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12 Dec 2002 : Column 474—continued

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. There are roughly 65 minutes left before the winding-up speeches begin and nine hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. If the Back-Bench speeches continue to approximate to the average so far, six of those hon. Members will be unlucky. I appeal to hon. Members to take as unselfish a view as they can.

5.28 pm

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate. Agriculture debates in the House in the early part of last year were far more emotional and far more divisive as a result of the foot and mouth crisis. It is a pleasure to see that there has been some recovery since then.

I agreed with the last point made by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice). Since the immediate post-war period, Governments of both parties have not had an adequate long-term farming strategy. The hon. Member with whom I disagreed most today is my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), which saddens me greatly as we have neighbouring constituencies. As soon as he moves north out of the lovely town of Caerleon in his constituency, he comes into the Usk valley in my constituency. Where does he think the milk comes from that is drunk in his constituency? It comes from the dairy farms of Wales—of the Usk valley—and many of those milk producers barely cover their own costs, even though in recent months the price of milk has gone up. Who does my hon. Friend think maintains the beautiful Usk valley? It is the farmers who maintain the Usk valley and the Llanthony valley in my constituency, and even many parts of the beautiful Wye valley in my constituency, although most of it is forested.

I am pleased to be able to contribute to this debate because it centres on the Government's response to the Curry report. About a year ago, I attended a meeting of farmers in Raglan in the middle of my constituency. I gave a brief summary of the Curry report and the equivalent report that had been produced in Wales by the then Welsh Minister for Rural Affairs, Carwyn Jones. I had greater sympathy with the Welsh report than with the Curry report, which I thought was more market driven and had a more pessimistic outlook for the farmers of my constituency. None the less, the farmers to whom I spoke were far more impressed with the Curry report and thought that it was more realistic. They recognise that the future of subsidies is limited and that there must be a much greater shift towards agri-

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environmental schemes, which have been applauded in Wales. In particular, increasing numbers of farmers in my constituency are taking advantage of the tyr gofal scheme.

Some 12 to 18 months after the foot and mouth crisis, some of the farmers in my constituency who were deeply affected are recovering. The recovery is slow, as the outbreak had important consequences. Hon. Members may have seen a story in the press this week about Mr. Bill James, the owner of the abattoir in the middle of my constituency who was prosecuted by the Food Standards Agency for exceeding his slaughter limit by about 20 per cent. He admitted that he had done so and pleaded guilty in Newport magistrates court, but said that he had acted under pressure from the farming community, when, during the foot and mouth crisis and its aftermath, he was being required to slaughter increasing amounts of stock. It seems that he did so with the tacit approval both of DEFRA and of Carwyn Jones, the Welsh agriculture Minister. When I wrote to the Minister on behalf Mr. James asking about raising the limit, he said that it had already been exceeded. However, there was no suggestion that he was doing anything particularly wrong or that he should suffer a prosecution. I was very pleased when Mr. James received only a conditional discharge earlier this week. I hope to see him in his Raglan slaughterhouse tomorrow. I have been there many times before and have been mightily relieved to get out alive, especially when I have been lobbied hard about vets' fees and the other regulations facing abattoirs. I can visit tomorrow and say, XI am glad that I was able to produce a little bit of the evidence that helped to get you only a conditional discharge from your prosecution."

Paul Flynn: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. May I assure him that I do not have to visit his constituency to find the people who ensure that the Usk valley is still green? They are very much the people of Caerleon. If I want to go to the places where milk is being produced, I can go Rogerstone, Bassaleg, Lower Machen, Llanfihangel-yn-fedw, Peterstone, Wentloog, Coed Cernew, St. Brides, Llansantffraed and many other places in my constituency.

Mr. Edwards: When my hon. Friend goes to see all those places, I hope that he can give a little more support to the farmers who produce the milk than he seems to have given in the House today. He and I have differences on both farming and drugs, although I respect his ability to speak articulately about those issues.

One of the issues that is affecting my farmers is movement restrictions. We all know why the 20-day standstill was introduced, but it is causing a certain amount of hardship to farmers in my constituency. Those who take their stock to market and cannot sell it have to bring it back to their farm and keep it for another three weeks. They might then have to take it back to market, and if they do not sell it again six weeks will have gone by in which they have been keeping stocks that they do not want. That has been a particular problem and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will review the current situation with regard to the 20-day standstill.

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A second issue that has been especially important in my constituency is late payment. I have been getting quite a few complaints from farmers because their sheep annual premium, IACS—integrated administration and control scheme—payments, organic conversion payments and other tyr gofal payments are very late this year. We constantly hear that that will all be rectified by a new computer system in Llandrindod Wells, but the evidence is that there are still considerable delays.

Like other hon. Members, I was disturbed when I attended a seminar in the House last week on the problem of illegal meat imports. I had known that the farmers of my constituency cited illegal meat imports as one of the causes of foot and mouth, but I had not realised how extensive the trade was. We were given a very disturbing presentation. I hope that the Government will be able to give Customs and Excise the resources necessary to ensure that illegal imports are reduced as much as possible, if not eliminated, and thereby help to reduce the black market in meat imports. Some of it will be going into the food chain—and possibly to reputable butchers. We need more investment to enable environmental health services and Customs and Excise to control the system.

There are a few poultry producers in my constituency. A few weeks ago, I had the great privilege to visit Mr. Tom Vesey, president of the Free Range Poultry Producers Association. He raised with me an important issue affecting his industry—the lack of contracts between supermarkets and egg packers, which is leading to insecurity throughout the industry.

I have been contacted about the problems of disposing of hens that are no longer producing eggs. The market for meat from those hens has disappeared in countries such as Nigeria. As a result, hens that are no longer required are being put into landfill sites. There are potentially about 13 million such hens in the United Kingdom. Without some way of supporting that part of the industry, the environmental costs will be huge.

Improvements have been made recently. I give credit to the Welsh Development Agency and to the farming connect service, which is helping farmers to diversify and is giving them business support. More investment has been made in education and training for farmers and the farming community. I believe in the Government's commitment to lifelong learning. It seems that such commitments have never previously affected people involved in farming and related industries. I hope that there will be greater investment to help farmers with diversification.

One area of diversification that I would not support that affects especially the Usk valley in my constituency is sand and gravel extraction. As a result of the Symonds report, 29 sites have been identified in my constituency where there are sand and gravel deposits. I initiated an Adjournment debate on the subject in the Welsh Grand Committee last week, so there is no need to go into the arguments that I advanced on that occasion. However, I hope that the Welsh Assembly and the local authority will have environmental policies that are robust enough to resist applications for sand and gravel extraction, and that the beautiful Usk valley will be protected and will become a more prosperous area for the farmers in my constituency.

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5.37 pm

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): I am grateful to be called to participate in the debate. I was optimistic that we would hear more encouraging words from the Secretary of State. However, the right. hon. Lady's speech was one of the most complacent that I have heard in this place. It was especially complacent, coming on the back of a Select Committee report that states:

The report goes on to be quite a damning indictment of the way in which the Department has been managed over the first 12 months of its existence. However, to hear the Secretary of State, one would think that everything was fine and that the Department had got off to a glowing start. We have only to read what the Select Committee set out in its comprehensive report to learn that, unfortunately, that is not the case.

That feeds across to agriculture, which is an especially important industry in west Derbyshire and in the Derbyshire dales. Huge numbers of visitors come to the Peak district. People come to enjoy the countryside, but I agree with the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards) that it does not exist through nature but because it is farmed, maintained and looked after. Our farmers look after it. Without their work, it would not be there for many millions of people to enjoy at weekends and on bank holidays. Anybody who does not acknowledge the uniqueness and importance of agriculture does it a grave disservice.

Farming is in the sixth year of recession, and it has faced many problems in that time, not least foot and mouth disease, to which my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) referred. I shall not go into detail about it because of the shortage of time. However, my hon. Friend was a little tough on the previous Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who perhaps did not have enough of a free hand to handle the outbreak because the Prime Minister was always breathing down his neck. The general election was far more important to the Government at that stage than the tragedy and the problems of British agriculture.

Farmers in my constituency talk about the collapse of commodity prices from the late 1990s. Farming has been hit by excessive red tape and the way in which the United Kingdom gold-plates some legislation. The nitrates vulnerable zone legislation has already been mentioned. Excessive regulation is becoming a major problem for the industry and it is getting worse. In February next year, new regulations will require the tagging of individual sheep. I am worried about whether that will have long-term benefits.

In 2002, there have been major delays in payments under various cattle subsidy schemes, to which several hon. Members have referred. Data held by the Rural Payments Agency were not reconciled with those held by the Cattle Movement Service. It is vital that those

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payment and verification schemes be renewed so that the problems that have occurred this year are not repeated in 2003.

As many hon. Members have said, there has been a tremendous loss of jobs in agriculture. Although the industry has gone through changes, some 67,000 people have lost their jobs and 8,600 have abandoned farming. Investment is at its lowest for 30 years. The indicators are worrying for the future of farming.

Young people are not coming into agriculture. Who can blame them for asking, XWhat is the point?" The Government introduced the minimum wage. Most farmers would like to be on it because they work longer hours for less money than the minimum wage. That also applies to many people who work on family farms.

One of the most disturbing aspects is the difference between the price that farmers receive for a product and the price that the consumer pays for it. Beef has a farmgate value of about #1.72 per kg, yet the retail value is #6.58. The farmer therefore receives some 26 per cent. of the retail value. It is estimated that farmers receive 25 per cent. of the retail value of milk, 21 per cent. of that of eggs, and 8 per cent. of that of potatoes.

The average age of farmers is 58. The suicide rate among farmers is extremely worrying. I recently received a letter from a mother whose son had committed suicide in Monyash. She told me of the resulting devastation in the family. Perhaps those individual tragedies do not get the national headlines that bigger tragedies receive. Nevertheless, they are devastating for families and communities.

The UK dairy industry is the seventh largest in the world and the third largest in Europe. We have 30,000 dairy farmers, 150 of whom are in west Derbyshire. It is one of the largest sectors in the agricultural industry, and it deserves to have more notice taken of it by the Government. Dairy farmers have been trying to ensure that the 2p a litre rise in milk prices announced by the retailers in recent weeks is passed on to them, after prices were reduced at the start of this year. There is no doubt that most farmers are now selling their milk for less than they get to produce it.

A number of the ancillary industries that are so reliant on agriculture have also been lost. In my own constituency a few weeks ago, Nestlé announced that it was closing a plant in Ashbourne that had been in operation since 1911. That has had a devastating impact on the town, because the factory was seen very much as part of the local community. I hope that the Government will consider some of these issues, and be far more positive about them.

I shall return in a moment to my remarks on agriculture, but, while I have the Minister's attention, I would like to say a few words about the review of English national park authorities that the Government published earlier this year. The Government are suggesting that the size of the national park authorities should be substantially reduced, in terms of their governance and the number of members that sit on them. I urge the Minister to look at this proposal very carefully. It is vital that national park authorities have local representation on them. The parish representatives, who were introduced some years ago by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), were criticised at the time, but I think

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that most people would now accept that they have played an important part in providing the authorities with an elected element. I have never argued for a directly elected national park authority. We have to recognise that there are matters of national importance that the authorities should rightly consider. I would be very sad if the Government decided to press ahead with some of the recommendations to reduce the size of these authorities. It would be a retrograde step for the parks, as it would reduce local representation.

Time is of the essence, so I shall say just one more thing to the Minister. It is essential that his Department become more of a flag-bearer for British agricultural industry. The Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution said in September:

I do not think that that is what the Government want. It is certainly not what the agricultural industry wants. It is essential that DEFRA should try to turn those attitudes around, so that agriculture can believe that the Department is carrying a positive message for it, and also giving a positive message to the countryside. Unlike the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), I believe that most people in this country appreciate and value the countryside. If it is not maintained and looked after—which is what he seemed to wish to see—the Government will pay a very heavy price.

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