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Hague: Action needed now to rebuild rural Britain

Addressing a press conference at Conservative Central Office, the Rt Hon William Hague MP, Leader of the Conservative Party:

"Over the last seven weeks, we have become accustomed to seeing every night on TV images of destruction all over Britain.

Rarely has this country shown more concern at what is now unfolding

Rarely has the outside world looked on Britain more intently.

Rarely have people been more united in their horror and their sympathy at the men and women whose livelihoods are being destroyed day-by-day by the foot and mouth crisis.

It is hard for people who have not witnessed it, as I have, to appreciate how deep is the despair that our farmers are experiencing right now. Or to know just how desperate people are who have devoted their whole working lives to building up a small business reliant on tourism, only to watch helplessly as first their income, then their savings and finally their businesses disappear.

Nick Brown said again at the weekend that the Foot and Mouth crisis is under control. Anyone who has any connection with the countryside hopes fervently that he is soon able to be proved right.

The tragedy is that the crisis need not have been as widespread or as prolonged as it has been if the Government had shown greater urgency in their actions from the very beginning.

The Government Chief Scientist said that it is essential for infected animals to be slaughtered within 24 hours.

But of all the animals which have been identified as infected with Foot and Mouth during this crisis so far, one in four have still not been slaughtered and one in three remain unburied.

So far from achieving the 24 hour target, it would take well over a week just to clear the backlog of infected animals waiting to be slaughtered even if not a single new case was discovered from now on.

Of course, this assessment can only be made up until last weekend, after which the Government decided that it would no longer provide information to the public on the backlog.

Every hour an infected animal remains alive it breathes infection out onto the wind, contaminating more farms near and far. So this delay has been, quite literally, fatal to healthy animals on many farms.

The effects of the crisis on tourism businesses are less visible, but no less devastating for that.

This weekend Britain's tourist businesses are facing up to their worst Easter for many years.

In the small town of Hawes in Wensleydale in my constituency, three hotels have no visitors at all booked for the Easter weekend.

Compared with the last few weeks some rural businesses may see some respite, but local businesses have warned me that it will not be enough to see them through the critical period after the holiday when they are fully open for the spring and summer season.

The great majority of these businesses are not large corporations, with deep pockets. They are our village shops, pubs, guesthouses, cafés and restaurants - examples of family firms, often proving a vital service to their rural communities as well as to tourists, but which depend on tourist income to be viable.

Across the country, one in seven hotels have lost over half of their trade. Country pubs have seen their turnover collapse, and bookings of accommodation in pubs is down by as much as two-thirds.

In areas with Foot and Mouth cases, the situation is worse. In Wensleydale bed and breakfast bookings are between 70 and 80 per cent down, and there is a knock-on effect for the whole rural economy: local butchers have seen their business fall by a third, and the chemist's has had to put staff on half-time working.

These businesses are, like many farms, the product of many years' hard work and investment, often over several generations. Without urgent help, their livelihood will be permanently swept away within weeks.

With the arrival of Easter our rural businesses enter the season when they earn most of the income they need to see them through the year.

That is why I am calling on the Government to take action this Easter - to take urgent measures essential to the survival of many of our country businesses.

If the Government would agree to implement the actions that I propose it would offer hope to our farmers and rural businesses this Easter.

The first set of proposals are actions that I believe would improve the chances of eradicating Foot and Mouth.

Let me draw your attention to two of them.

The slaughter of infected animals is the most critical bottleneck in both the efforts to halt the spread of foot and mouth and in relieving the suffering of farm animals caught up in the crisis. There are simply not enough slaughtermen and those that are available are not being deployed as effectively as they need to be.

So I am calling on the Government to bring in emergency training programmes for new slaughtermen. The necessary licence can be obtained in a matter of days following intensive training, and newly licensed slaughtermen could work under the close supervision of more experienced people. I wish this had been done much earlier in this crisis, but even now it is not too late.

Priority should be given to slaughtering first around the perimeters of existing infected areas, to provide a firebreak beyond which infection is less likely to spread. And greater control by the Army of the slaughter operation would help ensure that existing and new resources are deployed to greatest effect.

On top of the Foot and Mouth epidemic, there is now a growing emergency concerning the welfare of animals. Across the country there are appalling scenes of animals suffering. New born lambs are drowning in mud, because they cannot be moved to new grazing land. Farms are becoming so overcrowded that in some cases pigs cannot move or even sit down. Scenes like these are profoundly shocking in a country renowned for high standards of care for animals. Not to act now to relieve this suffering would be to bring shame on our country.

Over a million and a half animals are awaiting culling under the animal welfare disposal scheme. Increasing the rate of the cull is a vital step. But we also need further action to protect the welfare of animals.

The current restrictions require special MAFF authorisation for livestock movements. But of course, in practice MAFF vets and officials are fully absorbed with the workload generated by infected farms. To stop the appalling suffering that is resulting, the Government should allow local vets in private practice to licence movements of uninfected livestock through uninfected areas, subject to consultation with neighbouring farms. This will ensure that animals can find suitable grazing without risking spreading the disease further.

The next set of actions I am calling for today are concerned with giving immediate help our businesses get through the current crisis.

Let me give an example of this. Businesses which are fundamentally sound will go to the wall because they have run out of cash in the short term. Three weeks ago, I called on the Prime Minister to make emergency interest-free loans available to rural businesses affected by the crisis. Last Friday, 16 days later, the Government responded with a scheme that is sadly inadequate.

The Government has made available £120 million to the Small Firms Loan Guarantee Scheme. But the money available is not free of interest, as I called for, but is charged at full commercial interest rates, which the DTI estimates would be 8.75%. Small businesses already crippled by the crisis are being told that the only way to survive is to take on even higher costs.

And if firms are unable to pay this interest because they are not in profit, their owners could forfeit their personal property because the loans are only underwritten by the Government to between 70 and 80% of their value.

That is why I am calling today for a genuine interest-free loan scheme, offering a more realistic £500 million, 100% underwritten by the Government, in which repayment is made through the tax system only when these businesses return to profit.

And unlike the Government's scheme, which involves a complex applications procedure, under our proposal affected firms would be entitled to the cash, which would be paid to them by their local bank within two weeks.

If there is one lesson to be learned from previous crises it is that they will end up costing the Exchequer dearly. It is a false economy to neglect the temporary needs of fundamentally sound businesses by offering only token gestures of support.

My third set of proposals sets out what the Government should do now to give our farms and tourist businesses a fighting chance of recovering their livelihoods once the crisis is over.

Let me highlight two of these actions, which address the vital need to attract holidaymakers back to Britain.

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

The British Hospitality Association estimates that overseas visitors to Britain are down by 25% as a result of Foot and Mouth, and that the 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 many of our attractions are open.

But the Government's response to the need to promote British tourism has fallen short of the mark. The British Tourist Authority has put together a recovery and reassurance package aimed at persuading overseas visitors to come back to Britain. But of the £22 million the BTA has estimated that is needed, the Government has agreed to fund only £2 million.

We have 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 which will allow the industry to invest ahead of time to attract tourists back.

Domestic visitors are no less important to the prosperity of our tourist businesses. The industry estimates that it will need £10 million to mount a proper 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 British Hospitality Association described the Government's package as 'disappointing'. We would provide the funds for an effective campaign.

Easter is the start of a make-or-break time for thousands of rural businesses, with four bank holidays in six weeks. So far in this crisis there has been too much hesitation, too much delay. The Government owes it to these businesses to take urgent action this Easter to cut out the delays in tackling Foot and Mouth; to get relief to businesses now, before it is too late; and to take steps to rebuild the long term livelihood of rural Britain. We are preparing to do just that."

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