scent hope for
By Robert Davies
THREE hundred farmers who marched in Carmarthen to lobby the Welsh Grand Committee have been given the first hint of an Office of Fair Trading inquiry into supermarket profits.
It came from Welsh secretary Ron Davies, who agreed to speak to protesters for more than 30 minutes after they chanted "we want Ron" outside the meeting. In response to questions he admitted that he, like many producers, was not happy that the slump in farmgate prices was not reflected on supermarket shelves.
Earlier Martyn Jones MP, chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee investigation into retail profits, told the Grand Committee of all Welsh MPs that supermarkets had so far failed to provide a satisfactory explanation of why consumers prices had not followed the collapse in livestock prices.
On the evidence there was, he believed, a strong case for an OFT investigation of retail profits, and he said he knew many other members of the Welsh Affairs Committee agreed.
The anger and frustration of those who walked from Carmarthen Market to the Town Hall was clear.
Bob Parry, president of the Farmers Union of Wales, agreed with them that the Government did not seem to care about their desperate plight, even though it was confirmed by official statistics showing a 50% plus fall in incomes.
Later he warned the 40 members of the Grand Committee that there would be dire consequences if large numbers of farmers were allowed to sink into bankruptcy.
"I am not a merchant of doom and gloom," insisted Mr Parry. "The fact is that the position of many family farms is no longer one of extreme difficulty, but of impending disaster. How can rural communities expect to survive when their core activity- agriculture – is swiftly passing from the temporary problem of recession to one of permanent depression?"
Hugh Richards, chairman of the NFUs Welsh Council, said every sector of Welsh farming faced severe, and ever growing, problems. Whole communities were feeling the knock-on damage to the rural economy. Yet a Government that had the means to provide immediate help refused to respond.
Cynog Dafis MP (Ceredigion) warned that 8000 of 60,000 Welsh rural jobs could disappear this year. He warned: "The Government must recognise the scale of the crisis. The Welsh rural economy is facing a catastrophe."
The Welsh secretary told his fellow MPs, and the protesters he met outside, that he understood the depth of crisis.
But he insisted that claiming agri-monetary compensation would require very significant British government expenditure. He could offer no hope of this because, given the constraints on spending, this would have to come for the tax-payer or by diverting cash from education or the National Health Service.