Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 140-159)



Mr Todd

  140. We would all second that. Surely you must recognise that, say, in the case of what certainly happened in my constituency, an abattoir which has been shut down because of restrictions, the workers are sent home, they receive no money but they are not actually being made redundant, the approach that you are taking means that they survive on no income?

  (Mr Meacher) If they are sent home because the abattoir is no longer operating, the fact is they have been laid off in an informal sense, if not actually formally. If the employer is not employing them, either the employer is paying them to do work or the employer is not paying them to do work, in which case, whatever words you use, they are laid off, redundant, unemployed.

  141. The employer takes no direct action of that kind and does not issue them with any notice. They presumably can claim that they have been constructively dismissed?
  (Mr Meacher) Yes.

  142. That is, as I am sure you are aware, not a straightforward process and nor is it particularly desirable if the actual goal is to go and work for that company again in a few weeks' time.
  (Mr Meacher) Yes, I accept that, but I think the employer does not want to put them in a position where he cannot pay them for work that is not done and he prevents them getting benefit which they might otherwise be entitled to, I am sure he would not wish to do that.

  143. The correct process should be for him to make his staff redundant but, in a behind the scenes deal, in fact he will then hire them once again but, while they may indeed claim JSA, they will not seriously look for work. It sounds like a sort of recipe of small scale deceit that the Government is encouraging.
  (Mr Meacher) Well, no Minister is going to actually support—

  144. No, I am sure you are not.
  (Mr Meacher) —what you call a deceit on DSS. Clearly if you seek JSA then you are expected genuinely to be looking for work and, indeed, as I understand the rules, you will be checked on to see if you really are seeking work. I accept there is a real problem here in the particular situation we find ourselves where hopefully people are going to be able to be taken on again in a relatively short period and there is this lacuna, this gap, which has somehow to be met. Now, as I say, the rules about JSA are quite clear. If we could find some way of giving assistance, possibly through the idea of a redundancy rebate, which I have not raised with colleagues, and it is not my area, if we could find a way consistent with current legislation I think we would be very pleased to do so.

Mr Jack

  145. The impact, Minister, on the whole of the rural economy is now becoming apparent. The complexities are expanding every day. In terms of the Parliamentary answer given announcing your Task Force it says the objective is "to consider the implications of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease on the rural economy both immediately and in the long term and report to the Prime Minister on appropriate measures". How often do you report to the Prime Minister and by what method?
  (Mr Meacher) I have seen the Prime Minister most days in the last ten days since I was appointed. I saw him again this morning; I saw him, I cannot remember, two or three times last week but, of course, I communicate also with him by writing a minute, producing a report. I promised him a report for tomorrow evening and this will continue, I am sure, for some time.

  146. So we can understand the way the Task Force is operating, if we go to the particular areas that you have to look at, we have you "identifying problems, drawing up guidance, identifying initiatives and identifying potential new actions". Is your role solely to be the gatherer in of problems, ideas and possible solutions and then to parcel them all up to the Prime Minister who then decides whether that is a good idea or not and presses the button on the decision making machine? Tell us how it works.
  (Mr Meacher) It is something like that except we do the gathering up and the assessment and our recommendations as to what might be appropriate, either in terms of access to the countryside, ensuring that local authorities, National Trust, Forestry Commission, British Waterways, Historic Houses Association, all of these people open up their properties or facilities, that is one prime aim. A second is to look at issues of short term relief. For that, Mr Jack will be very well aware of this from his previous role as Treasury Minister, we negotiate closely with Treasury about these matters. We come forward with proposals and we present them to the Prime Minister. We do not have power, we do not have authority to decide. What we do have, exactly as you have said, is the Commission to bring together the two wings of this which have been referred to already, the farming wing, that is particularly NFU/CLA, and, on the other side, the tourist industry and all the local authorities and other stakeholder interests to get an agreed package so that I can say to the Prime Minister "We have discussed this. Our belief is that the way forward is with these three proposals". We would recommend them but, of course, it is his final sanction.

  147. There is a worry because if one looks at your statement in the House at what you have so far announced, we saw help with rural rate relief, tax and VAT, chats with the Small Business Service and banks and some mention of the Jobseekers Allowance, there are many out there whose businesses are in a state of collapse, potentially going out of business who will be saying "Hang on a minute, when is something going to happen for us?" Hearing what you have said about all this information going into the already very crowded pipeline of information going to the Prime Minister, will we not wonder, given his undoubted attention to running the practical slaughter and disposal side of foot and mouth, whether he will also have enough decision making time to act, to process, to pass on to other Government Departments the fruits of your labour? Do you feel that you are sort of, I would not say also rans but somewhat behind the game in terms of getting noticed?
  (Mr Meacher) No, I do not think that is a problem. The Prime Minister, as I am sure everyone realises, is focusing very strongly indeed on this issue. He is seeing a very wide range of relevant interests, the Rural Task Force is certainly one of those, we are a major player in that but he is, of course, consulting others as well. He is giving a great deal of his time to sorting through, as matters are raised, queries by other Departments, questions about stakeholders, acceptance of it, testing public opinion, checking the media response, all of these things are going on all the time. Because, of course, of the gravity of this, as I say, the Prime Minister is unusually concentrating, I will not say exclusively, because that is never possible for prime ministers, but very strongly on it. It is a natural organic process. It is not one where there are a limited number of channels of access and he then has to choose between them.

  148. You have alluded to the fact that there may be more announcements in the future about the work of this Task Force. Who is going to pull together the content of what may be the next announcement and who will be responsible for pressing the button to make that policy, whatever it may be, actually happen?
  (Mr Meacher) It will be the Rural Task Force. If we are talking about short term relief, we do have a prime responsibility, that is clear from the Prime Minister's commission. As I say, we continued to have a further discussion of that this morning. There are a number of ideas which, as a result of that meeting, we are now examining closely. As I did say, I hope it will come forward with some further proposals. The Prime Minister himself said today about relief of rates, deferment of VAT. That is certainly helpful if you do not have to pay your statutory payments on the dot, you get either a rates holiday, which we believe a very large number of small businesses may get, or some assistance with deferment of VAT without penalty if it is justified. Nevertheless, that only takes you so far and if you are simply getting no customers and your earnings are going down from 30 per cent, 50 per cent, 70 per cent down, we do realise that further measures may be necessary and that is exactly what we are concentrating on at the present time.

  149. Let me ask you a question. I notice the Treasury are listed as members, and I think you alluded to it, in their role as the holder of the public purse but your statement to the House mentioned the tax and VAT. Given that there are matters of practicality, why are there not individual representatives of the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise, because as you know they guard their separation jealously from the work straightforwardly of the Treasury? Why are they not on this Task Force?
  (Mr Meacher) As you know the Chief Secretary is, together with Treasury officials. He speaks on behalf not only of HMT but also, in terms of his regular contact and through his colleague, he speaks on behalf of Customs and Excise. If we had individual representatives from every group that has an interest in this, I think we are already 20 to 25 membership, we could easily go to 50.

  150. If you had said to me "We are going to set up some specialist sub-committees to feed in" that might have responded to a point that I noticed that you are up to 23, not an easy body to chair and make decisions. What actually is being done within the Treasury? For example, it talks of tax holidays, a bit irrelevant if you are not making much profit to be taxed on in the first place. Some people may be looking for rebates, a whole variety of areas. There is no representative of the Department of Social Security on here and yet in your statement to the House you talked about "We can help through the benefits system, Jobseekers Allowance may be available to employees". For example, there are difficult issues over actively seeking work. No DSS, why not them?
  (Mr Meacher) They are there. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Social Security did attend the second meeting. It is true she was not there this morning but they are members.

  151. It does not say so on the list that has been printed in the parliamentary answer announcing who the membership is. Obviously you may have augmented that.
  (Mr Meacher) I am surprised. If we are talking about the second meeting, she was certainly there. I think it was the second, it may have been the first.
  (Miss Lambert) It was the second one. Basically, Ministers from other Departments come in as necessary depending on what is being discussed.

  152. How do you work with reference to the devolved government in the United Kingdom? What is the relationship there?
  (Mr Meacher) They are all members of the Task Force. They send representatives. In the case of Wales they send a member of the National Assembly of Wales. In the case of Scotland and Northern Ireland they send officials. They have all been active. Of course this is a devolved area. To that extent the implementation of whatever may be decided is a matter for them. I am extremely keen, of course, that we co-ordinate. We listen, of course, to what they tell us they are doing, which in some cases is slightly different from what we are proposing in England. Of course they comment about proposals. They are certainly full members. I encourage strong participation and that is what we get. I would like to have a co-ordinated response across the whole of the UK.

Mr Borrow

  153. I just want to touch on the mechanism by which the Task Force gets in accurate information as to what is happening to businesses. I am quite sure we will hear anecdotal evidence that this business is about to close tomorrow unless something is done. I recognise however quickly the Task Force works there are always going to be businesses that cannot be saved because of the timescale. What I am concerned about is whether or not the Task Force itself has got an accurate picture of what is actually happening to rural businesses in order to make sure that it can respond within a reasonable timescale rather than assuming it has got a few more weeks before it needs to put mechanisms in place. It may be it has a few more weeks but we do not really know the severity of the immediate problem for businesses in terms of whether they will go out of business or be able to stay in business for a few weeks. How confident are you that you have got the information and what mechanisms are in place to give the Task Force that information?
  (Mr Meacher) First of all, we all appreciate the severity of the situation and that time is of the essence and that action needs to be taken very quickly because many businesses certainly within a short time will be on the brink, I think we realise that. Now we get information from all sources that we can, obviously. The Small Business Service and DTI are a major source of that information, so are the Government Offices in the region that deal with industrial economic matters, of course, as well as others and, of course, perhaps above all, from the Regional Development Agencies, particularly those in the North West and the South West who are the prime epicentres of this outbreak and who have been constantly feeding us information about the state of business in the area. Ministers do also try, to be fair, to get some taste for this on the ground. I went down to Devon a week ago, I am going to Cumbria on Friday. Nick Brown went to both Cumbria and Devon I think the day before yesterday. I have also been into the Heart of England Tourist Board region, East and West Midlands, and again met half a dozen different kinds of businesses. I shall continue to do that for as long as this situation lasts. We are gathering information. We are trying to make it as systematic as possible. I have here in the briefing something like 15 pages of detailed information that has been collected. I am sure if the Committee want to look at it we could make it available. It is being updated, improved, extended all the time. I think we are aware of the situation. It is what is the appropriate response which is going to save as many of these companies as possible, that is really what we are concentrating on.

Dr Turner

  154. Following on from that point, Michael, have you had any feedback yet as to whether you have been successful in changing the public's response in the guidance you issued at the weekend and, if not, are you taking measures to check it?
  (Mr Meacher) This is the guidance which I have here. It will be published and I can obviously leave a copy with you. I am aware this was the copy I went into the Regional Task Force with and in certain small ways it has been changed so I think I had better give you the final version. We did exactly what Mr Jack was referring to. We set up a small committee which did represent the farmers' interest and the tourist interest just to check two or three small items about which there was still disagreement. We have now got agreement. We have the guidelines which we issued ten days ago. The advertising campaign followed from it, and they tried to put it in a slightly snappier version than guidelines ever are. Now we have issued guidance to local authorities and, as I say, we are going to follow this up immediately. We have started phoning around or getting Regional Directors of the Government Offices to ring round local authorities in their area to get accurate data on what is still closed, what has been opened up, what is proposed to be opened up and if it is not proposed to be opened up I want an explanation. As I say, there may be perfectly good explanations but I want assurances so that I am satisfied that everything that can safely be opened up has been opened up. That is the next pressure this week.

  155. I can certainly tell you, Michael, that I have had telephone calls and I am in Norfolk and we have been lucky so far, no outbreak of foot and mouth and hopefully we are going to avoid it. The response I have had from the public is them calling up and asking why are we finding all these Keep Out signs, Keep Away. Is there a difference, in fact, in the guidance for different parts of the country? Should people get different rules applying in Norfolk than in Cumbria?
  (Mr Meacher) Of course. Indeed, I am very pleased to hear that people in Norfolk are saying "Why are these footpaths closed because this is Norfolk and the nearest outbreak is hundreds of miles away, or I do not know, a very considerable distance?" I think that is exactly the question they should be asking.

  156. If I can explain what the worry is. Their worry is that somebody from Cumbria is the person who is on the path and the concern and fear is that somebody on holiday is going to bring this disease into Norfolk. That is the actual worry, whether it is well founded or not. I would be grateful if you could on the record actually say what the advice is on the risk of that because I would have thought the public need to know what the scientific basis is.
  (Mr Meacher) I agree. As you rightly said, they need the scientific advice, people do not rely on Government Ministers, and I am sure they are right to do so, they go to the experts. The experts are the local veterinary officers under the instructions and guidance of the Chief Veterinary Officer, Jim Scudamore. Now, it is for them to advise the county council, in your case Norfolk, about what can be safely opened. I am quite sure in Norfolk a high proportion of footpaths can be opened. The question will be asked "What if someone comes from Cumbria and brings the disease?" It is not for me to say but I am sure the veterinary officer will say the chances of that happening are negligible provided that the person has not had contact with livestock or has worked or visited a farm which is infected. Those are the key issues. People do believe that human beings can very easily carry the disease, in fact I think the veterinary advice is that unless people have been in touch recently with livestock or worked on a farm recently that is extremely unlikely. It is taking that veterinary advice which is the key point. As I say, I think official guidance and ministerial pronouncements are not right in saying, "Well, I perfectly well recognise that, but let's use the veterinary advice which has been incorporated in this guidance", because, of course, it has been drawn up by DETR and MAFF, and in the case of MAFF they have submitted it to their veterinary officers and they have agreed what it says here.

  157. What is happening on Crown land? I am being distinctive, in that I have Sandringham in my patch, and among some of those people telephoning me this morning are people asking about the Sandringham estate. Have we issued advice on Crown land and given clear guidance there? Will we be informing those who need to know in places like Sandringham?
  (Mr Meacher) Yes, the advice applies to estates, to national parks or to the open countryside terrain. Again, it does depend on local veterinary advice, applying locally what the agreed criteria are nationally.

  158. Can I tell the farming community in Norfolk that the protection of the agricultural industry and of the livestock is in fact being put number one and number two in encouraging movement into the countryside?
  (Mr Meacher) And number three.

  159. Could I ask on a slightly different tack what guidance under, I think it is, part B of your terms of reference you have actually issued to businesses? You have issued guidance to members of the public and now to local authorities. Have you issued any guidance to businesses?
  (Mr Meacher) Guidance in respect of what?

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