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House of Commons

Monday 30 April 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Foot and Mouth

1. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): What further assessment he has made of the effects of the foot and mouth outbreak on tourism. [158136]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Chris Smith): Our best estimate on the basis of information so far obtained is that loss of revenue by the English tourism industry will average about £140 million a week. The eventual total economic impact of foot and mouth will obviously depend on the final extent and spread of the disease, as well as its duration and the effectiveness of the measures that we are taking to encourage tourism to Britain in general and to the countryside in particular.

Mr. Robathan: We all know that the statement that the Secretary of State has just made is extremely sad. Apart from the dire consequences for all rural communities, including the rural people whom I represent, foot and mouth is having dire consequences for tourism. The Secretary of State will know that businesses and hotels are being put up for sale all the time. What further steps can the Government take to assist the tourism industry, including hotels and other businesses in the countryside? Will the right hon. Gentleman now consider taking on board the Conservative scheme for interest-free loans to rural businesses?

Mr. Smith: I certainly share the hon. Gentleman's dismay at the way in which foot and mouth has affected the tourism industry in many parts of the country. We have already put in place substantial measures to provide immediate relief to affected businesses, including additional rate relief for business premises, deferment of tax and value added tax payments and access to the small firms loan guarantee scheme. We have also put in place additional resources for the English Tourism Council and the British Tourist Authority to carry out immediate work to promote tourism and encourage visitors back to Britain and the countryside.

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter): While welcoming what the Government have already done, may I tell my right

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hon. Friend that it is still woefully inadequate? When he next speaks to his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, will he tell him that many good businesses in places like Dartmoor will go out of business in the next few months unless he comes up with interest-free loans now?

Mr. Smith: I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will have heard what my hon. Friend said. Of course we recognise that, in the coming months, further promotion work will be needed, particularly in relation to the promotion of tourism in this country. I hope that we will be in a position to make additional announcements on that shortly.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross): Why is it taking the Government so long to meet the express requests of the BTA for its budget to be substantially increased now to enable it to promote effectively visits to this country, particularly in the United States?

Mr. Smith: We are considering carefully the cogent case that the BTA has put to us for additional promotion work that can and should be undertaken. Of course there is a sensible judgment to be made on when the best push on further tourism promotion should be made, which we wish to leave to the experts at the BTA to decide. Does that push come now, in the lead-up to the immediate summer booking period, or does it come when we can safely and finally say that the disease has been eradicated? It is probably the case that both strategies need to be followed; the judgment on the precise balance between them is best made by the BTA itself.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): There has been some welcome tourism assistance, such as rate reduction provisions, in various areas of the country. However, is there a continuing review to determine the boundaries of the areas to be covered? Ashover in my constituency, although far from any foot and mouth outbreak, has problems because of that outbreak and would like to be benefit from provisions available elsewhere in the country. Problems have also arisen because of the disposal of cattle in landfill sites which are too close to communities. That disposal has created such obnoxious smells that one cannot imagine any tourist ever going to places such as Poolsbrook, near Chesterfield.

Mr. Smith: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Those matters are under continuing review by the rural taskforce, which is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment. The impact on tourism has been adverse not just in areas of the countryside affected by foot and mouth, but in towns and cities completely unaffected by the disease, because overseas visitors are simply not making bookings. The problem that we face is not confined to rural areas; the lack of forward tourism bookings is a problem for the economy throughout the country.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): In answer to his hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), the right hon. Gentleman seemed to suggest that he acknowledges the extent of the problem, although his response to his hon. Friend the Member for Exeter

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(Mr. Bradshaw) was not strong enough. Does he accept that the compensation on offer is not adequate? Does he also accept that, not only does a lost hotel bed result in lost tourism revenue, but that that lost booking has other economic repercussions? Will he therefore urgently address the issue and come up with a package that gives greater recognition to the terrible calamity facing the industry than has been made so far?

Mr. Smith: The hon. Gentleman knows that a substantial package of measures is already in place. The best service that we can do for people in the tourism industry who run hotels and guest houses, or in the service industries that serve the hotels and guest houses, is to get visitors coming back. That is where we must put the major emphasis over the coming weeks.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham): Are not rambling, hiking and walking in the countryside the British national sport? I cannot imagine the Austrians, French or Swiss closing down the Alps if there was some wretched agricultural disease there, yet all over the country, there are "Footpath closed" signs put up by private landowners and members of the National Farmers Union, not by local authorities. There has been no case of ramblers transmitting the wretched disease. Could my right hon. Friend make it clear to local authorities and to private landowners that our footpaths can safely be open, and that they must be open to allow the British people to enjoy their countryside again?

Mr. Smith: There is no reason at all why a footpath which goes nowhere near livestock, does not go over grazing land, does not go near a farmyard and has never gone anywhere near livestock cannot be safely and legitimately opened up for public access. I am pleased to say that there are many county councils across the country that are now realising that and are re-opening footpaths for public access. I fear that there are some county councils that are not.

Mr. MacShane: Name and shame them.

Mr. Smith: For example, I hope that the leadership of Buckinghamshire county council will have heard what my hon. Friend said.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey): Is it not the case that the Government's handling of the crisis in tourism has been complacent and shambolic since the outset? According to the British Tourist Authority, up to £5 billion in revenue and 300,000 jobs are at risk. What has the industry got from the Government, other than the usual depressing cocktail of spin, dither, delay and confusion? Does the right hon. Gentleman think that a business with no income will leap at the chance to take out an emergency loan at 8¾ per cent.? When will he stop ducking and answer the questions that have been put to him this afternoon? When will the Government introduce a proper interest-free loan scheme of the type that we recommended five weeks ago?

Mr. Smith: On spin, I am astonished that on 24 April, when we had the then unconfirmed case of the slaughterman who was suspected of having foot and

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mouth disease, which has now been shown to have been a false alarm, the hon. Gentleman, describing the case, told the world that it was

What sort of message did that send to people thinking of coming to Britain from abroad?

Mr. Ainsworth: It didn't take long, did it? If in doubt, blame the Tories. [Interruption.] That is a pathetic response. When all the other answers fail and the Government run out of excuses, they blame someone else. We have seen it before and we are seeing it again this afternoon. Who does the Secretary of State think the industry blames for the mishandling of the crisis since it began? Who does he think the industry blames for the paltry £2 million offered to promote Britain around the world at this time of crisis? When the president of the American Society of Travel Agents writes in a letter to the chairman of the British Hospitality Association:

what does the right hon. Gentleman think he means--another photo call in the rain? He means that the Government must get behind the industry and offer the practical help for which the industry has been asking for so long. When will the Government provide the funds that are necessary to support the marketing of Britain abroad at this time of crisis in tourism?

Mr. Smith: The Government are behind the British tourism industry. We have offered help and will be offering further help. I say to the hon. Gentleman that, if it is right and sensible to blame the Tories, then we will, of course, blame them.

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