Agriculture and Rural Development
Friday 7 June 2002
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
Rev Dr Ian Paisley (Chairperson)
Mr Savage (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr M Murphy
Mr Paisley Jnr
Ms Rodgers ) Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development
Mr S Johnston )
Mr G McIlroy ) Departmental Officials
Mr T McCusker )
I welcome the Minister, Ms Bríd Rodgers, and her departmental officials Mr Stewart Johnston, Mr George McIlroy, and Mr Tony McCusker.
Before we start, the Committee has had a brief conversation about the recent report on rural stress, and we are alarmed. It is a serious position when the largest industry in Northern Ireland has this particular threat over it. I know that you not had time to study this document, but we want to know your first reaction and how you feel about it.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers):
I have not had time to study the document, and I only have the gist of it. I am well aware of the stress that is evident in the farming community, and this report concerns me. It is not a total shock or surprise because I am aware of the problems, having been around the farming community and attended many public meetings. I have made £100,000 available to the rural support group, who are working to relieve this stress on farmers. I attended the rural support group's annual general meeting and heard the problems at first hand.
This group and I met the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to impress on her the need to take action and give support to this work. I will continue to do all in my power to ensure that the necessary support is available to the farming community. Clearly, this does not come within the remit of my portfolio; nevertheless, it is a serious issue. I will now study the report in detail, as I am extremely concerned about it.
When you have studied the report, will you come and talk to this Committee about it?
I have not had time to study the report fully, but some things about it worry me. It says that stress is a greater danger now than it was when the shadow of foot-and-mouth disease was upon us, and that is very serious. Most of this strain is financial, because farmers have lost money and their livelihoods, and creditors want what they are owed. The only way to take the financial strain off farmers is to relieve their burden of debt. That may seem very simplistic, but we must face the facts.
This is a serious and important problem. When the Minister has had time to read the report, we should revisit the subject, as we will be anxious to hear her views.
Dr Paisley will recall that when the pig farmers were going through difficult times my officials worked hard to ensure that the farmers were able to access social security. Traditionally, farmers have never done that and may even have had an aversion to that. My officials worked with the Department of Social Development officials and were able to help the pig farmers to access social security benefits. That is another avenue worth exploring. It will not answer all the questions, but it could alleviate financial difficulty.
We should enter any door that gives us a chink of light and push it open further if we can. If this diagnosis is correct - and I think that it is - we must find the prescription that will relieve it.
May I add something to that?
You will have to be brief because the Minister was not briefed on this subject.
Farmers are losing their identity, and that is the main problem. The next generation do not want to follow on with the farming tradition.
I gather that that was in the report.
The next item of business is the stakeholder form, and the Minister will make a statement.
Thank you for inviting me to the Committee to discuss my proposals for the stakeholders' forum and to consider the situation of TB and brucellosis. I announced my decision to create a stakeholders' forum at the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development's annual breakfast at the Balmoral Show a few weeks ago.
The purpose of the forum is to bring together those individuals and organisations that have an interest in the role and development of the agrifood industry and the wider rural economy, and to consider the strategic issues that must be addressed. There is much to be gained if those concerned with the future vitality of the rural way of life have the opportunity to come together to exchange points of view.
At present there are limited opportunities for stakeholders to do that, and therefore the understanding of each other's position and the identification of common interest is not as good as it might otherwise be. We cannot afford to pursue narrow, parallel or even divergent agendas when it comes to agrifood and rural issues. Therefore, the stakeholders' forum is not only about what individuals and organisations can bring to the meeting: it is also about what they can take away. So far, I have received positive feedback for the concept of a stakeholders' forum, and people now want to know its functions and structure.
Earlier today I announced that the remit of the forum was to advise me about strategic issues in the agrifood sector and the rural community generally. I have deliberately kept a wide remit, as I do not want to constrain the deliberations of the forum. As I have indicated, the flows of information and opinion will be multi-directional among all the participants and should provide an educational experience for all involved, including myself.
Many organisations have a positive role to play in the development of the industry and the rural economy; many have something to contribute. However, that must be balanced against the need for a forum that can focus on the strategic issues without becoming unwieldy. Therefore, I propose a two-tier structure for the forum with a core group of about a dozen organisations drawn from spheres of interest such as farming; input supply; food processing; marketing; consumer; environmental; and rural development. I intend that this group should meet around three times a year in plenary session, chaired either by myself or my permanent secretary. I can also see great merit in a yearly meeting between this group and the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development. I also envisage that all working papers from the forum would be copied to the Committee as a matter of course.
The second tier would be a much wider grouping and would be open to any interested organisation with something to contribute. Sub-committees may also be established as appropriate to consider specific issues, reporting back to the main group in due course. The wider grouping would meet once a year, perhaps in the context of a conference. It would also receive papers circulated by, or to, the core group during its more frequent meetings. My Department will provide the necessary secretariat to support the forum's operation. I hope that this has provided you with a flavour of what the stakeholders' forum will look like and do. I am happy to answer any questions you might have.
Have you any idea of the limit on numbers in the larger conference? Is that too difficult to say?
I have not considered that in detail. However, I want any organisations that have an interest in the rural community, the farming industry or the agrifood industry to feel that they can become involved in the wider group. I do not want to be too prescriptive, although I do not want it to get out of hand altogether.
In our inquiry into the Livestock and Meat Commission (LMC), the Committee recommended that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development facilitate discussions among interested parties regarding the development of such a forum. However, you have indicated that you did not have a sense of widespread support in the industry for a forum and that you intended to await the outcome of the development of the food body recommendation in the vision group report. Members want to establish why this apparent change of heart has taken place in advance of the report by the working group set up to consider the food body recommendation.
That related only to the narrow issue of food. This forum relates to wider rural community issues, including rural development personnel, the farming community and all stakeholders. It does not just relate to the narrow issue of food. It is a different concept.
Our immediate representation from members of the farming community itself is that they fear that they could be submerged in the body, with so many people of various interests. They believe that there is a place for all in the industry, but that must be a fair place in relation to the money coming to them. For instance, they feel that middlemen and the multinational organisations are doing well; they are not going into bankruptcy. However, the farmer is not doing well. In view of the line-up on the other side, farmers feel that they might be submerged in a body in which their voice would have not have the strength that it ought to have.
I am very much aware of that concern. I intend to ensure that the producer at the bottom end of the pile will have the strongest voice in the forum.
That would be encouraging to the farming community.
I was at the breakfast when you first mentioned the stakeholders' forum, Minister. Your speech that morning was very good. Although no one disagreed, the main problem is that the forum appears to be another talking shop. Because of our current difficulties, we want no rash decisions; much thought must be given to our actions. The farming industry is failing, and discussion will continue for a long time. The matter has been dealt with in depth, for example by sub-committees. Although discussion is important, the farming community's main fear is that another talking shop, while bringing people together, will not solve problems.
I do not see the forum as a talking shop. The vision group explored the preparation of a strategy to deal with the difficulties that the farming community will face, and it is working on an action plan. The forum's purpose is the ongoing exchange of views and information to ensure that we, as the Government, and the community who are affected by the coming changes and by the necessary actions are kept fully aware of each other's problems and of the realities which must be faced. It is very important that we all have a grasp of reality, of what must be done and of the reasons for certain actions. We in turn will be aware of the difficulties those actions cause for the farming community and for the wider rural community. From that standpoint, the forum - far from being a talking shop - will iron out some of the difficulties that arise, frequently from a lack of understanding of the problems faced. It will also investigate the management of those problems that we cannot influence.
The farmers' union and other groups have been talking for years to sort out farmers' problems, and in the eyes of many farmers the forum will be yet another group. The main problem is financial, and we all welcome ideas on how a farmer can increase the income from his product. Although I hope that it will lead to more financial gain to the farmer, farmers do not see that the forum is necessary.
Sometimes, no matter what you do, you cannot win. If you don't talk to farmers they say you do not listen, and then they tell you that talking is a waste of time. It is difficult to know what to do. I understand that farmers are very uncertain and unhappy and perhaps feel that nothing can be done, but that is a defeatist attitude. The vision group's action plan deals with the problem of income and how viability can be returned to farming. The forum will allow farmers to voice their opinions and to tell us how changes affect them. It will also allow us to explain actions and the reasons for taking them. From that point of view, talking is good.
You will find that farmers are so busy that they have no time to talk at seminars and such. Earlier you said that help is available from social security to farmers in financial difficulties. A farmer will not go to social security. He will take a bank loan, and will hope to pay it off in perhaps five years by good, profitable farming practice. That has not been possible in the last few years.
Fair enough, but you will accept, Mr Armstrong, that not every farmer in Northern Ireland will be expected to attend the forum. A representative group will attend, together with union representatives. As usual, farmers will feed their views through their unions.
The intentions of the forum are good. However, I have noticed during the past few months that when certain people speak their minds there can be serious repercussions for them. I am talking straight. There are even people in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development who have spoken out about different things during the past year, and because they did not say what was expected of them they have been sent to Coventry, sent out of the way, and put to one side. I intend to take that matter up with you privately, Minister.
Farmers have raised various points from time to time. They are dependent on merchants. That has serious repercussions, because some businessmen refuse to take what those farmers produce. If the Minster intends the forum to have teeth, it must have a wide representation from the farming community on it. The Committee for Agriculture was set up to protect and guide farmers. What the farming community has endured during the past three or four years goes beyond understanding.
The stage has been reached when everyone is living off the backs of farmers. We must draw the line somewhere. The question is whether we want to have an agriculture industry in Northern Ireland. That is what everything hinges on. Farmers cannot continue like this. The price of farmers' produce is dropping. Other factors, such as the strength of sterling, also contribute to the problem. There is big competition from other countries. Ultimately, safeguards must be put in place for the farming industry in Northern Ireland.
You seem to hint at serious repercussions for people who speak out. I do not know whether you refer to officials or farmers. You have talked in a way that is difficult to understand. Certainly, if you have allegations to make about officials, or anyone in the Department, it would be useful if you were more specific.
I will be, Minister. However, I do not want to talk publicly about the matter.
That would be helpful. Officials have worked hard in the interests of the industry. That has been my experience right across my Department.
You refer to commercial problems between farmers and merchants. Clearly, that is not a matter that I can influence. You seem to refer again to the distrust that exists between the producer and the processor, or people in different parts of the chain. That issue has been pointed out by the vision report, and it must be addressed. There needs to be more co-operation and building of understanding across the chain.
As to whether we want an agriculture industry in Northern Ireland - that is precisely why I set up the vision group, and why the Department is working so hard to produce an action plan on the basis of its proposals, based on the fact that while we cannot stop the world, or stop change, what the Department must do is manage it in the best interests of the industry. The Department has been struggling with and working with those issues during the past two years, despite last year's setback with foot-and-mouth disease, which meant that work that would otherwise have been implemented by now had to be put back because of the five or six months' delay.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
I want to preface my questions with a comment. Contrary to comments by some Members of the Committee, I hope that every effort is made to encourage farmers, who are entitled to, to claim benefit. It is crucial that they do so. I welcome the publication of the Department for Social Development's A to Z guide for farmers, which the Department of Agriculture had a hand in. That publication should be brought to the attention of every farmer in the country.
My next comment applies to all Departments. There is a cynical view that forums such as the stakeholders' forum are established to give the Government cover when they have to make difficult decisions. I do not share that view, but I hope that it does not emerge that that is what the stakeholder's forum is about, because difficult and fundamental decisions will have to be made on behalf of the industry, and, as the Minister knows, the buck will stop with the Department of Agriculture. Why does the proposed stakeholders' forum not appear in the business strategy that the Department recently published? The Minister has explained who will be involved and that the strongest voice in the forum will be that of the farmer. What mechanism will be established to allow the farmer to have the strongest voice?
The Minister has outlined some of the proposals as to the purpose of the stakeholders' forum. Is it a process to encourage the establishment of co-operatives within the industry? The Committee proposed that in a previous report, and it would be useful if that were seen to be one of its aims.
In the Minister's statement on this subject on 15 May, she said that important options would become available in a matter of weeks after the launch of the action plan arising from the vision report. When will we see those options so that we can get a handle on the kind of important strategic decisions that have to be made?
I am not sure if all of the Member's questions are relevant to the issues that we are discussing. I agree with Mr Paisley Jnr's initial remarks that farmers should apply for every possible benefit that they are entitled to; given the difficulties that they have had, they should not feel that there is any disgrace or shame in doing that.
I am pleased that the Member does not hold a cynical view about the stakeholders' forum. One could not blame farmers for being cynical, given the difficulties that they have been through. However, I assure the Committee that in setting up the forum my only concern has been to ensure that we are all working together towards the same end and that we are working on the basis of understanding what the problems are, what the difficulties are, and, as Mr Paisley Jnr said, what the difficult choices will be. I accept that at the end of the day I will have to make choices, as will the Committee, because if the Committee does not support a choice then it will have to name an alternative and where the resources will come from. As we are all aware, resources will be limited.
I am looking seriously at how I will deal with giving farmers the strongest voice, and when I come to a firm decision and announce the makeup of the stakeholders' forum, I hope that the Committee will agree that I have done that.
Co-operatives are a good idea, and although neither the Department nor I can impose or force that, we will encourage it. If parts of the industry want to set up co-operatives, we will be happy to facilitate that.
My officials have been working on the action plan that has arisen from the vision report, and I hope to have their report soon. Some decisions cannot yet be made because I am awaiting the results of research and deliberations from food bodies. Nevertheless, I want to come forward with an action plan as soon as possible. I want that action plan to be discussed with the Committee, the Assembly and the industry so that we can make it something that will really help, and that will give us a strategic approach to move forward.
If the core group is to be successful it must have grass-roots support. For the forum to succeed, active farmers must be in the majority. Some 18 months have passed since this matter was first discussed, and foot-and-mouth disease has been blamed for delays. Nevertheless, the Committee will await the outcome.
That was concise.
There is great regard for the representation round the table. I have been writing notes for the past two days but now they are all null and void because everyone else has asked the questions.
All you had to say was that your question had already been answered.
What percentage do you have in mind regarding farmers' and their unions' representation? Would it be 51%?
It is too soon to ask. I do not want to be facetious about it. There are many stakeholders in the rural community and in the whole area of protecting sustainable farming. The farmers are the biggest element in it, but there are also environmental concerns. Everyone must have a voice -including consumers and processors in the agri-food industry. If you ignore any of the voices, you will not have a rounded discussion. I have made it clear that I want the producers to have the strongest voice. This will not be a decision-making body - it will be a stakeholders' forum for an exchange of views and a building of better understanding of all the issues. It will be a two-way process, between Government and the stakeholders and vice versa.
Mr M Murphy:
Most farmers do not have the resources to improve their farms, yet setting up the forum is costly.
At present, I cannot say exactly what it will cost. The Department will be providing a secretariat, but I do not envisage that it will be a costly affair. It is worth having an input from the rural community and the farming community at that level.
Mr M Murphy:
Some of the farmers feel that it means jobs for the boys.
There are no jobs for the boys - it will be hard work for everyone. It will mean people coming and giving their views. There will be no jobs in it, but there will be additional work for my officials. We do not choose who represents the farmers - that will be done by the unions.
Thank you, Minister.