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Hague: Conservatives will respond to countryside crisis

In a speech in Croft on Tees, Darlington, the Rt Hon William Hague, Leader of the Conservative Party:

"Like everyone here I regard it as a unique privilege to live in the Yorkshire Dales, in the very heart of what is without doubt some of the most breathtaking countryside in the British Isles. For me, no other place matches it.

"It's a countryside shaped over the centuries by people who have carefully tended its natural beauty, respected its rich character and preserved its timeless traditions.

"We are immensely fortunate that previous generations have handed us down such a priceless inheritance. And it is our duty to ensure that it is an inheritance fit to pass on to the generations to come.

"Yet there can be little doubt that the task has been made much harder by the fact that today the British countryside is going through a crisis of almost unprecedented proportions.

"The outbreak of foot and mouth that currently holds the Dales in its grip is one element of the crisis - albeit the one that is of most pressing importance to people living in the Yorkshire Dales. The swift eradication of foot and mouth and a clear policy for recovery for the rural economy is essential. But the crisis goes much wider, and is much deeper than foot and mouth alone.

"Many people in the countryside think that that their values and traditions are treated with indifference, neglect and contempt.

"There is a widespread feeling in rural areas that the Government has no real understanding of the needs of the countryside, has no real feel or instinct for the countryside and so often gives the impression that it doesn't care about the survival of the countryside.

"And the consequences have been disastrous.

"Agriculture is going through its worst depression for sixty years.

"Farm incomes have been halved and halved again, 40,000 farming jobs have been lost in the past two years and families who have managed their land for generations are being forced to sell up.

"A record 547 sub post offices have closed in the past year.

"Police numbers in many rural communities have been cut, rural police stations are being closed and violent crime is on the increase, so that people in places that were once peaceful and safe often feel isolated and afraid.

"In the south of England great swathes of the countryside have been designated for development which means that more of our green fields will be bulldozed, regardless of the views of local people.

"Hikes in fuel duty have given Britain the most expensive petrol in Europe with rural communities being hit hardest of all.

"The liberty and livelihood of thousands of people in rural communities is under threat.

"It's little wonder then that there's so much anger in rural communities. They are sick of being sneered at and ignored.

"I believe that rural Britain deserves much better than this. We need a change of direction and a Government that believes in the countryside, that values the countryside and will work for the countryside.

"We need a Government that is prepared to take the urgent action needed to get the countryside back on its feet. Otherwise, at best the British countryside faces a bleak and uncertain future. At worst it faces a slow and painful death.

"With the British countryside going through such a severe crisis, foot and mouth could hardly have come at a worse time. For many farmers it has been the final straw in an industry which is seeing people leave in their thousands.

"On farms across Britain years of hard work has been destroyed in a matter of weeks. Rural businesses have seen their turnover collapse. Hotels bookings have collapsed. Many rural tourist attractions have been forced to close just at the time when their need for visitors was at its greatest. There have been animal welfare problems of a kind we never expected to see in Britain.

"The tragedy is that the crisis need not have been as widespread or so prolonged if the urgent and decisive action that was needed had been taken from the beginning, or if the measures that we were proposing had been fully and properly implemented at the time we proposed them.

"From the outset Conservatives backed the Government in its stated objective of halting the spread of the disease. And we offered our full support for Government measures designed to bring that about, including commitments that we would co-operate fully in Parliament to ensure that any emergency legislation that might have been required would be given a speedy passage.

"We put forward constructive proposals of our own, learning from the Report into the 1967 outbreak, such as making use of the Army to assist with the slaughter of animals and disposal of carcasses, using on farm burial to speed up disposal and helping badly affected businesses with interest free emergency loans.

"But throughout the crisis we have often looked on with an exasperation that is widely shared across the countryside as the Government often failed to implement even their own measures with sufficient speed, vigour and co-ordination.

"Over the last few weeks of course the number of officially confirmed new cases has slowed. But that's still of little comfort to those affected by the more than 1,600 officially recorded outbreaks since February that have had such a devastating impact. And as The Daily Telegraph reported yesterday the actual figure for cases could well be over 3,000 - double the official figure coming out of MAFF with around 1,500 additional cases on farms where precautionary culling has taken place.

"And we must not lower our guard, as events in North Yorkshire have so tragically highlighted in the past fortnight.

"When Tony Blair told the country on 3 May that we were on the "home straight" he clearly had the General Election in mind but since then a fresh outbreak of foot and mouth has hit people here in North Yorkshire. And I don't need to tell you how hard it has been hit, with more than twenty new cases of foot and mouth in the Settle and Skipton area since 10 May.

"And here in the Richmond constituency we've had 2 new cases since last Sunday in High Worsall and Appleton Wiske, bringing the total number to 23 since the first outbreak in Hawes.

"On one of the most important weekends of the year, hotel bookings are still badly down with most of the tourists visiting the Dales still day trippers. Having opened some footpaths, the Yorkshire Dales National Park is now having to close a number of them again.

"As these outbreaks demonstrate clearly, foot and mouth is not yet beaten. One day without a new case does not mean the crisis is over. The situation in the countryside remains desperately serious.

"Just because there is an election going on, continuing cases of foot and mouth should not be ignored or sidelined. Electoral politics should not deflect us from the on-going battle to rid Britain of the disease.

"At this Election there is no issue that matters more to farmers and businesses here in the Dales than how they are going to protect their livelihoods. For farmers in the Dales, like so many others across Britain, the suffering, the misery and the hardship goes on.

"And it must remain the top priority of any Government to help the countryside recover. That is why, if a Conservative Government is elected on 7 June, we will implement our Strategy for Recovery, containing steps to stamp out Foot and Mouth once and for all, firm action to prevent this terrible disease entering Britain again and help for our farmers, struggling tourism industry and other rural businesses.

"That means giving the Army full operational control over efforts to eradicate the disease in all parts of the country. Scientific advice still needs to come from scientific experts, but once a decision has been taken to slaughter, the Army should be in the lead. Here in the Dales it is vital that the Army is put in full charge of all operations to make sure that the large-scale slaughter that is needed is carried out not only quickly and efficiently but also humanely.

"And as Tim Yeo has said we must also ensure that the Settle Rectangle that has been established does not turn into a Bermuda Triangle with cases of foot and mouth disappearing into the MAFF computer, never to appear in the official statistics.

"We need to clear up the confusion that exists over the daily statistics for new cases of foot and mouth. That is why there should be an independent statistician to audit the foot and mouth statistics.

"We will take the necessary steps to stop foot and mouth entering Britain again. So if we're elected the next Conservative Government would ban meat imports from high-risk countries.

"Foot and mouth almost certainly entered the United Kingdom through the importation of infected meat. We should take immediate steps to strengthen Britain's defences against animal disease by imposing unilateral precautionary restrictions on imports of meat from countries where foot and mouth is endemic or has occurred recently.

"Incredibly it is still legal to allow people to bring into Britain up to a kilo of bushmeat from third world countries, providing it is claimed for personal use. Yet the reality is that thousands of tons of this meat are being brought into the country illegally in suitcases then to be sold on to markets and even restaurants.

"On Friday it was reported that two shopkeepers made thousands of pounds out of a lucrative smuggling trade that included protected monkeys, giant scaly anteaters, lions at £5,000 each, antelope, porcupines, goats, cane rats and large and live snails.

"Other recent examples have included cargo declared as vegetables containing 15 dead monkeys, one anteater and tortoise legs. One cargo contained a freshly slaughtered deer and maggot infested fish, another live crabs while in March this year baggage handlers at Heathrow refused to handle a suitcase leaking blood and covered in maggots. The bags were recovered but the contents had disappeared.

"As the head of a freight handling company put it in March "I've seen suitcases weeping blood and trailing maggots from the rotting flesh inside. And no-one is prepared to do anything about it. Bushmeat brings with it a terrifying list of human diseases including Ebola, TB, polio and yellow fever". No wonder he described the situation as a "disease time bomb".

"That we rigorously enforce existing controls, and bringing in new stringent controls, on the importation of things like bushmeat at airports and ports rather than just relying on local councils as is currently the case.

"A number of the proposals we made throughout the crisis were recommended by the Sutherland Report into the last major outbreak of foot and mouth in 1967. Yet they were not followed. Once the crisis is finally over we need a full inquiry into this outbreak and the measures taken to control it. And the first recommendation of the Inquiry into the current crisis ought to be that Ministers read the recommendations of the last one.

"We will make sure that help reaches the farmers and the rural businesses that have been devastated by the epidemic and who face severe financial problems.

"Many fundamentally sound businesses face going to the wall simply because they risk running out of cash. In the case of hotels and other businesses, they are nowhere near recovering from the loss of trade at Easter when they would normally have been starting to make up for their financial outlay over the winter.

"A Conservative Government will unblock delays in compensation payments for farmers and payments for contractors like slaughtermen and vets. And we will compensate farmers for their irrecoverable losses.

"Under the current schemes farmers whose animals are compulsorily slaughtered to control the spread of foot and mouth, or those accepted into the Welfare Disposal Scheme, are compensated. Yet this still leaves many farmers with healthy animals that they are unable to move or slaughter due to livestock restrictions. They are not compensated but still face irrecoverable losses.

"We will compensate these farmers who otherwise face the real prospect of going out of business. The cost would be high. But this is a national crisis and one off use of the reserve in these circumstances would be wholly legitimate.

"We will press ahead with an interest free emergency loan scheme.

"For weeks I urged Tony Blair at Prime Minister's questions to introduce a such a scheme to help rural businesses through their cashflow crisis. Then after dither and delay they merely announced an extension to the existing small firms loan guarantee scheme with loans charged at the full commercial interest rate and the total amount of money made available £120 million.

"Yet only last week the inadequacy of this was highlighted by the Chairman of the British Hospitality Association said that the interest rate charged made it "almost like going to a loan shark" and that the only businesses that would borrow under the scheme would be the "absolutely desperate".

"So we will introduce a more realistic £500 million interest free loan scheme for affected businesses. It would be paid to them by their local bank within two weeks and paid back through the tax system and only when their profits had recovered.

"We will speed up VAT refunds to help with cashflow problems.

"Customs and Excise owe money to an increasing number of businesses, especially those in tourism, because their reduced turnover causes their VAT bills to be below what they have already paid in VAT on their purchases. Steps should be taken to help these businesses by giving an automatic, immediate refund of one month's average monthly VAT liability for each affected business.

"We will instruct the Inland Revenue to be flexible in reassessing income tax liabilities.

"The last thing that farmers being hit by the crisis need is to have the taxman breathing down their necks. But many of them are currently facing demands for income tax payments on account now, calculated when times were more prosperous for them. So we will tell the Inland Revenue to accept applications to reduce payments on account on the basis of incomplete accounting periods in the case of farmers who face losses or significantly reduced profits as a result of foot and mouth.

"Eradicating the disease, and helping those affected is crucial. But alongside these policies we need to aid the long-term recovery of the countryside, to ensure that agriculture and the rural economy is viable and can prosper once again.

"A Conservative Government will be committed to a fair deal for farmers.

"We will give our farmers a fair chance to compete by applying to imported food more of the food hygiene and animal welfare standards we expect of our farmers here at home. And we'll make an example of foreign foods that don't come up to British standards of production.

"We will introduce honesty in labelling so that when something is labelled as British it means it is actually British.

"We will ease the burden of red tape and form filling by not enforcing European regulations any sooner or more zealously than other countries.

"We will fund a National Gene Bank to help those farmers faced with the enormous problem of restocking flocks or herds to re-establish bloodlines of specially bred livestock.

"And we will encourage small abattoirs to stay in business rather than force them out of business. We will reverse the current regulatory incentives towards fewer, larger abattoirs, by relating inspections more closely to the degree of risk, reducing the over implementation of EU regulations and ending the present unfair system of charges for small, low risk abattoirs.

"We want to ensure sure that no region is without an abattoir to deal with cattle coming in under the over thirty-month scheme.

"Our farmers are among the most dedicated and innovative in the world. On a level playing field, they'd acquit themselves against all comers. But they cannot compete properly as long as they are confined by the current Common Agricultural Policy.

"So the next Conservative Government will re-negotiate the Common Agricultural Policy so that many decisions currently taken at EU level would be taken by the governments of individual member states.

"One industry that has been particularly devastated by foot and mouth is tourism. So we will back a properly funded campaign to promote tourism and attract holidaymakers back to Britain.

"The British tourism industry contributes over £65 billion a year to our national income, and employs some 1.7million people.

"The British Hospitality Association estimates that the tourism industry is facing a loss of revenue to the tune of £5 billion. Visitors to Britain clearly need reassurance that it is safe to visit Britain and that our attractions are open for business.

"But the Government's response to the need to promote British tourism has been inadequate. The British Tourist Authority has put together a recovery and reassurance package aimed at persuading overseas visitors to come back to Britain, but has not been given sufficient funds. If the Government could find record sums of taxpayers' money to advertise its own achievements in the run up to the Election, then surely it could have found the money to advertise Britain as a holiday destination for overseas visitors.

"We've promised to match industry sponsorship pound for pound to give a permanent increase in the funding of the BTA of up to £30 million year. So we will have a package in place that will allow the industry to invest ahead of time to attract tourists back.

"Domestic visitors are just as important to the prosperity of our tourist businesses. There is an urgent need for a concerted effort to restore the prospects of English businesses, but the Government has given only £4 million to the English Tourism Council for this purpose - £1 million less than has been given to the Scottish Tourist Board. No wonder the English Tourism Council described the Government's refusal to act as a "body blow". We will provide the funds for an effective campaign.

"And we will work to make the rural economy viable again.

"We will use money from the budgets of the current Regional Development Agencies to cut business rates of up to £1,000 a year for rural shops, pubs, garages, equestrian centres and village post offices. We will introduce a benefit card so that people can continue to draw payments from their village post office.

"Our plans to regenerate the inner cities, will make them once again safe and vibrant places in which to live and work, helping to stem the exodus to the countryside that has been taking place over the past thirty years. We will defend our green belt, abolish Labour's national or regional housebuilding targets and give local people the discretion to determine the right level of development in their area.

"And by cutting 27p a gallon off the tax on petrol and diesel we'll help everyone in rural Britain for whom the car is a necessity and not a luxury.

"Our Strategy for Recovery contains the steps that a Conservative Government, if elected on 7 June, will implement without delay. The countryside and people living in it are crying out for help. We have a duty to respond and respond quickly.

That is what we will do."

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