Northern Ireland Assembly
Tuesday 1 February 2000
The sitting begun and suspended on Monday 31 January 2000 was resumed at 10.30 am.
There has been substantial interest in the motion that is coming up and substantial interest in speaking in the debate. I already have a long list, and I expect that it will get longer. I therefore see little option other than to make the same arrangements as were made for yesterday’s debate — to give the mover, Dr Paisley, 10 minutes to open and five minutes for his winding-up speech, the Minister 10 minutes to respond prior to the winding-up, and five minutes for all other Members taking part. This will ensure that as many Members as possible will have the opportunity to contribute. I seek the leave of the Assembly to proceed in this fashion.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This motion has the backing of the whole Committee, and I would have liked more time to introduce it. However, I appreciate that there is widespread interest among Members and that they have constituency interests. In the interests of the Committee, I am content — not happy — to accept the 10 minutes, with the further five minutes at the end.
I am grateful to Dr Paisley for that.
Rev Robert Coulter:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have no problem with the spirit of the motion; in fact, I will be supporting it wholeheartedly. However, I have some difficulty in understanding the intention of the expression in line three. Is it singular or plural? Students of the classics will know that the word "crisis" comes from a Greek root. If, therefore, the intention is plural the spelling should be "crises". However, if the intention is singular the syntax is defective in that the indefinite article has been omitted — it should read "a serious crisis". For the sake of accuracy, I ask that the motion be corrected.
I am grateful to the Member for drawing that to my attention and for giving me notice of it, which enabled me to check the original submitted by Dr Paisley. It said "a serious crisis". There was an administrative typographical error, and we take full responsibility for that. When we reach the vote I will remind Members that the motion should read "a serious crisis". I hope that that clarifies the matter.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek direction. I was one of the Members who had questions down for oral answer by the Health Minister yesterday. Questions finished, I think, at No 3, and mine was No 7. I went up to my pigeon-hole immediately after the debate, but there was no answer there. Nor is there an answer in Hansard. When may I expect to receive an answer?
Order. That is not a point of order for the House; it is an administrative matter in respect of the Executive. However, I will certainly explore the matter and try to get an answer for the Member.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
I beg to move the following motion:
This House contends that the cuts in farm incomes, the market pressure on each sector of agriculture and the lawlessness of the French Government constitute a serious crisis in the Northern Ireland agriculture industry and calls on the Northern Ireland Executive to recognise this and take emergency measures to save the industry.
The agriculture industry is facing a very serious crisis, perhaps even a catastrophe, and I am not happy with the way in which the Department of Agriculture is handling this matter. Many of my friends in the farming community feel that the Department is acting against them and not for them. My views are known both to the Committee and to the Minister. The Minister should release herself from the trammels of her Department, take it by the neck and make it reverse the policies that have led to the ruination of the farming community.
This is not the time for a velvet tongue or soft words. Farming is the largest industry in Northern Ireland. It employs more people than any other industry, and it is dying. It is not a matter of it’s being on a life-support machine; the undertaker is waiting to measure the corpse and bury it. The Minister and her Department must now change their attitude towards this crisis. I have not found evidence of any change of mind in the Department — and I say that with regret, for I have a good relationship with the Department’s officials, but they just do not realise how serious this crisis is.
Recently I, along with some other Members, met bankers and meat processors. I asked the bankers how many of them were going bankrupt, but it seems that their incomes are tremendous. I also asked the meat processors if any of them were going bankrupt or preparing to commit suicide. They all laughed and said "Not at all. " I informed them that in the farming community, and especially in the pig industry, some farmers had already committed suicide. Many of the farmers are going bankrupt, and homes where their families have lived for generations are being sold over their heads.
Some of us are criticised when we stand up for the farmers. We are told that we are not interested in the consumers. The housewives of Northern Ireland have had no benefit. Indeed, they now pay more for their cuts of meat.
Agriculture is sick unto death, and we must do something to change this urgent situation.
I am not happy about what the Prime Minister is going to say to farmers today. By standing among them and telling them to diversify what he is really saying is "There is no room for you in the farming community; go and do something else." And he is saying this without any offer of compensation and without any possibility of the farmers’ being able to diversify. A farmer might diversify if he could get planning permission, but all constituency workers know how hard this is to obtain. It is difficult for them to get planning permission to build on the farms where their families may have lived for 300 years. All that the Prime Minister can say is "Diversify."
Something radical needs to be done. Those who support the farming cause have been blamed for being very strong in diagnosis and very weak in prescription, but there are things that could and ought to be done. First, we need a new entrants’ scheme to preserve the industry. There must be a future for farming. The Minister and her Department must now give an encouraging signal to new entrants. They must have some way of getting into farming. We must relax building control; we need a new special rural benefits structure; we need to initiate an agri-compensation scheme; we need to assist the Farmers’ Union and others in their battle to get low —- incidence BSE status; and we need a special injection of cash for pig projects. These are things that must be done.
Along with others who are interested, I have gone, cap in hand, to the Department and to successive Ministers. The Minister has, of course, inherited this situation — she is not responsible, and we are not blaming her for something she did not do. Nevertheless, we will blame her if she does not do something about it.
We have always been told that this cannot be done. I have been involved in Europe for 20 years, and, without wishing to boast, I have some little experience of the European scene. If we were to exploit Europe in the way the Irish Republic does, the farming community would be far better off. We need to realise that there is, at present, money in Europe that we should be getting. DANI tells us that we cannot do this — of course, it is no longer called "DANI", but I am a Puritan still living in the Dark Ages. We no longer want to listen to their saying that we cannot do it.
The Southern Government did it, and to say that the compensation scheme under which pigs were bought is the same as this is nonsense. The two schemes are entirely different; it is wrong to try to tell farmers that they are one and the same scheme and say to them "You have already got your money". It is wrong to say that we cannot go with a scheme like the one in operation in the Irish Republic. We have to get something for the farmers, and we have to save our pig industry.
I put this question to the Minister: "Do you want there to be no pig industry in Northern Ireland?" Half of it has almost gone, and, in a few weeks, half of the remaining half will be gone. That is how serious the situation is. This is an emergency, and in an emergency, one does not do ordinary things, one does extraordinary things. Something extraordinary has to be done to help the farming community. Every effort must be made to save this industry.
Farmers are the custodians of our soil. I detest the environmentalist lobby who tell us that the farmers can leave and that they will look after the countryside. That is ridiculous nonsense. These environmentalists who say "We have a right to walk everywhere; we have a right to do this and a right to do that." are not thinking of the best interests of the custodians of the soil who, for generations, have kept this country going and ought to be honoured today. We should be determined, come what may, to do our level best to see that something is done.
The farmers that have come here today are not looking for nice words — they are looking for actions. This case can be easily made; we do not need to dwell on all of its complications or ramifications. Out there are decent people from both sides of the community who have invested their labour and their talents in order to help this country and keep it going, and they must be repaid. The talent in this Assembly, the talent in the Department, the talent of the Minister and the talent of our Committee must join forces. Let the message go out from this House that we are determined to save the farmers and to do the extraordinary if that is what is needed — and it is.
The latest figures from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development indicate that income from our agriculture industry fell by 22% between 1998 and 1999. It went down from £91 million to £70 million within one year. The total income from farming has fallen by 79% in five years, with the knock-on effect of hundreds of millions of pounds being lost to our economy.
Northern Ireland is a very small country, and we cannot afford to continue with this level of economic decline in an agriculture industry that has a workforce of approximately 85,000 people. I applaud the efforts that have been made by the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) to present reasonable policies to rescue an industry which has been drastically affected by a series of crises in the last few years.
Most recently, the French Government have chosen to become a law unto themselves by refusing to lift the ban on beef exports. Why should Ulster producers have to suffer because the French make a unilateral decision to ignore EU rules? Local producers have done everything required of them by the regulations. While the UK pursues the law-breaking French through the courts, it is not unreasonable to expect the UK Exchequer to aid local producers who are suffering as a consequence of France’s selfish and illegal actions.
I also support the UFU’s efforts to secure the release of the £50 million to £60 million of agri-money compensation which is available to us through EU-funding. Part of this funding is to protect common agricultural policy (CAP) area aid and livestock payments from the impact of the gap between sterling and the Euro. Another part is to offset the damage done to all farm commodities by the current strength of sterling. In both cases the release of the compensation funds depends on specific commitments and actions by the UK Government, and these have not been forthcoming.
I urge the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to lobby her Westminster and EU counterparts on our behalf. This is not a demand for extra money. It is a demand for compensation which is already available and budgeted for. I ask the Minister to support the UFU’s campaign to gain low-incidence status for Northern Ireland in respect of BSE and to secure the implementation of exceptional measures such as a one-off rescue package for the local pig industry, similar to that which has recently been concluded by the EU and the Irish Government. It is essential that we establish and promote a province-wide "Buy Ulster" campaign.
Opinion polls conducted last year by a local consumer affairs organisation presented evidence which showed that two thirds of the population would buy local produce if it were available and reasonably priced. Almost half of those surveyed also said that they would be willing to pay a little extra for good quality local produce. However, the national supermarket chains which have moved in to Northern Ireland in the last few years either refuse to source from the local market or do so for a farmgate price, which is economically non-viable for the local producer. This is absurd and unjustifiable. The supermarkets could actually help the local producers and the local economy by raising the farmgate prices while freezing the retail prices. That might decrease their profits in the short term, but in the long term it would stimulate the local economy, please the consumer and contribute to larger profits at a later date.
The agriculture situation in Northern Ireland is more difficult than in other parts of the United Kingdom, not least because of the increased competition from across our land border with the Republic of Ireland.
I anticipated the comments made by other Members in their opening remarks, so I will try not to repeat them. Since joining the Agriculture Committee I have found a great willingness on the part of the Chairman and members to address the plight of the farming industry. I am pleased to put on record that I pay tribute to the sincerity of all members of the Committee.
Order. May I ask the Member to project his voice, as I am having some difficulty hearing.
I wish to pay tribute to our Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development for her prompt actions and efforts to address the multitude of problems that faced her when she took office. In less than two months she has put a tremendous effort into tackling the ever-increasing problems of the farmers of Northern Ireland.
Ms Rodgers has taken up the problems of our fishermen. She has sought to have the aids to private storage scheme reopened and increased export refunds put in place on behalf of our pig farmers. These issues are of the utmost importance and must be worked at until a satisfactory outcome is achieved. Unfortunately, time is not on anyone’s side.
I wish to compliment the Minister on her decision, which Mr Savage referred to, to seek special status for Northern Ireland in respect of BSE. The fact that we had only six recorded cases of BSE last year is surely a plus factor in her negotiations.
If a start could be made on exporting our calves that would lay the foundation for further improvement. In a short time the number of calves would reduce, thereby reducing the number of cattle being finished on farms. There would be better factory prices owing to the reduced availability of beef cattle.
This weekend I spoke with one major livestock expert who advised me that if the ban on live exports were lifted, he could be in business again within 24 hours, exporting calves to Spain and Holland. We are as close as that. However, any resolution must start with the British Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Nick Brown. In two recently published statements Mr Brown praised the efforts of Minister Rodgers when she made strong pleas to him for special BSE status for Northern Ireland. When Mr Brown puts our case to Europe I am confident that Ms Rodgers, together with my party leader, John Hume, whose record in Europe goes without saying, and the other MEPs will be able to accumulate sufficient support in Brussels for the concessions being sought. In respect of the future of farmers in Northern Ireland, the ball is firmly back in Nick Brown’s court.
It is fully recognised that many of the problems in agriculture are a result of a lack of interest on the part of the British Government. Their level of interest is on a par with the size of the Northern Ireland agricultural economy within the overall finances of the British Government. That is not good enough when thousands of our farmers are faced with financial ruin.
I wish to make a special plea to those Members — many of whom are not in the Chamber this morning — who perhaps have no great interest in our farming community but have set their sights on bringing down the Assembly. It is my view that whatever chance of survival our agriculture industry has will be achieved only through the combined efforts of the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Committee and the Assembly. I do not believe that Nick Brown in London or the British Administration in Brussels will thank or support us if we fly in the face of the Government’s wishes regarding devolution. I ask everyone to think seriously about our position. I believe that if the Assembly fails, the farming industry will come down with it.
We are the only hope, the only friends and the only lifeline our farmers have. We must not fail them in their hour of need. We also have to get our priorities right. Northern Ireland farmers and rural dwellers will be here at noon today seeking whatever help the Assembly can give. To bring the Assembly down, or even to attempt to bring it down, would be the equivalent of closing doors in the face of the farming community. I am confident that the sentiments outlined in the motion will receive the full approval of the House.
Thank you, a Chathaoirligh. I want to address the issue of the agriculture crisis. The difficulty is that I have too short a time for my speech. We face a crisis, and I commend the farmers who are protesting.
There was a protest here by the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers’ Association (NIAPA) about two years ago. That too was at a time of imminent crisis when prices were just as bad as they are now. Farmers should have put their foot down then and voiced their concern to the Government.
I hope it is not a case of bolting the stable door when the horse has gone.
There is a desperate situation in the rural and farming communities. Much debt has built up, and there is no respite in terms of a renewed price rise or help from the Government, or anyone else. There are a number of reasons for the crisis such as the difference between sterling and the Euro and the backlog of the BSE crisis which still affects us. There is also the question of exploitation. Since 1974 and beyond farmers have been exploited and are still being exploited. The UK Government exploited them for cheap food and their only respite was in time of war. They are currently being exploited by retailers, processors and everyone beyond the farm gate, and those people are making exorbitant profits at their expense.
The figures that we received yesterday show that farm incomes have hit rock-bottom because of low prices and unfairness. The Ulster Farmers’ Union states that only £1 in every £30 on the business, processing and farming side goes to the farmer. The average beef carcass is worth £400 to the farmer, but it will cost the consumer £1,200, so the consumer is not winning as a result of low farm prices. Some people claim that the consumer can gain from this situation, but neither the consumer nor the farmer is gaining. Someone else is gaining in a big way.
All the extras on the processing side such as £5 here and there were all traditionally passed back to the farmer as if he had a bottomless pit. Those industries should take their share of costs when the farmer puts his produce through their doors.
Why are we at this point? We are told about the problems of the BSE backlog. We talk about BSE being history, but we never had a high incidence of BSE in the North, and we do not have it now. We hardly register on the bottom of the graph whereas in Britain, the incidence of BSE goes through the top of the graph. It will be difficult to achieve BSE status here because of the fact that the regulations have become more stringent. We will never get over that barrier. As long as we are tied to the situation in Britain we are hanged in terms of getting out of the BSE dispute with Europe.
We were told by the Department of Agriculture that the changes in the regulations in respect of tags that were imposed on farmers would get us back in to the European market. We could not implement those changes, so the objective was unachievable. The Department agreed to regulations that are now crippling farmers and preventing them from getting to the markets.
Order. The time is up.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Will time be allocated to allow Members to join the group at the demonstration?
That is not a point of order. The situation is made absolutely clear on the Order Paper. The debate is from 10.30 am until to 12.30 pm. What happens outside the Chamber is not my business, and I certainly cannot rule on it.
I am glad to support this motion and to add to the large measure of agreement. I see that some DUP Members welcome the fact that I agree with them occasionally.
They might have referred to the fact that the UK Government must take action as well as our own Executive. The information we received on incomes clearly shows the extent of the crisis that still exists in the UK. It has bottomed out in England, Wales and Scotland but is continuing to get worse in Northern Ireland. It is a disaster and is something which quite clearly needs particular attention here. However, that will be partly dependent on what Nick Brown does in Whitehall.
I can understand why farmers question whether those in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development — either the Minister or her officials — know what is going on. According to the statement issued by the Department yesterday, a large measure of the drop in income is attributable to the rise in input costs. Unfavourable weather conditions resulted in an increase in the amount of feedstuffs and fertilisers purchased. I do not claim to be an expert in this sector, but I find it difficult to see how bad weather could have affected pig meat production which is down 13%, poultry production, which is down 6%, or egg production which is down 10%. I wish that the Department would stop covering up for what is going on in Whitehall and start arguing the case for farmers here.
Various measures are being proposed, and they may be of some benefit. Some people can diversify — but only some. The farmers’ market initiative may help a few people — but only a few. Some of the major schemes which are supposed to benefit all farmers in Northern Ireland are not producing the goods. Dr Paisley was critical of the environmentalist lobby. I would be less so. There may be occasion when farmers will have to accept the fact that money which comes from agri-environment schemes may be the best way of maintaining incomes.
Let us look at agri-environment schemes — for instance, the new rural development regulation. An excellent briefing paper from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and two farm unions points out that this year, farmers are losing £3·9 million because of existing baselines and because the Department’s budget has not kept up with its commitments. Next year we will see some of the modulated European money coming through. Of the £7·7 million which ought to be going to farms, £5·7 million is being creamed off — and I have heard people use worse words than that — in Dundonald House, and only £2·0 million (25%) is going where it was designed to go. That is barely a quarter of the money which should be going to farmers for essential agri-environment schemes to benefit the environment and farm incomes. If that is a measure of the Department’s, complacency we need answers from the Minister quickly.
I welcome the fact that the Minister has talked about having meetings with the other UK Agriculture Ministers. That is one benefit of devolution. We can ensure that the interests we share with the Scots and Welsh are made known to Nick Brown so that he is aware that the UK fringes are heavily dependent on livestock and are subject to difficult conditions with regard to export markets.
We also need to make sure that Nick Brown is told that no other country of the UK shares a land frontier with "Euroland", with all the difficulties that that creates in terms of our economy compared to the Scots and the Welsh — whatever they are suffering. I was invited to visit some farms in mid-Wales last year, and, superficially, the similarities with the Sperrins or the Mournes are quite clear. Their farmers are certainly suffering as well. However, taking into account the issue of cross-border trade — or the lack of it — it is clear how much more suffering there is in Northern Ireland and how much greater the need for our Minister to make this clear to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
There is a major threat to our society. It is ludicrous to suggest that the future of rural areas in places like south Antrim or north Down is as a sort of commuter bungalow land, or in areas like the Mournes or Sperrins or the Fermanagh Lakes is as a weekend bungalow land. The only way we will maintain a viable society in rural areas is to maintain viable farms as the basis of those societies. Without those farms the businesses, the schools, the shops and the post offices will go, and we will be left with completely dead wasteland. That is the crisis we face unless the Minister takes action.
Farming is the largest industry in Northern Ireland. It accounts for 10% of employment and 8% of gross domestic product. The industry is in a serious crisis — total farm income fell by 22% last year, and over a five-year period the fall has been 80%. Together with the fall in income, the agriculture sector owes the banks approximately £520 million — a veritable debt mountain. Over the last five years approximately £600 million has been taken out of the local economy, and there has been an exodus from farming. Only about 7% of those currently involved in agriculture are under 35 years of age.
The BSE crisis has virtually closed off our export markets, and the control measures, whatever their merits, introduced by the Government have imposed considerable costs on agriculture. An overwhelming case can be made for giving Northern Ireland special treatment in respect of both exports and compensation to make up for the costs incurred as a result of the control measures. Statistics show that for 1999 the incidence of BSE per million head of adult cattle in Northern Ireland was 14·2; in the Republic it was 22; and in Great Britain it was 513. This shows that Northern Ireland has had the lowest incidence of BSE and should be given low incidence-BSE status for export purposes.
I recognise the difficulties faced by the Minister. As a region in the UK, Northern Ireland does not have that status already because of the agriculture politics in the rest of the UK. We then have the greater problem of the politics in the EU which are putting the French in the position of trying to keep a total export ban on British beef.
Another cause of the crisis is the weakness of the Euro. Our export prices are becoming uncompetitive, and the import prices are making it difficult for us to compete in our home market. All of this means that farm income in Northern Ireland is at an historically low level. One immediate source of alleviation would be the agri-monetary compensation package for the year 2000, which is approximately £450 million. Twenty per cent — about £88 million — has been used, so there is £360 million left for the rest or the year for the UK as a whole. As I understand it, that would give about £50 million to agriculture in Northern Ireland.
The farming community will have to take immediate steps to strengthen its position in the market with the supermarkets and food processors. It should not rely on the Government. An industry that relies on the Government has written the recipe for its own destruction.
The action taken by the Executive to date —rather, the inaction — demonstrates a total absence of any coherent policy or strategy to deal with this situation. Two weeks ago the First Minister announced that he had put a proposal for a £100 million aid package for agriculture to the Prime Minister.
Order. The time is up.
I support the motion. The House should realise the implications of the crisis in farming for the Province’s economy as a whole. Falling farm incomes are jeopardising the sustainability of farming, the countryside and the rural economy, and this inevitably will have Province-wide repercussions.
By way of introduction, and to illustrate the severity of the situation, let me give an example. Dairy farming was for many years thought to be the best of farming enterprises, but the agriculture industry has reached such a crisis point that many dairy farmers, despite having 100 cows, are struggling to stay in business, and a lot of them are depending on family credit to put food on the table.
Make no mistake: the writing is on the wall for many farming families unless they are given a fair deal. Serious difficulties in the agricultural sector and in the rural economy have largely been the result of forces beyond their control. For example, agricultural fuel prices have almost doubled in the last year. Furthermore, the exchange rate — particularly the strength of sterling — affects the farming community in a way which cannot and should not be underestimated.
The House should be mindful that since agriculture support measures and direct payments are in Euros, changes in sterling are applied almost immediately. Therefore both domestic and export prices are seriously affected by the strength of the pound sterling in the exchange rate. This is especially the case since a sizeable percentage of agricultural income is generated by exportation into Europe, and, consequently, the stronger the pound sterling, the less competitive are British products.
This, along with the BSE crisis, has meant that farmers find themselves in a great deal of debt with no conceivable means of repayment. Animals with little or no value will invariably become a liability, and so the farmers’ financial situation continues in a downward spiral. This has led, as was mentioned earlier, to desperation and a sense of hopelessness which has driven many farmers to suicide.
That is not to say that there has not been help. Much emphasis has recently been put on rural development through locally forged partnerships which are EU-funded. In short, this is not enough. Although some farmers at local level have benefited from receiving funding for innovative ideas, this type of initiative will not be sufficient to sustain and retain the majority of those who live in rural areas.
It is all very well to praise rural dwellers and tell them that they are the custodians of the countryside, but mainstream farming should be profitable and maintained at a level where re-investment is possible.
British farmers are in a more difficult position than workers in any other sector in the United Kingdom, and the British Government have failed to compensate the agriculture industry during the last four years. The United Kingdom was notably the only member state of the European Union not to do so. The Labour Party manifesto in the last general election supported radical reform, but it has not delivered. The British Minister for Agriculture, Nick Brown, said that compensation to help farmers over the changes would be generous, but he has broken his word. Broken promises appear to be the only consistent factor in the new Labour Party policy.
As has been mentioned, there has been speculation that the Prime Minister will inform representatives of the National Farmers’ Union that no financial help will be made available to farmers to see them through the present crisis. Furthermore, he thinks that they ought to diversify and seek alternative sources of income aside from the money required to speculate to accumulate. Were 533,000 farmers to diversify, a crisis would be created in more sectors than one. The Agriculture Committee has encouraged the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to do all in her power to rectify this by lobbying in London.
I urge the Assembly to support the Minister, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the National Farmers’ Union to work together to ensure that the full agri-money compensation which is due to the farming community and which was established to protect all European farmers is paid. I support the motion.
We have heard and will continue to hear more and more statistics. These add to the gloom and difficulty being experienced by the agricultural economy that seems to be under attack from every quarter. There are difficulties that come from Europe; there is the inability of a British, so-called Labour Government to move away from the advocated laissez-faire economic culture; and there is the apathy which exists among the Northern Ireland public.
We have seen the problems caused by companies who import every single item for their shops — not just a large percentage of their goods but every single item. I have been told that such a company has set up in Dungannon in spite of there being a hinterland full of suffering farmers. It does not matter whether they be sheep, pig, dairy or beef farmers, they are all trying to work the land and are struggling in economic difficulty.
What about helping ourselves? In the negotiations we had an opportunity to think about helping ourselves, yet we denied ourselves the ability to have tax-varying or tax-raising powers. This means that we now have the begging bowl out once again. We are holding out the begging bowl to Westminster and to Europe. Frankly, however, we are not doing very well because the laissez-faire economic culture is stronger in the hallowed halls of Westminster than any argument that we have yet made. And unless we are going to kick doors in at Westminster —
Does the Member accept that by revaluing the green pound we would not need to go anywhere with the begging bowl? That would help farmers in the UK at no cost to local taxpayers, although there would be a cost to the European Community but taking such action would bring funds to our farmers which all other farmers are getting.
I do not disagree with the Member at all, but we need to look at the position we are in. The reason all these people are in the Galleries is that they hope that we can help them by delivering something better than what they currently have. Long-term ideas are all right, but if people are leaving the land and contemplating suicide, as we heard earlier, if difficulties and incomes are as bad as all that, we need to act now.
I come from an urban background, and the perception is that I have no concept of the difficulties of the agricultural community. We live in a country that is 90 miles long and 90 miles wide, and its economy affects all of us. For that reason I say that the situation is intolerable. If people working on a factory floor were bringing home what those in agriculture are bringing home, there would be an outcry. No one — but no one — would tolerate it, yet not only do we tolerate it, but we go to the shops and purchase goods which are putting our people out of business. We should demand that shopkeepers stock at least a certain percentage of goods produced in Northern Ireland. It is all very well to say nice words, but we need to do something.
First Ministers and Deputy First Ministers are afraid to agitate because of European attitudes to free enterprise and open borders. However, it is perfectly reasonable for a trade union or a farmers’ union to agitate and to continue to agitate until the people of Northern Ireland know that until we can kick down doors in Europe and at Westminster and be listened to and answered, the only option we have is self-help. That is our only option at present.
If Members intend to tackle the distressing circumstances of the agricultural economy, they had better think about doing it very soon. We had better think of cross-party support for the people who are suffering. We had better think of ways to fund trips to Europe and of ensuring that we are in Westminster at every conceivable opportunity to make people take notice.
There is a great deal of criticism of the French. I do not advocate that we go to the same lengths as the French do, whether they be truck drivers or farmers, but they sure as hell make their Government sit up and take notice. What do we do? We speak in platitudes; we say the farmers have our support, and meanwhile, back at the ranch, these people are continuing to suffer.
Order. The time is up.
The Women’s Coalition supports this motion. We recognise the crisis in the farming industry. Every Member who has spoken has talked of the soaring figures, of terrible debt, of children leaving farms and of the drastic cut of up to 80% in farmers’ income. We are aware of it, and we recognise that it is drastic. This is not crying wolf; this is a genuine crisis. We can all see that. We give our full support to the appeal being made by farmers, by those gathered outside this building today, for what Dr Paisley has called an "extraordinary" approach to this crisis.
Why do farmers need our support? It is not merely a matter of jobs or individuals. We are faced with the possible death of our rural communities and traditions. It has been said here today that we must protect the social fabric of the rural economy. David Ford said that it is about post offices, banks and market towns — our rural economy and people.
We must protect them. Many a farmer would call me a city slicker, but this is not a matter of the rural-dweller versus the city dweller. We must not forget that when farm incomes are cut and the young men and women of farming families have to leave, this sparks rural depopulation, thus putting pressure on cities. Calls are made in towns and cities for the green belt to be protected. In spite of this, more accommodation is needed because rural areas are being depopulated. This is not a matter of country versus city. No matter where we live, all of us in Northern Ireland must recognise that the farming community has to he helped.
Paddy Roche talked about the main causes, and I should like to dwell on these for a moment. There is no doubt that the two main causes are the fallout from the BSE crisis and the strength of sterling. I ask the Assembly and the farmers whose fault this is.
Let us turn to the BSE crisis. I know all about this, for I was involved in the European Commission at that time. The Government did not stick to the rules on BSE set down by Europe. They bent those rules and farmers are now being expected to accept responsibility for that.
Who is to blame for the strength of sterling? It is not the fault of the farmers. What can they do? Perhaps we could look more seriously at allowing Northern Ireland to enter the Euro-zone as a pilot project. Perhaps farmers would support that.
Neither of these problems is the fault of farmers. The Government must accept responsibility. We cannot accept Nick Brown or Tony Blair saying that farmers must diversify. We have heard about the golf courses and the bed-and-breakfast businesses. That is not good enough. We need a concerted approach to protecting the rural community.
I should like to send a message of support to farmers and their families. I support this motion. As I close, I should like to remind the House of Dr Paisley’s words this morning. These farmers are
"decent people from both sides of the community."
We must do something for them.