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Mr. Smith: I am very much aware of the extent of the problems that are being experienced. I made sure that I made that clear in my initial response to the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth). There are many waterways where parts of the waterway can be accessed via roads and tarmac, so we need to look sensitively at where access can be achieved, without any risk to animals or to the rural environment. Those are precisely the sort of things that we will talk with the waterways authorities about.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): As my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) said, Cheshire has had its first outbreak today. Fortunately, my constituency is still free of foot and mouth, but does the Secretary of State accept that what the farmers and the people of our rural areas want is the eradication of the disease as quickly as possible? Farming in my constituency is predominantly livestock farming. To make an income, many farmers have had to open bed- and-breakfast facilities. The inland waterways are an important part of tourism, and part of my constituency lies in the Peak park, but we do not want people to come to such rural areas at the moment because they are likely to bring foot and mouth with them. Does he accept that the great problem in the rural areas is cash flow? If the Government could help those affected through the business rate or in any other way, such as through intervening with lending institutions, I should be grateful.

Mr. Smith: We have made it crystal clear--indeed, I have made it crystal clear today--that the first and most

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important priority is to eradicate the disease. That has to remain the bottom line; it governs everything that we do in respect of our response to the epidemic However, the message that we are getting very clearly from people, including farmers and people running small businesses throughout rural Britain, is that they do not want people to get the idea that rural Britain is a no-go area. It is not. Many things can be usefully and productively done in rural Britain. We want to encourage people to do those things. We do not want to encourage people to engage in risky activity.

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): Seaside resort hoteliers who observe these proceedings will be disappointed that there has been no specific mention of seaside resorts, which, de facto, not being rural areas, are all open for business; the season is beginning very early. I endorse everything that others have asked the Secretary of State to do, but I have one further idea. A number of language schools in seaside resorts are suffering because of misinformation from foreign Governments. What are our embassies doing about that? Will he speak to the Foreign Secretary to ensure that they do all that they can to put right the bad messages that are going out?

Mr. Smith: The embassies and high commissions abroad, as well as the British Tourist Authority, are actively seeking to counter misinformation and to put out information about what is happening and the vast number of things that can still be enjoyed. Language schools are part of that fabric of activities that are still very much on the agenda. On seaside resorts generally, I would hope that some might seek to benefit from the present difficulties, as recreation on the beach and in the town at seaside resorts is still very much possible. I hope that that message will be sent clearly as well.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): Nothing the Secretary of State has said today convinces me that he really understands the urgency of the situation that he faces, particularly in relation to the inland waterways sector. My constituent, Mr. Edward Helps of Alvechurch Boat Centres Ltd., faces the complete loss of all his business--not 80 or 75 per cent., but 100 per cent.--for many weeks and months ahead. What would the Secretary of State say to Mr. Helps?

Mr. Smith: I understand the difficulties that face many in the rural economy, particularly those running small businesses, be they on inland waterways, be they small hotels, guesthouses or farms that have become heavily reliant on bed-and-breakfast income. Those enterprises are being severely affected by what is happening. That is why we need to ensure that the best quality of accurate information is available and why we need to look carefully and sympathetically at what measures can be taken over time to try to assist those affected.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): The Secretary of State has completely missed the point. North Shropshire, touch wood, is currently a foot and mouth-free zone. Two miles away, there is foot and mouth in Cheshire. Bed-and-breakfast bookings are down by 100 per cent. and holiday park bookings by 80 per cent. The one area where the Government can help is with liquidity. How many telephone conversations has he had

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with the Chancellor to discuss VAT? How many conversations has he had with the Deputy Prime Minister about business rates? How many banks has he rung to talk about liquidity? He can help, but he does not appear to have done anything.

Mr. Smith: This is not the time for partisanship.

Mr. Paterson: But what has he done?

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman asked a question. He is now getting the answer.

Mr. Smith: It is a time for seriously addressing serious issues. I am in regular contact with my right hon. Friends the Chancellor, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. That is precisely why we have brought together all the relevant Ministers with outside organisations in the rural economy working party. We are urgently addressing precisely those issues. If, rather than ranting, the hon. Gentleman took time to look at what is happening, he would see that we are addressing the serious issues.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): In recent hours, I have been talking to a hotelier in my constituency whose bookings are down by 70 per cent. I have talked also to a rural publican whose bar receipts are down by 90 per cent. When they hear the Secretary of State saying that rural Devon is not a no-go area, there will be stark staring disbelief. Does he realise that the Government are not powerless in the matter? There are fiscal levers that they could use. They could consider income tax or VAT, or the remission or delayed payment of business rates. He has said nothing about that today. I am sorry to have to say this but, in all my years in the House, I have never heard a Secretary of State speak on a subject with so little grip on it. His idea of a response to this crisis is to find a piece of countryside where the disease has not yet struck and walk around it with impunity. That is incredibly wrong. To blame the crisis in the tourism industry on the press is not realistic. We want to hear from him even now. He cannot say that he has done anything, because if he had done something he would have told us about it. He should go away and discuss with his ministerial colleagues what can be done.

Mr. Smith: What the hon. Gentleman has just said is a complete and utter distortion of what I have said and what the Government have done. None of us are advocating--

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Is.

Mr. Smith: None of us are suggesting that anyone should get out of their car and walk across fields or agricultural land or in proximity to livestock. We are very clear--and have been from the word go--that those

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aspects of countryside recreation are not acceptable. However, we are seeking to encourage legitimate and safe recreation in rural Britain. I am very sad that the hon. Gentleman does not seem to share that ambition. He raised some other points about different ways of assisting rural businesses in the face of this crisis. Of course, we are looking sympathetically at all possible options. That is why we have the rural economy working party. It is why my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer and others are looking at these issues to see what can best be done over the next few days and weeks.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am going to call the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) and then we must move on. However, I can give those who have not been called today an assurance that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food assures me that he will make a statement tomorrow and I shall call them then.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): Small businesses in my constituency are almost entirely in agriculture and tourism and they are suffering dreadfully. Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming a private initiative in my constituency by Sir Ray Tindle, the owner of Cambrian News, to provide £250,000 to help those small businesses? Will the Government consider match funding and similar private initiatives and the deferring of VAT payments and business rates? Finally, although I agree with his comments on coastal towns such as Aberystwyth, the Secretary of State is in danger of sending out a mixed message today about other rural areas. In most of my constituency one can hardly move without falling over a sheep. I do not understand the Government's current guidelines on rural tourism. Will he release clear guidelines for rural areas and make sure that the media also know about them?

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