Northern Ireland Assembly
Tuesday 1 May 2001
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr Molloy):
Go raibh maith agat, LeasCheann Comhairle. I beg to move
That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Finance and Personnel, the Executive and the Chancellor of the Exchequer to respond to the current crisis resulting from the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease by introducing a hardship relief package to reflect the fall in incomes being experienced, not only by farm- related businesses but also by businesses in the tourist industry.
First, I will explain the basis of the motion. The motion came about after a joint meeting of the Committees for Finance and Personnel and Enterprise, Trade and Investment. I welcome the cross-departmental Committee approach to the matter and hope that we will receive a cross-departmental response. It is important that we achieve joined-up Government on this issue.
The motion reflects a recognition of the major crisis in Northern Ireland as a result of foot-and-mouth disease. The two Committees have agreed to sponsor the motion, but I am speaking on a personal basis as a Member of the Assembly, not as the Chairperson of the Finance and Personnel Committee. I have had no direction from the Committee. My comments are my own recollections of the matter.
The motion calls on the Minister, the Executive and the Chancellor of the Exchequer to respond to the crisis by introducing a hardship relief package to reflect the fall in incomes. The crisis hit —
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The motion is clearly in the name of the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel. The Member now says that he is not speaking as Chairperson but rather on a personal basis. Either the Order Paper is wrong or something else is wrong. Will you give a ruling?
Madam Deputy Speaker:
The Member is moving the motion on behalf of the Committee of Finance and Personnel, and, in that capacity, he is moving the motion as Chairperson of that Committee.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I thought I heard the Member say that he did not have the permission of his Committee to speak as Chairperson. It is not an agreed response, and he is, therefore, putting forward his own personal view.
It is important to clarify to the House whether Mr Molloy’s remarks are supported by the weight of his Committee, or whether he is merely expressing his personal view.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
I would be grateful, Mr Molloy, if you would clarify that point before continuing.
A LeasCheann Chomhairle, I will explain my position in an attempt to avoid any problems later. I am proposing the motion as Chairperson of the Committee. I have the endorsement of both Committees. Having first proposed the motion, I went on to speak in my own capacity.
The motion calls for the Minister, the Executive and the Chancellor of the Exchequer to respond to the crisis by introducing a hardship relief package to reflect the fall in incomes. This crisis hit the farming community, particularly farmers, who have suffered severe hardship. We are all linked to that community, and the economy is strongly based on agriculture, therefore every aspect of life, particularly business life, is affected by this crisis. Farmers whose flocks have been destroyed have been compensated for their animals, but they have not been reimbursed to cover restocking and loss of income. They have nothing to sell at the end of the year, no ground to rent, and ground rents to pay. They face an uncertain future which, because of that uncertainty, the banks do not want to hear about.
All farmers are affected by the crisis, but they cannot get compensation to alleviate a number of those losses. For instance, sheep on common grazing ground cannot be turned out on that ground. Where should those sheep graze at present? Farmers do not know whether to sow fertilizer for future grazing — if they sow it but then cannot use the land, how are they to be compensated for that loss?
Culled sows cannot be exported to Germany at present, with the result that there is a build-up of stock on farms, thus leading to excessive bills for feed. Even if a farmer is eventually able to sell those animals, he will not have benefited from this delay. A mechanism is needed by which those animals can be culled and taken off the farms, thereby reducing the cost of keeping those animals alive.
These are the questions that farmers have been asking. These problems need to be responded to through a package. Farmers are also suffering the knock-on effects of the closure of the countryside. I do not refer solely to the closure of country walks, but to farm marts, which in some cases have been closed by the Department for ten weeks. These closures have been reinforced by the European Union. Marts are gaining no turnover because farmers are banned from using the facilities. The income of one mart has been reduced to 15% of an average year’s profit. There are no cattle or sheep sales, and no land lettings for those marts. The fact that people are unable to enter farms means that income cannot be generated from other sources, yet they still have to pay rates and other bills.
Over the last few years, farmers have been advised to diversify their activity by starting up farm businesses. I received a letter from the owners of a saddlery business, which has lost its normal turnover of £75,000 to £80,000 a year. This loss is a result of the cancellation of horse shows throughout Ireland and the restriction of other means by which the business can be carried out.
They are depending on the countryside and shows being opened up. Michael Meacher’s scheme for small firm loans does not affect them; they cannot access those loans. These people have no security; on paper they have no future, so the banks do not want to know.
School trips and tours to the countryside have all been cancelled. Various sections of the tourism industry have been closed down, so coach companies are operating about one third of their previous business. Open farms —
Mr C Wilson:
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is increasingly difficult for Members of this House to listen to the concern expressed by Mr Molloy and his Colleagues for the farming community. One considers vivid pictures of ladies having to guard their husbands and tractors as he and his Colleagues sought to murder them and put them out of business — to take their lives, never mind their livelihoods. It is nothing short of a disgrace.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
Order. As regards points of order, I will ask the Member to make reference to the Standing Order he invokes. Please continue, Mr Molloy.
Thank you, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Open farms have been closed down completely, therefore no income has been earned from them. Farm shops are closed. While they may have had a good start to the year, machinery businesses have now found that hire- purchase companies and lease companies are refusing to grant leases. That is because businesses have no money, no prospects of money coming in and, again, no security. Banks do not want to lend money, and in some quarters the farm businesses that are selling machinery and supplies to the industry have been closed down.
While hotels and bed-and-breakfast accommodation are still open and still have to pay their bills, they do not make any income, because tourists are not arriving in the numbers which had been expected. Tourist areas like the Glens and the Sperrins have been affected dramatically in that way. For these businesses, costs continue, but no income is being made.
Even in urban areas, shops have been affected. Farmers were part of that trade; they supported business and shops in small towns, but now they do not have the income. Business is affected, because farmers do not know where their future lies.
I certainly do not purport to have all the answers to this. However, I am sure that we will throw out many ideas in today’s debate. First, we must recognise that this is not just a crisis on the farm; this problem has a wider aspect to it. Our economy is based around agriculture, and while many full-time farmers derive their income totally from farming, many others are part-time farmers and in various jobs. They need farm business so as to support their families. They also need the support of the broader community.
We need to stimulate a cross-departmental response. It is for that reason that the motion calls for the Executive to produce a package which will actually respond to this catastrophe.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer must put that package of finances together. If we try to do it out of the grant under the Barnett formula, then it simply will not happen, as that grant will not provide sufficient funds. We need the Chancellor to open up the war chest and ensure that it is used now in a very productive way to alleviate the emergency in the farming and rural community. If we try to do it ourselves within the Barnett formula, we will extend the problem rather than alleviate it.
Social welfare is one area in which an immediate response can be initiated. In that respect, we need to take into account the prices for farmers but not the land that the farmers live on. In the past, farmland, machinery and assets were all taken into account before people were deemed entitled to benefit. In the circumstances, I hope that the Department for Social Development can actually set that aside for now and deal with this in a flexible and considered way. It must be taken into account that farmers are in crisis and do not normally go looking for social benefit. There is real fear in their community that they may be forced to sell their land, machinery and plant if they apply for benefits.
Rates rebate is one of the options that may come up in the package — a means of dealing with the crisis right away. If we use accelerated passage in the way that we have done for certain finance legislation, I am sure that there would be cross-community support to ensure that that happened quickly. Farmers are in a crisis. They have no money coming in, but the rate bills still come. It is not good enough to defer payment for three months. They will still have to pay the full bills over nine or ten months. Deferring payment will not help farmers or farm businesses, who will be forced to pay a high rate. We need to take into account the fact that there has been a reduction in income and turnover when calculating the rates and not deal with them as before.
The best way of alleviating the problem would be to give a direct grant. The Exchequer could put a direct-grant package together, payable to businesses across the spectrum that have lost income because of the crisis. They would have to provide proof that loss had been incurred, and their accounts could be used for this.
There should be a regeneration grant for farm businesses that are trying to restock and get going again to ensure that they will be able to do this. Farm businesses are affected in the same way as other businesses. The IDB and other agencies put packages together to try to attract businesses. Here we have businesses that are already part of the economy, and it is important to help them rebuild. They will, after all, be rebuilding the economy.
I urge the Minister and the Executive to put pressure on the Chancellor of the Exchequer to put such a financial package together. Others may have ideas about what to include in that package, but we need to recognise the urgency of this. It needs to happen right away. The situation cannot be allowed to linger, because the farming community will go under as a result of this crisis. It needs to be dealt with now.
I commend the motion to the Assembly.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
Given the large number of Members wishing to contribute to the debate, and the time available, I ask Members to restrict their contributions to five minutes.
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Sir Reg Empey):
Since we last addressed this issue the full extent of the hardship is beginning to emerge in surprising places. My office is currently dealing with between 40 and 50 cases of a variety of businesses that are suffering significant degrees of distress. The most obvious and urgent impact is primarily on the tourism industry. However, difficulties are also emerging in many consequential businesses. For example, the cancellation of agricultural shows has affected the suppliers of cups and rosettes and others who service these events. They have suddenly found their incomes completely obliterated. People who sell farm requisites such as barbed-wire fencing are also finding a sudden drop or cessation in their turnovers. The most obvious difficulties are in the tourism sector, where it is clear in many cases that there have been overall reductions. In other cases businesses have flatlined completely due to their proximity to agricultural land or a fishing estate.
As Members know, my Department has initiated, through the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, a recovery plan for tourism. This was an initial reaction to try to show that tourist facilities are open for business, provided people follow the guidelines set out by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. This reaction has taken place throughout the United Kingdom and in the Republic of Ireland as well. We see in today’s press that the Republic is also gearing up for similar types of activity.
Some local authorities and others are trying to fill the gap left by the cancellation of many major events. Attempts are being made in Coleraine to put a package together to compensate for the loss of the North West 200, which is the most obvious and serious cancellation. I support that. It is the right thing to do. Activities of that nature, provided they are focused on trying to get bed-nights and entertainment for local people, are to be welcomed.
We are naturally focusing on consequential compensation, which is understandable in the circumstances. It could be of assistance to many businesses. The major solution to this problem is not compensation — it is to get our visitors back. That is the main objective that we must set ourselves. Only when we get our visitors back will we be able to help those businesses in a meaningful and long-term way.
Our tourism throughput and revenue grew last year by approximately 11%. That followed a series of years during which growth was enjoyed. A significant amount of investment has been made by companies, bed-and- breakfast proprietors and chalet owners at the behest of, and with the assistance of, the Government.
It must be remembered that we have been appealing for farm diversification for years. People have heeded that advice and have diversified, in many cases, into resource-based and natural-based tourism and rural development, and public funds have been directed to assist that.
Over £200 million was spent in west Tyrone on rural development, creating just over 200 farm diversification schemes. Those schemes, because of their dependence on agriculture, are now under threat. I support the Minister’s point.
Sir Reg Empey:
I am grateful for the Member’s intervention. He has taken a keen interest in these matters.
We should not focus on compensation alone in this debate. The key issue is the long-term sustenance of businesses that will be achieved only when we get our visitors back.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee (Mr Neeson):
I was very impressed by the positive approach taken last week by the two Committees, as a result of which we are able to debate this realistic motion. Farming has been the focus of much of the attention in recent weeks, but given the Committee’s remit on tourism, I will deal with that.
The Committee met with the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation. The current forecast is of a 30% reduction in bookings for this season. The Chairperson will give other statistics. This crisis affects both urban and rural hotels. The federation was lobbying for VAT relief, but that will provide only short-term cash-flow relief. The more important matter, about which it has spoken to the Minister of Finance and Personnel, is rates relief.
I welcome the meeting that the Minister had last week with his tourism Colleagues from other parts of the United Kingdom. It is important that we act together as far as possible on this. I take on board the point that more people must be encouraged to visit our shores, and we will respond to that.
I want to emphasise the plight of the horse racing industry in Northern Ireland. I met with the officials of the Down Royal racecourse. They have not held a race meeting since last November, and this has led to job losses and financial difficulties. I hope that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development can provide some relief for them.
I appeal to the Executive to clarify the criteria for the return of horse racing to Northern Ireland. Will it be the case — as it was in the Republic of Ireland — that horse racing could recommence 30 days after the last outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease? We need clarification on that issue soon or there will be huge problems for the future of horse racing in Northern Ireland.
I was approached recently by coach operators throughout the Province. Many of them would normally be transporting schoolchildren to various events. However, this is not happening. They have no income but still have to pay for the maintenance of their buses. Some of them are very concerned about the attitude of the financial institutions in Northern Ireland towards the problems that they are facing. I plead with the Assembly for the Executive Committee, or another Assembly body, to meet with the banks in Northern Ireland to see whether something can be done to deal with the current crisis.
There have been substantial lay-offs in several areas of various industries that have been hit by the foot- and-mouth crisis. It would be helpful if we made a case to put to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. We should be quantifying the number of job losses that are taking place. This is important if we want to move forward on the issue.
I do not need to tell Members that foot- and-mouth disease is a common enemy and that every person in Northern Ireland has been affected in some way. The ordinary person in the street has been affected as well as those who work in farming and tourism. It is important now for everyone to stand shoulder to shoulder to combat the disastrous effect it has had on our economy.
This is the first crisis that we have faced as a new, devolved Government, and the way that we handle this matter will set a precedent for the way that we will deal with any future crises. The harsh reality is that no one knows, or can accurately predict, the long-term impact of foot-and-mouth disease or the outcome of the disaster. The real scale of the problem for the farming and tourism industries could be colossal, and it will have a ripple effect on a large number of businesses.
We must acknowledge that this is not only an economic issue — it is also an equality issue, and we must address it as such. One of the main problems is that we do not have a hardship fund here, and there is an immediate need to establish one as soon as possible. However, decisions such as how much money should be diverted into such a fund, and where that money should be diverted from, must be made sooner rather than later.
We do not want a knee-jerk reaction. We must be realistic, because we cannot wave a magic wand and hope that the problem will go away. There may be some short and medium-term remedies, but we have to look at the overall picture and study the long-term effects of foot-and-mouth disease on the community and the economy as a whole.
I am advocating prudence and foresight to ensure that Members try to deal with the issue as efficiently and effectively as possible. It is essential that the Assembly examine the cost implications of any scheme carefully, and it is important that there be solid cross-party support for the Executive’s developing an approach that meets the needs of those who are affected by the crisis. At the same time, the existing pressures in the various Departments must also be addressed.
All options must be clearly laid out, and they must be costed and realistic. Any approaches must clearly show how the Assembly intends to meet the cost implications across the board. Will the Assembly direct unallocated funds, or can it use end of year flexibility to meet the needs? These questions must be carefully considered and answered. The Assembly must also have a solution that will use any consequential funds from the Treasury as well as existing schemes in the various budgets that reach out to those most deeply affected.
Members must pull together to combat the hardship that has been caused by the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease and make hard decisions on how to finance it. Every Department must examine its budget to see what options are available. I have every confidence that with careful consideration all Members can contribute to the alleviation of the crisis.
The Chairperson of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee (Rev Dr Ian Paisley): Last Friday the Agriculture Committee met a deputation from the Northern Ireland Livestock Auctioneers’ Association. Twenty-four firms were represented who operate 30 livestock marts. They were led by the chairperson of the association. The marts have been closed down by law; they are not like any other part of the sad saga that is going on. They are not legally allowed to operate, so their losses cannot be described as consequential; their losses are a result of the law. I am not arguing that the law is not good or right. The auctioneers all agreed that this had to be done. The marts could not continue to operate as if nothing had happened — they had to close. However, the law closed them down, as a result of which the auctioneers went completely, totally and absolutely out of business. They voiced real concern about the fact that their colleagues in Scotland, whom they had met a couple of days before, had been told that £13·5 million has been set aside by the Scottish Parliament to deal with the foot-and-mouth crisis there.
Whether the Department’s actions in closing the marts were legal may be tested in the courts because of compensation claims. However, that is not what the Committee was discussing or that the auctioneers were advocating. The auctioneers need to get back in business as soon as they can. The losses caused to the marts are immediate and directly related to the movement ban and the closures. The chairperson of the association estimated that £1 million of income has been lost during what is normally the busiest and most profitable time of the year. However the marts still have to pay rates. The Committee heard of a bill of £36,600 for two marts. In some cases the marts must pay rent to local councils; they also have overdrafts to service and insurance bills to pay, and the list goes on and on. The marts have had to lay off some 400 full-and part-time staff, some of whom will be permanently lost to them. Redundancies are resulting in further costs to the marts.
The auctioneers are in dire financial straits, and members of the Agriculture Committee agree that they should be compensated. Members also shared the auctioneers’ concerns about the future of their sector, because their work comes from the stock market of the industry.
That is where prices are set; that is where the market can be examined and prices given in a competitive way. If that is taken away, there will no competitiveness left.
If the markets are closed it will strike a blow and sever an artery in the local community. In many places where the local mart was closed down there was devastation in the community — particularly in the business community of the town or village concerned.
Go raibh maith agat A LeasCheann Comhairle.
I welcome the opportunity given by the two Committees to debate this issue and to ask the Government to provide a relief package for all concerned. There are many people, across all areas, who are very severely affected by foot-and-mouth outbreaks. Many sectors are involved — some more than others. Entire businesses are affected, and there is a question mark over whether those businesses will have a future at all. That has to be taken into account.
Consequential losses are much more severe in some cases than in others. In particular, some people, including farmers and those who are involved with farming, have moved towards tourism as a way of increasing their income. That means of income has now been taken from them because of the foot-and-mouth situation. Some compensation should be given to those people. In particular, compensation should be given to businesses that have been almost completely closed, almost forced to close — in many instances, businesses have not been forced to close completely because they would have had to receive compensation.
The marts are a case in point. They were forced to close. They had no choice. They were not advised, as others were, and therefore they need particular compensation for their losses. They are still being asked to pay rates and cover costs, and they will be asked to increase the amount of measures to be put in place before they can reopen. That may mean that for some of the marts, particularly the smaller ones, it will not be economical to reopen. That will be a severe consequence of foot-and-mouth disease for many small communities.
Most marts, like cattle, are west of the Bann, so the impact of the foot-and-mouth crisis is greater there. Those farmers have been unable to sell their stock. They do not finish beef and, therefore, are not in a position to sell their stock directly to meat plants. Those farmers have not had an income for a very long time — since the crisis began — and they still do not know when they will be able to sell stock and get an income. What has been done with regard to farmers’ welfare and telling them how they can find other ways of earning an income in the meantime? A package to deal with those matters needs to be put in place, as well as some sort of compensation.
One of the things that has emerged from the crisis is the general public’s focus on farming and the countryside. Members of the public have given particular sympathy to farmers, both here and in Britain. They have had to look at the industry as they have never done before. It seems that what was happening in farming before the crisis began was of little consequence to those outside the industry. The crisis has had an impact on those sectors that are outside the farmgate, and people have had to listen and take note. They should take a greater interest in the quality of the food they eat and the future of the farming industry and also in what can be done to alleviate this problem and prevent it from happening again.
There are people involved in the food sector, in producing and processing food, who have lost severely as well, people, for instance, in the pork and bacon business who exported across the border. They were closed down at the beginning of this outbreak. They have been put totally out of business and may well not be able to start up again. I know of a number in the Fermanagh area, in Tyrone and in some of the border counties. Those people have suffered severely and have had no one to whom they can voice their concerns. They need to be looked at in particular by the IDB or anyone else who can possibly help them, because they are going to have severe difficulties in expanding their businesses.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
Butchers have also lost business, although one did say that his income had increased in recent months because people were somewhat afraid of the packages coming from further afield and the supermarkets.
Go raibh maith agat.
I am afraid that the Member’s time is up.
I support the motion. Over recent weeks, my Colleagues and I have highlighted with varying degrees of expertise and authority the dire consequences of foot- and-mouth disease on our farming, tourism and hospitality industries. We all know — indeed society at large is only too well aware — of the pervading consequences of the crisis for our entire economy.
With that said, I am sure that most of us here have been relatively fortunate and have had limited, if any, first-hand exposure to the detrimental effects of this virus. It is often from theoretical knowledge that we speak, and not from experience. That is why it is imperative that we all now get alongside those who have suffered during recent weeks, those who have suffered financial loss, hardship or even ruin, and those who, through no fault of their own, face economic, not to mention psychological, depression.
Many people — farmers, hoteliers, those in the tourism industry and small business proprietors — are experiencing very real pessimism. There are too many people in the doldrums of economic insecurity. That is why the time is right to show those who have been affected by foot-and-mouth disease that we support them in their hour of need. We are fortunate that with a devolved Administration we can do just that. We must all show solidarity with the people of this country who have been, and continue to be, affected.
It would be a tangible and beneficial gesture to give affected businesses financial relief measures. While such measures would be for discussion at the Executive and at central Government level and could include business rates relief, I strongly advocate that action be taken sooner rather than later. While a financial package of relief would not be a panacea for the mounting financial problems of the past two months, it would, at the very least, provide a financial kick-start to many affected businesses.
I support a compensation package that will be swift to emerge, cutting in its effectiveness and non- cumbersome in its delivery. I have spoken to many people from the farming community in my constituency of East Londonderry and to many in the tourism and hospitality sectors who were relying on the financial boost provided by a successful North West 200. These people have very real and immediate insecurities.
They, I and all those who have made sacrifices, big and small, can only view with horror and disgust the few, the greedy, the defrauders, the cheats and the liars who have put self first and their fellow citizens and neighbours last by flouting the law with illegal animal movements, fraudulent claims and lies. They are the guilty — guilty of dishonest practice. They have jeopardised the livelihoods of so many others. They deserve to be hounded by the law and condemned by every single person who has chosen the responsible course of action, frequently at personal inconvenience, financial loss or, indeed, ruin. Let us not forget those who are the heroes and those who are the villains of the foot-and-mouth crisis.
As the motion says, if there is to be a hardship relief package, let us not focus solely on those who have the wherewithal to make media headlines, but also on those who are quietly suffering and who might be anticipating a period of despair.
In conclusion, many voices are singing for financial assistance during this time of economic hardship. Each voice is worthy of being listened to — and must be listened to. We have a responsibility not only to hear the parts, but to realise the gravity of the tune they sing and to respond accordingly. I support the motion.
I too support the motion. The severe hardships of the agriculture industry — and farmers in particular — have already been well amplified. Against this background, many have reduced incomes, and many have no income. Those problems have occurred with increasing regularity.
As I am sure Members well remember, sheep farmers in my area have already endured serious hardship as a result of the ban on grazing in the Silent Valley catchment area. Can you imagine the hardship that those men and their families are now suffering? There is injustice in the fact that the infection was not actually caused by sheep but by infrastructural deficiency, despite attempts by departmental officials to cover this up. What has happened to all these people’s requests for compensation?
I am also struck by the position of the tourist and leisure industry. I am reminded of the great hardships they experienced over the last 30 years and their resilience and endurance when their businesses — which were often based in their own homes — were declared to be economic targets, attacked and often destroyed. They have had to battle against an increasingly bleak situation and negative publicity. Yet, in the Newcastle and Castlewellan area, which I represent — often described as the "jewel in the crown" of Northern Ireland’s tourist industry — some seaside hotels have, in the past, been forced to let their staff take summer holidays. This was because the hotel staff were so successful in mastering the conferencing trade that they could only take leave during the summer. Despite all those hardships, they succeeded. Those establishments now tell me that their business, in this present crisis, is being reduced by up to 70% in some weeks of operational business. There is a particular need to provide support for those people.
In my area — which, as I said, is a tourism area — there are many pony-trekking and horse riding centres. I can cite one example, which is very familiar to me, of a man who has worked for the last 30 years to build up his business. He now has 40 ponies for trekking, but he has not gained one shilling of income since the outbreak of this crisis. If anyone in the House knows what it costs to keep one horse for one week, he should have some idea of the plight of someone who has had to try to keep 40 horses for the last six or seven weeks without any income. Some people will have reduced income; some of the farmers who have suffered will even get compensation, but people in this type of situation receive no support — there is no hope. He will soon have to sell off everything and close the business after 30 years of hard work. If that is not a clear example of the need for consequential financial support to sustain such people, I do not know what is.
The responsibility to provide that falls on the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I know that our Minister of Finance and Personnel will make strong representations to ensure that we get the package of financial support that we need, and I was heartened to hear the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment correctly identify the support that we need to ensure that our businesses regain confidence.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
During the Easter recess, we were recalled to debate an issue that Members on the opposite side of the House said was not essential. However, they were able to turn out then and pack those Benches. It is a pity that the presence on those Benches today does not reflect the urgency of this issue.
We face a crisis. It is important that the Government demonstrate today that they will get a grip on that crisis and demonstrate that they have a way forward for the entire economy. In the early part of the crisis, policy was marked by confusion. One day it appeared that Northern Ireland was closed for business; the next the Executive launched a multi-million pound tourism initiative. The following day, a huge tourist event was cancelled, but events in other parts of Antrim were able to proceed. Nothing was done to stop a rave at Nutts Corner that attracted about 15,000 people. It is essential that such confusion be addressed.
The confusion was not just in Northern Ireland; there was confusion in the Isle of Man, England, Scotland and Wales. There has been no long-term planning for a disaster such as foot-and-mouth disease. The United States of America runs a foot-and-mouth disaster plan every year, and that disaster plan has proved successful; they have not had foot-and-mouth disease since 1926 or 1927. Our Government have been found wanting in their disaster planning. I hope that they will put a disaster planning strategy in place.
Members will agree with what Reg Empey said this morning. In the medium and long term, we must get visitors back to Northern Ireland. We must, however, ask the question that was raised by his statement: when the visitors come back — next year or later this year — will we have the facilities to cater for them? Many people feel that the problems that have affected the tourism industry and the catering trade could be long-term ones. It is up to the Government to produce a proper package of measures that will help us get over the crisis.
The cancellation of the North West 200 has cost north Antrim and east Londonderry about £6 million. If such an event were to have taken place in Belfast but had been cancelled, the loss — adjusted accordingly — would have been £50 million. Belfast could not sustain that financial loss, and my region should not be asked to sustain its loss without adequate compensation.
The information supplied in the first few days of the crisis was disappointing. Red tape still impedes many businesses. We must ensure that we ease the pressure on tourism and retail businesses in the most drastically affected areas. A regulated impact unit should make a snapshot study of what is happening, and the Government should implement the findings of that study. I hope that the Minister will consider that.
Shops, restaurants, hostels, hotels, and bed-and- breakfast businesses cannot see any light at the end of the tunnel. The Government must throw them something to show that there is going to be light at the end of the tunnel. A massive tourism and business drive must be initiated, and I welcome some measures that have been taken. I hope that the Government address the insurance premiums which these businesses have to pay, additional rates relief and other imaginative programmes to help businesses get out of the problems they face.
In conclusion, we need stopgap compensation for regions already hit by the consequences of foot-and- mouth disease. My region in Moyle depends on seasonal employment. That has gone for good this year, and what is the Government going to put in its place?