Examination of witnesses (Questions 131-139)
WEDNESDAY 28 MARCH 2001
MEACHER, MP, AND
131. Minister, we are grateful to you for coming
to talk to us. We realise that you are obviously very busy but
we all represent constituencies which are heavily affected. In
my own constituency I do not have a single case of foot and mouth
and yet the whole of the constituency is now an infected area
so that means that in practice any normal agricultural activity
cannot be pursued in it. In common with a large part of the rest
of the affected areas there is this incredible sense of embattlement.
I am sure you have discovered this is a real sense of being in
battle. We welcome the measures which you announced last week.
My first question is have you made any further decisions as to
how wide you think the legitimate case for some form of relief
should go? At one extreme one could argue there is the Horserace
Betting Levy Board in respect of cancelled race meetings or the
National Trust, which is in my constituency, and equally you have
got the little bed and breakfast house, you have got the village
shop, and the one in my constituency reported £6.50 in takings
last week in one of the high tourist areas, or at the most extreme
the man who actually runs the cafe« in the Skipton Auction
Market where for obvious reasons there is no trade to be had and
then within the agricultural community obviously the farmers whose
animals are going over the 30 months, sheep which are going beyond
the marketable days and a seriously looming welfare crisis in
pigs particularly which we hope the welfare scheme will be able
to alleviate. Have you had any further thoughts as to where the
legitimate front is of how we ought to run it?
(Mr Meacher) Obviously we are continuing
to look at this. This is a moving situation. It is still worsening
at the present time and we have to measure up the aid that we
provide in accordance with the situation we find. The Government
have always maintainedand this must be rightthat
the best way of assisting non farm businesses, which I am concerned
with, is through restoring visitors and customers. I do not think
anyone would challenge that and that is why the Prime Minister
today was making his speech. That is why we issued the guidelines
Friday a week ago. That is why we today, after the third meeting
of the Rural Task Force, have issued guidance to local authorities
about the methodology to implement the guidelines. We shall now
be checking with all of those local authorities, we have started
to do this all over the country, as to the policy that they are
pursuing and how many footpaths, other areas, they are opening
up. As I say, it is their decision, it is not being taken centrally.
We are not able to do that, we would not seek to do that, but
we need an explanation from each one as to why they are not opening
up footpaths or whatever. I am sure there is a perfectly good
explanation but we want to know what it is otherwise we do expect
country, wherever it can be, to be opened up. Now that is the
prime target, it is overwhelmingly the prime target. However,
of course, we realise that in the short run there is going to
be a need to give assistance to tide businesses over. We did that
after the second meeting when I made the statement to the House
in terms of particularly rate relief, deferment and rescheduling
of VAT and taxes and thirdly, equally importantly, getting the
banks on sideand I do not think they needed much pressure,
to be fair to them, they said that they were proactively seeking
out clients in order to assist themin order to ensure that
there is an extension of lines of credit. Now in addition to that,
in addition to trying to ease statutory payments that have to
be made, we have been looking at further forms of short term aid.
The most obvious one is the Small Firms Loan Guarantee Fund, and
we are looking to see how we can expand that as far as we can
in order to give assistance. We are also looking at other measures.
I cannot today say more about that, I am sure, Chairman, for reasons
you will understand, until the Government makes the decision but
I do hope that we will be able to make a further statement shortly.
132. Would you accept that in encouraging people
to resume visiting in a sense you are asking them to pursue a
different sort of visit from the traditional visit to the countryside?
In a sense you are not simply saying "Carry on where you
left off", it is a sort of new culture of visit you are trying
to encourage people to pursue. Are you surprised that some people
are saying there is almost a sense of "Would it be right
for us to do it" because of their concerns about the disease?
(Mr Meacher) Well, you are quite right, we are not
saying, of course, that you can go back to where you were six
weeks ago. We are absolutely not saying that. We are saying until
we are red or blue in the face, whichever it is, that you certainly,
of course, should keep away from livestock, keep off farmland
and obey the Keep Out signs. The Prime Minister again repeated
it today in his speech. It is not the same. Of course many people
do go to the countryside to walk across pasture, to walk across
commons, to walk across grassland, and now that situation is fundamentally
different in areas which are within range of infected areas. I
repeat 50 to 70 per cent, I am not sure, I have not worked it
out, of the country is not at this point infected. In those areas
the judgment may well be made by local authorities, in conjunction
with local veterinary advice, that it is safe to use some of those
footpaths across commons etc but it is a matter for them. In the
other part, the 30 per cent which is affected, yes, it is different
from what was there before. Getting people to understand that
distinction is not easy. We did institute an advertising campaign
which I am sure everyone here saw in the national newspapers,
both the broadsheets and the tabloids a week ago, trying to make
the case for a different kind of safe visiting of the countryside.
How far that has got across, how far we persuaded local authorities
to take account of that and open up, is precisely what we are
now checking on today and from now on.
133. Under the aid schemes I wonder if I can
draw your attention to a letter in The Times on 20 March
from Lord Vinson who was the previous Chairman of the Rural Development
Commission. That flows from also, if you recall, in the House
I asked you a question about employers who could not keep people
in jobs but did not want to make them redundant. Lord Vinson suggested
in that letter that the Government could revive the entitlement
of small employers to claim partial reimbursement from the state
by way of redundancy rebate. This would enable them to be relieved
on the cost of redundancy which can be quite severe for a long
term employer and help the problem which I described, I think,
of people who have got employment but no jobs to be able to be
kept on the books or be temporarily laid off at less cost than
it would otherwise be. Is that the sort of scheme that you might
be thinking of, relevant to farming and non farming businesses?
(Mr Meacher) That is a very interesting
suggestion, if I may say. As you will remember, in my reply to
your question I assumed you were talking about self-employed persons
having entitlement to Jobseekers Allowance and I replied on that
basis. I think correctly I did state what are the conditions.
You have now raised a different point which we have not looked
at and I think that is an interesting proposal. I think the idea
of enabling employers to keep trained and skilled staff temporarily
in order that they can return quickly to work as soon as may be
is certainly something we should look at. It has always been a
problem, of course, that the state cannot subsidise employers
in terms of keeping employees who are not actively looking for
work. It would simply give both employers and employees a free
lunch for as long as may be.
134. Of course.
(Mr Meacher) Now that is not the intention. Can I
say that we will seriously look at that. I was almost going to
say you should be a member of the Task Force because I am always
looking for good ideas and I think that might be one.
Chairman: I think we may start looking at members
of the Task Force a little later in the questions. A very brief
intervention from Mr Öpik.
135. Before we go into great detail, Minister,
one of the things that has struck me is the danger of having a
double-headed monster approach to the whole crisis where you have
certain objectives and Nick Brown has slightly different objectives.
How are we making sure that the danger of having slightly conflicting
objectives is not going to cause friction in the system? The reason
I ask that is because there is a perception in certainly parts
that I represent that they are not really quite sure which way
to look. Psychologically there could be the difficulty of conflicting
bodies of information coming from those two groups. For example,
is the countryside open for business, you might say yes and Nick
Brown might say no because he is concerned about contamination.
(Mr Meacher) I am very well aware of that conflict
and, of course, we have been repeatedly accused of being confused
about our objectives. I hope that is not true. Maybe it was at
the outset, I certainly do not think it is true now. It is a subtle
combination of objectives in which it is not true that we are
saying "close down the countryside for fear of spreading
the disease", that is a view which I think has taken root
amongst local authorities and members of the public, as I say,
for extremely honourable and worthy motives. I think they decided
to keep away from the outside because they did not want to do
anything themselves which might promote the spread of the disease.
We now believe that is exaggerated, it is a grossly over-precautionary
attitude. The veterinary officers of MAFF do not support that
view as being necessary. Of course we have found also that it
is exceedingly counter-productive because it has grossly undermined
the takings, the earnings, of a vast range of tourism and other
related ancillary retail businesses of one kind or another where
the losses that have been repeated in the paper are several times
greater than the losses to the farming community. We have, therefore,
to reconcile the two and so far from being impossible I think
they can be perfectly well reconciled. The first priority is not
to do anything which will promote the spread of the disease. The
Government's number one objective clearly is to contain and eradicate
the disease. Nothing to interfere with that objective will be
done by us. At the same time, compatibly with that, consistently
with that, we can do a great deal more to try and protect rural
businesses. It is to convey that message which, as I say, is certainly
not contradictory, is not even contrarythere is so much
of the countryside, a vast area of the countryside which you can
perfectly well go to if you keep away from livestock, farmlands
and obey the Keep Out signsit is to convey that message
which we are trying to do. I do not think it will be easy. Personally
I think it is quite clear but getting clarity into the minds of
ordinary Joe Public is not easy.
136. Can I just ask you a question I have been
dying for ages to ask at these sessions. What about the workers?
In your answer to the Chairman, which I did not quite follow,
you were dealing with employers. Now it is obviously going to
be difficult for employees in collecting Jobseekers Allowance,
it is not that they are not in jobs, it is just that they are
not doing it. They are not actively seeking work. What benefits
are available to the workers in the situation?
(Mr Meacher) If they are employees and they are made
redundant they have, of course, the normal immediate entitlement
to Jobseekers Allowance. The query has been that many small farmers
or individual very small businessmen, self-employed, maybe with
one or two people working with them, if they cannot continue are
they entitled to benefit and the answer is yes, they can be entitled
to Jobseekers Allowance provided they are actively seeking work.
That has to be proven, you cannot receive Jobseekers Allowance
and say "Well, I am just waiting until I can get my job back
but do not expect me to look for another job" that is not
an entitlement under Jobseekers Allowance. It may be the Chairman
has very ingeniously been suggesting this idea of a redundancy
rebate and, as I say, I think we should consider that.
137. Are you saying they can collect redundancy
because otherwise if the employer wants to keep them on they are
akin to fishermen who I find have enormous difficulty in getting
Jobseekers Allowance. They are fishermen but they are not fishing
between trips or when the quota has gone against them. They find
difficulty in collecting Jobseekers Allowance and there is sometimes
a long delay if they do get it. Are you saying they have got to
collect redundancy payments to answer the employer's problem?
(Mr Meacher) No, I am saying that there are rules
about entitlement to Jobseekers Allowance and those are strict.
We did inherit a Jobseekers Allowance which is the successor to
138. And we have not changed it.
(Mr Meacher) No, we have not changed it.
139. The employers want to keep them on and
they want to keep the job they have not got, if you see what I
mean, so they are not actively seeking work.
(Mr Meacher) For that reason they cannot therefore
get Jobseekers Allowance. It remains the case, as with the previous
Government, and it remains the case with us. It is a pretty tough
regime and in a time like this it is difficult to give relief
compatible with those rules to many people who members of the
public would undoubtedly regard as deserving. We are having to
look, given the magnitude of the situation we face, at how we
can best help these people. I repeat the best way remainsand
one must always remember thatto get the customers back
and then they can be taken on again. There is no substitute for
that in alternative relief or alternative benefit.