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Mr. Evans: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the Bill represents nothing more than a sticking plaster for a patient who has had a heart attack? Does he accept that it would be far better if the smaller businesses that are in trouble because of foot and mouth and the lack of tourism were given access to interest-free loans, given that many
Mr. Temple-Morris: I do not accept that. We have to consider the whole context. The matter is up for review, but the Opposition's proposal is not the Government's policy, as the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well. Incidentally, the way that he introduced his remarks with the example of heart attacks and sticking plasters was colourful--talk about spin! However, given the whole context, the Bill is of value and has been welcomed as such by the hon. Gentleman's party; it is part of a continuing process.
As I said earlier, we shall need to take a thorough look at agriculture and benefits to get over the situation in rural areas. In that connection, the hon. Member for Ashford made a point--with which I very much agree--that the long-term economic health of farmers depends on farmers and farming. I am sure that he well realises that although reform and change are expected in the agricultural community, the constant doubt, because people do not know--in the context of the common agricultural policy and elsewhere--what their eventual fate will be, causes many of the difficulties. Most farmers in my constituency accept that there has to be change--that the terms of subsidy will be different--but they need to know where they stand. The Bill is a step in that direction.
I said that this speech would be a swan-song. I also said that I have a rural constituency. I am pleased to be speaking on a rural matter, and I take this opportunity to thank my constituents for putting up with so many speeches over the years on matters other than agriculture and the rural areas--especially on foreign and European affairs and Ireland. My constituents tolerated that; indeed, occasionally they encouraged it. However, in this debate I speak on behalf of a constituency of 700 sq m. I am happy to say that I have a lovely memory of the fact that when I was first elected to this place in February 1974--27 years ago--there was not one traffic light in that 700 sq m. Regrettably, I have to announce that there are about two and a half at the latest count; one of them--dare I say it?--covers the entrance to a supermarket.
There are five market towns in the constituency. Two have benefited from the wider programme of which the Bill forms part--the Government's regeneration programme--and no doubt others will benefit, too. Much public money is going into areas such as mine, and there certainly is no area more rural than mine. We have countless villages. Fourteen foot and mouth outbreaks have occurred and there are more just over the border in Wales, which means that exclusion areas spill over into my constituency. There are 68 outbreaks in the whole county of Hereford and Worcester.
There has been much hardship for animals and farmers alike, for rural areas generally and, indeed, for the rural businesses dealt with under the measure. No one is happy. We can always criticise financial support by saying, "We want more". Indeed, we have already heard that call from the Opposition today; it does not surprise me. However, my constituents are grateful for that financial support. They welcome the gradual relaxation of restrictions and the opening of markets. Goodness knows, no one is happy, but those measures have been welcomed.
Almost every day--like other hon. Members representing rural constituencies--I hold conversations with individual farmers; I shall be doing so later today. I take my hat off to those farmers. Despite their dire circumstances, they appreciate the sheer scale and extent of the outbreaks, which dwarf anything we or others have seen.
My home is about four miles outside my constituency in the Welsh border area, just inside Wales, and has been in an infected area since the beginning of the outbreak. It has the shop, the pub--all the characteristics that we are talking about--and bed and breakfasts galore. In fact, bed-and-breakfast businesses and smaller hotels and accommodation are the main losers at present. However, to put that in context, all was not complete gloom over Easter. Many rural attractions did remarkably well--indeed business was up on last year. The statistic that tourism is 70 per cent. down overwhelmingly relates to accommodation. I am happy to say that the village pub was crowded during my last Sunday visit, and will remain so.
I think that a personal anecdote helps. Some comments, especially by the Opposition, imply that everyone is seething with discontent against the Government. That is not the case in my area. Indeed, the farmer who farms immediately around my village, who is an embarrassingly enthusiastic member of my former party and farms in a Conservative area, told me last weekend that, all things considered, the Government have done as well as any could. That is a true anecdote and we should acknowledge such opinions.
There is not much to say about the Bill's contents and I admire the extent to which the Opposition have examined its minutiae. They mounted a veritable barrage of questions to my right hon. Friend the Minister, for which I commend them. My study might appear to be limited in comparison, although as a lawyer I have some understanding of hereditaments.
Measures in the overall rural package need to be mentioned and gratitude should be expressed to my party and Government. We must not forget that the cost of the total effort is much greater than the rural aid to farmers, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has not put a limit on that. Direct agricultural support as a result of foot and mouth is climbing above £500 million and the support to the rural economy is nudging above £200 million. The Government have announced immediate measures, such as hardship rate relief, deferment of rates payments and temporary reductions in rateable values. In addition, an effective appeal has been made to the banks, which has not been mentioned. Their initial reaction was a little bank-like. However, the Government made a public appeal for them to go easy, which they have done. I have been in contact with constituents and banks, and approaches to them have had to go no further, which is a good sign.
The village shop rates relief scheme, which was introduced in 1998, has been mentioned. The 50 per cent. mandatory relief applies to my village where the shop is doing the same business during the outbreak as it has always done. It is certainly a small business. The pub is down on accommodation bookings, but its general business, including serving food, is relatively normal.
Mr. Gray: I have tried my best to be patient, but I have two questions for the hon. Gentleman before he gets carried away with praising his new friends in the Labour party for what they have done for rural businesses. First, will he acknowledge that the mandatory relief on village shops is a result of an initiative introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) when he was Secretary of State for the Environment? It was merely brought into operation by Labour. Secondly, will he also acknowledge that according to the notes produced by the House of Commons Library, the Bill's provisions may amount to as little as £3 million a year help for businesses throughout England? That is a drop in the ocean compared with the hundreds of millions that are being lost by rural businesses. Perhaps he could include that in his speech.
Mr. Temple-Morris: Overall support is climbing above £200 million, and it will continue to increase. Much as I appreciate the Library's devotion, and although I have not seen the paper, it appears we are taking a step in the right direction. The hon. Gentleman said "may amount to"--"may" being the operative word. I have a suspicion that when Governments offer such support, it absorbs more money than they initially promise. I am pretty sure that this measure will do the same. Incidentally, the relief is greatly welcomed by my constituents. I do not see why I cannot praise my present political party. This is one of the best Governments we have had for years. Compared with the time that I had under the previous Government, I have had a very peaceful Parliament.
Regardless of who introduced what, the issues that affect rural areas have been around for years, as all hon. Members know. They include access, the motor car, people retiring to rural areas and the decline of agriculture. When I was an eager young Conservative Member in 1974, newly elected and anxious to assuage the concerns of a shopkeeper in a small village who had just had to close his shop, I told him that I was pleased to see the support that he had received from the village in a petition. I had better leave out his expletives, but the broad gist of his reply was that although he was pleased about the petition, if the villagers who had been so eager to sign it had shopped in his establishment a little more often, it might still be open. Many people in rural areas, particularly those who wave the banners the most, are the first in the Saturday morning queue in the supermarket. That is true of the relatively new supermarket outside the market town of Leominster.
This month, rate relief for village food shops, pubs and petrol stations has taken effect. That applies to my village and many others in my constituency. About 8,000 pubs will benefit, so the measure will absorb quite a lot of public money.
The Bill caters for the future. It goes beyond the question whether we should change the bottom line for rate relief and spend more; it tackles the fundamental issues. We will hear more and more about those because, regrettably, the debate is far from over. I am sure that the Government, after the election--I say that deliberately--will have much to do about the shift from farming to small
I have said a little about village shops and given a personal example, but I want to deal with rural areas more generally. It is an unfortunate fact of life that when so many areas are in a state of change, that change leads to fear where there is uncertainty. It is the Government's duty to recognise, as I am sure they do, the extent of the change, particularly as it concerns the elderly, the need for increased services and the undoubted decline of agriculture. As we know, the latter affects not only those who are in farming, but the vast number of families and ancillary industries that are connected to or dependent on agriculture. The Bill forms a small part of an overall programme for the future, and I trust that that programme will include a full review not only of foot and mouth disease, but of the whole question of agricultural subsidies.