Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 1 May 2001 (continued)

The Chairperson of the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee (Mr P Doherty):

Go raibh maith agat a Cheann Comhairle. I support the motion.

First, I would like to reflect the views of the Chairperson of the Finance and Personnel Committee, Mr Francie Molloy, and the Deputy Chairperson of the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee, Mr Sean Neeson. They praised the joint-Committee and cross-party approach to the motion and said that it was an effective way to move on the severe hardship that is being felt throughout the Six Counties.

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Sir Reg Empey made a very pertinent point in his submission. He said that the focus was on getting visitors back and getting the industry back on its feet. He also said that last year there was an 11% growth in the industry. I commend his efforts last week when he met his counterparts in Scotland, Wales and England to try to get the tourist industry back on its feet.

The motion focuses on the immediate need for a hardship relief package. This is not only an issue for the business industry but for farm-related businesses too. The financial burden of a hardship relief package must lie with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. However, the Minister of Finance and Personnel, and the Executive collectively, must request such a package of him.

Mr Francie Molloy said that the crisis is not confined to the farms - it is much more widespread. He said that we must regenerate grants for farm businesses beyond the farmgate.

Mr Sean Neeson spoke of a 30% reduction in bookings in hotels for this season and of the need for clarification of the criteria that will used in the horse racing industry when it returns to normal.

The Minister spoke of the need to bring the industry back to growth, of his efforts to do so - there was an 11% growth last year - and of the need, which has been ongoing for a number of years, to diversify beyond farming itself and into tourism.

Ms Lewsley spoke of the overall, long-term picture and of how we must carefully consider the allocation of funds.

Rev Ian Paisley focused on the facts that, by law, marts are closed down, that the Scottish parliament has set aside £3·5 million pounds to deal with these losses and that the marts have already laid off 400 full-time and part-time staff.

Gerry McHugh focused on farmers west of the Bann, on how they have had no income since the foot-and-mouth outbreak started and on how they cannot sell their animals.

David McClarty spoke of the need to provide financial relief measures sooner rather than later.

Eamon ONeill mentioned horse riding and pony- trekking and highlighted the case of one person who has 40 ponies to look after, with absolutely no income. He said that the burden must fall on the Prime Minister and the Chancellor.

Ian Paisley Jnr spoke of the need for a disaster plan and for the Executive to focus on bringing such a strategy forward. Michelle Gildernew felt that it was a major mistake that only a rates rebate was being given; she felt that much greater relief was needed and that there should be a discount.

Billy Armstrong mentioned the effect on the 38,000 people who are employed in tourism. Annie Courtney spoke about compensation's being limited to those whose livestock had been culled or whose feedstuff had been taken, and she mentioned that tourism was suffering at a ratio of three to one when compared to farming - an issue that needs to be dealt with.

Edwin Poots focused on bed-and-breakfast establishments and farm bed-and-breakfast establishments in particular. He made the point that sheep farmers here are receiving half the compensation that such farmers are receiving in the South. Joan Carson spoke of the need for publicity to feature the fact that we are open for tourism and to explain the real effects of foot-and-mouth disease, as opposed to the phoney ones on which some media commentators, particularly in America, have been focusing.

Tommy Gallagher spoke about the food processing industry; the loss of £50,000 in some businesses; a case where staff had been laid off; and the ongoing effect on the industry. Jim Shannon spoke about cutbacks in stocks and the fact that many companies were going on a three- day week - something that needs to be alleviated.

George Savage referred to the knock-on effects beyond the farmgate on machinery dealers and all businesses associated with farming. He pointed out that the block grant was simply not enough. Mark Durkan made a number of points, perhaps too many to enumerate. He did say that the Executive were working on measures for hardship relief, that all Departments were involved and that they were putting a case for a fair share of the contingency reserve. Earlier today I spoke with the Minister of Education, who informed me that fishing and tackle shops were also experiencing severe cutbacks.

On April 3, the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee interviewed the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation. We had 44 pages of evidence dealing with its plight. I will read an extract to highlight that. Mr F Mooney said

"Since the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Ireland many hotels, particularly city hotels, have experienced a dramatic downturn in the number of conferences . being booked. The city hotels seemed to be bearing the brunt of cancellations in the initial period. As the tourism season unfolds for tourist-based properties, the industry is forecasting the possibility of a 30% reduction in bookings. The ability to maintain the present quorum of people employed in the industry has yet to be finally assessed. However, many people are indicating that to get them through the current season they are looking at either reducing working hours from 40 to 30 hours or reducing their staff complement by 10% or 15%.

We have come through a period of preparation for business in Northern Ireland. We have invested in training our staff and in improving our product, and at present we are in a very vulnerable state. If we cannot manage the revenue streams coming in, the cost centres must be looked at. Some of the cost centres are at the rateable valuation of the properties, PAYE, VAT et cetera. Those are some of the tax burdens that, with help, we can alleviate over the next six months.

I sit on a number of committees that represent industry in both the North and the South. The picture in the South is no better. Even though it is a developed tourism destination, the message that has been given to people thinking of holidaying in Ireland is 'Not this year - come back and think about Europe next year'. For long-haul destinations in particular the hotel industry is forecasting a 50% reduction in bookings. It is forecasting that June, July and August will be very poorly affected. The tour operators who are running niche market activities such as fishing, golfing et cetera are all very badly affected.

We are learning" -

12.30 pm

Mr Speaker:

Order. I am afraid that the Member's time and the time for the debate is up.

Mr P Doherty:

I would like to conclude by calling on the Chancellor of the Exchequer to introduce a hardship relief package and to ensure that the tourist industry is protected.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Finance and Personnel, the Executive and the Chancellor of the Exchequer to respond to the current crisis resulting from the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease by introducing a hardship relief package to reflect the fall in incomes being experienced, not only by farm-related businesses but also by businesses in the tourist industry.

The sitting was suspended at 12.32 pm.

On resuming (Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair -

2.00 pm


Foot-and-Mouth Disease


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

Madam Deputy Speaker, will you indicate the timing of this debate?

Madam Deputy Speaker:

We have two hours for this debate. The time for contributions will depend on your opening statement.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

I beg to move

That this Assembly acknowledges the sacrifices made by, and hardship caused to, farmers, their families and the wider rural community in responding to the Executive's policies and guidance regarding foot-and-mouth disease, and calls on the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development and her Executive colleagues to act to alleviate these difficulties as quickly and imaginatively as possible.

Mr Savage, the Deputy Chairmperson of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, will reply to this debate.

While the statements made by the Minister to the Assembly on Monday mornings are very welcome, they offer only a limited opportunity for questions, and we felt that such a crucial issue should be the subject of a full-scale debate - bearing in mind the debate this morning.

Throughout this crisis the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development has met with the Minister each week. The one exception was when we took a written update to hear the most up-to-date position on the foot- and-mouth outbreaks and to express our constituencies' views on the Minister's handling of the crisis. During these meetings a wide variety of topics were discussed, and it was clear that Members wished to see tight controls in place, both to keep any further infection from entering Northern Ireland and to ensure that the virus was contained. At times Members have questioned the Minister's policies - not to indulge in political point- scoring but in a genuine attempt to understand the issues - to ensure that constituencies' concerns are aired and to provide a focus of accountability to the public. That is part of the role of a departmental Statutory Committee.

Members have also shared the Minister's anger at those who have brought this plague upon Northern Ireland. I do not wish to concentrate this debate on a denunciation of those involved, because the general public has already denounced them. I trust that they will soon be brought before the courts and receive severe sentences. My Committee and I want to see relief for the many innocents who are suffering severely. Throughout the Committee's deliberations there has, quite understandably, been an emphasis on the needs of the farmers. Members have called for action on regionalisation, direct compensation for slaughtered animals, swift and uninterrupted payment of subsidies to farmers and consideration of the seasonal realities being faced by farmers with regard to feeding and moving livestock. All members of the Committee have received distressing telephone calls and letters and have been met by deputations of people who are really suffering.

I will give the Minister a summary of the most pressing matters that have been put to the Committee. Movement licences do not apply to many farms, especially beef and sheep farms where the sheep are on the fields and cattle cannot be let out. On welfare grounds, we need an urgent solution - when I say urgent, I mean it with all my heart and soul. Farmers could be sued for not treating their animals according to proper welfare standards, but they have no other option, because they cannot get them out into the fields. That is an urgent matter, and I trust that the Minister will make a response on that today.

Many farmers have had no income for the last nine weeks. Farm-to-farm sales must be started immediately. Subsidy payments must be speeded up; delays in payment are unacceptable, particularly in this crisis. The IACS forms are impossible to complete, as farmers cannot say whether they will be able - or allowed - to rent land or purchase livestock. I trust that the Minister will take that on board. Rather than adding further costs to the farmer, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development should meet veterinary costs associated with animal movement licences. The Minister has suggested the end of August as the end of the timetable for registration. That is unacceptable. Stores of milk products are building up. We need to resume lamb sales to France, and blood tests should be a priority. That is a summary of what farmers are saying to us.

The Committee has begun to consider the lessons that we must learn for farming policy and has already made recommendations to the Department's vision group, including the registration of livestock dealers and the introduction of electronic tagging for better traceability. I have corresponded with the Minister, sending her details provided by an expert in foot-and-mouth disease, who says that it is a great disappointment that in the United Kingdom - including this part - there is no central strategy for dealing with a foot-and-mouth outbreak. That lack of preparation has left us trusting to luck for the prevention of a major foot-and-mouth outbreak. It is also in sharp contrast to the attitude of foot-and-mouth disease-free countries.

The USA has not had an outbreak since 1929 - why is that? In the last decade, the US Government have run three foot-and-mouth control exercises, involving the Department of Agriculture, the army and the civil defence forces. The whole country was alerted to what could happen, and there was a strategy to deal with it. Unfortunately, we had nothing of that kind.

The Committee has also acknowledged the suffering in other sectors. The food processing industry, livestock marts, the tourist and hospitality industry and event organisers are among those who received specific mention. The Committee has ensured that the difficulties faced by those sectors were also referred to the Minister, and she has heard from members of the Committee about the effect on those sectors. In passing, I will mention the livestock marts, about which I spoke at some length in a previous debate. They are a special case, and I have referred it to the Minister. She knows my position - and that of others - on the matter.

I hope that there will be news to alleviate the great fears about the complete closure of that sector of the industry. We heard in the previous debate today that there is to be a hardship relief package to take account of falling incomes. However, we must also look beyond this. Through this motion, the Deputy Chairperson and I hope that Members who have rural interests at heart will make constructive suggestions on how to bring about the long march towards the recovery of farming and the whole rural economy. We also need a constructive response from the Minister. Rural communities are looking to the Minister and to this Assembly for signs that their way of life will not be lost and that hope for the future remains.

We are interested in the buying-out scheme that has been launched by the Dutch Government under which surpluses that have built up as a result of foot-and-mouth disease can be taken up. Could a similar scheme be operated in Northern Ireland so that the Government could take over these animals?

I would also like to mention to the Minister that in the Report of the Committee of Inquiry on Foot-and-Mouth Disease 1968, Part Two, it is stated that

"Burial of carcasses is preferable to burning. When burning is unavoidable there is as yet no better means than making a pyre than with coal and wood"

Is it the view of the Minister's Department that burial is preferable to burning? Would she like to comment on that?

This is a time of crisis for us, especially because our economy, unlike the economy of Scotland, Wales or England, is an agricultural economy. If farming does well, the country does well. If farming goes down, the country goes down. If farming fails, the country fails, and so we have a responsibility to see that this industry does not go down, that it is not lost to us, that there is a future for the young people who want to engage in it and that there is a comfortable retirement for those who have borne the burden and the heat of the day. It is a difficult time and a time of crisis, but mountains are made to be climbed up and over. We have to face this mountain, and by the help of Almighty God I believe that we will get over the top of this peak.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

I call Mr James Leslie.

Mr Leslie:

Madam Deputy Speaker, you have not stated a time limit for speeches.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

Thank you, Mr Leslie, for pointing out my omission. Given the number of Members who have asked to speak and the amount of time available, I must ask Members to restrict their contributions to five minutes.

Mr Leslie:

I wish that I had not asked.

Mr Bradley:

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Who recommends the allotted time for speeches and who may deliver them? This is probably the most important debate to take place in this Chamber since the Assembly's inception. To restrict the length of Members' speeches to five minutes and to limit the debate to two hours is to ignore the real problem that exists.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

As Members know, the Business Committee sets the debating time for each motion, and the Speaker, depending on the number of names that come forward, divides up that time accordingly. My aim is obviously to facilitate as many Members as possible, because there is great demand from Members to speak on this motion. The Business Committee has restricted the length of the debate to two hours, and this is why Members' speeches must be limited to five minutes.

2.15 pm

Mr McCartney:

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Northern Ireland public is becoming increasingly and acutely aware that, as Mr Bradley said, major issues are being given a very miserly length of time for discussion by this Assembly, which sits two days a week and which is now on short time. I believe that on some occasions we are now starting at 12 o'clock instead of at 10.30 am. On behalf of the House, it should be brought to the attention of the Business Committee that it is not good enough.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

That was going to be my suggestion. That issue should be brought up by the Member's representative on the Business Committee.

Mr McCartney:

It is being brought up constantly.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

We cannot waste time on this.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I delivered my speech as quickly as possible. I do not want people to go out and say that Ian Paisley hogged the time.

Mr Leslie:

I will use my four and a half minutes to address the future rather than dwell on the current problems, which have been well outlined by Dr Paisley and which I trust the Minister is acutely aware of. When we know how long the markets will remain closed, we will know what the cost of the crisis will be to the producing farmer. It is hard to quantify now.

However, it is clear that farm-related businesses have suffered an immediate and severe impact. Depending on when a reasonably priced market returns to Northern Ireland, it may turn out that farm-related businesses suffer more than those farmers whose stock is unaffected by the disease. It should be borne in mind that immediately before the Cushendall and Ardboe outbreaks, lamb prices were quite strong.

Looking ahead, it seems that the message is the same as it has been every time that Members have looked at this issue in the Chamber - production in the farming sector must fall. Current production levels are not sustainable by the markets to which they are being taken. The likelihood, therefore, is that the amount of land in production will fall and the number of farmers farming that land will fall as it was doing prior to the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. My Colleague, Mr Savage, will talk about the farmers' retirement scheme in that context.

It is difficult to see how significant changes can take place without a complete review of the common agricultural policy (CAP). I am relieved to see that Germany has started to come around to our point of view on this matter. That might change the balance of power in negotiations.

If one looked at Northern Ireland's land and climate and asked what type of farming should be carried out, the shape of the industry would be different to the one that exists, which is heavily influenced by the incentives provided by subsidies. There is a considerable belt of countryside in Northern Ireland where the warm, wet climate is ideal for the nursery stage of the horticulture industry in which Northern Ireland is scarcely engaged at present.

New Zealand abolished subsidies and as a consequence discovered that a great deal of the product that it had been producing had not been making the best use of the land and climate. That took 10 to 15 years to emerge. There are lessons there for Northern Ireland.

In that marginal land - and I reflect on my own constituency of North Antrim, with its north coast and the Glens of Antrim - it is essential that any future plans involve an integrated approach between the planning authority and rural development. I would like to see planning policy favouring farm diversification at the expense of irrelevant and damaging development. Sometimes that relationship is misunderstood.

In England it is virtually impossible to get planning permission to build a new dwelling in the countryside. That is why farm conversions are so popular. When one goes to the highlands of Scotland one will see scarcely any new buildings. The Scots are preserving the integrity of the landscape, because that is the amenity that attracts the visitors. If we permit widespread development along the coastline, we will cut the farmer off at the knees, because he might wish to enter the bed-and-breakfast industry by converting buildings for accommodation use.

In reality, that is more expensive than new build. Developers can completely overdevelop our coastline, and they are detracting from its aesthetic attraction. If we are not careful we will cut out the opportunity for diversification before we are able to consider it properly. I continually draw this matter to the attention of the Minister of the Environment. Finally, there are good prospects for farm-based enterprises, but the prospects are less good for farming-based enterprises.

Mr Bradley:

I support the motion. By the end of the debate I hope that the ongoing additions to the financial problems of our farmers as a result of foot-and-mouth disease will have been highlighted to maximum effect. I hope that we will get the necessary attention needed to resolve the crisis being experienced by this sector of rural society. The motion calls on the Executive to play its part in the compensatory programme that, I hope, will be advanced as a result of our deliberations.

I wish to direct my opening remarks to the Minister for Social Development and the role that his Department has to play in providing part of the solution that is needed urgently. Following the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease and the related financial problems that came in its wake, the build-up of hardship has brought a new and wider dimension to the stress being experienced in farming households. The financial problems have now escalated into those of social need.

The problems being experienced in recent months on our farms due to lack of working capital have now been overtaken by the lack of ready cash needed to put bread and butter on the table and for making essential everyday purchases. The outdoor cash crisis on the farm has now entered the family home. It has become a major issue, and the Social Security Agency has an immediate and significant role to play. I was encouraged to read the agency's commitment in its declared objectives in the 'Strategic and Business Plan for 2001-04'. The agency's main aim is written in large bold print in the centre of page 11. The agency aims to give

"The RIGHT support to. The RIGHT people at. The RIGHT time. EVERY TIME."

It goes without saying that farmers fit into that category perfectly. Therefore, I call on the Minister for Social Development to put together a team of advisers immediately who will visit farming families in difficulties and advise them about the level of help on offer from the Department. Traditionally, farmers have had little or no contact with social security offices. Many of them would not even know where the nearest local office is, or the role that it plays towards those in need.

On page 39 of the 'Strategic and Business Plan' - in the section on service standards - the agency offers to provide at least one telephone number to deal with related enquiries to its offices. I suggest that a helpline for farmers - if one does not already exist - might be worth consideration.

It is difficult for those who are removed from the current problems on our farm holdings to comprehend fully the stress in the family home when the farmgate is closed and when the doors are locked for the night. The absence of ready cash is impossible for those who do not have the problem to understand fully. In normal times it was no problem to provide money for children's school trips, and there was always money available to respond to a "top-up" call from a student son or daughter who was living away from home, or for prescriptions to meet the family's medical requisites. In other words there was always a "roughness", as they say in the country, to meet the foreseen and unforeseen needs of the day. It is to be regretted that those days are gone, and it is the Government's duty to step in to bridge the gap until the current agri-financial crisis is resolved.

I apologise for the repetition of this issue following the questions and answers yesterday during questions to the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development and this morning's debate and questions by other Members. However, the foot-and-mouth outbreak is very relevant to the motion. First, the ever-increasing financial difficulties faced by our livestock marts have arisen directly because of the initial closure ban following the foot-and-mouth outbreaks, which was firmed up by an EU Directive. Nobody can challenge these understandable bans, but by the same token nobody can say that the enforced closures were other than as a direct result of the foot-and-mouth outbreaks. I contend that compensatory claims cannot, and should not, be fitted into the consequential loss category. The Minister of Finance and Personnel said that he would address this issue.

I suggest a pro-rata reduction on the rates bill matched to the open and closed days of the marts. Perhaps the banks could also play a part by putting a freeze on interest charges. Secondly, the Executive should, if necessary, seek assistance from the Chancellor of the Exchequer to finance the cost of the private veterinary licences required by farmers prior to moving livestock. There is absolutely no way in which a farmer should be charged for complying with this directive or for co-operating with it as required.

My third point is not directly related to a foot-and- mouth compensation package. It is, more or less, a gentle reminder to the Executive that the many problems which existed before the foot-and-mouth crisis are still there and should not get lost in the commotion. I am concerned, for example, that the County Down fishermen, the potato growers or the Silent Valley sheep farmers might feel that their problems are being forgotten about during this problematic period. I seek assurances from the Executive on their behalf.

In conclusion, my opinion is that the greatest problems for the cash-strapped industry is the difficulty of getting the true situation fully appreciated and the need for greater communications from the powers that be.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

The time is up.

Mr McHugh:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheannChomairle. I too must complain about being confined to five minutes. The Business Committee should have allocated three hours to this debate. It has allowed three hours for debates on lesser subjects.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this issue, but we can barely touch on the subject because of the time limit. We can try to get only a few points across, and I resent that. We must ask why we are in this situation. That is more important than targeting particular groups or individuals who are perceived to be to blame for bringing the problem into the country. The problem is a result of the push by multinational companies and others for low prices. That issue is not local; it is a global one. We have to grapple and deal with it. Do we want people outside this country to produce the food we eat, or do we want it produced here where there are proper traceability systems? Do we rely on multinationals to bring in our food from wherever with minimal labelling? Members should go to the shops and try to read from the labels where the food comes from. It is impossible. I have looked - and not only in this country. This relates to the push for profit and global control of food and everything else by large conglomerates.

Tesco made a great noise about its £1 billion profit and how well it managed its position in the face of farmers who have made absolutely no profit in the last few years. While Tesco would say in its defence that its profit was not only from food, that is what brings people into its supermarkets. It relies largely on that. In looking at what it can do to leave us with a base industry, it has a part to play in the current situation and in the future. It can have quality raw material here, instead of working with ever larger outfits and turning to other countries which neither have nor intend to have traceability.

I disagree with the opinion that farms should become smaller. Compared to those in Brazil, for example, they are already small. I quote from the 'Farmers Journal'

"Is our insistence on keeping food prices artificially low as bad for the entire country as it is for the future of family farms? What is the effect on our health and the fabric of Irish society of the ever more intensive farming methods that are necessary to keep prices low enough to please the supermarkets?"

That is the opinion of someone in the catering industry. We have to grasp the nettle and decide what type of food production we want. Do we want quality food, or do we want to put up with what we have had? In the years to come, do we want more outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease, more instances of BSE? We are at that point.

What policy failure of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development allowed the current foot-and-mouth outbreak to move from Britain to the island of Ireland? What policy failure of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) allowed the situation to arise in England, Scotland and Wales?

2.30 pm

MAFF had an opportunity two years ago to install a state-of-the-art computer system which could trace and tackle foot-and-mouth disease. It was an idea from New Zealand inspired by the concept of stopping the disease before it became an outbreak. The computer system was not installed, and the money was put elsewhere. GB farm organisations are saying that - it is not something I am dreaming up. That is where the blame lies. MAFF therefore needs to compensate us. It is for the British Government to look into the matter, deal with it and pay for the consequential losses. Government policy failure at top level is the reason for our present predicament.

Mr Ford:

I shall endeavour to follow the Chairperson's lead and keep my comments brief. I do not intend to repeat all that has been said so far, but I must refer to the issue raised by the Committee Chairperson - the matter of the livestock traders, the Northern Ireland Livestock Auctioneers' Association - who have been closed down by Government order and who have yet to receive any compensation.

As Mr Leslie has already hinted, some of the greatest losses are not being suffered on ordinary farms. With the price for milk there is enough suffering on farms that are relatively closed and away from the current disease outbreak. There are particular problems for those who have engaged in farm diversification activities and who have followed the advice given by the Department of Agriculture over the years. In some senses they are now suffering and would have been in a better situation if they had not taken that advice but had confined themselves to the ordinary pattern of farming. Most farm diversification involves a close interaction with people off the farms, whether it is a farm shop bringing people onto the farm; the provision of bed-and-breakfast accommodation, perhaps through the conversion of redundant buildings; or provision of other visitor facilities such as an open farm, pony-trekking or even quad bike driving. All these activities involve bringing people onto the farm and create greater difficulties than if the farmer had confined himself to traditional farming activities.

It seems illogical that those who are suffering most are those who have followed the advice from the Department and have invested in alternative enterprises in order to maintain farm income and keep younger members of the family employed in the countryside. They have perhaps gone to the bank and borrowed heavily. In some cases, however, they have not even needed to do that to be in difficulties. Those people have done what they have been asked to do - provided employment and enhanced the rural infrastructure. They are keeping people in the countryside and keeping shops, facilities and schools open, and yet they are the ones who now face the greatest threat and the potential of closure.

Farming activities have maintained some level of income, although not what they should, especially for those whose cattle go over-30 months, those who are presently trying to sell sheep in Northern Ireland or those who are faced with the commodity price of milk. It is ironic that it is those who have sought to diversify, to be progressive and to provide job opportunities who are faced with these problems. That is why there must be a case for consequential compensation, and it must be answered by Ministers responsible to the Assembly.

At the end of the debate I have no doubt that the Minister will tell us that she and the Minister of Finance and Personnel have limited funds available. That is correct, and that is why we must support any pressure applied by the Executive to the Chancellor of the Exchequer who has his billions stockpiled for his pre-election boom, whenever he chooses to bring that about. Compensation for the foot-and-mouth outbreak will be a small share of what he made from selling mobile phone licences over the last 12 months.

There must also be a case for saying that we need to examine what is available in our budgets. I forget how many times between Christmas and the end of March the Minister of Finance and Personnel announced that he had found an extra few million pounds in his back pocket. There must be a case for looking at the priorities of the Executive and the money that needs to be made available to keep essential rural businesses in operation. It is my understanding that there have been some moves in that direction in Wales and Scotland - even in advance of movement from the UK Chancellor. If it is good enough for Wales and Scotland, it ought to be good enough for us as well. It is not acceptable that we sit and do nothing.

Finally, on the issue of welfare movements, the Minister has told us of the need for stringency. I fully accept that. However, we seem to be stuck in a dichotomy. A few months ago we were not stringent enough on those who traded in cattle and sheep, on those who brought sheep from across the water and moved them around, through mart after mart, within a few days. Now we are being excessively stringent on ordinary farmers who do not own every inch of the road along which they wish to move cattle. I ask the Minister to look at whether we are not being too stringent.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

The time is up.

Mr Douglas:

This has been the most disastrous period for agriculture and the wider rural community in my memory. It even surpasses the BSE problem. It has been made worse by the fact that the farmers were beginning to see a light at the end of the BSE tunnel. When a scourge like this hits the agriculture industry it does not hit farmers only; it also causes suffering for all the reliant industries that supply the farming community.

As has been stated, one of the casualties of the crisis which has seen its income wiped out overnight is the livestock option business and its employees. To date, there is no means by which to provide compensation for this sector, but financial help is needed urgently. The livestock market is important to Northern Ireland. When we have no livestock market it gives cash-hungry meat plants the opportunity to increase their prices. They enjoy a harvest and increase their profits. This will continue until the markets are re-opened. I urge the Minister to do something immediately, and in any way possible, for these businesses in the livestock industry that are most important to farming.

Many farmers and their wives have diversified into bed-and-breakfast accommodation and other businesses, as they were encouraged to do. Now they find that their income is nil. People in bed-and-breakfast businesses are suffering the most, as people have been discouraged from visiting rural areas.

There is also a need for farmers to be able to move stock in a sensible and progressive way. Our first priority is to beat the disease, but we must also allow movement to ensure that we do not cause greater hardship than we alleviate. By allowing monitored movement we can keep as much control as possible over the potential spread of this disease. When controls are tightened to draconian levels, as they are at present, we see more illegal movements, with the consequential loss of traceability.

Many Members have highlighted the general problems faced, and I will not labour these points. However, the one area that needs to be explored more than any other is the movement of livestock - and even dead stock - into this country. The initial problem, as we all know, was caused by the improper control of imported sheep. This is something that must be properly controlled and monitored. We must ensure that any animals, especially those that are imported live, go only to the places allowed by their permits. Veterinary staff must ensure that this is what happens, so ensuring proper traceability.

Furthermore, we must have proper checks on animals coming into the country, so as to prevent, as far as humanly possible, health problems multiplying in our herds and flocks. Many animal health problems appear to have begun when proper border controls in Europe - and closer to home - were relaxed as part of closer European integration. The controls must be tightened once again in order to protect our industry. If we do not do it, no one else will.

We must also ensure that imported food meets the standards that apply to our own producers. Food should not be imported from countries where foot-and-mouth disease is endemic in the animal population, when we are making such strenuous efforts to eradicate it from our own animals.

Illegal imports must be stopped immediately. Reports of rotting meat in suitcases and blood leaking from baggage at Heathrow airport show only some of the diseased meat and products coming into the country illegally. The Minister should tell Nick Brown in no uncertain terms that we must not be made the whipping boys of the world as far as imports are concerned.

The Department is to be commended on the work already undertaken, but the Minister should help prevent the spread of many farm diseases by considering simple measures, such as the reintroduction of grant-aiding and planting stock-proof hedging with appropriate fencing. I support the motion.


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