Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence


Examination of witnesses (Questions 131-139)

WEDNESDAY 28 MARCH 2001

THE RT HON MICHAEL MEACHER, MP, AND MISS SOPHIA LAMBERT

Chairman


  131. Minister, we are grateful to you for coming to talk to us. We realise that you are obviously very busy but we all represent constituencies which are heavily affected. In my own constituency I do not have a single case of foot and mouth and yet the whole of the constituency is now an infected area so that means that in practice any normal agricultural activity cannot be pursued in it. In common with a large part of the rest of the affected areas there is this incredible sense of embattlement. I am sure you have discovered this is a real sense of being in battle. We welcome the measures which you announced last week. My first question is have you made any further decisions as to how wide you think the legitimate case for some form of relief should go? At one extreme one could argue there is the Horserace Betting Levy Board in respect of cancelled race meetings or the National Trust, which is in my constituency, and equally you have got the little bed and breakfast house, you have got the village shop, and the one in my constituency reported £6.50 in takings last week in one of the high tourist areas, or at the most extreme the man who actually runs the cafe« in the Skipton Auction Market where for obvious reasons there is no trade to be had and then within the agricultural community obviously the farmers whose animals are going over the 30 months, sheep which are going beyond the marketable days and a seriously looming welfare crisis in pigs particularly which we hope the welfare scheme will be able to alleviate. Have you had any further thoughts as to where the legitimate front is of how we ought to run it?

  (Mr Meacher) Obviously we are continuing to look at this. This is a moving situation. It is still worsening at the present time and we have to measure up the aid that we provide in accordance with the situation we find. The Government have always maintained—and this must be right—that the best way of assisting non farm businesses, which I am concerned with, is through restoring visitors and customers. I do not think anyone would challenge that and that is why the Prime Minister today was making his speech. That is why we issued the guidelines Friday a week ago. That is why we today, after the third meeting of the Rural Task Force, have issued guidance to local authorities about the methodology to implement the guidelines. We shall now be checking with all of those local authorities, we have started to do this all over the country, as to the policy that they are pursuing and how many footpaths, other areas, they are opening up. As I say, it is their decision, it is not being taken centrally. We are not able to do that, we would not seek to do that, but we need an explanation from each one as to why they are not opening up footpaths or whatever. I am sure there is a perfectly good explanation but we want to know what it is otherwise we do expect country, wherever it can be, to be opened up. Now that is the prime target, it is overwhelmingly the prime target. However, of course, we realise that in the short run there is going to be a need to give assistance to tide businesses over. We did that after the second meeting when I made the statement to the House in terms of particularly rate relief, deferment and rescheduling of VAT and taxes and thirdly, equally importantly, getting the banks on side—and I do not think they needed much pressure, to be fair to them, they said that they were proactively seeking out clients in order to assist them—in order to ensure that there is an extension of lines of credit. Now in addition to that, in addition to trying to ease statutory payments that have to be made, we have been looking at further forms of short term aid. The most obvious one is the Small Firms Loan Guarantee Fund, and we are looking to see how we can expand that as far as we can in order to give assistance. We are also looking at other measures. I cannot today say more about that, I am sure, Chairman, for reasons you will understand, until the Government makes the decision but I do hope that we will be able to make a further statement shortly.

  132. Would you accept that in encouraging people to resume visiting in a sense you are asking them to pursue a different sort of visit from the traditional visit to the countryside? In a sense you are not simply saying "Carry on where you left off", it is a sort of new culture of visit you are trying to encourage people to pursue. Are you surprised that some people are saying there is almost a sense of "Would it be right for us to do it" because of their concerns about the disease?
  (Mr Meacher) Well, you are quite right, we are not saying, of course, that you can go back to where you were six weeks ago. We are absolutely not saying that. We are saying until we are red or blue in the face, whichever it is, that you certainly, of course, should keep away from livestock, keep off farmland and obey the Keep Out signs. The Prime Minister again repeated it today in his speech. It is not the same. Of course many people do go to the countryside to walk across pasture, to walk across commons, to walk across grassland, and now that situation is fundamentally different in areas which are within range of infected areas. I repeat 50 to 70 per cent, I am not sure, I have not worked it out, of the country is not at this point infected. In those areas the judgment may well be made by local authorities, in conjunction with local veterinary advice, that it is safe to use some of those footpaths across commons etc but it is a matter for them. In the other part, the 30 per cent which is affected, yes, it is different from what was there before. Getting people to understand that distinction is not easy. We did institute an advertising campaign which I am sure everyone here saw in the national newspapers, both the broadsheets and the tabloids a week ago, trying to make the case for a different kind of safe visiting of the countryside. How far that has got across, how far we persuaded local authorities to take account of that and open up, is precisely what we are now checking on today and from now on.

  133. Under the aid schemes I wonder if I can draw your attention to a letter in The Times on 20 March from Lord Vinson who was the previous Chairman of the Rural Development Commission. That flows from also, if you recall, in the House I asked you a question about employers who could not keep people in jobs but did not want to make them redundant. Lord Vinson suggested in that letter that the Government could revive the entitlement of small employers to claim partial reimbursement from the state by way of redundancy rebate. This would enable them to be relieved on the cost of redundancy which can be quite severe for a long term employer and help the problem which I described, I think, of people who have got employment but no jobs to be able to be kept on the books or be temporarily laid off at less cost than it would otherwise be. Is that the sort of scheme that you might be thinking of, relevant to farming and non farming businesses?

  (Mr Meacher) That is a very interesting suggestion, if I may say. As you will remember, in my reply to your question I assumed you were talking about self-employed persons having entitlement to Jobseekers Allowance and I replied on that basis. I think correctly I did state what are the conditions. You have now raised a different point which we have not looked at and I think that is an interesting proposal. I think the idea of enabling employers to keep trained and skilled staff temporarily in order that they can return quickly to work as soon as may be is certainly something we should look at. It has always been a problem, of course, that the state cannot subsidise employers in terms of keeping employees who are not actively looking for work. It would simply give both employers and employees a free lunch for as long as may be.

  134. Of course.
  (Mr Meacher) Now that is not the intention. Can I say that we will seriously look at that. I was almost going to say you should be a member of the Task Force because I am always looking for good ideas and I think that might be one.

  Chairman: I think we may start looking at members of the Task Force a little later in the questions. A very brief intervention from Mr Öpik.

Mr Öpik

  135. Before we go into great detail, Minister, one of the things that has struck me is the danger of having a double-headed monster approach to the whole crisis where you have certain objectives and Nick Brown has slightly different objectives. How are we making sure that the danger of having slightly conflicting objectives is not going to cause friction in the system? The reason I ask that is because there is a perception in certainly parts that I represent that they are not really quite sure which way to look. Psychologically there could be the difficulty of conflicting bodies of information coming from those two groups. For example, is the countryside open for business, you might say yes and Nick Brown might say no because he is concerned about contamination.
  (Mr Meacher) I am very well aware of that conflict and, of course, we have been repeatedly accused of being confused about our objectives. I hope that is not true. Maybe it was at the outset, I certainly do not think it is true now. It is a subtle combination of objectives in which it is not true that we are saying "close down the countryside for fear of spreading the disease", that is a view which I think has taken root amongst local authorities and members of the public, as I say, for extremely honourable and worthy motives. I think they decided to keep away from the outside because they did not want to do anything themselves which might promote the spread of the disease. We now believe that is exaggerated, it is a grossly over-precautionary attitude. The veterinary officers of MAFF do not support that view as being necessary. Of course we have found also that it is exceedingly counter-productive because it has grossly undermined the takings, the earnings, of a vast range of tourism and other related ancillary retail businesses of one kind or another where the losses that have been repeated in the paper are several times greater than the losses to the farming community. We have, therefore, to reconcile the two and so far from being impossible I think they can be perfectly well reconciled. The first priority is not to do anything which will promote the spread of the disease. The Government's number one objective clearly is to contain and eradicate the disease. Nothing to interfere with that objective will be done by us. At the same time, compatibly with that, consistently with that, we can do a great deal more to try and protect rural businesses. It is to convey that message which, as I say, is certainly not contradictory, is not even contrary—there is so much of the countryside, a vast area of the countryside which you can perfectly well go to if you keep away from livestock, farmlands and obey the Keep Out signs—it is to convey that message which we are trying to do. I do not think it will be easy. Personally I think it is quite clear but getting clarity into the minds of ordinary Joe Public is not easy.

Mr Mitchell

  136. Can I just ask you a question I have been dying for ages to ask at these sessions. What about the workers? In your answer to the Chairman, which I did not quite follow, you were dealing with employers. Now it is obviously going to be difficult for employees in collecting Jobseekers Allowance, it is not that they are not in jobs, it is just that they are not doing it. They are not actively seeking work. What benefits are available to the workers in the situation?
  (Mr Meacher) If they are employees and they are made redundant they have, of course, the normal immediate entitlement to Jobseekers Allowance. The query has been that many small farmers or individual very small businessmen, self-employed, maybe with one or two people working with them, if they cannot continue are they entitled to benefit and the answer is yes, they can be entitled to Jobseekers Allowance provided they are actively seeking work. That has to be proven, you cannot receive Jobseekers Allowance and say "Well, I am just waiting until I can get my job back but do not expect me to look for another job" that is not an entitlement under Jobseekers Allowance. It may be the Chairman has very ingeniously been suggesting this idea of a redundancy rebate and, as I say, I think we should consider that.

  137. Are you saying they can collect redundancy because otherwise if the employer wants to keep them on they are akin to fishermen who I find have enormous difficulty in getting Jobseekers Allowance. They are fishermen but they are not fishing between trips or when the quota has gone against them. They find difficulty in collecting Jobseekers Allowance and there is sometimes a long delay if they do get it. Are you saying they have got to collect redundancy payments to answer the employer's problem?
  (Mr Meacher) No, I am saying that there are rules about entitlement to Jobseekers Allowance and those are strict. We did inherit a Jobseekers Allowance which is the successor to Unemployment Benefit—

  138. And we have not changed it.
  (Mr Meacher) No, we have not changed it.

  139. The employers want to keep them on and they want to keep the job they have not got, if you see what I mean, so they are not actively seeking work.
  (Mr Meacher) For that reason they cannot therefore get Jobseekers Allowance. It remains the case, as with the previous Government, and it remains the case with us. It is a pretty tough regime and in a time like this it is difficult to give relief compatible with those rules to many people who members of the public would undoubtedly regard as deserving. We are having to look, given the magnitude of the situation we face, at how we can best help these people. I repeat the best way remains—and one must always remember that—to get the customers back and then they can be taken on again. There is no substitute for that in alternative relief or alternative benefit.


 
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