HC Deb 21 January 1998 vol 304 cc1001-2
5. Mr. Luff

What recent meetings he has had with farmers or their representatives to discuss the economic viability of hill farming in Wales; and if he will make a statement. [21966]

Mr. Ron Davies

As part of the 1997 autumn review into the economic conditions in the hills and uplands of Wales, I met representatives of both farming unions in Wales on 27 October. I also met representatives of both the unions again on a number of occasions last month and this month, and most recently yesterday. Hill farming receives substantial support. The Government announced a package of further support for livestock farmers on 22 December, which will provide significant additional help for Welsh hill farmers.

Mr. Luff

I am glad to hear that the Secretary of State is in regular dialogue with Welsh farmers, but, bearing in mind the catastrophic effect of the strength of sterling on sheep and beef farmers, and the fact that the costs that the Government are imposing on beef farmers in 1998 will exceed the help available in the assistance package announced before Christmas, will he take the opportunity in his reply to show that he understands the seriousness of the situation facing Welsh hill farmers and accept that further action may be necessary?

Mr. Davies

I agree that severe problems face upland farmers not only in Wales but throughout Britain, not least of which is the legacy of the BSE crisis, which the Government also face, which has hit Britain in recent years. BSE has cost the farming industry and the British taxpayer billions of pounds and I shall take no lectures from a supporter of the previous Government, whose incompetence in handling BSE has given British agriculture the biggest crisis that it has faced this century.

Mr. Edwards

In view of the deep frustration felt by the farmers of Monmouthshire, many of whom came to the House yesterday, will my right hon. Friend work with his ministerial colleagues to ensure the clear and accurate labelling of meat products in supermarkets and that action is taken against sub-standard beef imports, and will he do all in his power to ensure that the beef ban is lifted?

Mr. Davies

The lifting of the ban at a European level is at the heart of the Government's strategy on the matter. I assure my hon. Friend that I am in close and regular contact with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on the matter. I have met representatives of the Welsh farming unions and shall continue to do so and, in conjunction with them, we are developing our own strategy, which I hope will bring a distinctive Welsh response to the distinctive problems of Wales.

Mr. Livsey

Will the Secretary of State please take note of the catastrophic situation in the sheep industry? The market price of lamb has collapsed and exports are difficult. Will the right hon. Gentleman do everything he can to obtain the lifting of the specified risk material restrictions on lamb carcases so that they can be exported whole to France and treated there, which will greatly assist the situation?

Mr. Davies

I understand the nature of the crisis facing agriculture, particularly in the hon. Gentleman's constituency where the problems are severe, and I shall continue to work with the farming unions and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to put in place a range of responses to attempt to meet the problems of not only the livestock sector but agriculture generally. I listened with care to the representatives of the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

Mr. Ancram

When will the Secretary of State stop posturing and wake up to the seriousness of the crisis in agriculture and the rural economy in Wales? Does he not realise that the nightmare is not cyclical, that it affects all sectors and that it is largely caused by the high rate of the green pound, which itself is caused by successive interest rate rises under this Government? Can he not see that support is desperately and urgently needed now, and that, unless proper compensation arrangements are triggered, he and his colleagues will be seen for what they are—the Government who could not care less about the countryside and the people who work and live in it.

Mr. Davies

I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman has got it completely wrong again. If there is any posturing, it is coming from him. He supported the previous Government for 18 years, during which they failed to put in place any long-term restructuring of British agriculture, failed to achieve reform of the common agricultural policy and presided over the disaster of BSE. The problems caused by the collapse of the beef industry as a result of the incompetent handling of BSE by the Conservative Government lie at the heart of the crisis currently facing British farming.