WEDNESDAY 28 MARCH 2001 _________ Members present: Mr David Curry, in the Chair Mr David Borrow Mr Michael Jack Mr Austin Mitchell Mr Lembit Öpik Mr Owen Paterson Mr Mark Todd Dr George Turner _________ RT HON MICHAEL MEACHER, a Member of the House, Minister for the Environment, and MISS SOPHIA LAMBERT, Director, Wildlife and Countryside Directorate, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions examined. Chairman 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 œ6.50 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 13 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 maintained - and this must be right - that 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 side - and 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 them - in 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. 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 contrary - there 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 signs - it 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. Mr Mitchell 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 Unemployment Benefit --- 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 remains - and one must always remember that - to get the customers back and then they can be taken on again. There is no substitute for that in alternative relief or alternative benefit. 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, unemployed. 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 straight forward 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, on a behind the scenes deal, in fact he will them 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 encouraging. (Mr Meacher) Well, no Minister is going to actually support --- 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. Mr Jack 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 it works. (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 time. 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 straight forwardly 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 to 50. 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. Mr Borrow 153. I just want to touch on the mechanism by which the Task Force gets inaccurate 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 Fore 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. Dr Turner 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 be asking. 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? 160. In respect of what "businesses" mean in part B of your terms of reference where you were asked to draw up specific guidance for public and businesses in accordance with veterinary advice. (Mr Meacher) I am slightly puzzled by that question. The two main objectives of the Rural Task Force are, firstly, to set down the basis on which people can make a visit into the countryside, which we have been discussing at some length just now - and that applies, I suppose, to members of businesses as it does to members of the public - and secondly, about how to ensure the survival and regeneration of small or indeed other businesses who may be affected by foot and mouth. Those two are different questions. I am reminded that I think you are probably referring to tourism guidance which has been given by DCMS to owners of attractions. 161. Right. So it has come out separately to them? (Mr Meacher) Yes, separately. 162. The final related question, or to do with access, is that there have been some reports that farmers have wanted roads closed or limited access. It has been said that in some cases it is found that there are not sufficient powers in the hands of the local authorities actually to close the roads down. Is that true, or do the powers exist? (Mr Meacher) The highways authorities only have power to close roads for traffic reasons. However, I understand that MAFF legislation does allow them to make an order - I think it is under the Foot and Mouth Order 1983 - with powers for MAFF to close roads where it is necessary for disease control. So it is possible to do this. I am aware of concerns about these. When I went down to Devon someone strongly bent my ear about the need to close roads leading into Exmoor, and I am aware that police have informally stopped access to some roads. I would repeat, though, that MAFF veterinary advice continues to be that the closing of roads - the closing of tarmac roads - is not necessary, but the powers are there to do it, if the highways authority cares to apply to MAFF for the use of those powers. Mr Mitchell 163. You are not saying that you want to encourage people from Cumbria who want to go for holidays in Norfolk, are you? What do you think the feelings of a boarding-house keeper in your constituency would be if they got a booking for two nights from somebody in Longtown? (Mr Meacher) I was asked a question as to what if someone came from the most affected areas to a totally uninfected area. I do understand the force of the question, and I suppose that it is possible. I think it is unlikely. Again, they would be expected, wherever they come from, to obey the same rules which are based on safety first. We must obey safety-first rules. We must do nothing in terms of access to the countryside which in any way endangers the spread of this disease, but I think that can be reconciled, I repeat, with not total close-down, and we have to find that reconciliation, but one which protects the farmers and their interests. That is the prime concern. Mr Mitchell: Now one perhaps cynical question. I was somewhat upset, during the miners' strike in the 1980s, at the lack of support for businesses in the mining areas which were hit by a year-long strike, who got nothing. Looking at it cynically, rural businesses, particularly tourism, are hardly going to make money anyway, because who in their right mind is going to go into the countryside in this weather anyway? They are going to be either conning you for money they would not have got because nobody wants to go in this weather, or you are going to be stuffing money into their mouth to keep them quiet for an election. Chairman 164. He is a member of the Labour Party. (Mr Meacher) I suspect that many members of HM Treasury will be arguing along those sorts of lines. We seriously do have to be careful. This is always a problem in a situation like this where there will be people who try to get a free ride, who try to hitch on the bandwagon. Again, we have this very difficult task of ensuring that the deserving get real help that they need, whilst preventing people just taking advantage. It is difficult. Mr Öpik 165. I will explain the reason why I am asking quite a lot of questions. It is because, as you know, Powys is probably second or third affected in the UK, because we are coming up against all these issues at the moment. One request is that you keep the Ramblers' Association directly informed, if you are not doing so already. Christopher Sparrow from the Ramblers' Association described the extreme willingness of them to keep their membership close to what needs to be done, but a slight frustration because they do not feel they are in the loop at the moment for that kind of guidance. Maybe they are, but that is the point. (Mr Meacher) I am sure they are in touch with us. They are not members of the Task Force. I do not think they have sought to be, and nor do I think that would be appropriate. I am sure we will be open with them about the situation. I am certainly not in any way trying to be secretive or conceal the situation as we see it from their point of view, but I am grateful for the fact that they well realise the gravity of this and they are behaving very sensibly, as I would expect. 166. If you did, I am sure Chris Smith would never forgive you, as he does a lot of walking. On the question of advice, I am using this for a specific example, but I know there are a lot of general issues. As you know, there are lots of festivals on in the countryside, especially in June and August. We have got something called the Newtown May Festival in Powys. They are trying to decide whether the guidance is that they should cancel their event or not. It is on 8 May. The Welsh Assembly have said it should not go ahead, but it is not taking place on agricultural land, it is in a town. It sounds like the kind of event that you have implied should continue, so the request is, what should they do? Should they go ahead, should they not? They will respect the guidance, whether you give it now or later. As I say, I think there are a lot of towns who would be looking for this kind of answer as a precedent for their own action. (Mr Meacher) I am sure that is right. Indeed, just before I came to this Committee I actually had a situation not dissimilar to that, which has arisen in my constituency, and I am sure this is generalised right across the country. I think the answer has to be that we must abide by the guidance. If that is still not clear enough, then of course the organisers of these events obviously wish them to go ahead, but they must get clearance from the local veterinary advice. That must remain the case if in any doubt. You can certainly consult the local authority, but the final arbiters in this matter are the local veterinary officers. 167. This is rhetorical. I would like to say that they currently feel there is a conflict of advice from what they see on television from Ministers and what they are getting locally. Maybe the actual step there would be to clarify the lines of communication so that they get the same message from two different directions. (Mr Meacher) I understand people feeling that. People do want a very simple, clear, unequivocal message. Unfortunately, in the messy world in which we live, which has been greatly complicated by this outbreak, it is not as simple as that, even though I think when you come to examining it there is clarity. We want these events, festivals, sporting events, fairs to go ahead wherever they can, and that is the point - wherever they safely can - but the basis of deciding whether they safely can, whether it is national advice which makes it clear, as I am doing now, or local advice, is that the ultimate decision must be taken by the veterinary officers who know the local situation, and because no situation locally is ever quite the same, they are all different in some respects, the judgment must be made on the ground by that person and we must all abide by that. Mr Paterson 168. I have a quick technical point, given the possible announcement that might be made next week. The Rating (Former Agricultural Premises and Rural Shops) Bill is being brought forward. Will any other measures under consideration by the Task Force require legislation? (Mr Meacher) Not at the moment. The Rating Bill does bring forward the extension of the mandatory 50 per cent rate relief for village shops to pubs, petrol filling stations and foodshops up to a rateable value of œ6,000 which we are actually increasing to œ9,000. That does require legislation. We happen to have a Bill, fortunately, and we are able to apply an order to bring it forward, to accelerate it. The other proposals are the use of existing powers; the proposal for rate relief which we are proposing, which can be up to 100 per cent, paid for by Government to the extent of 95 per cent, 5 per cent local authority, available, as you know, up to a œ12,000 rateable value ceiling, which would include 78 per cent - more than three-quarters - of the 390,000 businesses in rural local authority areas. What that means, if a business does get the 100 per cent rate relief, is that it could be worth œ1,290 over a three-month period for a property at œ12,000 rateable value. That is likely to be in excess of the rate bill. In other words, it is a complete rate holiday. That, I hope, is going to give very considerable relief. We estimate that it might be used by up to 50,000 businesses, but it does not require further legislation, it is an extension of existing powers. 169. Why do you fix a limit of œ12,000 on that? (Mr Meacher) It is an arbitrary figure. Indeed, it is no secret, of course, that we have been asked to raise it. I repeat that it does cover more than three-quarters of rural businesses in the hardest-hit areas. We think that is pretty well targeted aid. If we were to raise it to œ15,000 or œ20,000, it would enormously increase the cost, and it would be much less well targeted, so we think œ12,000 is a reasonable compromise, but there is nothing expressly about the figure. 170. Was it your decision or was it the Treasury's decision? (Mr Meacher) It was in discussion between us and the Treasury. 171. What comes out of this, though, is that you have shown a very sympathetic attitude in the debate yesterday, and you have done the same thing today, but what we are not, I think, seeing is an understanding of the absolutely chronic, immediate, dramatic crisis. You have talked about business activities going on under current restrictions, but for some of them that is just not possible. I have a number of faxes here from businesses involved in country affairs. There will not be any in my area - 89 per cent down. Equestrian businesses are not allowed out on the roads, they cannot go on them, they cannot go near animals. Their turnover is down 100 per cent. Hotels down 80 per cent. Pubs down 95 per cent. Garden visitors down 90 per cent. What you offered last week is encouraging them, and it sounds sympathetic. You considered help, you were very sympathetic, you were considering, you were going to make a proposal. However, what people need is not the denial of a negative, which is a tax, which you have done on rates, what they need is a positive. What I would like to address with you is the possibility of immediate fast loans. There has been the suggestion from the Conservative Party of a œ10,000 loan to small rural businesses. How can that be pushed through the Small Firms Loan Guarantee Fund? How quickly can you do it? What is lacking is the immediacy. You are making all the right noises, you are consulting, you are talking about vast amounts of information, but these people who are faxing me in my constituency - so far with only two confirmed cases of foot and mouth - are going bust this week. (Mr Meacher) I understand the urgency with which you say that, and I wholly support that. I know I have been characterised as just considering, consulting, bringing up to date. 172. I am quoting from your statement last week. (Mr Meacher) I actually think that the rate relief we are bringing forward - the extending of 50 per cent mandatory rate relief, and it could be 100 per cent if local authorities are prepared to grant it - and the wider rate relief which I have just spelt out, is very positive, tangible help. I think that if banks are prepared to extend lines of credit, that is real help. If the revenue departments do deliver deferment and rescheduling of VAT and PAYE, that is real help. I accept absolutely that over and above that, we should be looking at whether there should be an extension of the Small Firms Loan Guarantee Fund, how far that can be extended, whether that is adequate and, if it is not adequate, what further measures we can bring forward. I also accept that we should do that urgently, we should be looking at it this week. I accept that. However, I also do say to you that you are wrong, in my view, to give the impression that Government can somehow sustain the thousands, and possibly tens of thousands, of businesses that have taken one hell of an economic hit. The only way to protect those businesses is to persuade the public that they can safely return to the countryside. There is no other way. If one is simply going to say that Government has got to do it on its own, and we fail, then I think I plead guilty, because there is no way we can succeed, any government, in doing that. We have got to get people to understand that they can safely go back to the countryside and spend their money, not as a worthy act of patriotism, but because they enjoy it. I take the point that my colleague, Mr Mitchell, has been saying, that unfortunately the weather does not encourage people to go into the countryside, it actually encourages the foot and mouth virus, it does not encourage people to go out and enjoy themselves. However, we have got to do the best we can, and I am determined to get everything opened up that can be opened up. You have not asked, and therefore I will not spend time answering, about the National Trust, English Heritage, British Waterways, Forestry Commission, Historic Houses Association. It is just as important that we get them to open up wherever they safely can, because that then sends the message first of all that there are things that people want to go and visit and enjoy, and secondly that normality has returned. So I have been having discussions with them to try to encourage them to open up more, and this must be the main channel. The alternative which you have been stressing is secondary, but it is still important and it is still urgent. Give us a week and you can judge us. Mr Paterson: I think there is still a lack of urgency. You have mentioned rates, you have mentioned going to the banks about loans, you have mentioned VAT. I mentioned all of those three things in the statement when Chris Smith, the Tourism Secretary of State, came to the House of Commons two weeks ago, and I was accused of ranting and being party political. It is now your government policy, which I am delighted about, but I do think you are missing the plot that many of these businesses, even if you reopen the waterways, even if you do get help from the bank, are simply not going to have a season this year, they have missed it. There is not going to be a season. Dr Turner: That is a bit defeatist. Mr Paterson 173. I am not being defeatist. I am realistic. I am reading out faxes from real people whose businesses are down 90 per cent. There will not be a Westbury Show this year. The man who supplies shows will not have a market. As that is a result of the failure of the state, by allowing this disease into the country, surely it is incumbent on the state to come to the aid of these people, and again not just by withdrawing a negative by saying, "We're not going to have a tax", but by offering a positive which is a loan? That is why I suggested the œ10,000 loan from the Small Firms Loan Guarantee Fund, which is a positive help to these people now. (Mr Meacher) You are reiterating your case, and I do not want to spend too much time reiterating my answer. I gave a very full answer, and that is what I stand on. I do accept that further aid may be necessary. We are seeing how far the Small Firms Loan Guarantee Fund can be extended to achieve this purpose. If not, we will look, and are looking, at further aid, I do assure you, but I repeat, it is not the case that we write off tourism or recreation for Easter. There is going to be a big drop compared to previous years, there is no doubt about that, but we have got to work overtime to push up what would otherwise be an even lower total, and I have not given up my view that we can significantly increase what in the last two weeks may have looked like a complete wipe-out. I think we can considerably improve on that, and that is the drive we are now making. 174. When could you have a decision on the loan scheme? (Mr Meacher) I cannot tell you which day. I spend all my time every day discussing these matters. Clearly, several different interests have to come to agree on this. I am anxious to settle this matter, but we are also - and this goes back to an earlier question - trying to collect data about the state of businesses. You have quoted some in your constituency, I am sure totally fairly. The problem about anecdotal evidence is that it is anecdotal evidence, it does need to be quantified. I have no doubt that it is accurate. 175. Of course it is. (Mr Meacher) I have no doubt about that. However, one can quote any number of examples. We do need to have reliable national data. I do not wish to do a research thesis, I am not suggesting we have got the time or commitment to do that, but we have to have the systematic evidence which is going to persuade other departments that this is justified, and that is what I am desperately trying to collect at the present time. Mr Borrow 176. I think Mr Paterson has shown exactly why I should have asked the question which I did ask earlier on, about the need for evidence, because it is quite clear that not all political parties have a policy fully to compensate every business for every loss that they absorb that is from the outbreak of foot and mouth. I want to look specifically at the issue of hardship rate relief, which is the issue which is under the proposal to increase it from 75 per cent to 95 per cent funded by central Government, which I welcome. I recognise that the Government cannot give a promise to fund that 100 per cent, because it is an open cheque for every local authority to give 100 per cent rate relief to every rural business that comes into the category, but what I would ask you is if the Task Force is considering giving additional funding to the local authorities that are most severely affected? Certainly in those areas where we are dealing here with small shire districts who are having to pick up 5 per cent of the total rate bill, that in some cases will be quite a significant chunk of the budget of a small shire district council in a rural area, and I think we may well find that councils are not able to give the sort of relief that was intended under this provision, unless there is some willingness on the part of central Government to look at additional funding to cover that, albeit that has to be done on the basis of how severe the problem is in that particular area. I also think it may be necessary for central Government to look at giving additional funding to the most severely affected local authorities because of the additional costs which will fall to them in actually giving the service and backup that is needed to businesses and the wider community in these areas. Are those things being seriously considered now? (Mr Meacher) Yes, they are. We are certainly trying to concentrate on the areas of greatest need. That is certainly the sensible thing to do. The rate relief is concentrated on those 151 rural local authorities who are hardest hit. I accept also that if one is looking at aid to particular businesses, it is those which are in the infected areas, those which now are in designated areas from which the public may be excluded, whose earnings are therefore falling potentially to zero, who deserve the most help. We are looking at the best way to do that, whether it is through the Regional Development Agency, the extension, as I have indicated, of the Small Firms Loan Guarantee Fund, whether it is in terms of small business service in-depth consultancy advice as to how businesses can adapt in very difficult circumstances, whether it is by accelerating some of the proposals in the Rural White Paper, particularly in regard to market towns. These are all options which we are now urgently looking at, but they are all aimed at what you yourself say should be concentrated support for the local authorities and businesses most hard hit. 177. Finally, perhaps I can touch on the wider issue of the promotion of tourism in this same context. Is there a recognition within the Task Force and Government that the promotion of tourism itself needs to be targeted, in the sense that there needs to be a recognition that there will be localities where the promotion of tourism is unrealistic for several months to come, because the only reasons tourists would go to those particular localities are to walk in the open countryside? Certainly promoting Mosedale, which is a beautiful area, I would say that 90 per cent of the people who go to Mosedale will go to walk on the Fells and certainly would not be welcome to go there, whilst there are other areas where targeted promotion of tourism either by central Government or local government could have a much more productive effect in achieving what is achievable in terms of preserving tourist businesses in rural areas. (Mr Meacher) Obviously in Cumbria, Powys, South Devon it is very difficult to achieve tourist development at this time, although there are parts in those areas - for example, East Devon - which are not wholly affected and where there are still opportunities which I think we should try to develop if we can. Of course, it is the other parts of the country also. Norfolk, which is as far away as you can get in many ways from the sources of infection, has suffered because of the climate of fear which exists that "Even if we have not got it now, we may get it tomorrow; it may come in mysterious ways, and we can't take any risks". It is trying to combat that, which is basically unscientific and where the risks are so low as to be negligible, but where the damage is huge and manifest, that we must concentrate our efforts, and that is what we are trying to do. If we can get tourism back into the 50 or 70 per cent of the country where there is absolutely no reason why it should not develop perfectly normally at this present time, I think we get the critical mass which we can develop into the more difficult areas, although being extremely careful. However, I do not think we can start in this area, it is the rest of the country which obviously has the best opportunities. Mr Jack 178. In your guidance to local authorities on rate relief did I understand you correctly that the rates holiday that you have granted so far - or should I say "rates relief" - only lasts for three months? (Mr Meacher) It lasts for three months in the first instance, yes. 179. At what point would you take a view as to whether to extend that? Clearly, from the views that you have heard round the table, it is likely that businesses will have a long-term rather than a short-term problem in the context of their cashflows, will they not? (Mr Meacher) Yes, I accept that. Ministers have already long said that we are in for a long haul. No one, of course, knows how long that might be, and, of course, there are discussions which are in the media and are well understood to be taking place about the best strategy at this point to try to contain the disease, which could, in the next few weeks, have a significant impact. That is all relevant material in deciding whether to extend it. It may well be extended, but, as you know, Government is very cautious and we concentrate on the immediate period. I would estimate that certainly two months into the three-month period we most certainly have to take a view as to whether to extend it. Mr Öpik 180. I have a number of points about assistance to farmers and also for related industries. Are you considering specific financial assistance in restricted zones, for example, to farmers who have not got the disease but they cannot move their stock? The rationale here is that those individuals are even now experiencing consequential losses without losing stock, and they could lose their business because of the lack of turnover. (Mr Meacher) I have to say to the Committee that that is a matter for MAFF, it is a matter for Nick Brown, not for me. I am exclusively concerned with non-farm business. I know he is very well aware of this issue, but I think you should ask him that. It is not my decision. 181. In which case, can I ask about related industries. Would those be in your remit? For example, there is a construction company in the middle of my constituency. The proprietor of that company contacted me saying he is not a farmer himself, he does no farming, but his workforce are normally employed on construction on farm sites. They are not going anywhere at the moment, they are not doing any work. Would that be in the remit of your work or MAFF's? (Mr Meacher) I think that would probably come into the Rural Task Force, yes. I know that this separation of non-farm and farm is somewhat artificial, the two are very closely interlocked. 182. So to use him as an example, as opposed to the Newtown Fair example which I mentioned before, he is saying that he is basically going to have to close his business, go into bankruptcy within a couple of months possibly, or there is the danger of it. I understand what you have said about business rates and so forth. He is saying that in reality he will need something like relief from PAYE, a holiday on paying tax and national insurance contributions and so forth, because of the sheer turnover that he has lost. Would that be something that you might consider? (Mr Meacher) I am not a finance Minister, but my understanding is that the legislation is very rigid and tight on this, that there is not provision in the legislation to forego payment of VAT and PAYE. Indeed, I am sure that all Members in the room have experienced constituents who complain that they have been driven bankrupt because the Revenue is insisting on payment of VAT that they cannot make. The Revenue does have that power, and, indeed, I think actually has the duty to pursue payment of VAT which is due. What we have said is that where there is flexibility in terms of the timing of payments, we should use that. Of course, that is only stacking up increased liabilities at a later stage, but it might keep people going. The revenue departments have said that they will deal with this as sympathetically as possible. I keep saying that I want evidence where that is not being exercised. Chairman 183. Can I seek clarification, Minister, about aid responsibility? If you have a business based on a farm, a bed and breakfast based on a farm or a barn conversion based on a farm - or, I was going to say, a hikers' barn, but that is probably the least likely, based on a farm - but not actually related to the farm business, and there has clearly been a loss there, under whose remit does that fall? (Mr Meacher) That would be the Rural Task Force. We are concerned with everything apart from actual agricultural activities. 184. Agricultural activities, not the type of businesses? (Mr Meacher) Yes. Bed and breakfast on a farm certainly would come within our remit. Mr Öpik 185. Thank you for that intervention. These related industries, as Owen implied, are very close to bankruptcy and do, in my judgement as well, need quite a dramatic financial intervention. Therefore, accepting that if, indeed, the rules are that we could not, for example, waive PAYE for now, would you as a Task Force be willing to consider the rather radical step of waiving the payments, of underwriting those PAYE payments now, even if it is on a sort of a loan basis, to the Revenue and then working it out later, if the alternative is bankruptcy? (Mr Meacher) I am sorry, I am not clear what you mean by "underwriting". Who does the underwriting? Do you mean writing off? 186. No, I mean basically subbing the firms. (Mr Meacher) Subsidising them? 187. Subbing the firms now and then working it out perhaps through gradual repayment schemes once things are off and running, so, for example, if the company in question has a œ5,000 a week tax bill, the Task Force might come to an arrangement where you pay the œ5,000 - not the Task Force but the Government - and then it is paid back over time by the company once it is back on its feet. (Mr Meacher) I do not believe that revenue departments have that flexibility in the legislation. I think a better way to achieve the same end would be the one which has been raised, which is the provision of soft loans or interest-free loans. That is the obvious way of trying to give further assistance. I repeat, this is, as they say in the best Whitehall lingo, under active review, but in this case I mean it. 188. Are you developing, and is the Committee specifically considering, special measures for farming-related industries? Is that an agenda item for the Task Force? (Mr Meacher) Absolutely. That is exactly the area which we cover - non-farm businesses who have suffered a significant economic loss as a result of foot and mouth outbreak. That is our remit. That is the group of businesses that we are trying to help. I think I have said it all, so I will not repeat it. 189. You are quite right. Moving on to some strategic questions, in the short term I raised a concern at the beginning of our meeting today about making sure that MAFF and the Task Force worked together. Can you just assure me that strategically you are meeting, for example, as two bodies, perhaps on a fortnightly or three-weekly basis, just to make sure that there are not conflicting interests? (Mr Meacher) I assure you that it is on a daily basis. My officials certainly meet with MAFF officials once a day, twice a day, three times a day, five times a day. (Miss Lambert) I have some that are meeting most of the time. (Mr Meacher) I have, of course, Elliot Morley who is Deputy Chairman of the Rural Task Force. I discuss these things with him regularly. Nick Brown has had meetings at MAFF regularly which I have attended. That has now been superseded, of course, under the proper procedure, by a multi- departmental meeting chaired by the Prime Minister. I do stress, and I really mean it, that I do not think there is a problem about liaison. Because we represent different interests and the protection of farmers, the protection of interests, the tourist community and the rural businesses, I certainly think there is no lack of constant effort to reconcile those two interests, without overriding either. I repeat, our paramount concern is to contain this disease, but consistent with that there does need to be the closest working together, and I can assure you that there is. 190. That is interesting, because obviously the Task Force are spending most of their time on this, so the answers to some of these questions seem obvious to you. The fact that they were not obvious to me would imply to me that it is probably going to be very helpful if your Task Force can think of ways to communicate the clarity of purpose between organisations to a wider field, because farmers would love to be reassured that there is a commonality of purpose. They fear there may not be. I am sure there is, from what you are saying. Maybe there is an action step there? (Mr Meacher) Yes, I think what you are saying is completely right. So many people clearly say this sincerely. I find myself slightly bewildered, because I do not think it is the issue which people out there clearly believe it is. Clearly, the amount of assurances that I, or Nick Brown or any of us give are not seen as sufficient. There is still a view that the farmers do not want people in the countryside, the tourist industry does, and therefore there is conflict. If I could repeat what I said in my earlier answer to you, things are never quite as simple in the real world, and we actually have somehow to reconcile both of those. I think we do that perfectly well, so long as we are absolutely clear that the prime concern is the containment of the disease. 191. On the basis of what you are saying now, I am even more convinced that we need absolute clarity. You said before that the local vet and regional veterinary centre has got the ultimate say and obviously should have the final say. That is a useful finding. Can I suggest that it might be worth reviewing how that sort of information is being communicated. The reason I think there is a confusion is people do genuinely think they are getting different advice from different directions, and maybe that is one reason why many people think there may be a slight conflict. (Mr Meacher) I hope not. Everyone here will immediately know the hotline number, which I need hardly repeat to you is 08456 071071, and that will give you local advice from the tourist information centre and the local authority, which will certainly be able to answer detailed questions about whether you can or cannot do X locally. 192. Are you looking towards the longer term both in the sense that the disease problem may last longer than you think at the moment - let's dare to think of a scenario where it may last eight or nine months - and the other related question to that is are you thinking of a recovery plan? Are you beginning to be organised for that? (Mr Meacher) We certainly are. There are really three stages to this which are very obvious. First of all, it is overcoming this disease, getting on top of it, and I know it is an issue whether the Government is or is not. We are not, in the sense the number of new cases of outbreaks continues to rise dramatically, but to a large degree we are in the sense they are overwhelmingly in the areas of existing infection, but even that may change. We have to overcome the disease, be seen to be reducing it, to have it contained. In that circumstance I think we can then credibly and plausibly come forward with a short term regeneration package for businesses which, if they have survived, and I hope they have survived, will need a lot of help in the short run. Then, thirdly, there is the wider issue which many people have raised about what we mean about sustainable agriculture. Nick Brown gave the Government's view about the best evidence we have as to the source of this outbreak. We all know the conditions involved in intensified agriculture - involving very rapid movement of thousands of millions of animals on a regular daily basis from Northumberland down to Essex to the abattoir and cattle markets and then right back across the country the next day - are conditions which maximise the spread of this disease, which is quite apart from the issue of chemicals versus organics. All of these are issues which we have to discuss. If there is any silver lining in this dreadful, awful episode, it is that it has raised the question of what we mean about sustainability in agriculture far more dramatically than ministers ever could. 193. I will not ask for a response to this but within that I hope you might consider radical moves such as even abolishing business rates for 12 to 18 months during the recovery. I am not expecting a response to that. (Mr Meacher) I hear what you say. Mr Öpik: Can I finish with a facetious thought which will solve all the problems at once. Since sunlight and ultra violet light does kill the virus and since it always rains here, perhaps we should look at the cloud seeding techniques which are used in China. They do it there before a major event. It may solve all of our tourist and transmission problems in one go. I do not expect a comment to that either. Mr Jack 194. I want to talk about the level of expenditure which has been committed to the various programmes you have outlined but one technical point before I get into questions on that. Going back to the question of rural rate relief, am I right in saying that you have already designated 150 local authorities for whom this applies? One of the worries I have, just to be entirely parochial for the moment, in my constituency, the Fylde, is there are a number of agri-based businesses which clearly have been hit by the knock-on effects of events outside the Fylde. Touch wood, we have not got foot and mouth but their businesses are suffering in equal measure to those located in areas which do have it. Will you be reviewing the number of the local authorities which can offer this assistance to take into account the agri- based businesses which are being affected by the knock-on effects of foot and mouth elsewhere? (Mr Meacher) I do understand that point and wherever Governments draw the line there will always be businesses, people, on the wrong side of it. The only alternative to that is you make it totally open-ended. If that is not realistic, and it is not, we do have to draw a line. However, if this line is drawn in the wrong way, in a way which does not take into account a sufficient number of businesses which are very deserving and clearly do need assistance, we will have to review that. But I have to say that decision has been taken in the first instance; 150 is a sizeable number, we believe the cost of this rate relief, albeit confined to those small businesses, is going to be quite substantial. Your next question will be, how much, and I cannot tell you. It depends how many claims, it depends on the extent of it, but it will certainly be tens of millions of pounds I think. We will, I repeat, on all of these measures have to keep them under active review. If they are not sufficient for the purpose, we will change them. 195. Let me probe you, as you raised the question in anticipation. The Prime Minister made it clear that there was no limit on resources to tackle the outbreak of foot and mouth. That is a fairly broad statement or it could be interpreted as a very narrow statement, purely and simply focused on the slaughter, burial and eradication of disease, but there are confines on budgetary commission and budgetary constraints on other forms of help. Can you give us some feel in terms of your contacts with the Chief Secretary as to what steer you are getting from the Treasury about where the limits are being drawn on this or are there as many resources as needed to fight this outbreak? (Mr Meacher) I think the Prime Minister was referring to resources to contain and eradicate the disease. I think that was unquestionably his prime concern, it remains the Government's prime concern. I do not think any Government can say there is no limit on resources but this is a very concentrated, focused, logistical effort which is backed up by very substantial resources to try and contain this disease which is the prime concern. 196. I can remember when BSE started, I can remember when what one might call ball-park figures were worked out for all the implications, and I can also remember Chief Secretaries being confronted with those implications. Clearly anybody who is taking the decisions where there is a financial commitment - just as you were saying you could not tell us exactly what the implications were for 150 local authorities for local rate relief - will have pencilled-in a number, whatever that number may be. Are you meeting resistance from the Treasury to whatever the number will be, or have they said, "Well, if it is in that ball-park, we will go along with it"? Do you have any kind of overall assessment at this stage of the costs to Government of the programmes? The point being, you have discussed a number of areas where you would like to help, you have talked about the Loans Fund Guarantee, you do not then want to disappoint people in the future having raised their hopes by saying, "Unfortunately the Treasury have constrained us." Give us a feel as to how those discussions are going. (Mr Meacher) I am sure, Mr Jack, as a former Treasury Minister, you would be panicking in your Government if a minister in another department went to a Select Committee and revealed the detail of interdepartmental discussion with the Treasury. I cannot do that. These things are being literally daily discussed, and they are discussed not in terms of rigid departmental attitudes but in terms of the enormity of the need for which there is abundant evidence. Mr Jack: To sum up, is the Chief Secretary being sympathetic? Is he being very hard? Give us a flavour. Mr Mitchell: Chief Secretaries are all sympathetic! Mr Jack 197. Indeed, I know, but this one has a soft side to him. He is hard and bites in public and chews your legs off if you spend a penny when you should not, but on the other hand he has to understand there is going to be a resource, and I think the Prime Minister indicated this was going to come out of the contingency reserve. What I am trying to get a feel for is, is the Chief Secretary sympathetic and understanding to the extent there will be proper flexibility shown? We are mounting up a whole series of areas where help could be given, with the emphasis on "could". (Mr Meacher) You are inviting me to answer an impossible question. 198. Go on, have a go! (Mr Meacher) Of course, the Chief Secretary, in view of his position, has to be cautious, and this Chief Secretary is, as any would be, but he is also in my experience someone who is clearly listening and taking serious account of what is happening, and I think he is trying to be helpful. I cannot go beyond that. 199. Let me bring you back to something which you can focus on. The Government have, with understandable generosity, said you will match public donations to various funds. I know from my own church there was a retiring collection over the last two weeks to help with the Church of England Rural Fund, and other churches may well be doing the same thing. Could you tell us what the mechanisms will be to match those funds? For example, will everybody have to collect the money up, or are there some interim payments? Is the commitment open-ended or does it stop at a point in time? Is there any restriction on how voluntary bodies may disperse those funds? Can you tell us how that works? (Mr Meacher) The fund will match public donations made between 1st March and 30th June - again in the first instance - obviously when the monies have been given for relief of rural distress. We would certainly require some certification. This is not meant to be a detailed cross-examination, but we would require some certification that the money had been raised and it had been raised properly for this purpose. We would also ask the voluntary body or the church or whatever it was how it proposed to use the money. I do not think there would be any difficulty about that and on that basis the public money would be handed over to the voluntary body. 200. Although we have discussed your difficulty in giving an accurate steer at this stage as to how much money the Government may be willing to commit to various help schemes, I think what people would find of great assistance is some idea as to when your deliberations on these various matters might be concluded because clearly for a business in discussion with its bank trying to develop a survival strategy it would be very helpful to know if some of these further help schemes you have discussed are going to happen or not within a reasonable timescale. (Mr Meacher) I agree with that. We have not got time on our side. Businesses clearly in significant numbers are going to be at risk within a matter of a few weeks, I think that is true, and whatever the Government decides has to be brought forward quickly. This is what I said earlier. I cannot give a day, I cannot say this time next week, but it certainly has to be done quickly and that is my intention --- 201. One last question - and this may be hypothetical - what mechanism do you have for sustaining the work of the Task Force and therefore the dispensing of such announcements in the event of a General Election being called? (Mr Meacher) I would anticipate that the Rural Task Force would clearly continue in place, it would continue to have meetings, it would continue to do everything which it does now in that eventuality. There is no question of this not taking priority. Chairman 202. Making announcements is difficult during election campaigns. There is a long-standing tradition of Government announcements, especially ones which involve spending money, not being made during a time when Parliament is not sitting. (Mr Meacher) That is true for the obvious reason that Governments when Parliament is not sitting should not be seen in an Election campaign to be stealing an advantage over the Opposition by coming forward with distribution of largesse, however, I think this is a totally, totally different situation. I do not know exactly what arrangements might prevail in those circumstances. I certainly think that we would expect to do this in ways which had the support of the Opposition. We have not discussed this - and I am not able to say this - but this is not something that I would remotely or any of us would wish to be done in a partisan manner. This is in the national interest and the arrangements to ensure that happened would have to be put in place. Dr Turner 203. When I was complaining about Mr Paterson's viewpoint, I understand that where people really have suffered and maybe their business is doomed that that is extraordinarily emotive, but the season has not really started it seems to me. In many parts of the country Easter is the time when it is really critical to see where it is starting. It really is, would you agree, far too early to be talking about the season being wiped out and it is actually a time to make sure it is not wiped out? What funds and what attention are you giving to ensuring that perhaps some money is spent now in trying to get the tourists in and trying to reactivate the countryside as visitor attractions, which might be an awful lot better than looking at a lot of pain a few months downstream? Are you actually addressing that problem as well as the real pain in the farming community? (Mr Meacher) Yes we are and I would agree with you that whilst Mr Paterson's demand for urgency is totally understandable and right, nevertheless the view that we have lost it at this stage is wrong. I think there is quite a lot that we can salvage and recover and I think the Government should responsibly do all it can to ensure that it does so. On the question of tourism, both international and national, we are putting more resources into both. There is a multi-million - I think off the top of my head it is œ12 million - which has been earmarked for the BTA in terms of trying to correct the grossly esoteric treatment of our country in American newspapers and in the American media which has been scurrilous and mischievous in its inaccuracy, which is gross. We are trying to deal with that through the Embassy and in Post. We are trying to get travel correspondents to see the true situation here. There are places you cannot go but there is a huge number of places you can. There are questions like, "Can we eat in Britain safely? Yes, we know about this tourist attraction, we know about that, but how do you get from one to the other?" There are the most absurd questions and we are putting a lot of effort into trying to correct those prejudices. With regard to getting our own people (who do understand the situation broadly) to accept what they can do, under the auspices of the England Tourist Council we are giving more money to the tourist boards to promote attractions in their own areas. We are doing that now because that is the best way, I think, of attracting our own people into places where they want to go. They will see that it is being promoted, they will get the message that it is safe to go. It will certainly encourage them if they still have doubts to ring up and question and ask - and I am sure they will get a positive answer. We are doing all we can in that sense as well. Mr Öpik 204. You said that you welcome good ideas. Could I ask that you publicise a process whereby individuals out there who definitely do have good ideas that could help the Task Force can get them to the Task Force both now and in a General Election environment? (Mr Meacher) Write to me, telephone me, send me an e-mail, and I promise it will be rapidly taken into account. We have adopted several ideas which have been put to us by others. I saw a delegation from an MP yesterday - and I do not want to encourage everyone to come and see me because I have not time to see everybody - which produced six ideas, three of which I thought were really good ideas that we should follow through. We are genuinely listening and trying to learn. 205. What is the e-mail number? (Mr Meacher) We will get that afterwards. Mr Paterson 206. Just following your exchange, may I send you a list of 154 businesses in Shropshire which have been affected. You are quite right when you said the way to get people back to the countryside is to get rid of the disease. There is one area which is under the remit of your Ministry which is the Environment Agency and they are being blamed in my patch, where 87 per cent of carcasses were buried on farm last time, and this was a clear recommendation of the 1969 Report saying the burial of carcasses was preferable to burning, and yet the Environment Agency's advice gives a hierarchy of disposal as follows: rendering, incineration, burning on site, landfilling and burial last. Why have the Environment Agency ignored the recommendations of the 1969 Report? (Mr Meacher) I think the only argument that I have heard from the Environment Agency or anyone else against burial on site is the risk in certain places of contamination of ground water. As far as I know, there are no other reasons why there should not be --- a further message is coming. (Miss Lambert) There is also a risk that cattle might be infected with BSE which did not exist last time round. 207. Not if they are buried six foot under the earth as they were last time. There are farms in my area which have got a hideous mound at the back where the last foot and mouth carcasses were buried, and we have all been drinking the water in that area and I do not know of any adverse health effects, but there is a real health effect of leaving 100,000 carcasses above ground rotting with the disease open to dispersal in the countryside. That is a major environmental problem. (Mr Meacher) I entirely accept the point you make. If the Environment Agency has forbidden burial on site without just cause I would certainly intervene and ask them to explain their policy and not to repeat it. I do not think there is necessarily a hierarchy, they may give it in a certain order and burial comes last. I think any of those forms of disposal are satisfactory. The important thing is that none of them should have side effects which could be polluting or contaminating. And burial on site can sometimes be. I accept that that has happened more often than can be justified by that explanation up to now, but I think the Environment Agency now accepts that burial on site is perfectly satisfactory unless there is real evidence it could contaminate ground water. 208. Is it possible to ring your office if we have cases where a farmer may want to bury on site? I have had two cases where the farmers wanted to bury and were not allowed to. (Mr Meacher) I do not think ringing my office, who are not experts in this, would help. If the farmer has contacted the Environment Agency and the Environment Agency has not been able to give a satisfactory explanation, and the farmer has presumably complained that the matter should be reconsidered, if that still does not yield a satisfactory response I would be happy to find it out and follow it up with the Environment Agency. Mr Mitchell 209. First, could I express my personal admiration at your patience and generosity in the face of this festival of rural whingeing that you have been subjected to. I hope my colleagues who have been amplifying that whingeing will now join me in asking for support for the fishing industry where vessels cannot put to sea because the fishing ports are such a mess of conservation and all the ancillary industries have gone bust, and have never been treated with the generosity that rural issues are getting. The question they want me to ask is simply this: when you come to compensation of businesses I hope you take into account that some of the practices of farmers particularly have actually created the problem and when we read about the merry-go-round of rotating sheep to top up sheep numbers - I think the limit on sheep that can be claimed for was increased only a few months back so there must be a large number of sheep going round the country on a "pre-cooked" tour from farm to farm to top up the numbers, that is the kind of practice that has helped cause this and I hope the money will be deducted and these people will be penalised rather than compensated. (Mr Meacher) I have read about these practices and of course it is a matter for investigation which is certainly beyond the remit of the Rural Task Force. I certainly think that practices like that do endanger the further spread of disease and I trust that they have now been stamped out. That is really a matter for MAFF and its officials to regulate. Dr Turner 210. I would want us to be very clear indeed on burial. I do feel that the lessons from BSE are that, although we have not discussed it as a major issue today, we should be doing major experiments in ensuring and testing out what the vets have been saying - that this disease does not affect human beings. I do hope there is not going be an atmosphere in which the Environment Agency, against their judgment, are being coerced into burial where they have concerns about ground water. As the responsible Minister it is about getting the balance and if I could ask you to affirm that which I believe you probably will. (Mr Meacher) I would certainly expect the Environment Agency, if their officers believe that there is a serious and significant risk of contamination, to stand by their judgment and, of course, I would wholly back them. I was only in answer to Mr Paterson referring to cases which have been alleged and not directly been drawn to my attention where the Environment Agency had been reluctant or unwilling to sanction burial on site without due explanation. 211. If you are not certain, you may not definitely know it is going to happen, surely the precautionary principle on protection of human lives should be that where the Environment Agency do not know it is safe that should be sufficient reason. They do not have to give firm evidence that it is unsafe. There is a difference, is there not? (Mr Meacher) There is a difference but you are trying to change the onus of proof. 212. I am trying to be clear where the onus of proof is and I am suggesting to you, Michael, that the onus of proof must be that it is safe for the ground water and not that we have to prove that it is unsafe and the reverse is the case. (Mr Meacher) The officials in the Environment Agency, again the local officials who have to exercise their judgment as best they can locally, it is for them to take a view as to whether they think there is a significant risk involved in burial on site. If they do believe that I think we have to back that judgment. If they do not believe there is a significant risk or any other reason locally as to why it should not be used then I think it should go ahead. It is a perfectly appropriate form of disposal so long as there are not indirect, damaging, contaminating side effects. Chairman 213. Minister, a final few observations. First of all representing a very large constituency with a very large number of sheep, while undoubtedly there are rogues in the farming community as in any other community, I would not like it to be thought that this outbreak is to do with fiddling farmers pushing sheep around the country. I know you have not implied that but I wish to counter that suggestion in case that were to get out. If I may make two observations which I do not ask you to comment on and then a couple of brief questions. The first is this: I appreciate that the Government wishes to take decisions on this openly, but sometimes openness can lead to confusion. Let me illustrate that. We are now talking about the possibility of vaccination. The statement yesterday made no mention of what was going to be vaccinated or the circumstances and there is quite a lot confusion as a result of that. The decision has got to mature to a point in a sense before it becomes public otherwise it does not help, it simply confuses. I make that as an observation. The other observation is that there is a real problem of the interval between the decisions being announced and implementation in the country. The Ministry of Agriculture announced on 5th March a longer distance transport scheme basically to enable ewes to get home when they have been off on winter holding. I know from my own investigations that it was a week before any instructions usable by the regional offices were received to enable the filling in of application forms. It was between six and seven days before that became operable. We are now hearing with regard to the welfare scheme, which is very important and which is run by the Interventions Board in Newcastle, that the phone lines are ungettable, there are very few faxes, there is no computer system there, and already there is an enormous backlog of investigations building up. It is not your responsibility but I hope you can convey that to the Minister that the consequences of the interval between announcement and implementation, knowing the resource problems, are serious. Three small questions, if I may, just to conclude. There could be a conflict between the interests of the tourist industry and agriculture in the sense that if I were running a tourist business I would say, "Let's vaccinate", because vaccination eliminates the visibility of the problem and visitors will come back in because I am interested in visitors coming in to me. A farmer or agricultural industry could well be interested in getting the exports out and therefore maintaining the disease-free status and therefore become concerned about the implications of vaccinations. So there are bound to be different economic groups which are bound to have different interests which are not always easily reconcilable, that is just the nature of the difference. (Mr Meacher) I would agree with that. The decision whether or not to use vaccinations is a major strategic decision about which certain groups and certain parts of the farming community have expressed extremely strong views, and on which the Department has held a considered view over a long period of time. Certainly that decision should be taken solely on the basis of whether it is at this stage the right policy to try and contain the disease. The view, of course, has begun to gain ground because in the case of Cumbria, and to a lesser degree in Devon, there is a degree of concentration of infectivity in those areas on a scale we have never seen before, outside anything which happened in 1967-68, and we are faced with a new situation and the matter has to be considered on that basis. I do take your first point though, that it is difficult for Government where these matters of great strategic significance are being considered. Do you suddenly come out on a particular day with a new policy or is there some discussion, consultation, public debate? There are issues about how this is done. But I do entirely accept that there should be clarity so far as possible but, again, this is a major issue which needs to be decided on the basis of what is necessary for containment at this unprecedented stage in this outbreak. 214. A small question related to vaccination. Many of us will have little tourist attractions specialising in rare breeds, they are never going to be eaten, they are never going to be moved, basically they are there for kids to have a look at and cuddle, that sort of thing. Would there be a problem, provided they are segregated from farming stock, if vaccination was used on them at least to make sure those very special herds which are historic herds - their gene pool is very small - are preserved? In 1967 I think some were physically moved away from the outbreak so there was not a risk to those particular breeds. I cannot see why there should be a particular objection to that. (Mr Meacher) No, I do not think there is, and I think this issue has been well understood. It is compatible with slaughter in the sense you can preserve the germ plasm of these special blood lines even if the cattle are slaughtered, but the alternative is vaccination or isolation for the preservation of these rather special herds. That is very much an understood point and I am sure, one way or another, we do intend to preserve that special stock. 215. Finally, Minister, speculation to which you are not invited to respond. I wondered idly whether or not we were seeing a dress-rehearsal for the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs in the unlikely hypothesis of the return of a Labour Government. Thank you very much for coming to see us. (Mr Meacher) For once I am without words!