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7.55 pm

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): I begin my contribution to this annual debate with the annual plea for a bank holiday in Wales on St. David's day. The Minister will have heard the plea many times; indeed, it is sometimes made by Labour Back Benchers. I shall introduce a little more information this evening. Some interesting research was conducted last summer by ICM, which claimed that we suffer from a bank holiday deficit in the United Kingdom. The findings of the research put us at the bottom of the European Union league table for bank holidays. It is well known that Wales has fewer bank holidays than even Northern Ireland, for example.

Another fact that emerged from the research was that the area of the United Kingdom that most wanted a bank holiday on its patron saint's day was Wales. It appears that 86 per cent. of Welsh people want a bank holiday first and foremost on St. David's day. If the Government were to introduce such a bank holiday, it would be popular.

I can make a claim for St. David on behalf of Ceredigion. His mother, Non, was born in Ceredigion at Llannon, and his most famous synod was held at Llanddewibrefi in Cerdigion, where the ground rose beneath him and he took on and defeated the Pelagion heresy. I will not explain that to the House, but I understand that it is the achievement of salvation through good deeds, with which we on these Benches agree.

Unfortunately, in doing so, St. David took on the Celtic Church, and romanised it. At one level, he could be viewed as a rather poor patron saint for Celtic Wales as it then was, but history is written by the victors. I think that we can ultimately see St. David as a good patron saint for Wales. He took Wales into Europe, which is the policy of my party.

St. David is accredited with saying--it was one of his last words--

That means, do the little things. I ask Members on the Government Front Bench to take that approach and to make St. David's day a bank holiday in Wales and to include a question about Welsh identity in the census form. Those little things would make the new Labour party much more popular in Wales than even it claims to be.

To move on to slightly more serious matters, it can be seen that Wales is starting to feel that new Labour has turned its back on some of the core values of the Welsh people. That is shown by the acknowledgment of the

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Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe that apathy will rule the general election. How is it that a new Labour Government cannot encourage their core supporters to vote for the Labour party? We shall see whether apathy delivers any seats to the Conservative party. It does not deserve any seats, but perhaps apathy will deliver one or two seats to it. I think that campaigning, not apathy, will offer one or two seats to my party.

Views in Wales started on the periphery, with the Government's attitude to rural issues and to the difficulties with post offices and fuel taxes. They began with the crisis in farming, which has been exacerbated in the past few days. Those issues have underpinned problems in Wales for some time. The attitudes have reached the valleys, the core areas of Wales. They are reflected in the problems in the steel industry with Corus and in the difficulties that the Government have had with miners' compensation. We are seeing clearly that Wales is taken for granted by the Labour party, and that new Labour's sights, in terms of tactics and policy, are focused on the south and middle of England.

Whenever the general election is held, the Government will have to show how they are responding to issues that concern the people of Wales. Given the current foot and mouth crisis in Wales, I hope that the Government and the Prime Minister will not call an election when we cannot campaign in rural areas. The Minister has rural areas in his constituency, and I am sure that he has attended many marts during election campaigns. If we cannot go around rural areas attending marts, visiting farms and our constituents and encouraging them to vote, that will be seen as a poor show and shoddy behaviour by the Prime Minister in calling an election.

If the disease is under control, things may be difficult. In that context, coming to Westminster today and driving to the train station this morning was a very sad business indeed. As I passed through my constituency and that of the hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Mr. Williams), all that I could see was empty and deserted farms. All that I saw was straw at every farm entrance; all that I smelt was the strong, penetrating smell of disinfectant at every farm entrance. With this latest blow, the countryside is in terrible shape. I know that we cannot blame that blow on the Government, but it has made the situation far worse.

I am grateful that the Prime Minister has now acknowledged, late in the day, that this Government and previous Governments have pursued policies that have exacerbated the current foot and mouth crisis. One of those policies is the encouragement of the closure of small abattoirs, leading to the transportation of stock over huge distances. When we saw the first map showing foot and mouth outbreaks and traced the disease throughout the United Kingdom, we immediately realised how the closure of small rural abattoirs had affected farming in this country.

I urge the Minister to take back three messages to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and his colleagues in the National Assembly for Wales. Although the response from the Government so far has been good and welcome, some things still need to be addressed. The first is the welfare-related movements of animals. A lot of ewes are still waiting to be lambed, and some calves

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are at a distance from farms; they cannot be brought back without breaking the present restriction orders. That creates welfare problems for animals and great difficulties for farmers. I hope that the Government will look at that issue extremely quickly.

Secondly, I welcome the fact that, from today, the Government are allowing some movement of animals to abattoirs for slaughter. Within that, however, we need to look at allowing some movement for welfare needs, if a flock is disease free. As for the movement to abattoirs, I hope that the Government will ensure that the remaining small abattoirs will be included in the scheme and the licensing for slaughter. A local butcher in Aberystwyth, Rob Rattray, has always had his animals slaughtered at Tregaron, which is a small abattoir. He knows that the animal that he gets from the farm is slaughtered locally and that the carcase that he gets is that same animal. He has an excellent reputation for telling his customers from which farm a certain animal comes. Credibility and faith are being restored to much of the meat industry in west Wales both by intimate knowledge of where the product comes from and the higher standards that are being followed. Mr. Rattray is rightly concerned that, if he has to use a faraway abattoir, whether in Merthyr Tydfil, the west country or wherever, he will have difficulty in giving his customers that assurance.

The third element that the Government need to look at is compensation. Of course, agrimonetary compensation is to be welcomed, but the compensation that is now being drawn down represents 54 per cent. of what farm incomes are suspected to be next year. That is how bad farming has become in Wales; £900 will be as much as 54 per cent. of a farm's income in the next year. However, that is a separate issue. I hope that the Government will not put any spin on agrimonetary compensation and say that it is something to do with foot and mouth. It is not; it is to do with the strength of the pound and the difficulties of receiving support payments as the result of the strength of the pound against the euro.

Agrimonetary compensation is welcome in helping farms' cashflow, but it has nothing to do with compensation for foot and mouth, which must be looked at. Of course, fallen stock compensation is available for stock that is destroyed, but account must be taken of consequential losses. We must be careful how far those losses can, or should, go, but account must be taken of the impact of losing so much business on a farming industry already on its knees. No doubt, the Minister already knows that the lamb market had just come back to life this spring and was ready for Welsh farmers to start rebuilding their lamb industry and consumer confidence at a decent farmgate price, when foot and mouth broke out. Ministers and the Government are not to blame for that, but they can do something to help the industry reach the position it had almost reached.

We have lost 73 farming jobs a week in Wales; we have lost 3,800 jobs in agriculture in the past year alone. There has been a 10 per cent. decline in the number of people employed in agriculture. More than 6,000 jobs are to be added to the 18,000 jobs lost in manufacturing. That drives many of us to feel that the days of the traditional family farm in Wales, which has been so important in supporting the Welsh language and culture, may be under serious threat. A recent survey, "New entrance to land

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markets", found that 39 per cent. of farms were being bought by non-farmers. Stock in Wales is down by about 5 per cent. Farmgate prices, which were at a high in 1995, have undergone a 90 per cent. drop.

No industry can survive such blows without restructuring and alteration; we all understand that. The question is how to preserve the best qualities of the Welsh family farm and its huge environmental and cultural contribution and ensure that they continue in future. The right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) who, unfortunately, is not in his place, made an interesting speech and praised the contribution of the Llanelli national eisteddfod. If he looked at the individuals who contributed to that eisteddfod, he would see that an unusually high proportion of contributions were made by Welsh farming families to Welsh language and culture.

I recently saw that for myself in the young farmers' clubs annual performance night, which was of an incredibly high standard. The contributors used all sorts of media to present their ideas to an audience. When we witness that in the Welsh language, we know what we are in danger of losing, unless we do everything that we can to protect an industry, a way of life and an environment. All three things are bound up together.

In that context, the Prime Minister's acceptance that supermarkets have farmers in an armlock is to be welcomed. We did not have that acceptance last September or October, when the report on the supermarket industry was presented, but it is welcome now.

A debate on the future of farming is starting to be held in Welsh and United Kingdom public life. What are we farming for? We are no longer farming for a post-war world, and are no longer farming for all of our needs. We import much more than we farm ourselves. What is farming for? What are the unique features of British and Welsh farming that we want to preserve and encourage?

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