Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 27 March 2001 (continued)

12.15 pm

The Committee was most impressed by the efforts of the United Pig Producers' Co-operative to make a significant change in the supply chain. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development would appear to agree, as it has allocated significant moneys to the co-operative to make it work. However, like the beef sector, there is an imbalance of market power. Pig producers have to either take it or leave it when processors offer them a price. Members felt that there must be a real advantage for processors in the assurance of a ready and consistent supply of quality pigs at an agreed price. However, we heard that the major processor, the Malton bacon factory, had not engaged in a meaningful way with the co-operative. Without such co-operation, further progress is impossible. For that reason, one of our main recommendations is for the Department to become much more closely involved in the negotiations. That processor has benefited from a very large grant assistance from the Department, and the Committee believes that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development therefore has the right - indeed, the obligation - to intervene in that matter.

The Committee also heard evidence on the disparity in prices between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. As was the case with beef, the Committee would have recommended that the Department investigate that differential. However, before the report was finalised, the Minister announced an investigation into the conformation of Northern Ireland pigs. The Committee welcomes that. If the findings reveal - as we expect they will - that the processors' allegations of poor quality are absolutely unfounded, the Committee in its recommendation has urged the Department to follow that up most vigorously.

During our inquiry, there was much debate about the Government's handling of the crisis in the pig industry, particularly in relation to the catastrophic fire at the Ballymoney processing plant. Northern Ireland pig farmers look endlessly across the border to their counterparts in the Republic of Ireland. The welfare scheme offered for pig farmers was nothing in comparison with that, and should not be likened to it. The pig farmers believe that the Government there understood the problems and acted accordingly. They do not believe the same could be said of the Administration here.

Our report calls for the Minister to put in place a scheme that will take into account the specific difficulties faced in Northern Ireland. That would be in addition to the UK-wide pig industry restructuring scheme and would ensure that our producers are not disadvantaged compared to those in the south of this island. I will be particularly interested to hear the Minister's response to this recommendation which, I believe, has the full support of the pig farmers.

The UK-wide scheme I have just mentioned will have an effect on the overall industry in Northern Ireland. The Minister told the Committee recently that there had been some 800 applications for the outgoers element of the scheme. It is obvious that the Northern Ireland pig industry will be much smaller when that scheme concludes. The Committee believes that its recommendations lay the foundations for more profitable times for those who decide to continue rearing pigs.

It is essential that support be given to the pig farmers quickly. It is now a year since Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food announced the UK scheme. Such a delay, I trust, will not be the fault of the local Minister, and the Committee finds it acceptable and recommends that she lobby Colleagues to ensure that funds reach their destination much sooner in the future.

In conclusion, these reports are important milestones in the hopes for the recovery of the two important sectors of our industry, which at the moment are in turmoil. I commend them to the Assembly. I ask the Assembly to support the motion in order to send a clear message to the agricultural and wider rural communities that it is aware of, and is seriously concerned about, the future of our greatest industry in Northern Ireland. The Assembly must show that it is seeking to help farmers remain in the industry and give those that have given their lives to farming a proper retirement. It must bring new people into the farming industry who wish to remain in the farming community.

Mr Speaker:

This is a time-limited debate and a substantial number of Members wish to participate. I have to put a limit of seven minutes on subsequent speeches, save for the Minister, to whom the usual rule of thumb of 10 minutes per hour of debate will apply. Even with that limit, all who wish to speak may not be able to do so. We must adhere to the time limit.

The Deputy Chairperson of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee (Mr Savage):

As Deputy Chairperson, I support what the Chairperson of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee has said. Our recommendations in the two reports were not made lightly. I hope that our efforts have gone some way towards providing a new beginning for the two parts of our industry that are in grave need.

As we pursued the two elements of our inquiry, the similarities in the problems faced by pig and beef producers in Northern Ireland made an impression on Committee members. Farm debt in both sectors had its roots in many different fundamental causes. Some of these were outside the control of farmers and others in Northern Ireland. However, it also became clear that in both cases producers were not getting a fair crack of the whip when it came to making profit from the food chain.

The Chairman has rightly concentrated on the Committee's recommendations to the Department and I would encourage the Minister to implement them without delay. It is also worth noting that we made several recommendations to others in the industry and I wish to highlight some of those. In the beef report we recommended that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development should create and lead a task force to organise production. We followed that through by recommending that producers co-operate fully with that initiative and make any investments necessary to ensure its success.

There is a saying about leading a horse to water. Similarly, one cannot make farmers co-operate or participate even if the best of schemes are provided. However, our report recognises that producers must get involved and act together rather than stand alone. They are at the mercy of more powerful forces.

Making investments will not be easy decisions for farmers, but I fully expect that farmers will put their hands in their pockets if they are convinced that it will ultimately secure a better return. I say that again: they will do so if they are convinced that it will ultimately secure a better return.

When we made recommendations on beef herd improvements, we asked the Department to prepare the strategy and asked the processors to play their part by offering the right incentives. We have also asked producers to pay more attention to improving the overall quality. Even if the incentives are there, it is the producers who will still have to make them operable. Farmers should not fall into the trap of saying "Why should I bother?" A far more valid response would be "Make it worth my while." Farmers must throw out the challenge to factories and processors and say "If you make it worth my while, I will produce the best beef this country has ever seen." That is where the crux of the matter lies.

We continued this theme in our report on the pig industry. We included two recommendations aimed at the producers and processors: to take their product and to make their product. We have urged the establishment of an equal partnership between processors and co-operatives. We have encouraged those involved in co-operatives to stick to their task. If co-operatives can provide a quality supply on which processors can fully depend, processors must see the attractions eventually.

A team effort is required from both the beef and pig sectors. All sides must have equal standing and respect for each other if the supply chains are to operate to their full potential. These are two good reports that have gone to the heart of the problems faced by local farmers and have offered some solutions. The problems will not go away because many aspects of the industry are currently outside the control of the producers. However, in the coming days I hope that those problems will be overcome. I urge all farmers to take on board what the Committee has been trying to do. We will not walk away from the problems. I hope that farmers will rise to the challenge that lies before them and make Northern Ireland a place where we produce only the best.

I have great pleasure in supporting the motion.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have consulted with the Committee Clerk. We did not receive the letter to which the Minister referred. I have also sent word to my office, and we did not receive a letter there either. I would be grateful to the Minister if she would let us have a copy of the letter.

Mr Speaker:

The Minister may respond.

Ms Rodgers:

I have a copy of the letter here which was issued by my Department.

Mr Speaker:

I cannot be responsible for the Post Office or for whatever service delivers - or in this case does not deliver. However, since we are now due to break for lunch, I trust that it may be possible for a copy of the letter to be conveyed to the Chairperson, and then all needs will be satisfied.

The debate stood suspended.

The sitting was suspended at 12.28 pm.

On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Sir John Gorman] in the Chair) -

2.00 pm

Mr Bradley:

I will not dwell on the beef aspect of the motion since the announcement made in Brussels at lunchtime has rather overtaken us. I am pleased to be one of the first Members of the Assembly to welcome the announcement that regional status has been granted to Northern Ireland. As a South Down MLA and a Newry and Mourne district councillor, I accept the Minister's explanation that the entire Newry and Mourne area will have to wait a short while before it too can enjoy this regional status. I am, however, satisfied that we will not have to wait a moment longer than is necessary before the restrictions are removed.

Now that regional status has been granted, I thank Ms Rodgers, who is not present at the moment, and her team for their endless efforts and for overcoming the unforeseen problems which arose on the way to achieving this. Well done to the Minister and to everyone else concerned.

On the question of profit creation and who should have a role in the recovery of the beef industry, we all agreed that the process should start with the farmers. However, that responsibility also extends to the processors, the retailers and the housewives - particularly the Northern Ireland housewives - who need to ensure that profits return to the farmers.

The obstacle presented by the strength of sterling will continue to burden the agriculture industry and all local industries that depend on export markets. It is an obstacle that we could do without, but it would be pointless to ask Tony Blair or Gordon Brown to do anything about it.

The report highlights the level of mistrust between the farmers and the rest of the supply chain. A united approach to supplying the market with adequate quantities of top quality produce at the right time for a mutually agreed price is an important piece in the jigsaw of recovery. However, as I said at the outset, we held our breath today as we waited the outcome of the Standing Veterinary Committee's deliberations in Brussels. The decision in our favour gives us a new foundation upon which to restore profits. Without knowing the full details of the regional status announcement, and despite the current gloom, this is a good day for Northern Ireland farmers.

On the section of the report which deals with the pig industry, the fight to restore profits to this sector will be more difficult than our long fight for beef recovery. I recall the evidence of Mr Forbes of the Ulster Curers' Association in response to a question about the role played by such supermarkets as Sainsbury's.

Mr Forbes's reply reflected the views of many when he pointed out that the multiples pushed for quality assurance but then failed to pay the price for quality goods. They buy foreign products as an alternative. Until we can break the stranglehold which the multinationals have upon the agriculture industry, we will continue to have a non-profit situation on our farms.

I have decided, in the short time available to me, to deal with labelling and branding. I wish to look at the evidence given by the President of the Ulster Farmers' Union, Mr Douglas Rowe, on that issue. Mr Rowe's view is that everybody in the agriculture industry must explore the branding concept. I share his view that Northern Ireland needs a brand of its own - a brand name that will indicate quality produce at a glance. I call upon the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to lead on the issue of branding. It has the necessary finances at its disposal and the marketing expertise to back it up.

That gives me an opportunity to raise an old hobby horse of mine and to re-emphasise a point that I have often made in the past - although it is probably an issue for another day. I refer to the stamping of our pork and the tagging of our animals for live export. All references to being UK born and bred will have to be removed from the identity tags and replaced by an Irish or Northern Irish identity if we really want to cash in on our many advantages and new regional status.

I want to express a personal view - that the demise of the small producer was the beginning of the end for the pig industry. The disappearance of the 10 to 12 sow units is a factor that has probably led to the current problems. Why did they exit the industry? I believe that the people who would be most embarrassed if they were asked that question today would be the millers and the grain traders. They ate into the profits of the small producers with weekly increases in feed prices until they eventually put the farmers out of business. Northern Ireland producers had to pay up to £15 per tonne more than their counterparts in the Republic of Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. Is it any wonder that they went out of business?

The vast majority of young people in Northern Ireland under 20 years of age and living in the countryside have not seen a sow or a pig in their lifetime - that is how serious it is. As I look around the House, I would say that there are many Members who have not seen a sow or a pig in the last 30 years. The return of the pig to the small farms in Northern Ireland could well be the lifeline that the industry needs. I believe that that aim - albeit somewhat ambitious at this stage - should be addressed by those designated with the responsibility of regenerating the countryside.

From our numerous sessions of evidence, there emerged the belief that the setting up of producers' groups and co-operatives would be to the overall benefit of the industry. I agree, but it is my belief that this is not completely achievable if the small pig producer does not return to the industry. I repeat that regionalisation is the key to restoring profit to the beef industry. I thank the Minister and her team for their success on that issue. Restoring the pig industry to what it was in the late 60s and 70s may well be the way to reinstate profit for the pig industry.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

This is a most opportune time to debate agricultural issues, given the crisis that is being experienced in our country. It is unfortunate, however, that many of the Benches in the House do not seem to reflect the seriousness of this crisis as they are empty today. I hope that Members realise that if they are going to appear on television and go to other places and talk about a crisis in agriculture yet fail to turn up here and debate the crisis, then people will read into that that their only interest is a self-interest.

I am very pleased that our Committee was able to come to unanimous recommendations on restoring profit to both the pig and beef sectors. It is good that we have had this debate, and I commend to the House the report that has been proposed by the Committee Chairperson and supported by the Members who have spoken so far. If anyone takes a moment and goes into the Senate Chamber of this Building -

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

Does the Member not find it strange that no representative of the Government is in the House today to sit at the Bench and listen to this debate? That would not be tolerated in any other Parliament in the United Kingdom. The Minister responsible - or someone she has deputed - should be here to listen to the debate. How can she reply to anything said in this debate if she has not even heard it?

Mr Paisley Jnr:

I am bitterly disappointed that there appears to be a lack of interest, particularly on the Front Benches.

I think that that should go on the record. We are supposed to be in an era of joined-up Government, but where is it? That is evidenced by today's debate on this serious issue. If one takes a moment to go into the Senate, one will see three representations on the gallery backdrop of the prime industries that ran Northern Ireland when this building was first opened: the industries of textile, shipbuilding and agriculture. If we in this House are not careful, we will be writing an obituary for the agriculture industry. It is very unfortunate that those other industries have declined so rapidly, but it would be a shame to see an obituary for this premier industry.

We want to see the Department implement what these reports say. We want to see a can-do attitude to ensure that an industry so important to Northern Ireland is developed and grows. We do not want to have a cannot-do or a not-allowed-to-do attitude because of European Regulations; we want to have a can-do Government.

The officials in our Department are very clever men and women who have shown their ability in times past. Those people must be allowed to use that ability to get this industry out of the crisis that it is in. A lot of people are concerned that their abilities are being hampered by regulations and rules from other places rather than being used, and that is a scandal.

It would be odd not to say something about the regionalisation announcement today. It has come at last, but people are right to say that it took long enough to come. Others seemed to be out on the starting-blocks before us, and it is disappointing that Northern Ireland still has to wait another week before the effect of that announcement will kick in. I hope that when it does kick in we will get some benefit from it, for the good of the industry.

I also want to refer to an article that appeared in Saturday's 'News Letter' by Mr Alex Kane. In it he took to task not only the Minister here but the Minister at MAFF and, indeed, the Agriculture Committee for not doing enough. He said

"Politicians need to take a fairly ruthless look at the so called plight of our farmers. So far there has been no evidence that the Assembly Agricultural Committee is prepared to do this. For it seems prepared to act as a tax-payer funded lobby group for the industry pleading for new funds and increased understanding rather than face economic realities".

If Mr Kane had taken the time to read the reports he would have seen that they proposed fairly radical measures for the restructuring of the industry. The industry does need to be restructured. Farmers say to us "We want to see the industry restructured" because they know that by having the industry restructured they will find a better way, they will become more economically successful and they will become much more successful and productive. It was wrong for those words to be used in any way to batter the Assembly when reports are being debated today which propose the very things that he says are missing from the Assembly.

We also need some clarity from the Department. On 7 September last year the Minister wrote that she had very real reservations about the value of pursuing the course of bringing in producer co-operatives which the Committee was then considering; yet on 22 February she welcomed that proposal. I am glad that the Minister has welcomed that proposal and indeed is taking some credit for it. I do not really care who gets the credit, but what I want to see is clarity on policy, and the farming community, the consumer and indeed everyone in the food production chain want to see clarity from the Government.

I shall deal very briefly with the pigs report. We hoped that the pig outgoers scheme would be helpful to pig producers. Indeed, we encouraged farmers who wanted to take that drastic step and get out of the pig industry to apply for the pig outgoers scheme. I understand that up to maybe 500 people in Northern Ireland in pig production made applications under the pig outgoers scheme, and I am alarmed to learn that fewer than 100 of them were accepted by the scheme in the first round.

2.15 pm

People are desperate to restructure their industry. However, they are playing cricket only to find that everyone else is playing rugby. It is wrong that people are riding roughshod over them. The Department must get a handle on that to ensure that Northern Ireland farmers get a fair deal. It must take the lead on restructuring so that in the future -

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Mr Paisley, your time is up.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

We can say that we delivered profits to pig and beef producers.

Mr McHugh:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important issue. I also welcome the regionalisation status that we have been granted. However, the Newry and Mourne area may find itself locked into the exclusion zone, and Departments should do all they can to help not only the tourism industry there but also other interests that could be affected.

For some time we have been asking for regionalisation in relation to BSE, and given that this has now been granted for foot-and-mouth disease, the argument could be made to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the European Commission that we are also entitled to BSE regionalisation. We have been locked into a negative situation for a long time because of foot-and-mouth disease and BSE, and markets must be opened up.

I accept the points that were made about the article in the 'News Letter' at the weekend. The views of people outside the industry can be challenging, especially when Alex Kane says that the Committee is simply a lobby group. Part of our remit is to lobby on behalf of farmers and others but the article was wrong to say that this was all we do. The points he made are unproven and unsubstantiated.

We have already discussed the reports on the beef and pig industries, and their findings still stand. The problems of both industries are similar, as are the reasons for their non-profitability. These issues will have to be dealt with in the months and years to come. Tony Blair has said that livestock production must be approached in a different way. There must be a full overview of the industry, and whether or not this is done on an all-Ireland basis, we must ensure that we do not face this same situation in one year's time or 10 years' time. We could eradicate foot-and-mouth disease now, but under the present regulations it could return in six months' time because almost anything can be imported from the countries we deal with.

The reports make several recommendations that should be followed through. I strongly urge the Minister to put those recommendations into practice.

In the Committee's evidence sessions we tried to get to grips with the reasons for finding ourselves in this situation: sterling, the BSE crisis, the loss of markets (which continue to deteriorate), the fire at Malton's pig plant in Ballymoney, the processors, and the power that supermarkets have beyond the farm gate.

Foot-and-mouth disease has an impact beyond the agriculture industry. Shares dropped and the economic growth of the South will fall by 2% next year. In what is a multi-billion pound industry, talk is of billions being lost. However, farmers ask themselves "What billions are being lost?" They are certainly not making billions. The problem is that people outside farming have made the money. They have gained most from what is a very profitable industry. The problem is that the industry is for those outside the farm gate. That is where our problem lies. We have to get to the stage at which everybody in the industry makes a return and has a fair future. If we do not, the whole industry will fall apart and we might as well do as Alex Kane seems to say: hand it over to big landlords and do away with small farming families. From his article, that appears to be the only option.

There are many stakeholders in the industry, including the bodies that deal with it. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is one with a major role to play. Groups such as the Livestock and Meat Commission (LMC), the Northern Ireland Meat Exporters' Association (NIMEA) and others also have a role to play. From the evidence sessions, we learned from some of those groups that problems exist to do with price-fixing by cartels. Allegations were made, as yet unsubstantiated, but many farmers believe that that is one of the major reasons for their finding themselves in such difficulties over the years, leaving aside BSE and the current foot-and-mouth disease outbreak. Difficulties in making a profit have existed for decades, and for the same reasons. A farmer is an individual who has to work on his own, having been isolated by those all-powerful bodies who have control over the budget and over how they treat farmers. Farmers told the Committee that they are all working towards producing a quality product. We cannot have a quality product unless it is paid for at the primary producer end, which has never happened to any great degree. Farmers are manipulated through grading, and money is kept from them in other ways as they strive to produce a quality product.

If we are going to change the entire agriculture industry we will have to act on the recommendations of the reports. We must not allow them simply to gather dust because they are as relevant now as they were in the past number of months.

Mr Douglas:

I endorse many of the comments that have been made in the debate. Many factors are affecting our farming industry, and in the reports the Committee has sought to address the issues that are pertinent to the profitability of beef and pig producers - two of our main farm sectors that have been beset by problems over the past five years. A widely recognised point that I take from the report is that processors of red meat have never made more profit than they have done since the BSE crisis struck. They have used various excuses to cover their practices of offering low prices to producers while charging high prices to butchers and, hence, the consumers. LMC livestock figures show that the difference between what a supermarket charges for a bullock and what a farmer receives at the farm gate is £635. That is hard to believe. The consumer cost is 238% higher than the amount the primary producer is paid. Consider the timescale of production for a farmer of two years' keep for an animal against a timescale of approximately two weeks for the meat processor and supermarket. That equates to a farmer's receiving 63p per day while a processor and a supermarket gets £45·35 per day for their efforts.

In the report, the re-establishment of niche markets in Europe is recommended. That I would also highly endorse, as many of the beef industry's problems stem from a reliance on UK supermarket trade alone and the power that those giants wield. I quote from the report:

"The best of Northern Ireland's grass-fed steer beef stands comparison with any competing product in terms of farm quality, traceability, hygiene, service and eating quality."

However, there does not appear to be enough of that product at the top end of the market, and that is due to various factors. Many producers would say that the grading standards have tightened, and they often appear to be correct in those assumptions. Nevertheless, other factors have a detrimental effect on beef quality, such as - and this is a bit rich, coming from a dairy farmer - the high percentage of dairy cows in the Province, which influences the grading quality. That is something that must be addressed.

Secondly, there is a lack of price incentives and encouragement for the beef producer to produce better quality. Perhaps the most important factor is the subsidy system, which does nothing to encourage quality but only promotes quantity. I do not blame the farmers here. They are out to make a profit and they will do anything they can to produce the meat necessary to make a profit. However, something needs to be done here; something needs to be tweaked a little to encourage quality. On that subject, I welcome the fact that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has proposed a beef quality initiative. I look forward to its implementation at ground level.

The pig industry is having similar problems to the beef industry, with producer fragmentation and with large processors and supermarkets calling the shots. The report has recognised the need for strong producer groups in the pig sector. The United Pig Producers' Co-operative (UPP) tried to address the problem but processors actively encouraged people not to get involved. They discouraged farmers from joining and tried to strangle the venture in its infancy. The Department must address that type of action so that the producers have some say and power over their own destiny.

There is also the problem of the weakness of the euro resulting in the sucking-in of inferior products from Europe because of lower prices. We have a situation whereby our industry is regulated like no other in the world and, as usual, the producer has to pay. We had unilateral action by the UK Government to ban stalls and tethers seven years before the rest of Europe, with no compensation given to the farmers affected. A ban on meat and bonemeal was imposed, at a cost of £5·26 per pig, also with no compensation.

Countries exporting to Northern Ireland must meet the same specifications imposed on our producers or face the consequences of their product being banned from the UK until they meet our standards of health and animal welfare. Our producers only want a level playing field and a fair market for their product. Give them that and they will produce the food as efficiently as they do now, but the difference will be that they will receive proper recompense for their efforts.

We must also have a responsive Department, especially with reference to the implementation of assistance schemes such as the Pig Industry Restructuring Scheme. That scheme was introduced on 30 March 2000, but to date has not produced any revenue for pig producers or for those who have had to leave the pig industry. Ian Paisley Jnr referred the fact that a very small number of people have been received into this scheme to date. This is highly unacceptable because this scheme was put in place to help those who went out of business. Many are down hundreds of thousands of pounds with no comeback whatsoever. Many people from my constituency phoned me last night and none of them has been received into the scheme. Instead, they have been asked to reapply. Some had submitted very small bids and find it difficult to understand why they have not been offered any finance.

In conclusion, I urge the Minister to heed the recommendations of the report and act on them. Most of them do not cost a great deal of money but require the Department to go that extra mile to lobby for the beef farmer and the pig farmer. I support the motion.

2.30 pm

Mrs Carson:

I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. I also welcome the fact that the Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development is present to reply to what is said. I welcome the two reports on restoring profit to the agriculture industry. This debate is most timely, especially considering the problem of profitability.

Our agriculture industry is going from crisis to crisis, and those involved in farming are getting deeper and deeper into debt. The farming industry has been under threat for some time. The BSE crisis, the strong pound, deep distrust of the pricing practices of processors and supermarkets, and now, of course, the dreadful foot-and-mouth emergency have all contributed to that.

If actions are not taken, the producer base in Northern Ireland will fragment and disintegrate. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development should play its part in helping to stabilise the agriculture industry by encouraging and facilitating better communication and co-operation among all levels of the supply chain. The recommendation that the Department should work with the farmers to secure an equitable price for their pigs and beef is one towards which we should work.

Northern Ireland is at the bottom of the United Kingdom price league. That inequality is unacceptable. I also welcome and support the recommendations to create producer/processor partnerships in order to look at and serve market trends. It is important that quality produce receive a fair price for everyone involved.

Improvements were mentioned in the beef producer report. The recommendations do point out the difficulty that the beef producer has had with regard to incentives for producing beef. The Department should look at, and perhaps instigate, an overall strategy to obtain better herd quality as a matter of urgency.

I have spoken about branding before, and it is also mentioned in the beef producer report. Image and brand are both very important in the competitive market. Northern Ireland beef and pork are second to none. Consumers in the United Kingdom and Europe should be able to easily recognise that they are buying a product form Northern Ireland. A brand should be promoted and protected, with DARD taking a lead in partnership with the producers and the processors.

The problem of debt is also important. Point 13 in the executive summary of 'Retailing in Northern Ireland - A Fair Deal for the Farmer?' says

"These factors are not helped by the current climate of suspicion and allegation, with primary producers concerned that they are unequal partners in an other wise profitable business".

We must ask for that to be addressed.

The financial assistance is needed not only to help our farmers to overcome the debt, but it must be structured to take into account a long-term strategy that will allow farmers and their families to survive and make their farms profitable and secure for future generations. Fianancial assistance is also needed to make sure that Northern Ireland is not disadvantaged compared with the Republic of Ireland and the rest of Europe.

In October 1998 I spoke about the problems of pig producers. Very little has changed since then, and little help has been offered.

In conclusion, I support the report's recommendations. I encourage Northern Irish consumers to make sure that the produce and the products that they buy in the markets and supermarkets are really produced here. The future of the Northern Irish agriculture industry is at stake. I support the motion.

Mr Dallat:

I too support the report. It demonstrates agreement between various groups with a common interest in restoring profitability to the farming industry. Indeed, we are all grateful for the contributions made and do not dismiss any of them out of hand. We must give very careful consideration to what has been said by all the groups, not least the farming unions.

The principal causes of crisis in the farming industry are well established, so they do not need to be repeated. In addition to the BSE problem, there were the problems of currency exchange rates, cheap imports and the loss in the value of direct EU payments. Those are all well documented in the report. The current grading structures in particular have come in for criticism, and that criticism is well justified. The issue will rumble on because there is an urgent need to make fundamental changes if the farmers are to be given a fair price for their products. There is a widespread belief among farmers at the moment that they are being cheated and that belief must be addressed.

According to the report, there is a view that the farming industry is too vulnerable to the might of those who influence and control the retail market - the meat processing plants and the large supermarket chains. The supermarkets are so powerful that farmers are frightened to offer criticism in case they lose everything. That situation is unacceptable in a modern society.

Farmers are encouraged to offer a constant supply of top-class products to the processing companies, but there are no tangible benefits to the producers for doing that. That issue cannot be dismissed as being the result of the normal effects of market forces. During the gathering of evidence there was a useful dialogue on how the farming industry might overcome some of the powers of those who control so much of its livelihood at the moment.

The concept of co-operatives emerged time and again and was mentioned earlier by the Deputy Chairperson of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee George Savage and others. That must be pursued, and I welcome the agreement of the Department to assist and encourage the movement towards co-operatives. I fully accept that it is not a direct responsibility of the Department but of the farming industry to set up the co-operatives or control them. However, it is not feasible for farmers to do that without a great deal of support, including financial support in the early years.

The Department has the expertise to influence the emergence of successful co-operatives that will not suffer from the weakness of previous models. In the past, the emergence of co-operatives broke the stranglehold of the gombeen men and that success can be repeated. In the recent Programme for Government, resources were set aside for education and training in the agriculture industry. Those resources are fundamental for equipping young people with the education and skills needed to tackle new concepts in marketing to deal with the current crisis.

Both farming organisations support the co-operative ideal and have indicated that they will support the development of such worthy principles. The Ulster Farmers' Union put forward constructive suggestions for the development of co-operatives. Those are worth examining and are detailed in the report. The Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers' Association gave evidence and also supported the concept of co-operation. It highlighted mistakes of the past but offered full co-operation, and that is very welcome.

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development emphasised in its submission that any new producer co-operative would need to be involved in processing and marketing as well as in selling primary produce. It cautioned about the massive investment needed and the risk of duplication. However, we cannot leave the industry to the monopoly of the large combines or allow opportunities for cartels that have the capacity to wipe out the industry.

We can learn from the past so that we can chart a new future that offers the hope of new prosperity based on sound financial principles. There is now a unique opportunity to move forward in partnership. For the first time there is a devolved Assembly that has the power to call witnesses, scrutinise the work of the Department and question the Minister on all aspects of her work.

The new dawn of democracy could not have come at a better time, and the new Minister could not be more helpful in her willingness to assist with change. The farming industry, in this time of crisis, is aware that this is a time for solidarity among all interested parties. They will thank no one who exploits their situation or attempts to make political capital of them. They are watching carefully and are determined that they will not be used by politicians, some of whom have never cultivated so much as a window box.

Time has not permitted me to deal with the pig industry in particular, but that does not indicate a lack of interest. The pig industry, like the beef industry, has a future. However, it must not be left to the control of market forces or the producers will become the victims of exploitation once again. I support the report.


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