Agriculture and Rural Development
Friday 16 November 2001
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
Discussions with Minister:
Fisheries and Other Issues
Membership and Powers
The Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development is a Statutory Departmental Committee established in accordance with paragraphs 8 and 9 of Strand One of the Belfast Agreement and under Assembly Standing Order No 46. The Committee has a scrutiny, policy development and consultation role with respect to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and has a role in the initiation of legislation. The Committee has 11 members including a Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson and a quorum of 5.
The Committee has power:
- to consider and advise on Departmental budgets and Annual Plans in the context of the overall budget allocation;
- to approve relevant secondary legislation and take the Committee Stage of relevant primary legislation;
- to call for persons and papers;
- to initiate enquiries and make reports;
- to consider and advise on matters brought to the Committee by the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development.
The membership of the Committee since its establishment on 29 November 1999 has been as follows:
Dr Ian Paisley (Chairperson)
Mr George Savage (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Billy Armstrong;Mr PJ Bradley
;Mr John Dallat*
;Mr Boyd Douglas
;Mr David Ford;
Mr Gardiner Kane
;Mr Gerry McHugh;
Mr Francie Molloy
;Mr Ian Paisley Jnr.
* Mr Dallat replaced Mr Denis Haughey on the latter's appointment as a Junior Minister.
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
Friday 16 November 2001
Rev Dr Ian Paisley (Chairperson)
Mr Savage (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Paisley Jnr
Ms B Rodgers;);Department of Agriculture
;;and Rural Development
Mr J Prentice;)
Ms E Cummins;)
The Chairperson: Good morning. I welcome the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Ms Bríd Rodgers, and Mr Jim Prentice and Ms Evelyn Cummins from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.
Minister, there is one personal matter that I want to raise with you. As its Chairperson, I have tried to keep politics out of this Committee. We have, largely, managed to do that. I have no objection to your attacking me either as leader of the DUP or as a Member of the Assembly. However, I read a report in the 'News Letter' in which you attacked me as Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development. You said that I was, in that capacity, "downright dishonest", and you included others in that attack.
We should continue to avoid politicising the Committee. We have exchanges in the House, and I have always said that I can take off my cap as Chairperson and speak in a private capacity. However, the Minister said that it was
"sad and ironic, indeed downright dishonest of the chairman of the agricultural committee, Dr Paisley, and others to claim, on the one hand, to be concerned about the plight of our industry whilst they make every effort to bring down the very institutions which they know to have been so crucial to the well-being of Northern Ireland agriculture - particularly in sparing us the ravages of foot-and-mouth disease."
I have no objection to personal attacks, but you should not attack me as Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development. I have tried to treat all members of the Committee equally. We have never entered into any political debate, and I do not intend that we do so in the future.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers): My comments were made outside the House. It is my strong view that there is a contradiction between the position that you and your party hold, of on the one hand, trying to bring down the institutions, and on the other hand, working the institutions, and in particular, the Committees, which you do very well.
Most of the Committee members recognise, as do the people of Northern Ireland across the board, the importance of our institutions to the agriculture industry. There is a contradiction between that position and trying to bring down the institutions. I was simply expressing my strong political view on that matter outside the House, and I stand over it. It should not have any implications for the work of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development inside the House.
The Chairperson: So you still feel that the Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development is "downright dishonest"?
Ms Rodgers: It is a fact that you are the Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development. I believe that it is contradictory and dishonest to, on the one hand, want to protect the industry, and on the other, work very hard to bring down the institutions which I, and most people in Northern Ireland, believe are crucial to the well-being of the agriculture industry.
That is my political view. I could have a political debate with you, but I would prefer not to have it in this Committee. I could have it elsewhere, where it would be relevant, but here I act as Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development.
The Chairperson: I refer you to Hansard of Tuesday 9 October; on that date you attacked me.
I made the simple point that, if it is dishonest - as you say "downright dishonest" - for us to act in the way that we are acting, then it was downright dishonest for you and your party not to vote for the removal of people from the Assembly that should have been put out because they had not carried out their obligations under the agreement. I pointed out - and it is on record - that if you and your party had taken part in that vote, the institutions would not have been put in jeopardy at all, because the poison that we are trying to deal with would have already been dealt with. I could very well say that, and I said it in Hansard. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Minister, you can argue your view, and I can argue mine, but it should not affect this Committee.
Ms Rodgers: I totally agree.
Mr McHugh: Mr Chairperson, you have the option of taking this up in the Great Hall.
Ms Rodgers: Dr Paisley, I totally accept that your political point of view differs from my own. I could answer your point, but this is not the appropriate place to have a political debate. I can have it with you, at a time of your choosing, outside this Committee and outside the House - or in the Assembly if you like, where we can put on our political hats. It is inappropriate to have a political discussion here. I stand strongly by my view, and I stand by my right to express it.
The Chairperson: Nobody doubts that - I have made that perfectly clear. As far as this Committee is concerned, and as far as the chairmanship of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development is concerned, those remarks could not lead to a good situation with the Minister, as the Minister told the Chairperson that he was "downright dishonest". You can hold your view and yet accept the integrity of the person expressing an alternative view. That is not what you said, but we will leave the matter there.
Mr Dallat: You gave the Committee no advance notice that you would raise this issue, and I see it as quite different from the debate that you are having with the Minister. That is about something that happened outside the Committee. I come to the Committee wearing no political hat - the same as the rest of the members, I hope. I come to represent the agriculture industry and get the best possible deal for it. In fairness to you as Chairperson, you do that in the Committee, but I am rather disappointed that it is you who have taken the politics into the Committee room this morning. That is very unfortunate.
The Chairperson: I have done nothing of the kind. I have simply answered the article. I said that, if my position as Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development had not been mentioned, this matter would not have arisen. However, it is quite clear that the Minister feels that, as Chairperson of this Committee, I am utterly dishonest.
Mr McHugh: I happen to agree with the Minister. You have taken politics into the Committee. You have attacked me in what you said in relation to what should have been debated and what was debated in the Assembly. That is an attack on my party and myself. We have worked well in this Committee for the benefit of the farmers, but you are not doing that at present. The hypocrisy of your party is clear for all to see in relation to what happens in this Committee and what happens outside.
The Chairperson: If you want to take those views, you can.
Mr McHugh: We can all fight our corner.
The Chairperson: We utterly repudiate that. As Chairperson of this Committee, I am not responsible. I did not make that statement.
Mr McHugh: That does not matter. If you want a fight in here or the Great Hall, you can have it.
The Chairperson: The Minister made this statement. The Minister claims her right to say these things, and I claim my right to reply. We will leave it there.
Mr Dallat: Mr Chairperson, you have done yourself a great disservice this morning.
The Chairperson: We shall leave it there; that is all. We regret that we cannot deal with the business that we were supposed to cover because of your letter, Minister. Before the meeting, the Committee asked whether you might give us a brief statement on the current status of rural proofing and the progress of the negotiations.
Ms Rodgers: As I explained, we have just received the Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) report. I know that the Committee is anxious to discuss it, and I share that desire. Since the Department will not respond until 15 December, I should like to meet the Committee on 7 December so that we can fully discuss my draft response, which will be ready by then.
Mr Chairperson, you will appreciate that it would be entirely inappropriate to have that discussion during a public session before I put the report to the FVO, since it would be a discourtesy. However, I wish to take your views on board before deciding the final version.
The paper on rural proofing, which I had hoped to provide to the Committee today, has not yet been agreed by my Executive Colleagues, and I am therefore not in a position to put it to the Committee. Executive confidentiality is another reason why I am clearly not able to discuss the matter. I regret that I am not yet in a position to put the document to the Committee, but as soon as I secure Executive approval for it - which I hope will be very soon - I shall discuss it with you.
The Chairperson: The Committee members felt that they would rather talk to you when you had something concrete to say about how the matter stood. They would prefer to hold the discussion in open session, for they are supposed to scrutinise the document. We passed a resolution that all our meetings be held in open session.
Ms Rodgers: I am sorry, but are you referring to the FVO report or rural proofing?
The Chairperson: It is also to do with the FVO report, but you are currently dealing with rural proofing. That is just a brief statement.
Ms Rodgers: Yes. I shall discuss it in open session. However, I hope that the Committee members appreciate that it would be entirely inappropriate for me to discuss a draft report currently being prepared and not yet put to the FVO with the Committee in open public session. Equally, it is also appropriate for me to discuss the report with Committee members to take their views on board before I finalise it.
The Chairperson: We should have liked the discussion in open session. However, let us leave the FVO for a moment. Have the Executive not yet taken the decision on rural proofing?
Ms Rodgers: I have not yet secured Executive agreement on the rural proofing paper. As soon as I have done so, I should be anxious to put the paper before the Committee for discussion.
Mr Ford: Is the Minister saying that the paper has been sent from her Department to the Executive? Can she give any indication of the timescale in which she expects the Executive's agreement to be given? I appreciate that there are difficulties regarding what she can say, but she has not given us any detail on timing.
Ms Rodgers: I can only say that I had hoped to be able to put the matter to the Committee today. I am not yet in a position to do so, but I hope to be able next time we meet. I cannot give guarantees, but I should be extremely disappointed if I were not.
Mr Ford: Then we shall enter it into our diary for December.
Mr Paisley Jnr: Has the Minister moved from a working definition to actual substance regarding what she will propose? For example, I understand that the Rural Development Council, to which the Department grants a great deal of money, has published a 14-point checklist on what rural proofing should involve. Is that part of the Minister's submission? Is she aware of the checklist?
Ms Rodgers: I should rather not discuss the rural proofing document today, since I have not yet got the Executive's full agreement. It would be inappropriate for me to enter into open discussion on the matter today. I regret that very much, and I shall have a full discussion as soon as I am in a position to do so.
Mr Paisley Jnr: Is that checklist part of your submission?
Ms Rodgers: I am not going to discuss that today, for I am not yet in a position to do so. Regardless of what may be in a document I have prepared, I cannot discuss it until I have Executive agreement.
Mr Paisley Jnr: Are you aware of the checklist?
Ms Rodgers: I am aware of everything that goes on in agriculture- or most things, at any rate.
Mr Paisley Jnr: But you cannot discuss a checklist as produced -
Ms Rodgers: I made it clear to the Committee that I should not discuss rural proofing today, since I should not be in a position to do so.
The Chairperson: You are saying that you are not in a position to deal with the rural proofing statement today. When will you be able to have a full discussion on the matter with the Committee?
Ms Rodgers: As I said, as soon as I get Executive agreement, which I hope will be sooner rather than later, I wish to bring the matter to the Committee.
The Chairperson: Might the Committee get the paper as soon as you, so that we could study it and arrange another meeting as soon as possible?
Ms Rodgers: Yes, certainly.
The Chairperson: Would that happen early in 2002?
Ms Rodgers: I hope that it would be before that time, but I cannot be certain.
The Chairperson: I believe recess begins on 14 December.
Ms Rodgers: We have a meeting on 7 December.
Mr Armstrong: The Minister mentioned that she would make a point of trying to be there.
Ms Rodgers: I hope to have agreement on the matter by then.
Mr Paisley Jnr: It appears that rural proofing is not a priority at all. It has taken from March until now to put a paper before the Executive. The Executive have been able to respond. Whether the time lag is the Department's fault does not matter, but it seems that the Government is not driving rural proofing forward.
The Chairperson: The views of the Committee have been made clear to the Minister from time to time.
Ms Rodgers: The Member will be aware that there was a crisis during February, March, April and May which took up all the Department's resources - as well as those of some other Departments, I am pleased to say. Many matters being dealt with had to be set aside, including the preparation of a rural development plan. I make no apology for that, and I expect people to understand. At the moment, because of Executive confidentiality, I am not prepared to speak any further on the rural proofing document, except to say that I hope to have it for the Committee as soon as I have Executive agreement.
The Chairperson: The Committee wishes a proper, public discussion on the matter with the full facts. It would prefer the discussion on the EU Food and Veterinary Office to be in public session and would like to change the date of the Committee meeting to 14 December. However, you will have to reply by 15 December, so we would not have progressed any further.
Ms Rodgers: I am in the Committee's hands. However, the response must be submitted by 15 December. I should not have time to take the Committee's views on board if I did not meet you until the last moment. I should be happier, and it would be in both our interests, to meet the Committee on 7 December. That would give me a week to consider your views and make any changes. The report will be a draft on 7 December, but it will probably be a final report by 14 December.
The Chairperson: So you would meet the Committee to discuss the FVO on 7 December; we should not have the opportunity to contribute after 14 December because the paper would be fully prepared.
Ms Rodgers: There is a deadline. The response must be in Brussels by 15 December, so I do not see how I could take your views on board if I did not meet you until 14 December.
The Chairperson: In view of what the Minister has said, is the Committee happy to hold the meeting in camera on 7 December?
Members indicated assent.
Ms Rodgers: I have asked my private secretary to speak to the Committee Clerk to draw up a monthly schedule for meetings in 2002 so that we can agree them in advance.
The Chairperson: We look forward to receiving that.
There is also the issue of the draft code of practice for farm subsidies. We have received a letter saying that you cannot do what the Committee requested. Regardless of whether someone wins or loses their appeal, they will lose £100.
It was suggested that a code of practice be drawn up. Can a statement be included in that code of practice so that the Department could, without prejudice, hand back the £100 to those who have won their case and met their appeal?
Ms Rodgers: I came here to discuss fisheries, not that issue. As my officials are not present and I have not had time to consider the issue, I should be very reluctant to comment on it.
The Chairperson: I understand. However, we should like to put that issue on the table. I thought that we might have some extra time today to deal with those matters, since, having read your letter, we thought that you could not deal with what was planned.
Can you confirm the statement by Sean Clarke, chairman of the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers' Association (NIAPA)?
Ms Rodgers: Yes, I can. I regret that there is a dispute, and I have had discussions with both individuals who claim to be chairman. That matter clearly has nothing to do with me, and I do not wish to become involved in it. However, having examined the evidence from both sides, I now recognise Sean Clarke as the chairman of NIAPA.
The Chairperson: As the Committee was not aware of your decision, they did not meet with him. Of course, it will now take the same line that you take.
Ms Rodgers: The Committee asked for an update on a range of fisheries issues. It has received: the memorandum summarising recent advice on fish stocks from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES); the work to date on persuading the Commission to reverse the 10% cut in the total allowable catch (TAC) for nephrops; and the work needed to review the economic effect of the cod recovery programme and the state of play on the decommissioning scheme.
The ICES scientific advice presents a worrying picture of the state of stocks which are of interest to the local industry. It also suggests even sterner measures to continue the overall stock-recovery objective. That was heralded in the Commission's statement on long-term recovery plans for cod and hake. A recommendation for the lowest possible level of catches for cod, hake and whiting has been made. It is not yet clear what that means in practice, or indeed what measures will be proposed to achieve those levels. It could mean further TAC reductions or effort control - or a combination of both.
As noted in the memorandum, the advice from ICES also urges further measures to reduce whiting discards. That is worrying for our local industry because of the whiting discard levels in nephrops fishery. The industry has already been placed under pressure by the 10% reduction in TAC for nephrops imposed at last December's Fisheries Council meeting. I have outlined the steps we have taken in conjunction with the other UK Fisheries Departments to receive that 10% cut. I am extremely disappointed by the Commission's reaction to our strong case to have the cut reversed. The Commission gave an undertaking to review the 10% cut if member states could demonstrate an acceptable by-catch of cod and hake. Our scientists produced a very convincing analysis without guidance from the Commission. We have answered the Commission's subsequent questions satisfactorily.
I believe that the Commission is not keeping its side of the deal, and I am resolved to continue to work with my ministerial Colleagues to press for an early resolution of the matter. I spoke to Mr Elliot Morley on the fringes of the Agriculture Ministers' meeting in London last Wednesday, and he assured me that he would continue to press the case with the Commission. I understand the Commission's difficulty with granting concessions to one member state, given the increasingly poor state of many fish stocks and the overall objective of long-term stock recovery. However, each case should be considered on merit, and the Commission itself has not denied that our case is sound.
I have outlined the early stages of work on the assessment of the economic consequences of recovery plans. I understand that, both in the Northern Ireland industry and elsewhere, there has been continued interest in compensated tie-up arrangements for next year.
I have undertaken to revisit the current policy, which is not to compensate, and to discuss the matter with ministerial colleagues. I shall do that at the earliest opportunity. The European Commission has already indicated that member states are free to use structural funds for finance. Such a step would also involve a revision of the fisheries plan in the Northern Ireland Programme for Building Sustainable Prosperity and fresh profiling of expenditure.
The fishing vessel decommissioning scheme has attracted considerable interest, with the issue of 114 application forms. With the closing date past, it will be a matter of checking received applications to establish eligibility and the setting of strike prices. The Department wishes to do that as quickly as possible and notify successful applicants early. Decommissioning was one of the fisheries measures in the Northern Ireland Programme for Building Sustainable Prosperity. Under that umbrella the Department hopes soon to be in a position to launch further schemes in relation to processing and marketing, aquaculture, the promotion of fish products and improvements to ports.
The Chairperson: From what you have said, Minister, I presume that you do not intend to provide compensation.
Ms Rodgers: An assessment of the impact of tie-up schemes on the industry is being conducted. When I have the result I shall be able to judge whether compensation should be paid. If I decide that there is a case for it, I shall have to discuss it with UK colleagues, for there is a common policy of not compensating. I shall then have to get EU state aid approval and, finally, find the resources.
The Chairperson: The Assembly voted on this and recommended that there should be compensation.
Ms Rodgers: That is why I am having the assessment. My mind is not entirely closed to it. However, a number of hurdles must be overcome, and if a case is to be made, the assessment must be complete.
The Chairperson: Some Committee members are worried that there is not enough time for it. Can it be done in the next four months or so before the 2002 closures? Fishermen have said that no similar assessment of closures has begun in England or Wales - one has only recently begun in Scotland. Will the position in those countries affect your decision on whether compensation is appropriate here?
Ms Rodgers: The assessment must be completed by February. No such assessment has been made in the other regions because they are not contemplating such a scheme. As I have said, if there is evidence of a need for it, I will have to discuss it with my UK colleagues and get EU approval and funding.
The Chairperson: Have you had representations from the fishing organisations?
Ms Rodgers: Yes. The fishing organisations are anxious to have a tie-up scheme.
Mr Douglas: Has the cod recovery plan resulted in a recovery of stocks?
Ms Rodgers: The scientific evidence, which is based on last year's scientific investigation and research, indicates that there may be some recovery, but very little. The view is that there is a need for further cutbacks to ensure that we do not waste the pain suffered so far by moving too soon.
Mr Douglas: There is a fear that this reduction will lead to another reduction which will never be clawed back.
Ms Rodgers: I am aware of that. There is the fear that having gone through two years of pain to restore the stocks, the Department, because of the further pain required, might move too quickly and maybe undo the good that was done. I hope that the scientific research for next year will be better.
Mr Armstrong: The cod catch in the first two years of the plan was low. Will that be taken into account in future years, if fishermen cannot raise the catch?
Ms Rodgers: The catch was low because the quotas were reduced to conserve the fishing stocks. We have to find a balance between maintaining a viable industry, keeping fishermen in the industry and conserving stocks to ensure its future.
Mr Armstrong: The quota was reduced to let the stocks rise. When will that happen?
Ms Rodgers: It will take some time to ensure that the stocks are recovering; it was not a one off, one-year plan. It was initially intended to run for five years. It is now entering its third year.
Mr Savage: The documents show that there was interest in the decommissioning scheme. You said that the closing date was yesterday. When the scheme is completed, it is important that we have a modern fishing fleet. Have there been many applications for modernising the fleet?
Ms Rodgers: The Department has not received applications, but it will consider modernisation as part of its future plans for the industry. For the moment, the Department has concentrated on the decommissioning scheme, but modernising the fishing fleet, safety and training will feature.
Mr Savage: It is important that once the stock restrictions are over, we finish with a fishing fleet that can compete with that of any country in Europe.
Ms Rodgers: That is a fair point. After decommissioning, the Department will consider what it can do to ensure that the remaining fleet is modern, viable and able to compete.
Mr Paisley Jnr: Do you agree that the Department's scientific evidence is wrong and that its validity has been called into question?
Ms Rodgers: What scientific evidence are you referring to?
Mr Paisley Jnr: The Department's scientific evidence is wrong ,and its validity has been called into question. Do you agree with that statement?
Ms Rodgers: I am not a scientist; the scientists must guide me. The industry does not agree with the scientists' views, and that is a problem. My experience, in my short time in office, is that the European Commission accepts the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea's (ICES) advice. The fishermen's view is that there are climatic factors, and others, to be taken into account, but I am reluctant to say that I disagree with scientific advice.
Mr Paisley Jnr: Mr McGrady said in the House on Tuesday that the Department's scientific information is wrong and that its validity has been called into question. The European Commission does not think that it is wrong, but is that your view as well?
Ms Rodgers: I know the industry thinks it is wrong. I am not in a position to take that view. I must accept the view that the scientists put forward, as we must for all matters, including animal health.
Mr Paisley Jnr: Therefore, the scientific information is right?
Ms Rodgers: I cannot gainsay the scientific advice that I get. I am aware of conflict between the industry and the scientists, but I have no option but to be guided by the scientific advice, and the Commission takes that view. The Department will try to argue the socio-economic position of our industry to get the best possible tack, and I will take that line.
Mr Paisley Jnr: So the scientific evidence is right then? The Department agrees with the scientific evidence?
Ms Rodgers: Can you give me a sound basis on which to contradict the evidence?
Mr Paisley Jnr: I am just asking you if Mr McGrady is wrong when he says that the Department's scientific evidence has been proven wrong and that its validity has been called into question.
Ms Rodgers: I am sorry. Did you say that it proves to be wrong?
Mr Paisley Jnr: Yes. It is wrong.
Ms Rodgers: Well, Mr McGrady is perfectly entitled to his view.
Mr Paisley Jnr: He is not being dishonest with you, surely?
Ms Rodgers: No - absolutely not. That is his view, and everyone is entitled to his view. I cannot gainsay the scientists, and I have no intention of doing that. I will not decide that I know better, but I will argue strongly for a balance between the need to conserve stocks and the need to preserve their social and economic viability for fishermen.
Mr Paisley Jnr: I am not sure whether that was a yes or a no to the scientific evidence. You must either side with or disagree with the scientists. The industry would like you to disagree with them; Mr McGrady would like you to disagree with them; and the Committee would like you to disagree with them, but you cannot say whether you disagree with them or not - you are hedging your bets on this.
Ms Rodgers: Mr Chairperson, my experience of life is that nothing is ever black and white.
Mr Paisley Jnr: Science is black and white.
Ms Rodgers: Not fishing science, I understand. The Commission will base its view on its scientific advice. I will argue very strongly because I suspect that, as in previous years, the Commission will take a hard line. Ministerial Colleagues, officials and I will work hard to ensure that we get the best possible deal for Northern Irish fishermen that is based on their social and economic needs. That is the best I can do, and I assure the Committee that I will do it as I have done in previous years.
The Chairperson: Minister, it has been proved in the past that scientific evidence has been wrong, and the scientists have had to eat their words. Should they not be changed so that we can get proper evidence?
Ms Rodgers: I think, Mr Chairperson, that you may be referring to the sheep. Are you?
The Chairperson: What sheep? No, I am referring to fish.
Ms Rodgers: I thought that you were referring to the science.
The Chairperson: I sat at a meeting in Brussels with your colleague when the scientist gave evidence.
Ms Rodgers: About the fish?
The Chairperson: Yes. The evidence was proved to be absolutely wrong, and they had to come back and say that the fishermen were right. Fishermen here are angry because those scientists have been proved wrong before, yet the Department always accepts what the scientists say and not what they say.
Ms Rodgers: Mr Chairperson, I am not aware of the facts that you put before me, but if they are proved wrong we will all sing hallelujah and increase the tax.
The Chairperson: Fishermen have suffered because of the scientists' wrongs. We will move on.
Ms Rodgers: The ICES advice is based on historical data and subject to review from time to time. However, the ICES may take a different approach in a review. The Commission will base its proposals on its scientific advice, and we must deal with that whether we like it or not. I repeat that I will do my best to ensure that it recognises the need for balance.
Mr Kane: If the cod recovery plan is in place, will it take two or three years to recover those stocks?
Ms Rodgers: The plan will take five years, depending on how it works out. I cannot look into the future. However, I hope that it will be successful and that the stocks will recover.
Mr Kane: Will you continue to petition the European Union on the strength of the nephrops argument?
Ms Rodgers: Yes. I am extremely angry about this. The Department was given a written commitment from the Commission at the Fisheries Council meeting in December 2000, which said that if it could be proven that there was minimal bi-catch of cod with nephrops fishing, the Commission would restore the 10 % cut. It has reneged on that. I am continuing to petition the case. Mr Morley recently assured me of his full backing. The Department has done its bit. The scientific evidence proves that there is minimal bi-catch. It is not good enough for the Commission to say, "Sorry, we are not going to give it to you". I do not accept that and I will continue to fight it.
Mr Kane: That is good news. Thank you, Minister.
Mr Ford: That point was raised in a letter from Mr McCulla, which was forwarded to the Committee and sent to you on 12 November. Can I assume, therefore, that his point
"You will be aware that the series of papers submitted by local fisheries scientists highlights the fact that the 10 per cent cut in nephrops contributed nothing to the recovery of the Cod stock"
is an accurate reflection of the Department's position?
Ms Rodgers: Yes.
Mr Ford: What action will you take if there is no movement at the council meeting in December? Other member states seem to be readier to resort to legal action over European matters than the United Kingdom. If the Department is determined to take action, with Mr Morley's backing, what will be done to ensure that the Commission lives up to its commitment?
Ms Rodgers: I hope to get a result before the Fisheries Council meeting takes place. I will be pressing for that. If the outcome is unsuccessful, I will discuss what we do then with the Minister responsible for agriculture in the United Kingdom. I would be reluctant to let it go, but I am not the sovereign Minister. However, I will be looking at what options are available.
Mr Ford: Have you been in touch with other EU Governments to strengthen our case before the council meets?
Ms Rodgers: I have had discussions with Mr Fahey on the margins of North/South Ministerial Council meetings. I will see him again before the Fisheries Council meeting in December, as I did last year. I will try to meet anyone who is favourable to our case, as I did last year with the French.
The Chairperson: Minister, I wish you well with Mr Morley. He has been unreliable in the past.
Mr Dallat: Minister, last March you said that there would be tailored training work during the cod recovery period. Has that work come about?
Ms Rodgers: I am not aware of the details of it. Perhaps Mr Prentice can elaborate on them?
Mr Prentice: The FIFG (Financial Instrument for Fisheries Guidance) Fund will provide training when the fishing fleet is tied up. The terms that were envisaged by the Department are outside the normal policy of assistance. The programme will provide 100 % free training for fishermen to comply with the standard courses that are required before they can go to sea. It will be introduced in the new year.
Mr McHugh: Minister, after all that, you need that reassurance.
Ms Rodgers: Thank you very much. I appreciate that.
Mr McHugh: What is the likelihood of getting state aid from the European Commission? That would have a far greater impact on the communities we are talking about than the existing policy in Britain. It is a much bigger issue for us here than it is in other parts. If you do not get that aid, where does that leave us in terms of compensation?
Is it possible to have an independent assessment of scientific research? In other parts of the world, the technology is available to do this sort of conservation work. Have others been able to do things differently? Is there any other independent way of assessing the numbers of stocks?
Ms Rodgers: I am having an assessment done to see precisely what the impact on the tie-up scheme is. I think the Commission would be favourable to compensation if we can prove the economic case for it. That will depend on the result of our assessment. If there is a need for it, and a good economic case, I have every reason to believe that the Commission will look favourably on state aid.
Scientific research is normally independent. I cannot say anything further than that.
Mr McHugh: I thought that others had had more involvement and had progressed further. Scientific research, or the ability to prove a case, can be better in some places than in others.
Ms Rodgers: Scientists do research on the basis of historical evidence or data. It is independent research.
Mr McHugh: It is a bit vague.
Ms Rodgers: Scientists argue that science is not a vague but a very exact thing. What I seem to be hearing today is that because of the concern about the impact of the research on the fishermen, there is a reluctance to accept the results of scientific research. That is understandable. On the other hand, the scientists do not have an axe to grind. They are just giving their independent advice.
Mr Paisley Jnr: Mr Ford mentioned the letter of 12 November from Alan McCulla, who was disappointed to learn that neither Ireland nor France nor any shareholders in nephrops total available catch area vii had mounted any campaign against the 10% cut. I want to press you about the sort of progress you intend to make with Mr Fahey. Are you clear about why Mr Fahey and the Department in the Republic have not actually launched a campaign to reverse the 10% cut? Is it naïve to think that the good working relationship between you and Mr Fahey will lend itself to his supporting a policy that affects our country as opposed to his? Do you have a plan B in place? It appears that plan A, to try to persuade Mr Fahey and his Department to support you, has not worked to date.
Ms Rodgers: Member States have to make their own cases. I have concentrated fairly heavily on Elliot Morley because it is the United Kingdom that will have to make the case. That is not to say that I cannot seek support from other quarters and other states for the case that we are making.
What is plan B? I will do my best, and if someone can suggest a plan B, I will consider it. I cannot think of any plan except to make the strongest possible case based on the issues that I have already referred to and hope that it is successful.
Mr Paisley Jnr: I asked that because you have traded politically on your good links with the Irish Republic and the Department of Marine and Natural Resources. If that political trade has not had dividends for the industry here, the real pressure must be on the United Kingdom representative. Instead of being out in the cold with another state, we must persuade the United Kingdom representative to make the case, because the pressure on Mr Fahey and other states has counted for very little.
Ms Rodgers: I do not accept that. Every bit of help from other member states is extremely important. Last year I talked to the French delegate, Jean Glavany, and to Mr Fahey. Northern Ireland is a member of the United Kingdom, so it is the United Kingdom that makes our case. I am trying to have fisheries made one of the issues for North/South Ministerial Council so that discussions between North and South are on a firmer footing..
The Chairperson: Have you got figures for those who have applied for decommissioning?
Ms Rodgers: Yesterday was the closing date for applications, and 66 people have applied. Those applications will be assessed, and we hope to send out letters of offer by the beginning of December.
The Chairperson: What percentage of those applications will be accepted?
Mr Prentice: It is not a matter of how many. We are operating a strike price, and a certain amount of money will be spread over the two segments -nephrops and white fish. The number of successful bids will depend on their size.
The Chairperson: There will be 66 boats going out of our fishing fleet - [Interruption].
Mr Prentice: There is no question of 66 boats leaving the fleet unless there are extremely cheap bids. I have no reason to believe that the bids will be cheap.
The Chairperson: It shows how many people wish to get out, and that is a bad sign.
The Minister will meet with the Committee again on 7 December.