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House of Commons

Wednesday 15 January 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Urban Deprivation

1. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): What new proposals he has to assist deprived urban areas. [89725]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Peter Hain): The Government have designated the 360 most deprived areas in Wales as enterprise areas to boost jobs and enterprise, and our child tax credit and working tax credit will help to eradicate child poverty and to make work pay.

Paul Flynn : That is absolutely true, but does the Secretary of State realise that, although the businesses in the rural part of my constituency that lost out financially because of the foot and mouth epidemic received generous grants from the Government, other businesses in the urban area that lost out because of closures and redundancies did not receive a penny? Does he also realise that the Government are about to spend more than #500 million keeping open post offices in the rural areas, and more than #100 million on closing them down in urban areas, and that the objective 1 map for Wales is heavily distorted against the interests of the cities, towns and valleys in Wales in favour of the least deprived areas? Is it not time that we had another look at our—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Secretary of State has heard enough to be able to answer the hon. Gentleman's question.

Peter Hain: I understand the points made by my hon. Friend, but, as he will undoubtedly be aware, unemployment has fallen hugely in his constituency. Newport has some of the fastest growing companies in the United Kingdom, and last year it was one of the places with the highest proportion of companies growing by more than 25 per cent. He will also certainly have noted this morning's survey, which shows that the Welsh economy is outperforming the British economy in key areas of output and new orders.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): The Secretary of State must pay some heed to our deprived urban areas,

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which are suffering greatly from an increase in crime and hard drug use. He must be well aware of the figures that show a 14 per cent. increase in hard drug use. Crack cocaine is responsible for 54 per cent. of all crime committed in urban areas. When a recent BBC poll asked people—64 per cent. of whom were Labour voters—whether they believed that the Government were tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, they said that they did not. Is it not time that the Government made our deprived urban areas safer places in which to live by taking a tougher stance on drug pushers and establishing a tougher sentencing regime, particularly for burglars?

Peter Hain: It is nice to hear that the Conservatives want tough action against burglars, because they were responsible for burgling the Welsh economy and communities in Wales during every year that they were in power. Now, they are planning a 20 per cent. cut in public spending, which would reduce our effectiveness and our ability to implement exactly the kind of anti-crime measures that are needed in Newport and across Wales, and which we are implementing.

Alan Howarth (Newport, East): Given the importance of manufacturing to deprived urban areas, will my right hon. Friend ensure that during the transition period before accession to full membership of the European Union, the Governments of countries in central and eastern Europe are not permitted to operate regimes that allow their manufacturers to have an unfair competitive advantage? I have in mind particularly the steel sector.

Peter Hain: I understand my right hon. Friend's point, and the steel sector in Newport has indeed been a matter of great concern to its Members of Parliament and to the Government. It is important to recognise that we are undergoing a process of fundamental change. As he says, we are experiencing stiff competition from countries in eastern Europe, but also from countries even further to the east, notably China. However, Wales is doing much better than many of our competitors—in stark contrast to the Tory years, when we were doing much worse than the rest of the world.


2. Mr. David Cameron (Witney): If he will make a statement on the state of the farming industry in Wales. [89726]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): My right hon. Friend and I have regular meetings with the First Minister, and I meet Assembly Ministers and Ministers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to discuss a variety of issues, including the Welsh farming industry.

Mr. Cameron : I thank the Minister for that answer, but what discussions have he and the Secretary of State had with farmers in Wales about the latest diktat from Brussels, whereby all horses, ponies and donkeys must have passports, which are to be carried with them at all times? Is the Minister aware that this crazy bureaucracy

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has come about because the French want to know whether equine drugs are entering the food chain? Will he make the strongest possible representations to Brussels to stop this nonsense and tell the French that British horse owners will not stomach extra paperwork just to satisfy their deeply unsatisfactory eating habits?

Mr. Touhig: Far be it from me to comment on the eating habits of our friends and neighbours across the channel. I take account of the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, and I am sure that it will be brought to the attention of my colleagues at DEFRA. Welsh farmers have had a tough time, as we all know, but I was pleased to see the recent report from the Farmers Union of Wales that shows increased confidence in farming in Wales and a 40 per cent. increase in farming incomes. That is a good move in the right direction.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): The Farmers Union of Wales has also highlighted the fact that the 20-day rule has added to the heavy bureaucratic burden that farmers in Wales and across the country have to deal with. Since the Welsh Assembly has not got the powers to address the bureaucratic burden and paperwork, is the Minister willing to accept a submission that may help him to have a debate with DEFRA to try to reduce that work load so that farmers can do what they want to do—farm?

Mr. Touhig: I am always happy to receive submissions from the hon. Gentleman. I think that he has made quite a few to me since I have been in this job.

On the 20-day standstill, we are trying to achieve a balance between risk and free trade. The standstill has been relaxed several times in the past year or so. The Government must consider the risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis, and take account of scientific and veterinary advice. Until that process is complete, it is not possible to give any undertaking about changing the standstill period.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): May I, through the hon. Gentleman, congratulate the Secretary of State on having done rather well despite being a South African?

On a slightly more serious note, I want to return to the 20-day rule. This Government are proud of the partnership with the National Assembly. Given that the National Assembly is adamant across the political spectrum that the 20-day rule is ruinous to Welsh agriculture, is it not time for Ministers to speak up for Welsh farming in Cabinet, reflect the views of people in the National Assembly, who have been voted in by the people of Wales, and do something about the crisis in Welsh agriculture?

Mr. Touhig: Of course, if the hon. Gentleman's party had its way, there would be no Welsh voice in Cabinet or in this Parliament. Discussions are under way between colleagues in my office, DEFRA and the National Assembly in seeking, with the industry in Wales, to try to overcome some of the problems that farming faces, especially in terms of the 20-day rule. We would further complicate the whole process by simply making a decision to reduce the period without proper evidence.

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When we have the proper scientific evidence, and the risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis are completed, we will be in a position to take a decision.

Mr. Llwyd: When?

Mr. Touhig: The hon. Gentleman asks when. When we have that information, it will be proper to take the decision. It would be irresponsible to do so without that evidence.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): The Minister is being disingenuous in saying that incomes have risen by 40 per cent. He knows that they started from a very low level and that the average farming income is less than #10,000 a year, while some highland livestock farmers earn less than #4,000. Farming communities are still reeling from low incomes and escalating costs, but we have learned that objective 1 money that was intended for farming communities may well be clawed back because it is not going to be spent. Will he have talks with his Welsh Assembly colleagues to ensure that the bureaucracy that surrounds the objective 1 money, which acts like a dead hand, is lifted from the schemes? Will he guarantee that no money directed towards these poor farming communities will be clawed back by Brussels this year?

Mr. Touhig: I take the hon. Gentleman's point. Yes, I accept that farming incomes have risen from a very low point, but that is a move in the right direction. The FUW survey showed that 52 per cent. of farmers in Wales are planning to invest in new machinery, stock and infrastructure on their farms, which is again a good signal. I understand his point, but as far as this Government are concerned, in partnership with our colleagues in the National Assembly, we have no intention of handing any money back to Brussels; it will all be spent.

Mr. Evans: One reason why farming incomes declined so disastrously last year was the outbreak of foot and mouth. There is no way the farming community could withstand another outbreak of foot and mouth.

The Minister will know that new rules on the importation of meat and other food products came into force on 1 January this year. Will he tell the House what action has been taken to publicise those new rules about the importation of meat and foodstuffs into the United Kingdom and what extra resources are going into providing the extra manpower and sniffer dogs that will be necessary to make our ports of entry secure?

Mr. Touhig: We have to accept that DEFRA and our colleagues in the Assembly, in close contact with the farming unions in Wales, will ensure that all the appropriate information gets to farmers directly. It is important that we take every opportunity to ensure that they are aware of any changes. My experience, on the basis of knowing farmers in my constituency, is that farmers are very well up to speed on these matters and know what is happening.

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