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Farming

3. Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): What meetings he has had recently with farmers' representatives to discuss problems in Welsh farming. [38001]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Ron Davies): Since taking office, I have met farmers' representatives on 15 formal and countless informal occasions to discuss the problems facing Welsh agriculture.

The right hon. Gentleman may like to know that the Welsh Grand Committee next meets in Carmarthen on 5 May to discuss the rural economy in Wales. I am making arrangements for the representatives of the three farming organisations in Wales to present evidence to hon. Members prior to the sitting of the Committee. Such an innovative procedure will, I believe, help to inform the Welsh Grand Committee's debate on this crucial issue and demonstrates this Government's commitment to an open and inclusive approach.

I hope that the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) will accept my invitation to be present on that occasion.

Mr. Curry: Is the Secretary of State aware that farmers at that meeting are likely to raise the report produced by Professor Peter Midmore on the particular importance of upland livestock compensatory amounts to Welsh farmers? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with the sentiments of that report, which are that a consistent and realistic level of support is essential to maintain agriculture on the hills of Wales? Does he also agree that, last year, the Government failed abysmally to meet those expectations? What will he do in subsequent years to ensure that he fulfils his own claims that the Labour party is the party of the rural economy?

Mr. Davies: I am familiar with Professor Midmore's report. In fact, I met Professor Midmore a couple of weeks ago to discuss it in detail. I am pleased to say that he and I had an amicable discussion and agreed on the best way forward for Welsh agriculture.

The right hon. Gentleman was, I believe, a Minister at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food from 1989 to 1993. If there is any one crisis hanging over British agriculture, it is the spectre of BSE, which brought a once-great industry to its knees. It has cost British taxpayers about £3.5 billion. The right hon. Gentleman

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was the Minister who, above all else, characterised the then Government's inept handling of BSE by his own incompetence and complacency.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): Will my right hon. Friend inform us what progress is being made in getting the beef export ban lifted in Europe?

Mr. Davies: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his interest in this matter. I know that he has made many representations to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. He will know that many representations have been made at a European level. We were successful several weeks ago in getting the Irish scheme off the ground. That will be of great assistance to exporters from Ireland and, I believe, prove to be the crucial breakthrough in our discussions at a European level.

My hon. Friend will know that we have successfully introduced the passporting scheme and that the Government, rather than individual producers, are footing the bill for it. I have no doubt that that scheme will forward our efforts to remove the beef ban. I assure my hon. Friend that if the previous Government had been more constructive in their approach to Europe, we should not have had such difficulties over the past 12 months in reassuring our European Union partners that we want to work with them in a spirit of co-operation to complete the central objective of our policy, which is the removal of the beef ban.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): I welcome the fact that the farming unions will give evidence to the Welsh Grand Committee in a few weeks' time. What will be the Secretary of State's answer when he is asked why there has been a cut of £80 million from forthcoming agricultural spending in Wales?

Mr. Davies: As the hon. Gentleman knows, he is referring to the expenditure report that was produced several weeks ago. If he looks at it carefully, he will see that last year's expenditure was inflated by a one-off payment to the upland areas of Wales. That, together with the increase that was made available as part of the beef compensation package, has not yet been included in next year's expenditure. The other element of the equation is the sheep special payment which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, depends on market prices. It is a compensation payment and at this stage, it is not possible to calculate what it will be. The Government's total approach to agriculture shows that we have a real commitment, and that is demonstrated by our discussions in Europe, by our commitment to pay additional compensation to relieve the present crisis in the livestock industry and by the way in which we are promoting other initiatives, such as the agri-environmental scheme and our various food promotion schemes. I hope that the hon. Gentleman realises that in the debate, the Government will be able to demonstrate that we recognise the real crisis in the Welsh countryside. We are doing what we can in a practical way to help to ameliorate those difficulties.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes): In relation to the invitation to the Welsh Grand Committee to which the Secretary of State referred, may I say that I first received it through the offices of the press, secondly by fax and lastly by letter? If he checks his fax machine on his return

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to his office he will find an answer. Does he not agree that, as a result of reduced Government support, falling prices and the high value of the green pound, which has been brought about by five interest rate rises since the election, farm incomes in Wales are dropping catastrophically, by as much as 60 per cent. in some cases? Does he not realise the scale of the crisis for farmers and their families, and for the Welsh rural economy? When will he and the Government stop mouthing complacent platitudes and playing design games with the Welsh flag and do something real for the farmers of Wales?

Mr. Davies: If the right hon. Gentleman reflects, he will realise that he is putting an unusual proposition. It is that in our period in office of less than 12 months, we should have been able to resolve all the difficulties over which he and his colleagues presided in government for 18 years. It is not possible to turn around those difficulties in less than 12 months. I acknowledge, as I have always acknowledged, the difficulties that face all those who live and work in rural Wales. That is why we are striving to put in place the long-term mechanisms that are necessary to deal with those problems. I commend the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru for ensuring a proper debate in the Welsh Grand Committee. The constructive way in which those two parties are viewing events in Wales is markedly different from the mindless opposition of the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends.

Health Action Zones

4. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): If he will set up health action zones in Wales. [38002]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Win Griffiths): The inequalities in health status in Wales are a major concern, and action across a broad front is required. I shall publish a Green Paper shortly which will propose a range of new measures which take account of the circumstances in Wales. In England, health action zones will cover populations of around 200,000. In Wales, it would not be appropriate to work on such a scale, but in our Green Paper, we will bring forward alternative proposals tailored to meet Welsh needs.

Ann Clwyd: I am sure that that announcement will be welcomed in Wales as much as it was in England. It brings an holistic approach to poverty and deprivation in Wales as elsewhere. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that these matters will be given even greater consideration in the future Welsh assembly, especially if 50 per cent. of its membership are women.

Mr. Griffiths: We are very much aware of the health needs of Wales. My hon. Friend's constituency is an area of high need. I hope that our Green Paper will bring forward some fresh thinking on how to tackle these problems, and that the local health groups proposed in our White Paper will make a significant contribution by bringing together the health service and local government to think about health care issues.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): How does the Minister expect to be able to save money by reducing

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bureaucracy in the health service in Wales when measures such as health action zones will create more bureaucracy, not less?

Mr. Griffiths: The hon. Gentleman could not have been listening to my answer. I said specifically that we would bring forward proposals tailored to meet Welsh needs. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the thrust of our proposals in Wales is to reduce bureaucracy and administration, and to use that money in patient care. Over the lifetime of this Parliament, we reckon to save £50 million.

Cetaceans

5. Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): What recent assessment he has made of the cetacean population in Cardigan bay. [38003]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Win Griffiths): Recent studies indicate that the most common cetacean species in Cardigan bay are the harbour porpoise and bottlenose dolphin. Other species recorded are the common dolphin, Risso's dolphin, the white-sided dolphin and the killer pilot and minke whales.

Mr. Baker: Given the importance of the area to those various species, does the Minister agree that, given the June deadline, it is crucial that the Government make it a special area of conservation under the EU habitats directive?

Mr. Griffiths: I can give the hon. Gentleman the good news. We have already put forward a proposal for Cardigan bay to be a special area of conservation.

Mr. Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West): Is the Minister aware of any reported sightings of that other endangered species, namely, elected Tory Members of Parliament for Wales? Is he aware that there is a danger of that species being reintroduced to the native Welsh habitat following the elections in May to the National Assembly for Wales?

Mr. Griffiths: Although it is likely that in Wales they may become a land creature again, there is no possibility that they will end up in Cardigan bay. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. A telephone is ringing.


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