Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 1 May 2001 (continued)

With regard to payments, I can tell the Assembly that the Department's published payment targets are being met, but we are trying to speed up payments. As for the Integrated Administration and Control System (IACS) payments, we are pursuing with the Commission an extension of the period during which farmers can make amendments to their IACS applications - including land changes - without penalties.

I intend to raise the issue of regionalisation with the European Commission at the earliest opportunity. We have to realise that we have no chance of regionalisation before the blood testing has been completed, given the distribution of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks. I will progress the matter when the time and conditions are right. I referred to August as a possible date for resumption in response to a question in the Committee. I was simply saying that it could be as late as August - I was not saying that it would be August. If possible, resumption will take place earlier. We have to go through a series of blood testing and so on, which is not an overnight matter. It will take weeks, and we have to be free for 30 days from any other outbreak of foot-and mouth disease.

As to the issue of the burning of carcasses versus burial, I am guided by the advice of my Chief Veterinary Officer and also have to take account of environmental concerns which sometimes prevent the burial of carcasses.

Dr Paisley and other Members also referred to the costs of issuing movement permits by private veterinary practitioners. I have taken note of these comments and will be reconsidering the position in relation to those fees.

The foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in Northern Ireland has already taught us a great deal. Those of us who had any doubt have now seen the value of a devolved Administration. The situation has taught us that our controls on livestock movements were not as tight as we had imagined. Above all, we have learned that unscrupulous people are prepared to sacrifice the livelihood of farmers, both north and south of the border, on the altar of a quick and dirty profit for themselves.

Mr McHugh and others referred to the alleged failure by the Department to deal with illegal activities. The Department has not been remiss in any way in following up these matters. All reports of illegal activity are being investigated with the utmost rigour. I can assure the Assembly that any of our officials who see any suspicion of illegal activity at the ports act on it and have in the past acted on it. This is one issue which was publicly aired in an erroneous manner this morning. We have had success in dealing with this matter.

Mr Dallat referred to the carcasses which were buried on Mr Donnelly's farm at Ardboe and the allegations made by Rev William McCrea. I deeply regret the additional distress caused to the Donnelly family by those public comments. I can now confirm that, following exhumation of those carcasses, I am totally satisfied that this was a routine case of disposal of fallen animals, and I wish the matter to be publicly known. This happens in the normal course of events on every farm. Tests were carried out at Pirbright on samples from those animals, and they have proved negative for foot-and-mouth disease.

I take the point made by Mr Robert McCartney about the review of the common agricultural policy. I regret the fact that Mr McCartney, having made his contribution, left the Chamber without listening to the rest of the debate or awaiting my reply to his comments, which were directed at the UK Government more than to the Northern Ireland Administration. Perhaps he forgot which House he was in.

There is a danger of the agriculture industry in Northern Ireland's being overlooked. Mr McCartney will recognise the important role to be played by our devolved Administration and by the North/South Ministerial Council in the development of a common approach. This will take account of the priorities shared by all of us on this island with regard to the agriculture industry, which is of such importance to us.

Mr Berry made remarks about the south Armagh cull. I deeply resent the implication that our veterinary division in Newry is turning a blind eye to fraud. On behalf of those people I want to make that clear.

Mr Berry:

Will the Minister give way?

Ms Rodgers:

I will not give way. I have only 20 minutes, and I want to finish everything I have to say.

It is a serious allegation, and I resent the implication. Mr Berry may well be misinformed about some of the issues he raised. Mr Wells made a few points, and I have already dealt with the issue of the private veterinary practitioners. He also raised the issue of marts as gathering points. I am aware that the Republic is looking at this issue, but I am not sure if it has taken action on it yet. I will look at every possibility. I see that Mr Wells is not here either.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair)

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

He is at a meeting of the Commission.

Ms Rodgers:

I will look at all possibilities for easing the plight of the farming community. However, I have to take into consideration my priority, which is to ensure that the disease does not spread, and I will take veterinary advice on that. I have heard what Mr Wells said and I will take note of it, bearing in mind that I also have to take veterinary advice on the risk of spreading the disease.

Undoubtedly other lessons will emerge before we are finished. However, I will do what I can to deal with those issues in the weeks to come. I intend to introduce measures, based on what has happened, to prevent further outbreaks of the disease in Northern Ireland. I intend to introduce legislation to ban the feeding of swill to pigs, given that this was at the root of the present crisis.

I will also impose a movement standstill on livestock to prevent animals being traded and moved within 30 days of their last move. It is clear that the movement of sheep from one place to another within a few days has had a serious impact on the present situation. It has made it difficult to find the source of outbreaks and to predict where future outbreaks might occur.

It is clear that the lack of proper identification of sheep was a major contribution to the irregular trading that led to the foot-and-mouth outbreaks here. Accordingly, I will be setting up a regime requiring the individual identification of sheep and pigs. This will have major implications for the industry and my Department. The financial implications will need to be addressed, but I am determined to proceed with this.

I will also seek to amend the current penalties in our animal health legislation to provide meaningful deterrents against illegal activities. I will, where necessary, bring our legislation into line with the changes recently announced in the Republic of Ireland. Finally, I will be strengthening my Department's anti-fraud efforts.

None of these measures will help farmers in the immediate financial sense. There may even be some short-term inconvenience for them. However, in the long term, these measures will help to ensure that our chances of importing a disease like foot-and-mouth-disease will be very much reduced in the future. That can only be in the best financial interest of the farming industry in the long term.

I appreciate what has been a constructive debate. I appreciate the clear concern for the farming industry that exists throughout the Assembly and the community at this time. I would like to put on record my appreciation of the manner in which Members from different parties have acted in the best interests of the industry. They have, on the whole, refused to get into party political points scoring. I say "on the whole" because there is an exception to every rule. However, I deeply appreciate the cross-party support that I have been given.

3.45 pm

The farming community also appreciates it. Our common interests have been much more important than the things that divide us and will continue to divide us because we come from different experiences, points of view, aspirations and allegiances. This is a hugely important issue for Northern Ireland, regardless of the political divide.

The manner in which the Members of the Assembly have been able to work constructively together, often despite deep political differences, is an example of the importance of the work that we are doing. I hope that it will strengthen our resolve to continue to work for the benefit of the people in Northern Ireland.

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

The fact that we are debating a major agriculture motion for the second time in one day is evidence of the seriousness with which the Assembly has taken the plight of agriculture. It is important to put on the record that the Assembly identifies, and is seen to be identifying, with the suffering of the farming community.

The Assembly must record its thanks to the farming community for the massive efforts that it has made to support the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Assembly in the measures that have been taken to stem the advance of foot-and-mouth disease. Its adherence to fortress farming has been difficult, but it has shown, once again, a great sense of public responsibility by acting with fortitude and courage after so many reverses in the past decade.

Regardless of political standpoint, the few selfish farmers who moved animals illegally for personal gain are traitors to all communities on this island. Those farmers are far from typical and stand out because farmers, as a whole, have been exemplary citizens who have acted courageously and responsibly.

I thank the hundreds of people who have contacted the Department and my office. I am glad that we have been able to serve them in many different ways and resolve the difficulties for many.

I place on record my thanks to the staff of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and, in particular, to the staff of the Minister's private office who have worked tirelessly and in close co-operation with us. They are always ready to answer the many queries that we pass on to them daily and to seek practical solutions to many difficult problems.

I acknowledge the workers who have manned the disinfectant sprayers day and night. They are the unsung heroes of this crisis. I also thank the Minister for coming, week by week, to the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee to report to us on the latest developments. She has personally kept in close contact with us throughout this crisis.

To ease restrictions on farmers, the Minister has spoken of the constant reviewing of matters while not risking further outbreaks of the disease. The Assembly expects nothing less of the Minister and the Department. Assuming that she has a range of available measures, the Minister should publish a possible timetable for the easing of the restrictions provided there are no further outbreaks. Such a timetable would give hope, offer farmers the prospect of light at the end of this dark tunnel and encourage them to maintain the practices that should, in turn, enable her to ease the restrictions.

Livestock marts have experienced difficulty through being closed for over nine weeks with no income. The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development forecast yesterday that the reopening of marts will take place a long way down the line. She also said that the marts were now being closed down in accordance with an EU Directive. I trust that, given the importance of marts to rural Northern Ireland, she will not sit back and allow Brussels to dictate to us on that issue, but that they will work tirelessly to secure their reopening at the earliest appropriate stage.

This is one example of a time when imaginative solutions must be found. The Minister must come up with ideas, and if the Minister will say that the Committee would welcome ideas, I have no doubt that Members will make many suggestions. We would be willing to make suggestions, as we have done many times in the past, and I am sure that the Minister could respond to them. I am pleased that the Minister is willing to listen, but she must not hide behind words. It is up to her Department to come up with the solutions, and that is why she has a large organisation behind her and the Executive authority to implement decisions.

This morning I said that the crisis demands an imaginative solution, and I make no apology for reiterating what needs to be said. Papering over the cracks will not do - something far more radical is called for. That is why I agree with my fellow Members that a compensation package that is not just adequate but generous must be worked out. The package must take account of the capital value of the farmers' losses, their loss of income and the consequential loss of income by others in the wider rural community. The compensation package must also cover related industries such as tourism.

However, I would like to go much further. As recently as last week, a 'Farmers Weekly' survey indicated that a third of farmers affected by foot-and-mouth disease want to leave farming. As the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Mr Nick Brown, said in 'The Daily Telegraph' on Saturday

"Frankly, I am not surprised. For many farmers the foot-and-mouth disease has been the last blow. It is a natural point to think about an alternative future."

The Minister went on to reveal that he

"is also considering introducing an early retirement package for farmers hit by the foot-and-mouth crisis."

That measure runs along similar lines to those proposed by my own party, and I think that this is an ideal time to bring it into place.

I am a member of the Committee of the Regions, and at a meeting that I attended recently in Europe, many countries signalled their intention to introduce a similar scheme. Many expressed a direct interest in the issue, because Europe experiences the very same problems as we do. The scheme would allow older farmers to retire with dignity, a lump sum and a pension, while enabling young blood, with new ideas, to enter farming. This is the scale of the response that is needed to tackle this latest farming crisis. That alone would allow the farmers to receive what they are owed - an organised restructuring of farming with the support of the Government.

We must not allow farming to descend into a free trade free-for-all, because that would result in decent men and women being thrown on to the scrap heap. We want to restructure farming in a constructive and forthright manner. We want the farmers to keep the money that is tied up in the farms, and we want to make sure that the banks do not take the best part of that money. We owe the farmers more than that, and every right-thinking person would agree. We must forge partnerships with all the relevant Departments and signal strong Government interest in an early retirement scheme. The time for action is now. Many imaginative ideas about the future of farming have been given to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF). It was mentioned earlier that farmers are to become the custodians of the countryside - countryside managers who would be paid for the first time to enforce Europe standards on landscape, environmental schemes, stockbreeding and countryside management.

At the moment 80% of the countryside is managed by 4% of farmers. As we heard from the Department of Agriculture, farmers will also be encouraged to go into organic farming. In the future, farming here must be more and more about quality and the pursuit of high-value niche markets in sophisticated, rich marketplaces to meet the low cost and low overhead threat from the East European countries that will soon join the European Union.

We must move forward. It is plain that Northern Ireland needs a new 10-year national strategy for agriculture so that farmers have, for the first time, a real sense of where they are going. We also need to know where the Government are going. If these elements are put in place, agriculture will rise once again.

The Minister referred to the introduction of new rules on standstill of animals and the individual identification of livestock. I hope that livestock marts will be able to play a part in that. Another thing that I picked up from the Minister's statement was the anti-fraud issue. I do not think that there is a Member here who would disagree with the measures that the Minister is attempting to take. I thank the Minister for her contribution. Almost 20 Members took part in the debate today, and I thank them also. It has been the sincere desire of every Member here to try to alleviate the problems facing the agriculture industry in Northern Ireland and to get it back onto a sure and firm footing.

Mr Berry:

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I request that you refer today's Hansard to the Speaker because I intend to make a personal statement to refute - and I emphasise the word "refute" - the comments that the Minister of Agriculture made about me in her speech.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

That is acceptable.

Mr McHugh:

The Minister referred to me as having raised a point about the illegal movement of livestock. I do not support the illegal movement of livestock, and I did not mention it in my speech.

Question put and agreed to.


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.


Second Report of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment


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

I beg to move

That this Assembly approves the Second Report of the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee on its inquiry into the 'Strategy 2010' Report (2/00R) and calls on the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to implement the recommendations of the Committee at the earliest opportunity.

A LeasCheann Comhairle. As Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, I have the task of presenting its report to the Assembly. Perhaps it would be helpful to Members if I outline the background to it. The 'Strategy 2010' report was published by the Department in March 1999. After its publication a number of economists and others voiced serious concerns about it.

4.00 pm

One example of the criticisms made at the time would be those concerning the consultation process. It was because of the concerns raised about 'Strategy 2010' that our Committee, in January, decided that it should be the subject of our first major inquiry.

The terms of reference were

"To examine the current recommendations detailed in the Strategy 2010 report;

To ascertain the extent to which a number of these recommendations have already been implemented or initiated;

To examine the original objectives for the Economic Development Strategy Review to determine if they were sufficiently wide ranging and to ascertain whether they have been achieved;

To examine recent critiques of the report by economic commentators and relevant organisations and assess the validity of any criticism of the report;

To examine alternative proposals to the Strategy 2010 report; and

To report to the Assembly making recommendations to the Department and/or others on actions which would improve on the recommendations made in the report and make a positive contribution to the economy in Northern Ireland."

When we set out on the inquiry we did not anticipate the magnitude of the task that we had taken on. This has been a lengthy and wide-ranging inquiry. The Committee received written submissions from 58 organisations and individuals. We held 45 oral evidence sessions, which covered a wide range of bodies including the Department, the public sector, trade unions, business associations, district councils, education and community groups. Three of the oral evidence sessions were held outside Parliament Buildings at Queen's University, Moyle District Council and Strabane District Council. The Committee was almost overwhelmed by the volume and the quality of the evidence received.

We wish to place on record our extreme gratitude to all of those who submitted oral and written evidence. The evidence helped inform, to a large extent, the many important recommendations we make in our report.

One of the major criticisms of 'Strategy 2010' related to the consultation process. There was a distinct lack of a structured process in which constructive comments could have been made and taken account of. The lack of consultation led to confusion about the status of the 'Strategy 2010' report. People did not know whether it was an implementation document or a first draft to be modified in the light of debate. The Committee feels that the 'Strategy 2010' report should have been prepared in a context in which it was clearly intended for open discussion by groups representing all areas of society.

In any major strategic initiative the policy maker should only proceed to implementation stage after the most exhaustive consultation has taken place. The Committee believes it has now rectified the flaws in the consultation process, given the many public evidence sessions we held.

There were other criticisms of the report. These included the fact that there were too many unconstructed and unprioritised recommendations - 62 in all. It was also said that there was a lack of any attempt to link the recommendations to the targets and that there were targets missing in the report - for example, on productivity growth, public sector research and development and tourism. There were criticisms of a lack of any economic modelling which would have enabled baseline forecasts to be prepared and of a lack of any analysis of past, or current, economic development policies.

The Committee debated whether 'Strategy 2010' should be completely revised and redrafted.

However, we recognised the urgency of the economic challenges and considered that any further delay was not an option. The most appropriate policies should be adopted now and should be widely understood.

The Committee made 39 recommendations. These were made in the context of globalisation. Perhaps at this point I should say a word about globalisation. The Committee recognised that any economic development strategy needs to ensure that we are able to compete in a rapidly changing and global economy. We have seen how globalisation has led to a dramatic increase in the economic performance of the Southern economy.

The key to this transformation was the creation of the initial conditions that are attractive to international capital in terms of stable labour costs, financial incentives, sound economic, political and legal structures and peace. However, there is also a negative side to globalisation. It leads to an increase in inequality, not only between countries but also within them. With the outsourcing of low-skilled manufacturing to developing countries, inequality tends to go hand in hand with globalisation. That does not mean that it is either acceptable or desirable. The challenge for us all is to consider how we can reap the benefits of globalisation, while also ensuring that poverty and inequality are not increased.

It was in this context that the Committee addressed the specific set of problems facing the economy and made the many important recommendations in this report. I should make it clear that the recommendations are not a substitute for those made in the 'Strategy 2010' report itself. They are, in our view, the most appropriate to help tackle the challenges and opportunities presented in an increasingly global economy.

I will now turn to some of the important recommendations that we made in the report. We made two general recommendations - two key steps that are essential for the successful development of an economic development strategy. The first is to enhance greatly the role of the present Economic Development Forum. It should be responsible for the implementation of 'Strategy 2010' and for prioritising the recommendations. Its representation should be broadened, and it should include representatives from all relevant Government Departments, the higher and further education sector, district councils and a much greater representation from the voluntary and community sector. Its actions should be clear and transparent, and it should report on a regular basis to our Committee.

The second key step involves the establishment of a partnership structure. A truly inclusive partnership is essential to any successful economic growth. If policies are not supported by a sense of shared ownership, they lead to the social exclusion of those whom they leave behind. We have recommended that the issues of partnership should encompass four aspects: social inclusion, equality, social partnership and transnational and international partnership.

The Committee then made 37 detailed recommendations, which were grouped under five key themes: public sector and industrial development policy instruments, partnership and cohesion; the economic infrastructure; patterns of sectoral development; and the information infrastructure.

On public sector issues, the Committee was concerned about the number of issues that were outside the control of the Assembly, but which were having a serious impact on businesses and the economy, such as the low rate of corporation tax in the South, the higher road fuel duty in the North, the proposed aggregates tax and the currency differentials with the South. The Barnett formula should be reviewed. There needs to be a much fairer system of determining the North's block grant from the Treasury to help alleviate the impact of these disadvantages.

The disadvantages that I have just listed would be considerably eased if the Assembly were to have control over its own fiscal policy. We must consider the advantages and disadvantages of having fiscal flexibility and how such power could and should be used to create new and essential financial initiatives.

Banks need to take on a greater role in encouraging local enterprise and should provide a clear, open and transparent charging structure. The creative industries sector should be granted a tax exemption to help accelerate the enormous potential for growth in that sector. Small businesses should be assisted by a system of loans guaranteed by the Government, similar to the scheme operated by the US Small Business Administration. There are enormous opportunities for industry through the green industrial revolution. More focused research and development strategies are needed to support the development of new technology industries designed to enhance environmental protection and reduce global warming.

The issue of a single development agency was raised by many of the organisations giving evidence. We support the establishment of a single development agency and have given a detailed response to the Minister on his consultation paper. A copy of that response is included in our report. We were encouraged that the Minister took on board many of the points made by the Committee during the consultation exercise. The Committee will, of course, be working with the Minister and also closely scrutinising the legislation which is required to set up the new body.

The Committee made a number of other recommendations relating to fiscal and financial measures, including tax rules, the single European currency, selective financial assistance, innovation, design, marketing and export, regional disparities and clean, green production.

In relation to partnership and cohesion, it is important that any sense of exclusion from the growth process be minimised for those whom the process does not touch at all, or touches only lightly. We have made a number of recommendations which will help to minimise any sense of social exclusion. First, unemployment is clearly still a major problem, and this point was made by a number of groups. The Committee believes that detailed studies are needed to examine why rates of long-term unemployment are substantially higher here than in Britain. The Committee was impressed by the success of the Fast Track to IT scheme in the South, which addresses the IT skills shortages while also creating opportunities for the long-term unemployed. We urge the Department to consider such a scheme.

Social responsibility incentives are needed to encourage greater social responsibility in business and industry with regard to their employment practices, their contribution to the local community and the environment and their approach to trade with newly industrialised and developing countries. Vulnerable groups require greater support for specialised training packages so that groups such as the disabled and ethnic minorities can have greater access to job skills and employment. There must be an increased focus on the recruitment and promotion of women in the work place, including targeted training for women, work place crèche facilities, increased access to job-share positions and greater use of family-friendly and flexible working hours.

The Committee made other recommendations relating to partnership and cohesion, including poverty, studies on the social economy, economic interaction with the South of Ireland, stronger links with Europe, support for the social economy and local economic development.

On economic infrastructure, improvements to that infrastructure, which includes physical infrastructure, physical capital and human capital, are central to improving the productivity growth rate and, in turn, securing a better standard of living.

There are serious deficiencies in the transport infrastructure. We need a massive injection of funding over the next 10 years in order to develop a world-class transport infrastructure in all regions.

4.15 pm

There is a need for greater linkage between the further education sector and industry so that students can be better prepared for the knowledge-based economy. There also needs to be greater support for in-house training, particularly in sectors such as textiles, which are vulnerable to change. At secondary level, more needs to be done to improve the employability of students, particularly through career guidance, improved links with business and industry, a greater recognition of vocational studies and greater use of work placement in industry.

The Committee also made a number of other recommendations relating to economic infrastructure, including a strategic approach to transport policy and the commercialisation of new technologies.

The economic base has to change fundamentally if we are to compete more effectively in global markets and exploit the substantial benefits that could flow from closer integration with the southern economy in particular. We are currently too dependent on industries that produce low-quality, low-tech goods and have low levels of productivity. Foreign investment has a role to play, but it is more important to build strong, dynamic, indigenous industries. Studies should be carried out on how the economy can be transformed from one based on the manufacture of traditional low-value goods to one based on high-tech, high-value goods that will maximise the skills built up in the traditional sectors such as textiles and shipbuilding.

Policies should not only focus on manufacturing. There is an enormous potential for growth in the tourism sector. 'Strategy 2010' did not give sufficient emphasis to this sector. The new tourism strategic development plan needs to address the key issues in sectors such as hospitality training, marketing and recruitment challenges. Grants and financial incentives should be used to encourage the development of a market-focused approach.

The Committee made a number of other recommendations relating to patterns of sectoral development, including small-and medium-sized businesses, the local service sector and the bed-and-breakfast sector.

The challenge is for the economy to develop quickly the type of information infrastructure that one would expect to find in a modern economy. Databases need to be prepared that will allow comparisons with other countries and regions in Europe. These databases will then enable economists to develop models that can be used to explore the effects of different policy scenarios.

The Committee made other recommendations relating to information infrastructure, including data sources, a research agenda and an independent research group. The Committee accepts that responsibility for the delivery of the many recommendations in the report does not fall solely to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. Other Departments have a role to play - not least the Department of Further and Higher Education, Training and Employment. The Committee believes that an expanded Economic Development Forum, chaired by the Minister and comprising representatives from all the relevant Government Departments, should be responsible for the implementation of the recommendations.

As Chairperson, I pay tribute to the hard work of my Committee Colleagues in bringing forward our report. I also thank the dedicated and hardworking staff who serviced the Committee. They were a great help and support to us. I commend the report to the Assembly and invite Members to support the motion.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

A substantial number of Members want to contribute. For that reason, Members should limit their speeches to approximately eight minutes.

The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr Neeson):

I want to thank our Committee Clerk, Cathie White, and her staff for their help in the compilation of this report. I also thank the Committee members. We are probably one of the hardest-working Committees of the Assembly; our commitment was such that we even met during the recess last summer.

It is ironic that as we are having this debate, demonstrations are taking place in cities around the world against globalisation. Northern Ireland is now part of the global economy, and it is against that background that our report on 'Strategy 2010' should be viewed.

'Strategy 2010' is not an end in itself, but rather a means to an end. It is not written on tablets of stone, and it can be improved upon as the situation and the environment change. Our Committee carried out an extensive investigation involving many wide-ranging interests from all quarters of Northern Ireland. Perhaps we facilitated the wide-ranging consultation that should have been part of the process when the original document was being formulated.

The report impinges on most of the Government Departments, and that is clear evidence of how this Assembly is now creating joined-up Government. I am very pleased by the public reaction to the publication of our report, which has come from many diverse areas. There are nearly 40 recommendations in the report, but I want to concentrate on the fiscal environment as well as on the needs of small businesses.

While 'Strategy 2010' has recommended that Northern Ireland should have a special rate of corporation tax in order to compete with the Republic of Ireland, the Committee has serious doubts about the feasibility of that. Members will be aware of my very strong wish that the Assembly should have tax-varying powers. However, the Committee believes that at this stage of the devolution process it is essential that Northern Ireland establish the extent to which it has control over fiscal policy and how that control may be used to create new and essential financial incentives. Throughout our consultations, the continual cry from the business community was for tax incentives in order to encourage new inward investment.

The Committee further believes that a much fairer system of determining Northern Ireland's block grant is needed in order to help alleviate the impact on the economy of certain fiscal disadvantages. Coincidentally, when the Committee visited its counterpart in the National Assembly for Wales, we heard a similar plea. In fact, the Committee has now concluded that the Barnett formula, which determines Northern Ireland's block grant from the Treasury, should be reviewed. However, Members should also be mindful of recent statements by the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, about regional funding.

It will be an uphill battle, but this Assembly is only too aware of the serious underfunding of public services during the years of direct rule. The Committee, therefore, recommends that a joint delegation of Members from the Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the Finance and Personnel Committees should meet the Chancellor of the Exchequer. One has only to look at the debate that we had this morning on the foot-and-mouth crisis to see how two Committees of this Assembly can co-operate to deal with a very important issue. The Barnett issue is one on which we can work together.

With regard to the small business sector, I reiterate the Committee's support for the creation of the single development agency. The Chairman has already outlined that there is a separate annex in our report relating to that. However, Members must realise that small businesses form the backbone of the Northern Ireland economy and will continue to do so.

Last August the cross-party trade group visited North America with the Minister, Sir Reg Empey, and we were impressed by the operation of the Small Business Administration in the United States. Small businesses in the United States benefit from loans guaranteed and operated by the Government. The diverse range of businesses which benefit was noticeable, and I am pleased to say that there is a very low rate of default in the repayment of the loans.

Equally important to myself and to the other Committee members is the fact that that scheme encouraged many women into business. Indeed, the majority of uptakes were by women. In Northern Ireland there are not only problems for women becoming involved in business but also for their becoming involved in politics. Anything that the Assembly can do to encourage women into business should be taken on board.

The Committee recommends that the new industrial development agency adopt a highly selective policy to foster an enterprise culture throughout Northern Ireland. It is hoped that that will be addressed when the new agency is established.

I am also pleased with the Minister's commitment to local economic development. At the recent seminar in Dunadry, representatives from local government were equally impressed by that commitment to ensure that there is a role for local economic development in Northern Ireland. The report is a constructive and positive effort to ensure that Northern Ireland can benefit from the economic opportunities that are out there. I support the motion.

Mr McClarty:

This is an important debate, and it is to be regretted that relatively few Members have stayed to take part in, or listen to, it. The Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee's inquiry into 'Strategy 2010' has been in-depth and far-reaching. The Committee has consulted widely and sought views on all aspects of economic development. The Committee's commitment in reaching this stage is unquestionable, with evidence- taking sessions being held during the 2000 summer recess. Many written and oral submissions have been noted, and useful and valid points have been welcomed.

The Committee members recognise the importance of tourism to the economy of Northern Ireland; it is nothing short of vital. There is a wide acceptance that there is now huge potential in this sphere, but much still needs to be done and to be achieved if Northern Ireland is to grasp fully the tourist opportunities that await.

Paragraph 3.20 on page 24 of volume 1 of the Committee's report states that

"Evidence from service sector groups (hotels and tourism) suggested that their problems had been largely neglected".

That is something to be regretted, and it is hoped that the Committee's inquiry has redressed that perceived imbalance.

It is of paramount importance that the problems faced by Northern Ireland's tourism industry over recent years be overturned with a new vision of opportunity, high standards, excellence and delivery.

On the evidence that has been gathered from the tourism sector groups, the consensus appears to be that the island should be marketed as a whole. Tourists from North America or other far-flung regions of the world are less attuned to the fact that this island comprises two jurisdictions. It is therefore imperative that, in the first instance, we attract as many people as possible to the island. This can be achieved by flying tourists into Aldergrove, Shannon or Dublin. It then becomes incumbent on the Northern Ireland Tourist Board to sell the Northern Ireland product to the many and varied visitors.


<< Prev / Next >>