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More seriously still, the increasing currency that Welsh food and drink enjoys is not reflected by increased currency to our farmers. In real terms, farmers receive 20 per cent. less for milk than they did
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in 1988, 19 years ago. One thousand dairy farmers in England and Wales have gone out of business in the last year alone. DEFRA figures show that farmers are getting 34 per cent. less for beef and 30 per cent. less for lamb than they did 19 years ago.

Mr. Roger Williams: Like my hon. Friend, I congratulate the Fairtrade movement on establishing itself within the consciousness of the British consumer. However, it is strange that people actively seek out Fairtrade tea and coffee and then add milk that has been sold below the cost of production. Does my hon. Friend think that there is a need to have fair trade in this country as well as in third world countries?

Lembit Öpik: My hon. Friend is right. The price farmers receive for their milk can be as low as 16p or 17p per litre. That is more than 4p less than the cost of producing it, yet it is sold in supermarkets for about 55p or 57p per litre.

Meat imports have risen 57 per cent. since 1997. Why? How can the Government allow such exploitation to continue? In government, Welsh Liberal Democrats would take steps to ensure that farmers are not ripped off at the farm gate for the sake of profit at the supermarket checkout. Again, I challenge the Minister to say in his winding-up speech what the Labour party intends to do to try to address the outrageous disparities between the power of supermarkets and that of farmers.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the Competition Commission inquiry into supermarkets? There are three strands to the inquiry. It will look into the issue of small shops, and also, in particular, into farm prices. Will he encourage all the farmers whom he knows to submit evidence to that inquiry so that it can come to a fair conclusion? That is the way forward; it is a very positive way of tackling the problems that farmers face.

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Lady makes a good point, and I hope that farmers will get actively involved in that consultation process. However, I should add that on many occasions farmers have constructively engaged in Government consultations but have been rewarded with no improvement in the proposals being debated. I also lament the continuous apparent efforts of the Government to weaken the milk suppliers’ power in the marketplace, stretching all the way back to the destruction of the Milk Marketing Board.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about the hon. Lady’s sensible suggestion and the concerns that I have raised, not least because they affect associated industries as well—hence the announcement of the likely closure of the Aeron valley creamery in Ceredigion, with the potential loss of 44 jobs. My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) planned to attend today’s debate, but he has had to travel to that creamery to consider the crisis with management and the very concerned work force. The staff have worked hard to establish well known brands, and the decision that has been made was a bolt from the blue. Our priority must be to
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protect that factory and similar factories as going concerns, and to establish why yet another firm in the dairy sector has pulled its operations only two years after setting up.

Sadly, despite all their fine words, the Government have done little to support farming. They cut Tir Mynydd payments to hill farmers and ignored the threat posed by new European Union rules on electronic identity for sheep farmers. They also refused to give farmers more bargaining power against the supermarkets. Instead of strengthening the relatively toothless code of practice they have let the balance of power lie with the massive supermarket chains, and instead of introducing a food trade inspector with strong investigative powers they have just sat on their hands.

My colleague, Mick Bates, the Assembly Member for Montgomeryshire, has called for a fair trade Welsh milk co-operative so that farmers can get a fair return for their product. Happily, I hear that there has been some movement on that. It seems that Waitrose is prepared to introduce some form of transparent labelling system that shows the profits of the producer, the processor and the retailer. Does the Wales Office back that scheme, and will it encourage others to follow suit? I very much back the scheme, and Liberal Democrats feel that Waitrose is showing that major outlets have nothing to fear from working more in partnership with the suppliers, on whom they depend for the produce that makes them their profits.

It appears that similar kinds of pressures are applying in respect of the Wales post office network. In many isolated settlements post offices are the social hub, yet Government Departments and agencies have this year cut contracts with post offices, draining support from the network. In the Assembly, Labour failed to back Liberal Democrat proposals to reinstate the post office development fund, which helped to keep more than 100 post offices open between 2002 and 2004.

The Government consultation on closing 2,500 post offices ends next Wednesday. On 6 February, we gave the Minister notice that individual sub-postmasters had not been sent a copy of the consultation document. That might explain why only 15 responses have so far been received from Wales. Why did the Wales Office not make sure that the document was circulated by the Department of Trade and Industry? Is the Wales Office willing to provide more time for reasonable consultation opportunities with the sub-postmasters, who would be happy to make a contribution, and who would have done so if only they had known that they were expected to do so?

Nia Griffith: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that post offices have access to computers, and that that survey was available on the Department of Trade and Industry website? I am sure that they were all more than capable of downloading it.

Lembit Öpik: I hope that the work that I, others and perhaps the hon. Lady herself have done has raised awareness of the proposals, but given their enormity, it was fair for sub-postmasters to expect the Government to be far more proactive and perhaps to contribute
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marginally to post offices’ turnover by mailing them a hard copy of the very proposals that could shut down much of our network.

Mr. Roger Williams: Following our discussions with the Minister, it was agreed that my office in Brecon would contact each post office and send out the consultation documents. As a result, we have already received more than 600 replies—more will be coming in—and I hope to present them to the DTI next week. So my hon. Friend should not be too despairing.

Lembit Öpik: On that point, I thank the Minister for the time that he took to meet us and the sub-postmasters, who felt, as do we, that it was a constructive meeting. I hope that he will take on board the proposals arising from the consultation exercise that my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire mentions. In essence, such proposals can be summarised as creating a one-stop shop where people can buy their TV licence, renew their car tax and pay council tax and other bills. We also encourage the Minister to think creatively about bringing in new business to rural areas. Could post offices be used to process livestock movement forms, for example? Can a concerted effort be made to encourage Welsh councils to use post offices for council tax and rent payments, and perhaps even for the payment of parking fines?

The trend to move local services away from rural and sparsely populated areas is tragically reflected in the threatened closure of local tax offices in regions and constituencies such as mid-Wales, Montgomeryshire and Ceredigion. Do the Government not know that, far from being under-employed, these offices help to deal with the backlog from centralised offices such as that in Wrexham? In fact, they are totally overloaded. I seek an assurance from the Minister that the Wales Office will listen to the case for maintaining those local offices and help us to get the Treasury to think again, not least because the possible reduction in the tax collected could exceed the superficial saving made through such closures. Given that all those offices are fully employed, it is fairly difficult to see how any saving in staff numbers can be made. I hope that the Minister will comment on that issue.

Another sign of a healthy community is how it tackles crime. Welsh prisons were effectively full in 2000; now, they are roughly 140 per cent. above their original design capacity. Over that period, staff to prisoner ratios have fallen, while violence in Welsh prisons has, unsurprisingly, more than doubled. This prison crisis was not unexpected—all the warning signs were there long before the media started covering the issue. In the last four years alone, there have been 900 incidents of prisoner-on-prisoner violence at Parc prison, in Cardiff. Under such circumstances it is extremely difficult to rehabilitate prisoners, and efforts are hampered by the stress caused within the culture of the prison itself. In fact, that might partly explain why reoffending rates have risen from 57 per cent. in 1992 to 67 per cent. today.

David T.C. Davies: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that although prison overcrowding is a problem, the difficulty is that not enough prison places have been created, and the solution is not simply to let out on to the streets people who should not be there?

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Lembit Öpik: In part, I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but the underlying problem is that we are not dealing with the fundamental causes of crime. The Welsh Lib Dems believe that a healthy community in Wales is one in which those convicted of criminal offences are educated out of crime, helped to move away from drug and alcohol addiction and given the tools to access jobs, thereby reducing the likelihood that they will reoffend. The current problem is that almost the opposite seems to be happening, owing to overcrowding. Adding to the problem is the fact that many convicts and young offenders are more than 100 miles from their natural support networks. They can be based as far away as Suffolk or Newcastle. Such distances necessarily damage the chances of rehabilitating the very individuals on whom we should be working hard to move them away from crime.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats are also delighted to give credit where it is due, and restorative justice programmes and one-to-one mentoring schemes are part of the solution. Given the response by the Under-Secretary to the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) recently, the Government appear to be interested in considering such schemes, which have had a significant success rate in moving people off drug addictions and finding them new jobs after their sentences. While prisons can be a school for crime, we have to find other ways to restore the chances for individuals and remove them from the crime cycle.

Five years ago, north Wales was the safest area in Wales in terms of gun crime, and one of the safest in the UK. Since then, gun crime in north Wales has risen fourteenfold, making it the area of Wales most at risk from gun crime, which is now more common than in areas such as Newcastle, Bristol and Hull. I asked the Minister whether he is aware of the White Gold project pioneered in north Cornwall. It is a partnership between the police, youth offending teams and community workers. It has worked quite well and has a track record of reducing crime by as much as 56 per cent., a saving to the Home Office of £500,000. We feel that this model, using a dedicated police unit in partnership with youth offending teams, which could work closely with youth officers in each safer neighbourhood team, could make the difference between those young people reoffending or having a chance to get back on track.

Mark Tami: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that Welsh police pointed out that those figures included air weapons? I do not wish to minimise the seriousness of the misuse of such weapons, but the overall figures may be distorted by that fact.

Lembit Öpik: I am aware of the debate, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that we have a serious and growing gun problem in north Wales. Without having an argument with him or Richard Brunstrom about the specific figures, I think that we have a real opportunity to take a different approach, to learn from the project in the south-west and to apply it in north Wales.

The greatest deterrent to crime is the fear of being caught, but Wales is some 430 police community support officers short of the Government’s own original target. In the last year, we have actually seen
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police numbers fall by more than 70. Welsh forces have been through enormous upheavals and one can see where some of the resources have been diverted, resulting in the squeeze on funds. The most obvious example is the botched police merger. It was wisely abandoned, but the process wasted more than 30,000 Welsh police force hours. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire can confirm that in Brecon a team consisting of 13 staff, many of them quite senior officers and from all four Welsh forces, was working full time on the merger proposals for up to 10 months—a total, for only those staff, of more than 16,000 police hours. I ask the Minister to confirm that the Welsh police forces, which are suffering from a significant £500,000 funding black hole as a direct result of the merger proposals, will have that money reimbursed, so that they may make good the losses that were not of their doing.

To have a healthy Wales, we also need healthy people. Health care risks becoming ever more remote from communities across Wales, despite the proven advantages of care closer to home. Cottage hospitals provide less expensive bed spaces than the large district general hospitals and they also allow patients to convalesce locally, closer to their families. That has a clear record of speeding recovery times. Improvements in technology also provide us with a serious opportunity to base specialists in central locations, but to deliver the services remotely using the wonders of modern science.

The overwhelming majority of the decisions to close such facilities are in the hands of local health boards, which are meant to make decisions locally and accountably. I appeal directly to those boards not to follow the remorseless pace of centralisation, but to recognise that if we make full use of the available technologies, community health care can be the best health care.

Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD): Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the recent announcement of an independent inquiry into how haemophiliacs in Wales were infected with HIV and hepatitis? Will he join me in urging Welsh Office Ministers to make representations on their behalf to ensure that the Department of Health co-operates fully with the inquiry?

Lembit Öpik: My hon. Friend has worked tirelessly in that campaign, and she makes a good, cross-party point. I hope that the Minister will confirm that he will work with her, and with his colleagues in the Welsh Assembly and the Department of Health, to ensure that that preventable and tragic problem is dealt with in the most effective way.

To illustrate my remarks about local hospitals in Wales, I shall give an example from my constituency. There is no justification on earth for the closure of Llanidloes hospital, as that will cost lives, not save money. I had a serious accident in 1998, and the hospital saved my life. Many people would not be alive today without the fast, professional and efficient service that staff there have displayed down the years.

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Closing Llanidloes hospital will merely shift patients further afield, and shunt costs to other budget headings. No one on the local health board has yet been able to explain where the cost savings will come from, and that is because they do not exist. Local health boards were supposed to provide local accountability; that was the whole point, but if they are not responsible to local demand, they cannot do their job and be responsive to local need. In the Liberal Democrat picture, local health provision is vital, and I hope that Welsh Office Ministers will use whatever powers they have to work with their opposite numbers in Cardiff to make sure that the tragic closure of essential services is prevented.

That brings me to the third and final element of what we regard as the Welsh health checklist—a healthy environment and a sustainable economy. I am very encouraged that the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham and the Secretary of State both said that they are genuinely and seriously committed to the environment. Two key reports in the past six months, the Stern report and the first part of the fourth assessment report from the intergovernmental panel on climate change, have made the case for environmental action more compelling and urgent then ever before. Three certainties arise from those groundbreaking pieces of work—first, that climate change and the environment are, and will remain, of primary concern to humankind for the foreseeable future; secondly, that without concerted action now our lifestyles will have catastrophic knock-on effects on our environment, economies and descendants; and thirdly that, with the right kind of policies, protecting our environment and combating climate do not have to come at the expense of our economies.

On the contrary, combating climate change is an economic opportunity, not an economic risk. The lesson is that, by pursuing a sustainable and healthy economy, we can also preserve a sustainable and healthy environment.

David T.C. Davies: Has the hon. Gentleman seen reports that flying is one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gases? What should hon. Members do to try to decrease the amount of time that they spend in aeroplanes?

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman is slightly off beam, as usual. I assume that what he says today will be directly contradicted by Nick Bourne tomorrow. [ Interruption. ] He needs to settle down. I will answer his question, but he must stop talking, as otherwise he will not be able to hear me.

The aviation industry as a whole generates 3 per cent. of world pollution. The hon. Gentleman will know that I fly aircraft. I very much enjoy it, and believe that that puts me in a strong position to say what I think should happen. I believe that aviation should pay its environmental way, and that the Government should work on an international basis to secure an environmental offset on the fuel used in commercial jets. No such offset exists at present.

My opinion may surprise those hon. Members who know that I am actively involved in the aviation world,
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but such involvement can be no excuse for environmental irresponsibility. The Government should take the opportunity to be proactive and secure international agreements at a European level to ensure that aviation pays its environmental way. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman’s question.

Wales is peering through a window of opportunity, as it is blessed with many different renewable energy resources, a wealth of environmental expertise and a solid platform of green industries. However, if we do not change direction we will miss out and blow a golden chance to become the green capital of the UK. That would be a terrible wasted opportunity. It is made worse by pressure from Scotland, which has been running a green jobs strategy since June 2005.

Wales’ efforts to generate clean energy are being damaged by our lack of ambitious targets. While the Scottish Executive, no doubt because of the constructive contribution of the coalition Liberal Democrat partners in government, have committed themselves to obtaining 100 per cent. of their electricity from renewable sources by 2015; the Welsh Assembly has still not identified what taking a Welsh share of the UK’s Kyoto commitment means. Nor has it developed a coherent climate change programme. Meanwhile, by contrast, Scotland’s strategy is well under way, and it is likely to meet its Scottish share of its Kyoto commitment.

I do not want to see Wales fall behind on the green agenda. I want to see Wales become the greenest country in Europe. To make it so, we must employ the full range of measures at our disposal. Does the Wales Office have any sympathy with some of the Minister’s Welsh Assembly colleagues who would like to see Wales given power over planning for power stations above 50 MW? We feel that that power is essential if Wales is to unleash its potential to generate clean electricity from renewable sources. Does the Under-Secretary have any sympathy with those in Wales who want power over building regulations also devolved to the Assembly so that Wales can drive forward cutting-edge, energy-efficient building design? We have already heard some promising news about that.

One Government measure that has been mentioned in previous debates, and which I wholeheartedly support, is the forthcoming Energy Technology Institute. The £1 billion-worth of investment that has been pledged from private and public sources could have significant benefits for Wales and, in turn, could have positive results for the overall objective of developing new cutting-edge green technologies. We already have a wealth of experience in the research and development sector of green technologies and techniques. The Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth is one such unique organisation, and it is carrying out pioneering work. I am sure that the Minister will join me in congratulating the CAT on its invaluable contributions.

The same goes for the ground breaking work of the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research—IGER—on the sustainable development of biomass crops, which were mentioned earlier. It estimates that up to one tenth of Welsh arable land could be used to grow energy crops as one way of converting from conventional agriculture to energy-related agriculture.

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