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Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 1 February 2000 (continued)

Mr McCartney:

Everyone in the House is united on this issue. All the interesting and informative speeches have illustrated the grievous plight of the farming industry. They have explained in great detail the reasons for that plight. What are we going to do about it? It is all very well for each of us to say that the plight of the farmers is awful. The crisis exists, and the reasons for the crisis are the strength of sterling and BSE. That does nothing for the farmer, though it may exorcise the guilt we feel at our impotence.

The truth is that this Assembly can do very little to alleviate the effects of the farming crisis, which is due to many circumstances totally beyond our control. Perhaps the best statement made was on what the people of Northern Ireland can do for themselves. It is true to say that any industry, including the farming industry, which relies on the munificence of the Government for its future is on a hiding to nothing. What we can do is focus the attention of the entire community on the fact that if it does not support its own producers then it is unlikely that anyone else will. Interposed between the consumer and the farmer is the retailer. The retailing industry in Northern Ireland has been transformed over recent years by the introduction of the multi-national supermarket chains. They came here when things were getting better. They supplanted the local traders who had kept business going throughout 30 years of internecine warfare in Northern Ireland, but the introduction of the large supermarkets has laid waste to a great many small traders in a number of small towns.

The real question is: what can we do to ensure, insofar as it is possible, that those retailers support the produce of the people from whom they are extracting their profit? Anyone who goes into Tescos or Sainsbury's should know that it is acknowledged throughout Europe generally that the major food chains in the United Kingdom are making far higher profits than their counterparts in Europe, and they are making those profits largely at the expense of the producers. They go through the fraud of labelling their goods "Sourced in Northern Ireland" - not "Produced in Northern Ireland" - but "Sourced in Northern Ireland". That covers a multitude of sins, including purchasing from agents who are in Northern Ireland but who source their produce from abroad.

If this Assembly can do one thing, it can alert the electorate to the fact that if they do not support their own farmers and buy produce clearly labelled as being produced by farmers in Northern Ireland, then they are destroying a large part of their own economy.

In broad terms, Europe does what suits the major members of the European Commission. They can forget about the fines that were levied on Italy for milk quota frauds. They can turn a blind eye to Spain injecting capital directly into Iberia Airlines. They can do whatever they want, and unless we ensure that we back our own people then, as some of the Members have said, Northern Ireland will be turned into a farming waste land. Golf courses and other leisure amenities will dominate the countryside, but the farmer will be destroyed.

11.30 am

Mr Armstrong:

It is good to see some familiar faces from the farming community in the Galleries today. I know that it is not every farmer who can afford to leave his livestock for a few hours to attend rallies and listen to debates in the Assembly. I recognise the sterling work done by Will Taylor and Douglas Roe of the Ulster Farmers' Union.

Agriculture is the largest single industry in Northern Ireland. However, figures released yesterday show that total farming income has fallen by 79% since 1995 - an astounding statistic. Farmers in less favoured areas are realising an average annual income of £179. Our farmers now owe approximately £523 million to banks, and this figure continues to increase. Farm incomes in Northern Ireland decreased by 22% in 1999, compared to an estimated 1% in the UK as a whole. We can clearly see that Northern Irish agriculture does not get a high priority with the UK Government, and we cannot let this situation continue.

Approximately 60,000 people are employed in this vital industry. Since £572 million has been removed from Northern Ireland's economy over the last five years, it must be brought home to the Government that Northern Ireland is no less important than any other region. Other parts of the UK are more industrialised, and agriculture is less important to them. The Government do not value this industry or consider it worth saving. Other major industries receive financial help in times of crisis.

Northern Ireland has always had high health and welfare standards, dating back to the days before the EC. We had stringent legislation on the importing of agricultural products. When we became part of the European free market, products of lower quality came into Northern Ireland. We are well known for our excellent traceability records and distinguished levels of health, welfare and efficiency, as well as for the high genetic value of our livestock.

Northern Ireland farmers have complied with all the EU legislation on health and welfare standards. They were promised a premium for their products, only to find inferior products from other parts of Europe on our supermarket shelves. Fancy packages and low prices seem to appeal more to the consumer. Premium prices were not realised, and all hopes of recovering the money invested have been dashed.

Furthermore, UK companies have imported certain products whose health and welfare standards do not match our high standards, and that has created unfair competition. These products have also been cheaper. In Northern Ireland we had only six cases of BSE in 1999. France recognised about 30 cases in 1999. We had only 27 cases in 1997, yet the French refuse to buy British beef. It is totally unfair that our high-quality products cannot be exported across Europe. It is time that we were treated as a low incidence area for BSE.

We are all aware of Holland's lucrative market for bull calves. As an exporting area, it has been very important and beneficial to us to export products that are in short supply in other countries. At present, these calves are worth £70 to £100 in the Irish Republic and are being exported from there to Europe. It could be said that there are more cases of BSE in the Irish Republic.

I am particularly concerned about our pig farmers. They have not been able to cover their costs for the last 20 months. Many face debts of £200,000; some owe as much as £500,000 to the banks and meal companies. None of the Government bodies seems to want to do anything to alleviate this problem. The importing of pork and bacon products which are of a lower standard than similar products produced in Northern Ireland should be discontinued. There should be a level playing field.

The Minister met some young farmers in my constituency three weeks ago. The farmers revealed their private, painful stories and personal bank statements.

Mr Speaker:


Mr Armstrong:

I must close then -

Mr Speaker:

Order. The Member's time is up.

Mr McGrady:

As has already been said, all parties in the House will support the farming community in this emergency. I fear that the fact that it is an emergency has not been communicated properly to the community. I can repeat, as can every other Member, the horrendous statistics on the fall in incomes, the lack of revenue and the higher costs which have been reproduced for the first time, almost coincidentally, throughout all sectors of the community.

Political representatives and representatives of farmers' unions have failed to convey the enormity of the situation to the general public - the consumers. First, as Mr Roche has said, farming is a base industry involving 10% of the civil population and accounting for 8% of GDP. What other country would allow that volume of industry to be sacrificed? Secondly, the farming community is the custodian of our heritage, rural communities, land and environment. Are we going to jettison those as well? The problem is that the same criteria are being applied to Northern Ireland's agriculture as are being applied to agriculture in the UK, where it is not an important economic factor - and Members need to face this. The Government's response reflects that.

In some respects that is why we have failed to inform the European conscience of our drastic situation. Our local Minister and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development must put pressure on Whitehall to insist that the national Government take this issue seriously and save this base industry by a special dispensation or arrangement within the EU to reflect our special circumstances. That must happen as a matter of urgency. Europe knows that this is a huge problem. The recent Eurostat report indicates quite clearly that Northern Ireland incomes, and indeed UK incomes as a whole, fell dramatically in the years from 1995 to 1998. Europe knows this from its own statistics, so it really is time to "kick in that door", as one Member so elegantly put it.

There is no point in Members debating the statistics, horrendous though they may be. The forecast for 1999-2000 is of net loss to farming incomes throughout the community. Members, and the farming community, cannot tolerate that. The community can tolerate loss for only one or two years at most. The rescue package must then be in place to help the community out of that morass and into prosperity.

Members should not adopt the pessimistic attitude that nothing can be done. Similarly, the repetition of statistics will not energise us. We must make suggestions. There should be special arrangements in Europe to address a special problem. Other national Governments can do it, so our national Government should also be able to do it. The agri-monetary compensation must be claimed and released to farmers in proportion to their requirements, particularly in this region.

The reassessment of the green pound has already been mentioned, and that should be done. At home, the financial institutions, which are servicing the £520 million deficit must give special consideration to farmers. For decades, the high street banks have ridden on the gravy train thanks to the Agriculture and other industries; now it is their turn to feel some pain as well. Arrangements to rescue the farmers need to be agreed.

Restructuring may be required. The agricultural retirement scheme, which is available in the Republic of Ireland, must be made available here to allow good economic restructuring to take place. I would like to see a task force established immediately in Northern Ireland involving representatives from the relevant Government Departments: Agriculture and Rural Development; Enterprise, Trade and Investment; Health, Social Services and Public Safety; and Environment.

It should urgently investigate this issue on a cross-departmental basis and produce a plan to alleviate the problems. Merely tinkering with the problem of diversification or environmental improvements will not help. We must be more dramatic in our approach.

Mr Speaker:

Order. The time is up.

Mr Poots:

I do not intend to concentrate on the agriculture industry's problems - they have been well covered already. We are all aware of the £520 million farming debt and the fact that only 7% of farmers are under the age of 35. What we need are solutions. The Permanent Secretary is in the House, and although we do not know what the future of the Assembly will be he will still hold his position whether Alf Dubs or Bríd Rodgers is the Minister. There is more responsibility on the Permanent Secretary's shoulders than on anybody else's.

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development needs a radical shake-up. Farmers have had regulations imposed on them over the years, regulations that have been implemented and policed by the Department, yet the same Department has not managed to deliver a full lifting of the BSE ban. We need to see that we get low-incidence status quickly. Is it right that the Irish Republic, which has many more cases of BSE than Northern Ireland, can export calves and get £130 per head when farmers from Northern Ireland have to pay to get their calves slaughtered? How can France continue to export beef when they have more incidences of BSE than Northern Ireland? It is time that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development put the case of the Northern Ireland farmers to Brussels and Strasbourg. Farmers have applied all the regulations; now it is time for the Department to deliver.

The European sheep meat regime should also be looked at. Has the Department ever asked Brussels to look at it? The Government in the Irish Republic have asked for the regime to be changed. Last week, it was announced that sheep farmers are to get an annual subsidy of £13·48. Given that lamb prices are lower than they have been for five years, I would have expected that that subsidy would have been over £20. However, because the system under which the sheep meat regime operates is unjust, we are given less compensation than we should.

We need a strong implementation of policy on the importation of potatoes. Northern Ireland is presently importing potatoes that are of a lower standard than those produced here. Disease standards are not being maintained. The imported potatoes are not subject to the same standard scrutiny for brown rot disease as is applied to Northern Ireland potatoes. There is a danger that this disease could be brought into Northern Ireland and ruin the local potato industry.

The Department has handed out money in FEOGA grants to two firms to expand their potato marketing operation. They have imported thousands of tonnes of potatoes from Scotland and Europe, and this has driven down the price of potatoes in the Province. Farmers now have to sell potatoes at £20 per tonne, because the Government have paid for these firms to build cold stores. It is not the Department's role to improve the marketing conditions of firms in Northern Ireland; its role is to improve the marketing conditions for farmers in general.

The Department must get its act together and work on behalf of the Northern Ireland farmers. Time and time again new regulations are introduced. I can recall the introduction of the Maedi-Visna regulations. There was no a need for those regulations to be introduced, but, as there were obviously surplus staff in the Department's veterinary service, this was a good way to keep them occupied. We are spending more on the administration of agriculture than farmers make in profit. It is time for the Department to get its act together. The farmers are doing their bit. No more regulations should be imposed on them, for they cannot afford to implement the regulations. The Department should go to Brussels and fight the Northern Ireland farmers' case. There is no point in blaming others; the main reason for our problems is the Department's inadequate representation of the farmers' case.

11.45 am

Mr J Kelly:

Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. Like my Colleague Gerry McHugh, I support the motion. At the outset, Mr Speaker, I would like to say that the philosophy of "ourselves alone" has been well ventilated this morning, so I will not dwell on it.

The crisis in the agriculture industry is very real - not for me, but for the farmers and their families who are suffering as a result of it. I welcome the farmers and their families who are here this morning.

Much has been made of the connection between the North and the South. I am not trying to make a political point, but had the agriculture industry in Ireland acted as a single unit, 10, 15 or even 20 years ago, then the present agriculture crisis would not be as severe as it is. One has only to look at the agriculture industry in the Free State to know that they milked the system, very astutely and acutely, while we were tied in to British agricultural policy within the EU. Consequently, the only people who suffered were the farmers of the North of Ireland. Had we gone forthrightly into the agriculture sector in Europe as a single unit, then we would not be facing the crisis that we face today - or at least it would not be as bad. Agriculture is in crisis universally, but I believe that we would not be facing the crisis that we are facing had we acted as a single unit.

I would like to turn to the schemes that were inaugurated to help farmers - the ESA scheme in particular. Prior to Christmas, I was inundated with calls from farmers who had still not received their ESA payments. These were due in August, and by December they still had not been paid. It was the people on small farms who were suffering. They needed the money not only to buy fodder, but to run their homes. When one of them rang the Department he was told that the payments had not been made because the computers were down. So there is a new excuse being given now. It is no longer "The cheque is in the post"; it is "The computers are down". That was the excuse given. Those schemes need to be seriously and rigorously looked at to ensure that if farmers are participating in such schemes they are paid the amount of money that has been guaranteed to them - and on time.

The situation in respect of rural planning is a disgrace, and something must be done about it. Time after time the Department refuses planning permission to the sons and daughters of farmers who are seeking to develop their own land, because this does not fit into the environment. What other environment is it going to fit into? They are living in the country. Is it spoiling the countryside? What is the real reason? I accept that there must be planning controls, but those controls should not be so rigorously applied in relation to rural planning.

Additionally, when a farmer who has a small piece of useless ground seeks planning permission for it in order to sell it - there is nothing wrong with that, because the land is useless, and he is looking for some other form of income - he is refused. That is an issue that needs to be looked into urgently.

My Colleague and others have mentioned the issue of consumers paying top prices for bacon, beef, lamb, poultry and other agricultural produce while producers receive the lowest prices. Someone, somewhere has to put in place a mechanism which investigates this, and one which puts some controls on the prices that consumers are paying as compared with the money that producers are receiving. Realistically these are things which should be looked at now, and a way should be found to alleviate the problems that exist in the farming community in the short term.

To link the agricultural crisis with the present political crisis is a crass piece of political opportunism. We are talking here about an industry that is in crisis. We are talking about a whole population that is in crisis and a countryside that has been denuded of its population. We should be trying to address life-support measures - and addressing them seriously - not trying to make a political point.

Mr Leslie:

When addressing problems in the agriculture sector we must do so in the context that it is, in most respects, the last-state controlled industry. The snag is that it is not state-owned, and therefore the state is not responsible for the wages or costs of the industry. But the state controls the output prices by way of a mixture of policy, action, inaction and the subsidy process. The common agricultural policy has essentially distorted the market in agricultural produce, and not always to our disadvantage. Sometimes the markets have been distorted to the farmers'advantage, and the subsidy system tries to correct that, but it distorts the market further.

When the Agenda 2000 proposals were originally produced they were flagged up as being an attempt to address these distortions and gradually restructure the industry to make it more responsive to market forces. Unfortunately, such an outcome did not emerge from the negotiations this time around. While there was some short-term relief, I question whether there will be a long-term benefit. A House of Lords Select Committee looked at the problems in the agriculture sector and said

"If the long-term prospect of adjustment to globally competitive agriculture is not to cause great and prolonged hardship, it is critical that the reorientation of the industry to a position where it can compete successfully is commenced as soon as possible. If not, change may be thrust upon the industry at an unnecessarily painful pace."

It seems that we are in the latter scenario. It is a great pity that the expertise that was available when the report was made is no longer available to the House of Lords.

The Treasury is no friend of the common agricultural policy, which consumes over half of the total European Union budget. As the United Kingdom is a net contributor to that budget, the only way it can see its net contributions falling is if it can reduce expenditure on the common agricultural policy. Therefore the interests of the Treasury are completely contrary to those of the farmer. Unfortunately, the Treasury is much more powerful.

I urge the Minister to address the restructuring of the industry to see what the Department can do to help this process. She should also address the £45 million of the Department's budget, which is flexible and which relates to teaching, advisory and technical services. We are turning out very competent farmers, but we may have made them competent in a sphere from which they cannot make money. I urge the Minister to see whether the curriculum is able to produce the right skills for the market into which agriculture is moving.

The words "restructuring" and "diversify" are used too loosely. There are some opportunities, but it is hard to see that there will be enough for everyone. I welcome the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee's intention to look into freshwater fishing. Farmers fortunate enough to have land along a river bank might want to turn to that as a possible source of future revenue.

I mentioned earlier that farming is essentially the last nationalised industry. When the steel industry, the car industry, and the coal industry were restructured and returned to the private sector the Government provided a very considerable cushion for the workforce. The situation is analogous to agriculture, but because farmers are self-employed, there is no onus on the Government to provide any such cushion. The Government should look very carefully at their duties in this regard, because they control much of the output price, and that is what governs the success of the industry. That is why Mr Savage presented his "soft loan" scheme - not to subsidise farmers, but to help soften the process of change. The Government must also provide a cushion and an incentive for the farming industry.

Mr Speaker:

Order. The Member's time is up.

Mr Gallagher:

The farming industry needs practical and financial support, and it needs it now. Otherwise the family farming tradition, so typical of Northern Ireland, will fade away, and we will have other consequences to contend with. Members know that, owing to the fall in farming prices, this crisis impacts on the wider community. Farmers have less disposable income.

In the last three years more than £100 million has been lost to the local economy as a result of this crisis. It is causing particular difficulty in my constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, as farming has always been a more difficult enterprise there because of the climate and the soil. Indeed, 30% of the County Fermanagh workforce is involved in agriculture. Members will agree that that is a much higher percentage than in any other part of Northern Ireland.

In the UK, the average percentage of the workforce involved in agriculture is a mere 2%. We have a large number of small farms and a small number of large farms. Farm incomes are measured in terms of standard gross margin (SGM). The SGM for farmers in County Fermanagh is 14·7, in County Antrim 25·5, and in County Down 22·3. But all farming communities need alternative employment opportunities and part-time employment opportunities.

I commend the Minister for beginning to put in place a new strategy for agriculture and rural development. I reject what Mr Roche said with regard to the present Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development and her record. He was talking nonsense. The Minister needs the support of the Executive and she needs to link in to other Departments in order to provide more opportunities for those who run our farming industry.

Until now, worthwhile ideas coming from the farming community have had little encouragement from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. Look at the importance of tourism in Fermanagh and the importance of good co-operation between the farming community and those promoting tourism.

Another employment agency responsible for small businesses is LEDU. Why have better links not been developed between LEDU and the farming community? Why have some of the good ideas for enterprises on farms not had LEDU's support? This needs further investigation by the Executive.

It has already been said that rural planning policy is a major obstacle. However, it is not just in relation to housing, as my Colleague John Kelly said. Any farmer who wants to embark on a new enterprise runs into an obstacle right away when he seeks planning permission in rural areas. He is invariably told it cannot be done.

The Minister and the Executive can iron out many of these problems. Both anti-agreement and pro-agreement Members will have failed to live up to their responsibilities under the agreement if there is a return to direct rule, for our farmers will suffer more than they have ever done.


Rev Dr William McCrea:

I have listened with care to the debate so far, and we have all heard the Prime Minister say that he is going to tell farmers that they will have to diversify, but I do not know how many of them are going to be able to diversify. Many will be bankrupt, so what are they going to diversify with?

Farmers want to farm their land; that is what they were brought up to do, and they should be able to get on with it. They understand the problems of other sectors of industry. Take, for example, the textile industry. Many farmers' families are also feeling the pinch there, because many of their children have worked in the textile firms that are closing down. The farming industry in this Province is haemorrhaging seriously, and the Department is seeking to put a sticking plaster over the problem.

The crisis in pig farming has been going on for many months. We do not have to gather the facts; they are already there. If officials in the Department do not know the facts about the pig industry, something is seriously wrong, and it is about time that they vacated their positions and let others take over. We have to take this matter to where it really counts.

In the midst of this crisis I am sick, sore and tired of hearing from one person after another that there is nothing they can do. With the greatest respect to the Minister, I know she did not make the problem, but she now has the responsibility for handling it - we do not need the parroting of official lines. All we hear is that there is nothing that Europe allows the Minister to do. Why can nothing be done? What are the French doing? Are they not supposed to be the great Europeans? They are saving their farming industry. They are pouring money into it, and they will save their pig and other sectors. Of course, we hold up our hands and self-righteously say "There is nothing that Europe will allow us to do." That is absolutely disgusting.

We do not have just the strong pound problem, the BSE problem, the offal payments, the differential in meal, electricity and water costs; we also have the unfair differential between the price our farmers get for their products and what others get in the remainder of the United Kingdom. We are fed up with people telling us that there is nothing they can do. There must be a financial package for this. Farmers are going to be totally bankrupt. Many of them have gone as far as they can possibly go, and all we are saying to them is that there is nothing we can do.

I heard it said today that tax-raising powers would be the answer. Whenever there is a problem and a factory is being closed, are taxes raised to bring in the money? Not at all; money is sought from the Exchequer. Gordon Brown's Exchequer is filled with money ready for a general election - they have to hand out the goodies and buy people off at election time. The money is there - you do not have to raise taxes to get the money; the money is already in the coffers. The problem is this: they are unwilling to cover pound for pound, and the farmers are going down. It may seem funny to some people, but I have had farmer after farmer sitting in my constituency office crying about his situation, and no one is willing to do anything about it. The Minister should go to Europe and say that we were told that everyone was dying to help us in Ulster because we have this Assembly going. Let them put their money where their mouths are. Let them prove themselves by backing us and allowing farmers to survive instead of going under.

Gordon Brown told us that he was urgently looking at offal charges, that he was willing to back us and that he believed that he could do something about them. Farmers were given the same answer, but we are still awaiting his help.

What about the special BSE status? Nick Brown said that he would back our Minister if a presentation were made. My party leader, representatives from the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party and I were told by Nick Brown that he would instruct his officials to work with our officials to get that presentation.

Mr Speaker:

Order. The Member will resume his seat.

Mr Molloy:

A Chathaoirligh, go raibh maith agat. I agree with the motion, and I support it. It is important to recognise that there is a crisis in the entire industry. I agree with Dr Paisley that the British Prime Minister's call for people to diversify is not the answer. It may be the answer for some, but not for everyone. What would they diversity into? Where will the money come from? Is the Prime Minister prepared to ensure that the money going into industry will be transferred to agriculture? Will he make sure there is money available for farmers who want to diversify and that they will get the planning permission, which Mr Gallagher talked about, to set up an industry in the rural community?

Farmers want to be on the farm, and they want to be producers. To most farmers diversification into some other industry of which they have no experience is not an option. Diversification, if it is to take place, will have to be into something associated with land and farming.

The main problem - and I am not making a political point - is that we in the Six Counties are linked to Britain. Britain is an industrial country, and it does not have any great interest in agriculture. It has an industrial base, which it wants to preserve. Britain has not made the case for our farmers in Europe, as was best illustrated during the BSE crisis when they failed to represent farmers. It is important to recognise that we will have to work within our own base. No one else will speak on our behalf.

As Dr Paisley said, we need to make the link with those who have exploited Europe to the full - the Twenty-six County Government. They have shown how to get the most out of Europe - by putting the least in, as some people would say. We must ensure that the Irish Government, as a European Member, produces and markets Irish goods, whether they are from the North or from the South. We should be asking the Irish Government to do more to ensure that that happens. It can be achieved within the North/South Ministerial Council in the form of a common agricultural policy.

Many farmers in border areas have paid a very heavy price because of currency differences. We need to ensure that this does not happen. Currency differential affects not just the border areas and farmers but also imports and exports. The fact that Britain is not part of the European single currency has had a detrimental affect on farmers.

All aspects of farming are now affected. In the beginning the problem may have been BSE and the beef crisis, but it is now expanding across the farm spectrum. Beef farmers, milk producers, pig producers, sheep farmers, potato growers and now mushroom growers are all affected. The fact that mushrooms are being imported from Europe and beyond is flooding the market, causing the price to drop. Cheap poultry imports will mean that another part of the industry will begin to fail. A situation similar to that which is happening in relation to the meat plant in Dungannon will occur. Imports will come in, and nothing will be produced here.

We have the basis for resolving this matter. We are paying the price for European membership. We have been part of the European Community but with our hands tied behind our backs. Because we are linked to an industrial nation we have not been able to exploit membership in the way other countries have. We need to make a link with a nation that is agricultural so that we can start to make agriculture work as they have done in the Twenty-six Counties.

We also need to remind ourselves that not all the money in the Twenty-six Counties went to the farmers. A lot of it went to meat plants and various associated bodies, and some of it went astray. Meat plants should put back into agriculture some of the money they have benefited from.

If we are serious about reversing the situation we must do something about it. We need to pull together a common agricultural policy for the island of Ireland, not just for Europe.

Mr Hussey rose.

Mr Tierney:

On a point order, Mr Speaker. Could the time allocated to the motion be extended? A number of Members wish to speak, and if the time were extended by half an hour most of them would be able to do so.

Mr Speaker:

I regret that it is not possible to do that. First, half an hour would not cover it. The Business Committee made the decision about the amount of time which was available, and it was clear. However, the Member is correct, and I was going to say this in any case before the Minister spoke. A substantial number of other Members have indicated their desire to speak and undoubtedly have made preparations to do so, but I regret that it will not be possible.

Members must understand that we have further business today which is also time-limited and which is urgent. It is important that those in the Assembly - as well as people outside - know that many other Members wished to speak in this debate but were unable to do so because of time constraints.

Mr Hussey:

This crisis - and it is well defined as such - has been thoroughly debated in this Chamber. The fact that £600 million has been lost to the economy over the last five years speaks for itself.

Mr Roche highlighted the importance of the wider industry - the agri-food industry - to Northern Ireland. It accounts for 10% of all civil employment and 8% of gross domestic product, and it is three times more important in Northern Ireland than in the United Kingdom overall. Therein lies some indication of where our central Government are coming from.

In 1997 a farm income averaged at a mere £3,093. I dread to think what the situation is now. At that time 38% of farms were showing a loss. What is the percentage today?

Dr Paisley highlighted the amount of money that farmers owe to banks, feed suppliers and hire-purchase companies. If these companies had any sense of generosity or gave any thought to where their past profits came from, they would offer assistance.

This crisis affects all sectors of the industry: pigs, sheep, poultry, milk, beef - the list goes on. Farmers have been left to defend an industry that is worth millions to the economy. What have Departments done in the past? They have followed United Kingdom policy. If the Assembly is to mean anything the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development must adopt a Northern Ireland policy - one that truly reflects our needs. It is only a matter of time before there is a chain reaction to this crisis, and it will expand beyond the rural community to affect the high streets of villages, towns and cities throughout Northern Ireland. This crisis will impinge on us all.

Despite all of this it is obvious to me that there remains a deliberate Labour Government policy of non-involvement in the agriculture industry. The crisis continues to deepen, and the Government must take exceptional measures. Central government must identify genuine and meaningful solutions - not the response given by the Prime Minister that has been well castigated by other Members.

It is time to introduce a differential low-risk BSE status for Northern Ireland. It is well-documented that the Republic and Great Britain have both had a much higher incidence of BSE than Northern Ireland. This was reported in 'The Irish Times' today.

12.15 pm

The traceability scheme which is in place in Northern Ireland means that our produce is the best authenticated in the world - a fact that has not been properly recognised or promoted.

The Government have made some mistakes in the past at great cost to the industry. Think of their decision to discontinue the calf processing aid scheme. That was wrong. William McCrea quite rightly highlighted the non-use of finances and the agri-monetary compensation which could be introduced. Mr McGrady mentioned the agricultural retirement scheme, and there are many other possibilities.

There are also wider issues: the millennium trade round, which takes over from the Uruguay trade round; the European model of agriculture, which will be under attack at World Trade Organisation discussions; disparity in the implementation of animal welfare legislation; the strength of sterling; the inexplicable differences between prices on the farms and those at shop counters; the lack of proper labelling - the list goes on.

Give our farmers a level playing field, and they will be able to compete with anyone.


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