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Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): The reality in Cumbria is that the economy will not recover until we get on top of the disease. Will my right hon. Friend tell the Agriculture Minister that a senior MAFF official needs to go to Carlisle to take charge of the problem? As for the remit of my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, the Cumbrian economy is badly damaged. It is not in meltdown, and it will recover, but the speed of that recovery will depend on the assistance that Cumbria receives from the Government. I am glad to see my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury in the Chamber.

Will my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment agree to meet representatives of Cumbria county council when they come down here to explain what is necessary to get the Cumbrian economy back on its feet?

Mr. Meacher: Cumbria, and in particular the area around my hon. Friend's constituency, Carlisle, has been one of the most affected areas in the country. I repeat that we are extremely anxious to do what we can to help. I would be willing, I think, to meet a delegation that my hon. Friend brought from his constituency, so long as it was not treated as a precedent for my meeting everyone else from all over the country who comes from an infected area. One must be careful about these matters.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): The Minister will meet only those from Labour marginal seats.

Mr. Meacher: I am very happy to meet people from any kind of constituency, irrespective of the political nature of that constituency or the majority. People can get a little overheated about the issue, which is an extremely serious one. Public opinion outside is not assisted by some hon. Members treating it as political kick-about.

I am glad to help my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) in any way that I can. I suggest that he gets in touch with me with particular proposals. I do not want to offer tea and sympathy. People want practical help, and if they can suggest ways in which we can provide that, we will listen.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): The Minister's statement began with a few dos and don'ts, then he gave a list of things that he was considering, studying and deferring, but the only item of substance in the statement was an element of rate relief. That was the guts of it. How exactly will that work? When will he publish clear rules and guidelines? What is his budget for

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it? Will it be administered by the county layer or the borough layer? What do people have to prove in order to qualify? Exactly what details must they gather in order to secure the qualifying relief that he announced this afternoon, and when will it start?

Mr. Meacher: Those are perfectly fair questions, and I will give fair answers. Of course, we will produce those details. The statement was produced ultra-quickly, because that is what the public demanded. We will produce the answers to those questions very soon, and I mean very soon, because we want the scheme to be in operation as quickly as possible.

However, to dismiss the rest of the statement as a deferment or a consideration of this, that and the other is wrong. If the hon. Gentleman studies the detail, he will see that the cumulative impact is considerable. In particular, those who deal with the victims of the outbreak will receive case-by-case and very favourable and sympathetic assistance, not only from the revenue authorities, but from the banks and the Small Business Service. The hon. Gentleman should not dismiss that with a shake of his head. It is extremely important and will provide genuine assistance.

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton): I welcome the positive statement from my right hon. Friend, but mixed messages are being sent. Loch Lomond, in my area, depends heavily on tourists and the message to hill walkers is that it is unacceptable to be in the countryside, whereas the message to skiers is that it is acceptable. I welcome the public information campaign that the Government are about to undertake.

To talk about abandoning any elections would put out entirely the wrong message. We must remember that during the second world war, we had elections, while we were still prosecuting a war against the Japanese. In 1974 we had a three-day week, but we had an election, which was called by the Opposition. The message must be that the United Kingdom has not shut down--it is open for business seven days a week.

Mr. Meacher: My hon. Friend is right. We need to clarify where people can safely go. I have said that repeatedly, and it should be made clear across the piece--given the earlier reference to skiing, that may not be an appropriate metaphor. There should be clarity about all kinds of activities. We will provide a helpline so that if people still have doubts after reading the guidelines, they can get specific and detailed assistance from the helpline. On the question of elections, my hon. Friend put the case exactly. To suspend elections is a sign of crisis, which is out of all proportion to the state that we are in.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry): The Minister not only dealt with short-term help, but spoke about a Bill that was published yesterday, which is presumably supposed to deal with the long term. First, what is the extent of that Bill and will the aid that it provides apply throughout the United Kingdom? Secondly, what is his definition of a small rural settlement?

Mr. Meacher: The Rating (Former Agricultural Premises and Rural Shops) Bill, which we published on Friday, provides for an extension of mandatory 50 per cent. relief to village shops, pubs and garages under a

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prescribed rateable value. We are considering to what extent we can fast-track the measure so that its benefits are not only available in the long term, but can apply in the immediate short term. If we can do that, we will. The general definition of a small parish settlement is a settlement with a population of fewer than 3,000 people.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland): My right hon. Friend will be aware that his detailed but interim statement will be widely welcomed throughout north-east England. It will be especially welcomed in my Teesdale constituency, where most tourism businesses are micro-businesses that currently have devastating cash flow problems. I should like, however, to issue him with two constructive warnings. First, Ministers will need to have a firm grip to ensure that the clear message that he has given today rings out with equal clarity and cogency throughout the whole country and from all agencies. Secondly, Ministers must have the same grip in respect of money, if it is to get quickly to the people who need it.

Mr. Meacher: I entirely accept my right hon. Friend's constructive warnings. It is always hardest to give assistance to micro-businesses, which are at the end of the line of small and medium enterprises and are not always plugged into their information requirements. That is the purpose of the massive advertising programme that we are about to start--I hope that we will do so before the end of the week--in the newspapers and on the radio. It will be parallelled by similar campaigning abroad as soon as the British Tourist Authority can provide it.

With regard to my right hon. Friend's strictures for Ministers, I assure him that we are conducting a joined-up campaign within Whitehall. Ministers from several other Departments are members of the taskforce, and I have been in constant contact with them during the past few days. Whether it is MAFF, the Department of Trade and Industry or the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, all those other Departments are putting their weight behind the campaign, which is a good example of Government working through close co-operation.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): Given that Cumbria is the most affected county, will the Minister tell us whether a Cumbrian serves on his national taskforce? If not, will he consider appointing one? I welcome his remarks about business rate valuations and appeals against them, but is he aware that Ulverston Inland Revenue valuation office already has an 18-month waiting list for current cases? What can he do to speed that up? Furthermore, Cumbria county council, which is run by the Labour party, estimates that the region's economy is already losing £15 million a week. What is the estimated value of the package that he has announced for the nation for, say, the next three months?

Mr. Meacher: The membership of the rural taskforce, which is already large and has between 20 and 25 members, involves all relevant interests. If the taskforce had to be formed on a geographic basis, it would have to have members not only from Cumbria, but from Devon, Powys and the Welsh borders, and Dumfries and Galloway, as it is dealing with a UK effort. Such a requirement would become impossible, although that does not mean that we are not deeply aware that Cumbria is one of the two areas that has been most affected by the

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outbreak. A great deal of our effort is now directed to it. On the speeding up of rate claims in Ulverston, we are, as I said, postponing for three months the period for receipt of rating appeals. If we can assist in the handling of those claims in any other ways, we shall certainly consider them.

The hon. Gentleman says that the losses in Cumbria amount to £15 million. I am sure he is right; they are considerable in many parts of the country. The thrust of my statement is that the best way to assist people is not to increase Government expenditure, though that is necessary in the immediate short term, but to get people to accept that they can safely go back into the countryside and spend their money as they wish at rural businesses, shops, B and Bs and hotels. That is what the statement is designed to achieve.

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