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Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, perhaps the noble Baroness will concede that it is possible to have joined-up government without establishing a specific committee. That is what joined-up government really means.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will agree, as many in his party now do, that we need a department of rural affairs with its own minister, not simply a committee. I hope that we can look forward to the next government providing that department forthwith.

4.27 p.m.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I thank both Front Bench spokespeople for their comments.

The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, asked about the number of applications for relief to Customs and Excise and the tax authorities, and for rate relief and benefits. The figures are not yet in. There is clearly some movement on those fronts but it will be some time before we can make a fuller assessment. It needs

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to be made clear to everyone who may potentially benefit that such facilities are available and, as the noble Baroness indicated, that the process is in place to ensure that such applications are dealt with rapidly.

The noble Lord referred to the problems for the tourist industry. Indeed, there have been a number of somewhat depressing assertions on the effect on tourism. I believe that the Government have made a major effort to try to turn round, both internationally and domestically, the impression that Britain is closed for tourism. That has clearly had some effect, even over the Easter weekend. But as more footpaths and attractions become open, and as the message becomes clearer, I believe that some of the shortfall in forward bookings will be made up. Nevertheless, I recognise that the smaller, remoter end of the tourist business has been most dramatically affected by the crisis, together with the agricultural sector and those who directly supply that sector.

On the environmental effects, some knowledge has moved on since the Northumberland report with regard to prioritising the disposal of culled beasts. As has been pointed out, no option is risk free. It is a question of effectively managing the system and minimising the risk to human health and the environment. The hierarchy of the Environment Agency's approach is rendering through incineration in purpose-designed and authorised facilities, licensed landfill, on-site burning, and, lastly, burial.

Clearly, in some circumstances all of those options will not be available. It is for those on the ground to decide which disposal sites are appropriate in particular circumstances, taking account of all the expert advice received and, of course, the legal and environmental requirements.

One of the problems of burial on site is the effect on the water table. That is a particular problem in Devon where the water table is high. That is one of the reasons that there is a delay in the disposal of carcasses there.

The noble Lord asked who was in charge of identifying sites. In relation to landfill sites, the Environment Agency has identified suitable sites. We have largely overcome the problems that there were at the beginning. Landfill disposal of carcasses is carried out according to the best practice document agreed between the Environment Agency, MAFF and the Environmental Services Association. It is pursued by all organisations involved in the logistics of disposal of the carcasses, including the welcome help from the Armed Forces. So there is co-ordination there.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, referred to the state of the rural economy prior to foot and mouth disease. As I indicated in response to her earlier questions, there clearly were agricultural problems in parts of the rural economy, and particularly those most dependent on some sectors of agriculture. But there are also boom areas in the rural economy, both in terms of the tourist industry and diversification of business within rural areas. We should not be too pessimistic about the ability of the rural economy to come through this crisis. We need to provide businesses, and particularly small businesses, rapidly

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with some relief. I do not dissent from the conclusion of the noble Baroness that we need to speed up the process of delivering relief. That is being addressed by the Government, including the provision of the legislative backing which will be before your Lordships shortly.

The noble Baroness mentioned specifically the provision of loans, both through the banking system and through the small business loans guarantee scheme. We believe that in the immediate circumstances the loans guarantee scheme extension will provide some welcome relief to smaller businesses. The noble Baroness raised the question of why--the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, also referred to this matter--this provision refers only to businesses with a rateable value below 9,000. We have to prioritise. The prioritisation is to those small businesses which are most vulnerable and where rates constitute a high proportion of their total outgoings. We have therefore prioritised on that matter.

There is no implication that the Government can stave off entirely the effects of foot and mouth disease on rural businesses and communities. We are providing relief, deferral and assistance in a number of different ways. But the Government are not able to provide a system, and should not be in the position of being an insurer of last resort and of providing replacement income to the rural economy.

Finally, in response to the point about the department dealing with rural affairs, at this point I usually get a harsh note from the Box saying that this is a matter for the Prime Minister; and, indeed, it is. But as the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, said, "Nothing is that simple". He covered the tax authorities, the Inland Revenue, the Department of Social Security, the DTI, my own department and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. All departments have an interest in this issue, as does the nation as a whole. Whatever the structure of machinery of government, it is everyone's problem. It is not just a rural problem and not just a problem for the department dealing with rural affairs, but one which affects the economy as a whole. The Government are giving the matter priority. The Rural Task Force is addressing this issue with vigour. I hope that is recognised around the House.

4.35 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, can the Minister comment on the fact that this business would all be over had the recommendations of the Northumberland committee on ring vaccination taken place? The vaccination has increased in power, in effectiveness and has been used in Korea, in the Maghrib, in Macedonia, in Albania and in Taiwan with enormous effect. The Minister says that the Government are not an insurer of last resort. However, if by the Government's own incompetent actions the outbreak has lasted longer than it should have, which according to most of the scientific evidence it undoubtedly has, then surely they are liable for the damage done?

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Furthermore, why are they trumpeting 200 million worth of relief for the countryside when the damage is estimated at between 12,000 to 20,000 million? That is a factor of 1 per cent relief. I hope that the Government take that matter dearly to heart and listen to what I have said. I may be in a minority of one, even on my own side, on the issue of vaccination. At least I was proposing that to the Ministry of Countryside Affairs when the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, was Leader of the House.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I always welcome the noble Earl's consistency in these matters, even if he is in a minority of close to one on the issue of vaccination. My recollection is that in previous debates when my noble friend Lady Hayman has dealt with the matter, the burden of advice from the Opposition Benches was definitely against vaccination, as indeed has been the burden of advice throughout from the National Farmers Union and from most scientific and veterinary sources.

Vaccination has always been an option, but as a supplement and not as an alternative to culling. In relation to cattle in certain circumstances it is an option. It is not judged to be the appropriate response in terms of the advocacy of firebreak vaccination and it would be impractical in dealing with sheep. In certain areas vaccination could have taken place as a supplement but it would not have avoided either the spread of the disease or the number of cattle and sheep that have had to be destroyed; nor would it have speeded up the process of eradication of the disease.

Baroness Mallalieu: My Lords, I apologise to the Minister because some of what I shall say relates perhaps more to his colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Does the noble Lord appreciate that what was despair in the countryside is, through frustration, rapidly turning to serious anger against not just the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Environment Agency but also MAFF? The anger is directed in two ways: first, so far as concerns some of the agricultural aspects to which he has just referred, the way in which carcasses are not being dealt with and are being left on farms for up to three weeks; and, secondly, the mass and unnecessary slaughter of many animals which are not dangerous contacts but simply happen to be at the far end of a farm which may have as little as a one-field boundary with an outbreak of the disease.

There is the slaughter of animals where the authorities have no way of dealing with the carcasses after they have been culled. That is causing an environment in some areas which is, frankly, unfit for people to live in. That is according to advice from the Environment Agency. While people have every sympathy with the difficulties of balancing the competing claims of burial and burning and transporting, particularly diseased carcasses sometimes through uninfected areas, patience has now worn to a point where people are about to break the law and take matters into their own hands. Friends of mine who have lost cattle have produced their own machines and have their own dry fields on their farms. They have

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offered to bury their animals but have been told that they will be prosecuted if they do so. The animals are still lying there now, 10 days later.

I turn now to matters that are my noble friend's direct province. Relief from payments that a business cannot make is no help. Many small shops, pubs, hotels and guest houses have faced this crisis with no "rainy day" money. They are dismayed that money that has been given to the rural development agencies to help small businesses is being earmarked for more reports, more studies, more focus groups and more plans when what is needed is direct help to essential local services to keep them going. Can my noble friend give us some hope that money that is given to the regional development agencies may also in certain circumstances be used to give direct help to essential local services so that when tourists return to these areas, which I am sure they will within, I hope, a matter of weeks rather than months, there is something for them to find in terms of places to stay, places to eat and drink, and places to buy things? Unless that money, or some money, goes to those businesses now, they will not be there and the regeneration of the rural economy will be made virtually impossible.


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