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Mr. Edwards: I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument carefully. Given what he has just said about the Prime Minister's reference to supermarkets, will he acknowledge that the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, in its inquiry into the livestock industry in Wales, recommended that the role of supermarkets should be referred to the Office of Fair Trading? That led to the recommendation of the Competition Commission that there should be a code of practice. Our Select Committee made the original recommendation.
Mr. Thomas: I certainly acknowledge that the Select Committee played an important role in that. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman accepts that the matter did not quite get to where the Select Committee would have liked it to get. However, in the context of the current crisis, there may be an opportunity to use legislation to get the code of practice that he mentioned on to the statute book, so that we have a much firmer idea of how relationships between farm producers, consumers and supermarkets should work.
On a serious note, may I move on to what this debate engenders concerning the future of farming? Broadly, there are three ways forward for farming in Wales. First, we must improve and support the traditional family farm; there must still be a role for it. A second way is to encourage and make greater use of organic farming in Wales, support for which must be increased. A third way is non-food farming. Energy crops are a clear way forward.
The traditional family farm would still need to be supported as part of such a strategy. We must have a young entrants scheme in Wales. The National Assembly's Agriculture and Rural Development Committee has considered the matter, but unfortunately the Lib-Lab Government there have not yet seen fit to introduce such a scheme. In Ireland, the scheme has brought down the average age of farmers from 57 to 50, which is quite a success, and has allowed young farmers to enter farming. Funding is available from the European Union. As many hon. Members know, the plan hinges on an early retirement scheme, which encourages young farmers to go into farming. That needs to be introduced in Wales.
We need an identity logo for Welsh produce. The case must be argued at a European level. We will not restore faith and confidence in our produce until we can demonstrate that a cut of meat was packaged somewhere in Wales and that it is genuine Welsh produce, produced by Welsh farmers to the highest welfare standards and to the best standards for the food that we want to eat in Wales. Through the National Farmers Union British farm standard, there must be a way of working with the industry and the supermarkets to introduce a Welsh produce logo that means something.
Finally, the Food Standards Agency, which has made an encouraging start on some of these matters, must take firmer action against poor quality meat imports, as we have discovered over the past few weeks and days. It is a sad fact that the two farming unions in Wales have been saying for months that poor quality meat imported from other parts of the continent, sometimes through Irish channels directly into Wales, has been undermining our meat industry in the UK. It seems that that may have been one source of foot and mouth.
We know that meat from Germany has been found to be contaminated with spinal residue, which is not allowed under the BSE regulations. We know, therefore, that there is a big job to be done by the Food Standards Agency to give further reassurance to consumers and, more important, support to our hard-pressed farmers.
The second report recently from the Select Committee on Agriculture on organic farming presented a positive attitude on the way forward. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has set not a target, but an outcome, as it is called, of about 5 per cent. of land in England to become organic, under the rural White Paper for England. In Wales, the National Assembly has a 10 per cent. target for organic conversion.
My Bill calls for a 30 per cent. target for organic conversion in the next 10 years. We need to achieve that. We are underplaying our opportunities. We import 70 per cent. of our organic cereals and 90 per cent. of our organic apples. We should surely be able to produce apples in the UK. We even import organic meat. In view of the condition of the meat industry in Wales and the rest of the UK, that surely should not continue. The Select Committee report acknowledged that in countries such as Sweden and Austria, setting targets had made a huge contribution to the move from a very low proportion of organic farming to 10 or 11 per cent. within four or five years.
I hope that the Government will take the opportunity to open a debate on farming and to examine the virtues of organic farming, to see how we can implement them in Wales to give Welsh agriculture a vibrant future. The Government have been able to draw down agrimonetary compensation and, on occasion, to apply sticking plaster to parts of Welsh agriculture, but there are more fundamental problems to deal with.
If we do not want Welsh agriculture, like the steel and the coal industries, to be denuded of infrastructure and to become an occupation at which people play part-time as hobby farmers, if we want real farms to produce real food that people want to eat and if we want to keep alive our countryside, heritage, traditions and language, there must be a sea change in attitude towards agriculture, not only among the Government, but throughout public policy, including much of the media.
Against the background of wider rural decline, which has seen the closure of post offices in rural areas, I shall mention a further constituency interest--the future of magistrates courts in Ceredigion. When I raised the matter in the Welsh Grand Committee, the Minister showed a flicker of interest, which was encouraging. I must tell him that matters have worsened since then. There is now a firm proposal to close all three magistrates courts in Ceredigion at Aberystwyth, Cardigan and Lampeter, and a vague proposal to build a new one at Aberaeron.
I have my constituency office at Aberaeron, on the grounds that it is equally inconvenient to all, but justice should not be equally inconvenient to all. It is vital that people can access magistrates courts in a rural area such as Ceredigion, and that victims can reach the courts to hear their cases. The Home Secretary said last week how important victims would be in the Government's latest initiative on crime reduction. Victims of crime in my constituency do not want to travel two hours a day to get to a court where their case may or may not be heard and where they may or may not see justice done.
The proposal to close magistrates courts in Ceredigion is reflected throughout Dyfed Powys. Cases from Aberystwyth may be transferred to Aberaeron. That also means that cases from Machynlleth will be transferred to Aberaeron. Cases from Cardigan will be transferred to Haverfordwest, and cases from Lampeter down to Carmarthen. I can tell the Minister that people in west Wales will fight the proposals tooth and nail.
I understand that the Government may not be happy about the possible impact of some of the changes, but the Lord Chancellor's Department is setting such stringent financial targets and such stringent targets for the process of justice that the difficulties in rural areas are not being taken into account.
Eighteen per cent. of people in Ceredigion walk to court in order to attend their cases. Closing the courts in towns such as Cardigan and Aberystwyth and forcing people to travel some distance will have a huge and detrimental effect, and will not make the Government popular. They may not have hopes of winning Ceredigion, but they may hope to win other parts of Dyfed Powys. Despite the Government's attempts to blame the magistrates court committee, the proposals are seen as part of their plans.
I close by reiterating some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) about the difficulties that we are experiencing with higher education in Wales. Unfortunately, the National Assembly, under the Lib-Lab Government, has not yet seen fit to make a specific funding allocation for the higher education sector in Wales. That is the context for the useful comments of the right hon. Member for Llanelli. There has been significant movement in higher education in England, but, as the right hon. Gentleman said, such things are not always replicated in Wales. That is partly because the education budget in Wales has been raided to provide match funding for objective 1. That is the truth, whatever Ministers may say.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy said, there has been a 14 per cent. fall in the number of mature students. I have two universities, Lampeter and Aberystwyth, in my constituency. Lampeter was a niche market for mature students--a quiet market town to which they could bring their families. The fall in numbers has had a huge effect on Lampeter, and it has been exacerbated by the closure of Dewhirst, the clothing manufacturer, with the loss of 170 mainly female jobs.
Seventy-three per cent. of students are in debt. The average graduate debt is £7,584, but that is expected to rise significantly. It is calculated that the average graduate debt after a three-year course will soon be £9,000 or £10,000. We have not yet seen the full effect. Universities are expelling thousands of students every year because, according to The Independent on Sunday of 28 January, they cannot pay their bills for rent or tuition. It has been proposed that there should be top-up fees for the most prestigious universities, but fortunately that has been rejected by the Government. Figures produced by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales reveal that teenagers in the valleys of south Wales are three times less likely to go to university. The imposition of tuition fees and of student loans cannot help that situation. The Government must consider urgently what has been done in Scotland and support the proposals that the National Assembly for Wales is investigating. If we do not secure
I turn now to my final comments--[Interruption.] I have spoken for less than half the time taken on behalf of the Tories, who do not even have a Member of Parliament who represents a Welsh constituency.
We hear often in debates on Wales about the wonders of job creation by Labour. Exploration of that argument from the point of view of Ceredigion will perhaps shatter the myth. Since 1997, the Government's policies, or at least the general atmosphere, has created 100 new jobs in Ceredigion. That is the total increase since 1997. Of course, I am grateful for 100 extra jobs in Ceredigion, but that increase is unfortunately not matched by the other side of the equation--the slack in the work force. The slack consists of people who could do jobs but do not appear on the official statistics, for various reasons. Unfortunately, their number has increased by 200.