Mr. Meacher: The amount of money spent overseas has had a disproportionately large impact. It is therefore wrong to suggest that it was not well spent. Of course I understand that at such a time people will actively lobby their Members of Parliament for more money to be spent. However, the Government have to examine each case with great care to ensure that businesses are tided over and that due money is provided. The taxpayers provide that money and it must therefore be entirely justified.
The hon. Gentleman asked me for our best estimate of losses. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport suggested that it is approximately £140 million a week. That is a substantial total. However, the real answer is not more Government money, however desirable that might be, but getting customers and visitors back into the countryside to spend their money in the way they wish.
Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton): I thank my right hon. Friend for his informal contacts with the Scottish Executive to ensure that the west highland way and Loch Lomond in my constituency were open for business at Easter. The Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise are coming to a conference that I am organising at Loch Lomond on Friday. Two hundred businesses will attend and I look to them for maximum flexibility and good news. Despite the protests of the Scottish National party, the ministerial visit and encouragement to tour operators from north America and Europe represent money well spent. Our aim is to open the countryside. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the initiative continues?
Mr. Meacher: I am sure that my hon. Friend is right. We acknowledge that some limited quantities of Government money--perhaps, depending on the evidence, more than is currently being spent--are needed. However, the best way to assist people around not only Loch Lomond but in all resorts throughout the country is not simply to throw Government money at them, but to enable people who want to experience the beautiful landscape of Scotland to see for themselves that much of the propaganda that is spread abroad is wrong. They can then take back that message, thus enabling the market to operate normally and encouraging visitors to flock in from abroad. That is beginning to happen. The money has indeed been well spent.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): Will the Minister tell the House how little money has found its way into rural businesses from his various schemes so far? The truth is that practically nothing has got through, while thousands of rural businesses are bleeding to death. Are not the Government dithering over vaccination and movement while businesses die and animals suffer?
Mr. Meacher: I know that some Members, such as the right hon. Gentleman, like to prepare their questions and come to the House to make good political points. Let me answer him. We are providing mandatory rate relief of £24 million; discretionary rate relief of £22 million; matched contributions, in regard to donations from the public, of £14 million, including £5 million from the Government; £120 million under the small firms loan guarantee scheme; a £15 million package for the four hardest hit areas; and VAT and income tax deferments that the Treasury now estimates to be worth some £12 million a year. That is solid, clear, precise and valuable assistance. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman makes a sign at me to show that he thinks that that amounts to nil. That is silly, because it amounts to a very great deal. Whether it is sufficient is a matter for
Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central): Those of us who represent big-city areas have rightly allowed these discussions and statements to be dominated by people such as our colleagues from Cumbria and Northumberland. However, I bring to the attention of my right hon. Friend the fact that a particularly vicious and unsubstantiated smear has been widespread. It is that restaurants in Newcastle's Chinatown were one of the sources of the outbreak. That has had a substantial impact on business in Newcastle's Chinatown and on other Chinese restaurants and takeaways throughout Tyneside. They are not covered at all by his proposals or by the Government's proposals to provide relief in rural areas. Is he willing to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) and me--we represent the part of Newcastle concerned--to consider how we can address the real problems that have been generated for those businesses by a vicious rumour and smear for which not a shred of evidence has been produced?
Mr. Meacher: My hon. Friend makes a serious point. One of the disadvantages in this kind of episode or crisis--whatever it is called--is that allegations are wildly thrown about and undoubtedly do serious damage. As he said, there is no evidence whatsoever--at least, none of which I am aware--that Chinese restaurants in the Newcastle area were responsible for the outbreak. Many other allegations have been made that are quite wrong. I read in yesterday's newspapers that deer had been widely infected with foot and mouth. Again, that is completely untrue, and it is important to correct such reports when we can. If it would help to meet my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) with a delegation to try to put this matter right, I should be happy to do so.
Mr. Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare): In response to concerns about the ceiling for relief being set at £12,000--many of us think that it should be £50,000--the Minister said that discussions would be held with the Local Government Association. When will we hear the association's response on that issue? The Government talk about a sympathetic approach to deferral of VAT. What exactly does that mean? Furthermore, when people initially rang the hotline to ask for a deferral of tax, they were told that they would have to pay 8.5 per cent. interest, although it has since been suggested that that will not be the case. Will the Minister give the House a clear statement that people in great difficulty will not be charged 8.5 per cent. interest?
Mr. Meacher: On the first question, the hon. Gentleman is right. As I said, we have asked the Local Government Association to provide us, by the end of today, with details of its view--if it is its view--of the inadequacy of the £12,000 rateable value threshold and of the 5 per cent. as well. We will certainly give a response, but it will depend on the quality of the evidence. If we are persuaded that it is true that the 5 per cent. contribution from rural local authorities and the £12,000 rateable value threshold are seriously impeding the whole purpose of the exercise--which is to bring help to needy non-farm rural businesses--we shall be prepared to look at the position again.
The hon. Gentleman asked about a sympathetic approach on the part of banks--or perhaps he referred to the Inland Revenue, and the VAT authorities. If documented evidence is provided relating to the level of takings, and a plausible, demonstrable case is made that that figure results from foot and mouth, the offices involved will treat the matter sympathetically, in terms of the interest rate and the speed of repayment. If that is not the case, I shall be glad to hear evidence.
As for the deferment of VAT--which was mentioned earlier--I read in the paper that an 8.5 per cent. charge was being imposed. That is completely untrue. I said in my statement that in cases of hardship the 8.5 per cent. interest rate would be waived, and that is the case.
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): Can the Minister explain why Scotland and Wales, which receive all their money via Her Majesty's Treasury, can give their local authorities a far better settlement than he can give English authorities? Has it anything to do with a Scottish Chancellor of the Exchequer and a fairly incompetent Deputy Prime Minister?
Mr. Meacher: Leaving aside the abuse--which ill befits what is a serious question--I should say that this is a matter for devolved Administrations. One of the consequences of devolution is precisely that those Administrations make their own decisions. They spend their money--they spend their taxpayers' revenues--in the way that they choose. They have done so; they are perfectly entitled to do so; and we have done the same.
Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to raise the issue of the Crystal Palace Bill, presented on Tuesday 10 April, the day on which the House rose for the Easter recess. I have written to you about it, and also put a note on the board telling the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Davies) that I was going to raise it.
The Crystal Palace Bill would transfer Crystal Palace and the park wholly to the Greater London Authority. Crystal Palace lies entirely within my constituency, although the London boroughs of Lambeth, Lewisham, Southwark and, indeed, Croydon surround the park. The hon. Member for Croydon, Central--whose Bill we are discussing--shares a boundary with me in the southern part of Beckenham but does not, as far as I am aware, share any boundary with me at Crystal Palace.
I seek your guidance on a number of matters, Mr. Speaker. I should be grateful if you could tell me what courtesies you believe should apply when a private Member's Bill affects another Member's constituency entirely, in terms of informing that Member--let alone Bromley council, which has heard nothing whatever about the Bill from the hon. Member for Croydon, Central.
More important, I understand that the Bill is potentially hybrid, because Crystal Palace park is governed by private legislation. I note, as you will have noted, Mr. Speaker, that Second Reading is due to take place on 11 May. If the Bill is likely to be hybrid--on which point I should be grateful for your guidance--will it be sent to the Examiners of Petitions? If so, will that happen before 11 May? Will the Examiners of Petitions be able to receive representations about the Bill before that date, or will Second Reading have to be postponed, whatever other external events may occur?
I am sure that you understand, Mr. Speaker, that I regard the Bill as an intolerable interference in the affairs of another Member of Parliament. I believe that it is, of itself, very complex, and should at least have warranted the giving of notice to those involved, as opposed to the total discourtesy of silence.