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The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): On 29 November, I was at a meeting of the monitoring group dealing with that issue. We agreed to set up a specific Welsh monitoring group, which will bring together all those involved in the process in Wales. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree, as will all Members of the House, that it is vital that everyone involved in the process pulls together to speed up payments to our ex-miners.
Ann Clwyd: As my right hon. Friend is only too well aware, ex-miners all over the country are still dying before receiving their full and final compensation--men such as a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), John Hopkins, who, sadly, died on Monday. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that nothing stands in the way of making a priority of getting sick and elderly ex-miners and ex-miners' widows to the top of the queue and that nothing blocks their way?
Mr. Murphy: I could not agree more with everything that my hon. Friend says. She and I, like a number of Members of the House, represent Welsh mining valleys. I also sympathise with the family of Mr. John Hopkins of Crumlin, who was a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig). The father of my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) and my father worked in the same pit. We can understand the feelings of former miners and the widows of former miners, and I entirely agree with her that we should give priority to older ex-miners, those who are gravely ill and
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): A fortnight ago I addressed a public meeting in Ammanford on this subject. It was attended by many miners and miners' representatives. Once again, I made the case that the compensation recovery unit should not apply to compensation payments. I was quizzed by a new Labour councillor and another member of new Labour, who said that the miners should not be made a special case. Is that the right hon. Gentleman's view, or were those new Labour wretches just playing politics with the issue?
Mr. Murphy: I do not think that the hon. Gentleman should talk about "playing politics with the issue". Many politicians of all persuasions in Wales are convinced that this is not a matter for party politics, but a matter that we should all take so seriously that there is no question of party politics. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees with that.
I am in contact with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security, whose Department has been very sympathetic to the case of former miners. Obviously we must consider everyone who is in the same position in terms of compensation--those who have been injured at work, for instance--but I understand the hon. Gentleman's point.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) has paid particular attention to the issue. He, too, has been in contact with the Department of Social Security, and we are very conscious of the points that both he and the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) have made.
Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney): I warmly welcome the proposal for a central monitoring group in south Wales, which may speed up payments. The arrangements have been bedevilled by a complex handling agreement, which comes not from the Government or from Ministers, but from the court. According to that agreement, priority was supposed to be given to the oldest and sickest miners and to widows. A points system was agreed, but it does not seem to have worked. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the monitoring group sees that the arrangement under the handling agreement is implemented, so that the oldest and sickest miners can be given priority?
Mr. Murphy: As I said in answer to earlier questions, I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. It is vital for all involved in the process--the Department of Trade and Industry and other Departments, the National Assembly where this applies to it, solicitors, the two companies working in the field and everyone else concerned--to ensure above all else that we give priority to the oldest miners, those who are gravely ill and widows.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. David Hanson): My right hon Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I discuss a range of economic issues relating to farmers with Assembly Secretaries and with representatives of both main Welsh farming unions. I am confident that the Government and the National Assembly for Wales have taken all appropriate steps to assist Welsh farmers to achieve a sustainable agricultural industry. The United Kingdom- wide action plan for farming, coupled with the rural development plan for Wales and the industry's own resilience and coherent approach to rural development in Wales, are the right tools to deliver an improved economic position for farmers.
Miss McIntosh: Does the Minister agree that farmers' incomes have been hit particularly badly in Wales because of the unprecedented farming crisis, which especially affects livestock and hill farmers and which has been compounded by the recent floods? What hope can he give Welsh farmers that they will still be farming and earning a living in two or three years' time?
Mr. Hanson: I recognise that the income figures produced recently reflect severe difficulties in the farming industry. The Government and some Opposition Members realise that this is a long-term issue. The Government have given £600 million of additional support to Welsh farmers and are taking a number of steps to help them through, such as the rural development plan, the consultation document "Farming for the Future", the agri-food partnership and Agenda 2000.
This is a difficult issue, but the Government are trying to address the real needs of farmers. Many of the problems are long-standing, and relate to actions taken during 18 years of Conservative rule.
Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): Farmers are indeed suffering great economic difficulties. One of the main problems is that, unlike their competitors who sell goods in euros, they sell their products in sterling. When does my hon. Friend expect those so-called advocates of farming on the Conservative Benches to realise that fact and plead the case that this country joins the euro to benefit their farming friends?
Mr. Hanson: My hon. Friend will be aware of the Government's position on the euro. Unlike the Conservative party, we do not rule it out for the whole of the next Parliament. That is what farmers need to consider. They should examine the Opposition's policy on the euro and compare it with the Government's sensible approach.
Is the Minister aware of a survey at the Welsh dairy show that showed that a quarter of the hundreds of farmers who were questioned make no income at all from their dairy units and that most of them receive less than 15p a litre for their milk? Does he recognise that it is not possible to make a profit out of dairying if milk is sold for less than 20p a litre? Has he met the supermarkets,
Mr. Hanson: I certainly am aware of the difficulties in the dairy industry. Like the hon. Gentleman and many of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I represent a rural area with many dairy farmers. The Government have examined the difficult issue of supermarkets and their performance, and a report has been published. I certainly will reconsider the representations that have been made, but farming incomes are a difficult matter. The Government are providing resources and implementing measures to help promote farm produce in Wales. That is what will help farmers in Wales and elsewhere.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): We hear what the Government say they are doing for farmers, but a liberty and livelihood march will take place on 18 March 2001, in which hundreds of thousands of farmers and those who support the countryside will make their views known. Many of them will come from all parts of Wales. Does the Minister begin to understand why they feel so angry and let down by his Government?
Mr. Hanson: I take it that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the Hunting Bill. I am sure that he would not wish the Government to renege on their manifesto commitments. We have agreed to allow Members of Parliament a free vote on the Bill. I represent a rural area and there is a fox hunt in my constituency. I know what I am going to do on the day, and I trust that other hon. Members will do the same.
Mr. Evans: The Government have reneged on many other measures in their manifesto, particularly the pledge that there would be no new taxes. Does the Minister not realise that farming is facing the worst crisis in living memory? People who live in less-favoured areas are forecast next year to earn £2,700; petrol taxes have increased by 34 per cent.; the number of young entrants into farming has dropped; and meat inspection charges, veterinary charges, disposal charges and monitoring charges have all increased under his Government. Is it not time that they started to prioritise farmers in Wales instead of focusing on the Hunting Bill, which will cost jobs in the countryside in Wales? Farmers in Wales are not asking for a special deal; they just want an equal deal. If the hon. Gentleman's Government will not give it, the Conservative Government will.
Mr. Hanson: I said that £600 million of farming support in Wales this year was not an insignificant sum. We have abolished dairy hygiene charges and the Chancellor recently announced in the pre-Budget statement the abolition of the meat hygiene inspection charge. The Government are committed to giving Members of Parliament a free vote on hunting. The hon. Gentleman can live with his conscience; we will live with ours, and we will do what we want in our constituencies on that basis.