Northern Ireland Assembly
Tuesday 5 December 2000
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Deputy Speaker [Sir John Gorman] in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am sure that Members, including yourself, will realise that there is great difficulty in receiving Order Papers and Committee papers at present. Are there any plans to ensure that Members will receive their papers at home on time?
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I am informed by the Clerk that the Royal Mail strike is not helping. There is considerable difficulty in getting papers to Members' homes as early as we would like. I shall certainly take up the matter because I appreciate the difficulty, especially for Members who live as far away as yourself.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I call Mr Savage to move the motion.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I submitted an amendment to the motion. I have received no word from the Speaker's Office of its being rejected, and I contend that it is perfectly in order. We are here for an important debate on agriculture. The motion before the House clearly states that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development should take a more proactive role in furthering the interests of the agriculture industry. I wanted to add certain things that the Department could do while taking a proactive role. The Speaker's Office should have some respect for Back-Benchers. We should be told.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I was also amazed that you did not even know that the amendment had been rejected. We should at least have some procedure whereby the Speaker informs the appropriate people when he is not accepting an amendment.
We have plenty of time today, but we shall not be able to table an amendment that would highlight two or three issues that even the Ulster Farmers' Union and other agriculture organisations have been raising.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
You were kind enough to tell me your concerns about the amendment. I have made some enquiries in the past few seconds and found that the Speaker - as is within his powers - has chosen two amendments, but yours is not one of them. I do not know what the explanation for that is, but I hope that during the debate you will be able to make the points that you would have made in your amendment.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
Further to that point of order, Sir. To which Standing Order does the Speaker refer?
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I shall return to that matter in due course.
I beg to move
That this Assembly recognises the difficulties facing the agricultural industry and the importance of the agricultural sector to the Northern Ireland economy and asks that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development take a more proactive role in furthering the interests of the agricultural industry.
We are meeting at a time of crisis. Although that is hardly an unusual statement in this place, the crisis to which I refer is not a political one. It is the crisis that has ravaged Northern Ireland agriculture over the past decade. The depth and seriousness of the depression in agriculture is sometimes hard to comprehend. It is almost biblical in proportion. The disaster seems almost endless: BSE, the pig crisis, bad weather and consequent bad harvests, the crash in farmgate prices and farm incomes, and the chronic debt levels in farming.
I wish to emphasise from the outset that what I wish to say is meant to be constructive. Negativity, criticisms and blame-apportionment will not solve the crisis. We have had too much of that in this place already. It is time to put that behind us and behave as responsible people whose duty now must be to save one of Northern Ireland's key industries. I tabled the motion on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party to help chart a way forward that will help Northern Ireland's agriculture industry not merely survive, but thrive.
Northern Ireland farmers owe approximately £490 million to the banks. That figure does not even include what they owe to the animal feed manufacturers. Normally, that seemingly enormous level of debt would not be a problem, as it equals only 5% of the total capital asset value of Northern Ireland's farms, which stands at £10·63 billion. Debt and debt servicing have become a problem because of the collapse of farm incomes. How can farmers service debts when they are losing money?
The figures speak for themselves. Of Northern Ireland farmers, 46% earn less than zero. Only 10% earn over £10,000 a year. Year after year, decline in farm incomes makes for depressing reading. In the past four years, they have fallen by 23%, 15%, 25% and 54% respectively. That means that farm income today stands at only 22% of its 1995 level.
Pig and poultry farmers lose an average of £20,100 a year. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development estimates that not a single agriculture sector will break even in the present year - all will lose money.
The situation is twice as bad here as in the rest of the United Kingdom because of last year's chronic harvest. Farm incomes stand at slightly more than 20% of the 1995 levels, whereas the UK figure is 40%.
It is important that the Assembly express its sympathy to the farming industry. However, we must do much more than that. Assembly Members must act. They must be seen to act, and they must act now.
Agriculture remains a key sector of Northern Ireland's economy. Some 59,251 people are directly employed on farms. Another 19,490 work in food processing, 4,560 in animal feed and 1,100 in sales. The total number employed in the agrifood industry is 84,401. That compares to only 31,840 jobs in construction. Even manufacturing has only 20,000 more employees than agriculture. As a significant employer, agriculture must be the Assembly's major and pressing concern. However, there have been more than 5,000 job losses in the sector in the past five years.
Two interrelated problems co-exist at the heart of the agriculture sector - drastically declining farm incomes and debt servicing. The scale of the problem calls for a major broad-based and sector-wide structural reform of the entire agriculture industry, and not merely piecemeal measures that tinker with minor details on the margins of the problem.
To begin with, it is a question of attitude. We must see a "can-do" attitude develop quickly, both in the Departments of State and in the Assembly. The whole point of devolution is empowerment. It is not good enough to poodle along with the failed policies of direct rule. A whole raft of proactive, imaginative and new policies are needed to make a real difference and to tackle one of the greatest economic crises to hit the Province. Making a difference is what the Assembly should be all about. I propose action, and action now. Agriculture needs what amounts to a new deal, just as that great President, Roosevelt, introduced a new deal to tackle America's economic ills during the Great Depression. Therefore, we must develop new policies fit for this hour of crisis.
I have always believed that sensible people learn from the good practice of others. Existing methods for agriculture have been demonstrably ineffective. Now is the time for new initiatives. There is much that we can learn from our European partners. Structures exist in Denmark and France that, if implemented here, could go a long way towards alleviating and even resolving our present crisis. For example, Danish agricultural law, of which I have a copy here, could, in a new and imaginative way, resolve the problem of farmers' assets being locked up in land, farm stock and buildings. The release of those assets would perform two important functions. First, it would provide an exit strategy for older farmers who want to retire. Secondly, it would provide a mechanism for new entrants who seek a farming career.
The Danish law stipulates that farmers do not simply pass their farms on to a son or a family member. Instead, the farm must be sold either to a son at 85% of the market value or to a stranger at the full market price if the son does not want to farm. That money then becomes a farmer's retirement lump sum. It enables the farmer to retire with dignity after a lifetime of hard work. It can be used to service a retirement pension or be passed on to some of his children. By that method, the capital asset value, which is locked up and untouchable in our country unless the farmer sells up, is released. It ceases to be dead money and becomes economically active money. It is an imaginative and constructive way to ease up the movement of capital. Moreover, there are all sorts of spin-offs from it in the banking, insurance, pension and other service sectors, and it enables new blood to enter the farming sector, bringing with it new methods, new ideas and innovations.
In Denmark, the son or the buyer funds his purchase from three sources: establishment savings accounts, state guaranteed loans, and borrowing. There is a much better lending climate for farmers in the Danish banking system. Establishment savings accounts permit a new entrant to save up to almost £11,000 a year in order to establish himself as a farmer, with one third rated as tax-free. Beyond that, he can borrow a further 12% of the purchase price through a state guaranteed loan - typically up to £115,000. The key point is that that is a loan, not a grant. It must be repaid.
As a loan, it does not infringe European Union Agenda 2000 competition regulations, as it does not constitute unfair competition or state aid. I have a copy of the regulations here, and they are quite specific that that is permitted.
As part of the Agenda 2000 reforms, regulations governing agriculture have been greatly simplified into what EU Agriculture Commissioner, Franz Fischler, calls
"a simple and coherent framework."
Aids for investment in farms are permitted up to 40% of eligible expenses, and up to 50% in less favoured areas. A raft of aids is also permitted in the 40% and 50% objective areas specifically to set up young farmers. Therefore the Danish scheme is perfectly within, and consistent with, the European guidelines, as one would expect it to be and, indeed, as it would have to be.
Repayments by the farmer are subsidised in the first years - interest-free in the first four years, with a 75% reduction in the second four-year period, and thereafter on a gradually reducing sliding scale until the farmer has paid off the full amount. That is the equivalent of front-loading a mortgage, which is already a common financial device in this country. Such a loan structure would not be unknown to our banks.
Therefore, there is no reason why that scheme, or a local form of it, could not be introduced in Northern Ireland. All we need is the will to implement it. I have had a copy the Danish agricultural law translated. We could use that legislative framework to draw up our own legislation, adapting it where necessary to reflect local circumstances.
The better lending climate in Danish banks is largely due to two factors. First, the banks have confidence that the Government know where they are going with a well- thought-out policy. Banking is about confidence. Secondly, the young farmer who applies for a loan comes armed with an impressive 10-year business plan, designed at his college of agriculture and written specifically for the farm that he wishes to buy. He also comes armed with a practically-based and business-orientated agriculture qualification - the so-called green certificate.
The Danish scheme is not unique on the continent. France has a similar scheme called young farmer installation loans. Again, there are low-interest rates in the first years of repayment, and the five big French banks underwrite the whole system.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Order. There are about four conversations going on. This is an important debate, and I strongly recommend that Members should have their conversations outside the Chamber.
In France, the loans are used to buy out all the inheritors who have an interest in the property. The borrowing limit is higher than it is in Denmark - as much as £150,000. However, the principle is the same - it is a loan and not a grant, and it is administered by the big banks and the financial institutions. That France and Denmark have similar schemes is more evidence that such schemes are widely accepted in the European Union.
Should the Assembly adopt a similar scheme, it would be opportune to open up negotiations at the earliest possible moment with our major banks and financial institutions in order to have them on board from the outset. The financial mechanisms would be better administered by private enterprise, or by a partnership that involves private enterprise and the Northern Ireland Executive, than by the creation of some clumsy state institution such as a land bank. We do not want to create any more "big government" or yet another quango.
To reduce interest rate repayments, especially in the early years of repayment, and to extend the duration of loans to periods more consistent with the working lives of farmers - typically, 20 years, roughly the same as for the average house mortgage - are simple fiscal mechanisms that would ease the cash-flow problems of many farmers.
If rescheduling of debt is to be the World Bank's recommended course of action for Third-World countries, surely the same measure of tolerance needs to be extended to our own agriculture sector, even for reasons of self- interest. We cannot afford to permit the agriculture sector to crash. If we do, the knock-on effect on other sectors will be enormous. It will have a serious impact on the service sector of the economy. Many jobs in the service sector rely on the agriculture and manufacturing sectors.
The mechanisms and changes that I propose would have profound consequences for restructuring the farming sector. I have tried to outline the ways forward, and to flesh out those plans with some detail and worked examples. If adopted in broad principle by the Assembly, the proposals would need to be worked out in operational detail in a constructive and co-operative way.
I welcome the ongoing talks with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. By putting agriculture on a new footing, we can help to lift that critical sector of the economy out of deepening recession and into profitability and a well grounded success.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
The debate is scheduled to last two hours this morning and an hour after lunch. I shall allow seven minutes for each Member who wishes to speak, 30 minutes for the Minister to respond and 10 minutes for Mr Savage's winding-up speech.
The Chairperson of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee (Rev Dr Ian Paisley):
I regret that none of the amendments tabled by Back-Benchers were accepted by the Speaker. I shall take up that matter with him. The debate is limited in time, and it would have been good to have extra time for those Members who wished to table amendments. That would not have diminished the motion but strengthened it. I agree with Mr Savage. His proposals need to be considered.
Our farmers need to be defended against Europe. Too often, Ministers, the Department and others say that they can do nothing because Europe does not allow it. However, 'Environmental Regulations and Farmers', a document published by a quango - the Better Regulation Task Force - set up by the British Government, makes it clear that a stand must be taken against Europe. One of its proposals is that we need
"to ensure that European Commission (EC) directives properly reflect the interests of British farmers and are practical and enforceable."
That body has discovered that agriculture Directives do not express the best interests of farmers in the United Kingdom, especially in Northern Ireland. The task force also recommends that
"as a general rule, the UK should not implement EC directives ahead of other Member States."
Will the Minister assure us that none of those orders from Europe will be implemented here until they are implemented in the other member states of the EU? Why should we hang ourselves with a rope manufactured by the French and Germans, and why should we hang the farming community? If the Minister wants to be proactive, she should take a firm stand along the lines of that document.
The Minister needs to face up to the terrible threat that will develop as BSE spreads on the continent. Some time ago, I said that the continent would get what we were passing through, but people laughed. All the signs are that BSE will be a threat throughout Europe. Meat from countries in the European Union whose beef is not up to the standards of the beef produced by our farmers must be banned from our country. Why should meat that does not meet the standards demanded of our farmers come into the country? The Minister should take a firm stand on that. France is already violating the law on that matter. However, I do not want anyone to misrepresent what I say: I am not saying that we should ban all meat from the continent, merely that we should ban all meat that is not up to the standards that our farmers have to meet. That is reasonable.
I welcome the banning of meat-and-bone meal. At the last session of the European Parliament, there was great opposition to that ban, and it has been introduced only because European countries have been forced to agree to it by the spread of BSE. I remember when the European Parliament wanted us to kill off as many cattle as we could, but this time I did not hear a single Member from any European country talking about slaughtering cattle. It seems that there are different rules for the farming community in the United Kingdom, which includes the farmers in Northern Ireland.
We also need a farm restructuring scheme. I hope that the Minister will spend a few minutes on the crisis in the pig industry during her allocated 30 minutes. The money that has been offered to farmers who have left the pig industry is not substantial - £200 for a sow is by no means adequate compensation and will not help farmers much. However, I suppose that it is something, and we must welcome it. None the less, at present, we have only a promise from the United Kingdom Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, on which he has not yet delivered. He has not delivered on his second promise to those who are still involved in the pig industry. We should be clear about those two situations. There must be a farm restructuring scheme. We must encourage new entrants into farming or the industry will perish, and there must be compensation for those currently involved in farming who want to get out.
I welcome the material on the Danish scheme; such schemes should be carefully studied. I would also like the Minister to comment on the report that was submitted to the Strasbourg Parliament last month. The introduction of a single enhanced environment scheme is essential. The Minister and the Department should be proactive about that.
I support the motion, although I regret that the amendments to it were not permitted. I do not believe that the mover would have opposed them.
When I first saw the motion I was tempted to table an amendment to include words such as "inherit". I also wondered about the use of the word "more". Having said that, I support the motion in principle.
It is a reminder - and Mr Savage used the word repeatedly - of the crisis that agriculture was and is still in. It is the same crisis that first surfaced in the mid-1990s. It was the responsibility of other Ministers then, but we have now inherited that responsibility.
In fairness to everyone, when we got the Assembly up and running, that nightmare was taken on board immediately. When recovery looked almost impossible - and perhaps to some it still does - the different groupings rolled up their sleeves and took it seriously. We adopted a proactive approach. I refer to both the Minister's and the Department's proactive role to date, as well as to the Agriculture Committee. There has also been support from external bodies such as the Ulster Farmers' Union and the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers' Association. Everyone who wanted the Assembly to get up and running made genuine efforts to take an in-depth look at where we were.
The SDLP recently held its conference in Newcastle, where there was an item on the agenda on a proactive agriculture programme. I am not giving away any party secrets when I say that the item was placed on the agenda by none other than the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development. It was her thinking and her intentions that brought about that proactive programme. The word "proactive" is not completely new, but it recognises that the situation still has to be addressed.
Agriculture is our largest industry, and it must be saved for a multitude of reasons. A proactive role is the only way forward. It is not simply a Northern Ireland problem, but, as the Chairperson of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee said, it is also a European problem, although those countries deal with it in different ways, and some do not deal with it at all. Who should deal with it? Again, I suppose we have to start with the Minister and officials from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Agricultural and Rural Development Committee. Other Ministers could slot in to assist the industry, such as the Minister of the Environment, Mr Foster.
Many farmers would benefit from having their building sites approved for sale, as they can fetch around £40,000 to £45,000 if they are in the right location. That money could prove a lifeline to many farmers; it could save their farms. The problem is that those sites are often in an environmentally sensitive area or in an area of outstanding natural beauty. Those are beautiful environmental titles, but they still prevent farmers from selling the sites. Some consideration should be given to that matter, and Mr Foster did express a degree of sympathy with my views. He recognised that the lifeline to which I refer could be given to some farmers.
Other Departments such as the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment could also help, as could the Department for Regional Development. Rural proofing is inbuilt in all Departments now, which most Members welcome. We could perhaps expand on rural proofing and make it even more rural-conscious, with each Department being more proactive in rural matters to assist the economy.
Nick Brown and his team in Westminster have a role to play. I often wonder whether they know where Northern Ireland is and how seriously they take the Northern Ireland issue. However, recently we have been led to believe that they are taking the matter seriously, and we can challenge that. The Council of Ministers in Europe also has a role to play. Last, but by no means least, the farmers themselves have a proactive role to play.
During the Committee's in-depth research into debt and all aspects of the crisis, millions of words were said and recorded, and some stick out in my memory - "quality produce", "good husbandry" and "selective breeding". Those fit into the proactive role that everyone will have to play. I make no apology for including the farmer. The surviving farmer is the willing farmer, the farmer who is willing to adopt a proactive role. Farmers are still crying out for help, and they have expressed their willingness to join us to promote and save the industry.
I support the motion.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. First, I would like to say that seven minutes is not long enough to deliver the speech that I had in mind, but I will make an attempt. I support this very timely motion, particularly as it comes in a week in which we face the onslaught of BSE repercussions from mainland Europe due to the situation that it now finds itself in. There are a number of reasons why farmers find themselves in this debt situation - BSE, market failure, and the state of sterling and the euro are all part of it. Some people would not like to admit that there is market failure, but there has to be a quality product before there will be a market.
People in shops and supermarkets up and down the country are in the business of selling quality food because they know they have a ready market week on week. Farmers are not in that position, and have not been for years. That started, as far as we are concerned, because the British Government were never prepared to take responsibility for their part in the BSE situation and the fact that meat-and-bone meal was allowed to be put into cattle food without being properly processed. They should have taken responsibility for that, but they did not. Neither did they compensate farmers accordingly. Since then, our markets have been lost, and farmers have had to suffer the effects of the European ban and increased costs as a result of regulations. We have been anchored to the very high incidence of BSE in the main part of England, leaving out Scotland and part of Wales. The Government have anchored us with them for a very long time. We could have gone into new markets long ago if it had not been for the British insisting that we stay part of the so-called GB. In this area we have, and always have had, a very low incidence of BSE, and we should have entered those markets long ago. We are now locked in yet again, probably for several years, as a result of the difficulties emanating from Europe.
The British Government and ourselves have to look to the future, for there will be a future after BSE. We should be saying that there is a future for farmers if they have quality produce and if they tap those markets in years to come. We need to work towards that, but our Programme for Government does not prepare us for that. There is nothing there to bring new people into the industry or let people leave it in a dignified way. Payments will be made to those in marketing and those who want to leave farming, but there is nothing to encourage people into the industry, which is wrong. That has to be addressed - if not now, in future years. There should be some type of retirement scheme - tailored, perhaps, so that it is not as expensive as the Minister mentioned. It should be tailored to suit our needs. That would be a proactive move. We also need an environmental scheme, for which the farm organisations have pushed strongly, and I believe that that can be done.
We have witnessed £15 million being taken away with the Sub-Programme for Agriculture and Rural Development (SPARD) scheme, under which, as farmers know, grants were paid out during the last few years. That was taken away, but we were never told where it went. If we look at other areas, such as the South and France, and their commitment to the farmers and to what they see as farming in the future, we see that they all expect to have a food farming industry in years to come. That does not seem to be coming across from our Governments; they point to training as being the way out. However, that would encourage people to move away from farming altogether and away from the countryside, which is not what we are trying to do.
In relation to the payment system here, farmers need localised payments to be paid out properly and on time. That is not happening. The Minister told us yesterday that 180 complaints was a very small number, but if all the complaints that go to the farm organisations were to go to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development daily, staff there would get very little work done. What is the format for payments to farmers in relation to the suckler cow payments? Is someone who submitted an application form in October being paid before a person who submitted a form in July? That seems to be the case at the moment. Those are small issues, but they are important to local farmers.
I do not propose to list a detailed catalogue of the existing problems in the agriculture industry. If we did not know them already, the mover has set them down in the motion. However, I would like to add my voice to the comments made by Dr Paisley. The motion, although acceptable, is much weaker than it might have been. It could have been considerably improved by amendment. An amendment to the motion would have beefed it up and added more detail to it. My amendment would have been slightly better than Dr Paisley's, but that is the way the world goes.
I would like to highlight some specific areas in which the Minister needs to act in the near future. Undoubtedly, deep within the bowels of Dundonald House, her officials are looking into the issues raised by the Better Regulation Task Force - the Haskins report, in other words - which principally applied to England but which clearly has lessons for the whole of the UK. I ask the Minister, in her response, to tell us where Northern Ireland stands in regards to Lord Haskins's recommendations and how she proposes to deal with them.
The first and most obvious problem, which Dr Paisley has already highlighted, is that the Haskins report has left no room for doubt that EU Directives, when applied in the UK, are being gold-plated. I have no problem with the concept of seeking to achieve the highest possible standards, but I want to see such standards being implemented across Europe. I do not simply wish to see British farmers producing top-quality goods while others get the markets because their produce is cheaper. That benefits neither farmers nor consumers.
Let us ensure that the issue of gold-plating is taken on board and, insofar as the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has a separate role from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), let us ask the Minister to do something about it. A full impact assessment of the implementation of new regulations is needed. That has not happened in the past and if it is not done in the future it will continue to weaken our domestic industry.
The issue of proper compensation for animal welfare measures needs to be addressed. We can make a case for saying that high standards of animal welfare are beneficial to the image of our industry and our consumers, but only if it means that people get the benefit of a higher standard of product. When supermarket chains import chickens from Thailand because they can get them for half a penny a kilo less than chickens produced to a higher standard at home, we clearly have a problem. We need to demand that it be dealt with.
The Haskins report highlighted a huge problem on the issue of record-keeping and bureaucracy, and there must be a way to address those issues. Again, it is part of the joined-up government issue that our Executive have talked so much about, but which is clearly not a feature of life across the UK in general. If we are to have joined-up government, let us see Government agencies, or even separate sectors within the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, start to share information and reduce the number of times that farmers must fill in the same form.
Let us make greater use of the Internet for the small but increasing number of farmers capable of using it in order to reduce their pen and paper exercises, which no one looks forward to after a long day working outside. If people can enter information on the computer once, and not have to enter it six times using pen and ink, that surely would be beneficial.
I am sure that even Dr Paisley would agree with me on one example of gold-plating. The standard UK integrated administration and control system (IACS) form requires 18 pages but the Irish form deals with the same information needed to satisfy the EU Directive in two pages. I am sure that we could all agree on that regardless of our party. I see that Dr Paisley is smiling and Mr McHugh is nodding, so perhaps we have established a consensus on that cross-border issue.
A secondary issue is that complaints need to be dealt with, as Mr McHugh highlighted yesterday and today. It is long past the time that a proper ombudsman scheme be set up so that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development would no longer act - as MAFF does - as judge and jury in its own cases. Whatever people say about the amount of formal complaints that get through, there is a huge level of dissatisfaction among farmers about the way that those issues are dealt with. In Scotland, there is already an ombudsman scheme in place. I could go through the detail of the three stages, but I suspect that, given the time that I have, I had better not attempt to do so. In Wales, there is an agreement in the new partnership Government, and consultation is taking place as to how exactly that will operate.
I have the consultation document, although I shall not read the Welsh language version. The schemes mentioned in the Welsh document that could be considered by an ombudsman include arable area payments, beef special premiums, suckler cow premiums, extensification payments, sheep annual premiums and hill livestock compensatory allowances (HLCAs), as well as Tir Mynydd, the replacement for the HLCA.
Such matters must account for a huge proportion of dissatisfaction among farmers because of the extremely fine detail involved in our bureaucratic procedures. The people who must fill in the forms spend sleepless nights wondering whether they have completed them correctly. Some people risk losing large sums of grant money as a result of relatively minor mistakes in the paperwork. If Scotland and Wales can do something about bureaucracy, we should also do something.
I welcome the fact that the Minister appears to have moved away from the bureaucratic opposition in the four UK Agriculture Departments and is considering a new entrant or restructuring scheme. Such a scheme would help to build a viable industry in Northern Ireland for future generations, who, at present, are reluctant to consider a farming career.
As the Minister said, it is not so long ago that, as a result of a vote in the Agriculture Committee of the National Assembly for Wales, Mr Carwyn Jones, the Minister for Rural Affairs, was forced to change his position and ask his officials to draw up a scheme. When the Minister submits her impartial report on the schemes she can be assured that the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee is likely to maintain its belief in the need for a retirement scheme that will lead to restructuring and give new entrants confidence about the future. We should try to encourage such confidence.
We have heard about the problems faced by the agriculture industry in the Province, so I shall not address them at great length. However, I must draw the House's attention to low - in some cases non-existent - incomes. The problems are due to many factors; we have no control over some of them, but we do have responsibility for others.
Of the factors that are beyond our control, the most important is the strength of sterling and the weakness of the euro. That affects export and import trade. Imported goods are produced in conditions that are not as regulated as ours and are not produced to the same high standards of welfare that apply to Northern Ireland produce. A prime example is the importation of meat from pigs that are housed in stalls, where they are tethered. That practice is outlawed in Northern Ireland, but our farmers are not compensated for that. The regulation and expense faced by our producers do not apply in neighbouring European countries. That is grossly unfair. The pig industry has been decimated, and farmers throughout the country are disappointed that the rescue scheme announced earlier this year has not yet appeared.
Arable sector prices have been very poor in the past year. Despite that, the arable payments timetable has been put back another month. That is within the remit of Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, and should not have happened. In the beef sector, prices are constantly decreasing. There is still no low-incidence BSE status, which is imperative for the Northern Ireland beef industry. That matter must be pursued vigorously. We often hear that the problem with helping our producers is that any grants would be construed as state aid. However, such measures are within our remit and would not breach the regulations.
We could reopen the enhancement section of our Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) scheme and ensure that enhancements are included when the countryside management scheme eventually opens. That would provide jobs and diversification for farmers and related industries. Many nurseries have produced quickthorns; local engineers can produce the gates; local builders can repair the buildings. All those measures would provide a boost for the farmers and the rural economy that would enhance the countryside and tourism.
We should also ensure that rural development measures are directed at farmers and that moneys taken through modulation are put back into farmers' businesses. The money should be spent in the rural communities, which would support small industries and businesses. An expanded pollution control scheme, of which all farmers can avail themselves, is needed. At present, farmers do not have the finance to use such facilities, and struggle to survive. That would help the industry and would also cut pollution and enhance the environment. We must be proactive, not reactive - use the carrot, not the stick. Over the years, that method has been shown to work best.
Although there has been discussion about a retirement scheme - and that may have its merits - I urge the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to investigate the possibility of helping young farmers at the other end of the chain. The Minister must investigate the systems of our European neighbours, many of which offer low-cost loans or interest relief schemes to young farmers who have agricultural qualifications and a good business plan. We recently missed the opportunity to offer a milk quota to the young farmers.
We must cut red tape in the Department and ensure that money goes directly to those who need it. Dr Paisley referred to a document from the Better Regulation Task Force, which was set up to make recommendations to the Government on how the environment can be protected without placing a burden on the farming community. I agree with many of its recommendations. The UK should not implement EC Directives ahead of other member states. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should re-examine ways to compensate farmers - especially small farmers - for the additional costs imposed by certain UK welfare regulations. The UK Government should resist demands for further animal welfare regulations and should lobby to raise standards in other EU member states to match those that currently obtain in the UK.
Dr Paisley's document also suggests an increase in the level of grants to improve slurry storage systems. That is important and would improve the environment. We need to ensure that information on grants and best practice in slurry disposal is effectively publicised.
The demand for record-keeping by farmers should be reduced. The various statutory authorities should co- ordinate their visits to farms where possible, with a view to saving farmers' time and money.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should take on board those points and those of my Colleagues, as they are mostly items that can be administered by our own Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, and that can only impact for the good of agriculture in Northern Ireland. In the past, agriculture has been able to change with the times. Now is a time of change. Agriculture can change for the future, but that level of change must be such that we can reinvest and survive in rural areas.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
To return to the matter of the amendments, Rev Dr Paisley and Mr Ford will find some interesting information in Standing Order 15(3).
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
Surely the Speaker's Office should tell a Member who puts down an amendment whether it is to be accepted or not. That would be done in Westminster, where there is far more business than there is here.
We are dealing with a vital topic of discussion, and each person's time is limited to seven minutes. We are at an hour of crisis in the agriculture industry. Something is wrong about the whole industry, and we need to take steps to alter it.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
The Business Committee should address the two points made by the Member. In fairness to the Speaker, I should point out that he had two people searching for the Member and myself to inform us of the situation. Efforts were made but they were not successful.
This is our third debate on the agriculture industry's problems. It seems to me that those problems have not been alleviated during all that time but have probably worsened.
The problems are best summed up by a 70-year-old farmer in my own constituency who thought that he had retired two years ago before realising that he would have to continue to work. He said to me that sheep used to keep him, but now he keeps sheep. That sums up the problems fairly well.
At their core lies the policy of malign neglect by MAFF. That Ministry well knows that market forces will sort out the industry ruthlessly. That is what is happening at the moment.
It is shocking how Mr Nick Brown, the current Agriculture Minister, listens kindly and expresses great sympathy to the farmers but does not seem to ever address the root of the problem. The Ministry needs to start by spelling out the truth. I note that our own Minister has moved in that direction, and I commend her for that. When Ms Rodgers answered a question in the House yesterday she acknowledged difficulties that will affect businesses, dependent on production subsidies, as a result of European Union enlargement.
We need to be aware that, whereas in England the tenant farming system has had the effect of stopping levels of agriculture debt getting too high because the farmer has no equity in the land to set against the debt, that is not the situation here. That needs to be taken into account when one is trying to negotiate packages that apply to the whole of the UK. We have to be aware that the problem is far worse in Northern Ireland than in England.
I fully support and practise the eating of our own produce. I cannot understand why anyone would want to eat imported meat, but that is another matter. However, we cannot eat all our own produce. We need to get back into the export markets. Even if we could get over the problem of BSE and the export ban, the situation would still be difficult on price grounds because of the strength of sterling. That is entirely a matter of market forces; the Government cannot influence it, although they could soften the blow by pulling down some of the agrimonetary compensation.
Realistically we are competing against other producers. In the case of beef, we compete against Australia and Argentina, and in the case of lamb we compete against New Zealand. Those countries manage to get their product to our market at a lower cost than we can.
EU enlargement is relevant, although the situation has nothing to do with EU enlargement - it has to do with improved production by eastern European countries. Those countries are now in the same position as Australia, New Zealand and Argentina in that they can attempt to sell their product to our market provided that they meet the relevant criteria, which would not be difficult. Even if enlargement does not take place, if those countries improve their production, a further problem will arise with increased competition in the foodstuffs market.
We must take all those factors into account, and it is likely that the effect of market forces will force a fall in production from our industry.
We have some £160 million of production subsidies coming into our industry. The Minister should go to Brussels and point out that the problem is pretty much the same throughout Europe. She should say that subsidy should be redirected, as was attempted under parts of Agenda 2000. That has been started in a small way, but it should be much greater and more concerted in order to redirect subsidies towards lowering production. Money should also be spent on environmental improvement projects. By doing that, she would draw the rural development part of her brief into play.
I shall give a simple example. At the moment, the river system is, to a large extent, an industrial sewer for agricultural produce. The run-off from slurry, for example, contributes heavily to the contamination of the river system. Therefore, we do not have anything like the fish stocks that we could have, and we do not have that alternative source of activity in the countryside.
In Denmark, the problem is dealt with by using a system of anaerobic digesters, which is effectively a method of industrialising the storage, reprocessing and recycling of slurry. The Danes are able to do that in a way that, first, is more efficient for the land and, secondly, causes almost no environmental damage - certainly much less than our own systems causes. Those more radical measures must be addressed. I am afraid that that involves the people in the industry and the Department all being much more brutally realistic about where the industry is going. It is clear to me that it is going to go in that direction, whether we do anything about it or not. Therefore, we had better move in the direction in which the market is moving. Mrs Thatcher once said:
"You can't buck the market."
That very much applies to the state of the agriculture industry.
An accurate parallel can be drawn with the textile industry. Northern Ireland found itself with an industry that had already moved out of the rest of the UK. The textile industry targeted by the IDB as a way to get investment into Northern Ireland and to preserve jobs. I do not criticise it in that respect. Where the IDB has got it right is that in the past two years it has effectively changed its policy. It has said that it is moving on and that the industrial base has to be moved more towards the new economy. It has not rushed in with more subsidies for problem areas in the textile industry.
I compliment Mr Savage for introducing the motion. It enables us, once again, to address the sequential problems faced by the farming industry and to seek a solution. The words "more proactive" should not be taken as criticism of the activities of the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development and her Department. I do not think that that was the mover of the motion's intention. However, if it was, the motion takes no account of initiatives such as the interdepartmental vision group set up by the Minister; the emphasis on the primacy of rural development and rural sustenance; and the detailed negotiations to try to get a breakthrough in the BSE crisis, vis-à-vis Northern Ireland and the European market. Last, but not least, there has been the huge and unparalleled 9·6% increase in the agriculture budget in this year's Estimates - an increase regarded by the Ulster Farmers' Union as a major breakthrough.
I do not believe that criticism was intended in the motion, but the wording may have indicated a lack of activity. In fact, the proactivity has been remarkable.
I forgot to mention that arable agrimonetary programme, to the tune of £700,000, has also been implemented. That again is very welcome.
Most of the contributions to the debate have addressed the terrible problems that affect the farming industry. All sectors of the industry have suffered a sequence of almost deathly body blows. As other Members have said, problems include the strength of sterling, the weakening of international markets and the loss of some of our traditional markets, from which it will be difficult to recover.
It is easy to examine the problems but difficult to suggest solutions. Each cost incurred in the food chain is another bite along the way, but farmers are not getting a fair wage from that price structure. We must adopt new mechanisms to ensure that the farmgate price is a greater proportion of the price we pay for produce across the counter. A farmer, like any other industrial worker or manufacturer, is entitled to a decent wage, and we must address this issue on that basis. That is particularly so, given that the cost of our electricity, fuel and transport is rapidly increasing because we are peripheral to the markets of north-western Europe and beyond.
Greater emphasis must be put on producing quality goods rather than on quantity. Some subsidy structures tend to support quantity rather than quality. However, in this day and age, it is quality that penetrates a market, not quality. The overemphasis on diversification as a panacea for farming ills is ill conceived and based on misplaced faith. Diversification can address a limited number of farmers' problems, but that is not a blanket solution to the problem in rural communities.
We are now in a period of virtual trade war in Europe, with countries banning other countries' beef amid fears of a further spread of BSE. It now appears that the United Kingdom is looking for a pan-European eradication programme in response to BSE. That will not increase the chances of success for our Minister and her Department as they try to penetrate the ban on account of our special circumstances. Our produce would have been quite marketable if only the crisis had not erupted once again.
As the Minister said in her report yesterday, the application for the removal of the BSE ban is on short- term hold at the moment. She was criticised for that, but farmers' unions agree totally with the position that she has taken. They recognise that it is not the best time to make such an application and that, until the dust settles in this trade war, there is little point in trying to get a special deal for Northern Ireland's beef.
Other Members touched on the matter of subsidy payments and the structures that would enable such payments to be made more rapidly and effectively than at present. The Minister dealt with that in response to a question, and I hope that that will resolve the problem.
One of the problems in farming, which if we put our hand on our hearts we will admit to, is the need for massive restructuring. Mr Savage, who moved the motion, and other Members have hinted at a possible means of restructuring. I fear that part of Mr Savage's suggestion could give rise to a financiers' and bankers' paradise, but perhaps that could be restricted.
Farming incomes must be addressed as a matter of a social concern, separate from the question of farm production. We must treat farmers as the custodians of our countryside and give them the funding that they need to sustain our rural environment, not only for themselves but for us.
I am convinced of two particular requirements: the need to address the matter properly and the need for a structured social concern for the farmer, his family and the protection of the environment, which will give him a new source of income and support the countryside.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
I welcome this debate, and I congratulate the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development for moving the motion. I can identify with many of the comments that have been made across the Chamber by Members from a number of parties. The notable exception is Sinn Féin, which seems to be stuck in an all-Ireland time warp. That is not the answer to our problems. We need to get our heads out of that sandpit and look at our problems and at the practical measures that can be taken.
The debate comes at a crucial time. It is unfortunate that the Speaker took such a very narrow interpretation of Standing Order 15(3). A much fuller debate on the amendments that my party and the Alliance Party sought to put down would have been helpful. None the less, that is his ruling, and it will be raised in another place. Our party would have liked to amend the motion to give it more teeth because we must show the leadership that is required and give direction both to the industry and to the Department.
In spite of its best intentions, the Department will, by and large, ignore this debate. That is what Governments do. Governments listen to debates but essentially ignore them unless they are given firm direction and precise proposals, and in the absence of such precise proposals, which the amendments to the motion would have made, the Minister will be able to agree with many of the sentiments that are expressed in the Chamber while continuing with her Department's policies.
The policies that she has pursued have not resolved the crisis within the industry, and her Department has to be face up to that. That is not a personal criticism; it is a reality, and that is why this debate is helpful. The industry and the Department must pull up their socks so that the industry can move in a new direction.
If the Department has difficulties in furthering the proposals, perhaps it is about time that the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee introduced a Bill to address those issues. I have already mentioned that to the Chairperson and the Deputy Chairperson. If the Department cannot or will not address them, we should introduce a Bill that contains the Members' proposals on restructuring and other matters. We shall then see the colour of the Department's money, and also the colour of party money. Will people put their money where their mouth is on those important matters?
Analysis is all well and good, and most commendable, but the industry in Northern Ireland requires a prescription. Because there is a crisis, we cannot allow the Department to continue with the policies that it has adopted. Everyone has said so. Even Members from the Minister's party have accepted that there is a crisis. Therefore, we need a prescription, and it is essential that we prescribe in a helpful manner.
My party would like the Department to take three specific actions immediately. First, the import and sale of farm beef should be banned until our competitors are producing to the same rigorous standards as local producers. I noted that Mr Leslie enjoys eating Ulster produce and adheres strictly to an Ulster diet. I commend him and any other such discerning Member for that. I hope that Mount Charles ensures that it uses Ulster products in the Basement Restaurant, and I suggest that we ensure that our schools and colleges buy Ulster produce. That is essential to ensure that our produce be given every possible assistance.
The introduction of a farm restructuring scheme is also essential, as is the introduction of a single enhanced environment scheme. Several Members have referred to the task force report on European regulation. It is critical that that form a significant part of Government thinking in Northern Ireland. Such measures, taken together, would give the industry hope for a brighter future, and we should make every effort to give the industry that hope.