Northern Ireland Assembly
Tuesday 27 March 2001 (continued)
I would like to address two points in the report. The first of those is recommendation 2, which states:
"The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development should press the United Kingdom Government to introduce a ban on imports of foreign beef that presents a threat to the local agricultural industry and a risk to consumers."
In recent weeks and months we have seen evidence of the risk that that poses to the industry and to consumers. The crisis that we are in today is the result of cheap imports into the United Kingdom. Cheaply imported pork and chicken products from the Far East that are used in the United Kingdom can enter the animal food chain through pigswill.
There have been several other instances when food of a lesser quality was imported to the United Kingdom, put on supermarket shelves alongside United Kingdom products, and used to keep the price of food down. The cheap food policy has not proven to be good for the industry or for consumers. We are in a crisis. Animals throughout the United Kingdom are being slaughtered because of the cheap food policy. That issue must be addressed.
If food is imported, farmers in the United Kingdom should face equal and fair competition. That competition should not come from people who are not applying the same standards to food production as those rightly expected by consumers in the United Kingdom. Both the Minister of Agriculture and the Minister of Health - who has a role in this through the Food Standards Agency - should ensure that all food meets the high standards that are expected of Northern Ireland farmers. We have seen the meat plants and the different companies taking the opportunity, on too many occasions, to drive down the price of primary produce in Northern Ireland by introducing cheaper imports. That must stop; it is bad for the consumer, the farmer and the industry.
Recommendation 11 states that processors should
"alter their pricing policies to offer stronger incentives in favour of selling carcasses with a higher value within an overall price regime that is commercially viable to both buyer and seller."
That issue must be addressed. For many years now Northern Ireland has had a pricing regime based on what the meat plants actually want. Butchers are asking why they must pay certain prices for R grade animals. Farmers are expected to produce U grade and E grade animals. Butchers are not receiving those grades, yet they must pay the price that is expected for that animal. The farmers are not receiving the higher price; the butchers are not paying the lower price; but the processors in the middle are making a handsome profit.
It has not gone unnoticed that since BSE came into the equation about five years ago, farmers incomes have slumped, but at the same time the meat processors' incomes have rocketed. Why has that happened? One of the key reasons is that farmers no longer have the ability to export live cattle; they can only export cattle that have been slaughtered.
There are five meat-processing companies in Northern Ireland. They own nine meat plants. They are strong companies that dominate the market. Almost all their supplies go to supermarkets throughout the United Kingdom. The problem is that the farmer has no means of pushing up his prices. The livestock markets cannot be used in the way that they were used pre-BSE because buyers from the Irish Republic are not coming to Northern Ireland to buy live cattle and thus provide some balance to the market. The balance has disappeared from the market since BSE arrived five years ago. That has left the processors in an advantageous position, to the detriment of the agricultural community.
I welcome this report and the report on the pig producers. I hope that we shall soon see profitable times for beef and pig producers in Northern Ireland once again. The work that the Committee has done has been useful, unlike the comments that were made in the 'News Letter' on Saturday by Mr Alex Kane.
The Assembly should take the opportunity to try to restore agriculture to its position as a dominant industry in Northern Ireland. What has helped the Irish Republic in the past few years is that it has shown a greater level of support for its agriculture industry than we have shown ours. In that case, we should learn from what has happened in the Irish Republic. Grants have been made available to farmers so that they can improve the way in which they produce their food.
The Minister would do well to take account of some of the measures taken there, rather than take policy directly from Westminster on each and every occasion. We have a devolved Administration and finance of our own. We should be looking at how to spend that money, and not necessarily at following the line taken in the rest of the United Kingdom.
I congratulate the Committee on presenting the report. I hope that it leads to better days for the agriculture industry.
I support the motion and welcome the announcement on regionalisation. I hope that it will be a major step forward for agriculture and trust that the Minister will use her skills to regionalise Newry and Mourne district when everything in that area becomes foolproof. We hope that that will be sooner rather than later.
In compiling the report, the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee took evidence from all quarters of the industry. I am certain that everything possible was done to work through what are complex and multiple problems. However, it is not in the Committee's remit to call for direct intervention into market arrangements. Many producers and farmers in the Province may feel that that is the only course of action to take to stem the huge losses the industry has endured over the past five years.
I know of no measures that will promote co-operation between farmers and processors in the immediate future. It is insulting to call on producers actively to seek co-operation with processors because of the current distrust that is a result of processors' greed and opportunism. It is up to processors to rebuild trust, for it was they who undermined it in the first place and who have continually undermined it since. If processors have a reliable and wholesome Northern Ireland product to market, they should show appreciation of its value by allowing an adequate return to the producers who made that possible.
The beef quality initiative is a step towards improving Northern Ireland's herd quality. Moreover, strongly branded Northern Ireland produce would be an effective marketing tool. The Northern Ireland farm quality assurance scheme has its merits, but it will only be of value if implemented by the Livestock and Meat Commission (LMC) in a way that does not leave it open to abuse. There must be no opportunity for mixing and matching product or for "product substitution". To that end the LMC has complete responsibility and must exercise its authority over what is its scheme, otherwise the exercise is nonsensical and its objective will be completely undermined.
Although the report is extensive and considers many opinions, at best it can only touch on some of the current problems. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development must constantly consider its obligations to the farmers and should ensure that its policy does not deliver the dividends to those who least deserve them. The encouragement, promotion and development of farming in the Province must be given higher priority. Farming underpins much of what makes Northern Ireland the place that it is. The report is just one step in the furlongs towards achieving that goal. I have much pleasure in supporting the motion.
I welcome this opportunity for Northern Ireland to export some of its produce again to the wider world market. That will restore the confidence that our farming community needs, but our farmers face many more problems. The report relays the need for the agriculture industry to open up new markets and to ensure healthy living and competition to exploit the superior quality of Northern Ireland produce. The current exchange rate greatly reduces those opportunities.
It was also pointed out that consumers have much more power than the farmers, and it is suspected that processors dictate the price. The Department cannot afford to be a mere spectator on this matter; it needs to take the lead. I do not say that the Department does not lead, but more leadership would be helpful to our farmers, who would appreciate such support. Our farmers need a good deal of support. For example, branding would allow consumers to offer more loyalty to Northern Ireland produce. We need more help on that.
We all know that farmers should look beyond their present difficulties and become more positive, but that can only happen if they are given a level playing field. More trust between the producers and the processors is necessary. That will bring profit to the farmers, and result in more profitability to our Province.
I welcome the report and support it.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers):
I notice that, although the Chairperson of the Committee had a prop, I do not have one. I wonder whether we have swapped places, or is it simply an oversight?
I shall begin by placing on record the fact that I welcome the two reports from the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development that we are debating here today. I apologise to Mr Bradley, in particular, for my absence during his speech. I thank him for his understanding of the fact that I was not able to be here and for the kind remarks that he made. I also apologise to Dr Paisley for not being present for the first part of his speech. I am told that he did not show quite the same understanding as Mr Bradley, but that is hardly surprising.
The pig and beef sectors are an important part of the industry because they represent 35% of the gross output of the agriculture sector and provide significant employment on farms and in processing. Both have faced significant difficulties in recent years. The loss of our export markets for beef after March 1996 meant that the industry had to refocus on the Great Britain market. Several of our local processors have built up a substantial trade with the Great Britain retail multiples. However, the Great Britain beef market is extremely competitive, and the strength of sterling has made it attractive for many countries to send beef there. The result has been a drop in prices for our beef producers.
In the pig sector the downturn in the production cycle, the strength of sterling, and the consequences of the fire at Ballymoney combined to create the effect that for several years, pig producers were making a loss, and in many cases a substantial loss. At present, both sectors are living with the difficulties caused by the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. I have already detailed to the Assembly the actions that have been taken to control the outbreak and to deal with the trading implications. I do not propose to repeat what I have said here before. Although there has been some increase in prices for both finished cattle and pigs as a consequence of the disruption to supplies in Britain, the situation remains so uncertain that we cannot confidently predict what it will be in the long term. I repeat that it is clearly in the best interest of all sectors that we continue to apply stringent measures to deal with the outbreak.
Much of the content of the Committee's reports, and of what has been said today, relates to the longer-term future of these sectors. I want to concentrate on those issues. First, I shall respond to Dr Paisley, Mrs Carson, Mr Armstrong and others on the issue of branding. I note the support for branding, especially of beef, but I must make it clear that I have an open mind on this. It is not a simple matter. It requires careful consideration and full commitment from all parts of the industry if it is to work. I am pleased that the LMC has commissioned a study on the scope for branding Northern Ireland red meat. That is to be completed by early summer, and I look forward to the outcome. The LMC's study is being funded from the money allocated to it for red meat marketing.
Great emphasis has rightly been put on the relaxation of the BSE beef export restrictions. The Assembly will be aware of strenuous efforts, both on my part and that of my officials, to secure a relaxation. It was extremely frustrating that, just when we were ready to lodge a formal bid with the European Commission, BSE-related food scares once again surfaced in Europe, producing a political climate that would have been extremely prejudicial to our bid. Since then we have had the results of the survey of casualty slaughtered cattle aged over 30 months. That survey indicated a much higher incidence of BSE in those animals, including the Northern Ireland herd, than was previously thought. All member states are now undertaking their own surveys in accordance with EU requirements. Once the results of those surveys are known - and it may be some months yet - we shall be in a better position to take forward the case for relaxation of restrictions on our beef exports.
I can assure the Assembly that I am fully committed to that cause and will be pressing for relaxation of the export restrictions. Some people have called for a ban on beef imports. I can only impose such a ban if there is a threat to the health status of the domestic beef herd. Although I did impose a ban on trade with GB because of foot-and-mouth disease, I cannot ban imports from other countries unless clear evidence of a threat exists. Whether beef imports from any country represent a risk to human health is a matter for the Food Standards Agency and the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Hitherto, the Food Standards Agency has not recommended any such ban.
I now turn to the need to improve the marketing strength of producers - a theme common to both reports. I am firmly convinced of the need for effective partnerships among all parts of the supply chain in both sectors. A partnership approach among the different interests, acting in conjunction with Government, is the only viable way forward. Although I recognise the need for producers to improve their marketing position, that should be done in conjunction with processors and retailers, not in isolation from them.
The emphasis should be on strengthening the vertical links in the supply chains, building on the existing work taking place and building on the support mechanisms of both a technical and financial nature that are available. That requires collaboration and co-operation, not confrontation. It is not for Government to impose solutions on the industry. Business dealings in the supply chain must be governed by commercial considerations and driven by market needs.
Mr Paisley Jnr said that I had reservations about producer co-operatives. My reservations are based on the experience of some producer co-operatives whose plans backfired because, at the end of the day, those who took their produce could find other sources of supply. My Department and I can help the different sectors in developing whatever solutions are appropriate to their circumstances, be they formal co-operatives or other arrangements. Indeed, we have done that in the past and will do it in future.
I firmly believe that the long-term interests of the beef industry lie in a broadly based marketing strategy, targeting those markets - be they in Great Britain or elsewhere - that are capable of ensuring that a premium price is paid for Northern Irish beef. That is why support has been provided to the industry in developing the red meat marketing strategy. The strategy was developed by all parts of the industry and the relevant Departments. An important part of that strategy is a focus on premium markets capable of providing a premium return for our beef.
However, we need to produce top quality cattle for those markets. It is well established that there has been a decline in the quality of finished cattle. I have secured £2 million per year in the Programme for Government to reverse that trend, and I welcome the fact that Members have referred to that today. Details of the proposed measures have been provided to Committee members, and I was please to note that they have also supported them. The measures will be introduced as soon as state-aid approval has been obtained.
Much has been said about producers getting a rough deal from processors. I deplore any exploitation of one part of the food chain by another. As a public representative, I hear just as much about it as other Members. If it were proved that that was happening, I would push for strong action to be taken. The Office of Fair Trading examined the alleged existence of a beef cartel and found insufficient evidence on which to undertake a formal investigation. Although the differential in beef prices between Northern Ireland and Britain has narrowed in recent months, there are still concerns about the prices that Northern Ireland farmers receive for their cattle. I have decided to commission an independent study of the differential. The Committee recommended that I do that, and the move is supported by producers and processors. I hope that Members will recognise that, in responding positively to that proposal, I am making it clear that I am open to constructive and helpful suggestions from the Committee or from any other quarter.
I do not pretend that my Department or I have a monopoly on wisdom. In this devolved democratic institution, in which we all participate, all ideas are welcome. I shall would not be right to proceed with the investigation now, until the current difficulties with foot-and-mouth disease have eased. That said, I remain committed to ensuring that the study takes place.
I am acutely aware of the importance of making prompt direct payments to farmers to help with cash flow, especially in the current circumstances. Everything possible is being done to expedite all grant and subsidy payments. In the coming weeks, we shall make all the balance payments for this year's livestock schemes, as well as the payments under the new less-favoured area compensatory allowance scheme and the additional agrimonetary compensation. In total, those payments will be worth £55 million to local farmers.
I can assure the Assembly that representatives of the pig industry made me aware of the problems that they face from the minute that I took up my post as Minister. It is a matter of some regret, however, that I have not been able to convince the pig producers that my scope to offer them cash help is almost non-existent. I can truthfully say that I explored every suggestion put to me on the matter but found insurmountable obstacles to all of them.
Some of the issues covered in the report, such as the pig welfare disposal scheme, relate to the period before devolution, and it is not for me to explain or defend them. However, on numerous occasions, I have reminded MAFF Ministers of the plight of our pig producers and have pressed them to devise the pig industry restructuring scheme and obtain EU clearance for it. I was disappointed to read a suggestion in the Committee report that I was in some way to blame for the European Commission's tardiness in approving the scheme. I accept responsibility for my actions, but I am not prepared to accept responsibility for the operations of the European Commission. I know that the pig industry restructuring scheme is seen by some as a case of too little, too late. I am afraid that it is the only show in town, and our job is to see that Northern Ireland's pig producers derive maximum benefit from it.
I have noted Mr Paisley Jnr's comments about the pig industry outgoers scheme. That scheme, as we have said from the beginning, is a UK-wide scheme. It was based on a tendering exercise, therefore the lowest tenders were accepted. The unfortunate result of that was that, on the face of it, Northern Ireland appeared to have received less than its full share. However, Northern Ireland did get its fair share on a pro-rata basis of sow numbers. I have already taken the opportunity at a recent ministerial meeting in London to make the point to Nick Brown - in view of the fact that there is now to be an extended outgoers scheme - that, although we may have got pro rata on the basis of sow numbers, we did not get pro rata in relation to our problem, which is a much bigger, deeper and difficult one than that faced by the rest of the UK's pig producers. Mr Brown was sympathetic to that view and made it clear that in the next tranche he will endeavour to see whether there are any methods compatible with the scheme that can be used to help us in that area.
I am aware of the concern of many in the industry that the marketing of Northern Ireland pigs must be improved. I am pleased to announce that after protracted consideration by EU authorities we have obtained approval to spend £400,000 to further support the pig industry's marketing effort. That money will be used primarily to promote pig meat in Northern Ireland, but will also be applied to help develop quality pig meat and improve the structures used to market pigs. Those were the priority areas for action as agreed with the pig sector. Officials will soon discuss with the industry the detailed arrangements of how to spend that money. I must say that the less direct forms of financial and non-financial assistance that my Department provides for pig producers tends to be dismissed too readily.
As I stated in my written response to the Committee's report, my Department has spent a great deal of time and effort on counselling and advising pig producers throughout the past three years. We have allocated a significant amount of money to support marketing initiatives and to working with producers to enhance co-operation and collaboration. We have done what we can to encourage the local uptake of Northern Ireland pig meat. Indeed, last year we also consulted with the Department for Social Development. That Department and my officials have worked hard to advise and facilitate pig farmers, who are not used to dealing with social security. The aim is to make it easier for them to access their entitlements in a situation in which they are losing money and in difficult financial circumstances. However, short of acting illegally by giving cash subsidies to pig producers, there is simply nothing more that my Department or I could have done to help. It is a sad fact that it has taken the foot-and-mouth disease crisis to force the Northern Ireland pig meat price over the £1 per kilogram level for the first time.
I understand that during my absence from the Chamber Mr Bradley expressed concern about our inability here to put certain things on labels. Existing EU rules constrain what can be put on meat labels. However, there is scope for some flexibility, and I am willing to work with the industry - [Interruption]
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Will the people in the Gallery please stop talking.
I am willing to work with the industry to explore how this can be used the industry's benefit. In particular, the rules on beef labelling should allow Northern Ireland beef to be clearly identified for the consumer. However, the UK mark must also be displayed.
By the way, I welcome Mr Poots's remarks. It was refreshing to hear an unbiased and honest opinion from someone whose political views I totally respect and understand. I do not expect that those views will have changed, but nevertheless he was prepared to give credit where credit was due to the Republic. He also recognised that our devolved Administration have made and are making a difference, especially in the agriculture sector.
Finally, I shall deal with those who have said that the Department and I are not doing enough for those sectors. I am not clear as to what other action they have in mind beyond the range of activities on education, training, research, technology transfer, marketing assistance, disease control, animal welfare, traceability and the implementation of the livestock subsidy arrangements. All those are currently taking place.
However, I assure the Assembly that my Department and I shall continue with our efforts to assist in the development of the beef and pig sectors and the rest of the industry. I am committed to that and will remain so as long as I am Minister of Agriculture in Northern Ireland.
The Chairperson of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee (Rev Dr Ian Paisley):
I regret that I have not got more time to deal with some of the matters that have been raised. The fishermen who made some noise entering the Gallery are seated, Mr Deputy Speaker, and they even come from your bailiwick, so do not be hard on them. They have enough hardship already without you turning on them.
There is one matter that I view very gravely. Neither my office nor the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee's office received the Minister's statement on pigs. However, in a section of the report, the Minister makes the claim that Malton Foods received "considerable Government assistance". In a recent letter to me she stated
"I cannot speak for the whole of Government, of course, but as far as Northern Ireland is concerned, I would like to record formally that neither IDB nor DARD has given any direct financial assistance to Malton at any time."
I know the whole story about Malton Foods; it is in my constituency. I was called in by the directors of Malton Foods after the fire. I also had talks with Mr Peter Small, the Department's permanent secretary. I ask the Minister why she stated "any direct financial assistance". Everybody knows - even the dogs in the street know - about the deal that was done in Cookstown and the amount of money that the owner of the Cookstown plant took when he agreed to enable Malton Foods to take it over. Malton Foods would not have been in possession of the Cookstown plant if that deal had not been done. I was involved at that time.
Nobody knows to this day how much money was given to the owner of the Cookstown plant. There should now be an inquiry to find out how much Government money was handed to the owner of that plant to make it acceptable for Malton Foods to obtain that factory. It does not matter whether the money was paid directly or indirectly. The letter referred to "considerable Government assistance", and there certainly was such assistance. I resent the Minister's coming today and referring to a letter that we did not receive with that statement in it, because that is not being utterly transparent. Everybody knows that a deal was done to get the Cookstown factory into the charge of Malton Foods.
Today we have a report, produced by the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, that has the voices of all sides on it. It was resolved by the Committee unamiously, and it was the Committee that drew up this motion. I did not draw up the motion. I am sick, sore and tired of hearing people say, "Oh, that is Paisley's doing." My business is to chair the Committee, and I have never heard anyone - even my political opponents - say that I have given them a raw deal from the Chair. They all admit that I call them carefully. I call some of them prayerfully, but I do call them all.
Today the Minister has been talking about defending herself and her Department. This debate is not an attack on the Minister or the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. It is an attack on those responsible people who still do not realise that farmers are in a catastrophe. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development officials must remember that we are dealing with a catastrophe, but I fail to see recognition of the seriousness of the matter when I talk to them. A whole section of agriculture is going out of business. The situation is the same as that facing the fishermen. I met the Minister this morning and she knows that she told me that she could do nothing for them. It seems that nothing can be done for pig producers or farmers.
I do not understand why French farmers and French pig farmers can get money into their pockets, or why farmers in the South of Ireland got money into their pockets when they got their deal. However, Northern Ireland had a welfare scheme and the Department kept trying to bluff people by saying that it would be good for the pig farmers.
Northern Ireland now has the outgoers scheme, and I noticed that the Minister did not challenge what my son, Mr Paisley Jnr, said in the House about the numbers involved in it. What good is that scheme to the agriculture industry if 500 farmers apply and not even 100 are successful? What good is it if the remaining farmers are told to reapply?
Northern Ireland's situation is different because our pig farmers faced the burning of Malton's. Pig farmers across the water did not have to face that. The pig producers' main factory was destroyed and that put them in a grave situation. Why was that not taken into account when the outgoer scheme was planned for Northern Ireland? Special consideration should have been given because of the difference between Northern Ireland pig farmers, whose main processing factory was burned down, and those in the rest of the United Kingdom. Special provision should have been made, but it was not. Therefore, pig farmers have great anxieties. They are being told that there is an outgoers scheme. However, when they apply for it, it can give them nothing. What can they do?
There must be something wrong with the system when beef and pig processors are doing exceptionally well while beef and pig producers are going out of business. There was a time when pig producing was the strongest part of intensive farming in Northern Ireland. Those farmers are now going out of business while the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development says that its hands are tied.
There are doors in Europe that we are told are closed. It is funny that when one hammers on those doors they tend to open. A statement has come from Europe a few hours ago saying that if it can help with tying up the boats it would be prepared to look at that. That is an amazing statement.
It is about time we stood at the door and hammered on it until it opens. It has opened for many other countries that have breached European law more than Northern Ireland ever has. European law is monitored and policed in the United Kingdom like no other place in the European Union. The time has come when the House must say forcibly to Europe - and the Minister must take the message to Europe - that the door must be opened. If it is not opened people are going to lose out and there will be no way back. The Agriculture and Rural Development Committee wants a way back for pig farmers and beef producers. We want a way back for Northern Ireland agriculture, it must not die. We must get oxygen into it and keep it alive until this serious situation is over.
Question put and agreed to.
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 necessary steps to implement the recommendations.
(Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair)
Madam Deputy Speaker:
Is the motion on the port of Belfast moved or not moved?
The Chairperson of the Regional Development Committee (Mr A Maginness):
Motion not moved.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for what is a very serious motion not to be moved without a reason being given to Members?
Madam Deputy Speaker:
It is perfectly in order for a Member to withdraw a motion in his name.
I beg to move
That this Assembly calls upon the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to provide short-term financial assistance for the fishing industry due to the restriction coming from the cod recovery programme.
The issue is very important to my constituency of Strangford, as well as to south Down and the villages of Portavogie, Ardglass, Kilkeel and many others. The debate on the agriculture industry was very important because that industry is also in the throes of a crisis. We understand that its strength will be weakened and undermined, and we must commend the measures taken to try to restrict the spread of foot-and-mouth disease. Unfortunately, that crisis has eclipsed other problems in Northern Ireland, such as those that the fishing industry faces.
For a long time, people involved in the Northern Ireland fishing industry have been made to feel like the farmers' poor relations. It is not a matter of "them and us", but the fishing industry does feel like a second-class citizen within the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. That is not simply the fishermen's perception. The Government have continually refused to listen to the views and concerns of fishermen and of spokesmen from that sector. They have been forced to watch as the Government consistently fail to give fair and equal representation at national and European level.
Since the day and hour that the common fisheries policy was created in Brussels in 1983, we have witnessed the piece-by-piece destruction of the fishing industry, with year-on-year reductions in the amount of produce our fishermen are allowed to land. Several fishermen are in the Gallery today.
The number of adult fish that live on the seabed has fallen by 90% since the early 1970s, yet Europe refuses to acknowledge the fatal repercussions of legislation that it has enforced. Between 1999 and 2000, the value of fish landed at Ardglass fell by £1·2 million. That represents a 30% decrease. In Kilkeel the figure fell by £2·5 million, which represents a 29% decrease. In Portavogie the figure fell by £1·5 million, which represents a 20% decline. Those are massive reductions in the three major ports.
While the Northern Irish fish sector continues to be strangled by such draconian legislation, other EU nations continue to rape United Kingdom waters. Fish from those waters are essential to the maintenance and growth of our own industry. That ill-thought-out policy has convincingly failed to deliver even one positive benefit to the fishing industry. If it is not scrapped, we shall witness the total extermination of the fishing industry in Northern Ireland. It will send local communities and economies into freefall. Those of us who represent fishing areas - in my case, Portavogie - understand how legislation will affect the economy.
The latest gem to come out of Brussels - I shall not call it wisdom, because it is certainly not that - is the cod recovery plan. The second year of closures associated with the Irish Sea cod recovery plan commenced on 14 February 2001 and will last until 30 April 2001. As with last year's closures, derogation has been permitted to allow a nephrop fishery to continue. In addition, a further derogation to allow a directed haddock fishery to be prosecuted in the Irish Sea was allowed between 14 February and 22 March this year.
As a result of last year's closures, and as predicted by all those involved in the industry and their elected representatives, many trawlers that traditionally targeted cod off the County Down coast diverted their efforts to the north channel that falls within the west of Scotland waters.
The EU convened a meeting in Brussels on 13 February to discuss a cod recovery plan for the west of Scotland waters. That meeting resulted in the closure of the area fished by our trawlers in the north channel. The closure commenced last week and will continue until 30 April 2001. Next year it will run parallel with the Irish Sea closure. It is time for the Minister to wake up and smell the coffee, or in this case smell the fish.
Our white fish fleet has nowhereto go. Similar closures have been introduced in areas north of the west of Scotland waters. However, inshore waters have remained open, which allows inshore fishing by vessels similar to our fleet to continue. Closures in the Irish Sea are the only ones that extend right up to the beach. I hate to use a pun, but this is no red herring.
This is crunch time for our fishing industry, and the Government have failed abysmally to meet the demands of this very real and present danger. One option for our white fish fleet is to turn its attention to nephrop fishing, but that sector of the industry is also feeling the pinch from Europe. Frustration, anger and dismay are out there in great quantities.
There will be a 10% cut in the total allowable catch for the Irish Sea. First and foremost, that cut will inevitably lead to restrictions on those who work with nephrops, so there is no conceivable way that the fleet can be expanded by vessels from the redundant white fish fleet. Secondly, scientists have stated that the 10% cut in the nephrops catch will result in only a 2% recovery of cod. That is a truly insignificant figure when we put it into perspective. Nephrops account for more than 50% of all fish and shellfish caught by Northern Ireland vessels.
Taking into consideration the continuing policy of restricting other sectors of fishing, that part of the industry is becoming ever more important. Therefore, it is madness to even contemplate making cuts in this fishery at this time.
Meanwhile, the decommissioning scheme continues to fall flat on its face in its main objective of cushioning effects on the Irish Sea cod stock. When one witnesses the growing problems and further restrictions that are being implemented, it is clear that this school of thought is without foundation or integrity.
The next phase of the Northern Ireland decommissioning scheme has been wrapped up in EU bureaucracy since the end of last year - I have information that goes back to 1999, when the first commitment was given to it - while trawler owners are left on tenterhooks about their future, if in fact they have any future. The overwhelming irony of all this is that Brussels bureaucracy, which is currently delaying some £8 million to finance the scheme, is the same bureaucracy that has created and propagated the continuing crisis in fishing.
I understand that we shall have an announcement today about decommissioning. I am interested to hear how that will work. There has been no move to address the fact that up to 40% of this may be payable to the taxman through taxation on grant aid and the repayment of modernisation grant aid. It will be interesting to see exactly how it works. Our fishermen are still waiting to observe even the slightest indication that this scheme will save the cod fishery in the Irish Sea. Will it save it? That is a question that we ask the Minister.
Another issue that has not been satisfactorily addressed is light dues. Northern Ireland vessel owners pay £58,000 annually on light dues. That levy was initially imposed to cover the cost of navigational aids provided by lighthouses, and those are no longer used. It is especially frustrating that our fishermen have to continue to pay this levy while fishermen from the Republic of Ireland do not pay a single penny, as their Government make the payments. That shows commitment to the industry. Where is our Department's commitment to fishing? Although the Minister has said that she will do what she can, the fishing industry is on its knees and needs serious help now: not next year, not the year after, but now, before the industry is confined to the annals of history.
As for the future of our white fish fleet, what must be done to alleviate the problems that are being experienced and to obtain commitments that something will be done? It is clear that an immediate and substantial financial package must be provided in order to secure even the short-term future of Northern Ireland's white fish fleet. For example, 13 boats are currently tied up in Kilkeel because the crews cannot be paid, and that came before the restrictions that were added last week.
For those who choose that option, decommissioning may, in a small way, address the issue. However, there must be a commitment from Government that those who wish to remain active within the sector will be catered for. The right to fish is an issue. Fishermen want to catch fish, they want to be involved in the industry and to support their families and others who are involved in it.
In the past, Westminster has opposed the introduction of a tie-up scheme that would keep vessels in port. However, the fact is that the white fish fleet faces an enforced tie-up for no other reason than it has been provided with no other options. It has nothing left to do. We must also look at boats that are not involved in white fish fishing. This will affect them as well. What we are looking for today is financial assistance that will help everyone who is involved in the fishing industry, from A to Z.
Our Government have consistently failed to provide such essential assistance while the sovereign Governments of other EU member states have provided crucial finance to support their fishing fleets. We know who they are: Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Spain and the Republic of Ireland. They are all doing something for their fishing fleets, and because they are doing something their industries will survive.
The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has admitted that there are provisions in EU Regulations for the payment of compensation in such circumstances as those in which our fishing industry currently finds itself. The Minister says that it is not possible to implement such a scheme after a fishery has closed. The rest of Europe has already done something. Our Minister - here in our own devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland - has the power to do just that, and we ask her to do it. In fact, this particular aid package has been introduced following the closures associated with the North Sea cod recovery plan. That is what other countries are doing about that issue.
Can the Minister explain to me and my constituents - and those of South Down - exactly how she plans to address this problem? Why do the sovereign Governments of other EU states deem it necessary, while our Government refuse to accept the same responsibility? Our Government cannot expect to receive a sympathetic hearing when they refuse to acknowledge the magnitude of the crisis and take the necessary action that is urgently required if the industry is to be saved.