Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 5 December 2000 (continued)

11.45 am

All our past efforts to tackle BSE have been in vain. We could not have done more, but the BSE storm that now rages across Europe means that all the efforts we made to ensure that our produce was the safest and most scrutinised have been in vain because we shall not achieve low-incidence BSE status this year, and possibly not next year either.

However, the Department has to look at other measures. To be masters of our farming destiny, we must take some control over shaping the industry in the next five to 10 years. Only by embarking on a strategic farm restructuring scheme that will address farming debt, farm retirement, farm size, new entrants, production and strategy shall we become the masters. If we slavishly implement a regulation-based industry, the crisis will only deepen. I appeal to the Minister to address the problem and not the symptoms.

We recently had a Budget that was hailed as a farmers' Budget, but it gave a false impression. A figure of £6 million goes directly to in-house Department of Agriculture and Rural Development schemes, and £5 million goes towards training, education and employment. An argument could be made that the Minister's colleague, Dr Farren, should fork out some money for education and training if there is to be genuine cross- cutting by the Government. That way, more money could go into farming schemes.

Fishermen received absolutely nothing from the Budget. They have been sunk as a result of it. Their crisis continues.

I welcome what the Minister said yesterday about pig restructuring. However, will the Minister tell us about the small print, and what it will mean in pounds and pence for the farming community?

Finally, much has been said about rural proofing. Although I welcome the concept of rural proofing, it is rather vague. I hope that the Minister will tell us about the "whens", "hows" and "whos" of rural proofing. Perhaps we should move from rural proofing to farmer proofing, because that is the real issue. We wish to see rural development programmes that are farmer proof.

Mr J Kelly:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the motion and welcome the opportunity to debate it.

Mr Leslie stated that this is the third time we have debated agriculture, yet agriculture continues to be in decline. There is an unprecedented flight from the land. Traditional farmers travel from rural areas to Belfast to do labouring work as bricklayers, plasterers and carpenters because they cannot survive on the land from which they used to be able to make a living. As Mr Leslie said, sheep used to keep them and now they keep sheep.

The decline in farming has been in the offing for a long time. The BSE crisis points to the problem of concentrating on beef production alone. It has left farmers in a very weak position. Whatever happens in future with BSE, a culture is growing among young people of not eating meat, and for as long as the threat and fear of BSE continues, that growing anti-beef culture will become more prevalent in the younger population.

Ian Paisley Jnr is quite wrong when he says that farming does not have an all-Ireland dimension. I am making not a political point but the rational economic point that we live on one island and if we are looking for a market of five million people as opposed to one of one and a half million we must sell our produce to other parts of the island.

It is interesting that in the rest of Ireland one of the ways in which farmers have been able to earn an alternative income is by going into organic farming. In various areas in the west of Ireland FÁS has initiated schemes to enable farmers to learn about organic farming. Moreover, looking at the all-Ireland dimension, the rest of Ireland - the Free State or the Twenty-six Counties if one likes - at the last count was importing around £280 million of foodstuffs per year from England, Scotland, Wales and mainland Europe. It imports produce such as carrots and parsnips from Holland and other parts of the continent, as well as potatoes from Cyprus and elsewhere. A previously untried opening exists for farming to diversify.

The Minister should encourage farmers to find other means of generating income by using land that they do not traditionally use in this part of Ireland because of a dependence on beef production. The Minister should encourage that and give incentives to farmers to make better use of their land. Afforestation also needs to be looked at, especially on mountain farms. Grants are available, and those alternatives should be examined.

The planning issue arises again and again. Farmers are not trying to spot the landscape with unregulated dwellings. However, building houses is one way in which farmers can earn an income from land that is otherwise useless. House building can help farmers to survive on the land in the short term. The Minister should take up the issue with the Department of the Environment, look at in a structured way and, together with the Department of the Environment and the farmers, see where such planning applications could be granted.

The farming community should be encouraged to look at tourism and be given incentives to become involved with it. Tourism is one area that has a future in this part of Ireland. One can get involved without spending a great deal of money, yet it can provide an income and bring people to this part of Ireland who have stayed away in the past.

There has been a flight from the land. It is frightening in many ways to see those people who have no other way to earn an income, who are attached to the land, having to leave their farms to travel in the morning to places like Belfast, Lisburn and elsewhere to work on a building site. It is heart-rending in many ways for people to find themselves in that situation. I support the motion and I ask the Minister to be proactive in helping the farming community and the agriculture sector.

Mr Armstrong:

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important subject. Agriculture is the backbone of Northern Ireland industry. It has been one of Northern Ireland's principal industries for generations. Will Members stand idly by and allow our heritage to diminish? Our farming industry, and all that it represents, is slipping away from us through a lack of effort and financial support.

The report of the Better Regulation Task Force - 'Environmental Regulations and Farmers' - released on 15 November 2000, recognised the speed at which the United Kingdom Government implemented EU regulations compared with other EU countries. The United Kingdom Government has not been backward in coming forward to implement regulations at immense cost to our farmers.

Every sector in agriculture is in decline. I do not have to inform the Assembly of the facts and figures of each depressing commodity. We think of the pig farmers - those who have left the industry, and those who have struggled on. We think of the beef farmer and his harrowing life as a result of the ongoing BSE crisis. We think of the poultry farmer who finds it more difficult to squeeze out a profit and the dairy farmer who was treated undemocratically during the distribution of the additional milk quota. They all provide cause for concern.

Regrettably, we must realise that, at present, farming communities are heavily dependent on grant aid. Therefore, the Government must make payments on time to assist with cash flow difficulties and to minimise bank overdrafts and associated charges. They must apply for all agrifunding that may become available via the EU. Every effort must also be made to minimise the administration costs of agriculture grants and schemes.

All too often, financial aids for the agriculture industry are only "pain relievers". Real treatment is needed to improve the situation of Northern Ireland farmers. Measures are needed to put a real bottom in the agriculture industry. That would create a sound foundation for revival in the sector that would make the industry more profitable and provide a decent income for the farmer and his family.

The Government should engage in ongoing research instead of waiting for crisis situations, such as the present one, to arise. A vision group has been set up - I ask the Minister whether there is the need for such a group? Most farmers have a vision of the future. Why not ask them? Some people wonder what departmental officials have been doing while they have been using up any extra financial help received. Does the Minister have so little faith in the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, the Ulster Farmers' Union, NIAPA and her departmental officials that a separate vision group is necessary? It is just more expense.

We should encourage our young people to become more involved in the agriculture industry. That would create a more viable industry that would contribute to the economic well-being and culture of Northern Ireland.

In January, I proposed to the Minister the implementation of a farm regeneration scheme that would encourage young people into farming and agriculture and would take the elderly farmer into retirement. The young farmer and the father, or farm owner, would form a partnership for five years. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, and the EU, would fund the farm for the first few years. During that time, negotiations would begin for the farmer's son or daughter to take over the farm with the help of low-interest loans from European banks. It would not be necessary to transfer the farm at its full market value. At the end of the take-over period, ownership would transfer to the young farmer. The older farmer would retire on the money that he received, and he could let the young person get on with the task of running the farm. If that scheme were implemented, we would have new generations of farmers for a new millennium, full of enthusiasm and new ideas for a brighter agriculture industry for Northern Ireland.

Unfortunately, the reply that I received from the Minister supported my belief that the Department is negative when it comes to changing policies or pursuing new ideas for the betterment of Northern Ireland farmers. Departmental officials are unwilling to rock the boat. A vision group has been introduced that thinks along similar lines as those officials. Similarly, the Minister and the Department are not listening to the Agriculture Committee or farmers, nor are they introducing new ideas.


Mr Dallat:

I support the motion, but I cannot resist saying that it would have been nice if more Members had attended for the debate. I understand that they are involved in other important aspects of Assembly work, but I cannot help thinking that had the motion been on flags we would have had a packed House.

I welcome the debate and wish to contribute positively to it, but at this stage it is clear to me that crisis management is not the answer to our problems. While recognising the need to support and maintain the industry in the short term, we need a long-term strategy to enable farmers and the industry as a whole to survive and thrive. We must enable farmers to manage those changes that are beyond our control and turn them to their advantage.

As the Programme for Government clearly shows, local Ministers responding to local needs can make a difference - and are doing so. The commitment to the rural proofing of Government policies - already referred to several times - and to the setting up of an Executive working group to oversee its implementation are proof of the importance that the Executive place on maintaining a vibrant rural community. That should be welcomed by all in the House.

Tackling inequality in our society has been, and must continue to be, a priority for the Assembly. I welcome the decision to allocate the additional milk quota progressively to those who would benefit most - the smaller farmers. No one can doubt the hardship farming families face. Therefore, I welcome any measure to improve the way that farmers relate to Government, especially the Minister's decision to prepare a protocol, for publication during 2001, that will provide a comprehensive and clear explanation to farmers of how their subsidy claims will be handled. I also welcome yesterday's announcement on the pig industry restructuring scheme and congratulate the Minister on her successful lobbying.

Some things are beyond our control. For example, the Assembly cannot do anything about the strength of sterling except to highlight its impact on the agriculture industry. The United Kingdom opt-out from the euro is hitting our farmers harder than most. The SDLP has never believed in the opt-out, and today I call on the British Government to face down the Conservative Euro-sceptics and bring the United Kingdom into the euro as soon as possible.

Where we have the power to act, we should do our best, as I believe we are. The Assembly has a part to play in enabling change and supporting the industry through that change. We need to be responsible in our approach. The agriculture industry's problems are our collective problems, so let us remember that it does not exist in isolation. Agriculture and rural development are integral parts of the rural community, and when we speak of agriculture we must speak of a holistic approach to the special needs of rural dwellers.

Government Departments must develop joined-up government that involves planning, the environment, agriculture, rural tourism and all the support services that a rural community needs to survive. Rural dwellers in general must understand that the plight of the farmer is also their plight. Business people in rural towns know only too well, and to their cost, that when the agriculture industry is in trouble the entire rural economy is in crisis. Unfortunately, that is not always fully appreciated by everyone, and it must be understood.

I repeat that we have, for the first time, our own Agriculture Minister. She has shown a willingness to listen to farmers and understand the current crisis. She has gone to the ends of the earth to tell our story, and she deserves our support. Farmers expect us to sing from the same hymn sheet. They will not thank us for making their plight an excuse for political point-scoring. They expect us to approach their difficulties with maturity and responsibility, and I hope that we shall. There has been an indication in the Assembly this morning that we shall do so.

Let the message go out from the Assembly that all parties are united in their determination to stand by the farming industry in its hour of need. Do not let this debate be a one-day wonder, with speeches written for the sound bites and then filed away to be dusted down later, perhaps at the time of an election.

Let the work continue day and daily. That is how the Minister deals with the problem, and we can do no better than support her - not only in the interests of the farmers, but of everyone in rural communities. As I have said, the crisis is affecting everyone, not only the farmers.

Mr Kane:

I welcome this debate. The Assembly could not fail to recognise the difficulties facing agriculture, nor, indeed, its importance to the economy. However, the farmers wonder if the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has yet realised that. In the space of one year, there are 2,500 fewer farmers, 7% fewer lamb producers and inestimably fewer pig producers. How do we begin to estimate the impact on the rural economy?

The House must be mindful of the source of funding for rural development modulation. Many farmers must wonder when there is to be a return on the moneys taken from their premiums. Rural development policies now appear to have to satisfy the interests of more than the farmer. Rural development, once heralded as the second pillar of agriculture, is now perceived to have undergone a change of emphasis. Rural development and agriculture have to some extent diverged, with little overlap, and agriculture is the loser.

Changes in funding for agriculture seem to be limited to scant funding for some of the vision group's recommendations. Other aspects of indirect funding for the industry, such as IT literacy, would be both welcome and valuable in a vibrant economic agricultural environment. To offer such training skills and technology upgrading, while disregarding the plight of the industry, is like issuing new lamps to miners after the pits have closed.

With regard to targeting social need (TSN), the state of farming throughout the length and breadth of this Province dictates that if that novel catchphrase is to mean anything, there must be an acceptance of the social and, more importantly, economic needs of the farming community. Are pig farmers no longer part of that society? It seems not, since they are still waiting for assistance. Are the beef and sheep farmers included less in the social make-up, since they seem to have been abandoned as prey to the processors? Are the dairy farmers, with their valueless Holstein bull calves, any less worthy of being targeted? How much in need must the farmer be for him to be targeted as being in need of the Department's assistance?

What is increasingly at play here is a Department with a singular role of implementing European policies, with no regard for the regional requirements of the industry that it is supposed to serve. The common agricultural policy (CAP) is supposed to be the bible of agriculture, its policies absolute. Given that, and disregarding the fact that agriculture may never recover as a consequence, can someone explain why we require a Department of Agriculture? If the Department's function is to enforce EU policy without question, while the rest of Europe cherry- picks the rules, and our industry continues to crumble as a result, it is nothing more than an exercise in job creation.

Farmers are in no mood to accept a continued denial of their needs or of the burden of demands placed upon them as acceptable practice simply because some Eurocrat says so. I support the motion.

Mr Hussey:

In supporting my Colleague, I want at the outset to emphasise the Ulster Unionist Party's commitment to Northern Ireland's farmers.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

On a point of order, Sir. There was something wrong with the Clocks when the Member was speaking. When he finished, both clocks read around eight minutes.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

My clock showed that the Member did not use his full time.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

That is correct. When the Member looked up and saw eight minutes on the clock, that put him off his stride.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

We shall start at zero this time and see how it goes.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

However, the clock should be right, and it was wrong. Even the Clerk laughed to me. He smiled over to me when I was looking at the clock, for he knew that it was wrong. The Member should have been told that the clock was wrong and that he still had time to speak. That is a fair point, and it needs to be accepted by the Chair.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

It is a fair point. Does Mr Kane want another couple of minutes?

Mr Kane:

No, thank you.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Very well. Thank you, Dr Paisley, for drawing the matter to my attention.

Mr Hussey:

Indeed, I noticed that myself. If it goes to eight, I will not mind.

I support my Colleague Mr Savage's motion. I wish to emphasise the Ulster Unionist Party's commitment to Northern Ireland's farmers - a commitment that I am sure every party in the Assembly has. The scale and scope of the crisis - I use that word again - in agriculture require the sort of initiative and imaginative new measures to which Mr Savage referred.

As far as I am concerned, the most devastating statistic quoted was that 46% of Northern Ireland farmers have an income of less than zero. Nearly half of our farmers are not only earning nothing, but losing substantial amounts of money. Mr Savage said that debts are owed to the banks and to the feed suppliers, and Mr Douglas referred to the underlying causes.

This is an important debate. Although I am not a farmer, I realise that people in the farming community will be watching us closely today. Mr Dallat is correct. We are not only talking about farmers; we are talking about the entire rural economy. When the farmers sneeze, the rural businesses catch a bad dose of flu. We do not know yet if we are prepared for that.

The most recent statistical survey by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development showed the obvious: farm incomes are at their lowest level for 20 years. The Assembly recognises that farmers are hard-working people, and it would be wrong for us not to address that state of affairs.

No matter how sophisticated our economy becomes, and no matter how many high-tech industries are attracted to our shores, I cannot see any economy thriving that does not jealously protect its primary means of food production. Here, I am in agreement with Dr Paisley. It is time that the rest of Europe was forced to catch up with the animal health and welfare standards that exist in this part of the United Kingdom.

The Haskins report has highlighted the problems that need to be addressed. Mr Leslie mentioned the expansion of the EU and the increase of competition. It is fair that those countries that enter the EU should attain the same standards of animal health and welfare that we have. It was interesting to hear from Mr Savage that as many as 84,000 are employed in the agrifood sector, much fewer than the number employed in the manufacturing sector.

12.15 pm

To some extent, the true size of the agrifood sector has been disguised and obscured by the way in which official statistics are presented. In section 2, pages 10 and 11 of the document 'Labour Market Bulletin', issued by the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment, only four broad economic sectors are categorised: manufacturing, construction, services and other. "Other" is described as including agriculture, forestry, mining, quarrying, electricity, gas and water supply. However, "other", which is deemed to include agriculture, covers only 20,750 jobs - a total of 3·3% of the workforce. That clearly cannot be the case if agriculture is included. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development's figures are specific and, to my knowledge, accurate. Table 2.14 on page 19 of the latest Department of Agriculture and Rural Development document, 'Statistical Review of Northern Ireland Agriculture 1999', shows that 59,251 people are employed on farms. Of those, 37,609 are full-time workers, 7,034 are farmers' wives - and nobody in the House should dare state that farmers' wives do not work on farms - and 14,608 are part-time or casual employees.

The discrepancy between the total of 59,251 in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development's figures - 9% of the workforce - and the total of fewer than 20,750 in the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment figures cannot be explained by hiding the food production figures in the manufacturing total. Food production employs 19,490. In any case, it is known that 59,000-plus are employed on farms, and that is supposed to be included in the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment's figures. There is clearly a discrepancy, and I would like the two Ministers involved to sort it out, or at least explain it. Mr Ford referred to joined-up government - perhaps we could all use the same statistics.

The method of gathering statistics may have much to do with remote and unaccountable Government under direct rule. We now have an opportunity to address the democratic deficit. As Mr Bradley said, the UK Government have much to answer for. At the very least, we should expect a uniform statistical base from which to work. I am worried that the gathering of Government statistics has, to some degree, disguised the extent of the agriculture problem and the relative importance of the agrifood sector in the economy.

Mr Savage's reference to a new deal for farmers is timely. The scale and imagination of his adaptation of Danish agriculture law and the French agriculture system to Northern Ireland's situation is required. Perhaps the Minister would care to investigate that further with Mr Savage, the Ulster Unionist's agriculture team and others.

I regret that there was no opportunity to put down amendments during the debate.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

The Member's time is up.

Mr Hussey:

If I may conclude - there was a wee bit of disruption at the beginning, Mr Deputy Speaker.

In order to save the livelihoods of our farmers, agriculture reform and the restructuring required to assist the new deal should be at the heart of the Executive's and the Assembly's agendas.

Mr Byrne:

Again, as someone who represents a rural constituency, I am aware of the farming sector's current plight, and I support Mr Savage's motion. When I first read it, I was concerned that there might have been some implicit criticism of the Minister. It is fair to say that Minister Rodgers has given a strong lead while trying to represent farmers' concerns and the problems that they currently face in Northern Ireland.

It is true that this is the biggest crisis in farming since the 1930s. I have never heard of farming families experiencing so many economic difficulties.

It is a human tragedy that impacts on us all. Many provincial towns depend largely on the economic activity generated by farming and, as a result, are currently experiencing local recessions.

The Northern Ireland regional economy is more dependent on the agrisector than is any other UK region. In fact, until the BSE crisis, we consumed only 20% of our total beef production. We depend largely on an export market. I say to the Euro-sceptics that Northern Ireland agriculture has done extremely well out of the European Economic Community since 1973. I remember when we joined in 1973. Dr Sicco Mansholt was the Agriculture Commissioner at the time. The farming community in Northern Ireland greatly benefited from the higher guaranteed prices that were on offer.

Unfortunately, the volume production objective of the European Community's agriculture policy probably created the current difficulties that we now experience. When we had high guaranteed prices, the objective of everyone in farming was to increase production and we reached a point where there was overproduction in the European Community.

We are now reassessing what the future objectives should be for agriculture, given that there is likely to be European Union expansion to the east, and also because of current food safety difficulties. Overproduction led to practices that did not enhance the image of beef production.

Agenda 2000 has offered a chance to reappraise the entire objectives of farming, and a greater balance must be struck between volume production and quality production. I totally agree with my Colleague, Mr McGrady. We must get into value-added quality production. We have nine meat plants in Northern Ireland, but we all remember when their output was simply what I call "boxed beef". We were quite happy for them to export it to the rest of Europe and to the Middle East, because the meat processors enjoyed a massive export grant at that time.

That no longer exists. However, Northern Ireland does have natural advantages in the production of beef and milk, and those need to be exploited in the future. That is why it is important that a long-term strategic review of our agriculture industry be conducted. The Minister is to be commended for setting up an agriculture vision group to examine that.

I agree with my Colleagues that short-term financial difficulties cause the greatest problem for our pig, sheep and beef farmers. We are all aware of pig producers who are selling pigs at less than what it cost to produce them. That is causing great financial hardship and a debt crisis in our farming communities. It is well documented that the Northern Ireland farming sector currently has debts of £500 million.

The Minister and her Department are limited in what they can do. We have been in a highly regulated market for a long time. We greatly enjoyed it when there were high guaranteed prices. We cannot really go along with a pure free-market system, because the free-market world prices are much less than, for example, the higher guaranteed prices that we currently get for milk. Our milk prices are about 25% less now than what they were four years ago, but at least the milk farmer is getting a cheque.

The people whom I feel really sorry for are the pig and beef farmers, because they no longer receive a guaranteed price. They are suffering the reality of depressed markets. We thought that we were beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel in relation to our BSE-free status, and the Minister was lobbying strongly for it. The crisis hitting continental Europe that Dr Paisley mentioned is now causing massive alarm and great difficulty, especially for our beef exporters.

It is important that the Assembly address the crisis in a mature and sensible manner. I have not had as much representation on any other issue in the past two years than I have had from farming families on this one. Farmers' wives have telephoned me late at night to tell me about their husbands' plights. In one case, a farmer's wife told me that she was so worried about her husband that she feared for his life. I also know of a pig farmer in Castlederg who, 12 months ago, was experiencing a £2,000 a week loss in his pig production. He was so heavily involved that he could not get out. That is the difficulty faced by many people currently involved in farming.

Rev Dr William McCrea:

No one can overstate the seriousness of the situation faced by a vast portion of our population. Coming from a rural community and a farming background, I know much of the pain and the anguish that is suffered, not only by the farmers but by their families. Many of the farmers' wives and children have been going through much of the pain along with the farming husband. Farming is in crisis. The rural community and rural economy is being affected by that crisis, and the shops in rural towns are being gravely hurt. The Assembly, and the Minister in particular, needs to look carefully at the situation and do something to alleviate the suffering.

Members may read from carefully prepared scripts - some well, some badly - but reality is greater than any script. People are having to endure an intolerable burden, and it is wrong that they should be allowed to continue to do so. They get more into debt every day and with it comes hopelessness. The community is wondering what hope the Minister and the Assembly can give it.

There have been meetings with countless delegations and a multiplicity of words spoken about the dilemma. However, it appears that the picture is getting darker and darker. Promises are made, but those neither pay the bills, nor settle the account with the bank.

Naturally, people look for a scapegoat. On many occasions I have heard departmental officials say "Minister, you cannot". Will there ever come a day when an official can say "Minister, you can"? It appears that the Ministers "cannot" because Europe will not allow them.

Some members of the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development's party, the SDLP, have been great in their praise for the European Community. They should go down on to the farms; there is little to praise the European Community for there. Many of the regulations that are putting the farmers into debt - and almost into mental homes - are made by the European Community.

It appears that the rest of Europe may drive a coach and horses through the regulations, yet they are considered the good Europeans. However, those in Britain are looked upon as the bad Europeans, yet they read the small print carefully.

Previous Ministers have said that if the rest of Europe does that, they will have to be penalised, but we shall not act illegally in the face of any legislation that comes from Europe.

12.30 pm

Meanwhile, we have farmers going bankrupt while the rest of Europe does not adhere to the regulations, which they are a party in making. Intolerable burdens are being placed on the farmer who does not have the money and who is being driven deeper into despair.

I recently met with the Minister and the pig farmers. The question is: do pig farmers have a future? The Minister will say that she cannot answer that. I spoke to pig farmers a few nights ago. They were told by one of the leading processing groups that things will be great in the new year. They are dangling a carrot in front of farmers' eyes and giving them hope that the tide will turn. The sad reality is that that processor may not even be in the Province in the new year. That is how we deal with situations in the Province.

Europe was no friend to the beef farmer. I hope that the SDLP can tell us what a good friend Europe was to it, but let it be remembered that it was the European countries that tried to ride on the back of the BSE crisis in trying to take the markets away from the Ulster farmer. Yet the Ulster farmer's beef was second to none. Europe was willing to use the pain and anguish that many farmers were going through.

We have heard buzzwords such as "diversify" - diversify into what? Do we suggest that all farmers can be tourist-driven and that they all open up their houses as bed-and-breakfasts? It is so easy to say "diversify", but the Department owes it to the community to tell people where, how, and into what they should diversify.

What hope has any young person who enters the farming industry? Young people have to attracted into the industry and retained, but there has to be a properly funded restructuring scheme. It is no good to use the buzzwords "restructuring scheme" - farmers need to know what that means, how it will be done, and how they will be paid. How will we get the elderly farmer to retire with a proper payment, and encourage young people into the industry? Those are the problems - the Assembly and the Minister must come up with the answers.

The sitting was suspended at 12.33 pm.

On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair) -

2.00 pm

Mr Poots:

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development's role is not an easy one. Although I always try to ask her difficult questions to extract information from the Department, I recognise that there was a crisis in the industry when she took on the position.

Nonetheless, the Minister is responsible for leading the way. Her Department must come up with innovative and practical ways to help move farming away from the current crisis. More effort should be made to achieve profitable production, rather than administration. Will the Minister tell me, either today or at a later date, how many people currently work in the Department and how many worked there in 1995, before the agricultural crisis came about? That is a practical question, because the number of farmers has been significantly reduced in that period.

The current agriculture budget is £190 million, yet farmers are taking home £22 per week on average. Why does it cost so much to administer agriculture when the industry makes so little profit? The £22 per week figure is inaccurate because those farmers who are in profit, mainly in the dairy industry, disguise the losses being made by those who have had to take jobs outside farming to keep the farm going.

The Minister must look at the current regulations being applied to farming, which must be one of the most regulated industries in the United Kingdom. Certainly, the UK is more assiduous at applying the regulations than other European countries. That point has been well made today.

I want to draw the Minister's attention to a point made in the Better Regulation Task Force's report. Supermarkets and Government Departments are both running quality assurance schemes, and there is a doubling-up of costs in that area. Farmers have to answer to the Livestock and Meat Commission (LMC) on one hand and to the supermarkets that buy their produce on the other. We should look at how best use could be made of those resources and how a scheme could be adopted that supermarkets would support. That should not only be a marketing mechanism for supermarkets, but it should reward the farmers for the quality of their produce.

The report also recommends that we reduce record- keeping. That is interesting. For a number of years, there has been pressure to increase record-keeping. Much of that has been done in the name of BSE and of to achieve low-incidence BSE status. However, that has not been achieved, and the Minister has said that she will not attempt to achieve it in the immediate future. Not enough is being done to lift the BSE ban on Northern Ireland produce. We are a low-incidence country. We currently apply all the regulations that Europe is now thinking about applying. Northern Ireland produce is of the highest standard possible, and I believe that we have an irrefutable case to get the ban lifted.

A new scheme is being introduced to test animals aged over 30 months to see whether they have BSE, and we should use that as further leverage to get ourselves back into the market by being allowed to slaughter animals over that age. That is a great hardship to farmers, as many of them have perfectly good beef animals. Those may not be ready when the time comes for them to be slaughtered, which means that the farmers lose a great deal of money. However, farmers sometimes find it hard to keep up with the dates, and they may let animals simply run out of time. A beast aged, for example, 29 months and 30 days may be fine, yet two days later it could be deemed unfit for human consumption. That is nonsense, especially when there is a test that would clear the beast and decide whether it is fit for human consumption.

I submitted a written question to the Minister on the Sub-Programme for Agriculture and Rural Development (SPARD), and I thank her for her answer. We are often told that we cannot put money for farming into different schemes because of Europe. The Minister said in her letter that another SPARD scheme would not contravene European regulations.

SPARD was discontinued in 1995, and farmers' places are beginning to become run down due to lack of money. A reintroduction of a SPARD or similar-type scheme - perhaps the emphasis could be on environmental and animal welfare issues - would help farmers maintain their properties in the proper way.

The Department introduced planning regulations for people requiring farm labourers' dwellings. Someone who required a farm labourers' dwelling would need to have 250 cows to qualify. That is nonsense, and it needs to be looked at by the Department. That is not in the legislation; it is merely departmental policy, and I think the Minister could do something useful there. Will the Minister look at the basis for deciding the sheep annual premium and, if she can, along with other Ministers, help persuade the European Union to do it on a regional rather than a Europe-wide basis?

Every farmer in the Province is eligible for TSN. The crisis has bitten everybody from the arable farmer in the east of the Province to the hill farmer in the Sperrins.

Mr Shannon:

I wish to support my Colleague's comments. Farming is of paramount importance to the Province. I say so not because I represent the large rural area of Strangford but because each one of us who lives here depends on the farmer's produce for the food that he or she eats. Whether we live in an urban or a rural part of the Province, we are all affected. Agriculture is the single biggest job creator in the Province's. We recognise that fact, and, although there has been a downturn in the number of jobs, we hope that that will go the other way soon. However, that will happen only if the Government and the Department provide the correct level of support and are effective in doing their best for the farming economy. Many are asking - and this is a question that is on the lips of many farmers whom I speak to in my constituency - what strategy has the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development developed. Does it have a strategy to take agriculture out of the stormy waters that it is in and steer it into calmer ones? Farmers have been burdened with many regulations; they have heard many words, but they have nothing practical they can touch. That causes them concern.

The Minister recently announced that extra money had been allocated in the budget. Some have asked where that extra money will go. Will it go into administration? If it does, then the industry will have lost its way. It should go directly to the coalface - or to the "farmface", in this case - to improve the agriculture industry.

Every one of us can collate and record the downturn in the agriculture industry. In my constituency, the downturn has been significant and worrying. Many jobs have been lost, and some sectors of the rural economy have been almost decimated. There has been a radical change in the numbers involved in the poultry industry and the pig sector. Both have almost been wiped out. There is one pig farmer left in the entire Strangford constituency where there used to be 12 not all that long ago. One Member mentioned the number of pig farmers that have left the business. Once there were more than 2,000, whereas now there are just more than 900. If that does not tell the story of the pig industry, nothing will.

Hen houses and poultry businesses across the Ards Peninsula and Ards town are lying empty today. Farmers were told, "Get into the poultry industry. Your future will be made for you." But what has happened? They have lost a fortune. The poultry industry and the pig sector have seen considerable changes that have been particularly marked in my area. Other sectors have also witnessed changes: beef, sheep, vegetables and grain. Latterly, even the dairy sector is feeling the pinch.

The ripples have touched the entire economy, and everyone is affected. Some shops have closed, while others are being run on a smaller scale - all because the farming community no longer has the spending power that it once had. One Member mentioned the products that we eat in the restaurants here. I put that question to the Assembly Commission, and Mount Charles Catering Ltd confirmed yesterday that it sources all its products from Northern Ireland and that 65% of the products we eat here come from Northern Ireland. That is a clear indication that we are setting an example, as is Mount Charles.

I ask the Minister to take planning issues on board. They are a big problem in my constituency and something I am involved in every other week. I would like to see relaxation in the planning rules and regulations, specifically for farmers' sons and daughters. I find it particularly frustrating that when they work a large number of man hours, which many of them do, that is not sufficient to warrant the building of a house. By setting the level so high, many people are left out of the equation. Moreover, there is no provision in the planning rules and regulations for those who may not be directly involved in farming but who have an alternative job; for example, in the Civil Service. I would like that to be taken on board as well.

We are all aware of the need to restructure and modernise farming. However, that will be achieved only by the establishment of a meaningful and properly funded restructuring scheme. To achieve that, we need to attract young people to the industry, and we need to retain them. We also need an incentive - or a retirement package - for the older generation of farmers. The EU believes that those objectives can be delivered. It is unfortunate that the United Kingdom, on which we are focusing, and Holland are two of the few countries that have not adopted that incentive.

I would also like to make a quick point about the protection and enhancement of the environment. That is a key concern for us all, but farmers have a significant role to play. Indeed, they have already played that role in that they are the custodians of the countryside. Some sort of capital grant element would help that sector. That would give farmers another way of trying to escape from their problems. A wider environmental scheme can deliver greater farmer participation, but it will require cross-departmental funding. Can the Minister tell us how that system will work? If those measures are pursued, the agriculture industry can, like a phoenix, rise from the ashes. The industry can create wealth for the community, which will restore confidence and provide hope for the future.

2.15 pm

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers):

The motion calls on the Assembly to recognise the importance of the agriculture industry to Northern Ireland, and the difficulties that it has recently experienced and continues to face. We are all aware of the problems that have beset the industry. There was the onset of the BSE crisis in 1996, followed by the appreciation of sterling against the ecu, and latterly the euro - a problem that was compounded by imbalances in the global market. The resurgence of the BSE crisis is another problem with which we shall have to deal. As yet, we do not know the full extent of the direct or indirect effects that it could have. Farmers in Northern Ireland have been powerless to influence any of those events, and the toll on farmers, their families and the rural community has been heavy.

I do not, however, accept the suggestion that my Department or I have failed to take a proactive approach to furthering the industry's interests. In a properly functioning and mature democracy, it is right and proper that the actions of a Minister, and those of his or her Department, be closely scrutinised by elected representatives. Ministers should be taken to task, if genuine failings are identified. However, no such failings have been identified in this debate.

I have introduced several initiatives in the past year, and they illustrate how I am being proactive and making progress in delivering real benefits to Northern Ireland. I would also like to foster a better understanding of the role and aims of my Department. Soon after I took up my ministerial portfolio, I decided to establish a group of industry experts to examine the agrifood industry, identify the obstacles and opportunities that lay ahead, develop a vision for the development of the industry and make recommendations as to how that would be achieved. Mr Shannon spoke about the need for a strategy. That is precisely what the vision group that I set up was for - to provide me with a road map or strategy.

Work is now at an advanced stage. The group will deliver its final report to me by the end of February 2001. However, the purpose of the exercise is not simply to provide me with a nice glossy report that I can display as evidence of my foresight or as justification of what I have already done. On the contrary, it will pave the way for an action plan that will move the industry forward on its own agenda - in close partnership with Government - towards the achievement of common goals.

One Member suggested that the vision exercise was a costly one; it is not. The members of the group have given up their time voluntarily. The group is not designed to replace the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee or the Assembly. Its purpose is to provide me with additional advice from people in the industry who possess a wealth of experience and expertise. Given the recent upheavals and difficulties, the industry needs a lead as never before, and I am determined to ensure that it has it.

Another of my early initiatives was my decision to proceed with the case in favour of relaxing the export restrictions on Northern Ireland beef. I do not need to reiterate my commitment to that. At yesterday's special Council of Ministers meetings in Brussels, a package of measures was agreed that will help the EU beef market. All member states must now control the consumption of beef from animals aged over 30 months and stop the feeding of meat-and-bone meal to ruminants. The list of specified risk materials will be extended. As well as protecting the public at large, the measures will level out the playing field for the UK and other member states, and will help to preserve consumer confidence in EU beef. There will also be as yet unspecified measures taken to cushion beef producers against the financial impact. The Council also agreed possible concessions for very low-incidence countries, such as Finland, and the resumption of exports by Portugal.

Needless to say, I shall watch those developments with interest, in case they read across to Northern Ireland. We are all well aware of the impact that the weakness of the euro has on farmers. That matter can only be dealt with via the mechanism of agrimoney compensation. In February I began a debate with other UK Agriculture Ministers that led to the March agriculture summit announcement of additional compensation that was worth more than £8 million to Northern Ireland livestock producers. I, again, pushed for compensation earlier this autumn, which led to the announcement of additional compensation for our arable producers.

I welcome the support of Mr Leslie and Mr McGrady for my efforts in that respect, and I assure the House that I shall keep up the pressure for further compensation when it becomes available. Without such a proactive approach, acting in concert with Agriculture Ministers from other devolved Administrations, and with the full support of the unions, I very much doubt whether any such money would have been forthcoming.

However, several Members have indicated that although those cash injections are absolutely vital to help the industry weather its current difficulties, we simply cannot build the future of our industry on emergency cash handouts - Mr Armstrong has termed them "pain relievers" - or by pursuing short-term initiatives that divert us from our true objectives and perhaps even create long-term damage for the sake of short-term expediency. I also recognise, as Mr Byrne pointed out, the existence of the short-term difficulties, and I have already referred to some of the actions that I have taken to tackle those difficulties.

An important example of how we lay the foundations for moving forward is provided by our recently approved rural development regulation plan, which is worth some £266 million between 2000 and 2006. If, as Mr Kane suggested, I had slavishly implemented EU policy with no regard for the local farming industries, the originally proposed less-favoured area (LFA) scheme would have been very different from the one with which we ended up. Together with other UK Ministers and Joe Walsh in the Republic, we succeeded in changing the EU Commission's narrow approach to LFA support. I was also able to secure an additional £32 million over the next few years from the Treasury for that support programme, compared to February's original proposals.

The rural development regulation plan contains more than just the LFA support scheme. The additional funding secured for the agrienvironment and forestry elements will also be welcomed by farmers and environmentalists. There are increasing market opportunities for organic produce, and I note that Mr John Kelly specifically mentioned that point. The significantly enhanced resources provided under the organic farming scheme will encourage the development of a vibrant organic sector in Northern Ireland and will enable local producers to exploit those opportunities. To underpin the development, I have commissioned a strategic study to identify the nature and scale of the opportunities open to the Northern Ireland organic sector. That will lead to a development plan to enable the Northern Ireland organic sector to realise its full potential.

Organic farming will also deliver environmental benefits, as will the expanded countryside management scheme, which aims to improve biodiversity, the water quality of rivers and lakes, and the management of landscape and heritage features. Those are important goals in their own right, but I am sure that the processing industry's marketing people will not be slow to exploit the advantages.

Another area in which we are planning for our future is represented by our proposals under the transitional Objective 1 and Peace II programmes. We seek to ensure that we derive maximum benefit from European funding and deliver a balanced package of measures, with benefits for agriculture, fisheries, forestry and tourism. Together, those measures will benefit the wider rural community, as was mentioned by several Members.

Turning to measures that I have been pursuing with the resources available to me from the Northern Ireland block, the Agenda for Government, and the recently announced Budget proposals, I have been able to bid for additional funds to initiate several important and innovative programmes.

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has been at the forefront in training farmers in information and computer technology (ICT), and its effective use in the farm business. I have secured funding to enable the Department, working in association with the industry, to develop a portal site specifically for farmers and growers. That will provide on-line access to information and learning packages that will assist farmers in running their businesses more efficiently and profitably.

In a unique initiative to enhance farmer access to ICT facilities, open-access computers are being provided at sites across Northern Ireland, as agreed with farming representative bodies. We hope to have the first of those in operation early next year. I note that Mr Kane has criticised the initiative, but it would be unfair to deprive our farmers of access to the new technology that plays an increasingly important part in our lives. I welcome Mr Ford's support for the initiative.

I have also been able to secure substantial additional funds to help the beef sector tackle the reduction in carcass quality that has become an increasing problem in recent years. That problem has been recognised by several Members during the debate. Given that considerable investment, I shall consult the industry on how best to achieve the significant improvement that is necessary.

The agriculture industry has particular problems in controlling potential pollution arising from farm waste, and it has lobbied for a capital grant scheme to provide the investment necessary to tackle the problem. Some Members, including Dr Paisley, referred to a need for an environmental capital grant scheme. I was pleased to secure funding for a pilot farm-waste management scheme in the October Agenda for Government. That pilot scheme will target the catchment areas of those rivers and lakes with the greatest farming-related water quality problems. The scheme aims to reduce the incidence of farm-point sourced pollution, and to provide farmers with grant assistance for the repair of silos, slurry stores, and the separation of clean and dirty water. That is an important initiative, and if the pilot scheme proves successful I hope to secure additional funds to enable the programme to be extended to other catchment areas.

Several Members raised the issues of the restructuring of the industry, early retirement and the encouragement of new entrants into the industry. Many Members will be aware that I recently commissioned research into the merits, both economic and social, of an early retirement scheme and a new entrants scheme. Particular reference was made to the experience of such schemes in other member states. Clearly such schemes have considerable resource implications. There are different opinions on their effectiveness and feasibility. The purpose of the research is to provide me with better information in order to make an informed decision on how to best use the money for the long-term benefit of the industry. I shall consult all stakeholders before taking any decision.

Young people entering the industry must have the technical and business management skills to compete globally. They require the best of education and training, coupled with relevant practical experience. It is for that reason that the Department of Agriculture has for many years been at the forefront of innovative education and training provision, linked closely to the industry's needs.

Several Members spoke about the plight of pig farmers. I have already explained to the Assembly some of the steps that I have taken to help to improve, for example, carcass confirmation and marketing. I have also had meetings with the commercial interests and have encouraged people to source local produce.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

I have just heard alarming news about the funds for outgoers and ingoers in the pig industry that were to come to £66 million. Because the Treasury did not hand out £26 million of that money, there is now an argument in the Treasury and in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food as to whether the United Kingdom overall is to get not £66 million, but £40 million.

Is the Minister going to press - against the wishes of the Minister in England, but not against the wishes of the Agriculture Ministers in Scotland and Wales - that that money be regionalised so that she and the House will have an input into the way that it is spent?

Ms Rodgers:

I thank Dr Paisley for that information. I cannot comment on something that is, as the Member says, hot off the press. I presume that it is still subject to negotiation, and I assure the Member that I, along with my officials, will press for the full amount.


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