HC Deb 04 November 1998 vol 318 cc857-9
3. Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

What assistance he will offer farmers of smallholdings in Wales who are now technically bankrupt. [56578]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Jon Owen Jones)

Smallholdings are a responsibility of local authorities, under the Agriculture Act 1970, to help new entrants to the industry. The Government provide support to small farmers for farm diversification and business management in addition to the main common agricultural policy schemes.

Mr. Öpik

I welcome the Minister to his new role. We have had pestilence, floods, storms and economic collapse, and it seems that the Book of Revelations is a better predictor of events than Welsh Office forecasts. Will the Minister at least consider providing a substantial package of support for smallholders who are facing bankruptcy to prevent what could be a massive exodus from the countryside as fanners abandon their trade and leave the land?

Mr. Jones

I recognise that the smallholders and farmers whom the hon. Gentleman represents in rural Wales are experiencing problems. I have met many farmers over the past few months and I have close relatives who have suffered gravely. The Welsh Office has invested £200 million in support for Welsh farming this year. Farmers in the uplands of Wales, who were particularly badly hit, have each received an extra £2,000 of support this year. We are concerned; we are trying to do what we can to support Welsh farming and we realise how important that industry is. Unfortunately, there are further difficulties ahead, but we hope to make progress.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

Will my hon. Friend tell the House whether the calf processing aid scheme will be replaced when it expires on 30 November? Will he join me in welcoming the news this morning from the European Standing Veterinary Committee that it is recommending the lifting of the European beef ban? If that is done by Christmas, this Government will have lifted a ban that the previous Government caused to be imposed.

Mr. Jones

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the beef ban. We should not be overly optimistic, although there are grounds for optimism with this morning's majority vote in the veterinary committee. However, the final decision must be made by Agriculture Ministers.

It is useful to note how the constructive dialogue that the Government have pursued in Europe has borne fruit as opposed to the previous Government's approach, which produced nothing but headlines and gave the farming industry no support whatsoever.

The Government believe that there is good reason for ending the calf processing aid scheme on 30 November, but Ministers are carefully considering representations from throughout the farming community about introducing another scheme in the near future.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

Welsh agriculture faces its worst crisis for 50 years. I welcome the Minister to his post and press him for more specific answers about when he will stop playing fast and loose with the expectations of Welsh fanners and tell them whether the calf processing aid scheme will be extended, whether they will receive an increase in their hill livestock compensatory allowance and whether they will receive any help under agrimonetary determination or marketing schemes. Those are all questions that the Welsh National Farmers Union has asked and to which the Minister has so far replied with tea and sympathy. That will not do.

Mr. Jones

The brass neck of Conservative Members never fails to amaze me. They criticise the Government for our stewardship of agriculture in Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom, when their almost criminally complacent handling of the BSE problem turned it into a major crisis and gave this Government a legacy of agriculture problems that no other Government have inherited. The Government have the interests of British agriculture at heart and will secure improvements in the near future.

Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his new responsibilities and wish him well in his new job. I understand that his Department, with Ministers from England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, is involved in intensive discussions with the Treasury on a package to help agriculture. Will he give us an idea of what may be in that package and of the timing of any forthcoming announcements?

Mr. Jones

Many people in the farming industry in Wales have asked me that question. The Welsh Office has made strong representations to the Ministry of Agriculture. I believe that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture has listened carefully to those representations. I anticipate that we may hear from him in the near future, but I am afraid that I could not possibly comment on what he may say and when he may say it.

Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion)

I congratulate the new Minister on his position and wish him well. Will he acknowledge that smallholders and other farmers are suffering seriously as a result of the way in which supermarkets increasingly dominate the position for their own ends? Specifically, will he examine the way in which, in abattoirs, which are increasingly owned by supermarkets, animals are being graded, not according to objective criteria, but according to the specific needs of supermarkets on any one day? Is not that a total perversion of the whole purpose of grading as a method? Is not that also part of a very worrying agenda—a process in which Meat and Livestock Commission officials are involved—which requires strong and effective Government intervention?

Mr. Jones

The hon. Gentleman makes a serious allegation about the influence of supermarkets. There is a real problem where, perhaps, a small number of retailers have a powerful hold of the market, and that problem is exacerbated when most of the producers in the market are very small units. There may be a need for producers to exert their power in the market by co-operating to help secure good prices.