HC Deb 23 April 2001 vol 367 cc21-37 3.30 pm
Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells)

(by private notice): To ask the Minister for the Environment if he will make a statement on the work of the rural taskforce with regard to the foot and mouth crisis.

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher)

It became clear, soon after the current outbreak of foot and mouth disease began, that the disease and the restrictions that were introduced to control its spread would have implications for the rural economy that went well beyond the agricultural sector. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister therefore asked me to set up the rural taskforce with a remit to consider the implications of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease for the rural economy, both immediately and in the longer term, and to report to him on appropriate measures.

The taskforce includes all the Government Departments involved, the devolved Administrations and experienced members from the private and voluntary sectors, including the rural business and tourism sectors, farmers and representatives of rural communities. It first met on 14 March. There have been four further meetings so far, and the next meeting will take place on Wednesday. I am extremely grateful for the hard work and dedication that the members of the taskforce have put in and for the practical common sense that they have shown in discussing the issues.

The taskforce's work covers both short-term measures to alleviate the hardship that so many people and businesses are facing and measures to aid the speediest possible return to normality. I shall remind the House of measures that have already been announced, starting with the measures to assist businesses to weather the immediate problems.

First, I have announced a number of measures to provide relief from business rates. They include increased Government funding, from 75 per cent. to 95 per cent., to enable local authorities to offer hardship rate relief to businesses in rural areas, targeted at businesses below £12,000 rateable value, and offering reductions of up to £1,290 over a three-month period. A further measure is the deferment, by three months, of the deadline for business rate appeals in rural areas.

Rural businesses will also be, helped by the Government's legislation to extend mandatory 50 per cent. rate relief to all food shops in small rural settlements, and that legislation will also provide a transitional, five-year, 50 per cent. mandatory rate relief for new enterprises on former agricultural land. At the same time, recent regulations have extended 50 per cent. rate relief to sole village pubs and garages with a rateable value of less than £9,000. We have also arranged that when a rural local authority agrees to defer payments my Department will in turn defer the payments that the authority is due to make to the national rate pool. The Valuation Office will consider applications from businesses for a reduction in their rateable value to take account of the impact of foot and mouth disease.

Secondly, the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise will take a sympathetic approach to requests for deferral or extended time to pay for tax and national insurance contributions, especially for rural businesses in agriculture, transport and tourism, and related retail businesses. Thirdly, the major banks have made it clear that they will, on a case-by-case basis, consider mechanisms such as extended lines of credit, capital repayment holidays and other measures. Fourthly, we have extended the types of business that can apply for loans up to £250,000 under the small firms loan guarantee scheme.

Fifthly, I announced a further £15 million for regional development agencies to help rural businesses in the worst hit areas. Sixthly, to help those who have lost work because of foot and mouth, the Benefits Agency has announced that it will provide quick assessment of applications for jobseeker's allowance from such applicants, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment has announced a skills boost package to ease the impact of foot and mouth disease on jobs.

Finally, the Government have pledged to match public donations to rural charities, to help to address cases of severe hardship and to provide support for organisations responding to rural stress. The scheme is being administered by the Countryside Agency and will apply to personal donations, including the generous donations of the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Westminster.

Everyone agrees, I think, that the key to recovering from the serious economic effects of the disease is to get back to normality as quickly as possible. That is why the taskforce has put a lot of effort into ensuring that the message that most of the country can be safely visited is widely understood. Its work has led to a number of advertisements under the auspices of both the Government and other key organisations, to explain the position to the general public and encourage people to go and enjoy the many facilities that are open.

The Countryside Agency will also make available grants of £3.8 million to help local authorities to open their footpaths. Further advertising by tourism organisations is being promoted by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced additional support of £6 million for the English Tourism Council and the British Tourist Authority to get the message across that Britain is open for business.

That all adds up to a total package for immediate practical help for the rural economy of more than £200 million, but that is not the end of the story: there is a great deal more to do, especially in considering longer-term measures to help to get the rural economy moving when the disease has been dealt with. I look forward to further meetings of the taskforce to advance that important work.

Mr. Norman

We welcome the Minister's response. Let me remind the House of the chronology of the crisis. The first outbreak of foot and mouth was reported on 20 February, and it took nearly four weeks to form the rural taskforce. The rate relief measures to which the Minister referred were announced a month after the outbreak, and the loan guarantee scheme for affected businesses was announced on 6 April.

When the Minister last made a statement to the House, about a month ago, on the measures to be taken, he described them as a preliminary package. We welcomed them, as far as they went, at that stage, but it is now clear that the impact of foot and mouth on rural businesses is at least as severe as we all feared at that time. It is reported that, over Easter, there was a 70 per cent. drop in bookings in the Yorkshire dales; a 40 per cent. fall in rural Cumbria; and a 35 per cent. decline in business in rural Devon.

Although the number of reported cases of infection has now reduced, the crisis is far from over for business. Indeed, it is reported that since Easter the level of bookings in most rural tourism areas has declined still further. The British Hospitality Association estimates that the total loss from overseas visitors alone will be £3 billion, with a further £2 billion from domestic tourism.

Some businesses are already on the point of closure. Indeed, some have closed, including small abattoirs, such as Lamberhurst abattoir in Kent. If ever there was an emergency in a business sector, it is now. If ever there was a need for a generous, speedy and decisive Government response, it is now. For those businesses, the acid test of the Government's response is whether cash is hitting the bank account, as we said a month ago. It is not whether there are high-profile ministerial visits, but whether those businesses are being enabled to survive the crisis. The question, therefore, is whether the Government's response today, which contained no new proposals and no new money, is generous and long lasting.

The Minister says that the rural taskforce has met four times in about six weeks. Will he tell us when it last met and reassure us that it will continue to meet throughout the duration of the crisis? Will he reassure us that he will continue to come to the House to report on the progress that it has achieved and the extent to which the £200 million package to which he referred has been dispensed to small businesses? While he is about it, will he confirm his previous, very helpful, statement that there will be a formal public inquiry into the crisis? What will the terms of reference be, and when do the Government plan to announce the details of the inquiry?

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the rate relief package. He will be aware that many rural businesses consider the Government's arrangements woefully inadequate, on two counts. First, the rateable value ceiling of £12,000 excludes many—if not, in some areas, most—rural businesses. It seems to many businesses miserly compared with the £50,000 limit in Scotland and Wales. The difference between those two limits is, for many, inexplicable. In the south lakeland area alone, it is reported that a quarter to a third of all businesses, and a half of all tourism businesses, are ineligible for the scheme. Indeed, quite small hotels and bed-and-breakfast businesses will not qualify under the £12,000 limit.

Secondly, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many district councils are unable to afford the remaining 5 per cent. of rate relief? Indeed, the costs of administration and other costs imposed on them by the foot and mouth crisis mean that large increases in council tax are already looming in those areas. Will the right hon. Gentleman consider, as we have proposed, introducing rate relief of 100 per cent. and providing extra support for those councils worst affected, or does he believe that council taxpayers should bear the cost of the crisis for years to come?

On the loan guarantee scheme, is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the absolute fury expressed by many small businesses at the 8.75 per cent. interest rate to be charged? That seems extortionate in the light of the fact that many can borrow more cheaply than that through their own bank account or overdraft. How much money has been extended through the scheme and how many businesses, if any, have benefited specifically, or is the scheme a smokescreen for the fact that the Government are unable to offer any realistic long-term support? Will the Minister discuss with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), the possibility of bringing into force the interest-free scheme that we proposed some four weeks ago?

The third area of support is marketing support for tourism. Can the right hon. Gentleman explain the reasons for the Government's parsimonious approach to support for tourism? If ever there was a time to promote Britain abroad generously, on a long-lasting basis, it is now. Yet the English Tourism Council has been granted only an extra £4 million, compared, we understand, with an extra £5 million being spent in Scotland. The British Tourist Authority put in a bid for £20 million in support but has received only £2 million. If ever there was a time to take decisive action to market Britain, it is now. We have proposed giving a £10 million grant to the English Tourism Council and doubling the BTA's budget. Can the Minister say whether he is prepared to consider those proposals or why the Government have made such an ungenerous response?

The environmental effects of burning carcases have been much reported in the media. We welcome the Minister's recognition this morning on the "Today" programme that there is no risk-free option for disposal, and we share that view. Does he accept, however, that the widespread concern across the country has resulted from a lack of reassurance to date? Does he accept that if the Environment Agency had been more forthcoming in identifying sites for burial, and if the Government had been quicker in introducing more on-site farm burial—as we recommended and as was recommended following the inquiry into the 1967 outbreak—the problem would not have been as great as it has been?

The Minister last made a statement to the House on 20 March, and we hope that this will not be the last time we hear from him. Does he agree that what he then called a preliminary package should indeed have been so? That statement should have been the first of a series of bold announcements to tackle the crisis decisively and communicate action effectively.

Since then, however, we have had a flurry of high-profile ministerial visits and an awful lot of public relations, but very little money for most businesses. For businesses suffering under the threat of bankruptcy and deeply worried about the future, the Government's response has been parsimonious to the point of penny-pinching, confused in communication and ineffective in delivery.

Mr. Meacher

The hon. Gentleman asked a number of questions of varying relevance. I shall try to deal with each of them.

The hon. Gentleman twice made derogatory references to ministerial visits. The visits that I and a great many Ministers have made have been extremely well received, and I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not think it beneficial for Ministers to get into the countryside to see things for themselves and talk with whoever wants to talk to them about the situation. Perhaps he would prefer just to sit here in Westminster.

We announced our proposals on rate relief within days of the formation of the rural taskforce. Those measures were announced extremely quickly and other measures have followed ever since.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned figures suggesting that bookings for Easter were down. In some cases they were, but the Easter summary produced by the English Tourism Council estimates that business reached 70 to 80 per cent. of last year's levels. In Cumbria, attractions fared pretty well.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)


Mr. Meacher

Even in Cumbria, 50 per cent. of attractions reported an increase in visitors. Resorts, coastal towns and cities have generally done well or very well, as have day-out attractions. The hon. Gentleman's Jeremiah picture went fairly wide of the mark.

The hon. Gentleman was anxious to say that the amount of money made available by the Government was small. As I said in my statement, it amounts to more than £200 million, and I do not think that that sum is as small as he suggested. It has been well received, and we are considering further measures.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the rural taskforce will continue to meet under my chairmanship until foot and mouth disease has been overcome, election or no election. I hope that he is content with that.

With regard to the public inquiry about which I have spoken, I should make it clear that I was honestly saying what I believe will be the case. It is, of course, a matter for the Prime Minister to announce the terms of reference, in his own time, and I am sure that he will do so.

On the £12,000 rateable value threshold and the 5 per cent. payment by rural authorities, the hon. Gentleman asked a genuine question, as opposed to some of the political points that he made. We are aware of complaints that that is insufficient. We have asked the Local Government Association to provide the evidence to justify those allegations. We asked some time ago—

Mr. Maclean


Mr. Speaker

Order. The right hon. Gentleman seeks to catch my eye, but his chances will diminish if he keeps interrupting the Minister.

Mr. Meacher

We requested the Local Government Association, some time ago, to give us the information by the end of today—we shall make a decision on that basis.

The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) asked how many firms have used the small firms local guarantee scheme. The Small Business Service has received more than 400 inquiries relating to foot and mouth disease compared with a normal inquiry rate of 40 a day. More than 700 applications for information had been received about a week ago—the number is certainly more now.

With regard to the £6 million boost for tourism, perhaps the best way to answer is to quote the comments of Edwin Griffin of Meeting Planners International from the United States. After visiting this country at the invitation of the British Tourist Authority, he said: Our media has distorted the true picture—a disservice to the public by not properly informing them. It was good to see the unaffected farm life in comparison to those TV reports. I will be telling my 20,000 members to investigate for themselves what Britain can offer. I think that money was extremely well spent.

Lastly, on the question of pyres, I made it clear this morning that the Government's first priority is—and remains—to maximise the use of rendering, of incineration in properly controlled industrial plant and of burial in registered landfill sites. I am very interested to note that the preference of the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells is for on-site farm burial. Let me tell him that the place where 160,000 carcases are not yet disposed of is Devon, so his solution is totally unworkable because of the high levels of the water table there. Our proposals are the only practical option.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's opening remarks; his words will be read by many people in my constituency. Despite two good days at Easter, the tourism industry in the west of the Lake district is really in crisis. We had stage 1 a month ago—my right hon. Friend referred to it. May we have stage 2—not compensation, but financial support, highly targeted, to help people who really are suffering?

I witnessed the work of the taskforce last Thursday—the proceedings were excellent. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for the taskforce to take evidence not only from local authorities and organisations identified with local authorities, but from some of the grass-roots organisations that have sprung up in these areas to represent the people who are in trouble, such as Cumbria crisis alliance in my constituency? That organisation has done some good work on small measures—inexpensive but targeted—that could be introduced and would change the fortunes of people who are in financial difficulty. Will my right hon. Friend put his weight behind the right of such organisations to give evidence to his taskforce?

Mr. Meacher

I am happy to support those measures. Looking at the evidence over Easter, we are aware that bookings and takings for many small rural businesses were much better than many had feared, but they were certainly still down. In Keswick, Ambleside and other places in my hon. Friend's constituency, takings were relatively good, but I accept that there are areas with really severe problems. I repeat that we are looking at further measures for giving practical, selected and targeted advice to help them.

I am also happy to agree that the evidence feeding into the regional development agencies comes not only from bodies such as those my hon. Friend mentioned, but from some of the smaller bodies, such as the Cumbria crisis alliance. I was impressed by the quality of the evidence that I received from many of the bodies that I visited on that day and I intend to return before long.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

On the matter of footpaths and bridleways, can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the animal health authorities' powers to close footpaths lapsed on 16 March and that some authorities are concerned that, if they reopen those footpaths, they will not be able to close them again if circumstances require that to happen?

On the publicity campaign, assuming that it did not cost £6 million to bring the group of American tour operators to Britain—a worthwhile objective in itself—will the right hon. Gentleman tell us to what extent there has been a properly targeted marketing exercise, overseas and in this country, to encourage people to visit our rural areas again?

Has the right hon. Gentleman a conception of how broadly defined are the businesses affected by the foot and mouth disease crisis? Is he aware that they go well beyond those businesses that are directly affected by agriculture or tourism? In my constituency, I visited a garden centre, where takings are down by 80 per cent; a mower supplier, where takings are down by 60 to 70 per cent; and a marquee supplier, which is now laying off staff. Many such businesses are not in towns of fewer than 3,000 people and hence do not qualify as being in rural areas. Is he aware of the disappointment at the patchiness of the response from the Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise and the banks, despite the encouraging statements made by him and others? Will he consider the approach taken by the utilities to those businesses?

On hardship relief and rates relief, will the right hon. Gentleman tell us how long the current measures will last? Why was no assessment made of how many businesses would be encompassed by a £12,000 ceiling on rateable value, or a £9,000 ceiling for garages and pubs? Many of us in rural areas think it extraordinary that that cut-off point was put in place. Will he tell us how many business rates revaluations have taken place and how quickly they are being processed?

Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman tell us why no date has been allocated for the Second Reading of the Rating (Former Agricultural Premises and Rural Shops) Bill, which was presented to the House some weeks ago? Why are there no Government amendments to the Finance Bill, which will be debated today and tomorrow, to provide relief for rural areas? Does that not suggest that the Government understand neither the scale of the problem for rural businesses, nor the urgency with which measures must be taken to deal with it?

Mr. Meacher

The hon. Gentleman asks whether the powers exist to close footpaths that have been reopened. Of course, if there is justification in terms of the spread of the disease or new infections, the powers could be invoked. The Government have made a considerable effort to reopen footpaths, parks and other facilities, so we are anxious to ensure that they are not closed again, unless there is very good reason to do so in terms of the disease.

I believe that the BTA's efforts in the 12 main overseas markets are, as the hon. Gentleman says, a properly targeted exercise. The hon. Gentleman asks about the need to extend aid such as rate relief beyond immediate farm businesses. That is exactly what we propose to do for haulage and retail businesses, and it represents an extension of the existing limits on rate relief.

I should like to know about the patchiness, to which the hon. Gentleman refers, in the response of the Inland Revenue and the banks. I have made it clear that if there is any evidence of that, I will certainly ensure that I, or others, speak strongly to those who have made it clear that there will be no such patchiness and that sympathy will be generally and fully displayed.

I understand that the £9,000 threshold represents an extension or increase on the current level, but we believe that it is justified; it has not been arbitrarily set. The hon. Gentleman asks how many revaluations have taken place. I cannot give him tha[...] figure, but if we have the figure, I will certainly write to him. I certainly take the hon. Gentleman's point about the Rating (Former Agricultural Premises and Rural Shops) Bill. I am very keen to see that Bill make progress, and I will certainly discuss it with my colleagues in Government.

Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby)

Have my right hon. Friend and his taskforce been able to make any progress in opening footpaths, particularly in coastal areas and on arable land? Many people who have made representations to my office feel that some local authorities have shown tardiness in making progress on this important issue. Has any progress been made, either, on preserving the genetic stock of rare breeds, such as the rare hefted sheep breeds on the moors in the North York moors national park?

Mr. Meacher

I pay tribute to the work of the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes). She has taken particular responsibility for getting footpaths and other facilities open and has achieved considerable success. For example, Norfolk has reopened more than half its network, Surrey has reopened a similar proportion and even Cumbria, which has been badly hit by foot and mouth, reopened more than 100 paths before Easter. British Waterways has reopened two thirds of its 1,600 mile towpath network, the Forestry Commission reopened 80 sites before Easter and hundreds of National Trust properties are now open.

Let me say, particularly to Conservative Members, that even authorities, such as Buckinghamshire, that have retained a blanket approach are now responding to public demands to review decisions on individual paths. Such authorities may or may not be playing politics with the Government, but they must understand that they certainly should not play politics with rural businesses in their areas.

We are aware that rare breeds, particularly the hefted Herdwicks on the fells, are a real issue. Those special bloodlines must be preserved and we are still considering the best way to ensure that they are.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

Is the Wales Office represented on the Minister's working party? If so, has he explained to it why he proposes to offer businesses—whether in Somerset, Devon or Cumbria—significantly worse terms of assistance than those that will be offered in Wales?

I endorse the remarks of the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours). It is true that seaside areas had a reasonable Easter for tourism, because some people who might have gone into the countryside or to the national parks were diverted to seaside areas. However, prospects in truly rural areas, such as the national parks, are every bit as dire as so many of us feared they would be, and they continue to be so. In those circumstances, the businesses that are anxiously listening to the Minister will have received scant comfort. Interest-free loans are not a blanket measure, because particular businesses can decide whether to take them up. However, unless the Treasury understands that such loans are the only measure that will genuinely help those businesses, the true infrastructure for tourism in rural areas will be lost.

Mr. Meacher

The question of the level of rate relief and the total to which it applies is a matter for England and the devolved Administrations to decide for themselves. The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that, in Wales, the relief is significantly higher, but that is a matter for the Administration there. We have judged what we believe a right and fair package to be.

The right hon. Gentleman said that certain businesses and areas are still suffering, and I am not complacent about that. I am well aware that many businesses are in a dire state. In some ways, what happened over the Easter break has eased the problem a bit. However, that is not true in some cases, and in others, businesses face the long period until Whitsun with a reduction in bookings. I entirely realise that.

The question is to decide the best way of providing help. The fastest way to give businesses help is to use the existing channels, and that is why we made £120 million additional lending available through the small firms loan guarantee scheme—[Interruption.] I am aware of the interest rate, which we are considering. However, we have extended the scheme to more businesses, including catering, retail and tourism businesses. In addition, we have given greater flexibility on repayment holidays and up to 10 years to repay. I have also met the banks, which assure me that they are taking a sympathetic approach. We will continue to consider all the options for helping businesses, including soft loan schemes, but we must be satisfied that new schemes will work quickly and are well targeted. Of course, as we have made clear, we cannot afford to fund every business.

On all the visits that I have made, and in all the meetings of the rural taskforce and with the rural development agencies, I have made it clear that we need precise, quantified evidence of the degree of need and the cost of relief. We are beginning to receive a considerable amount of information from various organisations, including the regional development agencies, which we are actively considering. I hope that we will be able to make a decision soon.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statements today and a few weeks ago reflect his ability to provide some relief because of the state of the economy, by contrast with the time when the Tories were in government—the experts in running up deficits instead of surpluses? Does he also acknowledge that I was in Parliament in 1992 when a crisis was caused in seven separate regions? Thousands of businesses went down the pan. It was not a case of 70 or 80 per cent. losses; all the shops and businesses that relied on the pits went under. Not one single penny was given by the Tory Government to help those failing businesses. Is he further aware that in Carlisle, where the current crisis is causing a big problem, the Tories called for an election for a Liberal seat and the people, who are so appreciative of the money that is being provided, kicked the Tories out, beat the Liberals and Labour won the seat?

Mr. Meacher

My hon. Friend, as so often, makes a telling point. We are all aware that the Tories are extremely good at offering large sums just before an election that they know they are going to lose and which they will not, therefore, have to meet.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, had he come to Staffordshire where there are 47 outbreaks of the disease or on an excursion to the Welsh marches with my wife and me last week, he would have been horrified by the complacency, unimaginativeness and ungenerosity of his statement, which did not begin to acknowledge the devastation in rural areas? Will he also accept that it is far more important to compensate businesses and to ensure that they survive—some of them depend on the agricultural shows that are being cancelled right, left and centre—than to go on bleating about footpaths? Does he know that, in my constituency, canal towpaths are open within 3 ft of livestock in fields, whereas playing fields in village centres are closed? There is total confusion about what is being done and he is taking a risk by encouraging the reopening of some footpaths.

Mr. Meacher

The hon. Gentleman is usually a fair man, but his comments are over the top. Incidentally, I was in the Welsh marches as part of my most recent visit and I saw at first hand the situation in parts of Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. I entirely agree that some local authorities are confused even now about what can be safely opened. There is no justification for that. The guidelines set out exactly how the guidance is to be operated. The great majority of local authorities are opening not only footpaths, but parks and facilities—including, as he suggests, playing fields inside urban areas. It is ridiculous that they were ever closed, but they can certainly be reopened.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider not just any particular item in the package but the cumulative weight of all the measures to which I have referred. They amount to over £200 million, and if we add what rural development agencies and charitable bodies have offered, the total is about £220 million, which is not a small sum. I am still seeking detailed evidence on which further selective but well targeted help can be based, and the hon. Gentleman ought to recognise that.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

There are 111 landfill sites in England being used for the disposal of carcases. What action has been taken to ensure that we are following European Union regulations, which say that carcases should make up only 5 per cent. of the content of such sites, with the other 95 per cent. being normal waste? That is particularly important in my constituency at the Erin void, where there is a problem because the site is right next to the communities of Duckmanton and Poolsbrook. We must ensure that not too many carcases are sent to those areas.

Mr. Meacher

The Environment Agency is responsible for ensuring that landfill sites are used in accordance with both EU and national regulations. I have no evidence that that is not happening, but if there is such evidence, I will be glad to follow it up. I do not know the particular sites to which my hon. Friend referred, but if he writes to me, I will pursue the matter.

Mr. David Prior (North Norfolk)

Does the Minister agree that the foot and mouth virus could still be entering the country in imported meat products? If so, why does he not ban the importation of all meat products from countries that have the disease?

Mr. Meacher

That is one of the issues that the Government will be considering once the number of outbreaks begins steadily to reduce and we can see an end to this episode. The matter has been raised before, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will examine it closely.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

May I take my right hon. Friend back to the £15 million given by the taskforce to the RDAs? It is very welcome in Cumbria, but is it the first instalment? Is he convinced that the RDAs have the mechanism for giving out the money? Will he ensure that Cumbria, the worst affected county, is treated generously when the money is distributed?

Mr. Meacher

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he said about the package in relation to Cumbria. My discussions with the leader and the chief executive of Cumbria county council lead me to believe that it is welcome, and I am glad to hear my hon. Friend confirm that. We believe that the RDAs are the right bodies to disburse the moneys. They have had considerable success in getting to know all the stakeholders and many of the smaller businesses in their areas. They, better than central Government, can distribute money to make sure that it is maximally effective. If there is further aid, which we are considering, we certainly intend that it should be delivered through them.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

The Minister will know that my constituency has been dreadfully affected by the foot and mouth crisis. It has had a devastating impact not only on agriculture but on every business, including those in tourism and trekking. Dartmoor, in particular, is unbelievably badly affected and has come to a standstill. I spoke just now to the chief executive of Dartmoor national park. Will the Minister please ensure that the affected area boundaries are re-examined every week and that the reasons for changing or not changing them are published? I cannot emphasise enough that it is crucial to get the countryside open as soon as possible.

Mr. Meacher

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says and I realise that his constituency is one of the worst affected in the country. In terms of dealing with the backlog, Devon is probably the most seriously affected area now that the backlog in Cumbria has been cleared to a large degree. I accept that Dartmoor in particular has been grievously affected.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about a regular—he says weekly—re-examination of the infected area boundaries. I shall certainly discuss that with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I undertake to ensure that what the hon. Gentleman seeks to achieve can be achieved, perhaps by the use of some such method as he suggests.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Given that the rapid disposal of mountains of carcases is crucial, have the rural taskforce or the Government been in touch with the Nevada department of agriculture at Reno or the school of veterinary medicine at the Louisiana state university at Baton Rouge, both of which have experience of the use of napalm? Is it not true that napalm will dispose of carcases in 60 minutes, whereas pyres take three days, and that because of napalm's lack of vaporising effect, its use does not give rise to the by-products, such as dioxins, that may arise from he burning of railway sleepers or old tyres?

Should not the use of napalm be considered urgently? Is the reason why it is not being considered, even though it was suggested in writing four weeks ago, the fact that there are overtones of Vietnam that might not be acceptable to the public? Given the crisis in the disposal of carcases, should we not at least think about it?

Mr. Meacher

My hon. Friend will not be surprised to learn that we have not consulted the Nevada and Louisiana authorities, but I take his point. I have said that the Government's priorities in order of preference are rendering, incineration in industrial plant, and burial on registered landfill sites. Those remain our priorities.

In Devon, the only option—other than the one that the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) unwisely suggested—is the use of pyres in the open field. We recognise that issues of public health are involved and we have tried to reduce dioxin emissions, as well as those of other relevant pollutants such as particulates, oxides of nitrogen and sulphur dioxide, by avoiding the use of wood treated with chlorinated agents such as lindane, large amounts of PVC on pyres, and chlorine bleaches in disinfectants. However, I have no Vietnam-related inhibitions about napalm and I am perfectly prepared to look at its use. If it can make a contribution to the—I hope—rapidly decreasing number of fires in open fields, I am happy to take it on board.

Mr. Maclean

Can the Minister not understand the seething anger in Cumbria when, with 40 per cent. of the country's cases, Cumbria—and, indeed, England—is treated as the poor relation; when we see £6 million lobbed to the tourist board across the border while peanuts are given to the Cumbria tourist board; and when we see on the Wales Office or Welsh Assembly website the boast that the rate relief given there is far more generous than that given in England? Can he not understand the mounting anger when, although the Labour-controlled county council says that we will lose £530 million by July, we get only a share of £15 million given to the RDA, which is money down the drain? Minister, we need cash now for the businesses that are being affected to save jobs now, as the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) suggested, not to regenerate them in six months' time.

Mr. Meacher

I recognise the right hon. Gentleman's sincerity. When I came to Cumbria, I was accompanied by him and I recognised his concern for the area. In areas such as Penrith and Longtown, the region has been extremely badly hit. He is wrong to suggest that sums such as £6 million have been handed over in a cavalier fashion to the British Tourist Authority or the English Tourism Council. Those sums will assist areas such as Cumbria as much as others.

I recognise that although Cumbria and Devon will get the lion's share of the latest £15 million that I mentioned earlier, that is not sufficient by itself. The right hon. Gentleman will have heard me say on the day of my visit—if I remember correctly, I made this comment in a meeting at Longtown and in Penrith—that I wanted detailed information and quantifiable data on the basis of which I could judge the size of package necessary to tide businesses over. I am glad to say that the Cumbria taskforce, which is a good body, has been diligent in providing that information. I repeat that we are actively considering what further aid can quickly be given in a practical and well-targeted manner.

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)

Will my right hon. Friend intensify pressure on local authorities to reopen public footpaths? At Easter, I did a good deal of walking in Devon, where far too many footpaths are still unnecessarily closed. Also, can we please have an extra bank holiday in the autumn, as has been requested by the British tourism industry?

Mr. Meacher

We are extremely keen to reopen more footpaths. I know that the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston, will redouble her efforts to ensure that that happens. A large number of footpaths—I am not sure whether it is a majority—have now been opened, but many that are still closed could undoubtedly safely be used. We will certainly exert pressure to ensure that the guidance and guidelines are properly adhered to. On the question of a public holiday, I said in the south-west, where I think that the idea was promulgated, that we had considered the proposal. However, it is not currently on the Government's agenda.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

The Minister spoke about ways of reducing the public health risks from pyres. Today, he has been reported in various news reports as saying that the Government are monitoring the situation to establish a clear picture of how dangerous the pyres are. However, that is inconsistent with what I was told at a seminar organised for hon. Members three weeks ago, in which I asked what temperature the pyres had to reach to ensure that the virus was killed. I was told that there was a slight risk at the very beginning of the burning of a pyre, before the temperature started to rise, but that the Ministry of Defence was carrying out monitoring down wind of pyres to assess the virus and other risks. Presumably, that monitoring has been going on for a month, so surely an analysis of the health risks is now available. Will he publish the results and provide an assessment now of the health risks from pyres?

Mr. Meacher

I have already made it abundantly clear today that, although there is public health concern about dioxins, the matter must be seen in perspective. We estimate that the pyres have so far generated about 18 per cent. of the total amount—about 350 g—that is generated annually in this country. That needs to be seen in proportion, as the amount is about the same as that which is produced by two bonfire nights. Of course, bonfires on Guy Fawkes night undoubtedly generate a considerable amount of dioxins. That is understood by the public. I put the matter in those terms because it is important to see it in perspective.

We will certainly publish any information that we have about the public health impacts of dioxins. We are not complacent about that and we know that there is a public health risk. We are trying to minimise that risk and we are considering the options for disposal that will produce the least risk for the public. At the same time, we must recognise that leaving carcases rotting in the fields is the worst option of all. The problem needs to be dealt with one way or another. The Holdsworthy pyre is now being monitored. All the main pollutants, including dioxins, are being monitored and we will certainly publish the results.

Mr. Nick Ainger (West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire)

In Pembrokeshire, we had the best Easter for many years. One of the reasons for that was the work of the county council and the Pembrokeshire coast national park with the National Farmers Union and the Farmers Union of Wales to open as many footpaths as possible before Easter. I emphasise that every footpath was opened with the full agreement of the local farmer and landowner. That needs to be replicated throughout the country. May I recommend to my right hon. Friend the advice and risk assessment that Pembrokeshire county council and the Pembrokeshire coast national park conducted? All local authorities should work with local farming organisations and tourist associations to open as many footpaths as possible.

Mr. Meacher

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments and the example shown by Pembrokeshire. We are trying to achieve what he recommends. We have called together local authorities, and Government offices in every region have organised meetings with local authorities to ensure that they understand the guidance and the guidelines, and give a commitment to open footpaths, parks and other facilities as quickly as possible. I hope that his request is therefore being rapidly fulfilled.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

The Minister will have noted some scepticism in the House about the scale of the package compared with that of the problem. To enable us to judge properly, can he tell us the taskforce's current working estimate of the overall impact of the foot and mouth crisis on the rural economy in lost output? Will he explain why it is considered adequate to spend a few million pounds in 12 major markets overseas to promote the tourist industry when the Government find it necessary to spend hundreds of millions of pounds on promoting themselves in this country? They are now the largest advertiser in the country.

Mr. Meacher

The amount of money spent overseas has had a disproportionately large impact. It is therefore wrong to suggest that it was not well spent. Of course I understand that at such a time people will actively lobby their Members of Parliament for more money to be spent. However, the Government have to examine each case with great care to ensure that businesses are tided over and that due money is provided. The taxpayers provide that money and it must therefore be entirely justified.

The hon. Gentleman asked me for our best estimate of losses. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport suggested that it is approximately £140 million a week. That is a substantial total. However, the real answer is not more Government money, however desirable that might be, but getting customers and visitors back into the countryside to spend their money in the way they wish.

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his informal contacts with the Scottish Executive to ensure that the west highland way and Loch Lomond in my constituency were open for business at Easter. The Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise are coming to a conference that I am organising at Loch Lomond on Friday. Two hundred businesses will attend and I look to them for maximum flexibility and good news. Despite the protests of the Scottish National party, the ministerial visit and encouragement to tour operators from north America and Europe represent money well spent. Our aim is to open the countryside. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the initiative continues?

Mr. Meacher

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right. We acknowledge that some limited quantities of Government money—perhaps, depending on the evidence, more than is currently being spent—are needed. However, the best way to assist people around not only Loch Lomond but in all resorts throughout the country is not simply to throw Government money at them, but to enable people who want to experience the beautiful landscape of Scotland to see for themselves that much of the propaganda that is spread abroad is wrong. They can then take back that message, thus enabling the market to operate normally and encouraging visitors to flock in from abroad. That is beginning to happen. The money has indeed been well spent.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

Will the Minister tell the House how little money has found its way into rural businesses from his various schemes so far? The truth is that practically nothing has got through, while thousands of rural businesses are bleeding to death. Are not the Government dithering over vaccination and movement while businesses die and animals suffer?

Mr. Meacher

I know that some Members, such as the right hon. Gentleman, like to prepare their questions and come to the House to make good political points. Let me answer him. We are providing mandatory rate relief of £24 million; discretionary rate relief of £22 million; matched contributions, in regard to donations from the public, of £14 million, including £5 million from the Government; £120 million under the small firms loan guarantee scheme; a £15 million package for the four hardest hit areas; and VAT and income tax deferments that the Treasury now estimates to be worth some £12 million a year. That is solid, clear, precise and valuable assistance. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman makes a sign at me to show that he thinks that that amounts to nil. That is silly, because it amounts to a very great deal. Whether it is sufficient is a matter for argument, but to suggest that it is worthless shows the childish attitude of the Opposition as we approach an election.

Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)

Those of us who represent big-city areas have rightly allowed these discussions and statements to be dominated by people such as our colleagues from Cumbria and Northumberland. However, I bring to the attention of my right hon. Friend the fact that a particularly vicious and unsubstantiated smear has been widespread. It is that restaurants in Newcastle's Chinatown were one of the sources of the outbreak. That has had a substantial impact on business in Newcastle's Chinatown and on other Chinese restaurants and takeaways throughout Tyneside. They are not covered at all by his proposals or by the Government's proposals to provide relief in rural areas. Is he willing to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) and me—we represent the part of Newcastle concerned—to consider how we can address the real problems that have been generated for those businesses by a vicious rumour and smear for which not a shred of evidence has been produced?

Mr. Meacher

My hon. Friend makes a serious point. One of the disadvantages in this kind of episode or crisis—whatever it is called—is that allegations are wildly thrown about and undoubtedly do serious damage. As he said, there is no evidence whatsoever—at least, none of which I am aware—that Chinese restaurants in the Newcastle area were responsible for the outbreak. Many other allegations have been made that are quite wrong. I read in yesterday's newspapers that deer had been widely infected with foot and mouth. Again, that is completely untrue, and it is important to correct such reports when we can. If it would help to meet my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) with a delegation to try to put this matter right, I should be happy to do so.

Mr. Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare)

In response to concerns about the ceiling for relief being set at £12,000—many of us think that it should be £50,000—the Minister said that discussions would be held with the Local Government Association. When will we hear the association's response on that issue? The Government talk about a sympathetic approach to deferral of VAT. What exactly does that mean? Furthermore, when people initially rang the hotline to ask for a deferral of tax, they were told that they would have to pay 8.5 per cent. interest, although it has since been suggested that that will not be the case. Will the Minister give the House a clear statement that people in great difficulty will not be charged 8.5 per cent. interest?

Mr. Meacher

On the first question, the hon. Gentleman is right. As I said, we have asked the Local Government Association to provide us, by the end of today, with details of its view—if it is its view—of the inadequacy of the £12,000 rateable value threshold and of the 5 per cent. as well. We will certainly give a response, but it will depend on the quality of the evidence. If we are persuaded that it is true that the 5 per cent. contribution from rural local authorities and the £12,000 rateable value threshold are seriously impeding the whole purpose of the exercise—which is to bring help to needy non-farm rural businesses—we shall be prepared to look at the position again.

The hon. Gentleman asked about a sympathetic approach on the part of banks—or perhaps he referred to the Inland Revenue, and the VAT authorities. If documented evidence is provided relating to the level of takings, and a plausible, demonstrable case is made that that figure results from foot and mouth, the offices involved will treat the matter sympathetically, in terms of the interest rate and the speed of repayment. If that is not the case, I shall be glad to hear evidence.

As for the deferment of VAT—which was mentioned earlier—I read in the paper that an 8.5 per cent. charge was being imposed. That is completely untrue. I said in my statement that in cases of hardship the 8.5 per cent. interest rate would be waived, and that is the case.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Can the Minister explain why Scotland and Wales, which receive all their money via Her Majesty's Treasury, can give their local authorities a far better settlement than he can give English authorities? Has it anything to do with a Scottish Chancellor of the Exchequer and a fairly incompetent Deputy Prime Minister?

Mr. Meacher

Leaving aside the abuse—which ill befits what is a serious question—I should say that this is a matter for devolved Administrations. One of the consequences of devolution is precisely that those Administrations make their own decisions. They spend their money—they spend their taxpayers' revenues—in the way that they choose. They have done so; they are perfectly entitled to do so; and we have done the same.