HC Deb 07 March 2001 vol 364 cc279-81
4. Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

What discussions he has had with the Minister for the Cabinet Office on the co-ordination of rural affairs across Government. [151051]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy)

I regularly meet the Minister for the Cabinet Office to discuss a wide range of issues that require co-ordination across the UK Government, including key issues for rural affairs.

Mr. Gray

I take it from the Secretary of State's rather evasive and illusive answer that he has not attended meetings of the Committee that the Cabinet established under the chairmanship of the Minister for the Cabinet Office to study rural matters in particular. British agriculture was facing its worst oasis ever before the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. Should not the Secretary of State at least have the decency to attend those Cabinet Office meetings?

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman agrees with the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn), who said, of course there are farmers in serious difficulties, but I believe they have greatly exaggerated their case. And much of their case is based on distortions or plain untruths. Will the Secretary of State repudiate those comments?

Mr. Murphy

The Wales Office and the National Assembly take the crisis in the countryside seriously. I constantly meet my Cabinet colleagues, and the First Minister and the Minister for Rural Affairs at the Welsh Assembly. Labour Members represent more rural seats than all the other parties put together—in Wales and, indeed, the United Kingdom.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire)

With reference to the foot and mouth outbreak, will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Powys county council, which has made special efforts to set up helplines, and the police and Assembly Members on assisting the farming community in its hour of need? Will he also join me in pressing for the resolution of animal welfare problems? Farmers are often wrongly accused of not looking after their animals properly. They are currently desperate to move pregnant ewes. Yesterday, I had to negotiate with the police the movement of sheep which had no water. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has agreed to ensure that tack ewes are returned to their farms shortly. Will the Secretary of State make every effort to ensure that such matters are resolved quickly? [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Before the Secretary of State answers, we must have quiet in the Chamber.

Mr. Murphy

I agree with the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey) that there is co-operation at all levels of government in Wales to try to ensure that we end the foot and mouth crisis. It is appalling for us all, but I know that Powys county council works closely with the Assembly and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. We all hope and pray that the crisis will soon be over.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central)

Will my right hon. Friend congratulate Carwyn Jones, the Minister for Rural Affairs in the Welsh Assembly, on his work with the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food? It means that we have the most competent and efficient provision for agriculture. It is promising that the spread of the disease has recently slowed down. Our approach contrasts with the way in which the previous Government dealt with BSE.

Mr. Murphy

1 take my hon. Friend's point, and I agree that co-operation between the National Assembly, Carwyn Jones—the Minister for Rural Affairs—and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has been first class. That has been acknowledged by NFU Cymru, which fully supports the Government's policy and action.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

Given the deepening crisis in agriculture and in the rural economy generally, the closure of post offices and rural businesses, and the problems affecting rural schools and rural transport, is it not time to have some form of standing conference to examine all the problems occurring in rural Wales? Is it not time for a joined-up approach to the problem?

Mr. Murphy

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and I shall certainly ensure that our colleagues in the National Assembly hear of that proposal. As he knows, the Assembly has a development plan for rural Wales, which is a vehicle for adopting the joined-up approach to which he so rightly referred.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset)

Is not it intriguing, Mr. Speaker, that, despite the Secretary of State's protestations about Labour representing rural Wales, the only Labour Member to catch your eye on this question has been the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones)? I wonder where those rural Members are.

The House is acutely aware of the terrible problems facing farming in Wales as a result of foot and mouth disease. However, the co-ordination of rural affairs in Wales is particularly difficult, first because the Secretary of State does not sit on the Rural Affairs Group of the Cabinet, and secondly because the Assembly has responsibility for rural affairs.

As we approach the general election, can the House and the people of Wales be assured that the Secretary of State and the Minister for the Cabinet Office will make it clear to the First Secretary and to the Minister for Rural Affairs in Wales that the public resources of the National Assembly will not be used for political purposes during the campaign? What safeguards have the Secretary of State or the Cabinet Office put in place in relation to that?

Mr. Murphy

The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong to admonish Welsh Members of Parliament, of whatever party, because he represents North Dorset. Doing so was a bit rich.

On making representations to our colleagues in the Assembly, it is pretty obvious to everyone that the Assembly and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are taking the present crisis extremely seriously. It is by no means over, and it affects us all in Wales.

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