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5.6 pm

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams), who speaks with authority on housing in Wales, having been a lecturer in social work and a special adviser to the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs.

I have a comment on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones), the Chairman of the Select Committee, on the Committee's support for the principle of reducing the voting age to 16—a point also made by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik). I certainly agree with that aspect of his speech, but one aspect of Liberal Democrat policy that I cannot support now, although I probably have supported it in the past, concerns aspects of electoral reform. I was one of those who believed that the Welsh Assembly should have an element of fair representation, and I supported the election of additional members. I even supported one of my colleagues, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), in his paper on the current system, but a few years later I feel profoundly disappointed with the way in which the additional Member system is working in Wales.

In my constituency, I try to tell people that they have five Assembly Members, not just one, and that every square inch of Wales is represented by one twelfth of the Assembly. That is an enormously important resource

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that could be used for effective representation, but I fear that the Members elected on the additional Member system are not the resource to work on the strategic issues and debates that affect south-east Wales—for example, whether we should have an international airport—and the area's serious problems.

I commend my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who was good enough to come to my constituency last week.

Mr. Wiggin: He lives there.

Mr. Edwards: My right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), as the hon. Gentleman acknowledges, came to my constituency for a couple of big conversation events. He also visited a local factory in my constituency that specialises in recycling, and which is now under threat because of the Government's possible failure to implement the waste electrical and electronic equipment directive, which would allow printer cartridges to continue to be recycled.

I want to draw all hon. Members' attention to that matter, because I am sure that most Members and their constituents wish to recycle their printer cartridges. However, because certain companies, such as Hewlett Packard, insert chips that make it either uneconomical or impossible to recycle the cartridges, there is a danger that we will create a printer cartridge mountain, because they will have to go for landfill if they cannot be recycled or remanufactured. The insertion of those devices is anti-competitive and against the interests of the environment, and I urge the Government to look at that issue, which has cross-party support. I am grateful that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State considered that when he visited my constituency last week.

In recent months, I have been particularly involved in the debates on higher education. I was not able to speak on Second Reading of the Higher Education Bill, but I felt strongly about the issues involved, having worked in higher education in my professional life. I would be the first to admit that I was very much opposed to many of the Government's proposals before we secured a number of improvements. I never liked the idea of variable fees, or the idea that students aged 17 would face a menu of prices for different courses. The universities now say that, in practice, there will be very little variability, and that most courses will be pitched at around £3,000. I certainly support some of the measures that the Government have introduced and the modifications that they have made. These include the increase in the grant to £1,500, as currently exists in Wales, the transfer of fee remission to the grant, and the abolition of up-front fees in favour of a contribution after graduation.

My proposal would be to try to get away from the notion of variable fees and to introduce a standard contribution on graduation. It would be known as the standard contribution because it would be fairly standardised and it would be only a contribution to the costs of higher education, to be paid on graduation. I accept that some universities do not want all their courses to be pitched at the £3,000 level—which is what I would call the standard contribution—and that they

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should be allowed to discount it. In those circumstances, I accept that there should be a discounted standard contribution, or even that it should be waived. That would remove the entire menu of prices from courses. I would ask the Government to consider that proposal, which was also proposed by Sir David Watson, the director of my former university, the university of Brighton.

Last week, I attended a local livestock market in my constituency. It was very encouraging to see the greater optimism in the farming community. Three years ago, we were in the depths of the foot and mouth outbreak, and some sectors of the farming community have certainly improved since that time, including the lamb and beef sectors. The dairy sector, however, remains very bad. Farmers whom I met last week complained that they barely make any money on the sale of raw milk. This problem results from the great power of the supermarkets and the relative weakness of the individual producer.

When the Welsh Affairs Committee considered the livestock industry a few years ago, it recommended a code of conduct between retailers such as the major supermarkets and the small producers. I wish that that code of conduct was much tighter, and that our farmers could get a better deal, especially in the dairy sector, so that they could improve their position in the market. Many are involved in co-operatives, but not all. The power of the co-operatives could be increased if the code of practice were stronger. It was, however, most encouraging to see the greater optimism in the industry.

In my constituency there is a proposal to close the livestock market in Abergavenny, and it has now been decided that the site will be redeveloped. There is concern about establishing a new market, and I have given a commitment to the farming community throughout the time since I was re-elected in 1997 that I would campaign for a new livestock market. I sincerely hope that the right decisions will be made about this, and that it will be located in a place that will serve the farming community of Monmouthshire and other areas of Wales as well as the border areas of England. It is essential that a richly traditional farming community such as Monmouthshire should have the infrastructure of a modern livestock market; it would be a great boost to the industry.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute to this debate; I know that many other hon. Members would now like to speak.

5.14 pm

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards), with his understanding of rural and farming issues; he represents a constituency that is contiguous to my own.

I would like to say a few words about agriculture and the situation in rural areas. However, I hope that the House will bear with me if I first mention a particularly important constituency issue, which I would like to bring to the attention of the Minister and which I have already let him know I shall speak about. Hon. Members will be aware of the outbreak of potato ring rot at Middlewood farm, which belongs to Mr. John Morgan, in my constituency. Here I must declare an

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interest: I have taken advice from the Commissioner for Parliamentary Standards, and entered in the Register of Members' Interests the fact that I own land at Tredomen Court, along with my wife. From time to time Mr. John Morgan rents some of it to grow potatoes.

I thank the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones), who demonstrated his intricate knowledge of my interests as they appear in the register, and of the practical support that I give to the provision of affordable housing in rural areas.

The potato industry is particularly important to Great Britain. In most years farm-gate sales reach about £600 million, and a large amount is added to that by the proceeds of wholesale, packaging and retail. The processing industry is huge: the production of processed mash, frozen chips, and crisps and other savoury snacks take the farm-gate figure to nearly 10 times as much.

Britain has an excellent record on plant health owing to the combined efforts of growers, inspectors at ports, and Government officials. Three years ago the Government proposed to end tests on potatoes imported for seed production; the National Farmers Union objected, and the tests were reinstated. Seed imported for growing on for ware—for human consumption—is subject to limited random testing, but every consignment imported for seed production is tested for brown rot, although only one in three of those is tested for ring rot. The test for ring rot involves examining 200 tubers from each consignment, which consists of between 10 and 20 tonnes. There is an 80 per cent. chance of ring rot's being identified in a consignment that has 1 per cent. infection. Fewer than 0.5 per cent. of the tubers that John Morgan imported from Holland were infected, and under the present testing regime there was only a 67 per cent. chance of identifying infection. Given that ring rot can reduce potato yields by more than 50 per cent., it is questionable whether the present system of testing is robust enough to protect the British potato industry.

Every single piece of evidence has shown that John Morgan has a very good record on biosecurity. He has full and accurate records of purchases, harvesting, testing and sales. All potatoes that have left his farm for seed have been traced and accounted for. Mr. Morgan imported seed from Holland, which is a leading country in breeding new varieties of potato to meet modern market demands. The Provento variety, along with seven other new varieties, was grown at the request of a major customer. All varieties are kept separately. It is clear that the success in containing the disease to one farm is due entirely to John Morgan.

The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw)—who is responsible for plant health—issued a press release welcoming the containment of the outbreak and paying tribute to the co-operation with the industry. It also speaks of

What it says is true, but only to the extent that large-scale testing by the Plant Health and Seed Inspectorate was able to show that there had been no spread of the disease, and that was because Mr. Morgan's records had enabled all potato movements to be tracked. The containment was due entirely to his efforts.

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The net result is that Mr. Morgan has £450,000 worth of seed potatoes on his farm, which have been grown to the highest standards of biosecurity, and that—through no fault of his own, but owing to his meticulous approach to plant health—have been rendered worthless because the Government have insisted on either their destruction or their limited use for human consumption. As the potatoes were grown specifically for seed, they are the wrong size for human consumption, or for processing. They are therefore practically worthless.

Ring rot is a notifiable disease, which the Government have rightly identified as being potentially devastating to the British potato industry. Nevertheless, it is iniquitous that property that has been obtained legally should be confiscated by the Government, or restricted by the Government to a less valuable use, with no compensation being provided. It seems wrong to me that an individual who has been an example to the agriculture industry on biosecurity should have to bear the burden for the whole nation. Hon. Members should be in no doubt that this is a personal tragedy for this family, especially for the son, who has become the driving force of the business and wants to take it on.

The potato business is notoriously volatile. Last year many growers made large losses. This year prices have been higher, because of drought on the continent and currency fluctuations, and some profits were to be made. The Minister has signalled that a lessons-learned inquiry will be instigated. I am sure that one of its conclusions will be to commend John Morgan for his high standards of husbandry. I hope that it will also find that individuals whose actions have limited and mitigated the effect of disease outbreaks should not have to bear the financial burden of their actions.

I do not want to pre-empt any recommendation of the inquiry that is being undertaken, which may recommend Government compensation or the establishment of an industry scheme to safeguard these people, but the Government have increased the cost to my constituent by requiring him to dispose of these potatoes at great cost and rigorously to clean his premises and machinery.

As the Minister has said, this is a one-off incident and there is only one loser. This is a UK issue with a Welsh focus, and I ask the Secretary of State to facilitate a meeting between John Morgan and either the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs or the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Carwyn Jones, the Minister for Environment, Planning and Countryside in the Welsh Assembly to review Mr. Morgan's personal position, as any recommendation of the inquiry will not be retrospective.

At the moment, Mr. Morgan has incurred not only the expense of growing last year's crop and the possibility of the expense of disposing of that crop, but he is unlikely to be able to engage in potato growing of any sort this season. He is a substantial employer of local labour and local agricultural contractors, so his absence will have a big effect on the local economy. No one is looking to make money out of this situation. Contrary to Mr. Stephen Hunter's comments at the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural

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Affairs when this subject was being considered, no one in their right mind would claim to have a case of a notifiable disease or deliberately infect their produce to claim compensation. All I am asking on behalf of my constituent is that he is able to speak directly to the politicians who will make the decisions that will have a dramatic effect on his business and personal life. He is currently engaged in a legal dispute with the suppliers of the infected potatoes, but that may not be resolved for two years. In the meantime, his business is in jeopardy. I ask the Minister to help me to arrange that meeting.

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