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Tuesday, 29 May, 2001, 19:44 GMT 20:44 UK

Leaders' rural concerns

The devastation caused by foot-and-mouth disease may no longer be topping the news agenda but its impact is still being felt by the rural community.

The BBC's Sarah Mukherjee interviewed three party leaders to find out how they stand on the issues affecting ordinary rural people.

Why did the protestor throw the egg? In the days since the now infamous contretemps between John Prescott and a member of the public in Rhyl, almost every aspect of the incident has been analysed.

Mr Prescott's reaction, the punch, the protester's hairstyle - everything, that is, except the reason given by Mr Evans, the egg-thrower in question, for his lob.

He wanted, he said, to protest about the problems of life in the countryside.

And many people who live in rural areas, while not sanctioning Mr Evans' tactics, would agree rural affairs have been the forgotten issue in this election.

"Once Tony Blair had that press conference to tell us foot and mouth disease was under control, that was it," said one farmer.

"The national media was bored rigid after reporting on foot-and-mouth for weeks, and so were all too happy to launch into an election campaign. But for us, the devastation is as bad as it ever was."

The party leaders' responses are perhaps predictable: Tony Blair says the government's providing hundreds of millions of pounds of assistance for businesses in the worst affected areas.

And William Hague and Charles Kennedy say foot-and-mouth is by no means over, the crisis has not been handled well by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food [Maff] and more needs to be done to eradicate the disease and help those still suffering.

Each of the three parties makes significant mention of rural affairs in their manifestos, and interestingly do not vary wildly in their approaches.

All three want to see reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, but enlargement of the European Union means that this is pretty inevitable in the medium term, whoever wins the election.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats are promising a Department of Rural Affairs - with the Lib Dems pledging to abolish Maff into bargain.

It is in the detail that the parties diverge - the Tories would cut business rates for rural shops, pubs, garages and post offices.

Labour says it will commit 100m of public and private funding to the renewal of market towns and the Lib Dems say they'll promote community banking and credit unions to tackle financial exclusion in rural areas.

Interesting policies - but often it's all to difficult for the public to discuss them with the big cheeses face to face.

Political parties like to target marginal seats during an election campaign, but the uncommitted voter wishing to access the party leaders during these events would have to be very committed indeed.

First they would have to battle through the phalanx of party faithful as well as the inner circle of the press pack - on a permanent short fuse.

But there have been countryside people who have managed to tell their stories to the politicians during this campaign.

They include the no-nonsense West Country livestock farmer, weeping silently as she relived the day her animals were culled and the bed-and-breakfast owner near the most recent foot-and-mouth outbreak in Settle, looking forward not to a summer full of Dales-walking tourists, but an autumn of possible bankruptcy.

In reality, there will always be issues like education and the health service which will take precedence during an election because they affect everyone, rural and urban.

But whoever is in power on 8 June, many people living in countryside communities are hoping the forgotten issue of the election won't turn into the forgotten issue of the next term.

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