HC Deb 13 December 2000 vol 359 cc625-7
5. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

What representations he has received on the economic position of farmers in Wales; and if he will make a statement. [142004]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. David Hanson)

My right hon Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I discuss a range of economic issues relating to farmers with Assembly Secretaries and with representatives of both main Welsh farming unions. I am confident that the Government and the National Assembly for Wales have taken all appropriate steps to assist Welsh farmers to achieve a sustainable agricultural industry. The United Kingdom-wide action plan for farming, coupled with the rural development plan for Wales and the industry's own resilience and coherent approach to rural development in Wales, are the right tools to deliver an improved economic position for farmers.

Miss McIntosh

Does the Minister agree that farmers' incomes have been hit particularly badly in Wales because of the unprecedented farming crisis, which especially affects livestock and hill farmers and which has been compounded by the recent floods? What hope can he give Welsh farmers that they will still be farming and earning a living in two or three years' time?

Mr. Hanson

I recognise that the income figures produced recently reflect severe difficulties in the farming industry. The Government and some Opposition Members realise that this is a long-term issue. The Government have given £600 million of additional support to Welsh farmers and are taking a number of steps to help them through, such as the rural development plan, the consultation document "Farming for the Future", the agri-food partnership and Agenda 2000.

This is a difficult issue, but the Government are trying to address the real needs of farmers. Many of the problems are long-standing, and relate to actions taken during 18 years of Conservative rule.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central)

Farmers are indeed suffering great economic difficulties. One of the main problems is that, unlike their competitors who sell goods in euros, they sell their products in sterling. When does my hon. Friend expect those so-called advocates of farming on the Conservative Benches to realise that fact and plead the case that this country joins the euro to benefit their farming friends?

Mr. Hanson

My hon. Friend will be aware of the Government's position on the euro. Unlike the Conservative party, we do not rule it out for the whole of the next Parliament. That is what farmers need to consider. They should examine the Opposition's policy on the euro and compare it with the Government's sensible approach.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire)

. My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) apologises for his absence, but he is meeting President Clinton.

Is the Minister aware of a survey at the Welsh dairy show that showed that a quarter of the hundreds of farmers who were questioned make no income at all from their dairy units and that most of them receive less than 15p a litre for their milk? Does he recognise that it is not possible to make a profit out of dairying if milk is sold for less than 20p a litre? Has he met the supermarkets, the Dairy Trade Federation and the Department of Trade and Industry to do something about farmers getting a price that is at least above the cost of production?

Mr. Hanson

I certainly am aware of the difficulties in the dairy industry. Like the hon. Gentleman and many of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I represent a rural area with many dairy farmers. The Government have examined the difficult issue of supermarkets and their performance, and a report has been published. I certainly will reconsider the representations that have been made, but farming incomes are a difficult matter. The Government are providing resources and implementing measures to help promote farm produce in Wales. That is what will help farmers in Wales and elsewhere.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

We hear what the Government say they are doing for farmers, but a liberty and livelihood march will take place on 18 March 2001, in which hundreds of thousands of farmers and those who support the countryside will make their views known. Many of them will come from all parts of Wales. Does the Minister begin to understand why they feel so angry and let down by his Government?

Mr. Hanson

I take it that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the Hunting Bill. I am sure that he would not wish the Government to renege on their manifesto commitments. We have agreed to allow Members of Parliament a free vote on the Bill. I represent a rural area and there is a fox hunt in my constituency. I know what I am going to do on the day, and I trust that other hon. Members will do the same.

Mr. Evans

The Government have reneged on many other measures in their manifesto, particularly the pledge that there would be no new taxes. Does the Minister not realise that farming is facing the worst crisis in living memory? People who live in less-favoured areas are forecast next year to earn £2,700; petrol taxes have increased by 34 per cent.; the number of young entrants into farming has dropped; and meat inspection charges, veterinary charges, disposal charges and monitoring charges have all increased under his Government. Is it not time that they started to prioritise farmers in Wales instead of focusing on the Hunting Bill, which will cost jobs in the countryside in Wales? Farmers in Wales are not asking for a special deal; they just want an equal deal. If the hon. Gentleman's Government will not give it, the Conservative Government will.

Mr. Hanson

I said that £600 million of farming support in Wales this year was not an insignificant sum. We have abolished dairy hygiene charges and the Chancellor recently announced in the pre-Budget statement the abolition of the meat hygiene inspection charge. The Government are committed to giving Members of Parliament a free vote on hunting. The hon. Gentleman can live with his conscience; we will live with ours, and we will do what we want in our constituencies on that basis.