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10.50 pm

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) on initiating the debate. He may have had to wait some time to speak on this topic in the House, but I congratulate him on his timing—he has introduced the debate on the day on which we have received the news of foot and mouth disease-free status, which is a big boost for everyone in this country. Indeed, this is a day on which we can really concentrate on looking forwards rather than backwards. That is not only good for farming, for tourism and for all of us who want the countryside to get back to normal and make a contribution to the national economy: it is good in so far as it helps to restore a sense of confidence in the communities that have been devastated during the past year. My hon. Friend's timing is brilliant, and he has initiated a useful debate in a positive way and raised some important issues that challenge the Government and all those who wish to see the economy recover.

I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham), to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle referred. Both my hon. Friends have been assiduous in ensuring that the Government have not overlooked the needs not only of their constituencies but of the whole area in recent months.

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle in paying tribute to Lord Haskins, and I have the same view of the contribution that he has made. Lord Haskins has a capacity to challenge, to entertain and to apply common

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sense and experience in a practical way. It is fair to say that, on occasions, he challenged in a way that sparked vigorous debate, but it shows the character of the man that he did so without giving offence. He woke people up and made them respond to challenges, but, as my hon. Friend has said, it was clear from talking to people in Cumbria—I did so myself—after Lord Haskins had reported, that they had taken to heart the things that he said and did not feel hurt by or take offence at opinions that perhaps they did not share locally. That is a practical approach.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle said, the report applied primarily to those in Cumbria to whose request for someone to have such a role Lord Haskins's appointment was a response. However, Lord Haskins also looked for parallels with Devon, the north-east and the other parts of the country that had been affected.

The report was published on the same day in October as the report of the rural taskforce, which I have chaired since the election. That, too, made a significant contribution because there were so many stakeholders right across the piece—people involved in farming, local government and the tourism industry and people directly involved in Cumbria and Devon made a significant contribution to its work.

As my hon. Friend said, we made a formal response in December and at the same time considered the way in which the rural White Paper had been implemented in England in the previous 12 months. The document "England's Rural Future" demonstrates that an awful lot of work had been done even when everyone was focused on the job of eradicating foot and mouth disease. In many ways, the agenda of bringing the issue of the response to foot and mouth disease together with that of the implementation of the rural White Paper received support from a whole range of organisations. The document also demonstrates that the Government have sought to bring people together and unify them behind a sense of purpose in dealing with the countryside, which had been neglected for many years.

The response given in December built on the immediate response that was made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in announcing an additional £24 million for the business recovery fund. That figure has gone up a bit in the meantime as we have announced a further £2 million in match funding for the voluntary sector scheme that has assisted with the stress and media problems that many people have experienced.

My hon. Friend made a specific suggestion about the landfill tax. He is right to suggest that we consider how the streams of funding that are available can contribute to the restoration of the local economy. I am not able to comment on his specific suggestion, but I will consider it and write to him. Specific requirements are involved in using such streams of funding, but the question is whether the funding available for a variety of purposes can be targeted at the place where it is most needed. None the less, my hon. Friend is right given our priorities at present.

My hon. Friend also referred to the importance of reform of the common agricultural policy. People increasingly recognise that that is necessary, and it would be good for everyone if reform happened sooner rather than later.

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I pay tribute to the way in which people in Cumbria have united to look to the future. The members of the taskforce whom I met last week were joined by representatives of the regional development agency. That is an important partnership because we channelled resources to help the recovery of the economy through the RDAs. The members of the taskforce also brought with them representatives of the taskforces led by Cheshire and Lancashire county councils, and that demonstrates that people in Cumbria are looking out from their concerns to the wider needs of the region. It is easier to be sympathetic to people's arguments when one sees them working together with other organisations in that way.

My hon. Friend rightly said that I have expressed our support for the rural action zone. I can respond positively to his point on that, because it would be wrong to skew finances away from the social needs of the deprived areas and more needy urban areas to which he referred. It is more a question of using the resources that are available and directing them to where they are needed. We can also help to build strength by uniting different strands of finance and by local authorities, RDAs and central Government working together.

Often, money is available for a whole range of purposes—such as through the England rural development programme and the RDAs—but it is not used to best effect unless people have access to those funds. Very often the people who most need help—both farmers and non-farmers—are in the weakest position when it comes to identifying the right strand of finance to help their business.

On access, the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) asked a question about P & 0. I am not familiar with the circumstances, and I do not wish to take time from addressing the problems of Cumbria. However, if he wishes to draw the facts to my attention, I will be pleased to consider the matter and respond as appropriate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle rightly said that 10 per cent. of footpaths are closed. Like any quantification, the figure can be looked at either as 10 per cent. closed or as 90 per cent. open. Progress is being made on that. Although 10 per cent.—some 755 footpaths—of the network remains closed, arrangements are in place to open 438 of those over the next two weeks. By 1 February, only 317 footpaths should be still closed, which is 4 per cent. of the total network. So 96 per cent. of the network should be open by then.

There is a difficult issue to address. Remaining footpaths will be reopened as restrictions are lifted, but if farmers choose not to use sentinel animals prior to restocking at the end of January, the last footpaths should be reopened after the requisite fallow period of four months, which is towards the end of May. In the meantime, if it is possible to identify that a farm is significantly blocking the network—obviously, some footpaths are more important than others—we need to consider ways of diverting footpaths, on a voluntary basis, in the short term.

Although that has to be achieved by agreement, the problem was raised when I met the taskforce last week. I suggested that Cumbria should consider the details on that with officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, concentrating in particular on footpaths that have a significance for wider access or if they block access to a specific part of the network.

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Although that is detailed, there was a positive response in the discussion and my Department will try to help if it can.

In conjunction with all those who are concerned about access to the countryside—this is not a top-down approach by the Government—we are also developing a campaign with the message, "It's your countryside; you're welcome in it," to reconnect in particular with urban dwellers. We want people to have opportunities to enjoy the benefits of the countryside by staying in it. That also contributes to the economy, which is significant not just for the lake district but for the towns around it, because there is an interdependence of town and country. We need to emphasise that and relearn it.

I am pleased at the positive response from those people who have agreed to be partners in that campaign. We have worked closely with my hon. Friend the Minister

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for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting. The Countryside Agency has joined DEFRA in providing resources and has seconded a senior member of staff who is involved in helping to co-ordinate and press that campaign forward. In the course of the next week or so, we will promote that campaign. The Government are not acting on their own; we are supporting and working with those who want to make our tourism industry a success by making the most of access to the countryside. That gives confidence back to rural communities and businesses, whether they be farmers, involved in tourism or, in some case, both—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

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