Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Meacher: I am aware of course that the outbreak has had devastating effects on many national and public events, not least the one to which my hon. Friend referred. I understand that the Under-Secretary of State for Wales has written to her about what was said at their meeting. We want to ensure that festivals with international as well as national significance should be able to go ahead. I repeat that our actions must be guided by MAFF's veterinary advice. As soon as it is safe to reopen venues or to allow events to go ahead, the Government are extremely keen that we should do so, but we must rigorously accept the advice, whatever it is.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): Everyone who has known the Minister over the years will know that he made his statement today with complete sincerity. However, at lunchtime we heard the Leader of the House saying that it is not people who are in quarantine, but only animals. Does that not give rise to the suspicion that the Government do not yet appreciate that they have a national crisis on their hands?

I assume that the right hon. Gentleman will have made an assessment of the consequences for a tourism industry that may well find that in certain parts of the country the summer season is already lost. I assume also that he will have made some assessment of the effect that that will have on farmers who may not be able to start up their proceedings again for six or nine months. Given that we have a national crisis on such a scale, what measures is the right hon. Gentleman thinking of introducing, other than those announced today which are very small and specific? Where in his thinking is the sense that we are dealing with a national crisis that needs a national response?

Mr. Meacher: The hon. Gentleman has not fairly characterised the tone of my statement or my responses. I recognise, as all Ministers have, that this is a very serious situation. I do not think anyone attempts to underplay it in any way. However, the issue is how we handle it, and how we contain and eradicate the disease.

The hon. Gentleman is almost certainly right in saying that there will be significant losses of international tourism in the summer, and that for many farm and non-farm businesses the effects could continue for some considerable time. That is why I said--taking account of

20 Mar 2001 : Column 202

the demand of the House for an urgent statement so that the immediate requirements could be put in place and everyone knew what they were, and so that the helpline could be set up within a matter of days--that I would then judge whether it was right to introduce further measures over the next few weeks. Obviously the content of such measures would depend on the course of the disease, and on further and clearer revelations of the degree of economic damage that the situation has caused.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley): I welcome my right hon. Friend's commitment to publicise the fact that many of our tourist attractions in the countryside are still open: for example, in Amber Valley, the midland railway museum, the national tramway museum, the Denby pottery visitors centre and the industrial heritage sites. Will he ensure that nothing is done to muddy the message that Derbyshire and other parts of the country are still open for visitors?

Will my right hon. Friend also note that my constituency is a mixed urban and rural area, and confirm that those who are suffering--such as businesses and those providing holiday accommodation--will be eligible for relief? For example, if the Pentrich rock and blues bikers festival does not go ahead, the local town could lose £500,000 worth of business. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that all businesses in such mixed areas will be eligible for relief if they are suffering?

Mr. Meacher: I repeat that many attractions remain open, and we believe that many more can open without risk. I understand that Derbyshire has been particularly affected. As with other areas, we are keen to see it opened up again where it is safe to do so. That is the message that I am giving all over the country.

With regard to the festival to which my hon. Friend referred, I must make it clear to the House that the statement that we have made is highly significant, and that it is also a preliminary one. It does not mean--the Government have never said that it meant--that there will be full compensation for everyone or every institution that has suffered economic loss. No Government are in a position to offer that. We need targeted measures for businesses at risk of going down, to keep them afloat and to provide them with the essential support to get through this situation. That is what the package is designed to do.

Jackie Ballard (Taunton): Tomorrow afternoon, a crisis meeting is to be held in Porlock of representatives of Exmoor businesses. This situation affects not only those who provide tourist accommodation or services to tourists, but those who rely on passing trade from visitors to the national park, such as garages and pubs, whose takings have slumped dramatically.

Although the measures that the Minister has announced will be welcome, they will deal only with some of the short-term cash flow problems. They will not help people to pay their immediate bills for the basic necessities of life. Deferring payments will not deal with the long-term cash flow problems. What message would the Minister like me to pass on from the Government to those Exmoor businesses at their meeting tomorrow, to give them some hope for the future?

Mr. Meacher: I hope that the hon. Lady will pass on the message that the Government are listening, responding

20 Mar 2001 : Column 203

and providing immediate emergency help in a manner that is directly relevant. I have already been around the country a good deal, listening, and I have included in the statement the matters of most concern that were expressed to me.

The hon. Lady is right to say that this is not just about tourist attractions. A vast range of small rural businesses, pubs, shops, bed and breakfasts and hotels have been affected. I have said that transport and haulage contractors can also gain benefit under this package. I do not believe that, as a result of the application of the package, people will still not be able to pay for the immediate necessities of life. If they had to meet new rate demands and demands for VAT and PAYE payments on the dot when they came in, however, they would be in trouble, and we are finding every possible means within the current legislative system to defer some of those payments and to relieve them of their immediate liability. Of course that will leave a greater problem in the longer term, and we shall consider that later on.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak): First, may I correct the impression that my right hon. Friend may have given? There has been a single outbreak in south Derbyshire, but the Peak district, whose tourism is dependent on 22 million visitors a year, is not affected by foot and mouth disease in any way and is open for business. Indeed, last Thursday I was at a conference for representatives of the Peak district tourism industry, who have put together a package that they wish to have implemented. My right hon. Friend may have read their proposals, because those which he announced today exactly match those of this vital tourism area.

Finally, will my right hon. Friend look at imaginative ways of making sure that some of our attractions reopen? I am thinking of Peveril castle in Castleton, which has been closed because it uses four sheep full-time to keep the grass down. If those sheep could be moved, the attraction could be reopened.

Mr. Meacher: I am sure that the people responsible for the four sheep will take note of the obvious solution and move them pretty quickly. On the general point about Derbyshire, I agree that is vital to stress that the Peak district, which has about 22 million visitors a year, is totally unaffected by the crisis. When I said that Derbyshire had suffered, I meant that many people in that attractive part of the country who are dependent on the tourist business have been hit secondarily, as their takings have been affected. The statement is designed to assist people in that position.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): May I ask the Minister how best to address a short-term crisis with long-term environmental consequences, particularly in forestry? Christmas to Easter is the maximum planting period; many small businesses across rural Britain have commenced planting, only to be told that they are now in an infected area. In turn they have had to inform customers and clients that they have been in an infected area, even if they are not carrying the virus, which is putting their businesses in crisis. More importantly, we will lose a whole season's planting of trees if we are not careful.

20 Mar 2001 : Column 204

Mr. Meacher: I appreciate that people are in that situation. Again, what I have said about rate relief and the assessment of the situation by revenue departments and Customs and Excise is relevant. Those people will be treated as sympathetically as possible concerning those statutory payments. If there are other means of assisting them, we are very glad to use them. Those who are right inside the infected areas are grievously afflicted; most of them are farmers, who get agreed compensation for animals that are slaughtered, but people who are not farmers, and do not have livestock, have also been seriously affected. The hon. Gentleman referred to a particular category to which we ought to pay further attention.

Next Section

IndexHome Page