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Mr. Öpik: My hon. Friend makes a good point and it serves to highlight the fact that we are discussing not

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simply the depression of incomes but the survival of those small butchers and small abattoirs. Mr. Hamer, an abattoir owner in my constituency, told me:

    "Due to the strength of the pound we cannot export effectively . . . Therefore the only way this charge . . . can go is back down the line to the producer. Now given that the producer's returns are so very low, this further £3.50 is going to cause considerable damage to the rural economy and obviously to this industry".

With such onslaughts, it is amazing that the rural economies of Britain--in England, Scotland and Wales--can survive.

In addition, there is uncertainty, with no clear guidance as to the extent and nature of the common agricultural policy reforms. Perhaps most depressing, as the right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) said, is the amount of foreign imports that are coming into this country and undermining the one market--the domestic market--on which British producers should be able to depend.

Before Christmas, I visited a hospital where the staff were upset by the fact that they were obliged to serve Argentine beef, New Zealand lamb, French chicken and Danish pork to their patients. It is ironic that, although we can now safely claim that British produce is the safest in the world, our hospital patients and the customers of other public outlets are served imports of more dubious quality.

The consequences, in addition to the general decline of UK agriculture, are obvious: the disintegration of the smallholding structure that serves to prop up rural life in mid-Wales as we know it; the stress on family farms; and the fact that many children on family farms are seriously considering leaving the agricultural world altogether to find a safer and more profitable existence in some other walk of life.

The Government may have forgotten that farmers are not simply breadwinners but guardians of the countryside. The countryside that so many city folk love to visit is protected and nurtured by people who are trying hard to make a living in the process of looking after that countryside.

One consequence that has not been mentioned is rural stress. Rural stress and stress-related illness are at record highs in the countryside; suicides among farmers are at an alarming level. Some statistics suggest that farmers are more at risk for suicide than any other professional group in the United Kingdom.

It is fairly obvious what action we must take. First, it would greatly reassure farmers if they received from the Government not just words of sympathy but real financial support. It is merely a tactical excuse to say that BSE has cost too much. The farmers know that it is expensive, but they depend on the Government to provide serious economic support to ensure that we weather this crisis without the wholesale collapse of the networks that provide for rural life in mid-Wales and throughout the UK.

Secondly, as the right hon. Member for Caernarfon said, we need to be told clearly when we may expect a comprehensive lifting of the export ban. I agree that Northern Ireland is in an excellent position to act as a precedent for a phased lifting of the ban. There is no logical reason why Ulster beef should not be allowed into the European market, and there is no logical reason why that lifting should not form part of a phased lifting of the ban throughout the UK.

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Thirdly, as the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards) lucidly argued, we must end the nonsense of unclear labelling. When a consumer picks up a package of meat, he or she must be able to tell from the label exactly where the beef, lamb or whatever was reared as well as packaged.

Fourthly, we must provide hope to family farms and smallholdings. That requires financial expenditure, but--equally important--it requires a clear strategic statement by the Government so that people on those farms, many of whom are being snowed under by bills that they cannot afford to pay, have some understanding of where the Government intend to lead them.

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman twice mentioned financial support. How much financial support, on both counts, would he provide if he were the Government today?

Mr. Öpik: I believe that the points on financial support have been clearly made by the right hon. Member for Caernarfon, but I emphasise that the important point is a strategic commitment to support the countryside. I shall not start throwing statistics around in a cat and mouse game, because I believe--and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree--that this issue transcends party politics. We must provide the people of the countryside with the assurance that we really have a Government who want to create one nation of the countryside and the cities, rather than two nations where the interests of the countryside play second fiddle to those of the city.

I make a heartfelt request that the Government really listen to the advice of those who live and work in the countryside when they represent our interests in Europe. In fairness, there is evidence that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is fighting his corner in trying to lift the export ban, but--as many of us have said and will continue to say--money is available that has not been accessed to try to support economically those who have suffered so much as a result of BSE and the strong pound.

The crisis in agriculture is not the farmers' doing. It is a crisis of the countryside, caused simply by the failure of Governments. I do not specifically blame the current Government, but I would point the finger at the previous Government, who failed to act in a way that preserved the economic sustainability of many farms on which we depend for our rural prosperity.

All farmers ask for is a level playing field. All they want is the knowledge that the Government will back them in their efforts to preserve the country life that has been so important for very many generations.

As a final plea, I ask the Minister for reassurance that there is an opportunity for open dialogue between the Farmers Union of Wales, the National Farmers Union in Wales and the Government, and that the Government are willing to listen to creative solutions and creative ideas from those who have made it their life's business to look after the countryside. With such dialogue, there may be a glimmer of hope that we can make genuine progress in a partnership that will secure the interests of those farmers in dire financial crisis in the short term, and the interests of the countryside that we all love in the long term, in Wales and throughout the United Kingdom.

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10.16 am

Mr. Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) on securing this important debate, on a subject which will affect thousands of people in Wales.

The crisis in Welsh farming has a knock-on effect not only in the farming community but throughout the rural community and in many related industries. Before Christmas, I met a delegation of about eight workers involved in the ancillary industries, such as feedstuffs, farm machinery, ironmongery and fencing, and in the abattoir and processing industries. I saw the desperation in their eyes and heard the desperation in their voices. They are in crisis; they need help. They should get help from all quarters--from the Government, from the supermarkets and from the general public. We each have a role to play.

After the meeting in December, I promised to write to the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, pleading the case for the wider Welsh farming industry. I promised to write to all the national supermarkets in the United Kingdom--seven or eight of them--and I have had some encouraging responses from some, such as Kwik Save and Iceland. Kwik Save and Iceland are both based in Wales; in fact, Iceland was started by Albert Gubay in my home town of Rhyl. Both those supermarket chains have promised to act positively to help the Welsh farming community.

I also received an encouraging response from Tesco, which is aware of the crisis and has said that it will send one of its top executives to north Wales to listen to the problem. I hope that the right hon. Member for Caernarfon will join me on that visit, and perhaps we can get a delegation of Welsh farmers and the Welsh farming community there to plead our case. We should hold up those positive responses from some supermarket chains as an example to the others, and ask them how they intend to act. Most supermarkets wrote back to say that they were aware of the crisis and were doing this or that--but that is not enough: more can be done.

We need also to look at innovative ways of promoting Welsh farm produce. I ask the Minister to consider the American phenomenon known as farmers markets. They started in California because the farming community there was in crisis. The supermarkets were using their strong position to minimise farmers' profits. So the farming unions asked the supermarkets whether, for one or two days a week, they could use their grounds to sell their produce direct to the consumer, thereby cutting out the middle man. It was a great success, and it has since spread across the whole of America. The idea is going from strength to strength, and we could learn from that. I believe that there is only one pilot project of this type in the whole UK, in Bath. I urge the Minister to establish a pilot scheme for farmers markets in Wales.

The Government have thus far played an important role, and I shall continue to pressurise Ministers to plead the case for Welsh farmers. Some county councils are playing their part, but more pressure needs to be brought to bear to ensure that councils and LEAs buy Welsh meat. Some hospitals are playing their part, too. My hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) has recounted how Ysbyty Glan Clwyd in my constituency has ordered the purchasing group for the whole of north Wales to buy Welsh or British meat.

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Welsh Members of Parliament must continue to bring pressure to bear to ensure that Welsh farmers and the wider farming community survive this crisis. Without that, the farming industry will collapse, and that will bring devastation to rural communities throughout the length and breadth of Wales.

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