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12 Jul 2001 : Column 990

The Countryside

4.15 pm

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): I beg to move,

This debate is probably the last chance that Parliament will have for more than three months to examine the crisis in the countryside. Many of the problems are in need of urgent attention and are likely to get worse by the time that the House returns in October unless action is taken in the meantime. In welcoming the Secretary of State to the Dispatch Box, let me say that I hope that she has recovered her voice and that she will set out the action that the Government propose to take to deal with the crisis.

I am sorry that the right hon. Lady's name does not appear among the principal six names attached to the Government amendment to the motion. It is a matter of concern—this is not merely a House of Commons point—that the Government appear to believe that it is more important for the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to appear among those who tabled the amendment, ahead of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

The extent of the problems in the countryside is well known. There was already a serious crisis before foot and mouth disease struck. Farm incomes have fallen every year since Labour came to power and they are now less than a third of the 1997 level. Jobs in agriculture are being destroyed at a rate of more than 400 a week, and the number has been falling at that rate for the past two years. Many sectors, such as dairy farming, are running at a loss. Last November's report by the Government's better regulation task force stated:

Foot and mouth has made that situation worse not only for farming, but for tourism, which has also been devastated. The number of overseas visitors to Britain is down. The Council for the Protection of Rural England has warned that 250,000 jobs in tourism are at risk. The British Hospitality Association has estimated that the domestic tourism market is in decline by £2 billion. What a pity that Ministers spent the spring claiming falsely that foot and mouth was under control, instead of concentrating on eradicating the disease, which would have been the right way to help the tourism industry.

To revert to the subject of agriculture, the Secretary of State must understand that many people in the countryside now believe that the Government do not care whether farming survives as a substantial British industry. Many fear that Labour would be happy for British consumers to eat nothing but imported food, even though the Government's own Food Standards Agency has admitted that it is sometimes hard to police the safety of such food. The Government's refusal to introduce honesty in food

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labelling and to apply the same standards to food imports as to home-produced food, as well as their reluctance to claim the help available to farmers from the European Union, encourage fears that they are not concerned about the future of farming. The action, as well as inaction, of Ministers in the past four years has made the crisis worse, not better.

My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) will later deal with agrimonetary compensation in more detail. I shall deal with the foot and mouth epidemic, and in particular with three aspects of it. First, there is a need for a proper recovery plan. If the enhanced farm business advisory service to which the amendment refers, and a bit more rate relief, are all that the Government are going to propose, their actions are ludicrously inadequate. If other measures are on the way, when they will be published? They are needed today.

When will the Government reach a decision on compensating some of those who have suffered irrecoverable losses because of foot and mouth disease? It is more than three months since I wrote to the former Minister of Agriculture at his request, setting out precisely the categories of loss in respect of which compensation should be provided. Those in need of compensation include farmers who have been unable to sell cattle before they reached the age of 30 months. Does the Secretary of State intend to answer my letter? Apart from compensation, what other steps will the Government take to ensure the survival of many rural businesses, including the remaining small abattoirs, for example?

Will the Government withdraw their unworkable proposal for a 20-day ban on livestock movements? I trust that the Secretary of State is aware of the truly devastating prospects in the near future, particularly for the sheep sector but for other sectors of the livestock industry as well. My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire will deal with those issues in greater detail later.

What strategy, apart from hope, do the Government have for eliminating foot and mouth disease entirely? Do they expect to eradicate it from the United Kingdom before the weather turns colder? What is the latest scientific assessment of the future trend of the disease? It is now more than two months since the Prime Minister claimed that the Government were on the home straight. When will the end of this very long straight heave into sight?

Many questions arise in the wake of the devastation following the epidemic, all of which point to the need for an inquiry. So far, the Secretary of State has refused to acknowledge that a full, independent public inquiry will be held. However, the Government's handling of the epidemic has so lost the trust of rural communities that confidence can now be restored only by such an inquiry.

I have already published the terms of reference that we propose for such an inquiry: it must examine the origins of the disease; it must make recommendations for a future prevention strategy; and, crucially, it must analyse the extent to which delays and mistakes by Ministers in the vital few weeks after the first case was discovered on 19 February caused the epidemic to spread much more widely than would have happened if Ministers had paid

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attention to the lessons of the 1967 epidemic, or acted on the advice that I gave in the House at each stage of the unfolding crisis.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is another category of investigation that needs to be included in that inquiry? That is an analysis of the degree to which incorrect evaluations were made of the presence of the disease, causing whole areas to be closed down for specious reasons. Does he agree that a proper objective analysis of the methods used to diagnose the presence of foot and mouth is a crucial element in the inquiry for which he rightly calls?

Mr. Yeo: The hon. Gentleman is right. The inquiry will have to be wide ranging. It will not have to be lengthy, because the science is relatively simple, compared, for example, to that involved with BSE. The inquiry should indeed deal with the aspect to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

The country needs to know just how many millions of animals could have been saved if the delays and mistakes by Ministers had not occurred. How many businesses might have been preserved? How much money might the taxpayer have saved? The Secretary of State should announce today the Government's commitment to holding an inquiry, even if she is unable to set a date for it to start. Any continued refusal to acknowledge the need for a full independent inquiry will suggest that Ministers are hoping to get away with a whitewash.

I shall now move on to other aspects of the crisis in the countryside. While the decline in agriculture is weakening the whole rural economy, services are also disappearing or being run down as a direct result of Government policy. Let us take the example of post offices. I recognise that village post offices have been closing for many years, but the closure rate has accelerated alarmingly in recent times. Up to 350 post offices a year closed during Labour's first term of office. That rate has increased to more than 500 in the past 12 months. According to figures supplied by the Countryside Alliance, 333 post offices have closed in the past six months alone. That is more than a dozen every week.

The viability of up to 8,000 post offices now depends on the business generated by the payment of social security benefits. However, the Government's decision to axe the previous Government's benefit payment card project has now jeopardised the future of every one of those post offices, and postmasters and postmistresses have made it clear that the Government's proposal for a universal bank is simply no substitute.

We welcome the business rate reductions announced in the last Parliament, but we believe that the threat to the remaining shops, pubs and post offices is so acute that further rate reductions are needed, and that another £1,000 a year off the business rate for vulnerable enterprises in rural areas should be funded by central Government. Equestrian businesses, too, should be exempted from business rates. The Labour party continues its obsession with its wish to ban hunting, but one in 12 of our riding schools closed down in 1999.

It is not only services that are in decline. Rural areas also suffer discrimination over funding. Shire counties lost an estimated £700 million in taxpayer support during

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the last Parliament because of changes to the local government funding formula made by the Labour Government. As the Labour group of rural MPs pointed out, country people

The council tax for band D taxpayers in the shire counties rose by an average of £234 a year over the past four years. Inner-London local authorities spend £1,326 per head of population, compared with only £787 per head in the shire counties.

Transport is another source of acute difficulty. Reliance on high fuel taxes as the main instrument of transport policy is uniquely damaging in rural areas, where there is no alternative to using cars for normal social, domestic and business life. As the AA has pointed out, three out of four rural journeys are made by car. As for the Government's much vaunted integrated transport policy, it simply ignores the countryside altogether. Ministers boast of £180 billion in transport spending over the next 10 years, but as the Countryside Alliance has pointed out, of every £1,000 of that spending, just 16p will go to the rural transport fund for expanding rural bus services. That is another reflection of the appallingly low priority that Labour attaches to helping the countryside in its time of need.

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