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3.45 pm

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), who--given his experience as an Agriculture Minister--brings to the debate a measured approach, and a more balanced perspective on Europe than many of his colleagues. He rightly mentioned social exclusion in the farming community. Would that the previous Government had recognised social exclusion anywhere, in the farming community or in the urban community, and that there had been greater concern about social exclusion and inequality in the past 20 years. We might have avoided some of the problems that we now face.

I listened with interest to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and I was very pleased with some of his announcements. I was particularly pleased with his announcement that the Inland Revenue is considering the application of the working families tax credit to the farming community, although it is sad that it is being forced to do so. I wonder if Ministers will consider applying the national minimum wage to the farming community. Many farmers in my constituency would like to be earning the equivalent of £3.60 an hour, given the considerable number of hours that they work. Many of them have incomes far below the minimum wage.

Farming is the dominant industry in Monmouthshire. In recent meetings organised by the National Farmers Union and by the Farmers Union of Wales, which I have attended, the crisis in farming has been clearly demonstrated. I was pleased that Christine Gwyther, the Welsh Agriculture and Rural Development Secretary, was able to attend a recent meeting, and I was pleased with her responses to our representations. However, much more has to be done.

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The crisis affecting farming reflects the strength of sterling, and part of sterling's strength reflects the success of the Government's economic policies. However, this is not the time to address that issue; we must address other issues, such as the costs of the BSE crisis. We inherited that crisis from the previous Government. I shall not put all the blame on them, but they might have handled it differently. I think that we all await the outcome of the BSE inquiry with some anticipation.

The lack of a long-term strategy for the farming industry is another issue, as are low world commodity prices.

CAP reform has been very slow. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for the enormous number of meetings that he must be attending in Brussels to try to secure a better deal for Britain's farming community. We need to reform the CAP, and to move away from some of the traditional price supports and towards more agri- environmental support. We have to decrease the number of burdensome regulations, which seem to be applied so unevenly in different parts of Europe.

Britain has generally high animal welfare standards. It is unfortunate that they are not applied and implemented in other European countries. There is inequity in the conditions facing Britain's farmers compared with those facing farmers in Europe. Although British farmers should not be paralysed by Europe's intransigence, I agree with some of the points made by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon.

It is to the Government's credit that there was a Downing street summit, which was very welcome. It showed that they are listening to the farming community, and that the Prime Minister is intervening in the crisis. If there had been a Downing street summit on agriculture every three years for the past 50 years, we might not have some of our present problems.

It is good to see that the Government are trying to develop a long-term strategy. Some of the measures announced in the action plan for farming are particularly welcome--such as the £60 million support for hill farmers and £22 million agri-monetary compensation for dairy farmers, beef farmers and sheep farmers. That has generally been welcomed by the industry, but we all recognise that although much has been done, much more needs to be done.

In Monmouthshire, the farming community is made up mainly of lowland farmers, with some upland farmers. It concentrates mainly on beef and sheep. Monmouthshire is in a particularly beautiful part of the United Kingdom, and the beauty of the area owes a great deal to the hard work that farmers have put into maintaining the environment, with very little recompense. I invite any hon. Member to come to the Llanthony valley, which is one of the most beautiful parts of Wales. How sad it is to hear of small family farms in that beautiful area having to give up the business.

Mr. Livsey: Llanthony abbey and the valley are on the boundary of my constituency. The young people in that valley can no longer engage in farming because the money is not there. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Ministers must urgently address the problem of youngsters going into farming, and give them maximum assistance, in conjunction with a retirement scheme?

Mr. Edwards: I welcome the hon. Gentleman's contribution. There are clearly many young people who

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would like to have a future in farming, but find that the prospects look bleak. In many cases, their parents would like to retire and allow the business to be carried on--but Europe has paralysed us. A woman farmer phoned me recently and said sadly that her son had refused to go into the farm business and wanted to go to university, but because of the crisis in their family income, they had great doubts about whether they could afford to send him there. That is a tragic catch 22.

I met a farmer recently who had been penalised to the tune of £7,000 for making one inadvertent mistake on an application form for sheep annual premium. That is not natural justice. The Inland Revenue does not treat people like that. I do not know why people in the agriculture industry should be penalised to that extent for simple, inadvertent mistakes.

This morning, I met a farmer who was pleased with some of the announcements from the Downing street summit and anticipated that he might gain about £600 in agri-monetary compensation, but he asked how that could compensate for the £10,000 that he had lost in the past couple of years as a result of the high value of sterling.

Monmouthshire is a beautiful part of Wales where farming is in crisis, but it does not have objective 1 or objective 2 status. Farmers who may wish to diversify--I am sure that many do not, and find diversification a bit of a dirty word--do not get the structural support that they might get if they lived 30 or 40 miles away. We need to allow greater investment in the industry.

There has been a campaign in my constituency for a new market in the middle of Monmouthshire, given the limitations of the present markets at Monmouth and Abergavenny. I have tried to impress on the local authority that it should have an economic development role in farming. Local authorities and other agencies in Wales have been successful in helping with economic development for manufacturing, but they have not engaged much with economic development for agriculture, which is one of the key industries in the area.

Mr. Baldry: I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. When hon. Members make speeches in the House, they usually hope that the Minister will be able to reply to their points. As we have established that the Ministers on the Treasury Bench have no responsibility for agriculture in Wales, because it is a responsibility that has been devolved to the Welsh Assembly, to whom is the hon. Gentleman making his speech? Does not the fact that he feels the need to make a speech on agriculture in Wales show the craziness of having a Welsh Assembly and breaking up the United Kingdom, as his party has done?

Mr. Edwards: With all due respect, I do not accept most of what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Dr. Godman: Similar concerns were raised during the passage of the Scotland Act in 1998. Scottish Members said that they had the right to question MAFF Ministers on matters relating to farming in Scotland. Surely the same holds true for Wales.

Mr. Edwards: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I only wish that the Welsh Assembly had the same powers as the Scottish Parliament. When I attended a recent

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meeting of farmers in my constituency, it was interesting that they felt that the problem was that the Welsh Assembly did not have enough teeth. It was refreshing to hear that, because--as I do not need to remind the House--I represent the area that recorded the highest no vote in the referendum for the Welsh Assembly. I hope that consideration will be given to ensuring that the Welsh Assembly has more powers.

Mr. Llwyd: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that as it is Ministers from this Parliament who negotiate with their colleagues on the European mainland, it is clearly right that Welsh matters should be debated?

Mr. Edwards: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. It is mainly Ministers from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, representing England, who go to Brussels to work on the common agricultural policy. I am happy to address my comments to them.

The poultry sector does not get as much consideration in our debates as the more traditional beef and sheep sectors. My constituency has an important Sun Valley turkey processing plant. That sector has also had difficulties, suffering from the differential implementation of animal welfare standards. Poultry farmers have been disadvantaged by the fact that poultry can be fed on meat and bonemeal in Europe, but not in this country. Chicken comes to this country from Thailand and South America, where there are dubious animal welfare standards that would not and should not be tolerated in this country.

Farmers have raised a number of concerns at recent meetings in my constituency. The fall in milk prices is clearly a worry. I sincerely hope that Ministers continue their negotiations with the supermarkets, which now monopolise the market, to ensure a fair deal for dairy farmers. There is scope for movement. I am pleased that the Government have removed the dairy hygiene charges and are reviewing the meat hygiene charges. Those are welcome announcements and I sincerely hope that the relevant statutory instruments are passed in Wales as early as possible.

It is sad to hear young people wondering whether they will have a future in the industry. Usk agricultural college is in my constituency, and I sometimes wonder whether we have given agricultural education the same priority as other areas of education. We believe in the valid principle of lifelong learning.

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