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Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 1 February 2000 (continued)

Mr Speaker:

Order. The time is up.

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers):

I wish to thank all Members for their contributions and to apologise in advance for the fact that I shall be unable to respond to every point today. Outstanding issues will be dealt with in writing.

I understand the anger of Members and the farming communities, and I understand why they are having a peaceful protest today. They have the right to engage in peaceful protest, and I welcome their action.

I have arranged to meet a delegation of farmers and their wives after this debate. I note that Members spoke of the men in the farming community, but I am very well aware that many women also work there in support of their husbands and on the farms as well. This is a people industry.

I have great sympathy with the farming community. Since taking over as Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development I have become very aware of the huge decline in their incomes in recent years. This is why I have been working so hard in the Assembly and in London and Brussels to achieve something on their behalf.

The income figures released yesterday were a result of circumstances beyond my control, beyond the control of the Executive and, I stress, beyond the control of my Department, which has been unfairly criticised today for not doing enough and not caring. That is not true. I am impressed by the caring attitude that the officials in my Department display towards the farming community for whom they are working, as I am, in very difficult circumstances and with all of the constraints of the European regulations and the financial implications that surround us.

The strength of sterling, world markets and other factors have been referred to by many people. I am conscious of the burden that I carry in representing the farmers, and I intend to do everything in my power to help them - and I stress "in my power".

Dr McCrea said that I should let someone else take over if I am not able to do the job. We all enjoyed his rhetoric. He is good at that. We also note, however, that although there was an opportunity for someone else to take over responsibility for this industry, Rev Dr McCrea's party decided not to take on that very difficult challenge.

But I am not afraid of challenges, and I will do my best in the circumstances in which I find myself. However, I do not like to be preached at by people who tell me that I could do better and should do better but who were not prepared to do the job themselves.

I am not going to have time to deal with every issue, but the Executive and I are doing everything that we can. The fact that we recently put £6·7 million of the reallocated money towards making up for the budgetary shortfalls of my Department is an indication of our commitment to helping the farming community. In spite of some ill-informed commentary, both at that time and since, the vast majority of that money has gone to the farmers.

I was in Brussels last week lobbying Commissioner Fischler on behalf of Northern Ireland pig farmers. I have also had meetings with Nick Brown. I am told that, in his speech today in London, the Prime Minister said

"In areas such as the pig industry, which is the most parlous at the moment, I do not rule out further measures to help. It must, however, be linked to a strategy which provides a long-term framework."

I welcome that statement. I am, however, both anxious and interested to know what he has in mind. I hope to have a meeting with Nick Brown very shortly, and I shall certainly be anxious to hear about this and discuss it.

Members have referred to the agri-monetary compensation available to the UK which has not been paid, and I know that the Ulster Farmers' Union has briefed some Members on this. The matter has been raised by Mr Savage, Dr Paisley, Dr McCrea, Mr Hussey and others. I agree in principle that moneys available to farmers should be paid to them. It is wrong that our farmers should suffer because of fiscal policies developed for other reasons. These policies should not put UK farmers at a disadvantage in comparison with those in other member states.

Northern Ireland farmers, as other Members have pointed out, are doubly disadvantaged, as they share a land border with the Republic. I have demanded an urgent meeting with Nick Brown to discuss agri-monetary payments. I do, however, recognise that he is constrained. I do not underestimate the resistance from the Treasury, but I would like some other Members of the House to assist me as I do my best to make the case for Northern Ireland pig farmers.

I shall briefly refer to some of the points made before I go on. I am very aware that I shall not have time to do everything. Dr Paisley raised the question of help for new entrants. There is provision in the rural development plan for new entrants. It is one of the optional schemes, and we shall look at it. I shall deal with all of these matters in consultation with both the Agriculture Committee and the industry itself, which I have consulted many times already during the past two months.

Dr Paisley has made comparisons with the Republic of Ireland on European money. These are false comparisons, since the Republic is not under the same financial constraints that we are, and whether we like it or not, we must operate under UK financial arrangements.

I have every reason to suspect that Dr Paisley and, indeed, Mr Poots, who raised the same issue, are not suggesting a more radical solution to our problems.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

Stop bringing politics into it.

Ms Rodgers:

I am merely making a point, and I think that it is a fair point.

I have been to Brussels, and I have left Commissioner Fischler in no doubt about the problems in our pig sector. I have further meetings planned with Commissioner Byrne and him, and I am meeting the chief executive of Malton's later this week. I shall also be meeting retailers.

Although Mr McCartney is no longer here, I shall respond to his point. I am aware of the problem of local sourcing. Mr Savage made the same point, which is of great importance. As I have said, I shall be meeting retailers and impressing upon them the need to source locally and to recognise that our pork is produced under conditions conducive to animal welfare. Indeed, I have written to all public-sector purchasing bodies in Northern Ireland making the same points. Together with Joe Walsh in the Republic, I have set up an investigation into pig-processing capacity on the island of Ireland.

I also welcome and support what Mr McCartney said about local people supporting local produce. The £400,000 which has been made available for pig-meat marketing will be a help in proceeding along those lines. We also have £2·5 million for the red-meat marketing strategy. It is extremely important that my Department has made this provision. Many of the problems in the market at the moment have been caused by the BSE crisis and the resistance to red meat.

We need to explain to the people, not just in Northern Ireland but also further afield, that Northern Ireland beef is the safest on these islands. I am determined to pursue low incidence BSE status for Northern Ireland. I have made that one of my priorities. Mr Savage, Mr Bradley, Mr Roche, Mr Armstrong and Mr Poots, and perhaps others, have referred to this. I spoke to Nick Brown about it again last week, and I have his, and Joe Walsh's, support. We are making progress, but I am not unaware of the potential difficulties. I know that the idea does not command 100% support, even within Northern Ireland, and there could be major hurdles in London and Brussels. I am determined to do all that I can for the beef farmers of Northern Ireland.

I realise that I am about to run out of time. Mr McGrady referred to the early retirement scheme. That scheme would be extremely costly. If we could afford it, it would be welcome to the farmers. One of the things that have been impressed upon me by the industry is that, whatever money that is available, there should be maximum winners and minimum losers. The early retirement scheme would mean minimum winners and maximum losers.

I will reply in writing to the other points.

Mr Speaker:

I emphasise again that many Members wished to speak. The Minister could have done with more time to give answers. That is an expression of the concern of the Assembly.

I now call Mr Kane to wind up the debate.

Mr Kane:

First, I would challenge the Minister about the millions of pounds of additional money. This money went to the Department to pay off bad debt. She has failed to respond to all the prescriptive measures.

The demonstrations converging on the grounds of this building today are the result of neglecting the primary producers of that upon which life depends - food. Let nobody in the House think that farmers are crying wolf or that the agriculture crisis is something affecting only farmers and their families. An 80% reduction in farm incomes must translate into a colossal reduction in purchases from the multitude of suppliers who surround agriculture. The devastation will be widespread if it remains unchecked.

An array of factors are cited as having contributed to the collapse of the value of agri-produce. The strength of sterling, a world surplus, and a worldwide ban resulting from the discovery of BSE in our cattle have all been mentioned. The strength of sterling in comparison with the strength of other currencies is obvious. A world surplus of agricultural produce is a likely factor, since other non-members of the EU are also experiencing problems in agriculture. The weakest of reasons for explaining what is happening to this industry, arguably Northern Ireland's staple industry, is the export ban. Scientists have concluded that, our beef is safe to eat. We already knew that. Subsequently the ban was lifted. However, despite the scientific evidence and the European Commission's removal of the trade embargo, the French Government have imposed their own embargo, thus contravening European law.

With the price of its agricultural produce, Northern Ireland is fast becoming the poor man of Europe, and we do not need any further disadvantages imposed. The farming industry requires immediate financial aid, for its survival. Circumstances make our farmers the poorest in Europe as well as the least well-off in the United Kingdom. In the week ending 22 January 2000 the average steer price in Northern Ireland was 158·6p per kilo, while in Great Britain the average price was 176·7p per kilo.

12.30 pm

That is a difference of £63·35 on a 350-kilo carcass, representing a considerable margin between the two producers. It is a similar situation with lamb. In the same period the Great Britain price per kilo was 185·5p, as opposed to 176·07p in Northern Ireland, and that means a disadvantage to the Province of over £2 on a 21-kilo carcass. These examples highlight the disparity between the regions.

Producers here have also had a reduction of almost one third in the price of milk. This, combined with the removal of the calf processing scheme, produces an animal welfare problem as well as a financial one.

Despite pleas to the Government and the new Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the pig industry is disappearing even as we speak. The industry does not perceive the reduction contained in the Agenda 2000 CAP reforms as a means of increasing prices. Rather, it is seen as a method of curbing production in an already distressed market. A 4% cut in suckler cow quotas, or a 2·5% cut in premium levels through modulation, can do nothing but further damage an industry already on its knees.

Yet, with the resolve of the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to push for low incidence BSE status for Northern Ireland, we could regain our exports of beef to the continent.

Mr Speaker:


Mr Kane:

Farming can continue no longer -

Mr Speaker:

Order. The Member will resume his seat. The time is up.

Mr Kane:

I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


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 sitting was suspended at 12.32 pm.

On resuming -

Decommissioning: Report of Commission


1.30 pm

Mr Speaker:

A substantial number of Members wish to speak in this debate. I have discussed the matter with the Business Committee, and the view was expressed that the same arrangements as those earlier today should apply. The Member moving the motion will have 10 minutes, with five minutes for winding up. Each Member wishing to speak will have five minutes. I trust that that is in accordance with the Assembly's views.

The following motion stood on the Order Paper in the name of Mr Trimble:

To take note of reports from the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning.

The First Minister (Mr Trimble):

Not moved.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

Is this not a matter for the leave of the House?

Mr Speaker:

The First Minister has said "Not moved." Had the motion been moved and had there been a speech, it would have required the leave of the House to withdraw it. The statement "Not moved" means that the motion falls and cannot be debated.

In the circumstances I do not feel that I can move to the Adjournment debate, because the Member who is to open that debate and the Minister who will respond have not been forewarned. I propose to suspend the sitting for 30 minutes to ascertain whether at least the Member and the Minister can be available earlier. Standing Orders were not suspended to a particular time, and I think that it would be possible to have the Adjournment debate earlier.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Many Members will know that the Adjournment debate is from 5.00 pm until 6.00 pm. It would hardly be fair to them to start the debate early simply because the First Minister could not get his act together and give Members proper notice. He has run away again. My party could not even table an amendment, otherwise we could have done something about this. This is another example of contempt of the House - bringing Members together and then suddenly saying "Not moved."

The Adjournment debate should begin at 5.00 pm. Keep Executive members here till 5.00 pm so that everyone wishing to take part in the debate can do so. Why should Members be penalised for the way in which the First Minister has acted?

Mr Speaker:

The proposition was for a 30-minute suspension so that I could ascertain whether the Member who is to speak on the Adjournment and the Minister who will reply could be available earlier. I may return in 30 minutes to say that the matter cannot be addressed until 5.00 pm. However, in the interests of the House I should at least try to ascertain if the matter can be satisfactorily dealt with before that time.

Mr Dodds:

This is a deplorable situation, given that there was a debate this morning on agriculture - the most serious crisis affecting -

Mr Speaker:

Order. Is this a point of order?

Mr Dodds:

Yes, and, of course, it will be for you to rule on it.

This morning's debate was curtailed. Many Members wanted to speak but could not because there was further business. The First Minister has now withdrawn that business, having denied those Members that opportunity. That is deplorable. He is once again running away -

Mr Speaker:


Mr Dodds:

- from the issue of decommissioning.

Mr Speaker:

Order. The Member will resume his seat.

He was right when he said that I would rule on whether it was a point of order. It was not a point of order.

Mr C Wilson:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker:

Is it a point of order?

Mr C Wilson:

I understand that it may be.

Mr Speaker:

I admire the Member's honesty, but his comment means that it is not a point of order.

The sitting was suspended at 1.37 pm.

On resuming -

Assembly Business


2.07 pm

Mr Speaker:

Order. I have consulted with the Minister and with the Member who is to speak on the Adjournment motion. The Minister was in a position to move ahead, but the Member was not. The sitting will be suspended until 5.00 pm, and we will have the one-hour Adjournment debate then.

Mr Dodds:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Given the unsatisfactory nature of what has transpired and the First Minister's decision to run away from the debate that was to be held on Gen de Chastelain's reports on decommissioning, can you indicate to the House when you were informed by the First Minister of his decision to withdraw from this debate? This does have an effect on the number of Members who were denied an opportunity to speak during the agriculture debate this morning. The Ulster Unionist Party has withdrawn from the Chamber again. It is probably ensconced in an office somewhere so that it does not have to face the decommissioning issue that we wanted to raise.

Mr Speaker:

I cannot tell the Member how many Members were not able to speak this morning. Having indicated to parties the amount of time that was available, some did not even put the names of Members who wished to speak forward, because they knew that there was no point. For that reason I cannot answer that question.

It is not in order for me to respond to the other part of the Member's question save to say that I am as open as I possibly can be with the Assembly. I cannot say more than that. If the Member wishes, he may discuss with his representative on the Business Committee the meeting that we had at lunchtime. It would not be proper for me to go further at this stage.

Mr Wells:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Many dozens of people have travelled from throughout Northern Ireland to be present for this debate. Now that Mr Trimble is not here, many of them are - [Interruption]

Mr Speaker:

Order. This does not appear to me to be a point of order, and therefore I cannot take it.

It may well be that Members have travelled some distance to attend the debate, but the Member's Colleagues will tell him that from time to time they make the journey to Westminster to make a statement and are not given the opportunity to do so. Life is often hard.

Mr C Wilson:

Mr Speaker, we have been denied the opportunity to debate decommissioning - an issue which the entire community is concerned about. Perhaps you will give me some guidance on the correct procedure for initiating an emergency debate once the report is in the possession of the First Minister and Assembly Members. Maybe you will refresh my memory.

Mr Speaker:

I refer the Member to Standing Orders. I do not think it is necessary for me to read out the relevant parts. I appreciate that the Member may well have wanted to put his request on the record.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

I wish to raise a point of order.

Mr Speaker:

I wish to be assured that this is a genuine point of order and not an attempt to make a speech.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

It is not such an attempt, and I appreciate your allowing me to make the point.

Can you confirm under which Standing Order the First Minister withdrew this motion, and, in relation to Mr Dodds's point of order about Mr Trimble's decision to chicken out of this debate, can you indicate whether you are prepared to bring the matter before the Business Committee to find out if there is any way of preventing the like of this from happening again?

Mr Speaker:

This is not a matter for Standing Orders, but rather for Erskine May. It is entirely in order in Erskine May. It is not uncommon in other places for business to collapse in this way. There is no point in bringing the matter before the Business Committee since it is in order. Had it not been in order, as the Member is aware, I would not have permitted it to happen. Of course, that may not be to the satisfaction of all Members.

The sitting was suspended at 2.12 pm.

On resuming -

Motion made:

That the Assembly do now adjourn. - [Mr Speaker]

Disruption in Schools


5.00 pm

Mr S Wilson:

There has been widespread consternation in schools across the Province over the last two months since the appointment of the Minister of Education. Furthermore, his party has been actively engaged in the disruption of schools, disruption which the Minister has not condemned. He may like to run away from the fact that his appointment caused such anger, but the truth is that there have been unprecedented occurrences in schools since then.

We have witnessed whole schools being called together to debate this matter, schoolchildren voting not to have the Minister near their school, boards of governors meeting and resolving that he will not be invited to their schools and, indeed, on some occasions, protests. He may wish to forget all this, along with some other matters to which I shall come in a moment. The fact remains, however, that his appointment has been an embarrassment for the Department of Education and for the party - and I note that most of its Members are absent today - that was responsible for the setting up of an Executive which included Sinn Féin.

The Minister said yesterday that he wanted a quiet life. He said that he wanted a Dobermann to sit at his feet. He thought that I was going to do that. He must have mistaken me for someone else - the "pup" from East Belfast who is occasionally given to licking the Minister's hand. Let me assure the Minster, however, that I do not intend to sit at his feet. In fact, I have made it quite clear that my role in the Assembly will be to snap at his ankles and, when I can, sink my teeth into his ministerial calf. We have set ourselves the task of opposing Sinn Féin, not co-operating with it.

When the First Minister announced the draft programme of legislation yesterday he said that he would be introducing a Dogs Bill. This Dogs Bill was to give the courts or resident magistrates discretion in all circumstances, including the circumstances of an attack, in determining the fate of a dog. I do not know if the Minister of Education had any say in having that included in the legislation. Perhaps he was merely preparing himself for the future. Perhaps, as we all suspect, members of IRA/Sinn Féin have their own methods of dealing with those who oppose them. They wish to hold on to their guns, because the tried and tested Republican methods of dealing with dissent are still close to their hearts.

I wish to look at the various ways in which schools have been disrupted. First, this disruption has been caused by anxiety at the Minister's appointment. The Minister would love to believe that this was orchestrated, that it was politically motivated by parties with a point to make. Of course, he must believe this, for to accept otherwise would be to accept that there is widespread loathing of him because of his background and because of what he and his colleagues have done to the people of Northern Ireland. He chooses to believe that this disruption was not spontaneous but orchestrated.

My party has made it quite clear that we do not believe that youngsters should disadvantage themselves because of the appointment of a Sinn Féin Minister. They are quite right to make clear their opposition, as are parents, boards of governors and teachers. However, children should not be disadvantaging themselves by damaging their education.

The Minister's appointment has caused widespread disruption. Of course, since then his party colleagues have been causing disruption in schools without any condemnation from him. Sinn Féin disrupted the school in Pomeroy because it dared to invite a duchess. The Minister has said that he will try to sort this out, but he has not condemned it because he is not against intimidation. One has only to look at the behaviour of Mr McElduff in Carrickmore to see that Sinn Féin is not opposed to intimidation. What he was annoyed about was that the behaviour of the ignoramuses in Pomeroy held IRA/Sinn Féin up to ridicule among their own.

The argument went something like this: as she is a duchess, she must be a member of the royal family and must therefore oppress Catholics. It is a bit like saying "Your name is Gerry, so you must be a German and a Fascist." I suppose the first and last parts are right, but not the middle part. That is what they were angry about.

Look at what happened in the Assembly yesterday. The Minister made it quite clear, in response to Mr Weir, that he is not against intimidation or interference in schools. He admitted that he pulled his youngster out of a class because the RUC was present. That gives the green light to all the Finbar Conways that lurk in the towns around Northern Ireland, under the guise of Sinn Féin. It will not be too long before they will be taking the lead from the Minister and pulling their children out of school, or maybe other people's children out, or maybe the teachers. The Minister has said that if the RUC is in a school, it is OK to go in and disrupt it.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

Does the Member not agree that that is the act of a hallion?

Mr S Wilson:

That must be a country term. I do not know what a hallion is.

It is quite clear that the Minister has laid himself wide open and that his party has been encouraged to behave in this way. It is no wonder that his activities have been condemned by teachers' unions, by principals and by parents. It is significant that he will not publish what schools he intends to go to. That could be a relic of his secretive past when he was used to, as he bragged on his first public engagement, flitting from safe house to safe house. Now he is going to flit from safe school to safe school in secrecy. He knows that, because of his record, he is not accepted in this Province or in many of its schools.

The Minister has promised future disruption of the school system in Northern Ireland. He has promised to dismantle what is best about our education system. Yesterday he attacked the school system - a school system which, incidentally, people in other parts of the United Kingdom envy.

Ironically, the same Minister has praised our school system this very day in his statement about improved school performances. He said that 56% of pupils achieved five or more A to C grades at GCSE, compared to pupils in England, only 48% of whom reached that standard in 1999. I will not be able to go into this as my time is nearly finished, but he intends to disrupt a system, which is the envy of other parts of the United Kingdom, in his pursuit of socialist ideology. He and his colleagues have been good at levelling for the last 30 years. They have levelled towns and villages all over this Province. Now he wants to level down our education system, with all the disruption that that would cause.

The Minister of Education does not have the confidence of those whom he claims to administer. He does not have that confidence because of his behaviour and that of his colleagues, and he does not have that confidence because of what he is threatening to do to the system.

Two months ago the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party told us that in setting up an Executive which includes Sinn Féin he had got the best deal for Northern Ireland. Within two months we were to be rid of guns when we had Sinn Féin Ministers in Government. They would be poachers turned gamekeepers - all would be well. He has given the poachers the run of the estate. He himself has run away today from the debate on disarmament that he had promised the House. He did not deliver a good deal for the people of Northern Ireland. He delivered a rotten deal, and with it we have got a rotten Minister, who ought to go.

Mr Speaker:

At the commencement of the debate I had almost no names of Members wishing to speak, save for Mr Wilson and, of course, the Minister, who will respond to this debate. Since then I have received a number of names. There has been no time limit, for I was unable to set one, not knowing the situation. I propose to the Assembly, so that those whose names are down can have an opportunity to speak, that we limit each Member to five minutes. I seek the leave of the Assembly on that.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. How long will the Minister have to reply?

Mr Speaker:

The Minister will have about 10 minutes. It is normal practice to give the Minister 10 minutes for each hour. As you will recall, the last Adjournment debate lasted three hours, and the Minister had about half an hour to respond on that occasion. Do I have the leave of the Assembly to restrict Members to five minutes?

Mr Kennedy:

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Will you exercise a little discretion in time allocations so that Members need not confine themselves exactly to five minutes? If they were halfway through an important sentence would you cut them off?

Mr Speaker:

The difficulty is that I am very much aware that in such circumstances Members, seeing the time limit coming up, have the capacity to produce the longest sentences. They speak in paragraphs then. If Members know they have five minutes, they can watch the clock. If there is no limit, there will be arguments saying that one Member got more time than another, and so on. I ask the leave of the Assembly to restrict speeches to five minutes so that those Members whose names are down will have an opportunity to speak.

5.15 pm

Rev Dr William McCrea:

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Will my hon Friend get any winding-up time?

Mr Speaker:

I am tempted to suggest that there was a fair bit of winding up in the first speech. There is no winding-up time in an Adjournment debate. I will therefore restrict all Members to five minutes. I advise them to watch the stopwatches and to match the length of their last sentence to the time they have left.

Leave granted.


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