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Mr. George Osborne: I apologise to Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions officials if I strayed over the line in attacking them. I know from my time at MAFF that they are extremely hard working and that they have dealt with one crisis after another. Indeed, they are badly put upon by politicians and the wider community alike. They do not deserve that.
Mr. Bacon: This evening, I received an e-mail from a solicitor who dealt with many foot and mouth outbreaks and the battle between the Ministry and farmers that resulted from them. She says that there are indeed some Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs officials who emerge with great credit, and they had to work hard in trying circumstances. However, she added, "But not many."
Alun Michael: I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We have made the cross-party point about the dedication of officials. Many are developing their talents within the new ethos of DEFRA, and I hope that that continues to be the case.
The hon. Member for Tatton rightly commented on the fact that foot and mouth disease has devastated rural communities everywhere. There was particular pressure on areas with a large number of cases, such as Cumbria, Devon, North Yorkshire and so on, but the damage to farming communities and the rural economy applies everywhere. The example of Tatton is replicated in many constituencies across the country.
For that reason, there will be a warm welcome in Tatton and elsewhere for the news that the designation of the last remaining foot and mouth infected area in England will be lifted at midnight. That landmark move follows extensive blood testing of sheep and clinical examination of cattle in the Brough and Kirkby Stephen area of Cumbria. It marks the end of a massive blood testing programme in the 3 km protection zones.
The successful completion of serological testing in the remaining 3 km protection zones over the past few weeks led to the release of over 17,000 farms from infected area status. There are still restrictions and care needs to be taken, but that is good news, not just for Cumbria, but right across the country. I take care in making those comments, because we need to be sure that everything is done with care right to the end. We must ensure that foot
The impact of foot and mouth disease has been devastating in the way that I described, but that must be put in context. In October, unemployment in Tatton was 1.5 per cent., which is down 7.9 per cent. since October 2000. In Macclesfield, the figure in October was 1.3 per cent., which is down 12.5 per cent. since October 2000. Unemployment in England generally is more than double those levels.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton: The Minister's figures are accurate, and reflect the ebullience of the area that my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) and I represent. Does the Minister accept, however, that many who work in the countryside are self-employed, and that their problems are therefore unlikely to be reflected in unemployment statistics?
Alun Michael: I certainly would not suggest that unemployment statistics show the whole picture, and I did not do so in this instance. I was trying to put in context the difficulties experienced in the rural economy. I feel that we should take account of the figures, and recognise that unemployment levels are lowwhich, I think, is testimony not just to the efforts of the constituents of the hon. Member for Tatton, but to the successes of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Government. Perhaps it was too much to expect the hon. Member for Macclesfield to join me in paying that tribute. We can achieve a certain amount of unity across the Floor of the House, but at some point it becomes unrealistic to hope for consensus.
The hon. Member for Tatton mentioned payment delays. Let me put the record straight. There were delays, particularly in April and May, owing to the sheer number of payments that had to be made. There was an enormous burden of work, but the resulting backlog was eliminated in May. The target for payments is three weeks, and is now mostly being met. All but about £170,000 of the estimated £1.2 billion has now been paid. It should also be mentioned that farmers are allowed 14 days in which to decide whether they want to appeal against valuation of slaughtered animals: that in itself affects the time it takes to deal with payments.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the 21-day rule. The rule was introduced to combat foot and mouth disease, and will certainly apply until the disease is eradicated; what will happen after that is still being discussed. It is a powerful disease-control tool in the process of slowing the spread of the disease, but we are happy to examine counter-arguments carefully, especially as we reach a point at which we can progressively lift some of the restrictions.
When considering the way in which rural communities have responded to foot and mouth, we should bear in mind the unity of purpose that has emerged. That often happens during emergencies, or when there is particular pressure. I chaired the rural taskforce that examined the impact of the disease across the communityespecially the economic impact and the impact on non-farming business, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. I thought
Farmers have acknowledged the importance of tourism to the rural economy. The hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned the impact on tourism in his constituency. I am not sure that, a year ago, we would have heard so much about the interdependence of different elements of the rural economy; certainly I did not hear such comments then, but they should be encouraged. The Department seeks to work with colleagues across GovernmentI have been working particularly with the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in his capacity as tourism Ministerto find ways of helping the recovery of tourism in rural communities.
There is a fine line to be drawn. We want to be confident that the disease has been eradicated and that we can plan for the future, but meanwhile we should send clear messages about the attractions of, for instance, working farms. We want people to feel that they can return to the countryside, and by enjoying themselves there, give financial support to those attractions. I hope that we judge that moment right and that we shall have the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House in seeking to send that positive message. Both farming and non-farming businesses need recovery and to get back to business as normal more than anything else. I hope that the House can unite on that point.
The hon. Member for Tatton also mentioned the creation of DEFRA. The change has created a strong major Department whose central pillar of responsibility is to promote the interests of rural communities in Tatton and elsewhere. That was not the situation before. The Department also links responsibility for environment and conservation with responsibility for farming and food, which is to the benefit of all rural communities. I also pay tribute, in the case of Tatton, to the North West Regional Development Agency for the way in which it has switched priorities and supported initiatives to help rural communities. I shall return to some of those points in more detail if time allows.
The hon. Gentleman, however, also referred to what he described as draconian new legislative measures. Those measures have recently been debated in this place and I shall not seek to go over old ground. I simply say that the measures are not draconian but practical. If we are so unfortunate as to have a fresh outbreak we need to be able to nip it in the bud. Let us hope that there is not a fresh outbreak. However, if there were one, I am sure that Opposition Members, including those who spoke in this debate, would be the first to castigate a Government who had failed to ensure that the necessary powers are available.
There were culling delays in some places, and the hon. Gentleman rightly referred to the need for speed when culling is necessary. However, delays were caused in Brecon and elsewhere when culling was challenged, thereby extending the time in which the outbreak continued to spread. I simply ask Opposition Members
The hon. Gentleman also pondered whether foot and mouth disease could have been spread by the pyres which, as he said, proved to be such a dramatic symbol of the disease's impact in the early stages of the outbreak. A risk assessment was made of whether foot and mouth disease could be spread by pyres, and veterinary risk assessments of course look very carefully at the veterinary evidence, but that assessment concluded that the risk of transmission by that means was very small indeed. There has been no evidence whatsoever that transmission, or any individual case, was caused by it. I therefore hope that we can put that issue to one side, although I am sure that the inquiries examining the science and the procedures that were followed may well wish to look at the evidence and will reach their own conclusions.
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman mentioned tourism. He also mentioned a working farm that had diversified and established a thriving tourism business. I have visited many such locations which were, as he said, devastated by foot and mouth disease. Their situation is one of the reasons why, in the business recovery fund, we have provided for help for marketing among the other forms of help available to businesses that have been affected by foot and mouth disease.
We have also taken very seriously the issue of food import controls. However, we need to examine the evidence carefully as there has sometimes been an inclination to generalise on that topic. Nevertheless, I assure the hon. Gentleman that not only DEFRA but the Government generally are taking a strong interest in ensuring that those controls are as strong as they should be.
The third of the four main points that the hon. Gentleman madealthough, as my reply indicates, he managed to touch on an enormous number of other points tooconcerned Macclesfield borough council. The hon. Member for Macclesfield also sought to make that point.
It is necessary to point out that rate relief is available to all businesses suffering hardship because of the outbreak of FMD, other than farms that are already fully exempt from rates. That includes rateable businesses in Macclesfield. Central Government funds at least 75 per cent. of the cost in all cases, so it would be wrong to suggest sweepingly that the Government have not done anything to help.
The hon. Gentleman is also aware of the debate that took place on the special grant report. Clearly, authorities that are not predominantly rural will have a wider spread of economic activity and so a lower proportion of businesses would be affected by FMD. The pressure on those authorities would be less, so those authorities should have proportionately fewer cases of hardship relief and should not face the same high costs as other authorities.
We agreed to consider the case for extending the scheme. Much additional information was provided, by the Local Government Association in particular, which went to the trouble of finding out the experiences of the member local authorities to assist with the review. That led to the second special grant report approved on 17 July which extended the scheme to all 151 rural authorities and provided additional help in 37 of those areas worst
The 151 authorities covered were all wholly or mainly rural areas in England, according to the standard definitions used more widely by the Countryside Agency. Of course, definitions can always be argued over, but much help was provided to Macclesfield, as to other authorities, by the Government. I repeat the point that the borough council did not respond to the LGA's request for information on the number and extent of applications for hardship rate relief related to FMD, even though it was made clear that the Government were willing to consider the case on the basis of that information.