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The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) asked how many firms have used the small firms local guarantee scheme. The Small Business Service has received more than 400 inquiries relating to foot and mouth disease compared with a normal inquiry rate of 40 a day. More than 700 applications for information had been received about a week ago--the number is certainly more now.
With regard to the £6 million boost for tourism, perhaps the best way to answer is to quote the comments of Edwin Griffin of Meeting Planners International from the United States. After visiting this country at the invitation of the British Tourist Authority, he said:
Lastly, on the question of pyres, I made it clear this morning that the Government's first priority is--and remains--to maximise the use of rendering, of incineration in properly controlled industrial plant and of burial in registered landfill sites. I am very interested to note that the preference of the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells is for on-site farm burial. Let me tell him that the place where 160,000 carcases are not yet disposed of is Devon, so his solution is totally unworkable because of the high levels of the water table there. Our proposals are the only practical option.
Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): I welcome my right hon. Friend's opening remarks; his words will be read by many people in my constituency. Despite two good days at Easter, the tourism industry in the west of the Lake district is really in crisis. We had stage 1 a month ago--my right hon. Friend referred to it. May we have stage 2--not compensation, but financial support, highly targeted, to help people who really are suffering?
I witnessed the work of the taskforce last Thursday--the proceedings were excellent. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for the taskforce to take evidence not only from local authorities and organisations identified with local authorities, but from some of the grass-roots organisations that have sprung up in these areas to represent the people who are in trouble, such as Cumbria crisis alliance in my constituency? That organisation has done some good work on small measures--inexpensive but targeted--that could be introduced and would change the fortunes of people who are in financial difficulty. Will my right hon. Friend put his weight behind the right of such organisations to give evidence to his taskforce?
Mr. Meacher: I am happy to support those measures. Looking at the evidence over Easter, we are aware that bookings and takings for many small rural businesses were much better than many had feared, but they were certainly still down. In Keswick, Ambleside and other places in my hon. Friend's constituency, takings were relatively good, but I accept that there are areas with really severe problems. I repeat that we are looking at further measures for giving practical, selected and targeted advice to help them.
I am also happy to agree that the evidence feeding into the regional development agencies comes not only from bodies such as those my hon. Friend mentioned, but from some of the smaller bodies, such as the Cumbria crisis alliance. I was impressed by the quality of the evidence that I received from many of the bodies that I visited on that day and I intend to return before long.
On the publicity campaign, assuming that it did not cost £6 million to bring the group of American tour operators to Britain--a worthwhile objective in itself--will the right hon. Gentleman tell us to what extent there has been a properly targeted marketing exercise, overseas and in this country, to encourage people to visit our rural areas again?
Has the right hon. Gentleman a conception of how broadly defined are the businesses affected by the foot and mouth disease crisis? Is he aware that they go well beyond those businesses that are directly affected by agriculture or tourism? In my constituency, I visited a garden centre, where takings are down by 80 per cent; a mower supplier, where takings are down by 60 to 70 per cent; and a marquee supplier, which is now laying off staff. Many such businesses are not in towns of fewer than 3,000 people and hence do not qualify as being in rural areas. Is he aware of the disappointment at the patchiness of the response from the Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise and the banks, despite the encouraging statements made by him and others? Will he consider the approach taken by the utilities to those businesses?
On hardship relief and rates relief, will the right hon. Gentleman tell us how long the current measures will last? Why was no assessment made of how many businesses would be encompassed by a £12,000 ceiling on rateable value, or a £9,000 ceiling for garages and pubs? Many of us in rural areas think it extraordinary that that cut-off point was put in place. Will he tell us how many business rates revaluations have taken place and how quickly they are being processed?
Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman tell us why no date has been allocated for the Second Reading of the Rating (Former Agricultural Premises and Rural Shops) Bill, which was presented to the House some weeks ago? Why are there no Government amendments to the Finance Bill, which will be debated today and tomorrow, to provide relief for rural areas? Does that not suggest that the Government understand neither the scale of the problem for rural businesses, nor the urgency with which measures must be taken to deal with it?
Mr. Meacher: The hon. Gentleman asks whether the powers exist to close footpaths that have been reopened. Of course, if there is justification in terms of the spread of the disease or new infections, the powers could be invoked. The Government have made a considerable effort to reopen footpaths, parks and other facilities, so we are anxious to ensure that they are not closed again, unless there is very good reason to do so in terms of the disease.
I believe that the BTA's efforts in the 12 main overseas markets are, as the hon. Gentleman says, a properly targeted exercise. The hon. Gentleman asks about the need to extend aid such as rate relief beyond immediate farm businesses. That is exactly what we propose to do for haulage and retail businesses, and it represents an extension of the existing limits on rate relief.
I understand that the £9,000 threshold represents an extension or increase on the current level, but we believe that it is justified; it has not been arbitrarily set. The hon. Gentleman asks how many revaluations have taken place. I cannot give him that figure, but if we have the figure, I will certainly write to him. I certainly take the hon. Gentleman's point about the Rating (Former Agricultural Premises and Rural Shops) Bill. I am very keen to see that Bill make progress, and I will certainly discuss it with my colleagues in Government.
Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): Have my right hon. Friend and his taskforce been able to make any progress in opening footpaths, particularly in coastal areas and on arable land? Many people who have made representations to my office feel that some local authorities have shown tardiness in making progress on this important issue. Has any progress been made, either, on preserving the genetic stock of rare breeds, such as the rare hefted sheep breeds on the moors in the North York moors national park?
Mr. Meacher: I pay tribute to the work of the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes). She has taken particular responsibility for getting footpaths and other facilities open and has achieved considerable success. For example, Norfolk has reopened more than half its network, Surrey has reopened a similar proportion and even Cumbria, which has been badly hit by foot and mouth, reopened more than 100 paths before Easter. British Waterways has reopened two thirds of its 1,600 mile towpath network, the Forestry Commission reopened 80 sites before Easter and hundreds of National Trust properties are now open.
Let me say, particularly to Conservative Members, that even authorities, such as Buckinghamshire, that have retained a blanket approach are now responding to public demands to review decisions on individual paths. Such authorities may or may not be playing politics with the Government, but they must understand that they certainly should not play politics with rural businesses in their areas.
We are aware that rare breeds, particularly the hefted Herdwicks on the fells, are a real issue. Those special bloodlines must be preserved and we are still considering the best way to ensure that they are.