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Rural post office closures have continued at the rate of 200 a year since the 1997 general election; rural pubs and shops are in decline; 70 per cent. of parishes are now without a general store; and 43 per cent. have no post office. Outside the commuter belt, rural Britain is characterised by lower incomes, more part-time work rather than bread-winning full-time jobs, a huge gap in areas such as my own between house prices and incomes and lower access to public provision for transport, hospital services or whatever. The hon. Lady may recognise that picture.
Mr. Taylor: Unemployment has fallen, as it has in the rest of the country. However, as the hon. Lady knows, unemployment remains higher in our part of the country than in many others. Incomes remain 20 per cent. lower than the rest of the country and the gap in funding between our area and others has widened.
I do not want to suggest to the House that the problems started in 1997. The worst feature of this debate has been the amnesia of Conservative Members. They suggested that only a Labour Government have faced problems in rural communities. The truth is that the recession in farming started six years ago on the back of the BSE crisis that was so appallingly mishandled by the Conservatives when they were in office. Their bare-faced cheek in criticising this Government for their handling of foot and mouth is extraordinary.
Conservatives started the rundown of rural services, cutting schools, hospitals and bus services. They started not hundreds but thousands of post office closures. Worst of all, they established, although Labour has failed to
Although it may be true that many Labour Members often show too little understanding of rural areas--Conservative Members make that allegation and they are not always wrong--the fact is that Conservative Members, who claim now to defend the countryside, first let it down because they took it for granted. As a result, it is no wonder that more Liberal Democrats represent the poorest rural constituencies than Members in any other political party.
Foot and mouth should now be the moment for change. The good news from the debate is that people in all parties have argued that case; the question is whether we shall see action. First, there must be a change in the Government's approach to helping businesses hit by foot and mouth. During the crisis in the countryside, I have not engaged in petty politics as to whether the Government did something a day or two late or a day or two early. The truth is that any Government faced by this crisis would have struggled, so we have sought to make constructive suggestions on how they could do better. It is always easy, when looking in from the outside, to find such suggestions, but the measure of a Government is whether they respond to them. In many cases they have but, in too many others, they have yet to do so.
I understand that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will make a statement tomorrow and it is a shame that we did not hear it before this debate. The House should have the chance to debate--and not simply question--that statement. We provided the opportunity for that to happen and, if the Government choose to make the statement after the debate, they should find their own time to allow for debate and for proper questioning of whatever measures they introduce. I hope that their policies will go along the lines of those that we have suggested.
The message that we read one day from the Prime Minister in the Western Morning News and that we hear in the statements that other Ministers make to the House is that more is yet to come, but that message is wearing rather thin. That is why the Western Morning News launched its "SOS SouthWest" campaign. People are frustrated to be told that help is on its way when they do not see it in place. They need to know whether they will have a job or a business in the future.
Like the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Member for Workington outlined a perfectly reasonable set of proposals. However, the Government have not yet shown that they have taken full measure of the economic crisis, although they have demonstrated that they appreciate the scope of the foot and mouth epidemic. I hope that the number of cases will continue to drop off so that we know that the epidemic is coming under control. The devastating knock-on economic impact on farms that continue to suffer consequential losses is not under
The Government do not understand the scale of the crisis that is affecting businesses, especially those that are not in the earmarked, designated rural areas. It hits as much in south Somerset, south Gloucestershire and Torbay as it does in the most rural parts of Cornwall and Devon. The impact is especially notable on tourism. That is why we argue for 100 per cent. rate relief for all affected businesses. Uniquely, we have drawn up plans for detailed interest-free loans of £20,000 to be provided over two years, similar to the model recommended by the hon. Member for Workington. There is no need for the Government to find the capital sums, as the Conservatives suggest. They must, however, help with interest payments, for which they could use existing models, such as career development loans. There is no reason why they should not do that for the businesses affected by foot and mouth.
The crisis is severe and the need for long-term reform is the issue on which hon. Members have been brought closest together. Even BSE did not achieve that. For the first time, there is general agreement that we need a model of farming that supports people in their jobs and family businesses and protects the countryside. We do not want a system that simply pays out for production, money which ends up in the pockets of supermarket chains, which make billion pound profits, and in those of the big agricultural businesses, but never in the pockets of those who most need it--the small farmers in the most difficult rural areas.
The Conservatives ask how we would achieve common agricultural policy reform, but how would they? Their policy is not to leave the European Union, although one Conservative hon. Member who complained about our approach seemed to suggest that it was. I agree that while it is necessary to have unanimity in the Council of Ministers, we are unlikely to achieve the far-reaching reforms that we need--there is always a vested interest that blocks them. We need to change the processes in Europe to undo those difficulties so that a single country with a single vested interest cannot block reforms that are in our best interests and those of many other European countries, on which we can find a great deal of common resolve.
It is not possible to maintain for ever the unfair funding formulae that discriminate against rural areas. Although they are not the Government's fault and they say that they want to reform them, Labour is four years into its term in office. There is no excuse for the fact that the Government's formulae assume that children, patients and businesses are worth less in far-flung rural areas. I hope that the Minister will respond to that problem, because long-term reform is needed.
The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): I congratulate the Liberal Democrats on their choice of debate and the discussion has been useful. Although the Government should be held to account for what might be the most difficult crisis of the past 20 or 30 years--perhaps the worst within the lifetime of most hon. Members--the hon. Member for Truro and
The hon. Gentleman and others said that there has been no Government debate on the subject. I do not know how many statements my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has made, but I have delivered two and they allow for extensive and detailed questioning. Having been on the receiving end, I can confirm that that is a more effective way to hold Ministers to account than a more general debate.
I pay tribute to what the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) said. I assure him that VAT deferrals are not subject to an interest charge--that is a canard. The same applies to income tax that is deferred because of foot and mouth. It does, however, have to be demonstrable that that outbreak was the cause of the problem.
I have sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's comments on reform of the CAP, which was also mentioned by other hon. Members. The appointment of Renate Kunast will undoubtedly change the centre of gravity in the Agriculture Council.
Hon. Members talked about returning to normality, but what do we mean by that? What is sustainable agriculture? Those issues will be discussed when the foot and mouth crisis is over and the Government intend to take a lead in those debates. Discussions have already begun on the regeneration package for the rural economy that we intend to introduce. Indeed, it was discussed by the rural taskforce this morning and will certainly be discussed again. However, we have deliberately held off because it is right to emphasise the importance of the eradication of the disease. We cannot get sidetracked.
Circumstances today are different from what they were before Easter, but we are not complacent and accept that we are not totally in control of the disease. That will not be the case until there are zero new cases. Considerable progress has been made, however, with 13 new cases in the past three days, 13 the day before and nine the day before that, which compares with the reported 40, 50 or even more cases that were occurring only three or four weeks ago. Although the takings in the rural economy over Easter were not as great as last year, they were at a much higher level than many people had feared. There have been losses, some of which are grievous, but this Easter most rural businesses took between 70 to 80 per cent. of their takings last year.
We have repeatedly said that the best way to assist rural businesses in trouble is to get the customers and visitors back. I hope that I carry every hon. Member with me in that sentiment. We have been trying extremely hard to achieve that goal. All or most rights of way are open in a fifth of local highway authorities. Even Cumbria, one of the hardest hit areas which has experienced great difficulties, opened 100 footpaths before Easter. Surrey and Norfolk have opened half or more of their paths. Some 1,000 miles of towpaths along the canals have been opened; East Sussex has opened Ashdown forest; the royal parks have reopened;
Disposal was mentioned throughout the debate. On-site farm burial was of particular concern. The Government's priority is clear. We are absolutely in favour, first, of rendering; secondly, of incineration at industrial plants where that is available and, thirdly, of burial on registered landfill sites. The problem with Devon is that none of those options is immediately available because full capacity has been achieved in each case in the county and adjacent areas. The only other alternatives are pyres or burning in open fields.
Burial on site is not possible for the reason given in the debate, namely the extremely high water table. We are considering moving carcases to landfill sites within a reasonable range, although we have to take account of the environmental impact of doing so. If there are 175,000 carcases--recent statistics indicate that the figure is probably lower, as most people believe, but it is still substantial--we cannot leave them lying in fields leaching disease into the ground, so we have to find a method of immediate disposal. If we cannot safely take carcases to alternative landfill sites, the only way to dispose of them is to burn them. I believe that we will complete that process fairly quickly, as we have done in Cumbria. The Government are doing everything possible to remove that backlog.