Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 7 February 2000 (continued)
As this is the first time a Bill has come to Final Stage I shall explain the procedure.
The debate shall be confined to the content of the measure. No amendments may be made. If passed, the Bill will be forwarded, after review by the Attorney- General, to the Secretary of State, for submission for Royal Assent, as required by section 14 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
I beg to move
That the Financial Assistance for Political Parties Bill (NIA 3/99) do now pass.
Clause 3 states that there is no provision for financial assistance for political parties after 31 March 2000 unless the scheme under the Bill is approved before that date. For that purpose we need a scheme. I therefore support the Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Financial Assistance for Political Parties Bill (NIA 3/99) do now pass.
The sitting was suspended at 11.24 am.
On resuming —
European Union Payments
1. Mr C Murphy
asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to address the difficulties arising from current regulations governing European Union payments to the agriculture sector which inhibit flexibility.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers):
It is not clear what the Member has in mind with this question. EU payments must comply with state-aid rules. Those rules relate to all state payments, whether EU-funded or not, and to industry in general. They apply across the European Union, and their purpose is to prevent member states putting their industries at an unfair advantage by paying state subsidies. Northern Ireland Ministers will be able to influence decisions on the reform of state-aid rules as they fall due for such reform, but at the moment, we have to work with them as they presently stand.
Mr C Murphy:
In the rural farming community there is a real sense that the rules and regulations coming from Brussels are unduly inhibiting and are resulting in a decrease in the amount of money going into that community. Will the Minister assure us that in any negotiations with the European Union she and her officials will do what other member states do — try to negotiate as much flexibility as possible into the delivery of European payments? There is a real sense that money is being lost, and although these may be small grants, when taken across the industry as a whole they add up to a substantial sum each year.
As I have already stated, when the next round falls due, I will ensure that our voice is heard. Flexibility is not a route that is open to us at present. Once the rules have been agreed, they apply equally across the European Union, and we have to be careful that we do not fall outside them. Were we to do so, we would be penalised, which would leave us in a worse situation.
Does the Minister recognise that the current rules governing the sheep meat regime actually work against farmers in Northern Ireland? The sheep annual premium is calculated on a European-wide basis, as opposed to a regional basis, and consequently farmers are losing £7 to £8 per head. Does she intend to support the Irish Government, who have already asked that the rules in the EU regime be changed?
I am not sure that I heard the last part of the question clearly, but I know that it was about the sheep premium. I am aware that there are difficulties here, and, as I have stated, the rules are as agreed. We have no option but to follow them. When it comes to the next round my officials and I will be arguing the case which Mr Poots has mentioned.
The first payment on the suckler-cow premium and the beef special premium paid out in November 1999 was reduced from 80% to 60%. Was this a European decision, or was it made by the British Government or locally?
It was a European decision.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
The Minister must recognise the problems facing the agriculture community, in terms of both young entrants to the industry and established farmers unable to receive compensation. Will the Minister commit some of the £30 million of additional money secured under the modulation scheme from 2001 to 2006 to the development of an early-retirement scheme for farmers or to a young entrants’ scheme for those not yet on the farm?
Under modulation it is open to me to have an early-retirement scheme, but if I were to use the modulation money for such a scheme, there would be nothing left for anything else. The industry has made it clear to me that it wants the maximum number of winners and the minimum number of losers. If I were to opt for the early-retirement scheme most of the money would be going to a small number of farmers — about 740, I believe — leaving 29,000 out. Much as I would like to have such a scheme, I believe that the industry itself would consider it on the whole unfair when taken across the board.
2. Mrs E Bell asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to set out the environmental benefits the less-favoured area scheme is intended to deliver.
The new scheme, which will be based on land area, should make a positive contribution towards reducing the risk of environmental damage from — for example, on-farm pollution or the overgrazing of land. Importantly, the new payments will be conditional on adherence to statutory environmental obligations and to standards of good farming practice. Payments will be reduced where breaches of these conditions are established through on-the-spot inspections of the land.
Mrs E Bell:
I thank the Minister for her response. I am not an expert on livestock farming, but does the Minister agree that most urban dwellers wish to see the environment being protected by direct grants to farmers to help them to improve their land rather than having them depend on an uncertain side effect of a change in regulations?
I am not sure what the Member means by "an uncertain side effect". The change in the regulations is intended to ensure that environmental considerations are balanced with farmers’ needs and the necessity to compensate them. I do not accept that it will be harmful. The new regulations will work in the interests of both the environment and the farmer.
Does the Minister accept that the farming community is critical to the future environmental well-being of the community?
I certainly do. The interests of the farming community and the interests of environmentalists coalesce. They are complementary, as should be recognised.
Does the Minister accept that these changes are extremely welcome, in that they will continue to put money into the agricultural and rural community and also protect the environment? Is there not a need, however, to combine the policies of the less-favoured area scheme with the environmentally sensitive area (ESA) scheme to provide a single package which would put money into the rural economy and protect the environment at a higher level?
The ESA schemes and, indeed, the countryside management schemes are geared towards protecting and enhancing the environment while, as the Member says, putting money into the farmer’s pocket. These things are encouraged to go hand in hand. Both matters are dealt with under the direction of the Department, and this will help both the environment and the farmers.
Local Agricultural Produce
3. Mr Armstrong asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what she has done to encourage public-sector catering establishments to use more locally produced agricultural products.
I have recently written to local public-purchasing bodies in Northern Ireland highlighting the excellence of locally produced pig meat and pointing out that our pigs have been reared in welfare-friendly conditions and have not been fed with mammalian meat-and-bone meal. I appreciate that purchasing bodies have to take many factors, particularly value for money, into consideration when purchasing, but it is to be hoped that my approach will encourage a greater uptake of domestic product.
Does the Minister feel that we are being hypocritical today by saying that we should support our own industries when we do not even know what type of food we are eating in the staff restaurant?
I am not quite clear what the Member means by saying we do not know where the food comes from.
We do not know if the product we are eating in the restaurant is produced in Northern Ireland. Even today there are two new cases of BSE in France. I am told that there is a lot of French meat coming into our Province.
I have to rule that question out of order. It is properly a question for the Assembly Commission, not for the Minister of Agriculture. The Member may wish to redirect his question.
Can the Minister confirm if an officer has been appointed within the Department of Agriculture whose sole purpose is to liaise with supermarket chains and the catering industry to promote Northern Ireland produce? I understood that a person was to have been appointed, but that has not happened so far.
There has not been an officer appointed specifically for that purpose. With regard to the matter of locally sourced produce, I have arranged meetings with the retail sector to discuss this and to point out the importance of using locally sourced products.
Can the Minister tell us what other steps she has taken to help primary producers?
I have done a number of things since I came into office. The most important step that I have taken to help the primary producer is that I am working on achieving low-incidence BSE status. I have had meetings with the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Nick Brown. I have twice met Commissioner Fischler. I have spoken to the Prime Minister and also had a meeting with Mr Mandelson to put forward the case for low-incidence BSE status.
Nick Brown has already accepted that Northern Ireland has a compelling case for low-incidence BSE status, and he has said so. My officials are already working on a proposal that might be brought forward. I have also spoken to Commissioner Fischler about the problems within the pig sector. I have put views and proposals to him on aids to private storage and on increased export refunds, and I am awaiting his response. I have taken forward initiatives on a number of levels to ensure that something is done to help farmers in the short term, and I have also set up a strategic review group to look at the situation in the long term.
In the public sector there is evidence that the supermarkets are increasing their own profits — little of which are ploughed back into the local economy — at the expense of producers in all areas of the agriculture industry. I call on the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to initiate an investigation into supermarket practice and pricing policy versus farmgate prices to help stop the destruction of many small producers.
I recognise the tension in the industry about the equality of profit throughout the food chain. The Member will be aware that the Competition Commission is looking at that particular issue. There should be a report shortly, and I await that report.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
Does the Minister agree that it would be a good thing if she were to consult with the three MEPs? The MEPs could perhaps go along to her next meeting with the Commissioner.
I have not had any approach from the three MEPs. Clearly, if there is an approach from them I will consider it.
Does the Minister agree that the achievement of low-incidence BSE status will be an almost impossible mountain to climb for the farmers of this country so long as we are tied to the very high level of BSE in Britain?
Could more be done by way of labelling produce to help us to define what is local and what is foreign and not produced to the same welfare standards, and will the Minister be raising this issue in Europe?
The Member has asked two questions — one relating to BSE, and the other to labelling. The issue of labelling was discussed at the last agriculture council meeting which I attended, and my hope is that it will be brought to a conclusion in August. This should help consumers to know precisely what they are buying and where it was sourced.
With regard to low-incidence BSE status, this is a very difficult mountain to climb, but that is no reason for not attempting to climb it. That is what I am trying to do. Nick Brown has already accepted that there is a compelling case, which is a little step in the right direction. I hope to take that forward, and Joe Walsh has said that he will support us if we bring the matter to Europe.
The Member has asked a constitutional, political question about the North/South issue. My views are no secret, but we are working under the Belfast Agreement, within which there are opportunities for enhanced co-operation between North and South. I will ensure that under the new structures, everything that can be done to help the agriculture industry will be done.
Farming Industry Crisis
4. Mr McCarthy asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what approaches she has made to the Executive Committee and the Department of Finance and Personnel to persuade them that extra funds are needed to alleviate the current crisis in the farming industry.
Since my appointment I have taken every opportunity to secure additional resources for Northern Ireland agriculture. I was pleased to secure an additional £6·7 million in the December public expenditure monitoring round. During the forthcoming expenditure review and during the collective discussion of our programme for government I shall be pressing the Minister of Finance and Personnel to treat agriculture and rural development as a priority to which extra resources must be committed.
I welcome the Minister’s response. Does she accept that, while the UK Government have a role in seeking assistance such as monetary compensation, there is also a desperate need for local action? Will she make a start by transferring modulated funds under the rural development regulations from her Department’s core expenditure into schemes that directly benefit our farmers?
The European component of the modulation funds comes with specific conditions and can be used only in four prescribed areas: early retirement, forestry, less-favoured area schemes and agri-environmental schemes. I do not have the freedom to use it for anything else. I reiterate that all those schemes pay money directly into the farmers’ pockets.
Given that Northern Ireland needs to export over 70% of its agricultural produce, does the Minister accept the need for a task force to examine all aspects of production, including the associated food-processing sector? Such a task force should also examine the marketing of the finished food products and make sure that they are safe and of the highest quality.
Does the Minister accept that all sectors of agriculture in Northern Ireland need Government support to rebuild confidence in the future of farming in the context of the European Union’s Agenda 2000 common agricultural policy proposals?
I agree with much of what the Member has said. In my view, one of the problems is that Northern Irish agriculture has been trying to manage crisis after crisis. I have set up a strategic review group to look at all areas of the industry. This is made up of people from the industry and some from outside who will be able to take a strategic, non-sectoral view. I hope that they will come forward with a broad, balanced view of what is required for both the farmers and the agri-food industry at this time. I agree that it will have to be broad-based and look at all aspects of the industry.
Rev Dr William McCrea:
Can the Minister detail the percentages of the additional moneys that have gone directly to the farmers’ pockets, to rural development, to her Department and to the processors? Will additional moneys, if agreed by the Executive, be allocated in a similar fashion? Does the Minister agree that at present it is the farmer who is in greatest need?
I do not have the figures requested in the first part of the question to hand. I will try to obtain them and give them to the Member later. As regards the second part of the question, I do not think that the agri-food industry, the processors or the farmers should necessarily be seen as being in competition with each other. One of the problems for pig farmers at present is the lack of processing capacity following the burning of the Lovell & Christmas factory. Therefore if the processors are moving and improving, opportunities are being created for the farmers. I see them as being complementary rather than in competition. I see all these aspects as being worthy of assistance from my Department.
I wish the Minister every success in her efforts to elicit further funding for the sector. However, does she agree that the agriculture industry will be best served in the long term if any extra funding is used as an incentive for lower production, as excess production has been the principal cause of the output pricing problems and a major cause of environmental damage?
One of the current problems, particularly in the pig sector, apart from the collapse of world markets, is overproduction. That aspect of the problem will be one of the issues that will be looked at by my strategy review committee to see how it can be addressed.
Question No 5 has been withdrawn.
6. Mr Ford asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development how her Department intends to fund the increased uptake of agri-environment schemes.
The agri-environment schemes will be supported from existing baselines and funds raised from modulation. While existing budget baselines are sufficient to support the continuation of the environmentally sensitive areas scheme, meaningful development of the organic farming scheme (OFS) and the countryside management scheme (CMS) depends largely on the additional funds delivered by modulation. I will also be seeking additional funds for a range of agricultural priorities in the year 2000 spending review and the programme for government.
I thank the Minister for her response, and I note very clearly her comment that if CMS and OFS are to be expanded, the money will have to come from additional modulated funds. Can she explain, in the light of her reply to my Colleague Mr McCarthy, how using modulated funds for her Department’s forest service will directly benefit farmers?
There has been much confusion relating to the reallocation money, particularly that given to the forest service. I did not give money to the forest service. There was a shortfall in the budget, as expected revenue from the forest service was not realised. This was because of the high price of sterling and the damage done to the forests by the 1998 storm. A shortfall occurred in that budget, and that had to be rectified. Therefore what looked like giving money to the forest service was really using money to plug a gap in the budget. This had to be done.
At what stage does the Minister anticipate a payback for farmers from rural development initiatives? I ask this question in the light of the gravity of the economic crisis and the urgency with which a solution must be found.
I would like to think that there will be, as the Member has said, a payback to farmers in the area of rural development. The money from the modulation funds that relates to the rural development regulation will increase in the next few years up until 2006, and during that time, I expect to see money going back into the farming community.
Does the Minister accept that there is an urgent problem in respect of drainage in rural areas? Some 15 or 20 years ago a great deal of improvement work was carried out on drainage systems in rural areas, but due to the clogging of the systems, all this good work has now been undone, and water is pouring out on to the roads, thus causing a great deal of damage. Would the Minister be prepared to co-operate with other relevant Departments and introduce an agri-environmental scheme to restore the good work that was done some 15 or 20 years ago? Water on the roads is causing millions of pounds’ worth of damage, and the drainage system should be improved urgently.
That was a lengthy question, and I did not quite hear a part of it. The acoustics in this Chamber are not the best — unless it is my hearing. Will the Member please repeat the question.
This is not the first time a Minister has found it difficult to hear a Member. There is no difficulty hearing what some Members have to say — they are absolutely clear — but others are much less clear. I appeal to Members to speak clearly and to use the microphones — which is difficult if their heads are down in their papers. When asking supplementary questions Members should not need the assistance of papers and written notes. Perhaps on this occasion, for the benefit of the Minister, Mr Gibson will repeat his question.
Some 15 or 20 years ago a great deal of improvement work was done on drainage systems in rural areas. Many of these drains have now become ineffective. Water is pouring off the land and on to the surface of the roadways, causing great damage. Will the Minister help remove this excess water by increasing land-drainage grants?
I will consider what needs to be done to improve this situation. I cannot give an exact answer today. I will consider the matter, but I will not make any promises, as I will have to look at the expenditure and the benefit to the environment.
The next question for oral answer was asked as a supplementary to a previous question — not best practice. We will therefore move to the following question.
8. Mr Savage asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development how long after culling farmers have to wait until they receive payment under the over-30-months scheme.
The Intervention Board Executive Agency operates the over-30-month slaughter scheme. It is therefore outside my responsibility as Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development. I have referred the Member’s question to the chief executive of that agency, and I have asked him to provide an answer direct to the Member.
I understood that when this contract was put out the payment to the farmer was to have been made in less than four weeks. I know for a fact that many of these payments take two months to issue. That is totally wrong. Three months ago they seemed to be on top of the problem, but now, whenever people have their cattle taken away and they enquire about the delay in payments, they are told that the computers were down. That is not a valid excuse, and it needs to be investigated very seriously. I understand that the firms that lift the cattle get the cheque but hold it back for a time and use the money for themselves. That is the information I have been given, and I have no reason to disbelieve it.
I understand the Member’s concern. However, it is not within my remit, and for that reason it is a matter for the Intervention Board. I have asked the Intervention Board to respond to the Member.
Given that the Minister has made it clear that this is not within her remit, it is difficult to pursue the question.
9. Mrs Nelis
asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development whether she will address the inequalities in licence fees for drift-net fishermen compared with their counterparts in the Republic of Ireland and if she will investigate the decline in the traditional fishing industry in the Foyle area.
Drift-net licence fees in the Foyle area are higher than those in the Republic of Ireland, but there are good reasons for that. Fishing during the permitted period is very intensive and effective, so the number of licences is limited in the interests of conserving and protecting salmon stocks. The Loughs Agency has done much to enhance the productivity of the Foyle system to the benefit of all fishery interests in that catchment area. The fee also reflects the agency’s need to meet as much of its running costs as possible.
Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh.
I thank the Minister for her response and appreciate the information she has given. Small fishermen are penalised in comparison with the larger ones. I understand that the SPARD deal and the licence fees are about £150.
Go raibh maith agat.
The time is up. I can ask the Minister to respond in writing only to the part of the question that was asked within the time.