HC Deb 28 June 2001 vol 370 cc767-70
6. Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon)

What further plans she has to support businesses affected by the consequences of foot and mouth disease. [575]

9. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

What plans she has for compensating ancillary businesses hit by the foot and mouth crisis. [R] [578]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett)

More and more small rural businesses are benefiting from the measures that we have introduced. More than 11,000 affected businesses have had cash benefits, either through deferral of tax payments or approval of hardship rate relief or in grant awards from the regional development agency business recovery fund. We are continuing to keep the operation of each scheme under review.

Mr. Webb

I am grateful for that reply, but draw to the Minister's attention the situation in my constituency, which has more than 400 farms, several cases of foot and mouth and many businesses affected by the knock-on effects of the disease. My constituents were shocked to learn that they are not rural because other parts of the authority area have higher population densities, and "rural" is defined on the basis of the whole authority. In reviewing the schemes that she has described, will she include businesses that have suffered from foot and mouth, regardless of whether other parts of the authority have higher population densities?

Margaret Beckett

Of course I will look at the precise issue that the hon. Gentleman raises, but he will know that there is always some difficulty in defining terms in the context of such schemes. A very careful balance was struck on the proportion of authority areas that could be considered on anyone's definition to be rural, and that has been looked at several times. I am prepared to look at it again and to consider his point, but I am not undertaking that it will necessarily make all the difference as he is hoping.

Mr. Bellingham

Will the right hon. Lady join me in paying tribute to the hundreds of slaughtermen and women who gave up their time to ensure that the cull was professionally carried out? Will she particularly thank those hundreds of hunt staff who gave their time and commitment, which the Government accepted only grudgingly and belatedly? Does she agree that the best way of saying thank you to those hunt staff is for her to make a firm commitment not to vote to destroy their livelihoods?

Margaret Beckett

I will of course heartily join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to slaughtermen and women or anyone else involved in the handling of this terrible outbreak, all of whom have been and, unfortunately, still are, working very long hours at what is frequently a thankless and unpleasant task. I was particularly gratified recently when I met people in the area of the most recent outbreak in Yorkshire to be told what high regard they had for the work of the staff of my Department and local authorities and of all those who have been involved. That does not always come across in media coverage, so I was very pleased to hear that and to pass it on to those who continue to work so thoroughly. As for the hon. Gentleman's final remarks, we may of course have to agree to disagree.

Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire)

As well as considering support for rural businesses, will my right hon. Friend look at supporting charities such as the Treginnis farm for city children in my constituency? It has lost just under £100,000 as a result of foot and mouth disease, and it would be a tragedy if that organisation, which offers experience of the living countryside to children from inner-city areas, were threatened because of financial hardship arising from foot and mouth.

Margaret Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an interesting and slightly unusual point. I must admit that that case had not been brought to me before. I shall certainly make some inquiries and consider whether there are means whereby, through the overall operation of the various schemes, the charity can be assisted.

My hon. Friend will know, however, that many worthwhile organisations and small businesses are affected by the outbreak. For the vast majority, the most important thing is that we bring the outbreak under control to such an extent and come so much closer to achieving its end that their customers return to them. That will do more good than any compensation scheme.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central)

Among the businesses losing out as a result of foot and mouth disease, the tourism industry has lost more than most. Will my right hon. Friend examine the sense of some of the biosecurity measures that have been used, especially those that affect the tourism industry? In April, I was banned from walking along stretches of the Pembrokeshire coastal path where there were no animals within miles, but shortly thereafter I found myself trapped behind a muck-spreader driving along the road. Clearly, the muck-spreader poses a far greater risk of passing on the disease, but the rules do not allow that to be banned.

Margaret Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the impact of the difficulties on tourism and the way in which the early reaction, before we had a clear picture of where the disease had spread, resulted in the closure of some areas of the country and some footpaths which with the benefit of hindsight we can see might not have been justified by the degree of risk they presented. Now, what we are encouraging everyone to do and what we as a Department are trying to do is to ensure that the action taken is proportionate to the risk posed. My hon. Friend is right to say that the movement of vehicles and contact with and between animals are the key triggers in the spread of the disease.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

Will the Secretary of State accept that many businesses, including farmers who have over-30-month-old cattle, have suffered irrecoverable losses as a direct result of foot and mouth disease for which no compensation has yet been offered? When will she complete the review of that problem which her predecessor promised in the House? When will she publish the proposals to rebuild the rural economy in the wake of foot and mouth disease to which she referred in the House last week? Does she realise that many businesses are engaged in a daily and desperate struggle for survival? They need more action, such as interest-free loans, now—not at some unspecified future date that happens to be convenient to the Government.

Margaret Beckett

Of course I admit that many people are suffering losses with which the Government are not in a position to assist, and that one particular category of those affected is made up of those who have cattle that would have gone into the over-30-months scheme but cannot currently do so. On the plans for recovery and the review, first, we are looking at those issues and will make any announcement that we can as soon as we can; secondly, there is what I would characterise as the relatively short-term farm recovery plan, which we hope to introduce in the not-too-distant future.

In addition, as the hon. Gentleman will know, the Government have committed themselves to set up an independent commission to examine the longer-term context of and future for the countryside and, within it, the agriculture industry. It is extremely important that we undertake that debate and that we try to ensure that our actions in the short term to overcome the short-term difficulties experienced as a result of the outbreak do not cut across the action necessary for long-term sustainable agriculture within a context of sustainable development.