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Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 1 May 2001 (continued)

Ms Gildernew:

I thank the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel and the Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment for bringing this motion to the House. This is the first time that the Assembly has debated the debilitating effect of foot-and-mouth disease on the community.

Coming from a farming background, I am acutely aware of how badly foot-and-mouth disease has affected us all. While the damage to tourism has been severe, the fact that the people who live and work here all year have much less money to spend on a daily basis has resulted in downturns in spending in shops, pubs and restaurants. Indeed, it has often been said that when the farmers are doing badly, we are all worse off. Their spending power is critical to the economy on this island.

The fact that a rates rebate has not been made available to businesses is a major mistake. While a three-month stay of execution will give temporary relief, it will only put an additional burden on businesses, as the same rates will still have to be paid, albeit later. Businesses should have been given a discount on their rates, which would help them keep their heads above water - not a cosmetic exercise, which will have no real benefit.

Mr M Murphy:

Gabh mo leithscéal. Will the Member give way? While the country has been focused on the farming industry -

Mr Speaker:

Order. The Member has only five minutes, which must include the time that an intervention takes.

Mr M Murphy:

While the country has been focusing on the farmers' plight, and rightly so, many other businesses face closure and hardship due to this unfortunate outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. I know of one business in my constituency, the East Coast Adventure Centre, which has lost business in excess of £30,000 a month, has had to lay of staff and is facing the prospect of closure.

Ms Gildernew:

I thank my Colleague for his intervention. Many businesses are probably going to go under this year because of the impact of foot-and-mouth disease on their revenue.

We need to be imaginative about how we tackle the increase in job losses, which are an additional blow to the rural community in Fermanagh and Tyrone. An average farm income is usually supplemented by a wage from an outside source. However, with so many jobs lost in the textile industry and food production, this source of revenue is lost also. A county like Fermanagh, which has had to rely on tourism and agriculture for the vast majority of its economic revenue, has felt the effect of foot-and-mouth disease twice as much as any other county in Ireland. In general, the rural community has responded well to the needs of the farming community. Organisations like the GAA have been extremely responsible and patient as they wait for the disease to diminish.

A hardship package is a necessity to alleviate the prospect of financial ruin for many people. A joined-up approach from all agencies, especially from the Minister of Finance and Personnel and the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, is required to support the farming community, the tourist industry and the rural economy. Measures like organic farming, for example, will need to be supported financially to increase confidence in the products provided. We must do all in our power to help the farmers - the backbone of the rural economy - to get back on their feet.

I support the motion. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Armstrong:

I speak on this motion with a heavy heart and the utmost sympathy for farmers and their families, who have bore the brunt of this foot-and-mouth disease, and for the effect it has on wider industry in our Province.

We must now take stock of our farmers' plight and the knock-on effect in associated agri-food operations.

The farming industry has yet again been hit by a crisis; this time it is foot-and-mouth disease. It is important that Members be informed about how the disease came about. The first case of foot-and-mouth disease in the United Kingdom came at the beginning of February. Sheep were imported to be slaughtered, but they were not slaughtered. We must find out how those sheep found their way on to unsuspecting farms. Had the handling of those sheep been carried out properly, Northern Ireland would have fared a great deal better. Prevention is better than cure.

11.30 am

To date, four cases of foot-and-mouth disease have been confirmed. In what way has the epidemic impacted on Northern Ireland? If Northern Ireland is to legislate properly in respect of the disease, we must first give an accurate assessment of its effects. As a representative of Mid Ulster I have had first-hand experience of the effects of the desperate disease. Two of Northern Ireland's cases to date have occurred in Mid Ulster.

Just as the economy of our Province was beginning to pick up in the wake of BSE, foot-and-mouth disease hit the industry. I would be failing my constituents if I did not tell the House of the suffering of the wider rural community. Social events have been cancelled, fewer meals have been eaten in hotels, and forest parks are shut. Those are just a few examples. Sporting fixtures had to be cancelled Province-wide, and the burning of cattle has done nothing to attract visitors to Northern Ireland. However, we find ourselves in an emergency, and it is the Assembly's duty to lead. The Assembly must provide whatever help it can to those worst hit by foot-and-mouth disease.

Compensation has rightly been awarded to those farmers who have seen their livelihoods destroyed by the disease. But what of the wider rural industries affected by the disease in our Province? Are they forgotten victims? Rural tourism has also been adversely affected in our Province as a result of the disease.

Farmhouse and bed-and-breakfast accommodation is at a complete standstill. Boat and coach hire companies have been decimated by cancellations. Major international events, including the Balmoral Show and the North West 200, have been cancelled. Tourism is worth over £350 million to the Northern Ireland economy, and it employs 38,500 people. The Northern Ireland Tourist Board has warned of a £2 million loss due to foot- and-mouth disease. The entire tourism infrastructure is threatened, and the effects of that will be felt across the economy of Northern Ireland.

The EU has closed all auction marts, but livestock marts are still paying rates. Their rates should be frozen until auction marts are back in business. We need to ensure that those auction marts are still operational when the threat of foot-and-mouth disease has passed.

I appeal to the Ministers of Finance and Personnel and Agriculture and Rural Development to get their heads together. They must provide the best package they can muster to help all affected industries - especially the wider rural industries - in this time of dire need. The Province is on its knees after the BSE crisis, which clobbered farmers with disaster. Allow me also make a plea to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to complete all outstanding payments of premium even if it means some element of derogation from Europe. I support the motion.

Mrs Courtney:

I support the motion. Since mid- February nightly reports on our televisions have shown the results of the foot-and-mouth disease on the farming community, and the scarring of the countryside with burial pits and burning pyres. That has had a devastating effect on the farming industry and on those businesses that are countryside-dependent. As the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development said last week, compensation is unfortunately limited to those who have had livestock slaughtered or feeding-stuff seized.

The Government's current position is that there is no provision or precedent for consequential compensation. That also applies to livestock markets. Last week Ulster's premier rural showpiece, the Balmoral Show, was called off with an estimated loss of £5 million. That cancellation of a three-day event that attracts more than 60,000 people each year was a severe blow.

Businesses other than the farming industry are also affected. The cancellation of major events such as the North West 200 will have a negative impact on the local economy and cause hardship for many businesses.

In an article last week the chairman of the Institute of Directors (IoD), Eric Bell, said that the IoD had surveyed UK members at the beginning of April. Thirty-five per cent of them responded that their businesses had been affected. These include small businesses from farm suppliers to bed-and-breakfast establishments. They are all counting the cost. Compensation has, quite rightly, come to farmers who have lost herds. A rates deferral scheme is operating, and small firm loan guarantee schemes have been amended and extended. The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is considering what compensation schemes are required and how they may be administered.

The £1 million marketing-based tourism recovery plan is crucial to future visitor numbers. Recently the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee met with the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation, which gave some stark statistics. Losses in tourism are running at three times those of agriculture, with a forecasted loss of over £8 billion for 2001. Business is down by 50%. Hotels across the country have had a flood of cancellations. Hospitality and tourism employs 35,000 people across Northern Ireland, with 30,500 employed directly in hotels. These people are now being laid off. The industry is worth £350 million to the Northern Ireland economy. The Northern Ireland Hotels Federation pressed the Committee for urgent assistance with business viability and a marketing strategy to rebuild tourism.

Recently hoteliers in Derry and the north-west told me that bookings are down dramatically, some by up to 75%. Hotels have cut prices, but it is becoming difficult to survive as conferences are being cancelled. Easter was particularly quiet with only one third of rooms occupied. When prices are cut, it is very difficult to get them back to a more normal rate. Hotels are also affected in other ways; limited supplies for menus mean higher retail prices. All in all it is becoming more difficult to operate. The knock-on effect is considerable. Every facet of our economy is being affected. A broad range of support measures, such as payment deferrals and rebates for VAT, rates and other taxes, as well as compensation for lost earnings, and interest-free loans is needed.

I call on all Departments in the Executive and the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ensure that any assistance is not dogged by red tape and delay. Swift help is needed if Northern Ireland is to recover from the foot-and-mouth crisis and tackle the longer term issues which will determine our future prosperity. There was an article in last night's 'Belfast Telegraph' on a survey carried out by PricewaterhouseCoopers. It gave a loss of £200 million as being the best-case scenario for Northern Ireland. In the same paper a guest house owner had written a letter saying that he is almost visitor-free due to the foot- and-mouth crisis. These are the grim effects. We need a relief package to prevent Northern Ireland's becoming an economic desert. I support the motion.

Mr Poots:

This is an issue of great concern. Many people would say that tourism in my constituency of Lagan Valley has not been badly affected, but that is not the case. Lagan Valley has the largest horse-racing festival in Northern Ireland; the second largest motorcycle race - the Ulster Grand Prix; the largest cinema complex; and the top leisure swimming pool complex in the United Kingdom. Last year 25,000 tourists used the tourist information centre in Hillsborough village.

A recent report from Sir Reg Empey showed that some £9 million was spent by tourists in Lagan Valley over the last year. Tourism is a major business in our community in spite of the fact that the constituency does not have seaside venues, unlike the constituencies of other Members who have spoken. Local businesses are suffering the effects, and many are complaining that their trade is down. While many businesses can absorb a loss of trade even for a sustained period, others are not in such a position. Business is very poor for those who have bed- and-breakfast establishments, especially those who offer farmhouse accommodation.

I also have to mention coach operators. They are not getting the business, because people do not want to go on tourist trips around the Province. Many of the locations that they would like to visit are closed. Coach operators are being severely hit by the current foot-and-mouth-disease crisis. The Executive and the relevant Ministers have to look closely at this issue. They have to do something to compensate those people for their losses.

I also ask that specific reference be made to livestock marts, which are a separate case in that they have been instructed by the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to cease trading. That decision has been backed up by the European Commission In my opinion, this creates a legal question for the Minister of Finance and Personnel, given that mart owners still have to pay rates. Something is wrong if one Government body says that an individual is not allowed to carry out his business, but another charges him a business rate.

We have a Government which talks a good deal about fair treatment and which has equality policies. We also hear a good deal about joined-up government - let us see this happen. Let the Minister of Finance and Personnel get together with the Minister of Agriculture to deal with this issue. Five hundred people are employed in the livestock marts. My concern is that many marts will not reopen their doors when the foot-and-mouth crisis is over. Today in Northern Ireland sheep farmers receive for their lambs about half the price received by farmers in the Republic of Ireland. Clearly, that is because in Northern Ireland there are only four meat plants where lambs can be killed. The trade which we would normally have had with the Irish Republic has gone.

If the livestock marts are not open when Northern Ireland gets back to business, the farmers will suffer further, because the meat plants will have the monopoly on the sheep trade, just as they have dominated the meat trade for the last five years since BSE emerged. It is essential that we give these people the support that they need to see through this crisis. We need to be there when it is over, because it will have a major effect on the entire agriculture community.

I ask the Minister to take particular note of that, but also to examine the situation of coach operators and those who offer bed-and-breakfast accommodation. They have been hardest hit by the foot-and-mouth crisis. Farmers have been badly affected, but although I am from a farming background, I must say that the tourist industry and the livestock marts have been worst hit. It is imperative that the Minister look at these issues and give these people the support they need.

Mrs Carson:

I am pleased to speak in strong support of the motion. The outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease has been another crippling blow to the farming community, which is still reeling from the consequences of BSE. Those consequences reach into every part of our daily lives and into all parts of the Province's economy. Several Members mentioned the plight of farmers and the unique problems of the cattle marts. There are several marts in my constituency, and something must be done directly to help them.

Today, however, we ask the Minister of Finance and Personnel to respond to the crisis outside the immediate farming community by providing a financial package to alleviate hardship suffered by these farm-related businesses and the tourist trade.

In all parts of my constituency, but particularly in Fermanagh, tourism has been extremely hard hit by cancellations of bed-and-breakfast accommodation, hire cruisers and all associated amenities. Thankfully, the fishing waters have now reopened, and a slow trickle of tourists is returning. The overall loss to the tourist trade, however, has been grievous. Everything possible must be done to encourage visitors to return. We saw interviews with some American tourists who had weird ideas about the effect of foot-and-mouth disease on humans. Publicity must be spread further afield to counter such ideas.

When the Minister considers his financial aid package, I ask him to look outside the immediate area of tourism and to take account of those with ancillary businesses. I speak of specialist shops where there has been a drastic drop in sales of fishing tackle and accoutrements and outdoor clothing. Souvenir shops - even coffee shops - have all lost income. The list is endless.

11.45 am

I ask the Minister to encompass businesses outside the immediate perceived tourist areas when looking at relief packages. As some other Members have pointed out, tourism reaches right across Northern Ireland. I have been told of one business in south Tyrone that has tackle and tack for sale for outdoor pursuits. It has had a huge drop in income - up to 80%. These business people are the backbone of Northern Ireland, and I hope they will not be excluded from any forthcoming relief package.

I support the motion.

Mr Gallagher:

I too support the motion. We have heard of the serious drop in business experienced right across Northern Ireland. That is especially true in border areas. In the constituency where I live a significant level of business is cross-border. Fermanagh and South Tyrone is a constituency which has many border crossing points to counties such as Monaghan, Cavan, Leitrim and Donegal, so for many businesses a significant proportion of trade is cross-border, and many traders there are experiencing serious difficulties.

Mrs Carson referred to the situation for those who operate self-catering enterprises or run guest houses or hotels or hire cruisers. There is a strong case for a greater response from the Government in view of the difficulties.

Food processing is another sector where difficulties are great. That is due to the restrictions imposed by the Government on the southern side of the border. I spoke to a food processor today who has already lost £50,000 worth of business and has had to allow three of his employees to go. I spoke to a butcher about a week ago, and he told me that 95% of his business was cross-border.

I support the idea of assistance for the traders in difficulties. A number have submitted plans for assistance to bodies such as the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and LEDU and are asking "What now?" about them. Are those agencies taking account of the different and difficult circumstances that have obtained since those plans were submitted? I urge agencies such as LEDU to be more proactive and have a greater presence in the areas that are experiencing the greatest difficulties. I see no reason why LEDU and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board should not, temporarily at least, open offices closer to the problem. Their presence there would act as an important link between local businesses and the Government Departments.

I refer to Government Departments in the North and South. If there were a local presence which liaised with the Government agencies, it would reassure and restore confidence to those affected by the situations I have described. LEDU, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and the Training and Employment Agency should be more proactive in providing advice and assistance, and this should be dealt with urgently.

Mr Shannon:

I support the motion. I want to talk more the tourism aspect. According to the figures we received, the cost of the crisis to the economy is approximately £200 million. When this cost is looked at in the context of the whole Province, it gives us an idea of how much everyone has to lose.

PriceWaterhouseCoopers carried out an extensive study into the impact of the crisis on the agriculture and tourism sectors. The problem is that the agriculture industry, when it did not have problems, diversified into the tourism sector. We now have a double whammy, because tourism has also been affected by foot-and-mouth disease. The crisis is now affecting every aspect of the agriculture economy, not just those directly involved in agriculture, but others who suffer the ripple effect of foot-and-mouth disease.

The report also suggested that the figure quoted might reflect a best-case scenario. It stated that the eventual cost to the economy could rise beyond £200 million. If every high-profile, crowd-pulling, sporting, recreational and cultural event continues to be affected, and subsequently cancelled, the cost to the economy will spiral. Every constituency will feel the pinch.

In my constituency of Strangford, as with most other constituencies, we have a very strong rural community whose livelihoods depend on agriculture and the diversified field of tourism. There is an incredible fear among many people in agriculture and other sectors, because they do not know where their next pay cheque is coming from. Our farming industry is already on its knees, and it seems to be suffering one blow after another. Farmers are extremely vulnerable, and they need to do everything they can to protect their livelihoods. The crisis is now rippling through to other sectors in a virus-like way, spreading anxiety throughout the economy.

Outside agriculture, the tourist industry, which represents 8% of the local economy, is now experiencing the very same slump as has been reported on the mainland. The crisis on the mainland is more widely publicised through its greater PR and bigger headlines. The closure of numerous public attractions, including such National Trust properties as Mount Stewart, and the cancellation of big events have caused the demand for accommodation literally to disappear.

As a result, for those farmers who diversified into tourism, for example those who set up bed-and-breakfast accommodation, the market has dried up. The tourism industry in the Kingdom of Down, which covers four council areas, is worth between £7 million and £8 million annually, and services such as bed-and-breakfast establishments face a worrying and uncertain future. The number of bed-nights has slumped to an all-time low. To compound their problems, tourist organisations face VAT demands which they are simply unable to meet. I understand that HM Customs and Excise has made some concessions by offering help to farmers and those involved in tourism. Despite this, however, it is impossible fully to compensate their loss.

To illustrate the plight of some of those involved in tourism, a local newspaper reported that a guest-house owner who had been in business for more than 40 years and his colleagues in the same sector had been left almost visitor-free by the foot-and-mouth crisis. They fear for the future of the industry. How much worse could it get for these people? They can make their livings only during the six months of spring and summer, and their profits have to take them through the winter and early spring. Those people have appealed to the Tourist Board, the Executive and the Assembly to intervene and help them. The sympathy we feel towards the farmers and the agriculture sector should extend to the tourism industry, as it is also in difficulty.

The same story applies across the Province, not just in the Strangford area. It is very worrying to watch the infrastructure that our positive angle on tourism has built up over the years dissolve in front of our eyes.

This also has an impact on the retail sector with regard to goods produced for outdoor and country pursuits. As a consequence, from next week, firms in Newtownards that make outdoor socks for walking in the countryside will be working a three-day week.

Mr Speaker:

Order. The Member's time is up.

Mr Savage:

There is often public misunderstanding of the issues involved in farming. This is probably due to the fact that the bulk of the population are now urban dwellers. Nowhere is this misunderstanding more apparent than with regard to the question of compensation paid to farmers in the wake of the foot-and-mouth crisis.

The public needs to understand that compensation for the market value of an animal is only the beginning. Along with buildings and land, animals are the main asset of the farmer, but animals are an active asset which in normal times generate income. A farmer's work in rearing and feeding animals represents what we would call "value added" in business terms. That is a concept the wider public will understand.

A farmer's income is derived from the value he adds to the animals through feeding and nurture and a small element of profit in addition. That profit was already eroded before the foot-and-mouth crisis. It is a profit margin which, in the wake of recent crises such as BSE, has already turned into a loss for many farmers.

The key point is that the farmer needs to be compensated, not only for the market value of the animals he has lost, but also for loss of the income he could reasonably have expected to earn from those animals in normal circumstances. This must also be part of the equation.

Furthermore, it is not simply those farmers whose herds suffered an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease who are affected. Nor is it just those whose land adjoins farms where outbreaks have occurred and have had their animals culled. The foot-and-mouth outbreak has caused a collapse of normal market conditions everywhere. All farmers have been affected, not to mention the dependent industries and related businesses such as tourism. My Chairperson and many other Members have mentioned that the livestock marts have been instructed to close by Government officials. Machinery dealers and all industries associated with the agriculture industry are affected. As our Colleague across the Chamber said, the horse industry is practically at a standstill. Top racehorses who have come over here to be covered by stallions cannot get back from the stud farm to their own farm. The entire farming community has suffered losses consequential to the economic displacement caused by this epidemic.

At the Agriculture Committee on Wednesday 18 April, the Minister said that such consequential loss would be infinite and that it would create huge problems. That may well be true. I agree with the Minister that in normal circumstances the Northern Ireland block grant could not handle it, but these are not normal circumstances.

One of the most important consequences of the present crisis was revealed in a survey in 'Farming Life'. According to that study, one third of the farmers affected by foot-and-mouth disease have decided to sell up or to leave the industry.

Clearly, this is crucial. The unprecedented economic dislocation experienced since the first outbreak necessitates immediate and urgent consideration to be given to an early retirement scheme which I have outlined before in this Chamber. Only a scheme of this dimension can handle the inevitable restructuring of farming. People, including the Government, are only beginning to appreciate the size of the agriculture industry. We heard how tourism and interrelated industries in Northern Ireland have been affected. I am glad to see that the Minister of Finance and Personnel is here today. The situation affecting the agriculture industry is so serious that there will need to be an imaginative response which marks a real departure from the past. We have witnessed the last generation of farmers who are prepared to work for nothing.


I have had meetings with the Minister, and the Department is fully aware of the problems. It realises that only a radical response from the Government will do. I hope that this compensation package -

Mr Speaker:

Order. The Member's time is up.

The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan):

I thank the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel and the Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment for affording the Assembly the opportunity to have this debate. We have had a serious and important debate on the implications of the foot-and-mouth disease, the threat that it represents to our entire agriculture sector and individual farm businesses, as well as the wider consequential damage to other sectors, not least - but not only - the tourism sector.

The Executive have been alert to all the dangers posed by foot-and-mouth disease since its outbreak across the water. We know now that we are witnessing the worst outbreak of the disease in Britain for a generation. The Executive were aware of all the risks from the beginning. We have moved decisively - and with all possible speed - to protect our vital interests in agriculture and, in turn, to try to contend with the difficulties posed for the wider economy. We have a clear strategy for trying to achieve this objective.

The first priority has been, and will continue to be, effective action to contain outbreaks and to eradicate the disease. In this way alone will we be able to recover the disease-free status that our farmers need. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has been at the forefront of this effort. I pay tribute to the outstanding leadership shown by Bríd Rodgers, who has worked ceaselessly throughout this crisis. In a subsequent motion today, she will have a further opportunity to update the Assembly on the current position, and she may address many of the serious issues that have been raised by Members in this debate.

I stress that the fight against foot-and-mouth disease is the responsibility of all Government Departments. The Executive have made it clear that the work on containment and eradication that has been led by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development will be supported by additional personnel and resources drawn from across the public sector as necessary. I pay tribute to the support and co-operation of all Ministers and their Departments in meeting those additional personnel needs. The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has a role in trying to co-ordinate cross-Executive efforts to try to reinforce the hard work of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

The second prong of the strategy has been to get markets moving again, to take effective measures to restore confidence in the tourism sector and to try to attract visitors back to the region. Central to this effort, as we heard, has been the work on the new tourism strategy that was launched on 5 April by the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Sir Reg Empey.

As Sir Reg Empey explained, the strategy injects an additional £1 million in tourism. It will support promotions in the US, Canada, Europe and Scotland. The money will also be used to provide for more locally centred initiatives, including trade and media receptions.

Renewed efforts will be made within the island of Ireland through television, radio and press to raise awareness of the excellent holidays that we offer. As Sir Reg Empey emphasised, the most important thing we can do for the long-term benefit of tourism is bring the visitors back. Customers are the best answer to the problem.

The Executive are well aware that the effects of foot-and-mouth disease do not stop at the farmgate. There is a wider adverse economic impact from the disease and from the measures that have been needed to tackle it.

The Executive have set up a task force led by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to monitor the wider consequences of the outbreak. It will also consider what feasible and practicable measures would be appropriate to support those sectors most affected, taking account of local circumstances. That group has links to the rural task force in Great Britain to ensure that Northern Ireland benefits from any initiatives that are taken in Great Britain.

Steps have already been taken to help businesses adversely affected. Customs and Excise and the Inland Revenue are working together and taking a sympathetic approach to deferring payment of tax for businesses suffering financial problems as a result of foot-and-mouth disease. No interest will be charged for any period of deferral. In addition, all possible steps are being taken to speed up VAT repayments to farmers to aid their significant cash-flow difficulties.

Further aid is available through the Department of Trade and Industry's small firms loan guarantee scheme, which has been specially extended to help businesses affected.

I announced on 15 March that the Rates Collection Agency would enter into agreements with any business facing hardship because of foot-and-mouth disease to defer rates payments for up to three months. That help has been put in place very quickly and is assisting a number of hard-pressed cases.

I take issue with the suggestion that any of the deferment schemes - rates, VAT or others - are mere cosmetic exercises. They are measures that we have been able to take within available discretion. Given the limit to other measures, those measures should be recognised as welcome initiatives.

These measures provide a breathing space for businesses adversely affected by foot-and-mouth disease. However, the Executive have also been acting over the past weeks to ensure that more is done and that more measures are taken to give effective relief in cases of hardship.

The Executive's general approach to hardship relief is guided by the principle, reflected by many Members today, that businesses here should be supported in as beneficial a way as businesses in Great Britain. The picture there is changing, and there are variations in the approach taken in different areas across the water. Members are also aware that the legislative framework available to us is different in both character and detail from that in Great Britain.

We cannot simply introduce the same rate relief scheme as has been introduced in Britain, because the statutory basis for operating such a scheme does not exist in Northern Ireland. I know that it has been suggested that we could get the statutory basis if we legislated by means of accelerated passage. Notwithstanding the possibility of accelerated passage, our legislative regime is not the same as Great Britain's, given the implications of the equality duty and the need to go through the full period of consultation. Any rate relief scheme that we introduce on that legislative basis would require secondary legislation as well as primary legislation, therefore it could not be achieved as readily as some Members might want it to be or assume that it could be.

On 12 April, the Executive remitted the Department of Finance and Personnel, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to make proposals for a scheme of a similar nature and with an effect similar to Great Britain's scheme. Those Departments are working on a range of options which will be considered by the Executive as a matter of urgency. When decisions have been made, the details will be announced as soon as possible. The work that is being done by the three Departments will be presented to the Executive by the task force, chaired by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, which is dealing with the economic issues created by foot-and-mouth disease.

Mr Wells:

Is there to be a form of rates moratorium or a general consequential loss package? In my constituency, there are businesses that are about to go to the wall but who pay very low rates - some are run from home. Some of these businesses face hundreds of thousands of pounds of loss. Is the package that the Minister proposes simply a way of reducing the rate burden, or is it a wider consequential loss package that will identify the top 20% to 30% of affected businesses and provide compensation for the huge losses that they have incurred?

Mr Durkan:

I refer the Member to my earlier point that we have concentrated on as many people as this debate has made reference to. We have tried to ensure that the benefits that we make available to businesses in Northern Ireland are comparable to those extended to affected businesses across the water. Many Members have referred to questions about rates, therefore that is the matter that I have been addressing.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

Does the Minister know anything about the £13·5 million that the Scottish Parliament has set aside for a compensation package?

Mr Durkan:

Different measures and criteria are being employed by the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales as well as the different councils in England. We are aware of different amounts of money that have been announced as part of packages and schemes. We are putting forward a case to the Treasury based on our need for additional resources to help us alleviate the effects and consequences of foot-and-mouth disease. The funds are to be used not only to alleviate the consequential difficulties faced by different businesses, but to cover the considerable costs of contending with the disease. We are continuing to put pressure on the Treasury to ensure that we receive a full and fair share of the moneys that are made available from the contingency reserve.

12.15 pm

The Department has had contact with the Treasury. On the basis of that, we are confident that any scheme developed here which has similar effects and delivers similar benefits to those that are being run across the water will be the subject of a read-across of extra money to us. That does not mean that we will be paid the full cost of any scheme that is adopted. I therefore ask Members to be realistic in that regard. The Assembly cannot come up with any scheme, at any cost, and automatically get the money from the Treasury. Many Members have made the point that more resources are needed from the Treasury. In reality, while Members can agree that the Treasury should listen to that case, there is no guarantee that it will.

In those circumstances and within the limits of what is available to us, we must explore how best we can assist the cases of hardship, and that is what the Department is trying to do. In his opening remarks, the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel said that the money should not be coming out of the block grant. Many Members have said that that case should be made to the Treasury. We could face circumstances where little addition is made to our existing block grant for these needs. There is no guarantee that the Department of Finance and Personnel and the First and Deputy First Ministers' representations to the Treasury will deliver as much as Members would like. In that instance the Department must decide how it can fund the measures we want to implement to mitigate the effects of this emergency on businesses. We will not be able to compensate for all of the trading difficulties and losses that different business sectors are suffering. We can try to mitigate the effects as they impact on particular sectors and localities. Therefore we are looking at options aimed at doing that. Obviously, as Sir Reg Empey indicated, the Executive are trying to look at other means of assistance that can be given to businesses by way of support and information.

Allow me to answer points that were made at the end of the debate. This issue is not just about the amount of money that might be made available; it is also about the way in which services and support are provided across the range of public sector agencies.

Particular reference was made to the livestock marts. Many Members stressed that the livestock marts are a case apart, because, effectively, they are closed by order of law. That is a factor that the Executive are sensitive to, and, as Minister of Finance and Personnel, I am alert to. The Executive will be considering it fully.

I recognise the severe effect of foot-and-mouth disease on the entire economy and on the agriculture and tourism sectors in particular. Both sectors are central to our present and future economic strength. We cannot afford a major downturn. Members have cited the figure from PricewaterhouseCoopers of £200 million that appeared in the newspapers. While that includes the effects of other factors such as the downturn in trends in the world economy, as well as foot-and-mouth disease, the Executive recognise that we must respond as effectively as we can. However, we must take account of the statutory limitations that prevented us from taking those steps that some people wanted us to take before now. We must also realise that if our efforts with the Treasury do not deliver the additional moneys we want, we may face financial limitations.

I want to make sure that the concerns that have been reflected in this debate are fully reflected by the Executive when we consider the sort of measures and package to be put together. It is very useful that the debate has coincided with the Executive's considerations. The mandate that we received predated this motion. The Executive's considerations are not being prompted by the motion, but they will be assisted and enlightened by the useful points that have been made.


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