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Mr. Norman: We welcome the Minister's response. Let me remind the House of the chronology of the crisis. The first outbreak of foot and mouth was reported on 20 February, and it took nearly four weeks to form the rural taskforce. The rate relief measures to which the Minister referred were announced a month after the outbreak, and the loan guarantee scheme for affected businesses was announced on 6 April.
When the Minister last made a statement to the House, about a month ago, on the measures to be taken, he described them as a preliminary package. We welcomed them, as far as they went, at that stage, but it is now clear that the impact of foot and mouth on rural businesses is
Although the number of reported cases of infection has now reduced, the crisis is far from over for business. Indeed, it is reported that since Easter the level of bookings in most rural tourism areas has declined still further. The British Hospitality Association estimates that the total loss from overseas visitors alone will be £3 billion, with a further £2 billion from domestic tourism.
Some businesses are already on the point of closure. Indeed, some have closed, including small abattoirs, such as Lamberhurst abattoir in Kent. If ever there was an emergency in a business sector, it is now. If ever there was a need for a generous, speedy and decisive Government response, it is now. For those businesses, the acid test of the Government's response is whether cash is hitting the bank account, as we said a month ago. It is not whether there are high-profile ministerial visits, but whether those businesses are being enabled to survive the crisis. The question, therefore, is whether the Government's response today, which contained no new proposals and no new money, is generous and long lasting.
The Minister says that the rural taskforce has met four times in about six weeks. Will he tell us when it last met and reassure us that it will continue to meet throughout the duration of the crisis? Will he reassure us that he will continue to come to the House to report on the progress that it has achieved and the extent to which the £200 million package to which he referred has been dispensed to small businesses? While he is about it, will he confirm his previous, very helpful, statement that there will be a formal public inquiry into the crisis? What will the terms of reference be, and when do the Government plan to announce the details of the inquiry?
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the rate relief package. He will be aware that many rural businesses consider the Government's arrangements woefully inadequate, on two counts. First, the rateable value ceiling of £12,000 excludes many--if not, in some areas, most--rural businesses. It seems to many businesses miserly compared with the £50,000 limit in Scotland and Wales. The difference between those two limits is, for many, inexplicable. In the south lakeland area alone, it is reported that a quarter to a third of all businesses, and a half of all tourism businesses, are ineligible for the scheme. Indeed, quite small hotels and bed-and-breakfast businesses will not qualify under the £12,000 limit.
Secondly, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many district councils are unable to afford the remaining 5 per cent. of rate relief? Indeed, the costs of administration and other costs imposed on them by the foot and mouth crisis mean that large increases in council tax are already looming in those areas. Will the right hon. Gentleman consider, as we have proposed, introducing rate relief of 100 per cent. and providing extra support for those councils worst affected, or does he believe that council taxpayers should bear the cost of the crisis for years to come?
On the loan guarantee scheme, is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the absolute fury expressed by many small businesses at the 8.75 per cent. interest rate to be charged? That seems extortionate in the light of the fact that many can borrow more cheaply than that through their own bank account or overdraft. How much money has been extended through the scheme and how many businesses, if any, have benefited specifically, or is the scheme a smokescreen for the fact that the Government are unable to offer any realistic long-term support? Will the Minister discuss with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), the possibility of bringing into force the interest-free scheme that we proposed some four weeks ago?
The third area of support is marketing support for tourism. Can the right hon. Gentleman explain the reasons for the Government's parsimonious approach to support for tourism? If ever there was a time to promote Britain abroad generously, on a long-lasting basis, it is now. Yet the English Tourism Council has been granted only an extra £4 million, compared, we understand, with an extra £5 million being spent in Scotland. The British Tourist Authority put in a bid for £20 million in support but has received only £2 million. If ever there was a time to take decisive action to market Britain, it is now. We have proposed giving a £10 million grant to the English Tourism Council and doubling the BTA's budget. Can the Minister say whether he is prepared to consider those proposals or why the Government have made such an ungenerous response?
The environmental effects of burning carcases have been much reported in the media. We welcome the Minister's recognition this morning on the "Today" programme that there is no risk-free option for disposal, and we share that view. Does he accept, however, that the widespread concern across the country has resulted from a lack of reassurance to date? Does he accept that if the Environment Agency had been more forthcoming in identifying sites for burial, and if the Government had been quicker in introducing more on-site farm burial--as we recommended and as was recommended following the inquiry into the 1967 outbreak--the problem would not have been as great as it has been?
The Minister last made a statement to the House on 20 March, and we hope that this will not be the last time we hear from him. Does he agree that what he then called a preliminary package should indeed have been so? That statement should have been the first of a series of bold announcements to tackle the crisis decisively and communicate action effectively.
Since then, however, we have had a flurry of high-profile ministerial visits and an awful lot of public relations, but very little money for most businesses. For businesses suffering under the threat of bankruptcy and deeply worried about the future, the Government's response has been parsimonious to the point of penny- pinching, confused in communication and ineffective in delivery.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned figures suggesting that bookings for Easter were down. In some cases they were, but the Easter summary produced by the English Tourism Council estimates that business reached 70 to 80 per cent. of last year's levels. In Cumbria, attractions fared pretty well.
Mr. Meacher: Even in Cumbria, 50 per cent. of attractions reported an increase in visitors. Resorts, coastal towns and cities have generally done well or very well, as have day-out attractions. The hon. Gentleman's Jeremiah picture went fairly wide of the mark.
The hon. Gentleman was anxious to say that the amount of money made available by the Government was small. As I said in my statement, it amounts to more than £200 million, and I do not think that that sum is as small as he suggested. It has been well received, and we are considering further measures.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that the rural taskforce will continue to meet under my chairmanship until foot and mouth disease has been overcome, election or no election. I hope that he is content with that.
With regard to the public inquiry about which I have spoken, I should make it clear that I was honestly saying what I believe will be the case. It is, of course, a matter for the Prime Minister to announce the terms of reference, in his own time, and I am sure that he will do so.
On the £12,000 rateable value threshold and the 5 per cent. payment by rural authorities, the hon. Gentleman asked a genuine question, as opposed to some of the political points that he made. We are aware of complaints that that is insufficient. We have asked the Local Government Association to provide the evidence to justify those allegations. We asked some time ago--