HC Deb 21 March 2001 vol 365 cc333-42
Ql. [153331] Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 21 March.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House. I shall have further such meetings later today.

Mr. Winterton

Livestock is an important and substantial part of agriculture in my constituency. Will the Prime Minister assure hon. Members that farmers whose animals are slaughtered as a result of foot and mouth disease will receive compensation immediately, and that businesses that are affected by the restrictions will receive 100 per cent. relief from the business rate for six months? Will he also ensure that those who are dealing with the outbreak are allowed to use burial to get rid of the carcases that are currently lying on farms?

The Prime Minister

First, on compensation, I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that, yes, they will be paid 100 per cent. compensation. Indeed, we have already paid out £80 million-worth Of compensation. We are trying to make sure that any compensation is paid within seven days. In respect of the burial of animals, there have been difficulties over the issue of water tables, particularly up in the part of the world that the hon. Gentleman represents. We are making arrangements with the Environment Agency now to try to ensure that we get the necessary burial sites, because that is the best way of disposing of the animals quickly. We believe that we will have those in place very shortly.

Finally, in relation to those farms that have been affected not by the disease but by the restrictions on movement, yes of course they will be subject to the measures that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment announced yesterday in respect of relief from business rates.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

In a few days' time, a cynical, selfish international company will wreck irreparably some capacity in the British steel industry and destroy the lives of thousands of steelworkers. Yesterday, the Government gave unprecedented aid to tourism. Will the Prime Minister now consider a similar unprecedented package for those steelworkers, many of whom will never work again? The problems of tourism are serious but temporary; the devastation suffered by the steelworking communities is permanent.

The Prime Minister

Of course, we urge the company yet again to reconsider the proposals that mean that 6,000 people are made redundant by Corns. That is a very serious situation for those communities affected and for those individuals affected. In addition, we will be there, standing ready and willing to give whatever help we can to those people, should those plans go ahead. Of course, we are well aware of our obligation —and have the financial capacity —to stand behind those people. However, that is secondary to our first desire, which is to ensure that the plans for redundancy do not go ahead.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

Yesterday's record number of new foot and mouth cases, and the 25 cases already announced at lunchtime today, show clearly that there is no immediate end in sight, not just for farmers but for huge numbers of rural businesses now facing ruin. May we welcome yesterday's announcements by the Government taskforce, but say to the Prime Minister that there is an urgent case for immediate help?

I wrote to the Prime Minister earlier today with a proposal for an emergency scheme that would give struggling rural businesses loans to help them through the crisis. I gave him notice that I would raise it with him this afternoon. Will he consider adopting the scheme?

The Prime Minister

First of all, as we announced in yesterday's statement, we are already considering with the Small Business Service and others ways in which we can ensure continuing credit for small businesses. That would include, for example, use of the small firms loan guarantee fund. It may in practice be quicker and easier to build on an existing scheme rather than to invent an entirely new one.

I should also say that we can give further details of the proposals on business rates. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment will be providing more details of the help, but the scheme will cover all 118 rural local authorities and businesses in those areas with rateable values of less than £12,000 will be able to apply if they are facing serious hardship as a result of foot and mouth disease. We estimate that this will cover about 75 per cent. of all businesses in rural areas. Depending on the take-up, up to 50,000 people could benefit.

Obviously, we shall also consider carefully the proposal that the right hon. Gentleman has just put forward. I would, however, say that, of course, Government help is important, but those rural businesses cannot exist on Government subsidy. What those businesses—particularly those in tourism—most need is custom, business, trade. They need people to come into the countryside and to realise that there is no reason why they should not go there and resume normal tourist activities. On the contrary, it is absolutely vital for the survival of those tourist industries that people do so.

Mr. Hague

I welcome the further details of the rate relief scheme from the Government. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have called for more details of that over the past week.

However, may I press the right hon. Gentleman to consider more quickly—given that he said that he would consider—the help that could be given to the cash flow of businesses through loans? The crisis for those businesses is now in its fifth week, whatever happens in the next few weeks. The biggest problem facing hotels, shops, tourist attractions and other small businesses is cash flow, even if those businesses were to turn up a little now. The proposal that we have put to the Prime Minister would offer those businesses emergency help in the form of a loan of up to £10,000, which they would not have to pay back until they were making a profit again. If the right hon. Gentleman cannot accept that scheme, or if he wants to build it on to a different one, will he come back to the House with an alternative to it, and do so as soon as possible?

The Prime Minister

Of course we will come back with the proposals that we are making. The relief that we are suggesting should be given to people in respect of tax, VAT and business rates will help those businesses.

In his letter to me, the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the fact that, with a large budget surplus, we would be able to offer the £500 million fund that he was asking for, and that that fund would allow for emergency loans of up to £10,000 for a business. In all frankness, even a loan of up to £10,000 will not help a country hotel or a major tourist attraction through this problem.

That is why, in addition to whatever measures of relief we are offering, it is important to make it clear that, although people should obey the restrictions in place in the countryside, it is important for the tourist industry that we send out the clearest possible message that people should not be cancelling their bookings at hotels and tourist attractions. On the contrary, they should be going there and making the most of the tourist industry and trade in a responsible way.

Mr. Hague

The Prime Minister is right to say that £10,000 would not make a huge difference to a huge tourist attraction. But it would make a huge difference to tens of thousands of small rural businesses, and they are the ones at greatest risk. On the question of dealing with the outbreak itself, the Prime Minister will be aware that since last Thursday the backlog of infected animals awaiting slaughter has gone up, from 64,000 to 108,000 yesterday. The backlog of dead animals awaiting disposal had doubled to 80,000 as of yesterday. We wi11 not control this outbreak until we clear these backlogs. Will the right hon. Gentleman now agree to a far greater deployment of the Army, with its manpower and its engineering and logistics capabilities, on tasks such as the burial and disposal of carcases?

The Prime Minister

On the measures to control and eradicate the disease, I will deal with the point about the Army. There is a lot of confusion about this issue. The Army has made it quite clear—as the right hon. Gentleman will see from the detailed statement that the Ministry of Defence will issue later today—that there are three different aspects to ensuring that we control and eradicate the disease in the areas most affected. One is the issue of logistics; the second is the issue of slaughter; and the third is the issue of disposal. We have the slaughtermen there, and the contractors who can come in and carry out the disposal. There is no doubt that the principal problem is one of logistics, and of organising and administering those tasks in the areas most affected.

As the disease has progressed over the past few weeks, we have been able to see that it is increasingly concentrated in certain main areas. Indeed, more than half the 46 new cases announced yesterday were in Cumbria and Dumfries, with several more in Devon.

Now, what is important is to use the Army for what it says it will do best—that is, the logistics operations. There are now logistics operations from the Army in each of those main areas; there is a full control and operations centre in each of those areas. That really is, according to all the best advice we have, including that from the farmers' union on the ground, the best way to make sure that we can then organise the operation properly so that the animals are identified, slaughtered and disposed of properly.

Mr. Hague

I am sure that it is right that the main way in which the Army can be used successfully is in a logistical capacity, but this is an urgent, massive and growing problem and only a handful of personnel are being used in a logistical capacity. A Ministry of Defence spokesman said today that MAFF has asked for only 60 soldiers in Devon and the rest are on standby, waiting for word. There are large amounts of military resources on standby.

When there is a desperate shortage of people to help to deal with the crisis, no one in the countryside can understand why the Government are not making use of the thousands of soldiers and heavy machinery that they have at their disposal, and making use of them more urgently than has been done so far. Will the Prime Minister step up, as a matter of urgency, the deployment of the Army to the tasks of which he has spoken?

The Prime Minister

We now have in place the necessary people for the logistics. I repeat to the right hon. Gentleman-[interruption] I simply ask Opposition Members to listen to this, because we have looked at it very carefully in line with the comments of people on the ground: there is not a shortage of slaughtermen; there is not a shortage of contractors to dispose of the animals. It is necessary, however, to organise the operation properly. There are now the logistics teams in place.

The other problem is a shortage of vets. That also is very important. Let me tell the House what we have done. The daily rate for the vets has been increased from some £160 to £250 per day. There is a new call for private vets. I should say, however, that the normal State Veterinary Service of 220 is running at more than 1,100. However, we will bring in even more, particularly in Cumbria and Devon where they are urgently needed.

In addition, we are ensuring that burial arrangements are being agreed with the Environment Agency, because, as I said a moment ago, burial is preferable to burning. In addition to that, we shall have in place within the next week sufficient rendering capacity so that we will be able to dispose of some 250,000 sheep carcases per week. That is the best way to dispose of those animals—through burial and through rendering.

We have the capacity to do that now. What we need, I repeat, are the logistics teams in place. They are now in place. [Interruption.] I say to Opposition Members who are shouting at me that this has been a situation in which the people on the ground have suddenly had to upgrade the whole nature of their operations in the most extraordinary way. I ask people to spare a thought for the pressure that they have been under.

Now that we can see that the disease is concentrated in certain areas, we are able to concentrate more and more resources on those areas. I think that that is the best way to proceed. In addition, we have proceeded throughout not just according to the advice of the veterinary service, but, at each stage, with the National Farmers Union.

Mr. Hague

The people on the ground have done a magnificent job in upgrading their capability—sometimes they have upgraded their capability faster than the decision-making machinery of Her Majesty's Government has.

On a final point, a huge spectrum of people. ranging from the Liberal Democrat leader of Devon county council to the Cumbria tourist board to Labour Members of Parliament, have raised real questions about whether county council elections in certain areas— [HON. MEMBERS: "Ah!"] From all parties. Can elections possibly proceed— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I must say to the hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) that he had best be quiet.

Mr. Hague

Labour Members should listen to some of their colleagues. The hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) has said: I would be looking to have some kind of delay". Is he meant to be frit? The hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) has said: There is an argument for postponement". The hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) has said: The Government is clueless about the scale of chaos in Cumbria". Labour Members should listen to their colleagues. Given that people from different political parties have raised those concerns and given that having the option to delay some local elections requires legislation quickly, is the Prime Minister absolutely sure that he will not regret later doing nothing now?

The Prime Minister

Voices are raised on both sides about this, but we are concentrating, as we should be, on controlling and eradicating the disease.

As for the elections, they are the elections set for 3 May. I understand the feelings of those who say "Let us postpone those elections", and I will of course listen carefully to their representations; I simply ask people to bear in mind two other factors to be weighed in the balance.

The first of those factors is the signal that we would send out to the country. If we sent out a message that, in effect, the democratic process had to go into suspension, that Britain was in a state of quarantine, that we were in some way closed for business—I worry about the effect that that would have on the tourist business. I do ask people to bear that in mind. Many interests need to be taken into account in rural areas.

Secondly, I simply ask the right hon. Gentleman this: postpone until when? For one month, two months, six months? In 1967, this disease went on for eight months. I simply believe that we should weigh these factors sensibly in the balance. Of course I will listen to the representations that are made, but what should be done ultimately is what is right in the interests not just of the countryside but of the whole country—people in the countryside, and people not in the countryside—and that is what we shall do.

Mr. Hague

Very briefly— [Interruption.] The Prime Minister has asked me a question.

May I say—very briefly, given the time—that the Prime Minister must weigh against that the fact that three weeks ago the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said that coming to the House for three hours was a distraction from dealing with the crisis? He will have to be happy that for all the authorities in Devon and Cumbria, spending four weeks fighting an election is not a distraction from dealing with the crisis.

The Prime Minister

As I have said, of course I understand the representations of those who are making the case for postponing the elections, and will listen carefully to them. I simply say this to the right hon. Gentleman, if we are quoting individual Ministers or shadow Ministers: I think it was his own shadow Agriculture Minister who denounced the prospect of postponing the local elections just a couple of weeks ago.

Leaving all that aside, the question is, what is the right thing to do? I simply say to the right hon. Gentleman that of course I will listen to those representations, but it is important to weigh in the balance the question of what signal we would send if we did indeed postpone the local elections.

I am acutely conscious—because the right hon. Gentleman raised it earlier—of the issue of the tourism industry and businesses in the countryside. What they need, even given the gravity of the situation, is for people to go about their business as normal, as far as is possible. We must send the message out to people that Britain is not in a state of quarantine; on the contrary, provided that they obey the restrictions in the countryside, people should go and enjoy the countryside as they should.

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)

The head of tourism in the south-west told me today that the local elections must go ahead, because to delay them would send completely the wrong message to wider Britain and the wider world. Will the Prime Minister ensure, however, that the Government provide accurate and up-to-date information that makes it clear to people that, even in counties that are badly affected—such as Devon—many places are open for business as usual?

The Prime Minister

Of course it is important for us to send that message to people very clearly. [Interruption.]I hope that Opposition Members who are shouting at my hon. Friend realise that I think they have some responsibility to back up that message, and not say to people "Don't go into the countryside." What we should be saying to people is, "Obey the restrictions, but it is important for the tourism industry that people do enjoy the countryside".

There are businesses in Bath, in York, even in London, that are suffering as a result of the drop in the tourism trade. That is why it is so important that on the one hand we send the message that is necessary to control and eradicate the disease, and on the other hand we send the clear message that people should by all means go into the countryside, but they should obey the restrictions that are there.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West)

Will the Prime Minister acknowledge that this is not the time for politicians to be talking about our livelihoods, in terms of elections, when other people are seeing their livelihoods literally going down the tubes, hour by hour and day by day. [Interruption.] I understand why some Conservative Members are worried about their livelihoods, but that is another story.

Does the Prime Minister share the concern, and, indeed, the view that it is unbelievable, of Ben Gill, president of the National Farmers Union, who has acknowledged today that, much to his dismay, half the abattoirs in this country are closed, despite the current scale of difficulty? Is that not an extraordinary state of affairs and what are the Government going to do about it?

The Prime Minister

Of course it is the case that there are abattoirs that are closed precisely because of the problems that we have had over the disease, but that is why we are seeking to ensure that we open the abattoirs that we can in order to process the animals that are being killed for the food chain now. It is perhaps worth saying to the House again, just to set some of this in context, that, at the moment, we are slaughtering about 250,000 animals a week for normal human consumption in the food chain. Outside the time of the disease, we would normally slaughter about 500,000 each week. It is worth setting that against the 400,000 that we have slaughtered for reasons of foot and mouth disease. We are having to balance making sure that we are getting animals to slaughter with making sure that the abattoirs themselves are clean and free from disease.

Mr. Kennedy

A couple of weeks ago, the Prime Minister properly, although four years too late, called for a serious searching debate in this country about the nature of our farming industry, the rural economy and the whole food chain. Does he acknowledge that one of the things that needs serious searching attention is the absence, all too often, of abattoirs in various parts of the country and the knock-on effect that that is having, not least in the present crisis, with the moving of animals and the traceability of the problem itself? Will the right hon. Gentleman give that urgent attention once we are through the immediate crisis?

The Prime Minister

Of course, the decline in the number of abattoirs—particularly small abattoirs—happened some time ago. I know that there is a serious debate as to whether the absence of sufficient numbers of small abattoirs is a contributory factor in disease spreading—not just foot and mouth, but any type of disease. Again, there are views on both sides of that argument.

As for the question of the long-term future and viability of the farming industry, of course, it is important that, once the immediate difficulties are out of the way, we sit down and look at that very carefully, but it is not a process in which nothing has happened in the past few years. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food reminds me that, last year, we conducted a series of debates and consultations with the farming industry over rural development regulation and over how to change the native of the farming industry over the coming years. Indeed, the right hon. Gentleman's party participated in those discussions—and very constructively, too. There will be an opportunity for us to consider some of those long-term questions. As the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, that will await the end of the immediate position which is one of eradicating and controlling the disuse.

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)

Whenever my right hon. Friend chooses to call the day, can he assure the House and indeed the country that he will lead a campaign to save the pounds: that is, £16 billion worth of cuts proposed by the Conservative party—cuts to schools, cuts to hospitals and cuts in the fight against crime? Does he agree that that will be a popular campaign and that it will not need a flat-backed lorry to get it off the ground?

The Prime Minister

I am sure that the choices before the country will be very clear. There is a major dividing line between the two political parties. We are in favour of additional investment in our schools, hospitals, police and transport system and the Conservative party is committed to £16 billion worth of cuts in those vital services.

Q3. Mr . Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

Despite the Prime Minister's previous waffle about only needing logistical support, does he not realise that, with dying and dead beasts lying in fields and on farms for days, people in the country need support from the Army? Is not the real reason why the Army has not been fully deployed the existence of an internal Whitehall turf war between the Treasury, MAFF and the MOD? Will the Prime Minister not recognise that he is held responsible by people in the countryside and must sort this out?

The Prime Minister

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is no: that is completely and totally untrue. We have made it clear that there are no resource restrictions on dealing with this disease at all. Let me remind the hon. Gentleman that this Government —in spite of the fact that the last Government paid out not a single penny piece in agrimonetary compensation —have pulled down some £600 million of agrimonetary compensation since we have been in office. We are deploying the Army as we are because that is the united view not simply of MAFF, but of the Ministry of Defence and the Army experts. The Army stands ready and willing to do whatever is necessary.

I repeat that there is not a shortage of slaughtermen, and there is not a shortage —at the moment, at any rate —of contractors to do the work. There is, however, a shortage of a proper logistical operation to tie the whole administration together in those areas where the disease is at its strongest. It is precisely that operation that the Army is now carrying out.

Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent)

Would the Prime Minister care to comment on the activities of the steel company Corus which, on the day it was formed, handed over £700 million in sweeteners to its shareholders; it then appropriated £900 million from the, workers' pension fund; it then wasted £135 million in buying up firms abroad; it then compensated an incompetent former chief executive to the tune of millions of pounds; and yet it has announced the closure of one of the most efficient steel plants in the world, in my constituency of Blaenau Gwent, for reasons that the company describes as financial?

The Prime Minister

It is precisely for that reason that we have asked the company to reconsider its decision. I pay tribute to the trade unions for the way in which they have assembled a package to save their jobs and their industry. It is a proper, commercial package that has been properly worked out and would make a profit for the company. It is exactly for those reasons that we have asked the company to reconsider. We still hope that it will hear that call and reconsider the decision that has caused such devastation in my hon. Friend's constituency.

Mr. James Paice (South -East Cambridgeshire)

Despite the Prime Minister's earlier comments, do not the figures speak for themselves? The rapidly lengthening list of animals awaiting slaughter shows that the time scale between diagnosis and slaughter is too long and is probably part of the cause of the increasing rate of outbreak of the disease. Does he agree that in light of the delays and the need for speed, now is not the time for any haggling over small aspects of valuation; for squabbling between different Departments; for waiting for the Environment Agency to look at every single aspect of the matter; and for political correctness about not using hunt servants as slaughtermen? Will the Prime Minister do everything he can to bang heads together and to make sure that those actions are carried out as quickly as possible?

The Prime Minister

Of course; that is precisely what we are doing. Before the hon. Gentleman shakes his head, he might at least listen to my answer. For example, there has been a problem —in certain parts of the country, at any rate —in agreeing the proper price for the slaughtered animal. We are agreeing a tariff that will quicken the valuation process. For example, we are slaughtering before valuation where necessary. For example, slaughter before lab tests —the point raised by the Leader of the Opposition last week —is now happening in 80 per cent. of the cases and is happening wherever necessary. In relation to the Environment Agency, there is an issue in respect of water tables. We cannot simply ignore that or pretend that it does not exist. However, we are working with the agency to clear any obstructions so that we can use burial, which is far more effective than burning.

In relation to any bureaucratic rules —for example, those which say that vets, having visited an inspected farm, cannot visit a new farm —we are changing all those rules and removing whatever bureaucratic obstacles we responsibly can on the advice of the chief veterinary officer. We are putting in place a process for checking all the flocks in non-infected areas so that they can be declared non-infected as soon as possible. All of that is being done.

In particular, the time for slaughter is being shortened considerably and, as a result of the logistical exercise that I have just described, we will be able, over the coming week, to shorten the time between slaughter and disposal. I ask the hon. Gentleman to bear in mind the fact that all of this has been required as we have seen how the disease has been concentrated in certain areas. The disease is in certain areas and not in others. Even though the situation is immensely grave, it is worth emphasising once again that, at present, less than 1 per cent. of the livestock of this country has been subject to slaughter.

What is important is that, as we see how the disease is concentrated, we put in a more and more intense effort into those areas, and that we are now doing. People at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and on the ground are spending every hour that they can working on the problem. It is right that we recognise the contribution that they have made.