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Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 27 March 2001 (continued)

Mr Speaker:

I am encouraged that the Member thinks it is Peace II. Some people are still waiting for "peace I".

Mr Close:

Hope springs eternal, does it not? I welcome the Minister's statement. It is fair to say that this is a good news day. A package of £1·23 billion cannot be sneezed at, nor should it be sneezed at by anyone.

How can the Minister assure the House that sustainability will be seen to be the key? The reference to gap funding in the previous round is a clear demonstration that sustainability was not really taken seriously. In the immortal words of the Rolling Stones, "This will be the last time". Therefore it is essential that sustainability be the key and that that message be really drummed home.

Finally, can the Minister further assure the House that proper and verifiable appraisals will be carried out on all the projects, thus ensuring that there will be a clear demonstration that the bad habits that crept in under previous rounds have been eradicated?

Mr Durkan:

I welcome the change of Rolling Stones tune from Mr Close. Normally I hear "I can't get no satisfaction" in the Chamber. I am glad that he welcomes the stage we are at with these programmes, but we have still more work to do. He rightly identifies the important principle of sustainability. It is important not just for us but also for the European Commission. Essentially, part of the contract in Peace I was meant to be sustainability, and people receiving funding under Peace I were meant to make arrangements to ensure the sustainability of their projects and to provide exit strategies.

However, the difficulties that we are witnessing show that that has not happened. In fairness, all the blame cannot be laid at the doors of the individual projects. One of the things that we must do in the next round is to not just address the issue of sustainability as a hard economic test, the burden of which falls solely on each individual project, but also develop a wider framework for sustainability. We must see how we can ensure the sustainability of the sort of programmes, models, measures and mechanisms that have been developed under Peace I and that we want to see developed under Peace II. It is in the wider context of ensuring the sustainability of that sort of approach that organisations will find themselves even better equipped and even better motivated to concentrate on maximising their own specific grounds for sustainability.

Mr B Hutchinson:

I welcome the statement. Can the Minister elaborate on the role of the intermediary funding bodies? What percentage of the peace funds will be channelled through them, and how will they be chosen?

Mr Durkan:

The intermediate funding bodies are being chosen on the basis of competitive tender in this round. That was agreed by the Executive. I know that some of the existing bodies were disappointed by that decision, but we believed that it was important, given that this is a new programme. We also believe that it is important given the European Commission's requirements and our own public procurement requirements, because in a sense the work of these bodies really is an important contract.

We are looking at an indicative distribution of 34% of the programme being managed by intermediary funding bodies.

Ms Morrice:

I too rise to welcome the securing of the European funding and to congratulate the team for the work they have done to get it. I also thank Europe and the European Union for this commitment to Northern Ireland.

The Minister has concentrated most of his efforts on changing the partnership approach. My argument is this: if it is not broken, why fix it? What is the Minister doing to keep his own house in order? He will be aware of the findings of the Public Accounts Committees on European funding. I refer to what Seamus Close called "bad habits" in Government funding.

How much money is going to be channelled directly through the Government? How will the Minister ensure that that money actually goes to peace and reconciliation and not to pet Government projects? How can he ensure that funding is not blocked? We have some projects still waiting for money to be channelled from certain Departments which was promised months, if not years, ago. How can the Minister guarantee that the process will flow smoothly?

Mr Durkan:

I thank the Member for the welcome that she gave to the announcement and for her thanks to the officials involved, who have undertaken an enormous amount of work. It is appropriate that thanks are expressed here by Members. The European Union is also due proper recognition.

Following on from the last question about how much the intermediate funding bodies are going to handle, in the next programme, the Department will be handling, on the basis of the indicative allocation that we are working on, some 39% of the funding in the next round.

I also point out, as I indicated in my speech, that the Executive undertook last February to monitor what the Departments would do about their measures on social inclusion, and especially the inclusion of women, children and young people, North/South activity, and using local delivery mechanisms. As I have tried to stress, we do not see the only funding going to and through local delivery mechanisms as being the funding under priority 3. We want to see that used more widely.

We are going to manage this programme in a meaningful way, and we have much more robust and more meaningful monitoring arrangements in place for this programme than was the case for the last one. The monitoring committees in the last round did not have a clear remit. They had very big and unwieldy memberships. We have, with the help of the social partners, designed a much more streamlined and coherent role for the monitoring committees.

There will also be clear reportage. The European Parliament will require annual reportage on how we are managing these issues and spending the moneys. There are problems with completing the spend in Peace I. All the allocations under Peace I have been made, but not all the money has been drawn down. My Department, other Departments and the Special EU Programmes Body are working with the district partnerships and intermediary funding bodies, to try to ensure that that money is drawn down and well spent.

Dr O'Hagan:

Go raibh maith agat, Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister's statement. Many groups and organisations will also welcome that we have at least reached this stage in the process.

I have looked at the timetable that the Minister has provided. There are concerns that the bulk of the money will not filter down to the ground until around January 2002. Given those concerns, does the Minister believe that the existing arrangements are adequate for the gap funding, given that he has acknowledged the valuable work of the voluntary and community sector? Can the Minister assure the House that that European Union money will be truly additional and that it will not be used by Departments and statutory agencies to do what they should be doing already?

Finally, in the last line of paragraph 13, the Minister refers to the use of "private finance" in the future. Can he give more details on how he envisages that finance being used?

11.30 am

Mr Durkan:

I will first deal with the issue of additionality. Peace II moneys, as with Peace I funds, are additional, and we respect that fact. We have been at pains to ensure that the peace programmes and the programme for building sustainable prosperity were distinctive in this way. As a result, significant changes had to be made to the draft of each programme, precisely to ensure and underpin the necessary distinctiveness, which is part of the guarantee of additionality.

We have now made arrangements to build on the £9 million of gap funding that we have allocated for the current financial year. That allocation of funding from the Executive's budget shows that the Executive are sensitive and responsive to those problems. A different approach is to be taken in the next financial year, which will be geared towards facilitating the transition to Peace II, particularly in the context of the operational programmes. The funding to be available under that mechanism can last until October, and we expect that that money will be allocated in September, based on the timetable I have outlined. This progression will, of course, be subject to our getting the necessary agreement on the programme complements on time in May, but with a big effort we can do that. If there are any other difficulties we will simply need to stretch the transition funding arrangement that we are planning. We are, therefore, dealing with the Member's concerns about gap funding.

We have no plans to use private finance on any particular project or in any particular way. However, the strategic partnerships are meant to be local, which should have an influence and a strategic bearing on a number of issues in their areas - not just priority 3 - and all the social partners, including businesses, should be involved. Several measures being taken at local level already involve some private financial investment or activity. In the light of that, all such positive developments should be within the purview of those local partnerships.

Mr Leslie:

I thank the Minister for his statement, although I regret that he did not see fit to mention in his statement the fact that the structural funds were not additional. Before we throw our hats in the air with joy about that £860 million, we should remind ourselves that the funding is simply a mechanism by which the European Union graciously allows the United Kingdom to spend its own money, albeit that the amount spent in Northern Ireland is higher than it would otherwise have been.

The Minister referred to match funding, although not in quantum. In the context of his comments on sustainability, does he believe that when those programmes end, the part of the spending that was represented by match funding might continue to be applied to the same measures in the future? It could be argued that that would not be a further burden on public expenditure as provision for such spending is already there.

Mr Durkan:

I regret that I was unable to cover every detail on match funding in the statement. I assumed that most people knew that Peace II money was additional while the transitional Objective I funding was not. There was no attempt to mislead by omitting to mention that fact in my statement.

Secondly, match funding is obviously a requirement that we must meet in respect of these programmes. Europe requires that. If the emphasis on the programme for building sustainable prosperity, which Mr Leslie seems to be most interested in, is to underpin sustainable economic development, when we come to the end of it, all those measures, areas of activity and sectors that have been benefiting under that programme will still have to be taken forward, depending on what stage of development they are at.

We will have to take decisions at that point. How do we sustain that development? I do not think anybody is pretending that all areas of those programmes will involve a finite commitment, within the life of these programmes, to those areas. There will be ongoing commitments with consequences. That is one of the reasons for, when deciding what measures we are going to adopt or support under these programmes, having an eye to longer-term sustainability.

Mrs Courtney:

I welcome the Minister's statement and congratulate him and his team on the management of a complex and lengthy process. Although there are still a couple of months to go on those programmes, today's announcement will be of immense significance to how we progress. I am also conscious that there is a challenge ahead with sustainable prosperity. Given that a sound energy infrastructure is vital for economic development, equality of opportunity and access to prosperity, can the Minister confirm that those programmes can be used to support gas pipeline development so that people from outside Belfast, and especially those in the greater north-west, can enjoy a level plain field?

Mr Durkan:

A notional sum of five million euros has been included in the new programme for building sustainable prosperity precisely for energy.

Once proposals for pipeline development have been evaluated, funding for economic growth and competitiveness - a priority of the programme - can be redistributed to allow for the implementation of gas pipeline expansions. The key issue is the appraisal of realistic proposals from the private sector.

My Colleague the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Sir Reg Empey, will ensure that that receives proper attention, not just from his Department, but also from the Executive, at the proper time. I also remind Members that in the Budget and under the Programme for Government, we established an Executive Programme fund, which includes money for infrastructure and capital renewal.

Mr Poots:

Not for the first time is the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister showing gross discourtesy to the House by not turning up this morning for something in which it plays such a key role. I also have to say to Mr Close that we are not receiving manna from heaven. Perhaps the people of Northern Ireland are just getting back some of the money they have paid in taxes.

Does the Minister accept that while he intends to build on the strength of partnerships, he needs to eradicate the weakness of partnership? I bring to his attention accountability, fairness and equality, which we have not had in the past. Millions of pounds have been squandered, yet the Protestant community was so discriminated against in Lisburn that it ground the whole partnership system to a halt. What steps does the Minister intend to take to ensure that that does not happen with the Peace II money?

Mr Durkan:

I have already dealt with the point about balance. There are horizontal principles that will apply in the new programmes, not least in the Peace II programme. They aim to respect our equality obligations fully and to ensure that there is an optimum balance in the use and share of those resources.

With regard to some of the criticisms that have been made about some allocations, obviously a number of measures were taken under Peace I. It would be unfortunate if whatever legitimate concerns or criticisms there may be were now laid at the door of local partnerships. The fact is that the district partnerships faced an enormous task during the life of Peace I, not least because of the novelty and the difficult circumstances that there were in the early days of the partnership enterprise.

However, important lessons have been learnt, including some about deficiencies in the partnerships. Those deficiencies were not in the commitment or the qualities of those involved in partnerships but were deficiencies in the structures. We are trying to make that good by establishing a new and more strategic form of partnership at the local level. That will serve local communities in their fullest and broadest sense and not just in relation to European funding and the Peace programme - the partnerships will go far beyond those measures and will outlast them. I hope that people will recognise that, by bringing forward these changes, we are trying to respond to some of the difficulties and frustrations experienced by the partnerships and others in the last round. We are also trying to improve every other measure under this programme.

Mr Beggs:

I too welcome the Minister's statement advising that Northern Ireland taxpayers' money will be returned from Europe through the transitional Objective 1 and Peace II programmes.

Does the Minister accept that the intermediary funding bodies in the Peace I structure were highly bureaucratic and that local groups often had to apply to several bodies to achieve a total funding package, thus wasting time and effort? Will the Minister advise that there will be a reduction in the overall amount of money spent on administration in Peace II so that more money can be directed towards the groups and projects on the ground? Is the Minister aware of the inequalities of the previous systems, particularly the money spent by intermediary funding bodies? For example, the Educational Guidance Service for Adults spent a total of £4·3 million but only £26,000 in my constituency. Will he ensure that there will be equality in future spending by intermediary funding bodies?

Mr Durkan:

In acknowledging the important questions raised by the Member, I make the point that intermediary funding bodies had a range of responsibilities under Peace I. They managed different types of funding over a range of sectoral areas. It is not the case that all allocations made by intermediary funding bodies - which are made at a regional level - are subject to a detailed breakdown at local level. Some allocations can be represented at constituency or council level, but that is not always the case. It is common for Departments to be in a similar position. Therefore it would be unfair to use that test against intermediary funding bodies. We must remember that we are dealing with different types of programmes and funding.

We are trying to make sure that any deficiencies that existed in Peace I are rectified and improved upon. In response to the early part of the question, we recognise that there were problems of "cocktail" funding for both funders and applicants. We are trying to streamline those matters. Part of what is being attempted with the new local strategy partnerships is to enable them to respond to the interests and ideas of different groups locally - not just in relation to the funding managed locally by the local strategy partnerships but wider EU programmes. That is why they will be in a strong position to work with the Special EU Programmes Body, which is the managing authority for the wider Peace programme.

We want to see a stronger network of information and contact, so that people will not have to make lots of speculative applications all over the place and so that they will receive better advice and direction. The Special EU Programmes Body is an important asset in this round of funding, and it rectifies a clear deficiency in the last round. The programmes body, particularly as the secretariat of the regional partnership board, will be in a strong position to work closely with the local strategy partnerships.

11.45 am

Ms Hanna:

I too welcome the Minister's statement and appreciate his work and that of his team. Can he outline more specifically how the stronger economic focus of Peace II will be given effect?

Mr Durkan:

The stronger economic focus in Peace II is not there to the exclusion of the emphasis that needs to be there for our own purposes and, indeed, in the European Commission's interests on social inclusion, nor will it in any way impair the quality of this programme as one that clearly has to be centred on peace and reconciliation. With an emphasis on regeneration as well as reconciliation, this programme can contribute to economic improvement, and those improvements will, in turn, underpin social inclusion.

As other Members have said, sustainability will obviously be a fundamental principle that underlies the programme, and project sponsors will be required to ensure that, where possible, projects and actions can continue beyond the life of the peace programme. That is particularly relevant when we are talking about those measures that are in the more economic area.

I must point out that under priority 3 there are local economic initiatives that can be taken that will specifically come in to the social economy area, for we have responded to some of the concerns that were expressed about earlier drafts of Peace II that had local economic development in under that measure. That measure has, in turn, been transferred to the transitional Objective 1. We have, therefore, been able to maintain that economic focus, while at the same time ensuring that it does not skew against the strong social inclusion emphasis that has to be there.

If we are serious about taking advantage of all the opportunities that arise from peace, and if we are serious about building on the successes of Peace I, we should want to build new ways that sustain both economic as well as social growth.

Mr Hay:

I would like to bring the Minister back to the issue of ring-fencing. I want to say very seriously to the Minister that in my constituency of Foyle, if it had not been for myself and others in our district partnership fighting to try to ring-fence some money for the Protestant community, that community would have lost out desperately.

There is no doubt that in my constituency, when money was ring-fenced - and not only for the Protestant community, for some Nationalist groups lost out as well - it worked. You were able to go to a community and say "Here is your money; you come up with a project or programme to fit around it" rather than "Come up with a programme or project, and we might get you the money". Under Peace II, that is an important issue to be looked at, especially in a community that is coming from a very low base and one that is, perhaps, not as active as the Nationalist community in filling in application forms and going for funding. We could argue here all day as to why that is happening.

The Minister has to try to build on success. In my community and in the Foyle constituency we all saw money -

Mr Speaker:

I urge the Member to put his question to the Minister.

Mr Hay:

I want the Minister to take a serious look at ring-fencing money for communities that are coming from a very low base.

I have another question. There are councils and partnerships who, for whatever reason, will find it difficult to form a partnership to try to draw down this money. If that happens and the partnership is not formed, what does the Minister intend to do?

Mr Durkan:

The Member raised several points, some of which have been touched on by others. I refer the Member to the horizontal principles that are meant to govern the use of this funding. I also stress that we are talking about having the partnerships, not just as local delivery mechanisms, but as local decision-making mechanisms.

The Executive are trying to ensure wider understanding of that point and issue. Therefore, at this stage, it is not for the Executive, the Department of Finance and Personnel or the Special EU Programmes Body to start ring-fencing money that might be allocated by particular partnerships. As the Member's last question indicates, the Executive are trying to encourage people to reach the agreement required to create new strategic partnerships locally. Therefore the Executive are trying to take account of people's needs and concerns and reflect those in a positive and pragmatic way consistent with all of the principles.

Stronger monitoring arrangements are in place for this programme than was the case for the last programme. Notwithstanding the problems that Members have legitimately identified, there has also been significant progress in respect of some of the problems associated with Peace I - not least through some innovative interventions and allocations by local partnership boards. In those cases more was done to make good the deficit in application of funds to particular areas and communities.

The intermediary funding bodies have seen the same improvements in making progress against that problem. It would be wrong for the Executive to suggest that there has not been progress on that issue just as it would be wrong for me to imply that more progress is not needed or would not be welcome.

Mr Dodds:

I welcome the statement's commitment to new partnership arrangements that will enhance and increase the role of local government and district councils. That is important given the democratic nature of local councils and the important role that elected representatives and councillors have to play. There is concern among others who played a significant role in the previous partnership arrangements at the make-up of the new boards. Will the Minister indicate in more detail his thinking on the role that those other sectors will play in the new partnership arrangements?

Paragraph 24 of the statement states that the secretariat to the new Northern Ireland regional partnership board is to be the Special EU Programmes Body. Will the Minister explain the thinking behind that? Does he accept that that will not be viewed by some people in Northern Ireland as a positive development, but could rather cause some alienation with regard to the inclusiveness of the arrangements?

Will the Minister take on board the comments made by my Colleagues on this side of the House about the need to ensure that the lack of community infrastructure and capacity in the Protestant and Unionist community is recognised and acknowledged in the new arrangements? Will the Minister ensure that positive steps are taken to redress the deficiencies of the previous arrangements?

Mr Durkan:

The Member raised several points for which I thank him.

The Executive are trying to ensure that local government's role at a corporate level is bedded more strongly in the partnership model for the future. The Executive do not want local government to dominate the partnerships or displace the influence of any other sector. The Executive want more of the capacity of local and regional government through the statutory agencies to be brought to the table of partnership.

With regard to the fifty-fifty model, it must be remembered that the Executive are saying that it will be for local government and the statutory agencies to determine locally what the balance should be. Some Members have suggested that the Executive should opt for a model that allocates a fixed 25% to local government, a fixed 25% to the statutory agencies, et cetera. That is not the best way to go because there is a danger of revisiting the situation where people from the statutory agencies turn up only to make up the numbers, rather than properly working their passage and engaging in the real spirit of partnership. Also, I am very conscious that we are talking about reviews of public administration and reviews of local government that might well see a change in the balance between the functions and capacities of local government and the statutory agencies. That is why, in setting the partnership on a fifty-fifty basis, we will have a model which can develop not only over Peace II but also beyond Peace II. We need to take account of the wider factors.

With regard to the interests of other sectors, we have been asked to embrace the principle of social partnership throughout all consultations that we have engaged in. I have also been urged by people in working groups, by social partners - and this reflects the district partnership perspective and the local government perspective too - not to impose a one-size-fits-all model. In that respect it is now 50% participation for social partners. Some people have suggested that we should fix the partnership at 25% for the community and voluntary sector, and 25% for business, trade unions and the rural and agriculture sector. I have no problems if people agree that level locally, or if at regional level the social partners, in the negotiations that will take place on the programme complements, can agree that.

It would be wrong if we imposed that model. Many people have told me that they believe that different levels can be arrived at locally. I am happy to look at building in threshold guarantees to particular sectors. It is something that I looked at but was dissuaded from because people told me to allow it to go forward and be negotiated. I hope that reassures people. Like Mr Dodds, many people have been in touch with me, and when I have explained what we are doing and why we are doing it, they are reassured and wonder why others have been telling them yarns.


Beef and Pig Sectors


The Chairperson of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee (Rev Dr Ian Paisley):

I beg to move

That this Assembly accepts and endorses the findings and recommendations contained in the two reports published by the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development - 'Restoring Profit for the Beef Producer' (2/00/R) and 'Restoring Profit for the Pig Producer' (3/00/R) - and urges the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (and others involved in the beef and pig sectors) to take all the necessary steps to implement the recommendations.

Let me make it clear that this motion was unanimously agreed by the Committee. It is the Committee's motion, and it was agreed by all parties who attended the meeting.

Last year, as Chairman of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, I tabled a motion in the House seeking the Assembly's endorsement of the Committee's first major report, 'Retailing in Northern Ireland - A fair deal for the farmer'. The motion was agreed without a division. That report was the first of a series of three to come out of the Committee's inquiry into debt in the agriculture industry.

Today I have tabled a similar motion, on the Committee's behalf, seeking the Assembly's endorsement of the final two reports and asking that the Assembly seek the implementation of the 15 recommendations contained in the beef sector report and the nine recommendations in the pig industry report. I was asked if now was the appropriate time to introduce those reports? My answer is emphatically "Yes". Farmers are in desperate need of some hope for the future. Even before the current crisis, hope was a rare commodity in the farming community. Some farmers are going out of business, and others are struggling with crippling debts. The recommendations in both reports offer hope for the future, but only if they are implemented.

I firmly believe that the Assembly's endorsement of the reports and recommendations, and the momentum for change in those recommendations, will be too great for the Department and others in those industries to ignore.


The title of each report says it all - "Restoring profit". Would any of the Members here expect to run a business, support a family and uphold their local economy without the prospect of a fair return for their labours? Not one. That is all that farmers are asking for, and all that my Committee is being a voice for in the House. The Committee has investigated those important matters and has given a real insight into what is happening in agriculture today.

The report on the beef industry was launched on 15 December 2000, the report on the pig industry two months later. Those reports were the result of the Committee's consideration of 14 long written submissions and 13 very long oral evidence sessions. That represents a significant body of evidence from all sides of the industry. The Minister must lend her ear to the evidence. I commend all those who took part in the inquiry and I commend those in the Committee who worked hard at their task.

The Committee made 15 recommendations on the beef industry. They covered a wide range of subjects including EU matters, herd improvement, the creation of effective and efficient partnerships, opening new markets, branding, quality and strategic involvement of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in the industry. I only have time to concentrate on a few of those today.

First, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development's strategic role. Based on the evidence before it, one of the Committee's firm conclusions was that the massive superiority of the market power of both processors and retailers was leading to the poor returns faced by beef farmers. We also found that the fragmentation of beef production was a real obstacle to the creation of a modern responsive supply chain.

Therefore one of our main recommendations was that the Department should set a high priority on the transformation of beef production from a collection of individual farmers with no market power to a market-oriented organised force, able to respond with a quality product. We recommended that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development should create and lead a task force to help that to happen. What is the use of having the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development if it is not going to help the farmers? What is the use of turning the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development into a police force to look after and monitor farmers, rather than helping them to win markets?

Within the existing supply chain, Northern Irish beef is being processed and sold profitably but without an acceptable return for the producers. They are the Cinderellas of the high business strategy employed by large companies in our Province today. Those large companies are not going bankrupt, but the farmers are. The directors of those companies are not committing suicide, but some farmers are. Those companies give a tremendous return to their shareholders while the farmer has a pittance and his income is cut by over 50%.

Another issue that the report highlighted was the alleged price differential between Northern Irish beef and that sold in Great Britain. The Committee defends Northern Ireland's farmers - their beef is second to none. They deserve the same reward for their labours as their fellow farmers in the rest of this United Kingdom. We have recommended that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development investigate the allegations with a view to securing comparable returns for similar livestock.

The Committee was most concerned about evidence regarding the deterioration in the quality of beef cattle presented for slaughter. There are several reasons for that, including the high percentage of input from the dairy herds. Another significant factor is the lack of price incentives from processors to encourage farmers to present animals of a higher quality. During evidence sessions even the processors agreed that there was not a wide enough gap in prices in Northern Ireland.

Therefore the main thrust of the Committee's recommendations in that area is twofold. The Department must prepare an overall strategy for herd improvement that involves the whole industry, and processors must alter their pricing policies to offer stronger incentives. The Committee welcomed the Department's beef quality initiative, announced in the Programme for Government, as a major step in the right direction. However, when the Committee questioned officials about the proposed scheme at the beginning of March it was disappointed to learn that processors had not commented on the individual proposals, although they supported the principle of the scheme. We want to see the principle not just supported but transformed into action.

That demonstrates the importance of the fully developed involvement of processors, as recommended by the Committee. If processors do not act, we fear, the initiative will not succeed, as the main tangible benefits to encourage farmers to undertake quality production - a premium for their animals - will not exist.

I am pleased to inform the Assembly that the Minister has responded positively to the beef report. In her letter of 22 February, Ms Rodgers congratulated the Committee on producing a concerted and concentrated examination of the issues. Although it may appreciate those remarks, the Committee is more interested in action. Of the 12 recommendations directly relating to the Department, the Minister either will act or is already taking action to implement four of them. Those involve agrimonetary compensation, swift dispersal of payments to farmers, supporting efforts to reopen new markets and, crucially, conducting an investigation into the price differential between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The Committee welcomes those actions.

On a further three recommendations - those relating to herd improvement, farm quality assurance and traceability - the Minister appears to accept the Committee's findings but is not necessarily committing herself to taking to the action proposed in its report. The Committee will be interested to hear today whether the Minister will expand on those areas. In any event, it will seek to ensure that the actions taken by the Minister meet the objectives of its recommendations.

In her reply, the Minister appeared unconvinced about the recommendation to brand Northern Ireland beef. In hearing evidence, the Committee learned about a successful branding exercise to sell our beef in Holland. The Committee also heard that the Great Britain market was largely based on a known-label strategy.

The Committee firmly believes that branding offers the only real protection against product substitution by the big retailers and that it must be pursued. Despite the Minister's apparent reluctance, the Committee welcomes the fact that the Livestock and Meat Commission is to undertake a study of the scope of branding Northern Ireland red meat. That study should not be delayed, and Members will take a close interest in its findings.

The Minister appears to have rejected three of the Committee's recommendations. Those recommendations included the banning of imports of foreign beef if there is a risk to consumers or a threat to the industry. That is all the more important today, when meat that has not been properly handled - even under EEC rules - is coming from the continent into Northern Ireland. We also recommended that the Department become a more proactive participant in the beef sector and that producers should be organised into a market-orientated force.

It could be argued that only three rejections out of 12 recommendations is not a bad result for a Committee report. However, recent events, including the importing from Germany and other European countries of beef from which the spinal cord had not been removed, make our recommendation on that all the more valid. As recently as last Thursday, the Ulster Farmers' Union called for the suspension of EU beef imports. Stern measures are called for.

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development's involvement and leadership in creating a modern, responsive and powerful production force is crucial to the Committee's vision for a better future for the beef farmers of Northern Ireland. If the Minister does not accept that our task force recommendation is the right way to go, the members of the Committee and I will be interested to hear her alternative suggestions for improving co-operation among producers and securing real partnership arrangements with powerful processors and retailers.

The final report, 'Restoring Profit for the Pig Producer', was launched at a press conference on 16 February. In that report, there were nine recommendations. The Committee has not yet received the Minister's response to that report, which puts me at something of a disadvantage. I do not criticise the Minister for that; we all know and appreciate that she has been preoccupied in recent weeks. Nonetheless, we look forward with interest to her response today. The Committee will find out only today what the Minister plans to do about our recommendations, so we look forward to meeting her again and having further discussions.

The Committee's findings covered four areas: the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development's strategic involvement in the industry; the Department's response to the crisis faced by pig producers; producer-processor partnerships, and reserved matters outside the direct control of the local administration. As was the case with the beef sector, the Committee found that the Department should be more proactive in certain areas of its dealings with the industry.


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