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Hague: The Conservative countryside recovery plan

Launching the Conservative Party's foot and mouth Strategy for Recovery at Uttoxeter Racecourse today, the Rt Hon William Hague MP, Leader of the Conservative Party, said:

"Today I want to set out how a Conservative Government would go about the urgent task of tackling the crisis, through a Strategy for Recovery to speed up the eradication of foot and mouth and help to restore the livelihood of those farmers businesses, families and communities who are facing ruin.

For most people in rural areas the crisis continues to get worse, rather than better as the latest figures clearly demonstrate. The outbreak of foot and mouth is now so widespread that eradication is a massive task that will require a monumental effort.

So we urgently need new measures if we are at last to get ahead of the game and start bringing the disease under control

Whatever our criticism of what has happened so far we now need to look to the future.

The next few weeks are crucial weeks: crucial if we are going to get this disease under control; crucial if we are going to breath life back into our rural economy; crucial if we are going to stop a national crisis turning into a national catastrophe.

We have supported what the Government is doing to deal with foot and mouth. Obviously, the first priority is to clear the slaughter backlog and get the disease under control as soon as possible. But we shouldn't become so obsessed with the daily publication of the numbers of animals slaughtered that we do no thinking about the long term recovery of the countryside. Sadly, there is no sign of this long term thinking in Ministerial circles.

It is up to us, the Opposition, to do the long term thinking for them. So today, I am publishing our Strategy for Recovery - a set of constructive suggestions that address a number of aspects of foot and mouth and the problems the disease has brought with it.

The Strategy consists of:

giving the Army operational control over the burial and incineration on farms in all parts of the country;

a immediate ban on meat imports from high-risk countries;

be properly prepared if we do need to use vaccination as a last resort;

introducing an emergency loan scheme for rural businesses;

speeding up VAT refunds to help with cashflow problems;

instructing the Inland Revenue to be flexible in reassessing income tax liabilities;

compensating farmers for irrecoverable losses;

reducing service charges for abattoirs to encourage smaller abattoirs;

establishing a National Gene Bank to safeguard our rare breeds for the future;

launching an immediate campaign to promote domestic tourism in England, alongside the campaigns in Scotland and Wales;

launching a separate campaign to bring back overseas visitors;

and permanent cuts in business rates for rural businesses.

The first and most pressing priority is to eradicate the disease. Here is what we would do.

We would make on farm burial the preferred method of disposing of all livestock less than five years old.

So far disposal has been dealt with largely through the use of on-farm incineration. This has proved to be a logistical nightmare greatly contributing to the backlog of carcasses. Animal carcasses are left rotting. They continue to threaten further transmission of the disease. On farm burial is a much simpler procedure that can be completed in hours rather than days. Its use should be increased.

We would expand the role of the Army.

Nobody can pretend that everything so far has gone entirely according to plan. This week we heard of the 900 carcasses that were buried at an unsuitable site, threatening to contaminate the local water supply and now have to be dug up and buried again elsewhere.

In my own constituency this week I had a case of slaughtered cows in Wensleydale, where the original intention to burn them was abandoned, being taken to Northallerton where they spent some time awaiting transportation for rendering in Bradford, before being sent back to where they originally started from in Wensleydale, where they were burned.

After a significant delay the Army is being used to co-ordinate the logistics of disposing of carcasses in some parts of the country. Around 1,000 Army personnel are currently involved. It is obvious that they have made a difference. We believe that the Army's role should be expanded beyond logistics. Of course the scientific advice still needs to come from the scientific experts, but once a decision has been taken to slaughter the Army should take on a bigger role. We believe that the Army should have full operational control over burial and incineration on farms in all parts of the country.

We 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.

I find it incredible that it is 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, when in reality 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.

This practice is abhorrent, it is plainly dangerous and it should stop. So we should be rigorously enforcing controls, and bringing in new stringent controls, on the importation of bushmeat at airports and ports rather than just relying on local councils as is currently the case.

All of these are recommendations that were contained in the 1969 Report into the 1967 outbreak of foot and mouth. Had anybody bothered to read that Report, and act upon its recommendations, then the situation today might not be so bad as it has become. As I said to Tony Blair yesterday, the first recommendation of the inquiry into the current crisis is that Ministers should read the recommendations of the last one.

These are some of the things we would do. There are others. We would be making effective preparation for vaccination - but only as a last resort.

And we should be seeking to ease increasing animal welfare problems that are causing so much distress on farms throughout the country.

There are currently some 1.5 million healthy animals awaiting slaughter under the MAFF's Welfare Disposal Scheme - a larger backlog than the one for diseased animals. They are supposed to be slaughtered within 72 hours, but the cull is so far behind it is taking up to two weeks, resulting in terrible animal suffering. On some farms the problems are so acute, and the farmers are so desperate, they are saying openly that they wish they had the disease, so that animals could be slaughtered quickly and they could receive the compensation.

Many of the cases are heart rending and catastrophic. Cashflow difficulties mean that some farmers are unable to feed their animals. Restrictions on movement means that there is a lack of grazing, there is massive overcrowding on pig farms, while lambing ewes cannot be moved to lambing sheds and are dying of hypothermia.

The need for action is urgent. We should be allowing local vets in private practice to license movements of uninfected animals through uninfected areas subject to consultation with neighbouring farms. And the Government must take immediate action to overcome the slaughter bottleneck by training more slaughtermen, making a priority of slaughtering at the perimeter of infected areas and giving the Army greater control over the slaughter operation.

Eradication is the immediate priority. Next we would ensure that help reaches the farmers, and the rural businesses that have been devastated by the epidemic and who face severe financial problems. For many of the tourist related industries the crisis could not have come at a worse time as they rely on money coming in at Easter to start making up for the money they lay out during the winter.

These businesses are in desperate need. And this is what we would do to help them.

We would press ahead and introduce an emergency loan scheme.

I wrote to the Prime Minister on 21 March urging him to establish such a scheme to help rural businesses through the cashflow crisis that so many of them face. We proposed allowing businesses to take out interest free loans of up to £10,000, which would be paid back through the tax system and only when their profits had recovered.

Tony Blair said in the House of Commons that he would consider the proposals carefully. Yet two weeks later we are still waiting for a response, while the cashflow difficulties of businesses continue to worsen by the day. They should get on and implement our scheme or come up with one of their own. But to do nothing is simply not an option.

We would 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 would 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 should 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 are face losses or significantly reduced profits as a result of foot and mouth.

We would compensate farmers for irrecoverable losses.

Under the current schemes farmers whose animals are compulsorily slaughtered in order to control the spread of foot and mouth, or those accepted into the Welfare Disposal Scheme, are compensated. This still leaves many farmers with healthy animals that they are unable to move or slaughter due to livestock restrictions who are not compensated but still face irrecoverable losses. For example the value of prime cattle that is not slaughtered before reaching thirty months collapses as it is no longer allowed to enter the human food chain.

The Government should be compensating these farmers who otherwise face the real prospect of going out of business. We accept that the cost would be high. But we are the middle of a national crisis and this would be a legitimate one off use of the reserve.

And we should be helping businesses retain laid off workers if they have a need for ad hoc labour during the crisis - for example to staff a wedding reception in a hotel otherwise closed due to the crisis.

The Government should issue guidance to ensure that Jobseekers' Agreements for people claiming benefit as a result of the crisis recognise the current exceptional circumstances. Short term work for a previous employer should be allowed to take precedence over any other work. People who have been temporarily laid off or placed on short time should be offered an extension to the 13-week period they can claim the Jobseekers' Allowance because they are willing and able to return immediately to the job they were doing before.

All of these measures would not end the crisis for our farmers and rural businesses. But they would help thousands of them to get through the worst effects of the crisis.

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 the rural economy is viable and can once again prosper. This is what we would do.

We would establish a National Gene Bank.

Hundreds of thousands of animals have already been slaughtered. Many more will be culled before the epidemic is over. Entire flocks and herds have been wiped out. Farmers are faced with the enormous problem of re-stocking. In the case of those with those with special breeds the problems are multiplied. So we should be bringing forward plans for a National Gene Bank so that breeders can re-establish bloodlines of specially bred livestock.

We must encourage small abattoirs to stay in business rather than be forcing them out of business.

The rate at which the disease has spread across the country might well have been increased as a result of animals having to travel longer distances to a smaller number of larger abattoirs. One person who wrote to me recently from Cumbria said that his local abattoir is sixty miles away on a poor quality road. Other local abattoirs, including his own, were closed due to too onerous EU regulations.

We should 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.

By introducing Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point and by reducing inspections to a frequency proportionate to risk, Meat Hygiene Service charges could be reduced. We should ensure sure that no region is without an abattoir to deal with cattle coming in under the over thirty month scheme.

We would seek to make imports of food conform to British standards.

It is ridiculous that we import meat that is produced to far lower hygiene standards than we insist on in Britain. We should be cracking down on substandard imports to strengthen our permanent defences against animal disease and give a fair deal to our farmers.

Conservatives have been arguing consistently for this. The next Conservative Government will take action to stop food imports that fall well below British standards.

We would campaign to promote domestic tourism that has been so badly affected by the epidemic.

If the crisis abates by the summer the main opportunity to attract back visitors to the countryside will come from domestic tourism and late summer bookings. The Scottish Tourist Board has been given a grant of £5 million by the Scottish Parliament and the Wales Tourist Board over £1 million by the Welsh Assembly for marketing campaigns to attract visitors. It is common sense that we should be removing the restrictions on the English Tourism Council that prevent it from playing a marketing role. We should be funding a marketing campaign to encourage people to visit rural areas where it is safe to do so.

We would campaign to attract back overseas visitors.

Tourism from overseas is worth around £13 billion to the British economy. The British Tourist Authority estimates that up to a fifth of that is at risk. There is no doubt that foot and mouth has distorted the image of Britain as a tourist destination especially in key markets such as the United States. We urgently need to correct these and to restore confidence in Britain as a place that is safe to visit. That is why we should be funding a campaign by the BTA to promote Britain's rural areas as being open for business once the current crisis is over.

For the longer-term viability of rural business we would offer permanent cuts in business rates.

Rural businesses are the lifeblood of small rural communities yet even before foot and mouth many of them faced a bleak and uncertain future. That is why, under our plans, businesses such as post offices, shops, garages, pubs and equestrian centres, will benefit from business rate reductions of up to £1,000 a year. The cost will be met by redirecting money from the budgets of Labour's Regional Development Agencies - Agencies that Conservatives will abolish.

One of Britain's greatest glories is its countryside. But that rural landscape is shaped as much by man as by nature. It consists of more than fields and forests, dales and moorlands. It is also a place of work, a place of small villages and market towns, a place of livelihoods and people's homes.

That countryside, and the people who live in it, are crying for help. We have a duty to respond - and respond quickly. That is what our Strategy for Recovery does. It gives farming a chance and our countryside a future. It is the Strategy for Recovery that contains the steps we believe the Government should take and which a Conservative Government would implement without delay."

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