different land and topography to assess, different disease circumstances and different issues to collate. It is, therefore, important for us to issue our own collective guidance. I hope that members will agree that that is a major step forward and that it reflects the policy rationale that we are pursuing in relation to the outbreak.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative

I accept what the minister says on the subject of having a policy in Scotland different from that south of the border. However, does he accept the position, as stated earlier by my colleague David Mundell, that it is important to have a certain amount of collaboration with Cumbria, given the joint geography?

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

As I said to David Mundell in response to an identical question that he put to me at the Rural Development Committee, one of the prime tasks of our officers—that is, officers from the Executive's rural affairs department, who have now been put into Dumfries and Galloway—is to liaise with their equivalents who have been appointed to the authorities in Cumbria, in order to ensure that the problem referred to by Mr Mundell is addressed.

I make it clear that we have moved on from the initial position of justifiable precaution. Scotland is to be split into three zones: the area north of the Clyde and Forth is a provisional free area, while south of the Forth and Clyde will be two areas—the infected area and the at-risk area. I hope that once we have carried out the cull of all connected cases in the provisionally free area, we will be able to make progress as rapidly as possible and to unwind some of the regulations that are causing difficulty for our tourism and other industries.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

I will take an intervention from the senior Ewing first.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

In the minister's long-term plans, will he seek to reduce what has come to light in relation to the enormous amount of movement of animals across great distances?

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

I think that Dr Ewing is talking about my long-term assessment, once we have eradicated the disease. Part of my assessment will include animal movements and restrictions and whether those issues require regulation. I was talking about our medium-term position—in fact, I was talking about a fairly short-term position. I want to get to the point at which I can relax some of the regulations in part of the north of Scotland.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Scottish National Party

On the three zones and the position of small farmers who cannot get their stock to slaughterhouses as direct transport is uneconomic at present, at what stage does the minister believe he will be able to consider the importance of collection points in the free areas? The minister knows that I have made particular representations about Maud, but the issue affects small farmers the length and breadth of Scotland and covers not only economic but animal welfare considerations.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

I am well aware of that issue, and, as I have indicated to Mr Salmond, once we have established the three zones, we will be able to consider, in a different way, the restrictive regulations that are in place. I hope to be able to make progress on that matter, but I must now move on.

Our second priority is that of immediate hardship relief. We are trying to develop a number of responses. I have put in hand work to assess the issues and to examine the full breadth of the rural economy, including agriculture, tourism, haulage, meat processing and the many other industries that were mentioned during question time this afternoon, such as the power-line workers who are being laid off in the Borders. I have also put in place an economic impact assessment.

Highlands and Islands Enterprise has put in place a phone line to enable businesses to outline the ways in which the outbreak is affecting them. That welcome initiative will help us understand and monitor and will be repeated elsewhere.

However, action cannot wait. In relation to reserved matters and action at a UK level, Mr Michael Meacher has taken a number of initiatives. I should emphasise—as Wendy Alexander stated during question time—that the task force in which we are involved is a UK-wide initiative. On Tuesday, Alasdair Morrison attended the task force's most recent meeting. I repeat the measures that have been put in place. UK ministers have asked the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise to take a sympathetic approach to businesses experiencing financial problems as a result of the outbreak. That will involve using maximum flexibility to allow deferral of the payment of taxes and national insurance contributions.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

No. I must make progress or I will be in serious danger of not making one or two rather important points.

UK ministers are also considering the scope for continuing credit for businesses already in the UK-wide small firms loan guarantee scheme and the introduction of maximum flexibility in the administration of job seekers allowance. Those are important and welcome deferrals of payments. In Scotland, we hope to be able to announce shortly proposals for rates relief, a matter that was referred to earlier. I have met representatives of all Scotland's joint-stock banks and Alasdair Morrison has also asked the banks to take a constructive look at businesses that may be in trouble.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The minister has repeatedly used the words "shortly", "soon" and "not far away". Will he give us a definitive time scale for when the Government's assistance package will be made public?

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

The earlier parts have already been made public, including the question of deferrals. All that we have to do now is finalise the rates relief issue. I anticipate that that will be done by the early part of next week.

Moreover, as Wendy Alexander said in her reply to a question earlier this afternoon, the enterprise networks have been giving priority through the small business gateway to businesses that are suffering a downturn as a consequence of the crisis. That will cover advice on matters including cash flow planning, renegotiating payments and restructuring the businesses so as to assist small businesses to manage through the crisis. The enterprise networks have also been in touch with the Employment Service about making training for work available to people who may lose their jobs as a result of foot-and-mouth disease. As I said earlier, on top of that assistance there will be scope for local authorities to assist through relief in the payment of rates.

I will now turn to the measures we are taking with regard to the tourism industry. I am in no doubt that industry representatives would wish me to say that there has been some misrepresentation both at home and abroad about the disease and its consequences. That has led to prospective visitors changing their plans and early indications of the results of that are very serious.

It is vital that all of us get across the message that Scotland remains open for business. visitscotland is rising to the challenge of taking measures to address the immediate problem by providing information over its website and through its phone helpline about attractions in the areas that are open. visitscotland will also work with the Executive to publicise the new guidelines on access to the countryside. That will begin the process of eradicating the misconceptions that have led to many of the difficulties facing the tourism industry.

In addition, we are planning ahead for the time when we will be in a position to say that the disease has been eradicated. I hope that we are in no doubt that that time will come sooner rather than later. A key component of any recovery plan will be the rebuilding of the damage that has been done to the Scottish and UK tourism brand. That will require a concerted effort by visitscotland and the British Tourist Authority to market Scotland abroad. I know that Alasdair Morrison is in close touch with tourism interests to work up such plans.

More generally, the effect on the rural economy will last beyond the eradication of the disease. We will need to redouble our substantial efforts to rebuild the rural economy. I can assure the Parliament that that remains our goal.

I appreciate that the amendments add one or two minor matters, but, to be blunt, our effort is narrowly focused and is designed to do all that is necessary to effect recovery in rural Scotland. I do not believe that either amendment adds to the substance of the motion and shall therefore oppose them. I ask colleagues to support the motion and welcome the positive actions that the Government is taking to address the problems that face us as a result of foot-and-mouth disease. I move,

That the Parliament welcomes the Scottish Executive's commitment to rural areas, especially during and after the foot-and-mouth crisis; endorses the Executive's commitment to the eradication of the disease as essential for the long-term future of the rural economy, including tourism; endorses the provision of clear guidance on public access; welcomes the steps being taken to provide hardship relief, and supports the Executive's commitment to assist Scotland's vital rural communities and industries.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

In view of the subject's importance, I have allowed a significant overrun. I shall allow, if absolutely necessary, a little leeway to the lead speakers in the other parties as well.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party 4:09 pm, 22nd March 2001

I begin by emphasising, as has been mentioned before in debates following ministerial statements on the subject, that, in pursuit of the Scottish Government's policy to eradicate the disease, the minister has the Scottish National Party's support—as well as, I believe, that of the other parties in the chamber. There is a degree of unanimity among the parties that it is up to us to work together to complete that task.

The minister's remarks focused not on the practical detail, huge logistic problems and personal tragedy that surround the policy to eradicate the disease, but on the other parts of the rural economy. I therefore intend to restrict my remarks to those other parts.

We must not pit tourism against farming and those who work in tourism against those who are in farming. The industries are interlinked and interdependent. We know that many farmers are engaged in tourism in a plethora of ways. We should never forget that our tourism industry is almost totally dependent upon the scenery of Scotland. That scenery has not been created by accident but by the cultivation and the activities of the real stewards and conservationists of Scotland—the farmers and crofters who have been tending the land for centuries. We must not allow anybody who seeks to make divisions between tourism and farming to succeed. I hope that there is unity on that point.

I urge the minister to reconsider the proposal that I made on 28 February and again on 15 March, because I believe that there is still confusion and misunderstanding among the public as to the do's and don'ts of foot-and-mouth. I am mindful of the fact that Mr Michael Meacher, I think on 20 March, called for a public information campaign for precisely the reasons that I have advocated. Had the minister not been so chivalrous, and accepted my intervention as opposed to my mother's, I would have asked whether he intended to engage in such a campaign. If he wishes to intervene now to tell me the answer, I will happily give way.

To be serious, I hope that the minister will go away and reconsider the matter. Scotland is now divided into three areas and people will immediately ask what that means. They will ask what, in practice, it means for them in each of those areas. They will ask whether they can go to the countryside or not. I am sure that the minister will address those issues.

Scotland's rural economy is facing an unprecedented crisis. I say that in all seriousness, having spent the past three weeks almost totally engaged in the matter and in dealing with messages from my constituents and from all around Scotland. Those messages—especially from people in tourism, but also from mountain guides, from people working with livestock, from hauliers and others—are heartrending. I want to refer to some of them. Mr Bulmer, a mountain guide, wrote:

"Twelve years ago I formed a company in Newtonmore to provide walking and mountaineering holidays in the Highlands. Due to the Foot and Mouth outbreak my firm now has no income. All hill movement is completely restricted ... Skiers have been told they can go to the Cairngorms to enjoy their sport. I however have been cancelling bookings at guest houses and hotels because I am not allowed on Cairngorm to do my job."

He has no income. He is not alone.

Another message was from the owner of an Icelandic horse-trekking business in Spean Bridge. She states:

"We have cancellations from overseas for our riding holidays operating from May—Sept ... Total financial loss stands in the region of £15,000.00".

Another message from the company that runs a barge called Fingal of Caledonia on the Caledonian canal refers to losses of £5,000 a week. Those messages are a representative sample.

I understand that the economic assessment that the Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning has spoken about is necessary and I am pleased that she has stayed for the debate. I praise the efforts of the Federation of Small Businesses, which has been doing a sterling job—especially in the Dumfries area—to discover the real effects on business. It has found that nine out of 10 small businesses in Dumfries face termination. That indicates the depth of the crisis; and I am not sure that the crisis will be any smaller in areas such as Lochaber in my constituency. I say that because of the constant messages and phone calls that I receive while trying to respond immediately to constituents, to find out their problems and experiences.

That is why I was pleased to hear the First Minister say that he was able to develop consequential compensation. I hope, however, that that phrase will not become one that is associated with an expression of broad good will towards a group in Scotland that is in dire need. Rather, I hope that it will translate into a measure around which we can all unite.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

I referred to the Federation of Small Businesses in my speech. Does Mr Ewing agree that while its survey is a valuable pointer, a sample of less than 1 per cent is not the basis on which to conclude that 90 per cent of businesses will fail, and that we need a deeper analysis before we draw that kind of conclusion?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I did state specifically that I welcome the economic impact assessment as a step that needs to be taken. I was pleased that in response to the intervention from the leader of the SNP, the minister said that a statement will be made next week. We expect that statement to encompass the First Minister's remarks that we must consider consequential compensation.

Because this is a crisis of unprecedented scale, we must act promptly and with a sense of urgency. That is recognised in the news release from the Deputy Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning and Gaelic, Alasdair Morrison, entitled "Immediate hardship relief package", but I am bound to say, with great respect, that the measures in the press release will not do. They just will not do. We must do better than that. I speak as somebody who has run a business when I say that asking the Treasury or the Inland Revenue or HM Customs and Excise not to send out bills just will not work, because they have statutory obligations to fulfil. VAT bills must be paid quarterly, and unless those bodies are given a direction, which we have not seen and about which no details have been given, I worry that the press release is merely words.

I hope that there will be an emergency package of aid measures. I welcome the fact that there will be clarity in the guidelines on access to the countryside, because as the minister stated on 15 March, there is confusion and conflict. It is a desperate priority to re-open Scotland. The message from the SNP is that in order to demonstrate a real commitment to rural Scotland, we must have a far better package and far more than has been proposed so far.

I move amendment S1M-1771.2, to leave out from "the Scottish Executive's" to end and insert:

"the united approach taken by the Executive and opposition parties in recognising the need to eradicate the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease; believes that the rural economy is facing unprecedented difficulties; urges the Executive to launch a public information campaign in relation to the disease with clearer and more precise guidelines governing access to the countryside, and believes that the extent of the financial difficulties now being suffered is so grave that a comprehensive package of measures must be introduced to assist all aspects of economic life in our rural communities."

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative 4:18 pm, 22nd March 2001

I draw members' attention to my entry in the "Register of Interests of Members of the Scottish Parliament", as I have done on previous days on which we have debated this issue.

The issue that is before us, and the complexities in the rural economy that have come about as a result of foot-and-mouth, have gone from being a crisis to a national emergency. It is a great disappointment that today we have news that not only France and Holland, but now the Irish Republic, are involved in the outbreak.

I was lucky enough, as readers of the Daily Mail will be aware, to be in the European Parliament earlier this week at a meeting of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee on Tuesday and Wednesday. It was during the Wednesday morning session, at which I was present, that the committee discussed at some length issues regarding the outbreak of foot-and-mouth in the United Kingdom, came to some conclusions, and also asked several questions of a representative of the Commission, who was a vet himself. I was delighted to discover that the view of the vast majority of committee members was that the methodology that was being applied in the United Kingdom was appropriate, and that they were fully supportive of it. The veterinary surgeon who represented the Commission that day was absolutely supportive of the methodology that was being applied to solve the problem in the United Kingdom.

The committee took a similar view to that which I took, in that it was concerned about the way in which the methods were being applied and particularly about the apparent absence of appropriate manpower to carry out the declared policy. I am particularly concerned that although it is one week since the minister announced that 200,000 sheep would be killed in Scotland, we appear only now to be beginning to move towards achieving that aim.

During that week, many more infections could have taken place. Therefore, I urge the minister to take every opportunity to find assistance to increase the human resources that are available to deal with the crisis. The European Parliament's Agriculture and Rural Development Committee seemed to be willing for a move to be made towards giving assistance, if necessary.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

Does the member agree that, in Dumfries and Galloway, the pinchpoint in delivering our strategic aim of the cull is not manpower, but the disposal of animals, and that that relates to the absence of suitable abattoirs and rendering plants, which makes the task more difficult?

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

Yes. There are several problems. I am delighted to take the opportunity to welcome the First Minister's announcement that he is prepared to enter into negotiations to get the Army to assist where possible with some of the measures.

As Fergus Ewing said, it is our responsibility to raise one or two other subjects—particularly issues that relate to other rural businesses. I will deal first with tourism. Much has been said, and my colleagues will say more. I was especially concerned to hear this morning that a representative of the National Trust suggested that the National Trust's properties throughout Scotland might be open, including those in affected, or—as we have described them—closed areas.

It is widely known that many tourists come to the United Kingdom and particularly Scotland to visit National Trust properties. I am delighted with the three-area policy that the minister proposed, and I wish many such properties in the north of Scotland to be reopened to the public, but I would be gravely concerned if properties in the south-west were also opened. If they were open, inevitably many tourists would choose to make the trip around Scotland to visit properties as they traditionally do. They could transfer infection around the country.

I was informed that many English newspapers carried advertisements for which the Government paid, which detailed the areas of the United Kingdom—particularly those in England and Wales—that are open to the public or open for business as usual. In very small print, the advertisements said that the information related to England. It is a disappointment that similar statements could not be published in the press in Scotland at the same time. However, I am sure that the minister will take the opportunity to go into that in greater detail.

I will raise two other issues. If they are slightly disjointed, it is simply because our debating time is limited, and I must say a few things.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

I was contacted by the Institute of Auctioneers and Appraisers in Scotland, which asked me to raise the issue of livestock markets in Scotland. There is concern about the financial implications of the continued inability to conduct business. I have figures that indicate that markets in Scotland had a turnover of £178 million last year. Although a short-term closure can be recovered subsequently, as the stock will still exist in many areas, it is becoming more obvious as time goes by that the livestock markets are in increasing danger. It is important that we deal with that, as livestock markets are important in setting the price or value of stock. That is shown by circumstances at the moment, which reflect the fact that the absence of markets seems to have allowed the price of stock to fall radically in certain sectors.

I will also mention one aspect of the possibility of an election. It is not my responsibility to enter into the politics of that, but I and many other members have not made random visits to farms. I will certainly advise my political colleagues not to visit farms during an election campaign. Is the minister prepared to consider any way in which he can adjust the way that information is held by the department that he heads to allow political parties to make direct contact with the farming community by post or other means, to avoid any necessity for visits to be made around farms?

I move amendment S1M-1771.1, to leave out from "welcomes" to end and insert:

"endorses the Executive's commitment to the eradication of the foot-and-mouth disease as essential for the long term future of the rural economy, including tourism; calls upon the Executive to take further steps to speed up the process of dealing with the disease on the ground, including the further use of the army; expresses the need for clear guidance on public access; urges the consideration of such further steps as are necessary to provide hardship relief to assist Scotland's vital rural communities and industries, and calls upon the Executive, acting in concert with Her Majesty's Government and the European Union, to ensure that all meat imports are subject to the same rigorous public health and animal welfare standards as our domestic produce."

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour 4:26 pm, 22nd March 2001

The crisis caused by foot-and-mouth disease in rural parts of Scotland, particularly in Dumfries and Galloway, graphically illustrates the interdependence of key sectors of the rural economy. Much attention has so far been focused on the appalling consequences of the outbreak for the farming industry. There were 61 cases reported this morning in Dumfries and Galloway, including some extremely valuable pedigree cattle and sheep in the Ruthwell area. We will also face the elimination of all sheep in parts of Dumfriesshire in a mass cull that is due to commence shortly.

The effects are not restricted to agriculture. Local surveys that have been undertaken by the area tourist board and the Federation of Small Businesses have produced some alarming statistics. The area tourist board had returns from 355 tourism businesses, which indicated that £650,000 of business had been lost to tourism in Dumfries and Galloway between 1 and 19 March and that 182 people had moved from full-time to part-time work and 73 people had been laid off in less than three weeks.

The crisis has come at a particularly bad time for the tourism industry. Small, seasonal businesses have accumulated significant overdrafts over the winter months. Normally, such overdrafts would be reduced during the spring and summer season. This year, that will not happen; those people will have little or no income to service their debts. Nor will they be able to offer seasonal employment, which is important in rural areas. They also do not require the services of suppliers, so enterprises down that chain are affected.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative

Does Elaine Murray agree with the view of many tourism businesses in Dumfries and Galloway, that whereas they would normally expect their season to kick off at Easter—in a month's time—the reality that they face is that the season will not begin until Easter 2002?

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour

That is quite likely. Do I get extra time for interventions, Presiding Officer?

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

No. We must keep things tight. You have a maximum of five minutes.

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour

I have already referred to the problems experienced by visitor attractions. We need to consider action in order to keep attractions open, such as the possibility of using lottery funding, as I suggested to the Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning. If our visitor attractions are closed, there will be less for people to see in the area, which will have a long-term effect on tourism.

The forestry trade is affected because machinery is not moving and logs are deteriorating while they lie around. The building trade has laid off workers who are unable to work on farms in restricted areas. Retail sales are down and town centres are lying quiet because there are few visitors to spend money and many local people are too insecure about their future to spend money on anything other than essentials.

Other areas of local life have been disrupted. For example, 25 per cent of pupils at Lockerbie Academy are unable to get to school—many have important exams to sit in the near future. Even the common ridings and the ridings of the marches—important and historic cultural celebrations—have had to be cancelled.

We need two strategies: action for survival during the crisis and action for regeneration once the crisis is over. That is true for all rural Scotland, but mostly for Dumfries and Galloway as we have a longer and steeper hill to climb. The message must be reinforced that rural Scotland is not closed and that Dumfries and Galloway is not closed—there are restrictions on outdoor pursuits, but there is no danger to human beings visiting the area. A colleague has just told me that she had been advised not to come on holiday to Dumfries and Galloway because she has a dog. That advice has been rescinded, but it is just the sort of misinformation that we can well do without.

The measures that are needed in the short term have also been mentioned. I welcome the measures in relation to tax, rates relief and support from the financial sector to which the Minister for Environment and Rural Development referred.

I repeat my urge that the Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning consider lottery funding—I am pleased with her response to my question on that. The cull of sheep must be completed as quickly as possible, to minimise the pain and destruction experienced by local communities. I wonder whether the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Scottish Executive rural affairs department have actively considered the belt-and-braces approach that has been adopted by the Netherlands, which involves vaccination followed by cull.

In the longer term, we need an active campaign that promotes Scotland, and especially Dumfries and Galloway, in order to attract tourists and new businesses. The Executive is planning to introduce broad-band technology into schools—I urge that that is progressed as quickly as possible to enhance the information and communications technology infrastructure of rural areas.

The minister referred to the need to kick-start the economy. The FSB has suggested that that could be done by supporting the building trade. Again, the Executive has plans to increase the supply of housing for rent in rural areas. The council has plans to rebuild and repair a number of local schools. There is the possibility of putting money in to help to restart the economy in the area. We need a strategy for diversification. I hope that Nick Brown will follow through his willingness to support farmers who want to leave the industry. I ask whether it is possible to re-examine aspects of modulation of common agricultural policy moneys in light of the crisis.

These are desperate times. It is extremely difficult to catch a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel, especially when, in Dumfries and Galloway, that tunnel seems to be full of smoke. However, creating such a glimpse of light is a duty of Government, and I urge the Executive to do all that it can. I support the motion.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party 4:31 pm, 22nd March 2001

Few of us in the chamber can grasp what our farming communities are going through. The challenge is not only to control and eliminate the disease but to minimise the impact, and especially the long-term damage, on the wider economy.

I want to touch on a few issues, beginning with the plight of Scotland's auction marts, which ground to a halt four weeks ago. I understand that the ban on the auction marts is to be revised on 27 March. Aberdeen & Northern Marts' auction marts employ 50 full-time staff and 100 casual staff. Those staff are idle because the auction mart cannot operate, and £40,000 a week is being lost. We recognise the economic role that the marts play in the rural economy. The mart at Maud, in Alex Salmond's constituency, was closed recently. The smaller marts around Scotland cannot be subsidised by other businesses and face especially difficult times.

That takes me to Alex Salmond's suggestion about using the marts as collection centres. Is the minister working with Europe so that, if the ban continues in the auction marts, they can be used as collection centres? The current restrictions on the movement of livestock discriminate against the smaller producers who have a couple of beasts to get to market. A lorry used to go round the farms, picking up all the beasts and taking them to the abattoir. That is not the case now. It is uneconomical to get a lorry just for a couple of beasts. We could help people who are accumulating livestock on their farms by establishing collection points as soon as possible. In addition, what is the minister doing for the auction marts?

We must remember that the auction marts have a social function, acting as gathering points for the farming community. The auction marts were never busier than in the BSE crisis. Farmers would come together and discuss the crisis and their common problems. They cannot do that this time, because of the restrictions. Indeed, farmers throughout Scotland are becoming increasingly isolated. That highlights the need for the minister to give support to the groups that are trying to help farmers cope with stress and other problems.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Will the member pay tribute to the work of the Women's Royal Voluntary Service, which is phoning each affected farmer from the control centre in Dumfries? It will continue to do that work and will increase it. The WRVS is making a major contribution, which should be noted.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I am happy to pay tribute to that effort—I hope that it is being replicated throughout Scotland. However, many organisations need more assistance from the Government. We must not forget that the crisis has an emotional toll on the farming community.

On tourism, the crisis is a double whammy for farmers. Many farmers have had enormous financial difficulties in recent years; they have not had their problems to seek. Some have tried to diversify, and opened up bed and breakfasts and chalets. However, the nature of the crisis means that they cannot take advantage of the income from that source.

Tourism in the north-east of Scotland, which is a low-risk area, has been affected. Many trips from overseas, particularly to Deeside, have been cancelled because of the crisis. I ask the minister to intervene, because the tourist office in Aberdeen, the gateway to the north-east of Scotland, is about to close. The staff will be halved and the remaining employees will have to relocate. Now, more than ever, we need a good tourism effort to make up for the damage. The Aberdeen tourism office will suffer, lose staff and close temporarily, so I hope that the minister will intervene by providing a financial injection.

Finally, I stress that this is a debate about rural Scotland. It is not just about the farming communities, but about the impact on the wider economy. Surely this, of all times, is when we need the economic contribution that is made by our fishing communities. Why should we undermine a strategy that tries to protect the wider rural economy by putting 25,000 jobs at risk because of the way in which we are handling the current fishing crisis? The fishing communities have an enormous contribution to make to the rural economy in the coming years, but they need to have the right policies in place now. I ask the minister once more to revisit that issue.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour 4:36 pm, 22nd March 2001

I thank the minister for arranging to hold the debate and for his regular statements to the Parliament at this very difficult time.

There are many issues that we need to consider when all this is over, but there are a few that we need to consider now. First, I ask that the Scottish Crofters Union be involved in talks and decision making about foot-and-mouth disease. I know that the crofting counties are not directly affected by foot-and-mouth, but we cannot be complacent. Should they become affected, we would have to deal with the outbreak differently. Crofts are not contained, and sheep from different crofts mix together in the township and on the hill. One case of foot-and-mouth could wipe out at least a whole township and possibly an awful lot more.

At the Rural Development Committee this week, I asked the minister whether there was a risk of spreading the disease from the Moray firth when wintering sheep are taken home from the Moray firth to crofts in the Highlands. There will be pressure to return those sheep, as the farms where they are placed at the moment will want to begin their planting in the spring. The response that I received was that the serological testing would take place on a pro-rata basis to demonstrate to the EU that the UK was disease-free, but it was not clear when that testing would take place. I ask that that testing take place once the culls in low-risk areas are completed. That would allow the movement of animals to be carried out with less risk.

My second question for the minister concerns abattoirs. When he made his first statement on the disease, I asked him whether he would consider funding small abattoirs to enable meat to be processed locally. Animals travelling long distances have been shown to be a major contributor to the spread of the outbreak and the minister admitted that the lack of abattoirs is holding back the disposal of culled animals. In the House of Commons yesterday, Charles Kennedy said that

"one of the things that needs serious searching attention is the absence, all too often, of abattoirs in various parts of the country and the knock-on effect that that is having, not least in the present crisis, with the moving of animals and the traceability of the problem itself".—[Official Report, House of Commons, 21 March 2001; Vol 365, c 340.]

I ask the minister to reconsider that option. Although I understand that it cannot be undertaken as a quick fix and will take time to put in place, I think that it is important that we begin to address that problem. Not only would it control the spread of disease, but it would allow farmers to add value to their product locally.

It is important to give information to the public. I know that the Scottish Executive rural affairs department is working hard to provide up-to-date information on its website. I very much appreciate that work, but many people do not watch television or read the newspapers daily, and they are left with the impression that mixed messages are being sent out. All of us who are involved in dealing with the outbreak know that advice needs to change with time to suit the current situation. We need to get that message over to the public, who also need to know where they can access the most up-to-date information, albeit that that information may change from time to time depending on the situation in which we find ourselves. The public also need to be made more aware of why we are taking the decisions that we are taking. Many people question the decisions that are made. If they had the information behind those decisions, they would understand and adhere to the advice that is being issued. Information is an important tool for encouraging people to work together to beat the disease.

In the long term, we need to look at how we farm and what our markets are. For too long, we have encouraged commodity production and I feel that we have to move away from that. However, that is for future discussion. I would also like the minister to speak to the Scottish Agricultural College.

Jamie Stone mentioned at question time that the Thurso veterinarian centre is due to close in the very near future. I ask the minister whether he could meet with people from the lab, or at least speak with the college to ask it to defer the decision until the outbreak is over and we can assess whether we need the lab.

It is important that we all work together. I pay tribute to the other parties in the Parliament, which have supported the Executive. It is important and makes the work of the Executive much easier at this difficult time.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative 4:40 pm, 22nd March 2001

My heart goes out to the farmers and their families in Dumfries and Galloway; they are in a state of shellshock as a result of foot-and-mouth disease. I have cousins at Lockerbie who have already lost 180 dairy cattle and 900 sheep. As a farmer, I share their pain.

The Executive motion asks the Parliament to welcome its commitment

"during and after the foot-and-mouth crisis".

Although I do not doubt the Executive's commitment, I do not believe that we can talk about after the crisis yet. On the news this morning, a vet said that he believed that the epidemic would peak in early May, which is six weeks from now. It will not be until the number of cases begins to drop that we will be able to talk about after the crisis.

It is essential that the Government puts out clear and consistent guidelines. The No 1 priority must be to stop the outbreak spreading to other areas of Scotland; the No 2 priority must be to give tourist operators and businesses clear advice on the first priority.

As a representative of the Highlands and Islands, I call for a clear and consistent line, because the worst news that we could possibly get in that area is of an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease there. Tourism faces a rotten season, but confusion will cause only further misery and financial loss.

The public have been wonderful and have shown great responsibility. Local businesses have shown great stoicism and have made a huge sacrifice for the benefit of the agricultural sector. I congratulate them, but they must be supported by clear messages. At the weekend, I spoke to two owners of small, family-run hotels in Argyll about the crisis. One owner said to me, "I have no bookings for the spring and summer. People come here to walk, fish and use the countryside. What can I tell them when they ring me? I am surrounded by Forestry Commission land, which is closed, and farming land, which is also closed. I cannot even take my dogs for a walk, so I tell inquirers not to come until it is safe to do so. The Government must tell us what to do."

We must not be dishonest. There must not be confusion over whether the countryside is open or closed. A non-infected area, such as the Highlands and Islands, must take every precaution against infection being brought in from infected areas. The guidelines must be clear and unambiguous on the best way to achieve that.

There must be no confusion among ministers representing different interests. The main priority is to stop the disease spreading; ministers must emphasise that. Tourism in Scotland will not recover until we are clear of foot-and-mouth disease.

The first priority is the riddance of the disease, whatever it takes. There are questions to be answered, such as: is the Executive encouraging angling authorities to sell permits? Will the Caledonian canal be open for Easter?

On 10 February, Wendy Alexander met Highland tourist operators and agreed that Highland tourism would top the agenda at her first meeting with the new chief executive of visitscotland. I am sure that she will keep her word and meet the commitments that she made at that meeting, but I remind her of them now. Tourism in the Highlands needs a return of special funds for niche marketing of different areas; specialist branding for Highlands and Islands destinations; and, above all, a big reduction in the cost of petrol and diesel.

Above all, we must get Scotland clear of foot-and-mouth disease or we will not have enough visitors. There must be a rescue package for local businesses, hotels and people who run bed-and-breakfast outlets. They are making a huge sacrifice so that we can rid our country of this appalling menace.

Once the outbreak is over, our Government must trace the source and seriously consider banning the import of meat from countries where the disease is endemic. If we must import meat, we should get it—and encourage the rest of Europe to get it—from our Commonwealth allies in Australia and New Zealand, which have never had a trace of the disease.

Photo of Ian Jenkins Ian Jenkins Liberal Democrat 4:44 pm, 22nd March 2001

I agree with much of what Jamie McGrigor said. It is not an exaggeration to say that farming communities in the Scottish Borders—across the country, but especially in the Scottish Borders—are virtually in a state of mourning for their friends and colleagues in Dumfries and Galloway, who have suffered so dreadfully in the current outbreak. They are also grieving deeply for closer neighbours who, even as we speak, are seeing pedigree flocks and flocks that have lived on particular hillsides for generations—which are irreplaceable because they have been hefted to the hill, as they say—destroyed in the hope of offering some protection to their farming neighbours. Borders farmers are desperately worried as they wait for results from a suspect farm in Peebles and are hoping that the results will prove negative.

In the circumstances, we owe it to those men and women to be very careful before we relax restrictions in a way that might suggest to the public that the earlier restrictions were overdone. There were very good reasons for imposing widespread restrictions in the first place and we must not expect it to be simple and straightforward to ease them in a precise way.

Nothing could illustrate more clearly that no man is an island than the course of this outbreak. An ill-considered action—or perhaps worse—in Heddon-on-the-Wall has had implications that have, in various ways, afflicted the whole of the United Kingdom from Cornwall to the Shetlands and which have now spread beyond our shores. On that basis, I urge the Parliament to remember that we must first isolate and eradicate the disease. It will be welcome and helpful if we are able to allow more freedom than before for farmers and visitors in areas of lesser risk. However, farmers in the Borders are apprehensive about sending out signals that might lead to a drop in vigilance.

I emphasise that I welcome proposals to designate areas of proportionate risk and the Executive's recognition that there must be hardship relief.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

In view of the member's obvious anxiety for his constituency, I am sure that he will share my relief that the Peebles case has been cleared.

Photo of Ian Jenkins Ian Jenkins Liberal Democrat

The minister could not have said anything that would have pleased me more.

We should promote the fact that tourists can undertake genuinely rewarding activities in every area of Scotland, including Dumfries and Galloway. However, the matter is not simple. In a complex situation that involves many authorities and agencies, oversimplification is dangerous and clarity is difficult to achieve. A proportionate response is correct and, although clarity must be carefully worked at to ensure that people are aware of the set-up, we cannot pretend that that can always be done in words of one syllable.

If we do not control the outbreak, we will all be drawn downwards into ever more desperate difficulties. Patience now, even with all the problems that it brings, might allow us to beat the disease; impatience could wreck everything. We must not allow what might sometimes appear to be a short-term difference between the importance of farming and tourism to pull us in opposite directions and make us take wrong decisions. We are all in this together and we must work together to ensure that we first eradicate the disease and then, immediately after, introduce a rescue package.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green 4:48 pm, 22nd March 2001

I want to make two brief points. First, I support everything that the minister has done, is doing and plans to do. I also support and express my sympathy for the very sensible SNP and Conservative amendments.

Secondly, I hope that, before we reach the end of this dreadful epidemic, the minister will pay some attention to the responses to the rural development policy consultation. Perhaps he will then be able to pay even closer attention to how contributions can be made to the security, safety, attraction and profitability of our countryside by developing more area and local marketing networks; farmers markets; local slaughtering and butchering facilities; agri-environment schemes; low-import farming; biodiversity action plans; organic farming; rates relief for small and medium-sized enterprises; and support for small post offices and shops.

By the way, I shall be taking my Easter holiday in Oban.

Photo of Maureen Macmillan Maureen Macmillan Labour 4:50 pm, 22nd March 2001

None of us would have anticipated the background to this debate. The speed at which foot-and-mouth has spread has put pressure on many areas. It is easy in hindsight to look back and say what should and should not have been done.

The Highlands and Islands have not had an outbreak, but I know a farmer who had livestock slaughtered this week as a precaution because of contact with the Longtown mart. His name is Bill Keith. He was on television at the weekend, looking very sad and dignified. He is glad now to be giving up farming as he is nearing retirement. I know of his care for his animals; the loss of them is devastating for him and people like him. However, it is not just the agriculture industry that is suffering, and I want to concentrate my remarks on the severe impact on the tourism industry.

The cross-party group on tourism met to discuss all the issues involved in the foot-and-mouth outbreak. At the meeting were representatives of the Scottish Tourist Board, area tourist boards, the National Trust for Scotland, the National Farmers Union of Scotland and tourist operators. There was no doubt at the meeting about the gravity of the situation and the need for urgency. The crisis highlights the importance of the tourism industry to Scotland and its fragility.

At the meeting, representatives were already reporting a severe downturn in both urban and rural Scotland. Scotland as a whole suffers when the tourism industry faces problems. There is a knock-on effect on shops, filling stations, taxi drivers, tradesmen—who will have no winter work refurbishing hotels—and hotel and restaurant workers. It is therefore in the interests of the whole of Scotland to ensure that the tourism industry is able to get back on its feet. I believe that the crisis in the tourism industry is potentially more serious than the crisis in the farming industry, although that is not to belittle what is happening in the farming industry—there is real despair out there.

Another important issue has been partly addressed by today's newspaper advertisements. We must say positively that Scotland is not closed. There are country towns, castles, museums, golf courses and beaches, all of which are open and willing to receive visitors, where livestock are not put at risk. There are areas where there has been an outbreak and people must obey the notices there, but the areas above the Forth and the Clyde have had no outbreak. I welcome Ross Finnie's announcement that that area is now a provisionally free area, but I ask him to clarify what that means as regards the lifting of restrictions.

Where it is safe, people must be encouraged back into the countryside and given simple guidance on how to minimise the risk. Whatever the Government can do to help, it must do it quickly. People must start to go back and spend money in rural areas.

There must also be joined-up working between different agencies. At the meeting of the cross-party group, some members were understandably frustrated that there was not more communication between organisations, but the outbreak caught everyone by surprise and different organisations work at different speeds.

I thank the minister for detailing, to some extent, the financial support that will be given to the tourism industry. I welcome that, but tourism businesses cannot operate without visitors. I ask the minister to provide significant funding for tourism promotion, particularly in my constituency in the Highlands and Islands. Such funding is essential for the future of the industry. I ask him to provide it quickly, because we need to begin now to attract visitors for the Easter holiday.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

We now move to the closing speeches. I have noted that three members who wished to speak in the debate were not called.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat 4:53 pm, 22nd March 2001

There can be no doubt but that the Scottish Executive and the Parliament rate the importance of rural Scotland very highly indeed. It is a tragedy that we have been struck by the foot-and-mouth crisis just as rural Scotland was recovering from the after-effects of BSE. It is commendable that the Minister for Environment and Rural Development has worked so closely with everyone involved in tackling the crisis. I endorse fully the swift action that he has taken to ensure that the disease is contained and then eradicated.

I particularly welcome the minister's announcement earlier this week on dividing Scotland into three areas: the infected area, the at-risk area and the provisionally free area. It is important that vigilance is maintained in all three. The fact that they have now been designated indicates that the regulations restricting livestock movements will be unwound progressively, starting in the provisionally free area. Although no time scale has yet been given, that must be good news.

Many concerns have been voiced today about the damage being done by the foot-and-mouth outbreak to our tourism industry. I confirm that I have been contacted by many hoteliers and others in West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine who are suffering losses because people have been discouraged from entering our countryside. That is why I welcome the fact that the Scottish Executive has given clear guidance on public access.

I was pleased to hear Leslie Gardner, the principal veterinary officer in Scotland, tell the Rural Development Committee on Tuesday that

"the Executive has issued sensible and proportional advice. The disease is spread by close contact with animals. Humans are not affected by the disease. If people have close contact with animals—if they handle animals or have close contact with the faeces of affected animals—and then mix with other animals, that poses a risk. Walking down a road or along a path does not pose a risk. If people were approaching animals and feeding them—which they should not do—that poses a theoretical risk, but walking across hills and seeing a sheep in the distance does not"—[Official Report, Rural Development Committee, 20 March 2001; c 1793.]

I was appreciative of that advice and the sooner people in the provisionally uninfected area—north of the Clyde-Forth line—realise that, the better. I note that Fergus Ewing is not here but even Lochaber, Badenoch and Strathspey are not closed. We need to send that message out to the tourism industry. Fergus mentioned that his constituents are under the impression that the Cairngorms are closed. They are not and that message has to be put across for the sake of our beleaguered tourism industry. Today, the minister said that Scotland is open for business. That is as it should be and we should shout that from the rooftops.

I am particularly pleased that the motion refers to our tourism industry, because unless we get the message across that provided people keep away from livestock it is safe for them to visit rural Scotland, especially north of the Clyde-Forth line, we risk inflicting untold and unnecessary damage to the livelihoods of many more people who work in our fragile rural economy. To Jamie McGrigor, I say that the Highlands are not closed and should not be closed.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

I am as keen on the promotion of tourism in the Highlands as Mr Rumbles is, but is he suggesting that we should encourage people from infected areas to come into non-infected areas?

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

We must follow the advice that the principal veterinary officer gave the Rural Development Committee on Tuesday. That is what I am advocating.

I note that Robin Harper has booked his holiday in Oban. I have booked my summer holiday in Sutherland, in my colleague Jamie Stone's constituency. I am looking forward to going there.

I often criticise the Executive for lodging unnecessary amendments to Opposition motions. Today, however, I want to criticise the Opposition parties for lodging unnecessary amendments. There is nothing wrong with the Executive motion. Given that all the comments that have been made today have been supportive of the motion, why do we have SNP and Conservative amendments to it? They are not helpful and their inclusion in today's business sends out the wrong message.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative 4:48 pm, 22nd March 2001

Before I make my speech, I declare that I have an interest in this debate.

I want to make it absolutely clear that the Conservative and Unionist Party welcomes the Scottish Executive's commitment to the eradication of this loathsome disease. I go further and acknowledge the part of the SNP amendment that recognises that that commitment comes not only from the Scottish Executive but from the Scottish Parliament. I should say, however, that it would have been helpful if the Executive's motion had referred to the goal of eradication of the disease.

Two major areas of this tragedy cause great concern and need to see considerable improvement if public sympathy with the policy of eradication is to continue. The silence at last week's announcement of a cull would have been even greater if we had realised that, one week further down the line, the cull would scarcely have begun. That delay, and the delay between the first suspicion of an outbreak and the slaughter and eventual disposal of livestock following confirmation of disease, verges on the unacceptable. One or two incidents have crossed that line and verge on the intolerable.

If the minister—or anybody else—doubts what I am saying, I can assure him that the people of Ruthwell in Dumfriesshire were distinctly unimpressed by a pile of rotting carcases of sheep that were slaughtered last Sunday and the absence yesterday afternoon of any sign of wood with which to build the funeral pyre. That is not good enough. The Executive has the power to improve the situation. It must do so if political support for the process is to be maintained.

The second area of concern is best expressed by a farmer who lives close to me, at Parton in Galloway. Because of a contact with Longtown, he will lose his commercial flock and may well lose one of the most important pedigree flocks of blue-faced Leicester sheep in the country. He purchased 30 ewes in Longtown on 21 February. They have since been isolated. I quote from today's Galloway News, in which he says:

"All they say is I have been in an infected market ... The really annoying thing is that they have never come to test the sheep from Longtown. They sent two girls who looked at them."

Perhaps every cloud has a silver lining. He continued:

"They never made any inquiries about them to see if there was the right number ... they just asked where they were. The whole thing stinks - it's been handled terribly".

The stark message from that is that the Minister for Environment and Rural Development's department has got its communications wrong. Communication and information are slow, mixed and unproductive, although they are one of the key elements in this entirely unpalatable process.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

I would be grateful if Alex Fergusson could clarify his position. Is he suggesting that, having established that every case of foot-and-mouth has come from the Longtown market, we should now delay our response by having to check out every flock with an absolute, concrete contact before we take any further action? If he is, he is going down a very dangerous road.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative

I am not suggesting that for a minute. I am suggesting that the good words that come from the Executive are not always being translated into action on the ground and that the people involved are not being informed of exactly what is facing them in the fastest possible way, as should be the case.

I do not aim criticism only at SERAD because, as we have heard today, the whole business world is in a state of confusion. The most obvious examples come from the tourism industry, where some contradictory messages are rapidly becoming the stuff of folklore.

All businesses in the south of Scotland, particularly in the south-west of Scotland, are suffering. Countless businesses are on the verge of closure. Many in Dumfries and Galloway will never reopen. They are by no means confined to tourism-related businesses. Urgent, revolutionary thinking is required, above and beyond the welcome announcements that have been made today.

I urge the Minister for Environment and Rural Development, the Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning and the Minister for Finance and Local Government to get their thinking caps on, to cut out the bureaucracy and red tape and to come to the assistance of rural Scotland in general—and of Dumfries and Galloway in particular. Rural people do not easily ask for help, but they have never needed it more.

We cannot support a motion that congratulates the Executive on future action. It smacks of an arrogance that, frankly, we have come to expect from the Executive. Nor can we fully condone the actions of an Executive that gave rise to a telephone call to me in which a farmer's wife complained, "They talk about taking out 200,000 sheep. On my neighbour's farm, they've made a mess of taking out 25." We support the aim of eradicating the disease, but unless the Executive takes on board our constructive criticisms, there may not be much of a rural Scotland left to support. I commend the amendment in the name of my colleague, Alex Johnstone.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 5:04 pm, 22nd March 2001

I start by paying tribute to everyone involved on the ground—largely in Dumfries in Galloway. Although not everything is perfect, the emergency organisation that Dumfries and Galloway Council has now had for some years and which has swung into action has ensured that many of the problems have been ironed out much more quickly than would otherwise have been the case. It is instructive to compare how differently the crisis has been handled in Dumfries and Galloway and by some councils south of the border.

This has been a serious debate on a serious matter—although I thought Alex Johnstone gave us an unintentional insight into Conservative canvassing technique when he said that he is going to give up making random visits to farms.

In agricultural terms, the problem is still spreading. I understand that a case was confirmed today near New Abbey, in the Galloway and Upper Nithsdale constituency. That is very worrying. I presume that that case is not near any others. It was on the other side of the Nith from all the Dumfries cases and a considerable distance from the nearest outbreak. It is very worrying if the disease can spread in that way.

I know that all parties have—for good reasons—set their faces against vaccination, but I note that the Dutch have declared their intention to use ring vaccination followed by early slaughter of vaccinated animals. Will the minister say whether that is an option that remains in SERAD's armoury if matters get worse? I think, however, that that is an avenue that few members would like to go down.

I also ask whether anything can be done to speed up the testing process. There seems in some cases to be an inordinate delay between testing an animal and getting the final all-clear. I realise that that is sometimes because the first test is clear, but subsequent tests must be made. I understand that there is only one laboratory doing the tests. I stand to be corrected if I am wrong. Is there any possibility of using any continental laboratories to speed up the process?

I was in the House of Commons on Tuesday to hear Michael Meacher's statement on the subject. Although he did not speak of Scotland, his statement will obviously influence policy here. Although his statement was full of sympathy and offered plenty of encouragement, it contained damned little detail and precious little in the way of exact commitments. On VAT and taxes in particular, Mr Meacher said—as did Ross Finnie today, I think—that the Inland Revenue and HM Customs and Excise had been asked, or instructed, to take a sympathetic approach. The problem is the potential gaps between how officers of those departments deal with individuals who, I presume, get their bills in the normal way, but who must then phone up to deal with the matter. I wonder whether more definite instructions can be given. Perhaps payment of bills can be postponed for a time, without the person who has been billed having to ask for that.

Michael Meacher said that local authorities have the power to defer rate payments. We know that they have that power; what is needed is an instruction to them to defer rate payments and a statement by the Executive to the effect that it will compensate local authorities for any loss of interest and that it will help them if they have cash-flow problems.

Many of the people who are affected by the crisis are self-employed. Mr Meacher said that people who are self-employed may be eligible for jobseekers allowance, but most members will know that if applying for anything involves the Employment Agency and the Department of Social Security, bureaucracy is a constant problem. What instructions are being given to the Employment Agency to speed up the process and to make it simpler for people who have temporarily lost their entire livelihoods to get jobseekers allowance, despite that fact that they are not looking for a job because they already have one?

Several members have made points about the three areas into which the country has been divided. What are the implications for the infected area, which is, I presume, Dumfries and Galloway? I understand the reason for the designation of those three areas and I sympathise with it, but the problem might arise that there is a welcome improvement in tourism, for example, in areas 1 and 2, but that the prospects for area 3 become worse and that it becomes a no-go zone. We must be clear, when we talk about those three areas, that although Dumfries and Galloway is an infected area it is not off-limits for all kinds of business, particularly tourism business.

The minister said that he is able to develop, or that he is going to develop, consequential compensation. I am glad to hear that, because Michael Meacher never used those words. They have a precise meaning. Compensation is not the same as deferment. Compensation means payment for income that has been lost. I await with interest the details of what that will entail. I do not underestimate the minister's difficulties. The post office next to me in Crocketford is not a tourism business by most definitions, but a substantial part of its business comes from tourism. Of the remainder of its business, much comes from farms. Would that business qualify for relief under the minister's suggestion?

Finally, I say that we support much of what has been done, but the crisis is worsening. People need certainty. Many things are being considered, but we need to move from consideration to decision.

Photo of Alasdair Morrison Alasdair Morrison Labour 5:05 pm, 22nd March 2001

As well as responding to points that have been made in this important debate, I will concentrate on the effect that the foot-and-mouth outbreak is having on our tourism industry and provide further detail of the actions that the Executive is taking to help it to recover.

I am happy to advise Alex Johnstone that the National Trust for Scotland will make a public statement tomorrow, in which it hopes to be able to announce the phased reopening of some of its properties where it can be demonstrated that the risk of foot-and-mouth infection has been adequately addressed. In response to the specific point that he raised, I can say that National Trust for Scotland properties in urban settings in the south-west of Scotland can reopen.

I am grateful to Elaine Murray for her guidance and assistance during this awful episode. I was happy to meet her and other colleagues in Dumfries and Galloway on Friday. Wendy Alexander has said that she will examine the issue of lottery funding, which Elaine Murray raised.

Richard Lochhead made a point about our policy on animal movement and the position of auction marts. Our policy on animal movement is, of course, determined by veterinary advice. Mr Lochhead will appreciate that we take that advice very seriously.

I am also aware of the situation of the Aberdeen tourist office. I am due to meet leaders from Aberdeen shortly. I will be accompanied by the local member—and now my fellow minister—Lewis Macdonald, who will inform the meeting.

I agree with Maureen Macmillan that we have to emphasise at every opportunity that people can go into the countryside as long as they avoid contact with livestock. We have been reinforcing that message since the guidance was published on 7 March. On her point about tourism expenditure and the promotion of the Highlands and Islands, I guarantee that we will ensure that the Highlands and Islands, as well as other parts of Scotland, will be aggressively marketed as a tourist destination.

I agree with the important point that Fergus Ewing made that we should never allow people to pit farming against tourism. We should not allow anyone to divide those two important industries. However, I did not agree with his analysis of the content of one of my press releases earlier this week. I assure him that we liaised with Treasury colleagues. As Mr Finnie said in his opening speech, many of the measures that were announced by Michael Meacher on Tuesday will apply across the UK. I was delighted to meet Alasdair Morgan in London on Tuesday—at least one SNP MP is taking his responsibilities seriously.

Photo of Alasdair Morrison Alasdair Morrison Labour

If Richard Lochhead gives me a moment, I will explain what Michael Meacher said.

UK ministers have requested that the Inland Revenue and HM Customs and Excise take a sympathetic approach to businesses that are experiencing financial problems as a result of the foot-and-mouth outbreak. That will involve the use of maximum flexibility to allow the deferral of the payment of taxes, national insurance contributions and VAT.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I take the minister back to his comments on the restrictions on the movement of livestock. My reason for mentioning those restrictions related to the need for collection centres to be established to help smaller farms. What is the minister's policy on the establishment of such collection centres?

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

Before the minister responds, I will repeat the plea that I made last night. Those members who have just come in should listen to the minister winding up and not conduct conversations. A conversation is taking place involving a gentleman who has his back to me, and another is taking place in another part of the chamber. We will not continue until members sit down. Such conversations are most discourteous to the minister winding up and are happening too often.

Photo of Alasdair Morrison Alasdair Morrison Labour

I am advised that we will consider the issue that Mr Lochhead raised, as we are moving to a position in which there can be movement in the countryside. There is more latitude in the north of Scotland.

As many colleagues have said, tourism is a mainstay of the rural economy. Tourism impacts on a huge number of other businesses—when tourism suffers, so does the entire rural economy. The tourism industry in Dumfries and Galloway has been particularly badly hit. Last week, I met the chair and chief executive of Dumfries and Galloway Tourist Board and around 20 tourist businesses.

I recognise the seriousness of the position in Dumfries and Galloway and I acknowledge that it is likely that the industry will take longer to recover there than in other parts of Scotland. During my visit to Dumfries and Galloway, I guaranteed additional support to help that area, and I have asked for that help to be provided immediately. It will take the form of new and targeted marketing campaigns, prepared in partnership with the local tourist board; visitscotland has also offered staff support to the board, if it would find that useful. My colleague Wendy Alexander will meet tourism and local enterprise company interests in Dumfries and Galloway when she visits the area on 2 April.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

On the support that the minister will argue for in relation to individual tourism businesses, would he accept that it would help a number of those businesses if the Scottish Executive were to lobby the Treasury to issue an instruction not that national insurance contributions should be deferred, but that there should be an amnesty—which is possible—for a given period, in order to protect the livelihood of those businesses? That would allow them to survive and to benefit from future marketing campaigns.

Photo of Alasdair Morrison Alasdair Morrison Labour

As Michael Meacher explained to the House of Commons last week, that is exactly what we are asking for. We are asking for a deferral of payments, which will greatly benefit tourism businesses and other businesses in all the affected areas.

On the important point of the perception of Britain abroad, I am happy to announce that, earlier this week, I spoke to the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Brian Wilson. I emphasised to him the need for our embassies and consulates to put out the true facts. He assured me that they are doing that and will continue to do so. I will, of course, continue to liaise with him.

I have also discussed with Janet Anderson, my colleague at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, how best the British Tourist Authority can help. It is in a unique position to do so, as it has offices in all the countries that are important to us. The BTA in London has provided, and is providing, guidance to all its overseas offices, based on the latest available information. Our objective is to minimise the long-term damage to Britain's image overseas as a tourism destination, so that full recovery is as speedy as possible. We all appreciate that foot-and-mouth disease is a UK problem, and the recovery measures must be on a UK level.

The United States is one of our most important overseas markets. I will be visiting New York during tartan week and will use my visit to emphasise that Britain and Scotland are open for business. I make a plea to public agencies in Scotland not to cancel their meetings and conferences but to go ahead and hold their meetings in rural hotels, paying attention, of course, to the advice applicable to the area.

We will ensure that everything possible is done to get over the message that Scotland remains open for business and that people are encouraged to come and holiday in Scotland.

I urge members to support the motion.