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Mr. Yeo: If I did not make it clear before, when I intervened on the Minister, let me make it clear again that the Conservative party will honour the MAFF budget, as it has been set out, in full. The question that I asked earlier was whether the Labour Government would honour their own MAFF budget.
Mr. Edwards: I have every confidence that my right hon. Friend will honour the budget that the Government have planned for the next few years. However, I have doubts as to whether a Conservative Government would do so, especially when we consider that, under the previous Conservative Government, not one penny piece of agrimonetary compensation was paid. The present Government have paid over £500,000. Surely the Conservatives would want to save in an area on which they never spent a penny when they were in government.
Under the Conservatives' proposals, what would go? What would be cut? Would it be support for sheep farmers, or the sheep annual premium? Would it be support for beef farmers, or the beef annual premium? Would it be the suckler cow premium, or agrimonetary compensation, as I have suggested?
Would agri-environmental schemes be cut under the Conservatives' proposals? To their credit, the Government have invested a considerable amount of extra money in such schemes. In Wales, we have the tir gofal scheme in the lowlands, and hill farmers have access to tir mynydd. Those are important contributions to farm income that would be under threat unless the commitments that we have, supposedly, heard tonight were fulfilled and confirmed by the shadow Chancellor and the Leader of the Opposition. Would organic conversion support be maintained under the Conservatives? It has been substantially increased by the present Government.
A week ago, I attended the annual general meeting of the Monmouthshire National Farmers Union. I was pleased that the Deputy First Minister of the Welsh Assembly, Mr. Mike German, was there. The meeting was addressed by Ben Gill, the president of the NFU, and by Anthony Price, the union's chairman, who is retiring. I pay tribute to the work that Mr. Price has done, and wish every success to Glyn Williams, the new chairman.
Ben Gill had a powerful message about the difficulties facing the industry. There was no doubt about those difficulties, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend has heard such messages a number of times. Mr. Gill also said that farmers need to fight back, and to work together. To their credit, Monmouthshire farmers have been working in co-operation. They were influential in establishing the farmers ferry and farmers fresh schemes. I have also visited the abattoir in Kenilworth, where a thriving meat export market is being developed because of the co-operative initiatives achieved by the farmers of Monmouthshire and elsewhere.
In Monmouthshire, the farmers make an enormous contribution to the environment and to producing safe food. We have had some good news stories there. Two days ago, I attended the launch of CCET, the new rural training initiative. One of the key bodies involved with the scheme will be Coleg Gwent. At the heart of Coleg Gwent, which is in my constituency, is the former Usk agricultural college. I would be the first to admit that the further education sector has been very slow to respond to the educational and training needs of the established farming community. It used to train young people coming into farming, but their numbers have declined in recent years. In the past six months, an important new initiative has been produced to support those farmers who are established in the business, those who want to retrain to develop IT skills, and farmers' wives who want to retrain. The college makes an important contribution.
The farming community also makes a valuable contribution--to maintaining the beautiful countryside of Monmouthshire and to providing high quality food. I appreciate the difficulties that it faces and I want to work with farmers to ensure a more secure future for farming in Monmouthshire and the rest of Wales.
Although the current recession is a disaster for British farmers and a particular disaster for small and medium-sized family farms and livestock farmers, it affects all farms, whatever their cropping or activity and whatever their size. Farm incomes have fallen by 90 per cent. in the past two years. As my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) pointed out, bank borrowings have risen to more than £10 billion and 47,500 farmers and farm workers have left the industry over the past two years.
Those figures mask the suffering of thousands of farmers who have seen generations of effort, hard work and dedication turn to ashes. The National Farmers Union estimates that up to 40 per cent. of farmers receive or are entitled to the working families tax credit, so let us be in no doubt about the extent of the crisis. Many people--some on the Government Benches and some elsewhere--shrug their shoulders at that. They argue, "Why does it matter? What is so special about agriculture? Why cannot it go the same way as the textile industry or other commodity-based manufacturing industries that have had to close capacity and cut back?" Those are serious and important questions. They need an answer, which I shall attempt to give.
Most obviously, we need to feed ourselves--if not completely, then at least substantially. There might be a short-term glut of food and short-term price collapses, but who can say that that will always be the case? Natural disasters might cause massive crop failures. Who can predict with certainty the impact of climate change on the world's ability to feed itself? What are the chances of a man-made disaster? Who knows the full consequences, good or bad, of genetic modification? Will the third world, as it becomes richer, demand more food than the world can produce? There might be trade wars or more conventional war. Who knows? Surely there is still a strong argument--which, after all, has been accepted since the second world war--that we should produce a significant proportion of our own food. It would be foolhardy to do otherwise.
The argument does not stop there. The British countryside--or at least more than 75 per cent. of it--has been shaped over hundreds of years by the British farmer. Our birds, insects, trees, flowers, hedges and animals are here because of British farming, not in spite of it. A crisis for farming is a crisis for our wildlife and our unique countryside. The two are inseparable.
The countryside march on 18 March will, I hope, show how important the countryside still is in the hearts of those of us who still live there. Its cry, "Liberty and livelihood", touches a deep chord within us.
It is time--it is past the time--for agriculture to be returned from Europe to our national Governments. The failure of the Government to reform the CAP or to take more control over it is a failure of resolve and vision--and a failure that threatens the enlargement of the European Union to include the countries of eastern Europe.
I unashamedly advocate an interventionist role for Government. Farming is not an industry that can be tossed on to the waters of global free trade. The Opposition have other objectives: we want family farms to survive, we want to encourage mixed farming, we want to encourage less intensive methods of farming, such as LEAF--linking environment and farming--and organic farming, and we want to make our own rules on set-aside.
There will never be free and fair world trade in farm products. Animal welfare standards will vary, some countries will have different environmental priorities, land prices will vary hugely and food hygiene rules will differ. We can talk about a level playing field until the cows come home, but if we are honest with ourselves, we all know that it will never happen.
We can improve matters, of course, with honest labelling and the like, but different countries will have different priorities, and rightly so, because farming, as I have argued, is about more than trade alone. A country the size of the UK will always have a different approach to farming from that of a country the size of the USA, Brazil, Australia or even France.
Until the Government accept that farming is different, that it is special and that it involves far more than the price of a commodity, they will never have the vision or commitment to provide a future for the countryside.