Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater): Is the Wales Office represented on the Minister's working party? If so, has he explained to it why he proposes to offer businesses--whether in Somerset, Devon or Cumbria--significantly worse terms of assistance than those that will be offered in Wales?

I endorse the remarks of the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours). It is true that seaside areas had a reasonable Easter for tourism, because some people who might have gone into the countryside or to the national parks were diverted to seaside areas. However, prospects in truly rural areas, such as the national parks, are every bit as dire as so many of us

23 Apr 2001 : Column 29

feared they would be, and they continue to be so. In those circumstances, the businesses that are anxiously listening to the Minister will have received scant comfort. Interest-free loans are not a blanket measure, because particular businesses can decide whether to take them up. However, unless the Treasury understands that such loans are the only measure that will genuinely help those businesses, the true infrastructure for tourism in rural areas will be lost.

Mr. Meacher: The question of the level of rate relief and the total to which it applies is a matter for England and the devolved Administrations to decide for themselves. The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that, in Wales, the relief is significantly higher, but that is a matter for the Administration there. We have judged what we believe a right and fair package to be.

The right hon. Gentleman said that certain businesses and areas are still suffering, and I am not complacent about that. I am well aware that many businesses are in a dire state. In some ways, what happened over the Easter break has eased the problem a bit. However, that is not true in some cases, and in others, businesses face the long period until Whitsun with a reduction in bookings. I entirely realise that.

The question is to decide the best way of providing help. The fastest way to give businesses help is to use the existing channels, and that is why we made £120 million additional lending available through the small firms loan guarantee scheme--[Interruption.] I am aware of the interest rate, which we are considering. However, we have extended the scheme to more businesses, including catering, retail and tourism businesses. In addition, we have given greater flexibility on repayment holidays and up to 10 years to repay. I have also met the banks, which assure me that they are taking a sympathetic approach. We will continue to consider all the options for helping businesses, including soft loan schemes, but we must be satisfied that new schemes will work quickly and are well targeted. Of course, as we have made clear, we cannot afford to fund every business.

On all the visits that I have made, and in all the meetings of the rural taskforce and with the rural development agencies, I have made it clear that we need precise, quantified evidence of the degree of need and the cost of relief. We are beginning to receive a considerable amount of information from various organisations, including the regional development agencies, which we are actively considering. I hope that we will be able to make a decision soon.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statements today and a few weeks ago reflect his ability to provide some relief because of the state of the economy, by contrast with the time when the Tories were in government--the experts in running up deficits instead of surpluses? Does he also acknowledge that I was in Parliament in 1992 when a crisis was caused in seven separate regions? Thousands of businesses went down the pan. It was not a case of 70 or 80 per cent. losses; all the shops and businesses that relied on the pits went under. Not one single penny was given by the Tory Government to help those failing businesses. Is he further aware that in Carlisle, where the current crisis is causing a big problem, the Tories called for an election for a

23 Apr 2001 : Column 30

Liberal seat and the people, who are so appreciative of the money that is being provided, kicked the Tories out, beat the Liberals and Labour won the seat?

Mr. Meacher: My hon. Friend, as so often, makes a telling point. We are all aware that the Tories are extremely good at offering large sums just before an election that they know they are going to lose and which they will not, therefore, have to meet.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, had he come to Staffordshire where there are 47 outbreaks of the disease or on an excursion to the Welsh marches with my wife and me last week, he would have been horrified by the complacency, unimaginativeness and ungenerosity of his statement, which did not begin to acknowledge the devastation in rural areas? Will he also accept that it is far more important to compensate businesses and to ensure that they survive--some of them depend on the agricultural shows that are being cancelled right, left and centre--than to go on bleating about footpaths? Does he know that, in my constituency, canal towpaths are open within 3 ft of livestock in fields, whereas playing fields in village centres are closed? There is total confusion about what is being done and he is taking a risk by encouraging the reopening of some footpaths.

Mr. Meacher: The hon. Gentleman is usually a fair man, but his comments are over the top. Incidentally, I was in the Welsh marches as part of my most recent visit and I saw at first hand the situation in parts of Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. I entirely agree that some local authorities are confused even now about what can be safely opened. There is no justification for that. The guidelines set out exactly how the guidance is to be operated. The great majority of local authorities are opening not only footpaths, but parks and facilities--including, as he suggests, playing fields inside urban areas. It is ridiculous that they were ever closed, but they can certainly be reopened.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider not just any particular item in the package but the cumulative weight of all the measures to which I have referred. They amount to over £200 million, and if we add what rural development agencies and charitable bodies have offered, the total is about £220 million, which is not a small sum. I am still seeking detailed evidence on which further selective but well targeted help can be based, and the hon. Gentleman ought to recognise that.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): There are 111 landfill sites in England being used for the disposal of carcases. What action has been taken to ensure that we are following European Union regulations, which say that carcases should make up only 5 per cent. of the content of such sites, with the other 95 per cent. being normal waste? That is particularly important in my constituency at the Erin void, where there is a problem because the site is right next to the communities of Duckmanton and Poolsbrook. We must ensure that not too many carcases are sent to those areas.

Mr. Meacher: The Environment Agency is responsible for ensuring that landfill sites are used in accordance with both EU and national regulations. I have no evidence that

23 Apr 2001 : Column 31

that is not happening, but if there is such evidence, I will be glad to follow it up. I do not know the particular sites to which my hon. Friend referred, but if he writes to me, I will pursue the matter.

Mr. David Prior (North Norfolk): Does the Minister agree that the foot and mouth virus could still be entering the country in imported meat products? If so, why does he not ban the importation of all meat products from countries that have the disease?

Mr. Meacher: That is one of the issues that the Government will be considering once the number of outbreaks begins steadily to reduce and we can see an end to this episode. The matter has been raised before, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will examine it closely.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): May I take my right hon. Friend back to the £15 million given by the taskforce to the RDAs? It is very welcome in Cumbria, but is it the first instalment? Is he convinced that the RDAs have the mechanism for giving out the money? Will he ensure that Cumbria, the worst affected county, is treated generously when the money is distributed?

Mr. Meacher: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he said about the package in relation to Cumbria. My discussions with the leader and the chief executive of Cumbria county council lead me to believe that it is welcome, and I am glad to hear my hon. Friend confirm that. We believe that the RDAs are the right bodies to disburse the moneys. They have had considerable success in getting to know all the stakeholders and many of the smaller businesses in their areas. They, better than central Government, can distribute money to make sure that it is maximally effective. If there is further aid, which we are considering, we certainly intend that it should be delivered through them.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): The Minister will know that my constituency has been dreadfully affected by the foot and mouth crisis. It has had a devastating impact not only on agriculture but on every business, including those in tourism and trekking. Dartmoor, in particular, is unbelievably badly affected and has come to a standstill. I spoke just now to the chief executive of Dartmoor national park. Will the Minister please ensure that the affected area boundaries are re-examined every week and that the reasons for changing or not changing them are published? I cannot emphasise enough that it is crucial to get the countryside open as soon as possible.

Next Section

IndexHome Page