Foot and Mouth

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:41 am on 27th March 2001.

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Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 10:41 am, 27th March 2001

My hon. Friend is of course right. There will be other times and opportunities to discuss many of the purely agricultural issues surrounding the tragedy, but today I want to concentrate mainly on non-farming matters, particularly the activities of the taskforce, which the Minister is in charge of--I use the word "activities" loosely. The first outbreak of the disease was notified to MAFF as far back as 18 February. On 11 March, the Minister for Agriculture said that the outbreak was under control--a catastrophically wrong analysis, as events have proved--and it was during that week that the Minister's taskforce was set up. On 20 March, he made a statement to the House about its preliminary findings, including several announcements on business rates, holidays, the attitudes of banks and other ways of helping business through the immediate cash flow problems, which , if they are put into practice, will be welcome. Hon. Members have referred to several of those announcements this morning. The rest of the statement largely consisted of aspirations to reopen tourist attractions--aspirations that may or may not come to mean anything, depending on the spread of the disease.

Since then, the taskforce for which the Minister is responsible has largely disappeared from sight and he must answer the charge that it was set up too late, has been half-hearted in its actions and has simply been overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis. The effect of the Minister's taskforce has been like that of opening an umbrella in a hurricane. In confronting a rapidly growing and spreading national crisis, it has proceeded like a normal Whitehall committee, thinking that it has all the time in the world.

I am afraid that the Government have not got to grips with the root of the problem, which is dual control. The Minister sees it as his job to repeat as a mantra, "The countryside is open for business." He says that things are fairly normal across the countryside, while, on the other side of the street, MAFF is, rightly, trying to close down large parts of the countryside to avoid the spread of this terrible disease. Sending out not only mixed messages, but flatly contradictory messages has left all those at the sharp end of the crisis feeling confused and increasingly angry. People's livelihoods are disappearing by the day. That is not remotely a political point. The least that they can expect from any Government is clear leadership and clear messages, but they have been failed miserably during this crisis.

Also lacking is a proper attitude by the taskforce to the scale of the crisis. To take one example, the tourist-industry is clearly suffering greatly. The Government said that British tourism would get a £10 million cash injection to counter misinformation about foot and mouth, but the Cumbria tourist board estimates that the county is losing £8 million to £10 million a week. That illustrates the inadequacy of the scale of the Government's response.

Many hon. Friends have mentioned specific companies and industries that are badly affected. I should like the Minister to address another--the angling industry. The National Angling Alliance says that it

"represents six major angling organisations...There are 3.3 million anglers in the UK and the industry had a turnover of £3.3 billion in 1994." It says that the foot and mouth epidemic is having "a huge impact" on their businesses. The secretariat writes that

"the Government does not appear to recognise either the importance of angling or our contribution to the rural economy. The NAA estimates that angling and fishery businesses are losing some £7 million each week". That is just one example of a sector that is being almost totally destroyed by the outbreak, which feels that the scale of the Government's response is not adequate.

Simply repeating that the countryside is open for business is not good enough. We all wish that it were open for business, but increasingly it cannot be. During the past 24 hours, we have heard the Minister say that we should not get over-excited about the problems in the Lake district and that, so far, there has been only one outbreak in the national park. In this morning's newspapers, however, people involved in selling and managing the Lake district as a tourist destination use phrases such as "a doomsday scenario". In all conscience, I must tell the Minister that, if the people whose job is to keep tourist destinations alive are using such phrases, Ministers who say that we should not worry and things are reasonably normal sound increasingly like Corporal Jones in "Dad's Army". They say, "Don't panic", but are in fact increasing the level of panic. They do not measure up to the scale of the crisis.

I have some sympathy for the Minister, because he is at the sharp end of a Government who are trying to face both ways. If they take determined measures to save our remaining livestock, they could damage the tourism industry. If they try to save the tourism industry over the next few months, they may put at risk thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, more animals. I agree that that is a dilemma, but to do neither effectively and end up doing unnecessary and permanent damage to the livestock industry and rural tourism would be unforgivable by both the agriculture and tourism industries, and I am afraid that that is what is happening at the moment. The Minister is aware of the dilemma. Many people, particularly those whose livelihoods are at stake, have some sympathy for him, but it will disappear in a second if it seems that the Government's eyes are focused elsewhere.

This morning we heard the Prime Minister say that he would strain every sinew to solve the crisis. If he is straining every sinew this Tuesday, I hope that he is still straining to solve the crisis next Monday when he might be calling a general election. If he does, it will be starkly clear to people in the countryside whose livelihoods are at stake that he did not mean it when he said that he was straining every sinew, but that that was just today's soundbite. Soundbites are not enough to solve the crisis. People will feel betrayed by the Government. I hope that the Minister will take with him the clear message that, so far, the Government have not measured up to the scale and extent of a crisis that is devastating large areas of our countryside.