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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 27 March 2001

[Mr. Michael Lord in the Chair]

Foot and Mouth

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.--[Mr. Jamieson.]

9.30 am

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): I welcome the opportunity to debate the important subject of the foot and mouth outbreak's impact on the rural economy in what can only be described as an escalating crisis. When I applied for the debate a week ago, we had not seen and heard about all the events of the past four or five days. The Prime Minister has now taken personal control of the crisis. In the past 24 hours, we have received the appalling news that there are cases of foot and mouth in the Lake district. I emphasise that the foot and mouth outbreak is not just about farming. Obviously, foot and mouth has a terrible and immediate impact on farmers, their families and workers, but it also has an impact on the wider rural economy. Increasingly, we have seen much support and sympathy from the urban population.

There will no doubt be a serious debate later on the future of farming, the food industry, the rural economy and the management of the countryside. The purpose of this Adjournment debate, however, is not to consider the long term, but to concentrate on the immediate and short-term impact of foot and mouth on the rural economy. The views and questions that I shall put to the Minister are based on representations, letters, telephone calls and visits in my constituency. I suspect that other right hon. and hon. Members will do the same. Mid-Norfolk is a mixed rural constituency with small towns and villages. It still depends very much on farming, the food industry, small businesses and tourism.

The Government fatally underestimated the scale and speed of the crisis. It gives me no pleasure to say that, because the people in the eye of the storm find the party politics of the crisis largely irrelevant. Nevertheless, I have come here today to represent my constituents' views on the subject. The Minister is probably aware that an NOP poll in today's Daily Mail shows that an overwhelming 77 per cent. of voters think that the crisis is out of control and that only 15 per cent. believe that it is being contained. That may be only a perception, but it is a worrying perception for any Government.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk): Was that not also the perception last Thursday and Friday of the Government's chief scientist, who stated unequivocally to the media and elsewhere that the crisis was out of control?

Mr. Simpson : My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. I think that it was only last Thursday when we received reports by the various scientists involved that

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the Government fully realised for the first time that this was not a minor regional problem, but a major crisis. As my right hon. Friend said, it is sadly out of control.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): During the weekend, I have been discussing the issue with vets, including local veterinary inspectors employed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food who are not able or willing to give their names. Clearly, they cannot criticise the Government openly. Is my hon. Friend surprised to learn that they say that this is no longer an epidemic, but a pandemic? They also say that, because of the Government's inability to act quickly--not only in taking the decision to cull animals, but in implementing the cull--the position has moved on so far that vaccination should be considered. Sadly, it seems that MAFF is taking no contingency--

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. That is sufficiently long for one intervention.

Mr. Simpson : Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend makes valuable points to which I shall return shortly. Following on from what he said, farmers, vets, business men, local authorities and the rural population at large have been bewildered by what could best be described as the orders, counter-orders and disorder that have characterised the crisis over the past month.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the problem was that in the initial stages of the outbreak, the Government said that people should not go to the countryside? Respectable bodies, county councils and national parks also urged people not to go into those areas. That has had a devastating impact on the tourism industries, particularly in the run-up to Easter, which is usually their busiest time.

Mr. Simpson : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. During the past month, MAFF has moved from saying that there was a crisis, to saying that the crisis was under control, to the political direction of the crisis effectively being in the hands of the Prime Minister.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): Is my hon. Friend aware that, at the Select Committee on Agriculture last Wednesday, the chief veterinary officer admitted that, apart from a shopping list exercise to buy railway sleepers and indifferent quality coal, MAFF had effectively done no desk-top, real-world scenario planning for an outbreak of this size and complexity?

Mr. Simpson : My hon. Friend makes a good point. Many of us are worried that MAFF appears not to have undertaken such contingency planning. In my own area of Norfolk and Suffolk, for example, we had an outbreak of swine fever last year and had thought that lessons would be learned from that. For two and a half years, I was a special adviser for the Ministry of Defence, where contingency planning, standard operating procedures and so on were the norm for dealing with major crises. I hope that the Government will learn a lesson from that, even it is too late for this crisis.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): Does my hon. Friend agree that the real tragedy is that the

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Government did not learn the lessons of the 1967 outbreak? At the weekend, I held a meeting of experienced vets who worked through 1967 in Wem and they made an excoriating attack on the manner in which the outbreak has been handled. The words "gross ineptitude" and "far too little, far too late" were used.

Mr. Simpson : My hon. Friend is quite right. We have also heard that in Norfolk. There is an obvious lack of joined-up government, centrally and locally, which has led to frustration not just on the part of Members of Parliament--we are merely in the business of communicating that frustration--but of tens of thousands of our constituents. Until 10 days ago there was little co-ordination between MAFF, the Department of Health and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Indeed, the DETR has shifted from advising that the countryside be closed down, to the Asquithian "business as usual", to encouraging people to visit the countryside with care. Many people believe that the Government's desire to hold a general election has influenced the outcome of the crisis. That is not a view being put forward by just Conservative, Liberal Democrat or nationalist MPs; there is a widespread belief that the timing of the general election has become caught up in the handling of a major crisis, to the detriment of that crisis.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): Is my hon. Friend aware of the chief veterinary officer's statement on the DETR website, which was an attempt at joined-up government? That statement, which was removed only last weekend, specifically said that it could not be assumed that any part of the country was free of the disease--which flies wholly in the face of everything that DETR Ministers and, latterly, MAFF Ministers have been saying.

Mr. Simpson : My hon. Friend makes another good point. The people at the sharp end--farmers, business men, local authorities--are bewildered by the process of order, counter-order, disorder. The Prime Minister said yesterday that trying to follow the length and breadth of the disease is like trying to follow a flu germ. If hon. Members will pardon the analogy of an old military historian, it is a bit like trying to deal with the German blitzkrieg in May 1940: the Government are always building road blocks where the enemy has broken through. There is a similar lack of co-ordination.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire): The hon. Gentleman is referring to the need for command and control. Only now has the MOD been properly engaged. In my area of Powys, we need not only a senior Army officer to sort out the logistical problems but the burial of livestock. Does he agree that that is urgent?

Mr. Simpson : The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Many of us, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), have been calling for weeks for greater involvement of the Army than senior military personnel only, but it is a reflection on the Government if the Army is called in on such a scale. The public know that it is a national emergency.

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Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): In the context of joined-up government, one of my constituents who deals with the equine and canine industry took advantage of the Government's offer and rang the Department of Trade and Industry to ask what help would be given. The official advised him to declare bankruptcy and contact the Department of Social Security. He contacted the DSS, but it did not have the remotest idea of what help or advice it could give him.

Mr. Simpson : I shall refer to that issue in relation to a constituent of mine a little later.

The DTI advice has shifted from "close down the countryside" to "business as usual" to "visit the countryside with care". The Government face a fundamental challenge to their political strategy: how will they square the need to implement drastic and wide-ranging measures to control foot and mouth with the need to prevent damage to the rural economy? Such damage will be serious in my constituency, and Cumbria, Scotland, Essex and Devon are close to total meltdown.

Mr. David Prior (North Norfolk): A company in my constituency, Osprey Foods, imports beef and meat and dairy products from abroad but cannot obtain certificates to re-export those products. I hope that the Minister will address that issue in his winding-up speech.

Mr. Simpson : My hon. Friend makes a good point. A number of my constituents are similarly affected.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): On behalf of the butcher trade, I wish to ask whether the Government acknowledge that butchers who might be tempted to close their businesses if the meat trade flattens might be able to survive the crisis with some transitional help, perhaps with business rates.

Mr. Simpson : I hope that the Minister will answer that question.

My constituents are concerned that MAFF appears to have no collective memory of or ability to learn the lessons from previous crises. It learned nothing from the inquiry into the 1967 foot and mouth outbreak, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) said, or from the swine fever outbreak last year. The Government must address that.

The Minister's problem is that the crisis is similar to the fuel protests, but on a much wider scale. The Government are unable to comprehend the scale of the crisis and downgrade it. They say that the Opposition are making party political points. They try to move up the learning curve, but, unable to deal with the situation, they blame the people at the centre; they whip the farmers.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): Without trying to downgrade the real problems in many areas, does the hon. Gentleman have any idea why the disease has not affected Norfolk? In the interest of moving along the learning curve that he mentioned, is there a message there for the rest of the country?

Mr. Simpson : The hon. Gentleman is a scientist and, I understand, an expert in the subject; I await his

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contribution with great interest. It might be because of luck as much as anything else that the disease has not reached Norfolk, but my constituents and his in Norwich are praying that it does not. It is not simply a question of whether they carry on with business as usual; they are terrified.

The foot and mouth crisis must be seen against the wider slump in farming. Since 1999, farmers' incomes have fallen by 27 per cent. in real terms, and the industry's income has fallen by £700 million. Rural communities carry an enormous burden of fuel price rises, red tape and the cost of raw materials. In Norfolk and Suffolk, the pig industry is slowly recovering from the swine fever outbreak. The Minister, in his statement last week, said that the pig sector is back to 85 per cent. of its normal production. That is excellent news, but there is still a 15 per cent. gap. Farmers in Norfolk remain worried about the European Union's everything but arms proposal, which could have a dramatic impact on sugar beet production.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): My hon. Friend addresses the plight of farming, but it is the farmers near outbreaks and with restrictions on the movement of their stock who are suffering most acutely. They could be forgiven for wondering even whether it would not be better for their farms to have the disease, because they would then receive compensation. Is it not essential for the Minister to address the plight of those farmers, in Essex and elsewhere, who are paralysed because of their proximity to outbreaks, even though there have not been any outbreaks on their farms?

Mr. Simpson : My hon. Friend makes a good point. I was telephoned yesterday by a constituent, Robert Long, of Hillfield farm, Scarning, who desperately wanted to move hundreds of calves. He told me that he has animals stacked up like aircraft over Heathrow airport. That is an enormous source of frustration for farmers. It is also a major animal welfare problem, which seems to be overwhelming the Government.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury): Further to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), the problem is not only that farmers in exclusion zones are unable to move their livestock, but that MAFF is incapable of giving any answers. Farmers in my constituency, where there has been a foot and mouth outbreak, asked when their farms would be cleaned up. They did not get any answers from MAFF, so I tabled a parliamentary question, and the reply, which I received today, was simply that the Minister would reply as soon as possible. If Ministers cannot even give answers to hon. Members, what hope is there?

Mr. Simpson : I regret to have to say this to my hon. Friend, but that is what happened during the swine fever outbreak. The lesson that I learned from that outbreak was that the House was in recess when it should not have been. If we go into a long recess for a general election, our ability and our constituents' ability to press Ministers will be incredibly limited. Ministers should bear that in mind.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): On information transfer, does the hon. Gentleman agree

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that it is important that farmers receive information and do not feel excluded from the decision-making loop? That would make it easier for them to act in partnership with the Government to resolve the issue. On that basis, does he agree that one lesson that we have learned already is that MAFF needs more resources for its information and communication systems?

Mr. Simpson : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that, when the crisis is over, the Government--whether this one or another--must seriously examine not only the organisation of MAFF, but the entire Whitehall structure that deals with food, the food industry and the environment.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): My hon. Friend will be aware that Ministers have relied heavily on their officials' advice. Where that advice seems to have been faulty, or Ministers' judgment has been faulty in accepting it, why did neither of those bodies not simply accept the findings of the 1969 report and implement them immediately?

Mr. Simpson : I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that, if there is a Government inquiry into the outbreak, that point must be made.

Farming is not an isolated activity, but part of the integrated food chain and the rural economy. We calculate that, for each person directly employed in farming in Norfolk in 1967, four were indirectly employed; now, for each person directly employed, 14 people are indirectly employed. Any impact on farming will affect not only people who are physically involved in it, but the wider community. The irony for the rural community is that, during the past 20 years, it has been asked to diversify, it has done so, and many farms now have businesses on them. If movement is restricted, despite modern information technology those businesses are likely to have a cash flow problem.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): Cash flow will be a real problem for farmers who have their cattle slaughtered and for those who are unable to move their stock; farmers whose cattle are slaughtered will not be able to restock for at least six months because of the quarantine. If the Minister, who is in charge of the taskforce, is to do anything, he should co-ordinate the work of Departments. Is it not reasonable for those suffering an extreme cash flow problem to have a VAT, income tax and council tax holiday until their cash flow returns?

Mr. Simpson : My hon. Friend is slightly ahead of me and has eaten one of my parliamentary sandwiches. I shall come on to that subject in a few minutes.

I shall now deal briefly with the impact on the rural economy and tourism. Many hon. Members know the figures. Total expenditure in the UK in 1999 was about £64 billion, overseas visitors spent about £12.76 billion and an estimated 1.85 million jobs are in tourism. The English Tourism Council reckons that total spending by visitors to the English countryside amounts to £12 billion supporting 380,000 jobs.

What of the impact on tourism of foot and mouth disease? At parliamentary questions yesterday, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

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acknowledged a potential loss of about £250 million a week now, rising to £375 million per week in April and £500 million in July. The downturn will not be short; I suspect that it will continue for some time. The Countryside Agency estimates that rural tourism losses could rise to £2 billion by the end of the Easter break.

I shall now deal specifically with the impact of foot and mouth on the economy of Norfolk. Acknowledging the argument of the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), I am aware that Norfolk is lucky in not yet experiencing a specific case of foot and mouth, but the county has been affected. Tourism expenditure in Norfolk is about £1.3 billion a year and supports 41,000 jobs. It is a major industry by any standard. The Norfolk tourism partnership concluded that long-term bookings were down slightly, but that short-term bookings were down by as much as 50 per cent. People in the rural economy and tourism are receiving a mixed message from the Government. They recognise that unless the Government is able to contain and eradicate foot and mouth, even though it is not yet in Norfolk, the problems of the rural economy and tourism are bound to continue. The top priority must be to deal with the disease.

Mr. Fabricant : My hon. Friend will know that many Americans visit Norfolk as well as other parts of the United Kingdom. Would he be surprised to learn that friends working in the consulate general in New York have told me that, despite the recent visit of the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting to New York, bookings to the United Kingdom are more than 30 per cent. down during the coming months--which we hope will see the end of the foot and mouth outbreak--and that cancellations to all parts of the UK, including Norfolk, have reached a staggering 80 per cent?

Mr. Simpson : My hon. Friend is correct. I disagree with Ministers who say that continuing to talk up tourism, and stressing that large parts of the country remain unaffected, is all that we need to do. I agree in theory, but as long as the photographs and pictures continue to be published, people see the spread of disease and that is what makes the major impact.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): As a military historian, my hon. Friend will know that on 15 April 1986 American war planes flew from East Anglia to bomb Colonel Gadaffi. I remember it well because at that time I was in the air on my way to America to promote tourism in the United Kingdom. We arrived to face a damage control exercise with pictures of armed policemen at London airport all over American television. American tourists cancelled their holidays to the United Kingdom in droves, and that went on for months. However eccentrically charming it may be, does my hon. Friend agree that the sight of a Minister holding up a pair of green wellies on American television is unlikely to supersede the pictures of burning sheep? Should we not be dealing with foot and mouth first?

Mr. Simpson : My hon. Friend makes his point. I am trying not to make personal points here. We have a major problem relating to organisation and politics and

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I want to hold the Government to account on that. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) made the point that one of the countryside activities that has been seriously affected by foot and mouth is the equestrian sector. One of my constituents, Mr. David Sayer, of Great Witchingham horse trials, had to cancel those trials and has lost more than £40,000. He is one of a number of small businesses that have been dramatically affected with the prospect of little help in the near future.

It would be churlish of me not to acknowledge that the Government have come forward with packages during the past month. The Minister of Agriculture has introduced packages to help farmers. The Minister for the Environment is chairing the rural taskforce and he also outlined a series of measures. I want to put one measure to him, which he should take seriously. It was put to me by local councillors and business men in my constituency. He should go beyond what he has done already and possibly have a business rate holiday for affected businesses. The business rate will have a large impact on those businesses and a holiday might give them a breathing space. Secondly, we should seriously consider the proposal from my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks for a financial package of between £10,000 and £12,000 to tide over small businesses that might otherwise go to the wall.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): We welcome the partial business rates holiday that the Government have announced, but will my hon. Friend give particular consideration to one group of people who will not benefit--small village shops and post offices, such as the one in Laycock in my constituency? It is in an affected area that already has business rate relief because of the initiative that the Conservative Government introduced. The Laycock village postmaster tells me that me that his income is down by 50 per cent. and nothing that the Government have so far announced will help him.

Mr. Simpson : My hon. Friend makes a good point. I hope that the Minister will consider that.

I want to leave the Minister in no doubt, not about my feelings and those of other hon. Members, but about the feelings of my constituents about the Government's responsibility in this crisis. The Government underestimated the scale and the speed of the crisis. They lagged behind the outbreak and I fear that they still do. The Prime Minister failed to take a strategic grip until last Thursday or Friday. It took the report of the vets to frighten him into realising that he was standing at the edge of an abyss. I make no criticism of the Minister for the Environment, but a Minister of State is not at the right pay scale to chair the rural taskforce.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks was laughed at by the Prime Minister when he talked about having a war committee, but that is what is required. We need a committee of the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer--who, like Banquo's ghost, haunts proceedings but leaves no fingerprints--and the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. The taskforce must be at that level to come to grips with the crisis, which is now at a national level. We have a mixed and muddled message about the need to isolate and eradicate foot and mouth while underestimating the impact on the rural economy.

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Finally, many people, not all of them Conservative, Liberal or nationalist voters, are amazed that the Government appear to be more concerned about their preparations for the general election than the crisis. As one constituent put it to me yesterday afternoon, it is not just a question of what Ministers will be doing, but whether they will apply themselves to the real issues of the general election. Far from postponing the election sending a message to the world, as The Sun would have us believe, that Britain is not working, it would show that, unfortunately, Britain is only partly working, but that the Government are determined to get on top of it.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater): Most hon. Members will agree that Members of Parliament have a role to play in this crisis. When MAFF is stretched beyond the limit, all sorts of problems arise. The impact on tourism in Norfolk is a sideshow compared with what is happening in my constituency. I had to tell people at a meeting in Porlock on Friday that there was a chance that in a week's time I would no longer be able to help them, because I would cease to have any authority to act; under the rules of reply, Ministry officials will presumably not be able to deal with ex-Members of Parliament. I find that obscene.

Mr. Simpson : My right hon. Friend, for whom I worked when he was Secretary of State for Defence, has great experience of Parliament, and knows how to handle crises.

I know that the Minister is pressed for time and my hon. Friends and I have asked him many questions. The views that I have expressed are not mine alone; they are shared by a wide range of my constituents. The Government are in a hole and they had better stop digging.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton): Order. Before I call the next speaker, I repeat that an unprecedented number of Members rightly want to contribute to the debate, and, if all are brief, the majority will be able to speak.

10.1 am

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I shall take careful note of what you say, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The debate comes at a particularly difficult time. In Berkeley in my constituency seven farms have already had to implement the slaughter policy and another 11--one of which has special breeds--will have to lose all their livestock. That is the result of the proactive policy. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment does not speak for MAFF, but he could help with the definition of "contiguous" because it is open to misinterpretation. We must be fair to all those affected and ensure that they know the likelihood of their being involved in such dramatic action.

I was disappointed that, unlike today's debate, last week's debate on the Government's approach to food policy was not well attended, as this is not a one-off issue. The current foot and mouth epidemic, crisis or catastrophe does not come out of the blue. It comes on the back of BSE, bovine tuberculosis, which has had a

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dramatic effect on the dairy herds in my constituency, and, in certain parts of the country, classical swine fever. If we do not learn how animal life is affected by one crisis after another, we do nothing in politics. We must learn the lessons very quickly.

I have said many times that the food chain has been over-centralised; that is nothing new. There is a case for re-localising, but this is not the time or the place to argue that point. However, from an agricultural perspective, there are some immediate lessons to learn about how the issue is being handled. One problem is that we keep alluding to 1967, but the current situation is on a completely different scale because of how the food chain operates and its much greater impact on the wider rural economy.

Some difficult issues need to be unpacked. I want my right hon. Friend to announce how the strategy of the taskforce is evolving and the amount of compensation that will be made available. I also hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will address those matters, if he makes a statement this afternoon.

Although I do not underestimate the impact of the crisis on the rural economy, it is strange that Opposition Members are proposing massive state intervention, not least because of the financial implications. One of the agricultural industry's problems is that it veers between believing that it is a private enterprise--which it is, at the level of the individual farm--and acknowledging that it is subject to enormous intervention from national Government and Europe. That contradiction impacts on both farming and the wider rural economy, and it is important that it is appropriately addressed. If it is not, the criticisms that I and others have of the common agricultural policy will be exacerbated.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth): The crisis would not have been as great if the Army had been involved earlier.

Mr. Drew : It is easy to say that. [Hon. Members: "It is true."] Hon. Members may say that, but I have liased daily with my local Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food office, and I have talked with farmers and their representatives, and it is clear that, from the outset, more specialists were needed, but the Army does not employ many vets, and neither has it customarily performed the role of slaughterer or contractor. However, it certainly has a logistical role to play, and the forthcoming investigation will examine whether it should have been called on earlier to play it. One may easily assert that with the benefit of hindsight, but the disease has spread more quickly than expected.

Mr. Paice : Last week, the Prime Minister told the House that there was not a shortage of slaughterers, and that it would not be necessary to accept offers of help from hunts and other organisations. There is no excuse for the fact that the slaughter of infected animals has not kept pace with their diagnosis. On Friday, the chief scientific officer announced that the average delay had lengthened to three days. The widespread infection has

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been caused by that delay: the chief scientific officer said that if it were reduced to 24 hours, the disease would rapidly be brought under control.

Mr. Drew : That was not a helpful intervention, but I will try to answer the points raised by the hon. Gentleman.

Some regions have experienced problems in terms of disposal rather than slaughter. I have religiously checked with my MAFF office, and it is satisfied with the current slaughter arrangements. There is, however, a missing ingredient that must not be overlooked. It is understandable that money matters, such as valuation and settlement, should generate considerable emotion, but if individual farmers' concerns were ignored, the entire process could be accelerated. However, those concerns must be addressed, because the United Kingdom is a democracy. The Government require consensus to rule and although they might want to exercise greater power, the farmers are under enormous strain and some of them might not readily agree to compensation packages that were imposed on them. That would create greater problems.

It has been alleged--I will not use a stronger term--that there have been instances of stock being illegally transported, although that has not happened in the region that I represent. That has also created problems.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment has been speaking about the taskforce, but it is also important to examine the implications of the crisis for the wider rural economy. How will the farming industry be rebuilt? How will farmers restock during the six-month quarantine, and how will they generate income in that period?

It is also important to address the implications of the crisis for the wide variety of businesses that are involved in the rural economy. My right hon. Friend may care to write to all hon. Members with a clear statement about exactly what help is available to businesses--not only those in the most affected areas, such as my constituency, but those that have suffered lost tourism business.

Mr. Jack : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Drew : Not at the moment, as other hon. Members want to speak.

The viability of some businesses is contingent on what happens in rural Britain. We are dealing with a difficult message. I accept that that message has not always been right, but we must try to keep the rural economy functioning while a large segment of it is effectively closed down because of its wildlife and these tragic circumstances.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will clearly restate exactly how we are approaching the matter. We must ensure that we give money to those who are suffering enormous cash flow problems. We must also send the message that we are trying to ensure that tourists can visit the places that they want to see. I have been rather taken aback by how the idea is bandied around that the countryside is open or closed, when some places, such as

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the vast majority of market towns, are accessible, and there is no reason for people not to visit them. That is the message that we should send.

We must also ensure that in the short run businesses receive help with their cash flow and taxation. We should introduce measures to help them to relaunch their business, as that is what they must do. I hope that my right hon. Friend will do that today, in liaison with MAFF and the Prime Minister, in order to send the difficult but essential message that we must rebuild the rural economy and that we cannot start a day too soon.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I appeal to hon. Members to make short speeches. Many hon. Members want to speak on behalf of their constituents. If they limit their remarks to about three minutes, a worthwhile number of them will be able to speak.

10.12 am

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater): I have already commented on the need for Members of Parliament to be able to continue to help their constituents during this appalling crisis. I follow the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). I have just received the latest issue of the foot and mouth bulletin, which is produced by the south-west National Farmers Union and is a most excellent document. It will not have made pleasant reading for him, as the last two days have seen a rash of new cases in Devon and Gloucestershire, heightening fears that those counties may be following the pattern established in Cumbria. The simple statement made by a gentleman who was standing beside the Prime Minister in Exeter on Saturday, Anthony Gibson, who has been very much involved in the communication, highlights the scale of the problem. I know that the Minister was in Taunton and Devon and will understand the scale of the problem.

I have here a copy of the 1968 inquiry. Now is not the time to discuss the issues involved, but serious questions will have to be asked, and a full public inquiry or royal commission will have to be held into how the matter was handled. It is a scandal that the matter has got out of control, but I shall not discuss that today.

On Friday evening, I visited and had a meeting in Porlock in my constituency. Porlock is on the edge of a national park--Exmoor--which, thank God, does not have foot and mouth at the moment, although it is creeping all around the area. Following the announcements that Combe Martin and Blackmoor Gate, a big cattle auction area, are now in an infected area, the disease could be drawing towards Exmoor. Exmoor is, rightly, closed. It has a fabulous herd of red deer, and, following the terrors of what is happening in the Lake district, we have the same terrible fears of what might happen on Exmoor if the disease got into the red deer. Arguments have been advanced about whether red deer are susceptible to this strain of foot and mouth, but we do not want to run such risks.

I want to discuss the role of the rural economy. At Wednesday evening's meeting there were 200 people who run various forms of business, including rural accommodation, holiday accommodation, caravan parks, pony trekking and various events and

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attractions. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) is lucky. The people I met have no bookings at all. Everyone has cancelled, having been told that Exmoor is closed for riding or walking holidays. Many other Members of Parliament will share my experience. Those people say that they are four weeks from meltdown, which is about as long as they hope that the bank manager will not come to call. They do not know where to turn. I am an experienced Member of Parliament and I felt as hopeless in that meeting as I have ever felt. Those people had built up livelihoods. I could not think how to advise them on how to survive.

I can make a special case for Exmoor. It is a national park with a fabulous and important herd of red deer. Rural business people could encourage others to visit the park and say that they can walk on the roads and the lanes, but they do not want to do that because they know that their whole business is built around the attractions of Exmoor and its herd, and they do not want to put it at risk. They were terribly torn and asked me what they could do.

My hon. Friends have made various suggestions, such as that concerning the business rate and the Inland Revenue not calling for its money in a hurry, and for a sensitive and intelligent approach to be taken by banks. My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) suggested in a non-partisan manner to the Prime Minister that some form of interest relief grant from the banks might see people through and the Prime Minister said that he would consider that. I am not sure how much of the tourism structure will survive. I am also conscious that, depressed though farming is given the state of farming prices, many agricultural diversifications, such as farm accommodation and bed and breakfast, will also be affected, leading to a further destruction in farming incomes. Tourism will be the most difficult problem for the Minister. We will see a significant part of its fabric collapse.

Somerset county council and others have appealed for the power to close roads. A road over the top of the Quantocks is not too heavily used. There are alternative routes. I think that the Minister knows the Quantocks well. It has a deer herd. The access roads on the southern flanks of Exmoor should be closed. There are infected areas to the south of Exmoor. There should be powers at least to restrict the use of minor roads and to establish an intensive disinfectant operation, perhaps with Army support on the southern roads. There should be access only to a limited number of roads on Exmoor.

Lord Whitty, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, helpfully said in the other place that the county council had powers to close the roads. The county solicitor told me that it did not have such powers. I tried to clarify the matter and contacted a senior lawyer in the DETR who said that he did not know who had advised Lord Whitty, but that the Department has no more powers concerning non-infected areas than a county council, and that neither of them had the power to close roads. The only way round the problem is to use emergency powers.

Mr. Jenkin : A fortnight ago, I wrote to the Minister for the Environment about road closures, because they

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affected outbreaks in my constituency. I have yet to receive a reply and I hope that he can deal with that matter when he responds to the debate.

Mr. King : If Exmoor becomes an infected area, we will have the power to close the roads. I admired the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he talked about the precautionary principle, but that now seems to have been lost. I telephoned the Benefits Agency about people who will be laid off and asked what plans had been made for them. As a Member of Parliament, I can get a reasonably good service, but it did not seem to be switched on to the problem or to have any idea about it. No message seemed to have come down from above saying, "Make sure you are ready to help such people."

10.19 pm

Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton): I shall be extremely brief. I rise to speak at a time of great and unprecedented crisis and with a heavy heart. A cull started on a farm in central Cheshire at 9 o'clock this morning, and the Cheshire show has been cancelled. During the weekend, the foot and mouth outbreak spread to my constituency. The farmer, Mr. Malcolm Evans, knew exactly where it came from--it was borne on the wind from the rendering plant at Widnes. We should have listened to the farmers early on. Farmers have long careers of 50 years or more working on the land. Many of them were working during the last crisis in 1967, and knew how to deal with animals by instant dispatch and burial on site in deep pits. Diseased, infected carcases were not transported through the open countryside.

However, this outbreak has happened and it is not under control. As the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) accurately stated, farming is not an isolated activity; it is bound up in the welfare of the entire rural economy. Businesses in my constituency are facing bankruptcy--not in the medium or long term, but next week and the week after on an escalating scale. It is time for a Marshall plan, because we are, in a sense, at war with the virus that is wreaking havoc on the lives of the people whom we represent.

This is not the time for us to be without Members of Parliament, although I share the sense of helplessness of the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), a much more experienced parliamentarian than I am. I cannot believe that the Prime Minister will go to the country and will be electioneering instead of getting a hold on the crisis. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Minister for the Environment will also be electioneering. It is time to get a hold on this crisis. There is also the question of respect and dignity for those suffering in the countryside. This is a time for special measures and intervention--not for politics as usual.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : I thank the hon. Gentleman for that brief speech.

10.21 am

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell), because that may well have been his last speech as a Member of Parliament. I sympathise with

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him for the plight of his constituents. My constituents in Brentwood and Ongar were the first to suffer the fear of foot and mouth and they continue to do so.

In an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), I raised the plight of my constituent, Mr. Lipman, who lives in the village of Abridge. Eight years ago he started a successful equine and canine business that supplies leather goods. His entire trade is at country fairs in this country and on the continent. His business has now virtually closed down because fairs and county shows have been cancelled and he is not welcome on the continent where--he told me this morning--there have been instances of tyres being slashed and lorries being stoned. He cannot do anything.

One would have thought that the Government would want to help such a person, whose business is dependent on the countryside. However, he does not qualify because, geographically, Abridge is outside the Government's definition of the countryside. It does not matter that Abridge is entirely surrounded by fields in a rural part of Essex. Mr. Lipman thought that the Government would help, so he rang the DTI and said, "I run a successful business, but I have a liquidity problem and no money coming in. What can you do to help me?" As I told my hon. Friends a few moments ago, the advice was to go bankrupt.

I thought that the DTI was supposed to be in the business of preserving companies. Mr. Lipman's company is not inefficient; it is a good company with enormous prospects. Had the foot and mouth outbreak not happened, the company would be standing high in the esteem of the local community. The DTI then said, "If you contact the Department of Social Security, it may be able to offer help, because it has been given instructions to be flexible," but when he made that contact he found no flexibility whatever. No one knows what they are supposed to be doing and no one has received any instructions. The Government need better co-ordination.

10.24 am

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): I begin by pointing out the sheer variety of industries, other than farming and tourism, that are affected by the disease. There is an outdoor clothing business in the middle of Newbury that will not receive any of the advantages that have been offered in terms of rate relief. Last week, its takings were down by 50 per cent. There is also a veterinary diagnosis and consultancy business in my constituency. It cannot get any samples in, so the business is collapsing completely. Each business may employ only a handful of people, but such people are threatened with redundancy almost immediately.

Another business, which deals with pet food and bedding, is finding that goods cannot be moved away from the area because an affected flock is too close to it--movement has been restricted in the area. My constituency also contains Sheepdrove organic farm and Elm Farm research centre, and I am pleased that the Government have taken notice of the research work on vaccination that has been done. It should be considered seriously, whether it is the right policy or not.

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I wish to concentrate on the racing industry because, although it is not peculiar to my constituency, there is a great preponderance of it there, unlike in most other parts of the country. Many people think that racing is not affected and is all right--it shut down for seven weeks and then started again. However, although the weather has been so appalling that it has caused several meetings to be cancelled, meetings have been lost explicitly because of foot and mouth disease. People who rely on odd earnings--perhaps once a month--to upgrade their poor incomes have entirely lost that. Such people are programme sellers, providers of refreshments and some on-course bookmakers. They may earn only a small amount from racing, but are dependent on it to eke out an otherwise meagre standard of living.

Trainers and owners are involved in racing, although some people may think that owners will do better from a cancellation because they usually lose money from racing, rather than gaining it. However, racing is important to jockeys and, particularly, self-employed jockeys, who are paid for each race in which they ride, rather than a retainer. If races are cancelled, such jockeys may find that their income quickly drops. They are not being offered compensation.

People feel that it is unfair that farmers automatically receive compensation for loss of stock, but that no other people are given compensation, even when they may be losing as much of their livelihood as the farmers. I hope that the Government will recognise the feeling that the current compensation method is unfair to people who suffer consequential losses, rather than to farmers who suffer direct losses.

10.27 am

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk): The foot and mouth outbreak has made the extent to which the country's economy depends on agriculture eye-openingly clear. The Minister will have noticed the headline in today's issue of The Times, which shows that the Government are blaming the outbreak on smuggled meat. I wrote to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on 15 November 2000 to point out that I had heard reports of meat that had been illegally imported from France via Ireland. In February--two and a half months later--I received a reply that said that such imports could not take place because they are illegal. Hon. Members will form their own conclusions on the adequacy of that reply, and the fact that the outbreak is being blamed on that cause.

My second point, and the principal concern in my constituency--where there is not currently an outbreak--is the sheer difficulty that farmers and producers experience in obtaining clear instructions and directions from MAFF. Of course, we have already experienced such events through classical swine fever. However, one example will suffice, such as the farmer who approached me this weekend with what appeared to be the simple problem of the disposal of dirty water that results from pig production. He told me that when he asked MAFF for advice, he was told, "It is your problem." He added that it would be illegal to spread the water with his machines, and that he would be fined for doing that. However, to do what MAFF asks would also be illegal, and he would be fined by the

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Environment Agency because the water would go through the drains. People at risk of losing their livelihoods do not need that kind of aggravation.

Thirdly, it is the Government's prerogative to call a general election when they choose. The public know that they do not need to do so for another year. If they do call an election, however, they must be able to give a full assurance to people affected or potentially affected by the outbreak of foot and mouth that a general election campaign will in no way affect the spread of the disease. They must also assure the public that they will be able to give their full ministerial attention to fighting the disease, which they describe as a crisis, while fighting a general election that they do not have to hold. As hon. Members have said, it is at this precise moment that we need Parliament, and Members of Parliament to question Ministers on the progress of the disease. Whichever choice the Government make, their conduct will be judged as evidence of their concern for rural Britain.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I shall use my discretion and call one more Back-Bench Member.

10.30 am

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury): I shall be extremely brief. I wish to make two points.

In a written answer to me last week, the Minister said that his remit was to kick-start the rural economy once foot and mouth had been eradicated. That begs two questions. What does the phrase "to kick-start" mean? It is one of those wonderful new Labour phrases that is intended to give the impression of something happening. Every indication is that the foot and mouth outbreak will not be eradicated for months. If the Minister has not heard the voices in this Chamber today, I should tell him that the countryside wants action now, not months in the future.

The countryside needs information. There was an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in my constituency, at Grange farm, Little Chesterton, some weeks ago. It is not sufficient merely to slaughter the affected animals; a MAFF-supervised clean-up of the farm is necessary. The farmer is still waiting to know when that will happen. Farmers whose farms are near to an exclusion zone want to know when they will be able to move their stock, but no one is telling them anything, and no one is telling the National Farmers Union anything.

Last week, I tabled parliamentary questions to the Minister of Agriculture, asking when he expected the post-slaughter clean-up at Grange farm to begin. I received a reply from the Minister today, saying that he would reply as soon as possible. If MAFF cannot even tell Members of Parliament when a clean-up will start on farms on which an organised foot and mouth slaughter took place weeks ago, the epidemic is totally out of the Government's control and the sooner the Government get a grip on the matter the better.

10.33 am

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing this debate on the impact of

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foot and mouth on the rural economy. He rightly spent 20 minutes talking about agriculture. All hon. Members who represent rural constituencies understand that the impact on agriculture is total and absolute, and that is why we underline it constantly.

I said last week that those whose farms were not infected and were outside restricted areas felt that the sword of Damocles was hanging over their head. Floods provide a better analogy--people see the water lapping around their buildings, take precautions and put out the sandbags, but they know that once the water breaches those defences, disaster will ensue. That is how people feel in the dairy lands of Somerset. The crisis affects not only farmers but everyone associated with them. Last Sunday was Mothers' day, so perhaps it is right to recognise that the families of farmers are as affected as much as the farmers themselves. There are, of course, also women farmers.

I do not want to rehearse the same arguments that we had in last week's debate on agriculture. Those arguments have been well ventilated. The halving of the number of state veterinary surgeons in the country was not helpful. Nevertheless, contingency plans were clearly not in place; adequate senior management was not focused on the infection at an early enough stage. The logistics have proved to be a shambles.

Mrs. Shephard : The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, along with us, pointed out the potential problem at the time of the classical swine fever outbreak. Last autumn, we said clearly that if the resources available for classical swine fever had to be stretched further, disaster would ensue--and it has.

Mr. Heath : The right hon. Lady is correct. Very few of the lessons of the classical swine fever outbreak in East Anglia seem to have been learned and put into practice in dealing with this epidemic. Issues such as the welfare of animals, putting a floor to commodity prices and how we deal with this crisis continue to exist.

I introduce one note of caution. A bandwagon appears to be developing in favour of vaccination, but I would treat that with care. Vaccination may have a part to play, but no more than that, because there are clear difficulties in using it. I would not like an orthodoxy to develop that perceived vaccination as a panacea and thought that we would be free of foot and mouth if the Government introduced vaccination measures. That is nonsense.

Mr. Tredinnick : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heath : No. I do not have time. I know that the hon. Gentleman has theories about borax, but we must continue with this debate.

This debate relates to the extent of the impact of foot and mouth on the rural economy as a whole. It is impossible to overstate that impact. I was staggered to discover, when I talked to people in the high streets of the smaller towns and villages in my constituency in Somerset one week after the start of the epidemic, that everybody's businesses already showed a downturn in turnover. It did not matter what kind of business it was--the impact was felt by not only those directly related to tourism but newsagents, butchers and gift

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shops. Everybody felt the impact of the cancellations and the lack of money coming into the rural economy, because sociably responsible people who would usually visit rural areas such as mine at weekends no longer do so. They have read in The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph or wherever that they should not visit the countryside, so they do not--and who is to say that they are wrong?

It is difficult to know how to deal with the problems. The Minister has stressed that the countryside is open. Yes, it is open--but there are heavy caveats. I would still be worried if I saw people using footpaths across dairy lands in Somerset or wandering at will around our country lanes. As the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) said, those lanes should be closed as a sensible precaution, because they provide access only to farm lands.

How do we deal with the lack of turnover and the cash flow problems that businesses are experiencing? Suggestions have been made, such as revaluing for business rates purposes. Will the Minister tell us how many revaluations he expects to put through the system in what period of time? How will that have an immediate effect?

A VAT holiday or another kind of tax holiday has also been suggested. That could make a difference, but any business that uses a deferred payment of VAT or another tax to maintain its current cash flow is in line for perdition and needs to treat the matter with great care.

Large estate owners must consider whether the rental on agricultural land and agricultural businesses should be revised. I made that point to the hon. gentleman representing the Church Commissioners yesterday. The rental might be reduced and made more appropriate, and that might be backdated to Lady day or before.

The definitions of rural areas used by the Minister present some difficulties. I do not accept that we are dealing only with centres of population of less than 3,000, which is the traditional yardstick, because the market towns that are suffering do not come into that category. Anyone who understands the country knows that business goes on in the towns rather than in rural areas. We need to deal with that.

We need greater clarity because we are getting mixed messages. We still do not know what activities can and cannot appropriately be continued. There is the question, for example, of whether to cancel the Royal Bath and West agricultural show, which is enormously important to many small businesses as a showpiece and shop window. I was with representatives of the show on Friday and they do not know whether they should go ahead without animals. There is difficulty with instructions to Departments--whether the Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise or the Department of Social Security--which are simply not receiving clear guidance. They do not know what they are supposed to be doing, and at this stage in a crisis, they should know.

There is also the issue of resources. We still have been given no clear view on consequential loss or compensation. We are constantly told that agrimonetary compensation was the payment to the farmers. It was not; that was for a totally different purpose. It certainly helps in the current crisis but we

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need proper compensation. Will we get it? The Minister has a taskforce but it has no financial backing. Surely it is time that contingency funds were made available so that it can do the job with which it is entrusted.

Finally, the crisis has made it clear that MAFF is not a rural affairs department. The more that MAFF has concentrated on its narrow viewpoint, the worse a job it has done for the wider rural economy. Surely it is time that we had better co-ordination in Government affairs to ensure that rural areas are properly represented, as they should be.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : I thank the hon. Gentleman for his discipline.

10.41 am

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): This has been a sombre debate and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) deserves to be congratulated on utilising this Chamber, probably as well as it ever has been, to address the most serious issue facing the country at the moment. The position of the Opposition has been clear throughout the crisis; we will support the Government when we can and criticise it when we must. That is the role of a responsible Opposition and we will continue to carry it out.

We have heard this morning about the many inadequacies of MAFF in dealing with the outbreak, particularly its lack of clear, speedy information to farmers. I know that from my own constituency experience; I get daily phone calls from desperate farmers who simply want advice and clear guidance. Five or six weeks into the crisis they are still not getting it. That is one of the most urgent issues that the Government need to address.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : The Government will shortly have to deal with the serious issue of advice to farmers on whether to turn their stock out. Many will not have enough fodder to keep the animals in sheds and once they go into the fields the disease is likely to spread much more quickly and over a much bigger geographical area. We need clear advice on that matter.

Mr. Green : 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.

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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

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

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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.

10.50 am

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing the debate. It is recognised on all sides that it is a matter of extreme gravity. I pay tribute to the largely sober manner in which the hon. Gentleman debated the issues. It is extremely serious and should not be a party political matter. Everyone wants to overcome the crisis.

Many of the opening remarks of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) were directed at my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I shall attempt to reply to as many points as possible, including questions about agriculture.

First, let me make it clear that neither the Government, not the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, nor the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food ever said that people should simply keep out of the countryside. What they said right from the beginning was that people should be careful about where they went in the countryside. We have consistently argued that susceptible livestock must be avoided and that people should keep away from farmland, particularly in infected areas. Above all, we encouraged people to obey the "Keep out" signs. All that is obvious, but there remains a large part of the countryside that people can safely visit.

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I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) that the Government face a difficult dilemma. Our paramount concern is to do everything possible to contain and eradicate the disease. The whole nation shares that view and is co-operating with the Government. At the same time, however, because of the size and importance of the tourism industry--our fifth largest and worth £65 billion--we must also take account of the needs of small businesses, tourist attractions and the ancillary and related retail sector, which has been severely damaged as a result of the crisis. We are trying to walk a difficult tightrope between the two. Our message is that it is possible to enter large swathes of the countryside perfectly safely as long as the basic rules are obeyed. I do not know of any alternative sensible policy that we could adopt.

The right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) asked about contingency planning. Obviously, there will be an inquiry later into the handling of the crisis. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) said, the present outbreak is unprecedented. It is on a wholly different scale from that in 1967, to which I shall return later.

Mr. Tredinnick : Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Meacher : I have only seven minutes and cannot give way.

On joined-up government, we shall have to investigate with a fine toothcomb later, but I suspect that the DETR and MAFF have liaised from the start. The rural taskforce includes Ministers from the DETR, MAFF, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the DTI, representatives from No. 10 and all stakeholder interests. The Prime Minister is now presiding over the multi-departmental committee under the COBRA procedure--named after Cabinet Office briefing room A. I insist that close co-operation has been evident throughout.

I know that hon. Gentlemen strongly believe that the Army should have been brought in earlier. We have never had any objection to bringing the Army in, the question was whether the Army was most suitable for the tasks that we faced, including dealing with the lack of vets. There are still insufficient vets--

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Meacher : No, I am sorry. There are myriad questions, but I have many points to answer.

We have significantly increased the number of vets but there is still a shortage. However, the problem with slaughtermen and JCBs has largely been overcome. There is also the logistical problem of handling a crisis of this scale. The Army has great skills in that, which is why we brought it in.

I turn to the measures that we have sought to take. Several hon. Members have acknowledged the financial package in the first statement that I made last week.

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First, there will be business rates relief. For many small businesses that will pay perhaps £1,250 over six months. The size of the package will be a complete rates holiday. We have increased the amount that the Government will fund from 75 per cent. to 95 per cent. The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) said that some businesses, such as outdoor clothing and pet food, are outside the area. But there is still the 75:25 break-down between Government and local authorities that local authorities can invoke to help those outside the immediate area, such as those in rural areas and in the hardest hit areas and businesses with a rateable value of less than £12,000. That is the prime concern.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Meacher : I cannot give way even to my hon. Friend. I have refused to give way to others and I must refuse to give way to him too.

There will be a rescheduling and deferment of VAT and PAYE, so far as there is discretion within the legislation. I have spoken to the banks about extending lines of credit and easing interest payments and the whole question of holidays for capital repayments. Many hon. Members argue that there is a case for further interest relief, and we are considering that. I made it clear that the original statement was a preliminary package. I intend to come forward at an early point with further measures. I can assure the hon. Member for Ashford, who suggested that the rural taskforce has disappeared, that it is exceedingly active. I am devoting 18 hours a day to its activities, and it is meeting tomorrow. We will consider the matter and a number of other measures and will come forward with further action.

We are extremely conscious that damage has been done. Utterly inaccurate and hysterical stories have been produced about the state of the country, such as that it is not safe to eat here or that people need to be disinfected when they return to the United States. We are funding the British Tourist Authority to try to correct that image. We are telling our embassies and posts abroad to do all that they can to monitor the newspapers and broadcasts to try to correct immediately any of those absurd travesties.

The right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) made a point about putting the blame on smuggled meat. We are not apportioning blame; we are trying to find out the cause. If that was the cause, we certainly need to deal with it. She said that clear directions from MAFF were needed, and several right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned that. We realise that. As the right hon. Member for Bridgwater fairly stated, because of his track record and his knowledge of ministerial life, the pressures on MAFF at the moment are nearly intolerable. The people at MAFF are doing their best and coping extremely well with an enormous crisis that in some ways is almost unprecedented.

We appreciate that there is a need for clear directions for all sorts of people, and we are trying to deal with that. When we say that we will reply to letters as soon as possible, that is exactly so.

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The hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) asked what I meant by kick-starting the economy. Our first concern is to overcome the crisis and to provide rates relief and assistance with deferment of other statutory payments that have to be made to tide people over the crisis. That is our first concern, but there must be a rural regeneration package. We will implement the rural White Paper proposals as soon as we can when we begin to reduce the number of--

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. This is an important debate, but I regret that time is up.

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