HL Deb 21 March 2001 vol 623 cc1424-7

2.55 p.m.

Lord Monro of Langholm

asked Her Majesty's Government:

In the light of the encouragement given by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to tourists to continue to visit the British countryside, how this advice compares with the experience of the 1967 outbreak of foot and mouth disease.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Government's Chief Veterinary Officer has issued advice to the public on countryside activities and visits based on the most up-to-date expert advice and evidence. The committee of inquiry into the 1967 outbreak made no recommendations relating to controlling visitors during an outbreak. As long as they follow the Chief Veterinary Officer's advice, people may safely continue to visit and enjoy the countryside.

Lord Monro of Langholm

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his Answer, and indeed I thank the Government for the Statement yesterday on the crisis in the countryside. I should declare an interest as one who is likely to lose his breeding flock under the cull scheme to be carried out next week.

Does the noble Lord agree that Dumfries and Galloway Council has made heroic efforts to contain the disease in that county? Does he believe that the Scottish Office and MAFF have sufficient resources, in terms of physical resources and facilities, to carry out the cull speedily in the country? Does he agree that few who read the 1967 report believe that we have reached a peak in the crisis and that the recommendations in that report should be implemented as soon as possible, particularly those relating to the disposal of carcasses and communications with the public?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Question on the Order Paper concerns tourism, which is why I am replying to it. In view of the extensive debate we had on the foot and mouth outbreak in this country, including nine hours of debate last week and a Statement yesterday, it is not desirable for me to put into other words comments that my colleagues from MAFF and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions have made in the House. I appreciate the tribute which the noble Lord paid to Dumfries and Galloway Council. He paid it last week and I am sure that it is well deserved. However, although I answer for the whole Government, I do not think that it would be appropriate for me to answer again on the other matters that he raises.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there are throughout the countryside other interests as well as agriculture which we must of course treat as priorities? Does he agree that it is important to strike a balance between those other interests, including tourism—which in this country is a bigger foreign exchange earner than agriculture—and to make sure that there is a proper awareness throughout the country that much of the countryside is still available for enjoyment?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I very much agree. I do not know whether the noble Lord saw a report in The Times this morning which described how the village of Porlock in Somerset is deserted despite being 60 miles from the nearest outbreak of foot and mouth disease. The fact that struck me is that in that area 90 per cent of the land is in agricultural use but 90 per cent of the employment derives from tourism. That is often the case. Of course, there is no restriction on people visiting shops, museums, galleries, restaurants, pubs, theme parks and other attractions; what they must not do is walk in fields where there is livestock. There is a huge number of attractive places to visit, including countryside, in this country. The Minister for Tourism is in New York at the moment to spread that message.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the members of the Federation of Zoological Gardens of Great Britain—namely, the zoos and wildlife parks, which receive somewhere in the region of 13 million visits from tourists each year—will, according to that federation, be in a cash crisis by April of this year? Is the noble Lord also aware that 45 per cent of the members of that federation are charities and small businesses? How will the Government address those problems?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Lord refers to a problem which is more widespread than zoos. It applies to a large number of visitor attractions throughout the country. Clearly the measures in relation to tax, national insurance contributions, business rates and so on which my noble friend Lord Whitty announced yesterday on behalf of Michael Meacher go some way towards dealing with that. I have to repeat what my noble friend Lady Hayman said at the end of the debate last week. The Government cannot be the insurer of last resort for every financial consequence.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, will the Minister consider a national appeal based on the premise that we are in a national emergency? Would not that help those involved in tourism and activities around farming? If we were to declare forthwith a national emergency and issue a national appeal for the support of the rural economy, would not that be a unifying factor for the nation?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, it might be a two-edged weapon. If we were to declare a national emergency we might make the situation worse by discouraging tourists from coming to this country. I think that probably the same consideration applies to the suggestion of a national appeal.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the outbreak of foot and mouth disease has highlighted the economic importance to the United Kingdom of tourism? In the light of that, does he find it odd, as I do, that an entire Ministry is accorded to agriculture yet tourism does not feature even in the title of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, tourism does not feature in the title of the DCMS but it features in its activities. We have a very effective tourism Minister in Janet Anderson, who has been visiting, as has the Secretary of State, the affected areas of this country. My noble friend is right about the importance of tourism. It is a £64 billion industry, of which £12 billion is in the countryside. That importance cannot be overestimated.

Lord Plumb

My Lords, my question relates to the 1967 review. If I remember aright, the criticism after the 1967 review was that the rules had been relaxed too quickly. Many will welcome the Statement yesterday. However, does the Minister accept that there is a good deal of confusion? It was expressed in many newspapers today. On the one hand, we had yet more outbreaks yesterday; at the same time there is the proposed relaxation of access to footpaths. Will not people be confused in particular when they are told not to go into livestock areas? Will the noble Lord please tell me where I find an area which is not a livestock area? There are foxes in London. There are animals, wild or commercial, throughout the country. In those circumstances, how does one define those areas where people can move freely?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Lord was a distinguished member of the Duke of Northumberland's inquiry into the 1967 outbreak. His knowledge of it will inevitably be much better than mine. I was not familiar with the finding that the restrictions were relaxed too quickly.

I do not think that it is true to say that the restrictions are being relaxed. They are being explained more clearly. The fact that large parts of the country are free from the disease is being made clear to those who have exaggerated fears. Although the outbreaks still continue, two-thirds of the outbreaks yesterday were either in Cumbria or in Dumfries and Galloway. That confirms that for the sake of the wider rural economy it is important that we continue to emphasise the extent to which this country and its countryside can still be a valuable and important tourist attraction.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I have today cancelled the opening of my garden in early April in aid of the Scotland's garden scheme? Although we are not in an affected area, we are surrounded by livestock and animals and I am worried about the infection spreading further.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Baroness acted on proper local veterinary advice.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, do the Government understand the problems experienced by outdoor centre instructors and guides? Many are self-employed. Often 100 per cent of their business is based on taking people into open countryside, which is now closed, and is concentrated in Wales, Cumbria and Dartmoor, areas which are affected by the disease. Is the Government's task force paying attention to the need of this vital sector—in particular with regard to education—which runs the risk of being wiped out?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, yes. The recommendations of the task force were reported yesterday. They apply to all businesses and charities and cover outdoor centres of the kind the noble Lord describes. It is worth emphasising that this is not the final report. Work is continuing. If further action is necessary, it will be taken.