Examination of witnesses (Questions 140-159)
WEDNESDAY 28 MARCH 2001
MEACHER, MP, AND
LAMBERT Mr Todd
140. We would all second that. Surely you must
recognise that, say, in the case of what certainly happened in
my constituency, an abattoir which has been shut down because
of restrictions, the workers are sent home, they receive no money
but they are not actually being made redundant, the approach that
you are taking means that they survive on no income?
(Mr Meacher) If they are sent home because
the abattoir is no longer operating, the fact is they have been
laid off in an informal sense, if not actually formally. If the
employer is not employing them, either the employer is paying
them to do work or the employer is not paying them to do work,
in which case, whatever words you use, they are laid off, redundant,
141. The employer takes no direct action of
that kind and does not issue them with any notice. They presumably
can claim that they have been constructively dismissed?
(Mr Meacher) Yes.
142. That is, as I am sure you are aware, not
a straightforward process and nor is it particularly desirable
if the actual goal is to go and work for that company again in
a few weeks' time.
(Mr Meacher) Yes, I accept that, but I think the employer
does not want to put them in a position where he cannot pay them
for work that is not done and he prevents them getting benefit
which they might otherwise be entitled to, I am sure he would
not wish to do that.
143. The correct process should be for him to
make his staff redundant but, in a behind the scenes deal, in
fact he will then hire them once again but, while they may indeed
claim JSA, they will not seriously look for work. It sounds like
a sort of recipe of small scale deceit that the Government is
(Mr Meacher) Well, no Minister is going to actually
144. No, I am sure you are not.
(Mr Meacher) what you call a deceit on DSS.
Clearly if you seek JSA then you are expected genuinely to be
looking for work and, indeed, as I understand the rules, you will
be checked on to see if you really are seeking work. I accept
there is a real problem here in the particular situation we find
ourselves where hopefully people are going to be able to be taken
on again in a relatively short period and there is this lacuna,
this gap, which has somehow to be met. Now, as I say, the rules
about JSA are quite clear. If we could find some way of giving
assistance, possibly through the idea of a redundancy rebate,
which I have not raised with colleagues, and it is not my area,
if we could find a way consistent with current legislation I think
we would be very pleased to do so.
145. The impact, Minister, on the whole of the
rural economy is now becoming apparent. The complexities are expanding
every day. In terms of the Parliamentary answer given announcing
your Task Force it says the objective is "to consider the
implications of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease on the
rural economy both immediately and in the long term and report
to the Prime Minister on appropriate measures". How often
do you report to the Prime Minister and by what method?
(Mr Meacher) I have seen the Prime Minister most days
in the last ten days since I was appointed. I saw him again this
morning; I saw him, I cannot remember, two or three times last
week but, of course, I communicate also with him by writing a
minute, producing a report. I promised him a report for tomorrow
evening and this will continue, I am sure, for some time.
146. So we can understand the way the Task Force
is operating, if we go to the particular areas that you have to
look at, we have you "identifying problems, drawing up guidance,
identifying initiatives and identifying potential new actions".
Is your role solely to be the gatherer in of problems, ideas and
possible solutions and then to parcel them all up to the Prime
Minister who then decides whether that is a good idea or not and
presses the button on the decision making machine? Tell us how
(Mr Meacher) It is something like that except we do
the gathering up and the assessment and our recommendations as
to what might be appropriate, either in terms of access to the
countryside, ensuring that local authorities, National Trust,
Forestry Commission, British Waterways, Historic Houses Association,
all of these people open up their properties or facilities, that
is one prime aim. A second is to look at issues of short term
relief. For that, Mr Jack will be very well aware of this from
his previous role as Treasury Minister, we negotiate closely with
Treasury about these matters. We come forward with proposals and
we present them to the Prime Minister. We do not have power, we
do not have authority to decide. What we do have, exactly as you
have said, is the Commission to bring together the two wings of
this which have been referred to already, the farming wing, that
is particularly NFU/CLA, and, on the other side, the tourist industry
and all the local authorities and other stakeholder interests
to get an agreed package so that I can say to the Prime Minister
"We have discussed this. Our belief is that the way forward
is with these three proposals". We would recommend them but,
of course, it is his final sanction.
147. There is a worry because if one looks at
your statement in the House at what you have so far announced,
we saw help with rural rate relief, tax and VAT, chats with the
Small Business Service and banks and some mention of the Jobseekers
Allowance, there are many out there whose businesses are in a
state of collapse, potentially going out of business who will
be saying "Hang on a minute, when is something going to happen
for us?" Hearing what you have said about all this information
going into the already very crowded pipeline of information going
to the Prime Minister, will we not wonder, given his undoubted
attention to running the practical slaughter and disposal side
of foot and mouth, whether he will also have enough decision making
time to act, to process, to pass on to other Government Departments
the fruits of your labour? Do you feel that you are sort of, I
would not say also rans but somewhat behind the game in terms
of getting noticed?
(Mr Meacher) No, I do not think that is a problem.
The Prime Minister, as I am sure everyone realises, is focusing
very strongly indeed on this issue. He is seeing a very wide range
of relevant interests, the Rural Task Force is certainly one of
those, we are a major player in that but he is, of course, consulting
others as well. He is giving a great deal of his time to sorting
through, as matters are raised, queries by other Departments,
questions about stakeholders, acceptance of it, testing public
opinion, checking the media response, all of these things are
going on all the time. Because, of course, of the gravity of this,
as I say, the Prime Minister is unusually concentrating, I will
not say exclusively, because that is never possible for prime
ministers, but very strongly on it. It is a natural organic process.
It is not one where there are a limited number of channels of
access and he then has to choose between them.
148. You have alluded to the fact that there
may be more announcements in the future about the work of this
Task Force. Who is going to pull together the content of what
may be the next announcement and who will be responsible for pressing
the button to make that policy, whatever it may be, actually happen?
(Mr Meacher) It will be the Rural Task Force. If we
are talking about short term relief, we do have a prime responsibility,
that is clear from the Prime Minister's commission. As I say,
we continued to have a further discussion of that this morning.
There are a number of ideas which, as a result of that meeting,
we are now examining closely. As I did say, I hope it will come
forward with some further proposals. The Prime Minister himself
said today about relief of rates, deferment of VAT. That is certainly
helpful if you do not have to pay your statutory payments on the
dot, you get either a rates holiday, which we believe a very large
number of small businesses may get, or some assistance with deferment
of VAT without penalty if it is justified. Nevertheless, that
only takes you so far and if you are simply getting no customers
and your earnings are going down from 30 per cent, 50 per cent,
70 per cent down, we do realise that further measures may be necessary
and that is exactly what we are concentrating on at the present
149. Let me ask you a question. I notice the
Treasury are listed as members, and I think you alluded to it,
in their role as the holder of the public purse but your statement
to the House mentioned the tax and VAT. Given that there are matters
of practicality, why are there not individual representatives
of the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise, because as you know
they guard their separation jealously from the work straightforwardly
of the Treasury? Why are they not on this Task Force?
(Mr Meacher) As you know the Chief Secretary is, together
with Treasury officials. He speaks on behalf not only of HMT but
also, in terms of his regular contact and through his colleague,
he speaks on behalf of Customs and Excise. If we had individual
representatives from every group that has an interest in this,
I think we are already 20 to 25 membership, we could easily go
150. If you had said to me "We are going
to set up some specialist sub-committees to feed in" that
might have responded to a point that I noticed that you are up
to 23, not an easy body to chair and make decisions. What actually
is being done within the Treasury? For example, it talks of tax
holidays, a bit irrelevant if you are not making much profit to
be taxed on in the first place. Some people may be looking for
rebates, a whole variety of areas. There is no representative
of the Department of Social Security on here and yet in your statement
to the House you talked about "We can help through the benefits
system, Jobseekers Allowance may be available to employees".
For example, there are difficult issues over actively seeking
work. No DSS, why not them?
(Mr Meacher) They are there. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary
for Social Security did attend the second meeting. It is true
she was not there this morning but they are members.
151. It does not say so on the list that has
been printed in the parliamentary answer announcing who the membership
is. Obviously you may have augmented that.
(Mr Meacher) I am surprised. If we are talking about
the second meeting, she was certainly there. I think it was the
second, it may have been the first.
(Miss Lambert) It was the second one. Basically, Ministers
from other Departments come in as necessary depending on what
is being discussed.
152. How do you work with reference to the devolved
government in the United Kingdom? What is the relationship there?
(Mr Meacher) They are all members of the Task Force.
They send representatives. In the case of Wales they send a member
of the National Assembly of Wales. In the case of Scotland and
Northern Ireland they send officials. They have all been active.
Of course this is a devolved area. To that extent the implementation
of whatever may be decided is a matter for them. I am extremely
keen, of course, that we co-ordinate. We listen, of course, to
what they tell us they are doing, which in some cases is slightly
different from what we are proposing in England. Of course they
comment about proposals. They are certainly full members. I encourage
strong participation and that is what we get. I would like to
have a co-ordinated response across the whole of the UK.
153. I just want to touch on the mechanism by
which the Task Force gets in accurate information as to what is
happening to businesses. I am quite sure we will hear anecdotal
evidence that this business is about to close tomorrow unless
something is done. I recognise however quickly the Task Force
works there are always going to be businesses that cannot be saved
because of the timescale. What I am concerned about is whether
or not the Task Force itself has got an accurate picture of what
is actually happening to rural businesses in order to make sure
that it can respond within a reasonable timescale rather than
assuming it has got a few more weeks before it needs to put mechanisms
in place. It may be it has a few more weeks but we do not really
know the severity of the immediate problem for businesses in terms
of whether they will go out of business or be able to stay in
business for a few weeks. How confident are you that you have
got the information and what mechanisms are in place to give the
Task Force that information?
(Mr Meacher) First of all, we all appreciate the severity
of the situation and that time is of the essence and that action
needs to be taken very quickly because many businesses certainly
within a short time will be on the brink, I think we realise that.
Now we get information from all sources that we can, obviously.
The Small Business Service and DTI are a major source of that
information, so are the Government Offices in the region that
deal with industrial economic matters, of course, as well as others
and, of course, perhaps above all, from the Regional Development
Agencies, particularly those in the North West and the South West
who are the prime epicentres of this outbreak and who have been
constantly feeding us information about the state of business
in the area. Ministers do also try, to be fair, to get some taste
for this on the ground. I went down to Devon a week ago, I am
going to Cumbria on Friday. Nick Brown went to both Cumbria and
Devon I think the day before yesterday. I have also been into
the Heart of England Tourist Board region, East and West Midlands,
and again met half a dozen different kinds of businesses. I shall
continue to do that for as long as this situation lasts. We are
gathering information. We are trying to make it as systematic
as possible. I have here in the briefing something like 15 pages
of detailed information that has been collected. I am sure if
the Committee want to look at it we could make it available. It
is being updated, improved, extended all the time. I think we
are aware of the situation. It is what is the appropriate response
which is going to save as many of these companies as possible,
that is really what we are concentrating on.
154. Following on from that point, Michael,
have you had any feedback yet as to whether you have been successful
in changing the public's response in the guidance you issued at
the weekend and, if not, are you taking measures to check it?
(Mr Meacher) This is the guidance which I have here.
It will be published and I can obviously leave a copy with you.
I am aware this was the copy I went into the Regional Task Force
with and in certain small ways it has been changed so I think
I had better give you the final version. We did exactly what Mr
Jack was referring to. We set up a small committee which did represent
the farmers' interest and the tourist interest just to check two
or three small items about which there was still disagreement.
We have now got agreement. We have the guidelines which we issued
ten days ago. The advertising campaign followed from it, and they
tried to put it in a slightly snappier version than guidelines
ever are. Now we have issued guidance to local authorities and,
as I say, we are going to follow this up immediately. We have
started phoning around or getting Regional Directors of the Government
Offices to ring round local authorities in their area to get accurate
data on what is still closed, what has been opened up, what is
proposed to be opened up and if it is not proposed to be opened
up I want an explanation. As I say, there may be perfectly good
explanations but I want assurances so that I am satisfied that
everything that can safely be opened up has been opened up. That
is the next pressure this week.
155. I can certainly tell you, Michael, that
I have had telephone calls and I am in Norfolk and we have been
lucky so far, no outbreak of foot and mouth and hopefully we are
going to avoid it. The response I have had from the public is
them calling up and asking why are we finding all these Keep Out
signs, Keep Away. Is there a difference, in fact, in the guidance
for different parts of the country? Should people get different
rules applying in Norfolk than in Cumbria?
(Mr Meacher) Of course. Indeed, I am very pleased
to hear that people in Norfolk are saying "Why are these
footpaths closed because this is Norfolk and the nearest outbreak
is hundreds of miles away, or I do not know, a very considerable
distance?" I think that is exactly the question they should
156. If I can explain what the worry is. Their
worry is that somebody from Cumbria is the person who is on the
path and the concern and fear is that somebody on holiday is going
to bring this disease into Norfolk. That is the actual worry,
whether it is well founded or not. I would be grateful if you
could on the record actually say what the advice is on the risk
of that because I would have thought the public need to know what
the scientific basis is.
(Mr Meacher) I agree. As you rightly said, they need
the scientific advice, people do not rely on Government Ministers,
and I am sure they are right to do so, they go to the experts.
The experts are the local veterinary officers under the instructions
and guidance of the Chief Veterinary Officer, Jim Scudamore. Now,
it is for them to advise the county council, in your case Norfolk,
about what can be safely opened. I am quite sure in Norfolk a
high proportion of footpaths can be opened. The question will
be asked "What if someone comes from Cumbria and brings the
disease?" It is not for me to say but I am sure the veterinary
officer will say the chances of that happening are negligible
provided that the person has not had contact with livestock or
has worked or visited a farm which is infected. Those are the
key issues. People do believe that human beings can very easily
carry the disease, in fact I think the veterinary advice is that
unless people have been in touch recently with livestock or worked
on a farm recently that is extremely unlikely. It is taking that
veterinary advice which is the key point. As I say, I think official
guidance and ministerial pronouncements are not right in saying,
"Well, I perfectly well recognise that, but let's use the
veterinary advice which has been incorporated in this guidance",
because, of course, it has been drawn up by DETR and MAFF, and
in the case of MAFF they have submitted it to their veterinary
officers and they have agreed what it says here.
157. What is happening on Crown land? I am being
distinctive, in that I have Sandringham in my patch, and among
some of those people telephoning me this morning are people asking
about the Sandringham estate. Have we issued advice on Crown land
and given clear guidance there? Will we be informing those who
need to know in places like Sandringham?
(Mr Meacher) Yes, the advice applies to estates, to
national parks or to the open countryside terrain. Again, it does
depend on local veterinary advice, applying locally what the agreed
criteria are nationally.
158. Can I tell the farming community in Norfolk
that the protection of the agricultural industry and of the livestock
is in fact being put number one and number two in encouraging
movement into the countryside?
(Mr Meacher) And number three.
159. Could I ask on a slightly different tack
what guidance under, I think it is, part B of your terms of reference
you have actually issued to businesses? You have issued guidance
to members of the public and now to local authorities. Have you
issued any guidance to businesses?
(Mr Meacher) Guidance in respect of what?