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4 Jul 2001 : Column 112WH

Footpaths (North Yorkshire)

12.30 pm

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): I am absolutely delighted to have secured this debate, but I speak with sorrow tinged with anger. I would like to express to the House the fear and anguish of the farming community in North Yorkshire and particularly in the Vale of York.

I accept that it is in everyone's interests to have accessible footpaths, especially when there is no foot and mouth disease. That has always been a priority for councils such as North Yorkshire county council, which happens to be Conservative-controlled. Nationally, 83 per cent. of all Conservative-controlled councils have accessible footpaths.

Since Easter, 800 footpaths or rights of way in North Yorkshire have been reopened. I accept that there is, as yet, no direct case of foot and mouth in the Vale of York, but it is poised all around us. We have had three contiguous culls and one suspect cull, the most recent from the outbreak at Danby Wiske. We see with horror that direct outbreaks in the whole county have now risen to 92, and they are pressing on all the frontiers of North Yorkshire's national parks. There are also outbreaks continuing at Settle and Hawes.

We are still, therefore, in the midst of a foot and mouth crisis. The Government's priority must be to eradicate the disease, and the Opposition will support them in that. Only when foot and mouth has been completely eradicated will visitors and walkers return to our rights of way and footpaths in comfort, and at the animals' safety.

The Government have recognised that. I have a letter from the Under-Secretary of State at the old Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, which reached me on the day of the election. It says:

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael) : It might be helpful if I point out that the hon. Lady received a letter from me last week setting out the current position on the opening of footpaths.

Miss McIntosh : I am sure that the Minister will wish to respond to my remarks at length, but my point is this: it seems crazy that at the start of the crisis, when the disease was nowhere near North Yorkshire, all footpaths were closed, but now, when it is lapping at our doorsteps, the Government are planning to reopen them. That is what the National Farmers' Union has said, and it also pointed out that, while most footpaths will be reopened on 20 July, it has until Friday to apply for exemptions, which means that not all will be reopened. That is the crux of my argument.

Against that background, and at a time when not only parliamentary candidates but the same county councillors who had been asked to take a decision at the end of May to come into effect at the beginning of June were up for election, the rural taskforce—albeit under a different Department—put pressure on counties such as

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North Yorkshire to reopen footpaths. The timing was appalling. I put it to the Minister that the Government behaved in an utterly irresponsible and inappropriate manner by putting unwarranted pressure on counties such as North Yorkshire in circumstances in which it was difficult for them to take a political decision.

I commend the cautious approach of North Yorkshire county council. I have a copy of the order that it issued, which the chief executive has explained to me. The council has made only one exemption. In a letter to me, the chief executive states:

Thus it is timely that I have the opportunity to request two exceptions against the background that I have described. It is especially appropriate for the Government to reconsider their decision because cases of foot and mouth in North Yorkshire are increasing. As of yesterday, the number stood at 92. The Government's own criteria, which the then Under-Secretary set out in a letter that reached me only on 7 June, are being breached. As I said, it has been difficult to take a political decision.

The first case that I want to raise concerns a footpath in Tockwith. Tockwith parish council was consulted by North Yorkshire county council at the end of May and said categorically that it did not want the right of way to reopen. It wrote to the Prime Minister on 29 June in very strong terms, stating:

I also have a letter from a practitioner. There are 45 veterinary practices in North Yorkshire, but not one was asked to validate the Government's advice. What has happened is a source of great anguish, stress, worry and concern for farmers and those who advise them.

The footpath in Tockwith passes within three miles of an infected area, with livestock—cattle and sheep, albeit not pigs—roaming freely. I requested one farmer whose land is involved to provide a map for today's debate. The pink line shows a bridleway and the blue ones show footpaths and rights of way, which are the subject of the order to reopen, with which the rural taskforce has insisted that North Yorkshire county council comply.

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The fields involved are immediately adjacent to those footpaths or bridleways, and cattle and sheep are loose and exposed to walkers.

Alun Michael : I intervene at this point—although I will explain the matter later—because people might be misled by the hon. Lady's statement. My understanding is that the nearest infected area is 12 miles away, to the west of Harrogate. I think that the hon. Lady is referring to the area of restrictions on the movement of animals, which is not the same thing.

Mr. John Cummings (in the Chair): Order. Perhaps, the hon. Lady should not refer to maps or diagrams; it will make things extremely difficult for the Hansard reporters.

Miss McIntosh : I appreciate that, Mr. Cummings, which is why I have tried to explain that the fields are adjacent to either rights of way or bridleways. I accept what the Minister said, but the concern is that when the footpaths were closed, there was not one outbreak in North Yorkshire. Now that rights of way have been reopened, we have reached 92 cases and that figure is rising. I have no further diagrams to produce.

In the Secretary of State's opening statement to the House on foot and mouth two weeks ago, she said that animals and humans should not be in contact, to prevent any potential spread of disease.

I have a letter from a veterinary practice that serves one particular farm concerned about the situation. Having not been consulted, it took the opportunity to write to North Yorkshire county council in the following strong terms:

I also have a letter from the Yorkshire Veterinary Society, which represents 115 vets in the county. It says:

Another farm is at Crayke and I am happy to discuss with the Minister where that is found in relation to the nearest infected area. One farmer—whose name I shall not reveal because I do not have his permission—wrote to me saying:

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I believe that the Government are prepared to listen and, if my understanding of North Yorkshire county council is correct, we are in time to apply for a number of exemptions—in particular for the two footpaths at Tockwith and Crayke. I urge the Government to be sensible. Our priority must be to eradicate the disease and to help businesses that have suffered, whether they are in farming or in tourism. I make an emotional yet practical plea to the Minister to keep those footpaths closed and to make exemptions to the lifting of the blanket closures where appropriate. I specify that they should exclude not just footpaths that pass pigs, but ones that pass cattle and sheep. Let us put all possible Government resources into the eradication of the disease and keep walkers, with or without dogs, away from livestock until the disease is over. Then the walkers will return in comfort and safety, posing no further threat to livestock.

12.44 pm

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael) : I thank the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) for giving me the opportunity to punch home some very important messages on a very important issue. I recognise that she has genuinely held concerns about opening paths in her area, but I believe that those concerns are misplaced and hope that she will be reassured by what I have to say.

The hon. Lady rightly described the anguish of farmers, but she should also be aware of the anguish of many others whose businesses have been devastated and whose problems continue. Indeed, Conservative Members made that case during a debate in this Chamber yesterday, and I believe that the hon. Lady was present for at least part of that debate. They made the point strongly and were right to do so.

I should make it clear that powers were given to local authorities to impose blanket closures initially as a precautionary measure. My colleagues who were taking the decisions at that time moved fast to give local authorities a power which it was hoped and intended they would use effectively and responsibly, and the vast majority have done so.

As the hon. Lady referred to the views of the National Farmers Union and sought to paint the rural task force as some kind of ogre, I should point out that the NFU is represented on the taskforce.

Miss McIntosh : I am sure that the Minister will appreciate that not every farmer in North Yorkshire, or the country, is a member either of the NFU or the Country Landowners Association. The issue that is causing most concern is why the criteria have changed from the letter that I received on 7 June.

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Alun Michael : Of course, it is no more true that every farmer is a member of the NFU than it is of any other representative organisation. However, the hon. Lady quoted the NFU in support of her position and I am making the point that the NFU is represented on the rural taskforce. Indeed, our meeting last week was an excellent run-through of the various issues that are affecting the countryside.

For the hon. Lady to suggest that any risk is involved is irresponsible unless she, or those who have written to her, can produce evidence. We are going on the available evidence, and we have given local authorities the opportunity to show cause, on the basis of their particular circumstances, for the blanket ban to remain. It must be for a reason, not for no reason at all.

Let me make it absolutely clear what the Government are not doing or proposing to do. We are not putting pressure on any local authorities—including North Yorkshire county council—to lift restrictions on paths where they are needed as a precautionary measure. I repeat those words: where they are needed as a precautionary measure. I assure the hon. Lady that we have no intention of taking action that would increase the risk of spread of disease. For instance, there is no question of our wanting to lift restrictions around disease hotspots or other areas where there have been recent outbreaks. However, that does not mean that footpaths and other public rights of way that are well away from those areas should remain closed.

Farmers are being issued with a video on biosecurity, which we have been publicising today. I have a copy here, which the hon. Lady may wish to view. We are not giving separate messages; we are conveying two very clear messages. On the one hand, we have to maintain tight biosecurity; on the other hand, we need to get visitors back to the countryside. I make it clear again that our top priority is to beat the disease. To that end, biosecurity is essential, especially on the part of farmers and others who work in close contact with animals, because the vets tell us that that is the main way in which the disease is spread. Farmers need to take stringent precautions because they are far more likely than most people to have been in contact with foot and mouth disease without knowing it.

However, we urgently need to get visitors back to the countryside if many small country hotels, shops and many other businesses are not to go out of business. That means allowing people to walk where it is safe to do so, given that the vets' advice is that the risk that walkers will spread the disease is very small.

In that context, I shall underline the advice that is being given. If one has handled cattle, sheep, goats or pigs in the past seven days, please stay off all other farmland. Do not go near and never touch, handle or feed livestock. If walkers unexpectedly come across livestock, they are advised to move away slowly and, if necessary, retrace their routes. Keep dogs on short leads where there are livestock, do not leave waste or litter, stay on the path, leave all gates as one finds them, use disinfectant where provided and start one's walk or ride with clean equipment, footwear and clothing. If people are walking in the countryside, they should clean their boots in particular and other clothing before they undertake another walk. That is a straightforward piece of advice, which I, as a walker, certainly obey.

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Government guidance to local authorities is clear and the latest veterinary evidence supports it. With the exception of paths on infected premises and on land within a 3 km radius of them, there is generally no reason for keeping paths shut—provided that people follow the sensible precautions that I have just underlined. The veterinary advice makes it clear that the risk of users of rights of way spreading disease is minimal while the continued closure of footpaths is devastating to the rural economy.

In North Yorkshire, 20 per cent. of the path network has been reopened to public access as at 29 June. That is reviewed every week, and we shall have the latest figures on Thursday. When I receive them I shall write to the hon. Lady to tell her what they show. Due to the concentration of foot and mouth disease cases, the figures for reopened footpaths in the Yorkshire dales and North Yorkshire Moors national park are significantly lower, being 1 per cent. and 8 per cent. respectively. She referred to the specific case of a footpath near Tockwith being reopened when it is within three miles of an infected area. My information is that the nearest infected area to Tockwith is some 12 miles, or 19 km, away, to the west of Harrogate. The nearest infected premises are more than 20 miles, or 30 km, away.

The hon. Lady may have in mind the Settle movement control area, the eastern edge of which runs along the A1 not far from Tockwith. However, that is concerned with restrictions on the movement of animals, rather than people. Controls on livestock movements are of necessity much stricter than for users of footpaths, as the risk of disease transmission through animals is much higher and they cover wider areas.

Some people ask why the Government are so keen to reopen footpaths. The answer is simple: closed paths have been taken as a signal that the countryside as a whole is closed to visitors and the much-needed custom that they bring to local rural businesses. People feel uncertain about visiting an area if they are told that the footpaths are closed. Equally, if they do visit, they are likely to feel uneasy if they see hundreds of closed signs. We need to ensure that, wherever it is safe to do so, paths are open and that people know that.

Simple communication with the public about what is open is absolutely crucial. That is why I announced on 21 June that I am considering whether all or most of the remaining blanket closures imposed by local authorities at the start of the outbreak can now be lifted. That does not mean that authorities will no longer be able to close footpaths. They will still have powers to close paths on a selective basis where that is justified. That will apply particularly to paths within 3 km of infected premises. That is again a precautionary measure that covers a larger area than is required by the evidence because, as the hon. Lady encouraged us to do, we are taking a precautionary approach.

Miss McIntosh : What concerns me greatly is this letter which came out in the name of the former Under-Secretary of State, but was signed by his private secretary. It stated that footpaths should not be opened where there is a confirmed case of foot and mouth or where a previous infected area has been lifted. Only where there has been no case or where it has been lifted should a footpath be reopened. Is the Minister telling us

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today that that was never Government policy and that the private secretary went off on a frolic of his own, or is he telling us that the policy has changed and where there are rising cases of foot and mouth they are happy to reopen rights of way?

Alun Michael : I am telling the hon. Lady that she is a bit muddled. She has been talking about an infected area that was not an infected area. The advice about what to do in relation to a case or an infected area is clear, and I have just detailed the powers that are available to local authorities.

Perhaps I should underline the fact that we have written to the chief executives of all local authorities and national park authorities in England, explaining the proposal to revoke remaining blanket closures, because we recognise that for those authorities worst hit by foot and mouth disease, revoking blanket closures could pose serious logistical problems; in some cases it might mean having to close and re-sign some hundreds of footpaths. We have, therefore, invited local authorities to make representations if they wish to retain the blanket closure for some or all of an area. I assure the hon. Lady that I shall consider such requests carefully, and aim to make decisions by 13 July with revocation a week later. The summer holiday period, which will be rushing towards us at that point, is a very important time for tourism and for rural businesses generally.

I am pleased to say that a number of local authorities have already voluntarily revoked their own blanket closures. By 29 June, 68 per cent. of all paths across country areas were open. Lifting the remaining blanket closures, wherever possible, will help to clarify which paths are open and which closed. It is important that people using the footpaths in the countryside know what precautions they should take in order to reduce even further any chance of spreading foot and mouth disease.

I hope that the hon. Lady and other colleagues will send out the clear message that the countryside is open and that walkers should be responsible in the way in which they use they countryside. That is a matter of responsibility and co-operation. I draw to the hon. Lady's attention the fact that the Ramblers Association has been strongly critical of the county councils' statutory duty work on rights of way. Those are local matters, but I am sure that the hon. Lady will examine that particular one with interest.

Our priority is to eradicate the disease. At the same time we must bear in mind the legitimate interests and concerns of the many rural businesses that depend on visitors to the countryside. We must continue to encourage people to enjoy the countryside in all the areas where that can be done with little or no risk of the spread of disease. We endorse the need to keep paths open where the risks justify it. There is no reason why the majority of the countryside should not be well and truly open by the summer holidays.

There is a danger of muddling people, and the hon. Lady might have contributed to the muddle. The position is clear, and it is based on veterinary advice. I hope that she will go from here reassured and a great deal clearer about the twin objectives of ensuring that everything is done to eradicate and defeat foot and mouth disease, and of giving hope and opportunity to rural businesses so that they can re-establish themselves, and their economy can recover.

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There is a risk of giving out the wrong messages, and there is still a great deal of risk to rural businesses, which can be affected by the opening of footpaths. One example is that of a hotel that retained a lot of bookings, despite foot and mouth, because people were going to that area in the knowledge that they would not be able to walk. However, as the opportunity to walk in other areas increased, that already-damaged business experienced cancellations because people were going to places where footpaths were open. We must bear in mind the great difficulties being experienced by many businesses. Some of them are farmers, or involved in agriculture as part of their activity, but some of them are entirely dependent on tourism for their livelihood.

I very much hope that the hon. Lady will join me in getting a balanced message across to everybody concerned, and reassuring farmers about the Government's balanced and responsible approach.

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