Agriculture and Rural Development
Friday 20th September 2002
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
Discussions with Minister
(I) Vision Action Plan
(II) Food Body Working Group
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 John Dallat*
Mr David Ford
Mr Gerry McHugh
Mr Ian Paisley Jnr.
| Mr PJ Bradley
Mr Boyd Douglas
Mr Gardiner Kane
Mr Pat Doherty**
* Mr Dallat replaced Mr Denis Haughey on the latter's appointment as a Junior Minister.
** Mr Doherty replaced Mr Mick Murphy with effect from 1 July 2002.
Mr Murphy replaced Mr Francie Molloy with effect from 4 February 2002
PLEASE NOTE THAT THE MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
HAVE NOT BEEN EXAMINED BY MEMBERS OR BY THE MINISTER AND HER OFFICIALS
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
Friday 20 September 2002
Rev Dr Ian Paisley (Chairperson)
Mr Savage (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Paisley Jnr
Ms Bríd Rodgers ) Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development
Mr L McKibben )
Mr T Strainer ) Departmental officials
Dr Bernie Stuart )
The Chairperson: I welcome Ms Bríd Rodgers, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, and the departmental officials, Mr Liam McKibben, Mr Tom Stainer and Dr Bernie Stuart. Minister, I understand that you wish to talk to us about the vision group report and other relevant matters.
Ms Rodgers: Good morning. The vision exercise was initiated in response to the challenges faced by the agrifood sector and is important in its own right. However, I now regard it as an integral part of the modernisation programme which I announced at the IFEX Food Conference on 24 April 2002. You are aware of the various strands of modernisation, which include my response to the O'Hare Report on Education and Research and Development in Agriculture and Food Science and the restructuring of the Department, which was partly in response to the recommendations of the vision group and partly to improve the interface with the agrifood industry. Also included is my response to a number of policy reviews, such as those on brucellosis and TB, which are currently out for public consultation.
I plan to announce many of my proposals on modernisation in late November 2002, and that will include the release of the vision action plan. The aim of the vision exercise is to produce a long-term strategy to enable the agrifood industry to meet the challenges which it will face in the years ahead, such as common agricultural policy reform, enlargement of the European Union, globalisation and pressure to farm in an environmentally friendly way.
Publication of the vision report was delayed in response to the wishes of the vision steering group because of the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease just at the time when the steering group intended to present its report to me. The vision report was finally published in October 2001 and contains over 200 recommendations, many of which are for the industry to implement. I have consulted widely on the report, and my original intention was to release the plan in June 2002. However, I decided to delay its publication until November so that account could be taken of the mid-term review of the common agricultural policy. I received the Commission's proposals in July, and my officials and industry representatives are now considering their implications.
Postponement of the plan's publication will allow me to draw together some modernisation issues in my November 2002 announcement. I shall have the report of the food body working group in the next few days and shall be interested to hear your views on its recommendations in due course. Delay in the publication of the action plan does not mean that I am not moving forward with the recommendations.
In March 2002 I announced 11 measures to address 30 of the recommendations, such as fraud prevention, re-scaling and animal health. I shall indicate my response to each vision report recommendation in the action plan and hope to include proposals to address the implementation of a further 60 vision report recommendations directly. These cover: agrienvironment; people development; traceability and various food-chain issues.
You will be aware that I have set up a rural stakeholders' forum which met for the first time in July 2002. A sub-group of that forum will assist with the 30 or so recommendations which are for the industry to implement. The sub-group will meet in the next few weeks.
Other recommendations involve issues relevant to other Government Departments, and work is already under way on those.
I have now received a research report from Queen's University in association with University College, Dublin on the economic, social and environmental arguments for and against new-entrant and early-retirement schemes. I am studying that report, and rather than my simply copying it to you, a letter giving my initial reactions will accompany it. The vision action plan will provide details of future actions and report progress to date. The plan will also include a section on Committee recommendations and state how they have been taken into account.
The Chairperson: Do you admit that the vision group report meeting is abortive until we receive those documents?
Ms Rodgers: I made it quite clear before the summer recess that I should not provide an action plan until November 2002. I have outlined my reasons to you, which are the review of the common agricultural policy and the report from Queen's University and UCD on early-retirement and new-entrant schemes.
The Chairperson: Our understanding from your office was that the purpose of this meeting was for you to talk to the Committee on the outcome of the consultation exercise. Now you say that that is not possible until we know the outcome of the report and your reaction to it.
Ms Rodgers: My understanding was that a request had been made for me to discuss the vision report and the consultation exercise. I made it clear before the summer, in the Assembly and before the Committee, that there would not be an action plan until November 2002. I gave the reasons for that, which I repeated on numerous occasions. There may be some misunderstanding.
The Chairperson: That seems to be the case, as we have already given our ideas on the vision report to you, and until you come up with decisions we cannot progress. Our worry is that there will be a long delay. We hope that you will be in a position to make the statement in November.
I read that you were to make a statement at the Loughry College of Agriculture and Food Technology meeting. I do not know where I read that - perhaps in the 'Farming Life', where you gave a reply to my Deputy.
Ms Rodgers: Dr Paisley, there was a mistake. I responded to that in the farming press. I do not know how that came about, but I did not make any such statement. I have made it clear that that was not what I said.
The Chairperson: There is no point in our talking about that, as you have no announcements to make. We cannot take this discussion any further today.
Ms Rodgers: I accept that.
The Chairperson: When shall we receive your response on the new-entrant and early-retirement schemes? You planned to send us a letter including comments from reports from Queen's University and UCD. When are we likely to receive that?
Ms Rodgers: I am considering the results of the research, which were presented to me a few days ago. I shall discuss the report with my Executive colleagues, and the Committee will of course see it as soon as I have made some decisions about it. I want to give the report to the Committee along with my views on it.
The Chairperson: The Committee is keen to have a meeting with you immediately after it receives that.
Ms Rodgers: Absolutely.
The Chairperson: It is essential that the Committee put its views to you and that you let the Committee know your thinking. The Committee wants to get in on the ground floor rather than talk to you after you have made your decisions and everything has been done. It has no idea what is in the report and would like the opportunity to comment on it.
Ms Rodgers: I shall present the report to the Committee in a week or two. I want to give my views on the report at the same time and then hear the Committee's views. I shall not make any firm decisions until I have heard the Committee's opinions.
The Chairperson: Your views will give us an inkling of your thinking, but they will not be hard decisions.
Ms Rodgers: There have been 187 responses to the O'Hare consultation. I have not yet received the Committee's response - I should appreciate it if I could have that. I want to take the Committee's views on board when considering the report.
The Chairperson: You will receive that after this meeting. The Committee has made its decision; it simply has to finalise it. That will be done at today's meeting. I assure you that you will have the Committee's report by tomorrow. The Committee has no difficulty with that.
Members may wish to ask about the vision group's report, but I feel that we can only carry this matter forward in November 2002. The Committee would like to talk to you about new-entrant and early-retirement schemes as soon as it receives the letter from you. We can suss out one another's thinking, and then you can make your decisions.
Ms Rodgers: You will have the letter within two weeks.
The Chairperson: Will any of those matters be raised at the meeting at Loughry College of Agriculture and Food Technology?
Ms Rodgers: The common agricultural policy reforms and the commissioner's proposals will be discussed at that meeting. I understand that the Committee will meet there on the same day. I am trying to organise a meeting between the Committee and the European Commission official.
The Chairperson: As the Committee usually meets on Friday, it could go to Loughry College of Agriculture and Food Technology that day. You wrote to me and told me that you wanted a good turn out. The Committee will try to facilitate that as best it can.
Ms Rodgers: I want as many people to attend as possible, for the European Commission's proposals have far-reaching implications. It is important that there be a good turnout from the industry.
The Chairperson: It is essential that the Committee talk to you about those proposals after the meeting at Loughry College of Agriculture and Food Technology. A fairly heavy workload has stacked up. Time is of the essence - you have decisions to make, and the Committee wants to get its oar in.
Mr Ford: In your introduction, Minister, you linked several matters under the heading of modernisation - the vision group, departmental restructuring and the O'Hare Report on Education and Research and Development in Agriculture and Food Science. Does that mean, when you make your statement in late November, that you also intend to deal with departmental restructuring and the O'Hare Report on Education and Research and Development in Agriculture and Food Science?
Ms Rodgers: Yes.
Mr Ford: In addition, given that we are examining the Programme for Government and the Budget process, how does that stand, particularly for getting any additional resources in the next financial year? Have we not missed the boat for next year?
Ms Rodgers: I have made a bid based on the requirements of the actions which I intend to take. I have made the bid within the Budget. I cannot yet say what is going to happen.
Mr Ford: Will the Department of Finance and Personnel consider it if it is not -
Ms Rodgers: I have had discussions with the Minister of Finance and Personnel, and you know that the Executive met yesterday. The Minister is aware of the road which I intend to take and what I want to do for the industry.
Mr Ford: I note that the Minister is smiling. I hope that it is a positive smile.
The Chairperson: Let us say it is optimistic.
Mr Kane: What measures are available to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to reduce red tape in view of the regulations imposed by the EU? What powers of simplification does the Department have?
Ms Rodgers: We must comply with EU regulations; we do not have any flexibility in that regard. I understand that farmers have difficulty with the complexity of some of the forms. We have been trying to make them as short and as simple as possible.
Mr Kane: Is there scope to revise the controversial farm quality assurance scheme (FQAS) and to make it compulsory to defend its integrity?
Ms Rodgers: I cannot imagine that we could make it compulsory.
Mr Kane: Why not?
Ms Rodgers: It is a voluntary scheme operated by the industry. It is a matter for individual farmers whether they become involved in it. I should encourage farmers to become involved because it is a good marketing tool. The Member knows that many of the retail owners, particularly the big multiples, now require FQAS. It makes stock more marketable. It is a matter for individual farmers and the industry.
Mr Kane: I wish to make three points in relation to the proposed food body. Will it relay information back to farmers, most of whom know that they are already found wanting, according to the Northern Ireland Meat Exporter's Association? Will the body have powers to prevent the exploitation of primary producers, as is currently the case? Who will participate as members on the committee or the board? Can we have political representation on it? If we do not have political representation, it will be called a quango.
Ms Rodgers: The vision report recommended that a food body be set up to examine issues such as marketing and the food chain. I cannot answer the question because I have not yet received the food body report. I should not be inclined to set up another costly quango unless I felt that it would add value. That is my personal opinion, but I shall have to wait to see what the food body working group comes up with. I shall consult with the Committee and the industry to determine whether it would add value and be a worthwhile exercise.
Mr Kane: I am glad that I have given the Minister advance notice.
The Chairperson: The simplification of forms must be a major issue. Ordinary people find some forms, especially those from Europe, extremely difficult to fill in; if they make one error, they are more or less put in a pillory. We must ensure that the forms are right so that those entitled to benefits can claim them. People should not be denied benefits because they have failed to dot the i's and cross the t's.
Mr Paisley Jnr: I do not want to give the Minister advice, for she does not like my advice and would not take it. However, I have several suggestions regarding the vision report, which one hopes she will take on board. The vision report contains 10 themes for action and, when the Committee discusses the report in detail with the Minister, it is to be hoped that we shall identify definitive outcomes and timescales, such as when and by what means the objectives will be achieved, especially for the first five themes, which are important. We must focus on those issues: the evolving demands of the market; strengthening the food chain; assisting structural adjustment and improving farm sectoral performance; protecting and enhancing our animal health status; and strengthening the rural economy. Timescales for when those measures will kick in are vital, for farmers must see a vision which is not only obtainable but within their grasp, as opposed to something so long-term that they feel that it is just a vision for vision's sake.
Ms Rodgers: In response to Mr Paisley Jnr, I can say that I always take advice if it is good. If I do not think that it is good, I have to think about it more seriously. Broad timescales will be attached to the proposals. Depending on what comes from the working group, some of the issues which Mr Paisley Jnr mentioned may fall under the remit of a food body. However, the Committee knows that I have implemented 11 of the vision group's recommendations which I announced in March, such as re-skilling and focus farms. It is therefore not as if we are waiting for the final action. The Department has implemented those measures which it could introduce immediately. The broader areas which the Department will address mean that broad timescales are necessary.
Mr Armstrong: We live in challenging times, and one of the challenges facing the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is the need to ensure that agriculture becomes a more viable and profitable industry in Northern Ireland. The vision report must rise to that challenge to ensure that farms remain for future generations. It is to be hoped that you will provide the Committee with the relevant information before the end of the year to allow it time to scrutinise it before the Assembly is dissolved.
Minister, I heard that you have decided to stand down at the elections. You did the best job that you could, and we thank you for that.
It is to be hoped that, by the end of 2002, farmers will know what the future holds for them and that that will persuade them to continue farming. The vision report must reassure farmers that someone cares about their situation and that they will profit in the future.
Farmers want to produce healthful food for the people of Northern Ireland as well as for those outside. You must ensure that you give farmers something that makes them believe that you are helping, because many farmers believe that the Government do not care.
Ms Rodgers: The vision exercise was initiated because there was a crisis in farming and because farmers were forced to react to successive crises. It was obvious that we could not continue to operate like that. It was aimed at working out a strategy for the next 10 years which would deal with issues such as non-profitability, unviability, the need to restructure farming, and the need to upscale, re-skill and modernise. I hope to complete the work which I began by ensuring that the industry is equipped to deal with the challenges ahead.
That will be a matter for the Government and the industry, and we must work in partnership if we are to create a viable industry. Part of that process will be the modernisation of the Department, which I shall announce in November 2002. It will be restructured to suit the needs of what is a very different industry from what we had 40, 50 or 60 years ago. The Department and the industry must change - they must do many things together.
I accept Mr Armstrong's point. I know that the events of recent years mean that farmers feel a strong sense of despair, despondency and hopelessness. I want to give the industry new hope and make it possible for farmers to work with the Department in what will be challenging times. That will require people to think and do things differently. The action plan is designed to enable people to do so with co-operation and with the help of the Government.
Mr Armstrong: Sometimes nothing happens with such 10-year plans until the tenth year. We should like to see progress in the first years, and by the end of the 10 years it is to be hoped that you will have achieved your objective. The plan must have good teeth in its first years, for if you wait until the tenth year, few farmers will remain.
Ms Rodgers: I cannot promise immediate results, but I can promise the beginning of creating a viable farming industry. We have already begun implementing the measures which I announced in March 2002, and people are being trained and now need to manage differently. That will bear results, but I cannot say that you will see a total transformation in a year. However, I hope that change will be progressive. At least farmers will know where they are going and will see that they are beginning to make progress.
The Chairperson: It is important that the plan is not geared to 10 years, for farmers are asking where they will be then. It should have short-term objectives which come on stream long before the 10 years are over.
Ms Rodgers: I have already made bids for the action plan and for moneys for the coming year which I shall require to proceed with the plans. I hope to see that making a difference in the early stages.
The Chairperson: That is very important.
Mr Armstrong: You are giving good advice and holding open days at the Agricultural Research Institute of Northern Ireland at Hillsborough and at other colleges. Advice is all very well, but many farmers are too busy to go and think they know the answers anyway. Many do indeed know the answers, and the reason why you have been able to go forward is because farmers have been advising you. Some of that advice will be very expensive. It costs a great deal of money to run those advice days. The best advice to give to a farmer is to keep working instead of listening to other people talking.
Ms Rodgers: I have talked to the Ulster Farmer's Union and representatives of the industry, and I am getting a different view from them. I am not sure how my scientists would feel about the suggestion that their advice is not worth much.
I do not agree. Farmers need advice on how to deal with what happened during the summer - the damage to the fields and the resulting poor quality of the silage, and the fact that slurry has built up in tanks. There may be farmers who do not need advice; that is fair enough. However, I visited one farmer who was very appreciative of the help which he had received from the advisers. I could see that a good relationship had been established with the adviser. The winter management options are geared specifically to the unusual circumstances of 2002 and difficulties which some farmers may not have faced before in the same way. You are entitled to your point of view, but I disagree.
Mr Armstrong: The advice is not worth it. Sometimes there is too much advice.
The Chairperson: We shall have to leave it there.
Mr McHugh: We should all like to be able to discuss the vision report and its recommendations after decisions are made and revise some of our views in the light of the summer's events. Changes are taking place all the time which will have an impact on the success of the vision document. The word "crisis" was used earlier. Farmers must know how to survive the present crisis and how to deal with banks. Some people have no idea how to tackle their day-to-day money problems, which are severe. They know that they will not be in farming in 10 years. I am among the most optimistic of people. You would not be in this outfit if you were not optimistic.
Ms Rodgers: Which outfit are you referring to?
Mr McHugh: You have to be very pessimistic about farming at present. The processing side and the meat exporters will survive, since they can source their raw product wherever they wish. That is the difference. I am not sure that farmers can remain competitive. It will be almost impossible to remain competitive over the next few years, given the direction in which reform of the common agricultural policy and the mid-term review are heading. It is now almost impossible to remain competitive in relation to outputs and inputs. I am not sure how that will pan out, but for many people it will not be good.
There does not seem to be much detailed information on the proposals from the EU Commissioner for Agriculture and Fisheries, Franz Fischler, either on his web site or anywhere else, so that we might examine the mid-term common agricultural policy review before the middle of October 2002. Is there any way to gain access to more information?
Ms Rodgers: You referred to several issues. I have written to the banks requesting a meeting because I am aware, and have been made aware by the unions, individual farmers and members, of the cash-flow problems which farmers will have. I have therefore asked for a meeting with the British Bankers' Association.
I have also asked for a meeting with the Northern Ireland Grain Trade Association to discuss the difficulties which farmers will have in meeting financial commitments, and if it can help. As members will be aware, I have asked Mrs Margaret Beckett, the UK Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs - and the United Kingdom Government is asking the European Commission - for permission to pay more than the normal advance premia to help with cattle premia and cash flow.
The issue of food chains with regard to competition is serious, and it has been raised in the vision report. It is a matter of creating co-operation across the food chain. That is a difficult issue to deal with, but it must be done. It has been mentioned that processors can find produce elsewhere, but if farmers in Northern Ireland stop producing, the processors will have difficulty., It is therefore in everyone's interest that each receive a fair share of the profits.
The European Commission's proposals, which are the main concern of your question, are not yet totally clear. We have the proposals, but there is much detail which we do not know, and that must be assessed. It is currently difficult to give a full picture. For example, with decoupling we only have the broad proposition, but the devil will be in the detail. That is why I hope that the meeting in Loughry College of Agriculture and Food Technology on 4 October 2002 will help. A representative will be there from the Commission, and perhaps that will be useful in teasing out some of those issues.
Mr McHugh: You can usually download the detail of those matters. We do not know which years they refer to or what decoupling is intended to do. We should be able to gain access to that detail now.
Ms Rodgers: I should be happy to have access to the detail. However, I am not sure that the Commission has the detail worked out. We have only broad proposals, which it has not worked out yet. It may well be flying kites.
The Chairperson: Knowing Europe, I can say that they do that first.
Ms Rodgers: The European Commissioner, Mr Fischler, will want to be sure that he gets his decision through. That is why it is still all to play for and why the discussions which I am having with regard to our position are important, particularly those with Joe Walsh, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development in the Republic. I am also having discussions with the UK Minister, Mrs Beckett, as well as the other regional Ministers. All those will factor in the position taken by the member states, which will influence the Commissioner in how far he can go in making changes.
Mr McHugh: Some of that may not bode well for us.
Ms Rodgers: It will not be a surprise that there will be differences between the regions in the UK and the UK Minister. However, we should be on the same wavelength with regard to the Irish position. France and a few other major states are of the same mind and have the same interests as us. Germany, Sweden and some other countries are anxious to move quickly to a more radical change.
Ultimately it will be a compromise. However, the important thing for us in Northern Ireland is that we put forward our views strongly on all the issues as they arise. As the detail emerges, we shall examine it and come to a view. My officials are already examining possible models which might emerge from some of the proposals, so that we are prepared to put forward our case when the time comes.
Mr Savage: Minister, I welcome your comments. I was listening carefully. You mentioned the wet weather which we have had over the past few months. In my constituency, which is in the Lough Neagh basin, many of the farmers have been unable to cut their first crop of silage, and everything has been lost. Any farmers who have managed to cut their silage find that the ground has been poached and trampled. Will the Department consider funding a reseeding scheme to help farmers whose ground has been trampled? That would benefit everyone. One of my constituents raised the issue when he rang me this morning; he must have known that you would be coming here, Minister.
Mr Kane mentioned the FQAS. Many cattle are imported from the South to supply Northern factories. Our farmers' produce must reach certain standards to qualify for the FQAS label, but do the cattle which are imported to be killed in our factories reach the same standards? This week many cattle have been brought from the South. The wagons have been weighed going into and coming out of the factory. I do not know if they were graded or not. Farmers are concerned that there are two sets of standards. It is worrying for them if they must adhere to stringent standards while others seem to get away with doing less.
Mrs Rodgers: I am aware of that concern, and Mr McKibben will say more about it. However, I shall answer your first question about the reseeding grant. As long ago as the middle of June 2001 I pointed out to Mrs Beckett, the UK Secretary of State for the Environment, Agriculture and Rural Affairs, that she must consider asking for EU state aid to counter the effects of the wet weather. After that, I asked my officials to monitor the position closely throughout the summer, since, to qualify for state aid, we must establish that there has been a 30% loss of production. The Department is proceeding with that, but we shall be unable to make a case until the end of the growing season. At that point, we shall bring the case to the European Union through the UK Government. If we get state-aid permission, I shall have to ask the Executive for funding. Since there is no European fund for aid, it will have to come from our own Budget. Unfortunately, it is impossible for me to give grants without EU state aid.
Mr McKibben: Animals brought from Southern Ireland can qualify for the farm quality assured standard, provided they complete a residency period, which, if I remember rightly, is about 90 days. Cattle brought into the North and slaughtered immediately are not eligible for the FQAS stamp, nor can they be sold as British beef.
The industry is considering developing FQAS by having lifetime quality assurance backed through the suckler herds in Northern Ireland, or through entering into reciprocal arrangements with equivalent schemes in other EU member states. However, the FQAS is not capable of that at present. Provided cattle from the Republic of Ireland complete 90 days residence on an FQAS farm, they can qualify for the FQAS stamp.
Mr Douglas: When the vision report was instigated, everyone was happy that something was going to happen that would benefit the agriculture sector, as stopping its decline is a major task. One key theme listed under section E is entitled "Strengthening the rural economy", but that appears to be weakening every day. Urgent steps need to be taken to stop the decline because more people are becoming part-time farmers, as they cannot survive under their present returns. The goalposts are going to move for the vision team, as they will for those families who are forced to farm part-time. It will be traumatic for them to stop farming and start seeking alternative work.
You stated that the Department has to abide by EU regulations as far as red tape is concerned. There are difficult forms to fill in, but you said that you hope they will be modified. Some departmental staff are being unreasonable to the farming community, and they need to be more sensitive. Most of the complaints that I receive concern staff who are being unreasonable. They need to be more sensitive to difficulties regarding ear tags, form filling and errors.
Mr Armstrong said that we have to work together to seek advice, as he had experienced difficulties with that. Some people are seeking advice, and there is good advice available, but others are not seeking it because they think that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is working against them. We need to ensure that we are all working together for a better future. Many farmers are unhappy with the Department because of the EU regulations that have been imposed so tightly on us.
Ms Rodgers: One of the purposes of the re-skilling exercise is because many farmers are unable to make a living. That is why we moved forward on that and did not wait for the action plan. Part-time farming is now widespread across the developed countries, and it has as much to do with the availability of non-agricultural jobs as it has to do with the weakness in agriculture. In other words, other jobs to do with new technologies are coming on-stream, and many people are now saying that they would rather have a nine-to-five job than farm seven days a week. That is one of the reasons why we moved immediately on areas in the vision report such as re-skilling. An interest has been expressed in it, but I do not know the uptake. Re-skilling enables people on farms to develop new skills and to make a living in a different way.
With regard to ear tags and the sensitivity of my officials, the problem is that you are damned if you do and you are damned if you don't. Departmental officials do not have an option, as they have to apply the European regulations, and animals have to be tagged. Before the BSE crisis emerged in the rest of Europe, we had a good traceability system. That is a good, strong point in our favour, and it will be used again as soon as we have a case to make to move towards opening up our exports. If the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) inspects our systems and finds that we are lackadaisical about tagging, we will get zilch marks and our chances of moving toward re-opening our markets will be nil. There are problems, and I know that ear tags can get lost, but either we are careless and let the farmer off and act "sensitively" and then fail the test when it comes to trying to re-open our markets, or we are fussy and ensure that everything is in order so that we can put our hand on our heart and show the FAO inspectors that our system is foolproof and working. It is not a case of sensitivity; it is a case of something that has to be done.
The Chairperson: You sent a letter to the Committee about your appointments to the food body.
Did you write to the various organisations and ask them to nominate those members, or did you pick them from those bodies?
Ms Rodgers: It was not a nominating process. We identified bodies that would be affected by any change or by the establishment of a food body, and also industry representative organisations. We invited people from those bodies because we required a certain expertise. It was not something that required us to follow certain procedures; it was a case of setting up a body to advise the Department on whether we would proceed with a body, and if we did, what it would do, and what its remit would be. We did not invite organisations to send us representatives. We simply asked specific people who we knew to be representative of those organisations. I am not aware of any difficulty, or that anyone raised any questions about the make-up of the food body.
The Chairperson: There are three representatives from the farming community, who are the people who produce the goods. The body is heavily weighted towards the people who are making the most money out of the industry. The farming community's argument to me and to many of my Colleagues is that it is the producer of the original commodity. If it were not there, we would not have that commodity. When these bodies are set up, farmers are not treated as the primary producers. Those other representatives have a vested financial interest in their own bailiwick, and the farmer sees his income going down while these bodies profit from the farming industry.
Would it not have been better to pick two independent people? That would have brought new faces. Everybody knows what the vested interests in farming will say. I could nearly write the Livestock and Meat Commission's brief at this table. I know what they are going to say. That worries me, because if you are going to get good advice on this, Minister, you need some fresh advice. I am not saying that these people should not be represented; but it should be balanced.
Ms Rodgers: The working group that was set up to examine the possibility of setting up a food body was made up of various interests. It is important that they are represented on the food body, because the food body will have implications for everyone involved in it. It would not be right if one of them were to be left out. However, the independent chairperson, Janet Trewsdale, is not involved with the industry at all. There are three producer representatives, one consumer representative, two from industry, and three from the processing industry. Three out of nine members of the food body are producers, which by any reckoning is a fair representation.
The agrifood industry is made up of people along the food chain, all of whom are interdependent. If you do not have all of those interests together, you will not get a consensus on how to move forward, and one group will be pulling against another. In everything that I have done since I became Minister, I have tried to create co-operation and a sense of partnership across the food chain.
It has come out strongly in the vision report that that must be done. I stress that it must be done in the sense that every part of the food chain is entitled to make a fair profit. That can only be done as people begin to talk together and try to create trust.
The Chairperson: Farmers put to us the argument that they are the primary producers. If they were not producing, processors would have nothing. They can see the processors benefiting and their own incomes going down and down until they reach disaster. I am not arguing against these people being consulted; I am arguing that surely it is time that we got some fresh views and some independent people who could help with that. There are just three farming representatives in the group, but there would be no industry at all without the farmers. However, I appreciate the difficulties in setting up a group initially.
Ms Rodgers: I accept the point totally, and I have already made it. There will be no industry if the farmers collapse. On the other hand, if the processors disappear and take all their processing operations across the water or elsewhere, then farmers will also have a problem.
The Chairperson: Processors, who are doing so well in Northern Ireland, have no intention of leaving the country.
Ms Rodgers: Interdependence exists between farmers and processors. There are also commercial issues. The best way forward is through co-operation. I keep saying that, but there is no other way. It has already happened in some parts of the industry, for example in the mushroom industry where they have all come together under one umbrella. From the people who make the packaging to the processors and the producers, all are working together, and that is going well. That must happen throughout the industry. To have a dissatisfied farmer or one who feels that he has been hard done by and that it is not worth continuing is not a good situation for anybody, including the processor.
Mr Bradley: We are in a limbo situation as we await the reports. The vision brief refers to rural proofing. What level of enquiries have you received recently from your Executive Colleagues or from other Departments on rural proofing? In other words, is the initial thinking behind rural proofing still a reality, or is it by now wishful thinking?
Ms Rodgers: Mr Bradley will be aware that the interdepartmental rural proofing group has already met. I cannot remember the date, but I chaired the meeting. There will be another meeting of the group in October. We are establishing how to advance the whole concept of rural proofing. It is important that we are able to work collectively as an Executive in a cross-departmental way. That is precisely what the interdepartmental group is considering.
In rural proofing, no Department - and some Departments have been more adamant on this than others - is going to have its policies dictated by an interdepartmental group. The interdepartmental group's purpose is to raise issues so that people are aware of the rural community's needs, and to try to have those addressed by each Department. A perfect example is the Department for Regional Development and the issues of transport, rural schools and education. Only last week, I had a meeting with a group concerned about rural schools. They are perfectly happy to understand that that must be dealt with collectively.
The rural proofing has gone ahead. We have held our first meeting, and another will follow. I will give a progress report to the Committee as we move on.
Mr Kane: I want to return to an issue that I forgot about - the farm quality assurance scheme (FQAS). Where do producers - who adhere to the rules and regulations being laid down - stand, when an owner and buyer in an abattoir bring in stock from source, and the 90 days are not up? Some of you will know what I am referring up when "90 days" is mentioned.
They insist on taking in the stock for slaughter if they are short that particular week, and it is happening under the nose of the Department. Is a blind eye being turned, Minister? My reliable information has come from a Department source, whom I cannot name. What can be done about it?
Ms Rodgers: The farm quality assurance scheme is operated by the LMC - not the Department. If there is a problem with it, and there is evidence of wrongdoing or bending the rules, it is a matter for the LMC. It is not a matter for the Department. I suggest that Mr Kane bring whatever evidence he has to the attention of the LMC. However, that would concern me, and perhaps the Member would let me have the details. If there are specific issues, maybe he would let me have the detail of those as well.
Mr Kane: Minister, you must realise that I have to keep the departmental official happy, so there is little information that I could forward to you.
The Chairperson: We are meeting the LMC today.
Mr Savage: One of the problems currently facing many people is waste disposal. Will avenues be open in rural development schemes to cater for that? I am referring to waste disposal from factories, food processors and so on. Blood mixed with slurry is being spread around the country. Is there no way that we can tighten down on that? It is a serious situation. We are conscious of the spread of disease, but the Department must to take a firm line. Even many of the other Departments say that, and I get into trouble for quoting them, though I always hold the Department of Agriculture's end of the argument up.
The cheapest way to dispose of waste is on farmland. That has serious repercussions, because one of our main aims is to keep Northern Ireland disease free. We must seriously tackle the control of waste disposal. I do not know how we will do it, but it must be done. It is now at the stage where big money is involved, because factories are paying large tankers to take their waste. Once it has left the factory gates, it becomes the problem of the fellow with the tanker. That must be nipped in the bud. Many of the larger firms in this country are the chief culprits. They do not care where the waste goes once it goes through the gates. We are being blamed because we are not taking a firm line. I wanted to draw that to your attention because we must face that issue - we cannot back away from it.
Ms Rodgers: I am aware of the waste problem and so are the people of Northern Ireland - particularly the staff of my constituency office. Waste regulation is a matter for the Department of the Environment, not the Department of Agriculture. However, there are farming waste issues. Waste disposal projects are being developed. One example, which involves anaerobic digestion, is led by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Industry, not the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. The Department of the Environment is working on a new waste management strategy, which will deal also with the issue of agricultural waste. Department of Agriculture and Rural Development officials and the Department of the Environment officials will liaise closely as that strategy is developed. It is a very big issue. If people have projects in mind for dealing with agricultural waste, they can talk to rural development advisors and also to Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment officials who will assist them. That is the current situation on that big issue, but there might be opportunities for people to develop new countryside enterprises.
Mr Savage: Minister, I agree 100% with you, but the problem is getting a licence from local councils before their idea can be developed.
Ms Rodgers: Mr Savage, you are a local councillor; I am not. You could talk to your Minister, Mr Nesbitt.
Mr McHugh: In relation to the make-up of the food body, it is always hard to keep up the negative argument. Having sat on similar groups, I have found that the negative arguments get buried or ignored, and that is why we are in this situation. Those involved in the shiny side of the industry will continue to ignore the other side. That is one reason why some of those bodies will not make much difference or make any change in favour of the primary producer. I have attended conferences where the negative argument is ignored as soon as it is raised, with the result that, even if people have an issue to raise, they are discouraged.
On the issue of quality assurance on imports or exports, there is a tendency in the vision document to expect someone else to be responsible for the regulations. There is no real attempt to ask countries outside Europe, which do adhere, to a certain degree, to the regulations, but there does not seem to be any way of tracing back to the farm, with the result that no clue exists as to the origin of an individual piece of meat. I am referring to countries that are large producers of low-cost beef. We need to defend ourselves by the fair imposition of those regulations on every producer putting food on our supermarket shelves. We could reach the stage where all our food is imported. Therefore, we need to make sure imported food is safe; I am not sure that is the case.
Questions were asked about the animal and public health information system (APHIS), and I am not sure that we have beaten the drum that it is of benefit; it may even be to our detriment. It is almost impossible to achieve 100% adherence to all the tagging that is required, such as sheep tagging.
There will never be a system that the EU could be asked to test. It would fall apart and show us wanting in many respects. That cannot change, because of the nature of the industry. Perhaps we have made a stick to beat ourselves with. Those are simply technical points; nevertheless, they are worth making.
The Budget debate takes place next week, and we have examined reinvestment with regard to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. We were not particularly happy with some of that. We want restructuring in agriculture. Parts of the Department need to be upscaled, even in respect of equipment. We were asked to examine the first priorities of health and education. How do we defend ourselves on those points in the Budget debate?
Ms Rodgers: Far be it from me to advise on how the Budget debate is conducted. We must be clear. A food body has not been set up. A working group has been set up to examine whether a food body would be a good idea and, if so, to set its remit. If there is to be a food body, its make-up will be a matter for another day. It is not a case of a food body now being overloaded with processors or whatever. It is a question of whether we will or will not have a food body.
With regard to the FQAS, the issue is to convince the retailer of the integrity of buying local produce. The scheme is a marketing tool. As Minister, I can do everything possible to encourage people to do that. The Farmers' Union is doing its bit as well. There was also been the three-week Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA) festival of food. Meat from outside must be certified as up to standard before it can be brought in. Again, the food quality mark is an incentive for people to buy local food and to be sure of what they buy. It is a matter of giving that as much publicity as possible and of raising awareness. For instance, food that came from the other side of the world will not be as fresh as food that comes from a few miles down the road.
With regard to sheep identification and tagging, no proposals have been produced. However, it is under discussion here and with officials in the South, where sheep tagging has been introduced. The foot-and-mouth epidemic that we almost had, but managed to contain, indicated the importance of having a good system of traceability. It showed that there was a case for unique identification of sheep, and the Republic has already put that in place. The European Commission may come forward with proposals for a uniform system of sheep tagging across the EU.
All of those matters must be taken into consideration. We are working on the basis that foot-and-mouth indicated very clearly that sheep not being individually tagged left the farmer vulnerable and open to the spread of the disease, with great difficulty in containing it. During the foot-and-mouth crisis there was much enthusiasm throughout the farming community for sheep-tagging. However, as that fades further into the memory, the view is that all is OK and it will not happen again. We can never be sure of that. If nothing is done to ensure that we are in a better position to deal with such a disease in future, Committee members will be the first people to complain. It is a difficult situation for farmers. If nothing is done they will be left wide open, and taking measures will create difficulties. It is a matter of choosing which option.
Mr McHugh: Having tags will not stop foot-and-mouth disease or any other disease.
Ms Rodgers: From our recent experience of foot-and-mouth disease, if we had had individual tagging we would certainly not have gone past the first case - it would have been much easier to contain. All we had was stock tagging.
Mr McHugh: It might have helped in England. There are difficulties in having traceability if the "oh so foolproof" system lets you down because it cannot be implemented on the ground.
Regarding the farm quality assurance scheme (FQAS), the biggest problem for the farmer is the fact that his car doors and so on need to close in order for his beef to be of a certain quality - it is so nit-picking. The Department needs to be a bit more flexible about many little things.
Ms Rodgers: Farm quality assurance is not a matter for the Department; it is for the Livestock and Meat Commission.
Mr McHugh: That is right, but I am talking about officials who visit farms.
Ms Rodgers: Officials from the Livestock and Meat Commission LMC monitor farm quality assurance.
The Chairperson: If you buy sheep from Scotland to send to the South, you have to take the tags off. Why is that?
Mrs Rodgers: I do not know the detail on that. I did not think I was going to be dealing with sheep tagging, so I do not have the relevant officials here. Do you have to take the tags off?
The Chairperson: Yes, before they are sent to the South.
Ms Rodgers: The sheep in Scotland would only have a flock identifier, and not individual tags.
The Chairperson: The Deputy Chairperson says that this did happen.
Ms Rodgers: The South has brought in individual tagging on sheep, and that is one reason why we are in discussions with them. If we are to have an all-island health policy, we need to co-ordinate things in so far as we can. Therefore, your point will be looked at in our discussions.
Mr Douglas: This point was raised at the meeting of the vision group held at Loughry College of Agriculture and Food Technology. You can tag all the sheep and cattle you like, but it is not really a traceability of stock. It ensures traceability of tags, and until we have electronic identification you will not be able to trace stock. Tags move, and there will always be those who abuse the system. The genuine farmer is suffering now, which is my point. He may lose a few tags, while others will always abuse the system.
Ms Rodgers: I understand your point. Electronic tagging is something that may eventually come in, but it will be extremely expensive to introduce. If the Commission is looking at electronic tagging, and come up with a system, it would be important to wait and see what the system is going to be. There is no point in our having one system and everyone else having another - they must be co-ordinated. It will be expensive to introduce, but I do not know if it will eventually come to that. Your point about mavericks that do not abide by the rules is right, but that is true in every walk of life. You cannot legislate for human nature.
Mr Paisley Jnr: Since you raised the issue of the all-island health policy, I hope you look at the nuances of this in the context of an "all-islands" health policy. We certainly should not get linked into any system that ties us with a country whose diseases are proportionately higher than those in Northern Ireland or, indeed, Scotland. I hope that is something you look at very strongly.
Turning now to the working group. You have three people from the farming sector, six people from departmental/quango/government sector, and three people from the processing side. Any farmer looking at that would say that it is not a fair deal for them, and would ask how that working group could come up with a conclusion that is going to bring forward a proposal on a food body that is to be of any assistance to farmers. That group as currently constructed could not have been rural proofed, and if it was, that is an indictment of any meaning of rural proofing.
Surely the Department should get it right when it appoints people to working groups, so that producers feel that they are getting a fair deal? At present, it seems that everyone but the producers gets a fair deal.
Ms Rodgers: The composition of a body could not be rural proofed.
Mr Paisley Jnr: Why not?
Ms Rodgers: The group is made up of people involved in the agrifood industry, which is of most relevance to the rural community. The vision group report recommended that we consider establishing a food body that would deal with marketing and food chain issues in particular. It would not make sense to set up a working group - I emphasise the word "working" - to consider the proposal for a food body, and its remit, if that body did not include people involved in the food chain and marketing, because they understand the situation best. The group comprises three producers involved in the food chain, three processors involved in the food chain, one consumer with a very specific interest in the food chain, and two people from the industry sector with a clear interest in marketing and the food chain. The working body, which, I stress, has an independent chairperson, was set up to produce a report for me with proposals concerning whether there should be a food body at all, and, if so, what its remit should be.
Mr Paisley Jnr: I agree that there should be other voices on the panel, but to outnumber the producer 3:1 is hardly fair. The group is unfairly balanced.
Ms Rodgers: It is extremely well balanced.
Mr Paisley Jnr: It is biased.
Ms Rodgers: It is not numbers that count. The three members of the group who represent producers are articulate and strong people who know exactly what the issues involve.
Mr Paisley Jnr: I do not doubt those people, but the producers should not be sent into the lions' den.
Ms Rodgers: It is not the case that this body votes every day on what to do next, and that, therefore, a cproducers will be outvoted. This body is trying to reachonsensus among all those interests on whether it is a good idea to establish a food body, and if so, how is would operate. If all those voices were not represented, some people - who have a genuine interest and for whom a food body would have implications - would be excluded. The Member is suggesting that half of the group should be comprised of producers, which would mean excluding a consumer or processor. The group is a fair representation of people with a genuine interest in a food body.
Mr Paisley Jnr: The character of that group will determine the outcome, with regard to the establishment and operation of a food body.
Ms Rodgers: I wish to make it very clear to the member that the working group will not determine the outcome. I will determine the outcome when I consult my Executive Colleagues, the Committee and the Assembly. This is a working group that will make proposals - no more and no less.
The Chairperson: Minister, you could reject the group's proposals.
Ms Rodgers: I could reject them, the Committee could reject them, and the Assembly could vote them down. This is a working group. It takes its work very seriously, and is spending some time considering the matter.
The Chairperson: We are not casting any aspersions upon the character of these people. I have no doubt that they take the work seriously. In these matters, as a result of the position of farmers, there is a great deal of resentment that the primary producer is not recognised properly.
Members must now be brief in their questions.
Mr Armstrong: I will be as brief as possible. I may be able to have a chat with the Minister at a later date.
Waste disposal is an important factor with regard to health. In the supermarket, the food smells nice and the shop is clean. However, consumers see farms in a different way. We must clean up the farms, and waste disposal is the only way to do that. I have written to the Minister about the matter. Anaerobic digesters are needed, and slurry must be removed from farms each day. This approach would clean up farms and the countryside, and make Northern Ireland a healthier place.
Mr Savage mentioned waste and blood from abattoirs coming onto farms. If that were to go into the waste disposal system too, our farms could be completely cleaned up. It was said that the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment would be responsible for financing the system. However, that should be the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. A great deal of money must be made available to encourage farmers to use the system. In that way, we can become a country proud of its high standards.
Ms Rodgers: In response to that lengthy speech from Mr Armstrong, we are developing ways of dealing with agricultural waste. The good farming practice initiative has already been introduced, and there may well be projects within the rural development field that could be worked on. I totally agree that the farming community needs help with waste management.
Mr Armstrong: As I was critical of advice given, more advice could be given there. The sheepmeat, scrapie and tagging -
The Chairperson: Minister, you praised him in the Assembly and he wants to take his pound of flesh now.
Ms Rodgers: I thought that he would be nice to me after that and let me off easy.
Mr Armstrong: A bolus can be implanted into a sheep's stomach to enable identification. That method could also be used to monitor scrapie in sheep. There is no reason why that form of tagging could not be used for all sheep.
Ms Rodgers: I will have to leave that issue for another day.
The Chairperson: This meeting will be adjourned for five minutes.