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Ms Armstrong: I was simply saying that post office relief does not come within the terms of the Bill. It is covered by other legislation which is already in operation. It is also possible for businesses such as those that the hon. Gentleman describes in larger areas--not very small villages--to apply to their local authority for hardship relief. Their local authority has full discretion to award hardship relief, of which the Government fund 75 per cent.

Mr. Baldry: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. Of course, she is right in her clarification about post offices. However, hardship relief is available only in the immediate circumstances of foot and mouth. The Bill, as I understand it, is intended to carry on for ever. It is not just for this particular period.

The right hon. Lady may wish to clarify the position, but if a post office or store in a larger village was having difficulties, it could not apply on that basis to the local authority for rate relief. The business would have to get over the hurdle of the case law relating to hardship. There is no statutory definition of "hardship"; it is entirely contained in case law. I hope that at some stage the Government will consider providing a statutory definition of hardship, to help local authorities to decide whether to give relief.

The Bill will give scant help to a very few rural businesses. I have a wildfowl sanctuary in my constituency. Mabel Warner, who runs it, told me that her busiest two months were February and March. At Easter, the big attractions open, so the sanctuary takes much of its money during February and March. As a consequence of closing because of the foot and mouth disaster, the business has been seriously affected. It is true that Mabel Warner can go through the rather cumbersome process of applying to the valuation office for a reappraisal of her business rates, but with the exception of a modest reduction in their business rates, if the overall rateable value of the business in question is less than £12,000, businesses such as the Wiggington wildfowl sanctuary will get no help at all from the Government.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) said from the Front Bench, the Bill is unobjectionable. But I do object to the way in which it will be spun as being of substantial help to rural businesses and to those who have

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suffered from the foot and mouth crisis. It will do nothing of the sort. I suspect that very few, if any, businesses in a constituency such as mine will be helped by the Bill.

Those on the Government Front Bench demonstrated some surprise when my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford said that the Conservatives could do and, I am sure, would do considerably better. One of the ways we would do better would be to save money by abolishing the regional development agencies. The right hon. Lady and any other Government Minister will always be welcome in north Oxfordshire--we have had precious few visits from Ministers in the past four years. Statistics seem to demonstrate that Ministers only visit target seats, but they are always welcome in north Oxfordshire.

If a Minister went down Banbury high street or Sheep street in Bicester and asked people the name of the local regional development agency, or even asked members of the chamber of commerce to name the regional development agency, I would be extremely surprised if, even at the chamber of commerce, more than 5 per cent. had ever heard of SEEDA--the South East England Development Agency. If SEEDA were abolished, it would be unmourned. No one from north Oxfordshire would waste money sending a wreath to the funeral of SEEDA. It is a total waste of money, so far as Oxfordshire is concerned.

We have no strategic interest in what is happening in the southernmost reaches of Kent or Surrey. Ours is a strategic area between the Thames valley and the west midlands, and the South East England Development Agency has been a waste of funds. Far better that such development agencies be abolished and the money given to provide real help to rural businesses.

At the general election, which I expect is not too far away, I very much look forward to going round the village shops, village pubs, village stores and filling stations in my constituency, explaining the genuine help that a Conservative Government can and will give them. That will not be spin; it will be solid substance. What we and the countryside require at this time are not gimmicks or a taskforce which does nothing but direct people to helplines. We want real assistance and solid support.

7.39 pm

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this very important stage of the Bill's passage. As my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) pointed out, this is our first opportunity since the foot and mouth outbreak began to discuss in Government time anything that relates even remotely to the crisis. We have so far used Opposition days for all such debates. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats used part of one of their days for the same purpose. It is a great shame that the Government have not allocated a whole day for us to discuss the problems that all hon. Members who represent rural constituencies face with the appalling onslaught of foot and mouth.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) asked what the Archers would be thinking. Let me strain the comparison and say that Emmerdale farm would have closed down a long time ago. That would be nothing to do with foot and mouth, but part of the general rural crisis. No doubt a supermarket would be situated there by now.

The countryside is in deep crisis, but that crisis has not occurred only because of foot and mouth. It has been happening for several years, during which farm incomes

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have declined so much that some farmers must dream about earning even the minimum wage. I have received a letter from Anthony Goldstone, who is chairman of the North West tourist board. He writes about the importance of tourism in the north-west, which provides about £1.5 billion a year and supports 7 per cent. of the work force. That is how important it is. His letter states:

Mr. Paterson: Before my hon. Friend moves on from farm incomes, may I remind him that, under the Government whom he so nobly supported, total farming income doubled between 1990 and 1995? It has fallen by 72 per cent. since it reached those heights.

Mr. Evans: As my hon. Friend knows from his rural constituency, some farmers now earn less than £100 a week. The foot and mouth crisis means that some of them have been earning absolutely nothing. We should pay tribute to the agricultural charities. Without them, one of my constituents would have nothing. Fortunately, two charities stepped forward and gave her some cash, but, because of the sort of farming in which she works, she has been unable to move or sell any of her animals. No income whatever has been coming in, so her situation has been desperate. I pay tribute to all the agricultural charities, especially those that deal with daily calls from farmers who are stressed out and at their wits' end.

Let me return to Mr. Goldstone, whose letter states:

The Bill sums that up. As has been pointed out, hardly anybody will benefit from the amounts of money that are being provided, which are small in comparison with the deep problem that exists. I said that the help was a sticking plaster for a heart attack, and that is exactly what it is. The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple- Morris) said that I was exaggerating, but I am not. There are businesses in deep pain that need direct and immediate assistance from the Government.

Interest-free loans are at the top of Anthony Goldstone's list of suggestions. Why cannot we have such loans? The Opposition have been suggesting for several weeks that they should be introduced. They should be provided now. It is not as if businesses can wait much longer. No doubt many have already closed and laid people off. They need the money now. Many small businesses owe money to other small businesses that are equally affected by the outbreak of foot and mouth. If they could only get access to an interest-free loan, they could start to pay off their debts to other smaller businesses. The money would then start to fuel the economy. The Chancellor of the Exchequer should like that idea, as it would not cost him anything in the long term. Once businesses start to earn a profit again, they will begin to pay the money back, so the Exchequer will not lose out. If businesses stay in business, they will pay taxes in future, but if they go out of business, they will pay no taxes whatever. I ask the Government yet again to consider the proposal.

Earlier today, I asked the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport whether he had made representations to the Chancellor on that exact point. He did not answer my

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question. Of course, that was no surprise, as he did not answer any of the questions that he was asked today, but as he did not respond to my specific point, I can believe only that he has made representations to the Chancellor about the matter. We are told that the Chancellor is awash with money, including the £22 billion gained on licences for third-generation mobile phones, but he must have said no. For some strange reason, he does not want to help out the affected businesses.

Anthony Goldstone ends his letter by stating:

I ask the Minister to consider carefully what Mr. Goldstone says on behalf of the North West tourist board. I suspect that he speaks on behalf of tourist boards throughout the country, which all feel exactly the same: they need assistance now.

It is a great shame that the Minister for the Environment, who has responsibility for the rural taskforce, is not using this debate to propose a more substantial package of measures than the Bill. We have said that we will take anything that the Government are prepared to offer, but we must be realistic. The Bill will be spun out of all recognition and presented as the great saviour for rural businesses throughout the country, but it is nothing of the kind. A lot of the farming and tourism businesses in my constituency will not benefit from the Bill at all. The Government keep saying "Diversify away from farming, please", but from where will businesses get the money to make the capital investments that they need to diversify in the first place?

I remember when the Prime Minister visited a farm in the south-west that had diversified. I think that the visit occurred about two years ago, and that the farm in question was running a form of restaurant. However, not every farm can turn itself into a restaurant, and the Bill does not allow such farms to benefit from the skimpy offering that is being made anyway. We must be realistic about what activities farms can diversify into.

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