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Mr. Meacher: I believe that we fully understand the extent of the impact of the outbreak. Given the efforts of my colleagues in MAFF to deal with the containment, control and extermination of the disease and the measures that we are bringing forward to help non-farm businesses, I do not believe that we have in any way underestimated the gravity of the situation. I believe that we have reacted rapidly and effectively, and that is the significance of today's statement.

I am grateful for much of the sober response of the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman). However, to refer to a "meltdown" is completely over the top and inappropriate and does not help in making a serious and proper response to the situation. Something like 1 per cent. of livestock have been affected. Of course, the implications go far wider, but we should keep things in perspective.

We accept that the Government will command support for their measures if they are delivered quickly. That is why I have had urgent discussions with the banks and have brought forward measures that will provide rate relief. Concern about the rate demands at the end of the month is, I think, people's prime financial anxiety. We are effectively meeting that anxiety with the proposals that we have made today.

I take the point that we should reduce bureaucracy in every possible way at this time. I stressed that repeatedly in my statement. The process of getting rate relief will be accelerated and prioritised. On the cost, I cannot give the house an accurate overall figure, because it depends on assessments made on a case-by-case basis. However, tens of thousands of small businesses will benefit from the measures that I announced today. Whether local authorities are able to offer a business rate holiday is a matter for their discretion, within the parameters of the extended scheme that I offered today.

The climate change levy, as the hon. Gentleman correctly says, comes into effect in less than a fortnight. I remind him that, overwhelmingly, it will be larger and non-rural businesses that will certainly have liabilities under the levy. I repeat that the measures being demanded of them are cost-effective; over time, those measures will benefit the bottom line of businesses by improving their energy efficiency. Although there is a short-term issue to be dealt with in respect of foot and mouth, the longer-term

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climate change issue remains with us all the time. We should not abandon measures that are necessary for that purpose.

On sporting activities, of course we want the clearest possible information about the availability of sporting and other public events. That depends entirely and specifically on the advice of the chief veterinary officer. We hope that he will make clear his views on the holding of such events as quickly as possible.

Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman says, it is not the case that all parties in Cumbria and Devon have sought postponement of the county council elections. That is certainly not so in Cumbria. I do not believe that there is a justification for taking such action at this stage. Certainly, we have to take account of the future course of the disease and we have to listen to what people are saying, but to send a message--especially abroad--at this point in time, that the whole country, or major parts of it, is in quarantine and that democracy has been suspended will not give a true or accurate image of our country.

Finally, on the hon. Gentleman's last point, I realise that there is an issue in relation to the Environment Agency and the disposal of carcases. The valuation of carcases can take an unduly long time, but we are looking at ways to speed up that process.

Dr. Jack Cunningham (Copeland): May I tell my right hon. Friend that in my rural constituency in Cumbria his statement and these first steps to bring help to businesses will be warmly welcomed? Is he aware of the importance not only of the Government giving a clear, coherent message about the countryside, but of regional and local agencies doing the same? For example, is he aware that more than 100 visitor attractions in Cumbria and the Lake district are still open for business as usual? There is no reason that people should not go to them.

It is important that the Government attack the foot and mouth outbreak more aggressively and urgently bring more resources to bear on the problem in Cumbria and elsewhere. As long as the outbreak continues, rural businesses--large and small--in Cumbria and elsewhere will suffer; they are already suffering very, very seriously--especially the tourist industry.

May I also--[Hon. Members: "Oh!"] Oh, yes. May I tell my right hon. Friend, the House and the Opposition spokesman that there was a Cumbria-wide crisis meeting yesterday in Kendal? All parties and all MPs attended. At no time was there a call from anyone for the suspension of elections, so the Opposition spokesman is totally wrong on that point. Indeed, the meeting called for a non-partisan approach to these matters.

Finally, let me tell my right hon. Friend and the House that the statement by the Leader of the Opposition that the chief executive of the Cumbria tourist board has called for the cancellation of elections is also completely untrue.

Mr. Meacher: I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for what he says. I am sure that he is right to say that the Government's clear and coherent message has to be reflected regionally and locally. Indeed, the helplines that we have put in place for local authorities and business are designed precisely to try to achieve that. I take note of the fact that, as he said, more than 100 visitor attractions are still open. That information is useful

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because there is a widespread perception, which is wholly wrong, that they are all closed. That is not the case, and many more can be reopened.

We are deploying all the resources at our disposal to try to contain and eradicate the disease, especially where the outbreak is greatest--in Cumbria, Devon and along the Welsh border. I take note, as did the whole House, of the correction that my right hon. Friend gave to the statement made by the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): I welcome the Minister's interim statement and hope that it represents the first step in explaining to the House how the Government will assist businesses, which will be affected for a long time. I know he agrees that clarity is important in enabling the public and business people to gain access to the support. That is vital. We do not need more bureaucracy and administration; we need more management of the resources and better use of the existing channels.

Specifically on the right hon. Gentleman's discussions with the banks, does he agree that they have an opportunity to show just how supportive of small businesses they are? Is he aware that there is evidence to suggest that they are already pulling out of some projects for which they had originally shown support? On rate relief, will special support be provided to charities? They already receive 80 per cent. rate relief, so the modest increase may not assist them greatly. Will he confirm that the proposals include the deferment of VAT payments for one or perhaps two quarters? Will he also confirm that this is just the interim statement and that he expects to return to the House in the not-too-distant future to explain what progress the taskforce has made?

Mr. Meacher: On the hon. Gentleman's last point, I certainly confirm--as I twice said in the statement--that this is a preliminary statement. I appreciate the point about the need for urgency and rapid response. That is the reason why I have made this first-step announcement today, but there will certainly be other statements, as and when necessary, in the light of further revelation of need. That is the criterion by which we shall decide what further action to take. Of course, as I said, it is very important that people should find it easy to gain access to the support. We are doing all we can to ensure that there is simplicity. We are running a massive advertising campaign to let people know, by using a single telephone number, where they can get help, so that they can be directed locally to precise and specific assistance.

I met the banks, and they said that they were being proactive and were seeking out among their clients those whom they thought might be in difficulty. I am concerned to hear the hon. Gentleman suggest that they might be pulling out of some projects. I should be pleased to know whether that is the case. I believe that they should be held to their word, and those who are involved in those projects should beard their local managers about the consequences of such action.

Of course rate relief is not primarily aimed at charities, and the hon. Gentleman should not belittle the increase in aid--from 75 to 95 per cent.--that the Government are offering. The proposals on VAT payments are primarily aimed at the next quarter, but a further quarter could be included if that were to prove necessary. There are

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flexibilities in the system, such as deferment and rescheduling, and we shall use them, on a case-by-case basis, where we can.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley): My constituency has a mixed economy, in which farmers and tourists are very important. We need a clear and loud message that we have confidence in the countryside as part of the economy. In particular, the X Paragliding Company is entirely situated on National Trust land. It has not just had a cash flow problem--it has had no cash at all because the National Trust has been closed for business. I am very pleased to hear my right hon. Friend say that, within a week, we shall know more about the opening of National Trust land. What advice can I give to my constituents who are now suffering greatly from the lack of paragliding--although the snow may have prevented that from happening any way? How quickly will we be able to tell them which National Trust areas will be open for business?

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