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Mr. Edwards: I am grateful for that comment. I asked that question of the 300 farmers I met, and a high

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proportion had not received payments due from last September. That is a matter to which my hon. Friend the Minister should give his attention.

It is important to recognise that although the beef sector has been especially hard hit by the crisis, other sectors of agriculture, including the sheep, dairy and arable sectors, are also affected. I have had meetings in my constituency with the National Farmers Union and the Farmers Union of Wales and with large groups of farmers. I have encouraged farmers to write letters and I am grateful for the briefing material I have received. The evidence is clear and has already been outlined by the right hon. Member for Caernarfon: farm incomes have declined by47 per cent., and the NFU estimates that they are set to fall by a further 45 per cent. this year compared with 1996.

Many farmers have written to me setting out the facts. According to one farmer, cattle that he offered for sale in Monmouth were priced at £350--a deficit of £170 per beast compared to pre-March 1996 prices. Another farmer from Croesyceiliog sums up the situation, saying:

It is my duty to convey that message on behalf of my constituents. At the Abergavenny meeting, one farmer comically announced that, paradoxically, his herd would be worth far more if it had BSE than it is currently worth BSE free. That is a perverse situation and we must seriously address those problems.

The key issues involved in the crisis have already been highlighted: the effect of the high pound making beef imported from European Union and non-EU countries cheaper; the substandard quality of some imported beef, especially beef over 30 months and cow beef; and higher standards being employed in Britain than in other countries. It is amazing that, although countries such as Botswana, Mauritius, Namibia, Paraguay, Poland, South Africa, Swaziland, Uruguay and Zimbabwe may operate far less stringent controls, their meat is imported into this country, while beef produced to high standards here cannot be exported.

If British consumers knew that beef over 30 months old was being imported from those countries they would rightly be outraged. Farmers are right to point out that while the highest standards apply in Britain to eliminate BSE, there is no assurance that countries such as Namibia, Swaziland and Botswana are free of BSE. The matter needs urgent consideration.

How can consumers know what they are buying when there is such inadequate labelling? Surely it is time for the country of origin to be advertised so that the consumer can make an informed choice. As I said to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food recently, if it is possible for the consumer to know the country of origin of every bottle of wine that they buy, why can they not know the country of origin of every joint of meat that they buy?

I should like to highlight a local supermarket in my constituency, Waitrose in Monmouth, which clearly states that all its fresh beef is British. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about its lamb, which seems to come predominantly from New Zealand. There is concern among farmers in my area that, apparently, lamb over the

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age of six months is now regarded as mutton, which affects the purchasing policy of supermarkets such as Waitrose. I should like more clarification on the matter and I hope that we shall seek it from the supermarkets.

I commend some of the statements that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has made recently. I commend his unilateral decision on certain beef imports that are not up to British standards. I also commend the £12 million package for Welsh farmers which he announced in his statement in December. That was rather more than I had feared it might be, but not as much as I had hoped for. I welcome the support for the suckler cow sector, which will benefit farmers in my constituency. I also welcome the hill livestock compensatory allowance payments, although they will have less effect in my constituency which is largely lowland. To its credit, Monmouthshire county council has announced that only British beef will be used in its schools and other establishments. It has provided a standard which other public bodies should at least follow.

There is a need for both a short-term and a long-term strategy to restore confidence in the beef market. I hope that Ministers will re-examine the further availability of agri-monetary compensation from the EU. Other countries draw on that fund and it will be important that British farmers are also able to claim their entitlement. We have been asked whether Ministers can review the over-30-months scheme and the weight limit which has been imposed. We have also urged Ministers to look seriously at the issue of labelling.

In addition to a short-term strategy, there must be a long-term strategy, which the industry has lacked. The Government are undertaking a strategic defence review; surely it would be possible to have a strategic agricultural review. It is vital that agriculture has a long-term business plan with a clear role for the Government. There must be clear, long-term agricultural objectives for the Government and the Welsh Office. Clearly, the Welsh Assembly will have implications for the future planning of agriculture.

We need clear, reliable data for long-term planning. We need reform of the common agricultural policy so that it distributes resources more equitably and supports the vital environmental role provided by farmers. I commend the agri-environmental scheme that we have in Wales. It will have to be developed further, and I hope that farmers in Monmouthshire will be able to take advantage of it and see that, in future, that is how they will play their vital role in maintaining the outstanding environment in Monmouthshire and Wales.

We need to consider the assessment of the impact of the negotiations on the general agreement on tariffs and trade. There should also be an assessment of EU developments on the single currency and its impact on farming.

I was impressed by a statement from the president of the National Farmers Union, Sir David Naish, which set out long-term objectives for the industry. Those objectives include producing the bulk of Britain's food supplies and creating an internationally competitive industry in Europe and the world that contributes to the maintenance of the countryside and landscape, plays a full part in Britain's rural economy and provides safe food through responsible and sustainable methods. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Minister is making a statement this

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afternoon announcing the establishment of a Food Standards Agency. The measure is long overdue and I am sure that it will be commended. I look forward to hearing that statement.

Farmers devote a lifetime to producing food for our people. They deserve a secure future, but can have one only if there is a clear, long-term strategy for the industry. I have focused on the crisis facing agriculture in Monmouthshire, but it is a matter of concern, not just to the farmers but to all those involved with the rural economy.

The decline in incomes in farming will have a multiplier effect which will have a serious impact on a wide range of farming-related industries, including feed suppliers, farm machinery suppliers, rural retailers and the banks. I shall be meeting ancillary farm workers on Saturday to discuss the concerns that they have as a result of the crisis.

The loss of those industries and skills would have a catastrophic effect in my constituency and throughout Wales. I urge the Government to respond effectively and immediately to the crisis facing agriculture. If they do not, the impact on agriculture, the rural economy and the environment will be devastating.

10.5 am

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): If I were a farmer now, I would be asking, "What have I had done to deserve this?" What crime has agriculture committed that has caused it to be punished so intensely and persistently as to drive individuals out of the business? What other industry would be expected to deal with such deflation in its income at a time when the certainty of its products being sold within the domestic market cannot be assured?

The beef crisis is not of the industry's own making. Government policy led to BSE, yet farmers are increasingly expected to pick up the tab. The export problems are exacerbated by the amazing and depressing fact that while, in the past, sheep prices often compensated for a decline in beef prices, at present, both prices are depressed in an unrealistic and unsustainable way.

We have already heard talk about the overdue payments. It is simply not acceptable at a time when all farmers are expected to bear the burden of the increasing costs to expect them to wait for what meagre subsidy they have been promised. For example, the persistent expectation that meat hygiene costs must be borne by the producers puts an unacceptable burden on producers who have tried hard to protect their industry.

Mr. Livsey: Will my hon. Friend also note the impact of charges on butchers who have abattoirs on their premises? There are two in my constituency, Mr. Eddie Thomas and Mr. Brian George, who are being charged £98 per day and £15.74 per hour. They are paying inspectors £200 a day when the farmers themselves are earning only £10,000 a year, if that--owing to the current prices, they are now on much lower incomes. Does my hon. Friend agree that something has to be done or those small butchers will go out of business?

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