Haskins Report

Commons Hansard
22 Jan 2002

10.33 pm

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I am pleased to have secured this debate, although I do not think that the ballot has been particularly kind to me. I first applied in November, and my speech has therefore had to be changed somewhat.

I want to examine the context of the Haskins report, and why it was necessary. I shall concentrate on Cumbria, because I know the area well, and especially on the outbreak of foot and mouth.

In February 2001, the world as we know it in Cumbria was turned upside down. Services were totally disrupted, there was despair in many parts of the county, and our economy was in a serious state. By July this year the foot and mouth epidemic had started to slow down - we were getting on top of it - but well over 40 per cent. of foot and mouth cases in the United Kingdom were in Cumbria. We had to work out how we were to survive the next 12 months, and how the county's economy could be rebuilt.

A meeting was held in July near Bassenthwaite lake, which I attended, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham), at which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was pressed by local members of the National Farmers Union to appoint what they called a chief executive to oversee the recovery of the economy in Cumbria. I was pleased when my right hon. Friend suggested Lord Haskins for the job, as I had previously proposed him to my right hon. Friend. More importantly, I was pleased because Lord Haskins had experience as the owner of a large farm in east Yorkshire, and of leading a large, national food company. He was known for his no-nonsense approach and straight talking.

Lord Haskins was appointed and he got on with the job. I want to place on record my thanks to him, and those of the people of Cumbria for taking on a job that was not easy. He was not paid and, at the beginning, the job interfered with his holidays. It gave him many sleepless nights, but not only did he visit Cumbria many times; he also went to the west country and to Northumbria.

Lord Haskins produced the report in record time. He was appointed at the end of July, and the report came out in October. It identified Cumbria's short-term problems, and offered a forecast of the situation in the county over the next five years. Haskins made 12 recommendations for the short term, and the Government responded in December - again in record time, given that the report had only been published in October. The Government accepted most of Haskins recommendations, and they are now being implemented. However, I want to bring two issues to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister.

The first has to do with footpaths. The Haskins report stated that all footpaths in Cumbria should be declared open by Christmas, as they are so important for the tourist industry. The good news that Cumbria is free of foot and mouth is contradicted by the bad news that nearly 10 per cent. of our footpaths remain closed. People do not understand that, and think that all the footpaths are open. However, I believe that it will be May before the final few footpaths are opened. I ask that my right hon. Friend looks at that, with a view to speeding up the reopening.

On Saturday, I addressed the annual meeting of the Ramblers Association at a venue in the lake district. The association's members are very worried about the matter. They are also well aware that, until the foot and mouth epidemic closed all the footpaths, walkers in Cumbria and throughout the land were looked on as a bit of a nuisance. The economic effect of footpath closures has been felt in all rural areas, and especially in those sparsely populated areas where the economy depends on people who go walking. One positive thing that came out of the meeting was that the association was going to develop a closer relationship with the tourist industry, with a view to developing more rights of way.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Will he join me in condemning P & O, which sought to exploit the foot and mouth epidemic? The right of way through Larne harbour was closed as a result of the foot and mouth restrictions. They have been lifted, but the company refuses to open the gate and restore access.

Mr. Martlew: I condemn anyone who keeps a right of way closed. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister will reply to that point.

Lord Haskins said that in the short term, £40 million was required. In her statement last October, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to £24 million but hoped that more would become available. Of the original £40 million, £20 million was supposed to go to Cumbria. I checked with Cumbria business link today and understand that it has received £17 million. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will find the other £3 million. Many people who applied for grants will have received them but others could lose out.

The Government have put about £1 billion into Cumbria. If the cost of the outbreak was £2.7 billion and more than 40 per cent. of it occurred in the county, £1 billion has gone into the local economy. Much of that will be lost when farmers buy stock outside Cumbria but that £1 billion has done a great deal. From February to September, unemployment in Cumbria dropped by 1,500. I have checked with the Library and jobless figures have dropped in every area in which there was foot and mouth, including Northumbria. Money going into the local economy has stopped the county's so-called economic meltdown.

Opposition Members said that there would be a major recession, and there was one estimate that 15,000 jobs were at risk. Fortunately, both predictions proved wrong. However, it is no consolation to people who have lost their jobs that others have not - and businesses have gone bankrupt. Some people, through no fault of their own, have not received compensation and their businesses will not survive - but the money put in by the Government will ensure a better economy next year.

Foot and mouth had not only an economic but an emotional impact - especially on farmers. Lord Haskins said that farmers generally were fairly compensated and that some were generously compensated. However, for farming families that had bred livestock for generations and saw it destroyed in not the best of circumstances, there was an emotional price to pay. Farmers whose animals did not get the disease but whose stock could not be moved and who found themselves isolated suffered the worst economically.

The NFU report was critical of the Government, as I can be because I refuse to defend the way in which they dealt with the disease in the first instance. The problem is that according to the NFU report, not one farmer in any part of the country was to blame for anything - not even the farmer at Heddon-on-the-Wall, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson). The report says that everything was the fault of the Government, the vets or the agencies - which is wrong. The NFU vacillated as much with regard to vaccination as the Government did, and the report shows that it is still doing so. I hope that the NFU will hold a small-scale inquiry into lessons to be learned by its own organisation.

Before I discuss the mid-term proposals of Lord Haskins' report, I should like to draw attention to two issues. The first is a very local issue that concerns the villagers of Great Orton, a village that became famous for all the wrong reasons. It has on its doorstep the mass animal burial ground, where 500,000 animals are buried. Those people have probably suffered more than the villagers of any village in the country. They saw the slaughter taking place. Heavy vehicles went by 24 hours a day, passing the school. The villagers saw their village on television.

The villagers attended a meeting with an official from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and asked for some money for a play area for the children, as partial compensation for the fact that they had had to suffer so much. Obviously, DEFRA does not have money for play areas, as I am sure my right hon. Friend will acknowledge, but will he join me today in asking that some of the money that DEFRA paid in the landfill tax for the Hespin Wood site, which has gone into the community landfill tax trust, be spent on a play area? I understand that DEFRA may have paid £20 million to dispose of beasts on that site. The county council, which owns the company, will probably make twice as much profit as it cost it to fight foot and mouth. I ask the Minister to support me in asking that the landfill tax trust in my area pay for that playground. It would be only just.

I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) in his place. The second subject that I wish to draw attention to is the problem of moving sheep around the country and identifying where they are. There has to be an identification system, whether electronic tagging of individual sheep or identification by flock. We need an office to run that system. We have a record in Cumbria of being able to carry out such tasks. In Workington we have the cattle movement centre, so if a site is to be selected to administer the movement of sheep it should be in north Cumbria.

I shall now discuss the medium-term recommendations. There was a belief in Cumbria that, because we now had all these empty fields, this was an opportunity, although a sad one, to transform farming there. In reality, that was never going to be the case. Cumbrian farming is back in business. Farmers are starting to re-stock. Some farmers will not return to farming. We shall have bigger dairy farms and perhaps fewer sheep. As I believe Lord Haskins said, if we can change the common agricultural policy we can perhaps look at Cumbria as a test bed, but until then we shall have to go back to our bad old ways. We should have spotted that at the start.

The Minister has agreed to the recommendation for a rural action zone in Cumbria, and the regional development agency is providing £75 million. I should have been happier if it had been a Cumbria action zone, because I am worried that some of the priorities in the county may be skewed. There is some deprivation in my constituency, in the urban area, and on the west coast. In the past year on the Furness peninsula there has been heavy industrial decline and job losses. I hope that priorities will not be skewed.

A recent example that has nothing to do with the rural action zone concerns subsidy. The Government have given more money for rural buses; I agree with that policy totally. However, in Carlisle, Stagecoach has decided to cut the frequency of the urban service and transfer the buses to the rural area to chase the subsidy, creating a worse situation in the urban area. Of course, the reality is that the company should have put extra buses on and run the service, but they have not done so.

The Government did not handle the foot and mouth crisis very well, and I hope that the Minister will not try to defend that today. However, the county's economy has benefited from the £1 billion that has been provided, and the predicted meltdown has not happened. We will have a problem this winter, but if businesses, especially tourism businesses, can be helped to get through the winter, many of them will survive. Again, Lord Haskins looked at what was happening and reached a realistic view. His report is excellent, and I am pleased that the Government have accepted the majority of its findings.

10.50 p.m.

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) on initiating the debate. He may have had to wait some time to speak on this topic in the House, but I congratulate him on his timing - he has introduced the debate on the day on which we have received the news of foot and mouth disease-free status, which is a big boost for everyone in this country. Indeed, this is a day on which we can really concentrate on looking forwards rather than backwards. That is not only good for farming, for tourism and for all of us who want the countryside to get back to normal and make a contribution to the national economy: it is good in so far as it helps to restore a sense of confidence in the communities that have been devastated during the past year. My hon. Friend's timing is brilliant, and he has initiated a useful debate in a positive way and raised some important issues that challenge the Government and all those who wish to see the economy recover.

I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham), to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle referred. Both my hon. Friends have been assiduous in ensuring that the Government have not overlooked the needs not only of their constituencies but of the whole area in recent months.

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle in paying tribute to Lord Haskins, and I have the same view of the contribution that he has made. Lord Haskins has a capacity to challenge, to entertain and to apply common sense and experience in a practical way. It is fair to say that, on occasions, he challenged in a way that sparked vigorous debate, but it shows the character of the man that he did so without giving offence. He woke people up and made them respond to challenges, but, as my hon. Friend has said, it was clear from talking to people in Cumbria - I did so myself - after Lord Haskins had reported, that they had taken to heart the things that he said and did not feel hurt by or take offence at opinions that perhaps they did not share locally. That is a practical approach.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle said, the report applied primarily to those in Cumbria to whose request for someone to have such a role Lord Haskins's appointment was a response. However, Lord Haskins also looked for parallels with Devon, the North-East and the other parts of the country that had been affected.

The report was published on the same day in October as the report of the rural taskforce, which I have chaired since the election. That, too, made a significant contribution because there were so many stakeholders right across the piece - people involved in farming, local government and the tourism industry and people directly involved in Cumbria and Devon made a significant contribution to its work.

As my hon. Friend said, we made a formal response in December and at the same time considered the way in which the rural White Paper had been implemented in England in the previous 12 months. The document "England's Rural Future" demonstrates that an awful lot of work had been done even when everyone was focused on the job of eradicating foot and mouth disease. In many ways, the agenda of bringing the issue of the response to foot and mouth disease together with that of the implementation of the rural White Paper received support from a whole range of organisations. The document also demonstrates that the Government have sought to bring people together and unify them behind a sense of purpose in dealing with the countryside, which had been neglected for many years.

The response given in December built on the immediate response that was made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in announcing an additional £24 million for the business recovery fund. That figure has gone up a bit in the meantime as we have announced a further £2 million in match funding for the voluntary sector scheme that has assisted with the stress and media problems that many people have experienced.

My hon. Friend made a specific suggestion about the landfill tax. He is right to suggest that we consider how the streams of funding that are available can contribute to the restoration of the local economy. I am not able to comment on his specific suggestion, but I will consider it and write to him. Specific requirements are involved in using such streams of funding, but the question is whether the funding available for a variety of purposes can be targeted at the place where it is most needed. None the less, my hon. Friend is right given our priorities at present.

My hon. Friend also referred to the importance of reform of the common agricultural policy. People increasingly recognise that that is necessary, and it would be good for everyone if reform happened sooner rather than later.

I pay tribute to the way in which people in Cumbria have united to look to the future. The members of the taskforce whom I met last week were joined by representatives of the regional development agency. That is an important partnership because we channelled resources to help the recovery of the economy through the RDAs. The members of the taskforce also brought with them representatives of the taskforces led by Cheshire and Lancashire county councils, and that demonstrates that people in Cumbria are looking out from their concerns to the wider needs of the region. It is easier to be sympathetic to people's arguments when one sees them working together with other organisations in that way.

My hon. Friend rightly said that I have expressed our support for the rural action zone. I can respond positively to his point on that, because it would be wrong to skew finances away from the social needs of the deprived areas and more needy urban areas to which he referred. It is more a question of using the resources that are available and directing them to where they are needed. We can also help to build strength by uniting different strands of finance and by local authorities, RDAs and central Government working together.

Often, money is available for a whole range of purposes - such as through the England rural development programme and the RDAs - but it is not used to best effect unless people have access to those funds. Very often the people who most need help - both farmers and non-farmers - are in the weakest position when it comes to identifying the right strand of finance to help their business.

On access, the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) asked a question about P & 0. I am not familiar with the circumstances, and I do not wish to take time from addressing the problems of Cumbria. However, if he wishes to draw the facts to my attention, I will be pleased to consider the matter and respond as appropriate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle rightly said that 10 per cent. of footpaths are closed. Like any quantification, the figure can be looked at either as 10 per cent. closed or as 90 per cent. open. Progress is being made on that. Although 10 per cent. - some 755 footpaths - of the network remains closed, arrangements are in place to open 438 of those over the next two weeks. By 1 February, only 317 footpaths should be still closed, which is 4 per cent. of the total network. So 96 per cent. of the network should be open by then.

There is a difficult issue to address. Remaining footpaths will be reopened as restrictions are lifted, but if farmers choose not to use sentinel animals prior to restocking at the end of January, the last footpaths should be reopened after the requisite fallow period of four months, which is towards the end of May. In the meantime, if it is possible to identify that a farm is significantly blocking the network - obviously, some footpaths are more important than others - we need to consider ways of diverting footpaths, on a voluntary basis, in the short term.

Although that has to be achieved by agreement, the problem was raised when I met the taskforce last week. I suggested that Cumbria should consider the details on that with officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, concentrating in particular on footpaths that have a significance for wider access or if they block access to a specific part of the network. Although that is detailed, there was a positive response in the discussion and my Department will try to help if it can.

In conjunction with all those who are concerned about access to the countryside - this is not a top-down approach by the Government - we are also developing a campaign with the message, "It's your countryside; you're welcome in it," to reconnect in particular with urban dwellers. We want people to have opportunities to enjoy the benefits of the countryside by staying in it. That also contributes to the economy, which is significant not just for the lake district but for the towns around it, because there is an interdependence of town and country. We need to emphasise that and relearn it.

I am pleased at the positive response from those people who have agreed to be partners in that campaign. We have worked closely with my hon. Friend the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting. The Countryside Agency has joined DEFRA in providing resources and has seconded a senior member of staff who is involved in helping to co-ordinate and press that campaign forward. In the course of the next week or so, we will promote that campaign. The Government are not acting on their own; we are supporting and working with those who want to make our tourism industry a success by making the most of access to the countryside. That gives confidence back to rural communities and businesses, whether they be farmers, involved in tourism or, in some case, both -

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

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On behalf of Eric Martlew, 3 Chatsworth Square Carlisle Cumbria CA1 1HB