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Ms Atherton: I was present when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister visited the diversified restaurant to which the hon. Gentleman refers. Farmers from a range of industries were also present; one was a cheese maker who had received £500,000 of Government support to enable him to create his Cornish cheese company. The hon. Gentleman is slightly off target.
Mr. Evans: I am never knowingly off target; the crisis in farming means that diversification is a problem. Those who want to diversify should be given every encouragement, but we must remember that many farmers want to get on with farming. There are posters throughout the countryside that say, "Keep Britain farming." That is exactly what we should be about, but what can we do to help farmers to keep on farming? By all means, we should support those who want to diversify and who have good ideas about that, but we must also recognise that if all farms turned into restaurants, it would do them no good
Mr. Gray: The Prime Minister is no great expert in these matters. Does my hon. Friend remember the remarks that the right hon. Gentleman made about foot and mouth about a month ago in Prime Minister's Question Time? He said that one thing that he would do to help farming would be to remove business rates from farms. Of course, he did not realise that farms do not pay business rates in the first place.
Mr. Evans: I am not surprised by that statement. It is now well accepted that the Government do not understand the countryside or care much about it. The sooner the general election, the better, because we can then have a Government who know about business and the countryside.
Mr. Paterson: Does my hon. Friend agree that although the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) described a meritorious enterprise in her intervention--which might have been described as valedictory--it would have taken time to develop the cheese business to which she referred? At the conference that I attended in Telford, it was clear that we had an immediate crisis. These people need cash now, for cash flow reasons. There is no time for investment or marketing; they need cash, and the only answer is an immediate, interest-free loan such as that which we propose.
Mr. Evans: An interest loan is little use to businesses with no money coming in and debts piling up. The chief executive of my local council spoke to me about the relief that the council could give on business rates and council taxes. He said that the council had to be realistic because those were the bills that farmers would shelve immediately. People with no money and no access to further loans would put their council tax bill and business rate bill at the bottom of the pile. If they had any money left, they would use it to pay their suppliers or as a means of keeping the business going.
So let us be realistic about the support that exists now and about the help for which businesses are crying out. Three weeks ago, I met 30 business men in the Parker's Arms in Newton. They were crying out for help and the situation has got no better for them. Unfortunately, Easter was not the great gold rush to the countryside that we all hoped that it would be. Those business men thought that if they could get access to cash now, it would greatly assist them and boost their businesses. It would be a lifeline. By all means, let us look at a recovery package afterwards, but let us have a survival package now.
I know of no patient who has died and gone on to recover. When a business dies, that is it. The only thing that remains is to bury or burn it. We do not want businesses to collapse when there is a sensible, cost-effective means of giving them a lifeline, which, in this case, is the loan that we are asking for.
What has shocked us all about foot and mouth is the inter-dependence of many businesses on the countryside generally. It struck me as surprising because I had not given it much thought. The crisis has affected feed merchants, those who sell cars and machinery to farmers, and other businesses involved in tourism. A window cleaner even came to see me, saying that much of his business had disappeared because of foot and mouth, not just because people could no longer afford to pay to clean their windows when money was tight, but because he could not gain access to many houses.
As was mentioned by a Labour Member following last week's statement by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the problem also affects trout farms. Nobody is fishing much because people cannot cross farms, and the trout farm in my constituency has a real problem in terms of the welfare of the fish. As they grow, they become vicious in a confined space. The owner told me that unless he can start to get rid of some of his stock, he will have to start killing them. The months of February to May are crucial for trout farmers, as that is when they have to get their stocks out. After that, they have had it. We must therefore look at all sorts of ways in which we can help such businesses.
I also had a phone call from someone who runs some tea rooms--that is why I mentioned tea rooms earlier--in a village in my constituency and who had to get rid of their staff and close, hopefully temporarily.
Sadly, the people whom rural businesses employ are often the wives or husbands of farmers, who work in other businesses to help out with their income. They do not have just one job, although given the hours that they work, one would think that they could do no more. Helping out in the tourism trade gives those people another source of income. We should help those people, which is why I could not understand the exemptions in the Bill--which does not go very far anyway--for catering and confectionary businesses.
I hasten to add that I have no interest to declare. The only business that I possess is in a very urban area and I am delighted on this occasion not to declare an interest for having a business in a rural area.
I do not understand the exemptions. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde said, the confusion and stress caused by the discretion in the Bill will lead to many arguments because people will not know whether they qualify. The Minister was nodding when it was suggested that some guidelines should be published explaining to people exactly who is eligible. People should be clear about who is eligible once and for all. I suspect that the Government will spend more on the
When the Minister replies, will he say something about the National Assembly for Wales and how it will run the scheme? I gather that it might decide not to introduce it at all. I understood from the Minister that no extra money would come in from the scheme, so it would have to be paid for from existing budgets. That would mean that other expenditure would have to be cut. I suspect that nothing much will be cut and that more will be spent on bureaucracy than on the scheme.
Will the Minister also say something about assistance to local authorities? I understand the 50 per cent. mandatory grant, but not the discretionary aspect. My local authority tells me that it is already strapped for cash. Many rural businesses are tightly balanced. Many are already applying to their local authority for help with their business rates. Once they start applying for this scheme as well, many local authorities simply will not have enough money. They will have to start putting up council taxes by an enormous percentage. The Government need to look at that again.
On diversification, the Government need to get their strategy together and decide what they want farming in this country to do. The Prime Minister says that he wants a fundamental review of farming once the crisis is over, but we need to know the Government's strategy for farming. Do we want to ensure that our farmers, who love their industry and are committed to it, and who work all the hours that are sent in their industry, to continue farming? I hope that the answer is yes.
Farmers' tending of the countryside is value added. They do it for nothing; it is simply a by-product of farming. We now know how important that is because of the number of tourists who have stayed away from the countryside. People go to the countryside because it is beautiful and we should ensure that farming is in such a state that it can continue to produce the goods and at the same time make a profit. Farmers at my surgery say, "Nigel, all I want to do is make a living." The treaty of Rome contains a paragraph saying that that is exactly what farmers should be allowed to do. If that requires a fundamental review of the common agricultural policy, let us have it. However, let us not have the same old CAP reviews that always cost more money. We spend billions on such reviews, while our farmers do not get the money through.
It would have been far better if the Government had used this opportunity to present a package of measures such as the £10,000 loan, which would help kick-start many businesses that are on their uppers. Over the past four years, the Government have piled billions of pounds of extra taxation on rural businesses. Today, they are giving back crumbs and we are supposed to get on our knees, say thank you and praise St. Tony. It simply will not happen.
We need honesty in food labelling so that people who want to buy British products can do so in the sound knowledge that the products are British and do not come from somewhere else. British products must not be those that are put on a British farm for a day or products that have simply been processed here. We also need equality in the treatment of goods that enter this country. I am proud that we have high standards and I applaud the
I hope that the Minister will be able to answer some of the questions that we have raised today. I also hope that the Minister for the Environment, who is responsible for the rural taskforce and who waltzed into the Chamber briefly during the debate, will come to the House--before the Prime Minister goes to Buckingham Palace to ask for a Dissolution--to introduce a real package of measures. Such a package would not need spinning, because the farmers and people involved in tourism would say themselves that it was good news.
I hope that the Government are not going to spin this little measure today as the great saviour of our farms and our tourism industry, which are on their knees and need the Government to listen to them. They need the Government to act, and the Government have failed to do that to date.