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A noble Lord: My Lords, there is total confusion.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, "total confusion" may be fed by irresponsible comment both in the media and in political circles.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord will give way. I understand what he is saying but I assure him that there is confusion. The Government should understand that. We are in London, although we go home to various parts of the country, and there is confusion.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, we have a difficult and complex situation because circumstances differ in different parts of the country. It is important that people realise what the situation is in the parts of the country that they visit. Government advice has been geared and is being geared to providing that information, for example, through the Countryside Agency, the tourist boards and so forth.

Counties in areas that have not been affected, as well as those that have been affected, have taken measures to close all rights of way, and other bodies, such as

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English Heritage and the National Trust, have closed properties even when there has been no evidence of a potential problem for a particular property. Those bodies have said, as we have said, that a more selective approach to the matter needs to be taken and that we should look at those areas where it is possible to open properties, paths, tow paths, canals and so on where there is no danger of the disease being spread. That approach will reassure people in the locality that we are not closing down the countryside; it will reassure people who want to visit the locality that they can enjoy certain activities in the countryside; and it will reassure people that prosperity can be spread to those areas of the countryside that are being damaged more than they need to be on any continuing basis.

It was right that such bodies were exceptionally cautious to start with, but we can now take an approach that will allow those businesses that can operate to operate. We can send a message to the public that many of the attractions of the countryside--stately homes, the seaside, restaurants, hotels and in many cases gatherings--can take place without danger of spreading the disease.

That situation will be different in different parts of the country. As the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said, there is a particular problem in relation to Devon, Cumbria, Powys and some other areas where clearly the measures that we have announced today would need to be applied more intensively. We have now given the local authorities the ability to do that.

The idea that different messages are coming from government is not correct. This Statement and all other Statements have been agreed between my department, MAFF and the DCMS. The English Tourist Council is likewise putting the same message on its information systems. However, it is clear that we must, as a top priority, contain and eradicate this disease, but at the same time we must not, by default, close down the rest of rural industry and services.

Therefore, this is not a blanket approach, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said; in fact, it is a selective approach that focuses the attention of the eradication process and of the restrictions on movement in those areas most directly affected or in adjacent areas. It is important that we assure tourists, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said, that there are opportunities available to them. In the short term we must look at the package that we have produced today, in terms of immediate measures to relieve the pressures, particularly on small businesses in rural areas, because those are closest to the margin and are therefore those with the most acute cash-flow difficulties; but we must also look at the long-term effects as to where the more substantial, wider measures may be necessary to deal particularly with the worst affected areas.

In relation to Exmoor, for example, the local highways authorities have the ability to close roads, and no doubt the Exmoor National Park, in conjunction with Devon and Somerset councils, could close roads. I understand that not many local authorities have used those powers and primarily they

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have not done so on their own veterinary advice. Nevertheless, the powers are in place and if the danger is perceived as particularly acute there is no reason why such restrictions or closures of roads could not take place.

I endorse the final point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, in relation to the appeal to supermarkets and other food distributors to "buy British" in this period and to try to sustain some of the produce from our agricultural and horticultural sectors.

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, referred to the Environment Agency. It is certainly true that there has been frustration about the way in which that agency's procedures have operated. The Environment Agency is well seized of that. However, it is important to recognise that the agency has a big responsibility. Burying the carcasses can often be seen as the quickest way of disposal, but the Environment Agency must assess the long-term pollution effect of that. It is taking steps to speed up the way in which it does that and to be as flexible as it can with farmers and others in trying to dispose of livestock in that way where it is appropriate. However, it has wider and longer term responsibilities in that respect.

In relation to all government agencies--to social security and the tax authorities--we are attempting to speed up the bureaucratic processes in order ensure that the aid referred to in the Statement and previously is delivered as rapidly as possible to those who most need it. We have gained the co-operation of the banks as regards private finance.

Many of the decisions as regards particular rights of way, restrictions or movements will be made locally. Those local decisions must be based on veterinary advice. It is important that the advice given to local authorities, to farming enterprises and to MAFF co-ordinates the information and it is important that people recognise that the situation will be different in different parts of the country. The point of the package is to minimise the devastating impact on farming in many of the areas and also to ensure that the rest of the rural economy, which employs many more people than farming, does not suffer unduly from the knock-on effects of the disease.

The announcement of itself does not deal with the measures directly to eradicate the disease, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. However, we have intensified those measures, particularly in the worst affected areas, and there is a clear determination to use all facilities, including the use of troops and private-sector resources, in order to eradicate and contain the disease. That remains our top priority, but it is also necessary to look after the rest of the rural economy and to take into account the serious impact the disease is having, particularly on the tourist trade.

Lord Rotherwick: My Lords, the Minister said that the primary objective of the rural task force is to eliminate foot and mouth disease. He also said that the Government would soon inform the general public of

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the areas of the countryside to which they could return safely. However, that would exclude livestock and pastures. I am anxious that that advice should include areas frequented by wild deer, as mentioned by the noble Baronesses, Lady Miller and Lady Byford.

In the outbreak in Bicester in Oxfordshire the M40 is guarded on both sides by deer fencing. Fifteen miles away, where I live, it is normal to shoot about 200 wild deer in a year. It can therefore be seen that a considerable number of wild deer in certain parts of the country are vulnerable to foot and mouth.

Will the Government ensure that the general public are made aware of the problems relating to wild deer? Will the Minister ensure that the areas which the general public are allowed to use will not include footpaths next door to arable fields and woodlands which are frequented by muntjac? Will he also ensure that the general public are aware of the muntjac, which frequent people's gardens?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I believe that I can reassure the noble Lord on that count. The first line of the information on what one should not do reads:

    "Do not go near cattle, sheep, pigs or deer wherever they are".

That includes wild deer and deer which are corralled. Therefore the information is clear.

6.45 p.m.

Viscount Bledisloe: My Lords, I declare an interest in that I farm a livestock farm not far from some outbreaks of foot and mouth disease and I have a tourist attraction which would, but for the present situation, be about to open. I want to ask the Minister two specific questions.

First, will he ensure that no footpath which is currently closed is reopened without close consultation with those who farm the land over which those footpaths run? I am sure he recognises that a farmer who realises that his livestock is at risk of total slaughter will be absolutely infuriated if he feels he is exposed to the slightest additional risk by the reopening of a footpath merely to allow people to wander and derive a little pleasure. It may imperil his entire enterprise and it is a recipe for confrontation. Any sensible farmer, including myself, who felt that there was a risk would keep the footpath closed, whatever the local authority said.

Secondly, the Minister said that tourist boards will have funding enabling them to make plain to the public which tourist attractions are open. Will he confirm that that funding will extend to making plain which tourist attractions are not open? There is a considerable problem as regards those who have spent money advertising their attractions and who are now faced with the difficulty of informing people they will not be open. They have wasted their money on advertising, so can the Minister assure them that the tourist boards will assist them in informing people that the attraction is not open?

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