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Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): Foot and mouth strikes cloven-hoofed animals--ones that we are familiar with and others such as the antelope. The elephant can also be affected. My question is about zoos. Will special consideration be given to the plight of zoos, which are major visitor attractions? If the outbreak drags on for long, it could put some out of business.
Mr. Meacher: I am concerned about that. When I was in the east midlands, I met an owner who had closed her zoo. When I asked why, she said it was because of the fear of the disease spreading to it. I also asked where the nearest livestock were. She replied, "18 miles away." I then asked whether she had sought local veterinary advice, and I hope that she will do so. It is not for me to decide, but I believe that many nature reserves and zoos can open, although that depends on local advice.
The Minister talks about affected areas, but does he realise that many areas with no foot and mouth outbreak are none the less grievously affected and may be in an exclusion zone? He also talks about jobseeker's allowance. Does he realise that many people have a job, but have no work? Companies have no business but want to keep their staff, so will he consider whether jobseeker's allowance can be used to help people who remain technically employed, but are not earning wages because their companies cannot pay them? Are local authorities eligible for the Bellwin scheme in respect of significant expenditure incurred in managing elements of the foot and mouth outbreak?
Mr. Meacher: Of course I realise that many areas outside the immediately infected areas--what are sometimes called the designated areas, in a 10 km radius--are almost as acutely affected, because so many paths, buildings and access routes are closed. Again, we are content to accept local advice as to how far some of those areas, under some conditions, can be opened up. I repeat, however, that that is a matter for local veterinary advice. Assisting areas outside the infected areas is the whole point of my statement.
The Bellwin scheme is implemented under closely prescribed conditions, as is of course necessary, and it was used in the example of flooding. It may have application in this example. That, again, is a matter that we want closely to consider in the next few days.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the people at Bolsover castle and Hardwick hall will be pleased about the preliminary statement made today and the money involved, because they contrast sharply with what happened during the pit strike of 1984 and 1985? In all those beleaguered pit communities, businesses went under and shops had to close, but there was not one penny piece from the Tories and, to show their thanks, they closed all the pits and made the problem even worse. Does he agree that the only reason he is able to hand out money today is that we have run the economy 10 times better than that lot did when they were in power?
Mr. Meacher: My hon. Friend always makes a powerful political point forcefully and eloquently. We all have our views about the pit strike. It is certainly true that the current economic situation makes it easier for the Government to respond, and we shall do so as fully and as effectively as the circumstances require.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): The owner of a local riding stables rang me this weekend to say that she is going out of business. We have not yet had a case of foot and mouth in Lincolnshire, but every footpath has been closed. What plans does the Minister have to work with county councils to ensure that we fight this disease where it is breaking out, and can open footpaths and bridleways through arable areas? Could the Minister also answer the question that has been posed and tell us what the package is worth, because it is important that relief is not spread too thinly over the whole country?
Mr. Meacher: We have been going for an hour and 10 minutes, and I keep repeating that the whole point of this statement and of the rural taskforce is to bring aid to people in those parts of the country outside the immediately infected areas who have been seriously hit by an economic downturn which has been no fault of their own. It has been dramatic, and they have no defence against it. We recognise that they need assistance. The best way to assist them is to get people back into those areas by making sure that they understand that it is safe. We must get rid of people's serious misconception, which is perhaps due to their feeling of patriotism and their desire to help the country. They thought the best way to do that was to keep out of the countryside, but we now know that that is wrong; and it has had a devastating effect. I hope that we will all take a non-partisan approach and join together to get that message across in all constituencies. Hon. Members will certainly have the assistance of Government through an advertising
I have already answered the question about bridleways and footpaths. They will be opened if it is safe to do so. I have asked the Local Government Association and all local authorities to consider case by case whether they can open the footpaths in their area. I have no doubt that over the next week or two the great majority of them will be safely opened.
Mr. Nick Ainger (West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire): I thank the Minister for his statement. It will be warmly welcomed in my constituency, which has a large tourism industry. Some attractions are due to open at Easter, but the guidance and advice that they are receiving is unclear about whether they should open or not. Bearing in mind the fact that Easter is only three weeks away, will he ensure that clear guidance is given to those attractions, because we want them to open for business as quickly as possible?
Mr. Meacher: My hon. Friend raises a point that has been of great concern to the Government. People are now making their Easter bookings. Many small rural businesses have a fairly hard time during the winter months, but in the spring and summer their earnings manage to pay back the winter losses. It is critical that they have the full benefit of visits and the increased custom that comes when people are enjoying themselves and taking recreation in the countryside. That is exactly why it is so important to get this message across, and why the Government are doing all in their power to ensure that people realise that they can safely visit those attractions this Easter.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not be tempted to open access to farmland in some of the finest dairying areas in the country, in Somerset in my constituency. Does he realise that a great many businesses are not directly related to tourism but their turnover is nevertheless being decimated? That applies not only in small villages, but in the market towns to which the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) referred. I hope that the Minister's package will deal with that.
A specific problem relates to the Royal Bath and West show, which is due to open in a few weeks' time. It is far more than just an agricultural show; it is a major showcase and shop window for hundreds of rural businesses. Will the Minister meet representatives from the show to see how they can ensure that the show not only takes place, but takes place successfully?
Mr. Meacher: I have made it clear repeatedly that, while we want as much of the countryside as possible to be opened, we must make certain that that is done with caution. We must ensure that paths across farmland or pastures that might be used by livestock are not opened. Everything must be considered on a case-by-case basis,
According to the English Tourism Council, the tourism industry receives about £12 billion a year from visitors to the countryside, especially in spring and summer. It is an enormous industry, and it is crucial. We are not concerned just about tourism, however. I have mentioned haulage and transport, but other rural businesses not seen as directly connected with tourism would certainly be covered by my proposals.
It is not for me to say whether the royal agricultural show should take place. I suggest that its sponsors speak to local MAFF and veterinary officers, and identify conditions under which it could safely be opened. As long as those conditions can be met, no one will be more pleased than me if the show goes ahead; but if it is decided that they cannot be met, we must accept that judgment for safety reasons.