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The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael): I have two difficulties when it comes to answering the questions of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning). First, she asked many specific questions. I understand her wish for a response to them, and had I had advance notice, we would have done some work to provide answers to them. However, I will certainly take away all the specific questions that she asked and respond as quickly as possible. I shall respond now, in the 11 minutes remaining to me—that is the second difficulty—to the greatest extent possible.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate and introducing a series of very important issues through her questions. The impact of foot and mouth disease on rural issues has been massive for farmers and the wider rural community, and the hon. Lady referred to both elements. I welcome the opportunity to respond as far as I can to some of her questions.

The hon. Lady asked about the future of a specific site in her constituency. In general terms, it was very difficult in the early stages of the impact of foot and mouth to anticipate what requirements there would be. It was a fast-moving situation. Indeed, I had some experience of that in my constituency, with a site that in the event turned out not to be required. Everybody concerned had to move quickly. I will look at the specific circumstances and write to the hon. Lady.

The hon. Lady referred to the situation in Burlescombe, concerns about storage, and reports of vehicles in lay-bys with carcases simply covered by tarpaulin. If such a report is a rumour, it is difficult to respond to, but if there is specific evidence of circumstances, time and place, clearly one can investigate. If information is provided contemporaneously, it is much easier to investigate. As I am sure the hon. Lady will acknowledge, a lot of information doing the rounds is not rooted in fact, but is based on misunderstanding. It is important for parliamentarians to distinguish between the two. If she can provide me with more specific facts, figures, dates and times, I will be able to pursue the matter further. It is difficult to deal with rumour.

The hon. Lady gave a specific example of a farm business. Clearly someone has tried through diversification to make a viable business. There is great sympathy for those in such circumstances who have had no income for a period of time. Again, I am happy to look at the specific case if she will provide the information. From the information provided so far I do not know whether that individual has explored all the possibilities available, but we can look at that.

There are concerns that people do not always use the information, health and support available to them. Last week a report was published which surveyed farm businesses and businesses generally in rural communities in the west midlands. It highlighted the financial impact on the rural economy and the number of people directly affected. It surveyed their concerns about the future. It also asked whether they had sought advice or help from the services available. Eighty per cent. had not done so. Sixty per cent. had not come up with ideas to diversify, change or market their business. In the depths of the direct impact of foot and mouth disease that is understandable, but we need to encourage people to use the support

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available and to question whether the information and opportunities are reaching them. Again, if the hon. Lady will provide the information, I will look into it.

We are looking at the operation of the scheme to match donations by the public. It has moved a lot of money quickly into help for people through welfare activities which the voluntary sector can often deal with more speedily and effectively than the public sector. The undertaking was to match pound for pound donations from members of the public, and that has been kept. I understand the hon. Lady's concern, but that promise has been kept.

The hon. Lady asked about tourism and whether I and my colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs were aware of its plight. Yes, we are. My two first meetings with ministerial colleagues on taking up my present role were with the Minister at the Home Office who has responsibility for the voluntary sector and the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), who has responsibility for tourism. We looked at ways in which our officials could work together to ensure that we do all we can to restore tourism in the countryside.

The hon. Lady asked about opening footpaths. The urgency in that is to ensure that rural businesses in tourism, hotels, farms that have diversified into accommodation, and so on, can restore their business as quickly as possible. Many of them face a massive challenge.

The hon. Lady also asked who has the responsibility for reopening footpaths. The matter is clear. Perhaps I could send her a copy of a letter that I wrote today clarifying the whole situation for one of her colleagues, following an Adjournment debate yesterday—I am becoming a specialist. That letter sets out the situation comprehensively. In essence, the power of footpath closure lies with local authorities. At an early stage of the outbreak, local authorities were given the power to introduce blanket bans under which an area can be put under a prohibition through a single signature, instead of each footpath having to be signed off.

We are currently holding consultations on lifting blanket bans where they are no longer needed—I hope to make a decision during the next week. In some counties there have been no—or few—incidences of the disease, so the continuation of a blanket ban, which was introduced swiftly to enable a local authority to get a grip on the situation as a precautionary measure, is no longer appropriate. I have given local authorities the opportunity to put the case for a blanket ban where they think it justified. We should not be surprised to receive

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applications from those areas which experienced the largest outbreaks, including Cumbria and north Devon. We shall consider such requests carefully.

When a blanket ban is lifted, the power of footpath closure is left with the local authority, as is normally the case. The advice is that a 3 km area around an incidence should be the subject of such precautionary closures. That is greater than the distance needed in respect of the threat or the dangers, but it is a precautionary measure.

The damage to rural businesses from the closure of footpaths is enormous. Biosecurity is crucial. The big danger is from people having contact with animals, or from contact between animals. That is why advice was issued earlier this week in an excellent video. I understand that the hon. Lady has a copy, even though you may not yet have received yours Mr. Deputy Speaker. The video is worth watching, because it makes clear the measures that are necessary for protection from the dangers of spread. It also explains that footpath openings will continue unless there is a need for protection against the danger of infection.

This is the right balance. It fits well with the balance mentioned by the hon. Lady when, in opening the debate, she referred to the damage that was done directly to farmers through the impact of foot and mouth disease and to its knock-on effects on those rural businesses—including the closure of footpaths.

I told the hon. Lady earlier that it would be difficult to answer all her questions in the short time available, but I will try to pick up on some of them. She asked where the money is going. We have the strongest possible commitment to ensure that the money goes to the sharp end. Indeed, I pay tribute to the work that is being undertaken by the people in our regional offices in conjunction with the regional development agencies and with local partners who are giving direct business advice.

I visited a regional office last week and met people who had just returned after working long hours directly combating foot and mouth disease and were then going straight on to help rural businesses and farmers. We should appreciate the pressure on our staff, as well as that on rural communities, and pay tribute to their work.

The hon. Lady's point about the financial pressures of veterinary inspection and her other points are well understood. I assure her that Ministers have those issues under active consideration.

It is not surprising that we are debating the impact of foot and mouth for the third time this week, because it is such an immediate and challenging problem. I understand the pressures on people and the concerns that the hon. Lady has understandably expressed on behalf of her constituency. I shall write to her taking up the specific points that she raised during her half of this debate.

Question put and agreed to.

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