Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Burnham: My Lords, that was not really my intention; I just like the phrase.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, we shall leave the definition of political correctness to the Spectator. Clearly, the matter of recruitment for a modern professional army requires emendations of military discipline. We may not have soft beds but individual service accommodation has something to be said for it and it is part of the way in which we keep the services up to date. We will not therefore support any move to exempt the Armed Forces from Clause 8 of the International Criminal Court Bill or any other such measures.

We also welcome the expanded role for warrant officers which appears in several of the clause. However, we on these Benches are most concerned

23 Apr 2001 : Column 27

with Part 4 and Schedule 5 to the Bill. We shall want to see what changes to the clauses the Government are willing to accept before we take a final decision on whether we want to agree that the clauses should stand part of the Bill.

It is important not to exaggerate. When reading the Conservative press in recent weeks, I was struck by the paranoia which described the emergence of a national police force in Britain for all kinds of different angles. We were told by the Daily Mail that the Ministry of Defence Police was about to become a CRS of Britain and that its members would dash around the country beating people up. However, some weeks previously we were also told that the police reserve, planned in support of the European Rapid Reaction Force, would force a national police force on Britain. None of us sees that as likely or recognises the fears that expanding the role of the Ministry of Defence Police may raise.

There is a link between the two. At some point, the Minister may want to return to the question of whether the Ministry of Defence Police might provide a particularly large contribution to the international police reserve which we shall need for the long-term re-establishment of order in places such as Kosovo and Bosnia. However, we are greatly concerned about firearms, about the MoD Police extending their coverage of serious offences, about questions of civilian control and about questions of relations with other forces. I am concerned about the exact definition of "in the vicinity of" which appears at various points. When I looked back at the 1987 Act on jurisdiction, the Ministry of Defence Police Act, I did not find the matter any clearer.

Last weekend I was driving along the road which leads past Menwith Hill towards Catterick, thinking about the implications of the Bill. Menwith Hill is entirely under non-British jurisdiction. My noble friend Lady Harris of Richmond told me that she had once been shown around Menwith Hill in her capacity as chairman of the North Yorkshire Police Authority but was told nothing whatever about what happened in the building. We must hope that in the next three or four years there will be no public order disturbances "in the vicinity of" Menwith Hill or Fylingdales and that MoD Police from Catterick and elsewhere will not have to travel across Yorkshire in the process of coping with whatever may transpire. But the question of the American response on national missile defence and the request they make to the British to upgrade facilities in those two areas is precisely the kind of issue which may lead to delicate questions about relations between the MoD Police and our other civilian forces.

We on these Benches are strongly committed to the principle of civilian police, locally accountable. We are not entirely happy about the division of police forces into Ministry of Defence forces and Home Department forces, as though they belonged to the Home Office. We like to think that British police forces belong to their counties and to their police authorities as well as to the Home Office.

23 Apr 2001 : Column 28

I was happy to see the Minister's response to the Written Question tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, on the publication of protocols between the civilian forces and the Ministry of Defence Police and I look forward to hearing more about that in due time. We shall want to press the Government further about the pursuit of serious crime by the MoD Police and the points at which such investigations are transferred from them to civilian forces.

We are particularly unhappy about, and shall want to explore in more detail, the words which appear in the new Section 2A which appears in Schedule 5. It refers to,


    "other assistance for the purpose of enabling that force to meet any special demand on its resources",

anywhere in the country. Those are very broad terms which must be examined carefully.

Finally, as regards new Section 4C in Schedule 5, I understand that the reports of inspectors of constabulary for civilian forces are naturally published in full. Here we are told in an unhappy way that for various reasons the Secretary of State may arrange for publication and may withhold from publication large parts. We shall want to explore in detail the terms and conditions under which those reports may or may not be published in full.

The issue of carrying firearms has already been touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Burnham. The Committee in another place examined that matter in some detail and it was also discussed in another place at the Report stage and on Third Reading. We are not entirely happy at the idea of police regularly driving around the country with firearms in their possession and we shall want further reassurances about that.

However, we hope that the Bill goes through. We know that it needs to be passed by August and we wish it good speed. If time is abbreviated during the next two weeks, we shall want to ensure that the Bill is agreed by all Members of this House.

Foot and Mouth Disease: Rural Task Force

4.7 p.m.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat in the form of a Statement the response made to a PNQ in another place by my right honourable friend Michael Meacher. The Statement relates to the work of the Rural Task Force and reads as follows:

    "It became clear quite soon after the current outbreak of foot and mouth disease began that the disease and the restrictions that were introduced to control its spread would have implications for the rural economy going well beyond the agricultural sector. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister therefore asked me to set up the Rural Task Force with the remit,


    'To consider the implications of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease for the rural economy, both immediately and in the longer term, and to report to the Prime Minister on appropriate measures'.

23 Apr 2001 : Column 29

    "The task force includes all the government departments involved, the devolved administrations and experienced members from the private and voluntary sectors, including the rural business and tourist sectors, farmers and representatives of rural communities. It first met on 14th March. There have been four further meetings so far and the next meeting will take place on Wednesday. I am extremely grateful for the hard work and dedication that the members of the task force have put in and for the practical common sense they have shown in discussing the issues.

    "The task force's work covers both short-term measures to alleviate the hardship that so many businesses and people are facing and measures to aid the speediest possible return to normality. I remind the House of the measures that have already been announced, starting with measures to assist businesses to weather the immediate problems.

    "First, I have announced a number of measures to provide relief from business rates. They include increased government funding (from 75 per cent to 95 per cent) to enable local authorities to offer hardship rate relief to businesses in rural areas, targeted at businesses below 12,000 rateable value, and offering reductions of up to 1,290 over a three-month period.

    "A further measure is the deferment by three months of the deadline for business rate appeals in rural areas. Rural businesses will also be helped by the Government's legislation to extend 50 per cent mandatory rate relief to all food shops in small rural settlements. This legislation will also provide a transitional five-year 50 per cent mandatory rate relief for new enterprises on former agricultural land.

    "At the same time, recent regulations have extended 50 per cent rate relief to sole village pubs and garages with a rateable value of less than 9,000. We have also arranged that where a rural local authority agrees to defer rates payments, my department will in turn defer the payments which the authority is due to make to the national rate pool.

    "Finally on rates, the Valuation Office Agency will consider applications on businesses for a reduction in their rateable value to take account of the impacts of foot and mouth disease.

    "Secondly, the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise are taking a sympathetic approach to requests for deferral or extended time to pay tax and national insurance contributions, particularly for rural businesses in agriculture, transport, tourism and related retail businesses.

    "Thirdly, the major banks have made it clear that they will look on a case-by-case basis at mechanisms such as extended lines of credit, capital payment holidays and other measures.

    "Fourthly, we have extended the types of businesses that can apply for loans up to 250,000 under the Small Firms Loan Guarantee Scheme.

23 Apr 2001 : Column 30

    "Fifthly, I announced a further 15 million for regional development agencies to help rural businesses in the worst hit areas.

    "Sixthly, to help those people who have lost work because of foot and mouth, the Benefits Agency has announced that it will provide quick assessments of applications for jobseeker's allowance from such applicants; and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment has announced a skills boost package to ease the impact of foot and mouth disease on jobs.

    "Finally, the Government have pledged to match public donations to rural charities to help to address cases of severe hardship and to provide support for organisations which respond to rural stress. The scheme is being administered by the Countryside Agency and will apply to personal donations, including the generous donations of the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Westminster.

    "Everyone agrees, I believe, that the key to recovering from the serious economic effects of the disease is to get back to normality as soon as possible. That is why the task force has put of lot of effort into ensuring that the message is that most of the country can be safely visited. The work of the task force has led to a number of advertisements under the auspices of both the Government and other key organisations to explain the position to the general public and to encourage people to enjoy the many facilities that are open. The Countryside Agency will also be making grants of 3.8 million available to help local authorities to open their footpaths.

    "Further advertising by tourist organisations is being promoted by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State announced additional support of 6 million for the English Tourism Council and the British Tourist Authority to get the message across that Britain is open for business.

    "This adds up to a total package for immediate practical help to the rural economy of over 200 million. This is not the end of the story. There is a great deal more to do, especially to consider longer-term measures to help to get the rural economy moving when the disease has been dealt with. I look forward to further meetings of the Rural Task Force to progress this important work".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.12 p.m.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, the whole House will be grateful to the Minister for repeating a Statement made by his right honourable friend in another place in answer to a Private Notice Question. There is a danger that one begins to regard this crisis as a chronic state. As the Question relates to the Rural Task Force, it is worth noting en passant that some two years ago the noble Lord's right honourable friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster established a rural affairs committee of the Cabinet, which I believe has met once. That committee

23 Apr 2001 : Column 31

was supposed to promote the interests of rural affairs across the whole spectrum of government. That committee appears to be, at least in its performance, as dead as some of the animals that have had to be slaughtered as a result of foot and mouth disease. One hopes that as a mark 2 the Rural Task Force will be a more effective body.

The Minister has repeated the announcements made about a month ago as a result of the initial work of the Rural Task Force. What is happening on the ground? Do we know what applications are being made to Customs and Excise for VAT deferral? Have instructions been given by the Government to Customs and Excise as to how it is to handle applications? What is the assessed benefit of this particular relief to the rural community? The noble Lord gave the total, but it would be interesting to know how it is made up.

The same questions apply to rate relief. Pubs and garages in small communities will benefit. Are applications being made to local authorities? If so, do the Government have any idea of the likely benefit? More specifically, can the Minister state in which years these reliefs will apply? Will they apply in 2000-01, in 2001-02, or in both years? Is it to be a continuing form of relief?

We know that the banks have agreed to treat their arrangements with rural clients sympathetically, and that is very welcome. However, one cannot avoid the slightly cynical reaction that, if a business is heading into real difficulties, the banks will stand back and let some other creditor take the requisite action, if that is needed.

What about the tourist industry in the wider sense in rural areas, which is suffering very greatly? The reliefs so far announced are very specific, and, as an initial touch, rightly so. I have no problem with that. But many small country hotels, even boarding houses and restaurants, have undertaken investment in recent years to meet the growing trend for people to spend weekends away from home. In this regard the tourism that we are talking about is not the international industry which causes us so much pain and pleasure in the streets of London but the people in the Midlands or those who want to escape the pressures of the South East and visit the Lake District. In that regard, people who have undertaken new investment in this particular field in recent years must feel that their work and the jobs of those they employ are now at risk.

This crisis goes far wider than simply the impact on the rural community. The British Hospitality Association reports today that half of London hotels estimate that they have lost 10 per cent of their business in the past month; 14 per cent estimate that they have lost 25 per cent, and forward bookings are down by 30 per cent. That is very serious. Fast food restaurants report that in March business was 16.5 per cent down. The only conclusion to be drawn is that the absolute priority must be to overcome foot and mouth disease and remove its wretched effect from our countryside.

23 Apr 2001 : Column 32

As to the environmental effects, perhaps the Government have not paid sufficient attention to the Northumberland report on the 1967-68 outbreak. That report clearly recommended that diffuse disposal of carcasses was the preferred option, by which it meant that there should be burial on farm wherever it was possible. If one could not do that, the burning of carcasses on farm was the second best option. At least that has the benefit of spreading pollution, if there is any, in small doses. But there have been so many mass pyres and burials that can concentrate air pollution or the possibilities of leaching that one wonders what is going on. Who was responsible for finding these sites? Was it the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food which took the initial action? Perish the thought, was it the armed services which we are debating for the rest of today; or was it the Environment Agency? As the Environment Agency has responsibility for vetting the environmental effects of these sites, perhaps it should have been given the task of finding them in the first place.

Whatever one says about the priorities, it is absolutely clear that the problem will not go away as long as foot and mouth disease continues. That must be the absolute priority.

4.20 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. We welcome the measures which the Statement repeats.

The Minister states that the key to recovery,


    "is to get back to normality as soon as possible".

That is fairly depressing because normality was unsatisfactory. If by "normality" the noble Lord means "disease free", that is correct: we hope to be in a disease-free situation. The issue was debated at Question Time. The state of the rural economy is dire. The task force must recognise that the foot and mouth disease has magnified and speeded up the existing economic and agricultural problems. I hope that the Government will speed up their response.

For example, the Statement refers to legislation with regard to mandatory rate relief. I believe that it has begun its passage through the House of Commons. Could this legislation be speeded up? Could the size of business given rate relief be considered? The Government propose a rateable value of up to 9,000. For many rural businesses, those will be the barely viable ones. Surely the task is to keep viable the healthy businesses--the sole pub or garage--which serve a wide geographic area.

The items listed by the Minister in the Statement as "secondly", "thirdly" and "fifthly" would barely count in my book as measures. The Government should take a firmer line with the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise. They should not ask them simply to take a sympathetic approach but to alter their performance indicators and targets in order to do so. Those services may be sympathetic to begin with but as the year wears on--we have no idea how long the crisis will last--they may become considerably less so under pressure to collect their revenues.

23 Apr 2001 : Column 33

The same consideration applies to the banks. The Government should publish the criteria which demonstrate to the public the sympathetic line that the banks are taking with regard to extended credit and large loans, or small loans on small businesses. We have rightly encouraged businesses to diversify and expand. Those in the forefront of innovation and effort are the worst hit. They have increased borrowing to expand and diversify but their incomes have fallen. I ask the Government to give a true picture of what is happening with regard to the banks.

It is not enough for the Benefits Agency to say that it will provide quick assessments for applicants for jobseeker's allowance who are now out of work. As the latest Countryside Agency report demonstrates, in rural areas many casual and part-time workers are now out of work. We need to know the figures month by month and the way the Benefits Agency deals with them.

We welcome the Government's pledge to match public donations to rural charities. However, while people are grateful for charity money when in need, they want the opportunity to return to work. The Government should consider all the measures debated at length on the rural White Paper, and those produced by the Performance and Innovation Unit in its report on rural economies. They must be speeded up. The rural areas do not want to wait another three years for some of those measures to take effect.

I realise that the Minister is unlikely to comment on unofficial speculation that the Prime Minister will create a department of rural affairs. The Liberal Democrats have been pushing for that for a long time. I am somewhat surprised that the Conservative Benches mention that the rural committee has met only once. That is depressing; but in all their years in government, the Conservatives never provided any measure for joined-up government in rural areas. That will need to be rectified.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page