the transitional

Monday 8 January 2007

Assembly Business

Private Members’ Business

The Assembly met at 12 noon (Madam Speaker in the Chair).

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Assembly Business

Rev Dr Ian Paisley: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Before the Assembly went into recess, you promised that you would make a statement about certain happenings that occurred in the House and their implications for the security of its Members. Can you tell the Assembly when you will make that statement? Will you do so today?

Madam Speaker: Thank you, Dr Paisley, for your point of order. I will not make such a statement today. My officials have been seeking meetings with the relevant people. I am grateful for your communication with my officials on the issue. However, I understand that arrangements are being made for a meeting to discuss these issues. I will make a statement in the Chamber at the earliest opportunity.

Private Members’ Business


Madam Speaker: Before the debate starts, I want to inform Members that the Chief Whip of the Ulster Unionist Party has told me that there will be a smaller delegation than usual from that party at the debate because some of its members are attending a funeral.

The Business Committee has agreed to allow two and a half hours for each of today’s debates. The proposer of each motion will be allocated 15 minutes to propose and a maximum of 15 minutes to make their winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have a maximum of 10 minutes.

Mr Ford: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I notice that the Gallery is quite empty, even though I understand that a large number of visitors intend to listen to the debate. I wonder if there is a communication problem with those visitors.

Madam Speaker: Mr Ford, I am sure that that matter will be dealt with. However, as the Member is probably aware, Members should not refer to visitors in the Gallery.

Mr Ford: Or even the absence of people in the Gallery.

Madam Speaker: Mr Ford, you have made your point, but do remember that, in future, the Gallery should not be mentioned on the Floor of the House.

Mr Elliott: I beg to move

That this Assembly deplores the over-bureaucratic administration within the Northern Ireland agricultural industry and calls on the government to implement legislation / regulations with less gold-plating, and to put in place a review of current legislation and regulations with a view to reducing any unnecessary bureaucratic burden; and further calls on the government to implement the initiatives set out in the Ulster Farmers’ Union document ‘Five Steps to a Better Future’.

I declare an interest in the debate; I am a farmer in my constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. I do not know whether it is absolutely necessary to declare that — it is sometimes more of a hindrance than a help.

The motion seeks to address issues that have a direct impact not only on myself but on many thousands of farm businesses, large and small, across the Province. I trust that we can unite on the issue and that it will have widespread support from all parties and local politicians — that point came across during last week’s Business Committee meeting.

A few years ago, shortly after I became actively involved in politics, I met a person in a street in Enniskillen who told me that I must be mad to be involved in two of the most unpredictable professions around — farming and politics. I will not go so far as to say which is the worst of the two professions.

The success and profitability of the agricultural sector reverberates throughout rural communities and the entire Northern Ireland economy. Nobody can deny that agriculture has suffered greatly in recent times as a result of BSE, foot-and-mouth disease, increased competition and changes in customer preference. Moreover, every so often there is mention of the possibility of an outbreak of diseases such as bird flu and blue tongue. Farm incomes have taken a battering, and many farmers have chosen — or have been forced — to leave the industry or to supplement their meagre farm incomes with external employment.

However, farmers are a very resilient breed. Many of them have stuck with the profession throughout the crises, which makes the prevalence of bureaucracy and form-filling all the more unbearable and undesirable. This is an area in which our own Government could take a stand and make a change. Instead, the rafts of complicated paperwork from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) and, increasingly, from the Department of the Environment (DOE), continue to plague businesses and stifle the changes that are necessary for survival in this highly competitive marketplace.

Some people would have us believe that farmers always have something to complain about. However, make no mistake; excessive paperwork is driving many professionals to despair, and not only those in the farming industry — police officers, teachers and health professionals also have to spend increasing periods of time preparing reports and filling out questionnaires and forms of one description or another. That places a significant burden on them and on the taxpayer because such activity takes time, and time is money.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) continually flags up the cost to UK plc of ratcheting up the amount of bureaucracy in business, and it is constantly exasperated that its pleas go unheard. After today, we hope that those pleas will not only be heard, but that Government officials, Departments and Ministers will do something about the problem and not simply pay lip-service to it. They have the power to do something about it.

At the most recent CBI conference, the Prime Minister, and, perhaps more importantly, the man who may succeed him, the Chancellor, both pledged yet again to cut red tape from business. Even more recently, Downing Street reiterated that promise. However, as we have seen in the past, those promises will not be honoured. We are well aware that that has been the case not only in the agricultural industry, but throughout politics in Northern Ireland.

It is time that promises made to the people were honoured.

The red tape in the agrifood sector has been very well highlighted by the Ulster Farmers’ Union campaign. It has run a high-profile and high-impact campaign calling upon the Government to cut it out. The campaign was one of five recommendations made by the Ulster Farmers’ Union to improve the industry under a devolved Northern Ireland Assembly.

A day rarely goes by when a farmer does not contact someone in my constituency office, or me, complaining of problems that stem from excessive bureaucracy. The decoupling of farm subsidies and the changes to the integrated administration and control system (IACS) of farms has resulted in penalties amounting to some £2·3 million being imposed for unintentional errors. Indeed, many farmers have employed professional form-fillers, and even they have had trouble getting their heads around this bureaucracy and red tape. If they cannot do it, how can the ordinary farmer? Farmers want to get on and do what they do best — farm their land. They do not want to be tied up in bureaucracy, red tape and administrative work, which is alien to them.

The effect of gold-plating, whereby a Government Department overzealously interprets and implements an EU directive, cannot be underestimated. This is a major contributory factor to the burden felt by farm businesses.

I was in Sweden and Denmark in April of this year. They have the same EU regulations that we have in Northern Ireland, but they are implemented and interpreted differently by their Governments. All I am asking for is a practical, common-sense approach from this Government towards the implementation of EU regulations — nothing less. We always have to gold-plate it. We have to go to the top band of implementation while other countries in the EU implement to the least possible effectiveness.

One classic example of this is the 30-day standstill rule for cattle. The piece of EU legislation at the root of this rule was interpreted completely differently by the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland from other regions of the European Union, where such a nonsensical rule does not exist. The disparity caused has resulted in cattle importers withdrawing from Northern Ireland at a time when the cattle industry is toiling, since the reopening of the beef export market just last year, to regain business that it had lost. However, this opportunity is being lost and hampered by our own Government regulations.

Do not get me wrong. Standards exist and are needed to safeguard the welfare of animals and consumers, to afford environmental protection and, ultimately, to maintain the industry for years to come.

The livestock industry in Northern Ireland has one of the highest levels of traceability in the world. Indeed, this is one of the major selling points to the public, who are becoming increasingly aware of the supply chain. This would not have been achieved if it were not for the well-kept herd records and documents that we already have in Northern Ireland. A certain degree of regulation is therefore absolutely essential. The UUP has no difficulty with that.

The proposed new waste disposal regulations are another difficulty. Farmers will be asked to apply for exemption to dispose of such things as used fencing posts and hedge trimmings. If there is no improvement in the situation in which farmers are being asked to fill in a form just to ensure that they are adhering to the latest guidelines on waste, I agree with the Ulster Farmers’ Union that a boycott of these new rules may be the only option left to make the point until a more workable interpretation of the waste rules is introduced.

Farmers do not want to opt out of this new initiative. They all accept the need to handle farm waste responsibly, but I cannot accept the approach taken by the DOE that has turned the whole process into a complicated system of exemptions and licences. That is not what farmers are about, and it is not what they want.

The introduction and interpretation of the new waste regulations have produced many complications and too much bureaucracy.

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The large number of farm inspections that are being carried out is another time-consuming and admin-istratively costly issue with which farmers must contend. They are obliged to undergo inspections of cattle identification, cross-compliance, field and farm, and issues that relate to health and safety. They must also comply with the Northern Ireland Farm Quality Assurance Scheme (NIFQAS) and have their animals tested for tuberculosis (TB) and brucellosis. Need I go on? The Province needs a single inspection regime.

The benefit of such a single inspection team is that each inspector would be trained to cover all aspects of farm inspections, be those agricultural, environmental or related to health and safety. Therefore having a single on-farm inspection would be better than the current situation, in which different inspectorates perform five, six or seven inspections on some farms in one year.

Introducing single on-farm inspections is an obvious solution to a problem that is draining public resources as well as farmers’ patience. The current system is another appalling example of the bureaucracy that Departments impose on farmers. I make no apology for continuing to refer to the unacceptable bureaucracy that is imposed on farmers in the Province.

The excessive levels of unnecessary bureaucracy — which show little sign of abating — are unworkable. In many areas, the tipping point has been reached: the damage that is being done to the sector outweighs the benefits. Recently published Government statistics show that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development issued 18 business surveys last year, with an estimated cost to farm businesses of over £318,000. Only the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment issued more. That £318,000 is probably just the tip of the red-tape iceberg with which local farmers have to deal.

I am sure that other Members will cover in more detail the various recommendations that the Ulster Farmers’ Union made. The recommendations that are contained in ‘Five Steps to a Better Future’ offer practical, common-sense initiatives to improve the industry. Although parties have their own policy interpretation of the recommendations, they represent an issue on which Members generally unite. The document does not contain gimmicks or buzzwords; it recommends sensible, doable changes that will effect improvements for farmers and the public.

The recommended local-produce procurement initiative would champion local produce in the public sector. The clear labelling on beef of its country of origin is essential to give local beef farmers a helping hand and to bring them back into a successful export market. If consumers can see the source of the beef that they buy and know where the farmers whom they support come from, they may give more backing to local producers.

Climate change is a topic that is on everybody’s lips. Local farmers should be in a prime position to help the nation meet its targets for green-energy production while finding a much-needed extra stream of income. The Ulster Farmers’ Union proposal to promote the use of locally produced renewable energy in public buildings is an example of how the Government could put their money where their mouth is. That would set a good example to householders and help local farmers and growers.

Unnecessary layers of bureaucracy must be pared away to reduce impediments to business and, putting it bluntly, to save money. The Secretary of State’s about-turn on the future of the Northern Ireland Agricultural Wages Board (NIAWB) does not sit well with his party’s pledge to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy. When that quango was established, it performed the essential task of safeguarding farm workers’ rights to a fair wage. It also offered a benchmark for farm owners and managers. However, it is no longer required, and the Government must carry out their original pledge.

I hope that Members will agree to the motion. I could talk for hours on this subject, but I will not — I am sure that all Members will be pleased to hear that. I want to see the Government, through DARD and the DOE, introduce a practical, workable approach. Rather than imposing unnecessary and unreasonable bureaucracy and red tape, those Departments should be available to assist farmers through these difficult times.

Mr Clyde: As I have been involved in agriculture all my life, I too should declare an interest.

Agriculture was the largest industry in Northern Ireland, before the outbreak of BSE. That was followed by foot-and-mouth disease, with its restrictions on the movement of cattle. The combination of those two diseases resulted in the end of the export of beef and live animals.

Following BSE and foot-and-mouth disease, DARD imposed so many restrictions that many farmers decided to reduce their farming interests or to retire altogether. Currently, only 25% of Northern Ireland farmers work full time on their farms. The massive drop in profits means that more than 50% of farmers are over 55 years old, as few young farmers see a future in working on the family farm. Twenty years ago, agriculture was the biggest employer; today, it is in real decline. Much of that is due to bureaucracy imposed by DARD, of which I shall give some examples.

In the Republic of Ireland, the CAP IACS form consists of two sides of A4 paper; in Northern Ireland, it is eight pages. One unintentional error on that form can result in farmers losing tens of thousands of pounds. That is wrong.

There are 19 statutory management requirements to be adhered to for CAP inspections, as well as good agricultural and environment conditions. Under the current system, eight different inspectors from DOE and DARD can visit one farmer over a matter of days. There is an issue with the severity of CAP inspections. DARD appears to have a policy to look for faults during cross-compliance inspections. In 2005, £2·3 million was taken away from farmers as a result of errors and breaches. The comparable figure in the Republic of Ireland was £229,000.

In the first year of the single farm payment scheme, a large number of farmers lost out due to unintentional errors in respect of duplicate fields. Duplication may occur — for example, when a farmer includes land that he uses as conacre on his IACS form that the owner of the land also includes. The Department should return those forms, indicate the mistakes, and allow farmers 30 days to correct them. It seems that DARD has a “can’t-do” instead of a “can-do” attitude.

I turn to the issue of waste management. Approx-imately 28,000 farms are large enough to have at least one employee. Each farm business must register separately to secure an exemption to handle certain farm wastes, such as the storage of second-hand wire and paling posts, the burning of hedge cuttings and the movement of stones and soil. To gain exemptions to handle those farm wastes, a number of forms must be completed. I suggest two possible solutions: first, wherever possible, farms should automatically be exempt from regulations; secondly, farmers should receive an exemption by ticking a box on their IACS form.

Farmers work a long day every day, usually from 6.00 am to 6.00 pm and beyond. At the end of their working day, they have paperwork to complete in the evening. It is therefore easy to make mistakes when filling in forms. Often, those mistakes result in the farmer being penalised by the Department. On the other hand, civil servants in DARD can also make mistakes — are they penalised? I do not think so. Mistakes are blamed on computers or, on some occasions, the farmer.

It seems that the Department will use any excuse to hold up the single farm payment. In my constituency of South Antrim, a water pipeline is being laid from Lough Neagh to Belfast. A farmer informed me that he must write to the Department to explain what he will do with the land when work on the pipeline is complete before he can receive the single farm payment.

There are other conditions imposed by DARD. One is a six-day standstill rule for a farmer who sells stock. If he buys an animal and brings it to his farm, he cannot sell any stock for six days.

If the farmer takes an animal to market, does not sell it and brings it back to his farm, the same six-day standstill period applies. DARD also imposes a 30-day standstill on the movement of animals bought at market for export to other EU countries, and that puts buyers off. The imposition of a brucellosis test in the 30 days before animals can be sold results in additional cost to farmers.

The EU directive on nitrates restricts farmers from spreading slurry for several months. Given the change in climate, I suggest that such a restriction should apply only in December and January.

Those are some reasons why I support the ‘Five Steps to a Better Future’, as advocated by the UFU, and I support the motion.

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh an díospóireacht seo inniu.

I welcome the debate because my party and I feel strongly that the rural way of life is under severe threat. Moreover, there is a lack of understanding and a dividing or fault line in Irish society between the city slickers and the rural communities. In County Mayo, there were townies and buffs — anyone who lived outside the town was called a buff. Other derogatory terms such as redneck and, famously, culchie are often used to describe people from rural communities.

I am originally from County Mayo in the west of Ireland, and some people may say that I should have stayed there.

Some Members: Hear, hear.


Ms Ruane: However, here I am — for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer. I have a strong sense of the land and agriculture and the role that they play in our society. I am aware that many farmers often endure a lack of respect but, ultimately, whether here in Ireland or in any country in the world, they put the food on our tables.

My father had a great grá, or love, for the land. He was a part-time farmer from peasant stock — and I use the word “peasant” proudly — during some of the worst times for farmers in Ireland. The centenary of the death of a famous Irishman, and one of my heroes, Michael Davitt, who fought for the rights of small farmers is being celebrated. As children, we learned about his three demands — they were a bit like those of the UFU today, but differ to an extent because times have moved on. In Michael Davitt’s time, however, there was land-lordism in Ireland and he demanded free sale, fixity of tenure and fair rent. Therefore, Sinn Féin continues a long tradition of fighting for the small farmer.

Michael Davitt was also a Fenian in the best, or true, sense of the word and not in the derogatory way in which it is sometimes used. Cuirim fáilte roimh an díospóireacht seo.

Mrs D Kelly: As the Member has quoted Michael Davitt, will she agree that in latter years he denounced violence and progressed the cause of the peasant farmer, and indeed many people living in poverty, not only throughout the island of Ireland but throughout Britain?

Ms Ruane: That is a debate for another day. Michael Davitt is my hero and a proud Fenian. To do justice to the debate today, I will not be deviated from it by Dolores or anyone else.

I pay sincere tribute to the farmers’ unions and stress the need for continued partnership with them, and Sinn Féin looks forward to continuing that work. I join my party colleagues Michelle Gildernew and Francie in urging Members to support the motion that rightly recognises the considerable difficulties faced by farmers who are being increasingly burdened by overly bureaucratic and complicated procedures and legislation.

There is general agreement between Sinn Féin and the farmers’ unions — the UFU and NIAPA (The Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers Association) — on the difficulties facing the industry. Not least of those difficulties is the fundamental problem of red tape in DARD and the practice of gold-plating EU regulations to the detriment of farmers, their families and rural communities in general.

When the Sinn Féin Assembly team met with representatives of the farmers on several occasions to discuss the key issues facing the industry, the importance of tackling the red tape in DARD and of establishing a Programme for Government for an incoming Executive of locally accountable Ministers was top of the agenda.

The contrast between DARD’s approach and that adopted in Dublin could not be more stark. Indeed, that was highlighted by the DUP MEP Jim Allister, no less. A comparison of the two approaches illustrates why all-Ireland co-operation is needed on the real and practical issues that impact on rural communities across the country, and the Six Counties in particular.

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The response shown through the farmers’ charter is a case in point. The zero-tolerance approach of DARD is hurting farmers who are penalised when they make even the slightest error in completing copious unwieldy and overly complicated application forms. Many farmers whom I have spoken to have told me that so much time is spent filling in forms that it impacts on their ability to work the land.

In the South, the charter of rights for farmers for 2005-07 stressed the need for user-friendly farms and maximum consultation. We need the same provision in the North of Ireland, and Sinn Féin joins others in calling for a similar charter. Indeed, an all-Ireland approach to farming is essential. The failure of DARD to be a champion for farmers highlights why it is so important to have in place a fully functioning, power-sharing Executive and North/South Ministerial Council.

For the past two years, my party has organised a number of public meetings with farmers throughout my constituency of South Down, where we have focused on key issues such as the proposed Mourne national park, the impact of EU directives and the more recent planning directives. I have no doubt that the problems that are besetting rural communities are being further compounded by a growing level of frustration at the amount of red tape that farmers are facing every time that they are faced with filling in a form.

The current situation is indicative of a system that is, quite simply, failing farming communities. We have reached a point where farmers are being unfairly penalised because of the bureaucratic hoops through which they are expected jump every time that they apply for a basic entitlement.

The Ulster Farmers’ Union’s policy document, ‘Five Steps to a Better Future’, puts forward a number of workable and extremely practical measures that, if implemented, would go some way to addressing the excessive amount of red tape. Sinn Féin agrees that an independent review of the cost, volume and often unnecessary nature of farm bureaucracy must be a priority for an Assembly when one is reconvened.

Other practical steps that could be taken include compulsory beef-labelling in the food sector, showing the country of origin of beef in restaurants. That relatively simple measure would be an excellent way of promoting the North’s agricultural produce. Compulsory beef-labelling in the food service sector has been implemented in the South of Ireland and is an effective and relatively simple marketing tool.

My party supports the removal of the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) because, with the introduction of the minimum wage in 1999, the AWB has become yet another layer of unnecessary bureaucracy.

Furthermore, we want investment in the farming industry to allow farm businesses to be handed over to younger family members. We also advocate the introduction of a farmers’ retirement scheme. We welcome the UFU’s focus on renewable energy opportunities — that is far-sighted and is the way to go. Planning policies need to be in sympathy with local people while also securing the future of our rural landscapes for the next generation.

We are debating these issues in the Transitional Assembly, but it has no power. We still have direct-rule Ministers. We call on the DUP to join the rest of us in getting the Assembly and the all-Ireland institutions up and running. That is what farmers — on every corner of this island — need. We need to work closely with the South of Ireland at all levels so that we can become champions for our farmers and help to build a dynamic, confident and vibrant industry.

Now is a time of tremendous opportunity; marketing should be done on an all-island basis, using our clean, green island trademark — oileán glan glas. More people are aware of the importance of organic food, and we need to support farmers who are developing that.

My father was a learned man who, like many people in the farming community, was interested in education. However, he also had a real grá, or love, for the land. We had a few acres of land; we would cut turf every year. We had cattle and a little vegetable garden that the rabbits and cows used to break in to — they ate more vegetables than we ever did. However, my abiding image of my father was that he would come in from work, put on his anorak and boots to go and find Daisy, our cow. On the way out, thinking that she did not see it, he would rob my mother of a little piece of her brown bread. Daisy would come running up to him.

If we are to support farmers of the present generation, we need to take seriously the issues raised by both farming unions. “Culchie” is a derogatory term often used to describe people from rural areas — I do not know whether it is used in the North of Ireland, but it is in the West. It is derived from the name of the town Coillte Mach. It is a small, one-street town — well, it probably has three streets now. Every year the people of the town held a “culchie-come-home week” festival. The word “coillte” means “the woods outside” in Irish. I am proud to be a culchie. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr P J Bradley: I do not exactly have an interest to declare, but I too was brought up on a small farm. I was lucky; I grew up on a farm to which no bills ever came. We did not have plenty of money, but neither had we a car, nor electricity, nor a telephone. That was a different era; time has moved on. [Interruption.]

My colleague has suggested that we did not have to pay for anything, but we did. [Laughter.]

I thank Tom Elliott for agreeing to sponsor the motion with me, and I also thank the members of the Business Committee. All five political parties were involved in the meeting on 3 January 2007 where it was agreed that the motion would be debated today. That itself sends a message on behalf of farmers and rural communities to whoever might be listening that, in the Assembly, there is unity on the need to address the plight of farmers.

The motion is a twofold exercise. It demonstrates to the farming community that all parties represented in the Chamber are fully committed to supporting the industry — to the best of our current ability — in whatever way we can. It is also an opportunity to give proper recognition to the excellent and ongoing work by the UFU on behalf of its members and the industry. The motion was prompted by the recent launch of the UFU’s early initiatives programme, ‘Five Steps to a Better Future’. I thank the UFU for its willingness to share its research and findings with the SDLP during a visit to Parliament Buildings, and with all the parties at its Antrim Road headquarters in December. I have no wish to be presumptuous, but I believe — and I have heard it already — that my appreciation will be echoed during the course of the debate. I also pay tribute to the consultants involved on their professional input to that presentation.

When — or should I say, if and when — the Assembly gets up and running once more, our new Ministers could do worse than be assisted by that publication, which was prepared by professionals during what has been a period of limited care and attention by direct-rule Ministers since October 2002. Any incoming Minister of Agriculture will welcome the fact that priorities for attention are listed, as he or she goes about planning the future survival of all farming. He or she will be further encouraged that the priorities were endorsed in January 2007 in this Transitional Assembly. We also have the report of the vision group, as initiated by my former colleague and Minister Bríd Rodgers. That will also be of great benefit to any incoming Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Mr Elliott dealt efficiently with the demands that bureaucracy continues to make on family farms. It is wrong and unacceptable that farmers should have to split their working activities on a 50:50 basis between manual work outside the home and reading EU, UK and DARD documentation, filling forms, keeping records and contending with the proliferation of inspectors who have virtually taken up residence on some of the larger farms.

It was pleasing to learn in December that proposals driven by farm commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel are eventually being taken forward in Europe to streamline EU market rules for agricultural products. Press release IP/06/1824 states that the aim is to establish a single common market organisation for all farm products to replace the 21 existing organisations. That is part of the Commission’s better regulation agenda to cut red tape.

The press release went on to advise that the proposed Common Market Organisation (CMO) would allow the repeal of more than 40 Council Acts and replace over 600 legal articles with fewer than 200. The Department of Agriculture should monitor the progress of the proposed EU changes, and as soon as they are introduced the Department must embark on its own programme and make changes to reflect the EU reduction in bureaucracy. There is no doubt that the 21 organisations, the 40 Council Acts and the 600 legal articles that are referred to — and currently apply — do make imple-mentation demands on the Department. However, when the proposed changes are made in Brussels, there will have to be visible evidence of pro rata changes in DARD.

Most interested Members of the Assembly have seen the ‘Five Steps to a Better Future’ document. I wish to devote the remainder of my speech to dealing with the subject of public procurement, and my colleagues Dolores Kelly, Tommy Gallagher, and Patsy McGlone will deal respectively with the different sections of the publication.

I welcome the fact that the importance of public procurement is one of the five iniatives highlighted in the publication. That section is directed primarily at the current and, hopefully, at the next, home-based, Minister of Finance and Personnel. It deals with public procurement and highlights how a firmed-up policy on public procurement could enhance the production and use of locally produced farm supplies. The proposed initiative refers to Government procurement in England through the Public Sector Food Procurement Initiative (PSFPI) that applies there. PSFPI legally binds all national and regional authorities in England to increase tenders for small and local producers. The legislation has, among its objectives, the aim of increasing the capacity of small suppliers to meet demand. Each Minister, all Departments and every member of the Northern Ireland Procurement Board should become fully versed on the detail of the points referred to in step two of the document, which deals with public purchasing.

Given that a Government policy on food procurement has been operative in England for almost four years, I believe that it is not too much to ask any incoming Minister of Finance and Personnel and the Northern Ireland Procurement Board to recognise the benefits to the local economy, rural communities and farmers if the legislation contained in PSFPI were to be introduced in Northern Ireland. The last telephone call that I took before coming into the Chamber was from a farmer who knew that this debate on red tape was taking place. He is involved in the potato sector and is still waiting for a winter-aid payment, yet farmers in all the other sectors have been paid. Because of red tape, he is still waiting for that money to come through. As Members speak, there are farmers who have been waiting for payments for a couple of years — they are still not receiving them.

I am pleased to jointly move the motion. I sincerely hope that those in a position of responsibility will pay immediate heed to the comments made, in the Chamber today and that they will commence the work required to assist in reinstating the viability of family farms and the rural economy. After all, agriculture is the leading industry in Northern Ireland, and it is the duty of Members to keep it that way. We do not have the ultimate powers; however, those who are currently in power and those who will come into power should do what they can to protect the industry.

Mr Ford: I welcome the opportunity for the Assembly to debate this topic and thank Mr Elliott and Mr Bradley for introducing the motion. I start by declaring my second-hand interest — as my entry in the register of Members’ interests shows, my wife has an interest in matters agricultural, and I do declare that I got my wellies dirty before I came here this morning.

I wish to look at one particular aspect of the way in which bureaucracy has operated and at one of the few successes that the former Assembly could record. Back in the early part of 2002 the Committee for the Environment had to consider slurry and silage effluent storage regulations. Madam Speaker, I trust that I have not offended your sensibilities by referring to them. When the DOE sent civil servants to that Committee — and I am sure the Minister at the time will recall exactly how his officers carried out their functions — it was clear that there was no understanding of the needs of Northern Ireland’s farmers.

All that the DOE did was to change a few words here and there in the regulations that had been introduced in England and Wales some years earlier to make them fit for Northern Ireland — then it imposed them on us. I remember meetings at which members of the Committee for the Environment tried to question officials to find out what was what. I have no doubt that the Committee Chairperson, the Member for Mid Ulster Dr McCrea, has memories of the fight that he and I had with officials on that occasion.

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The attitude of the DOE civil servants was that they knew what they wanted to do, and they did not care what anyone else thought. That led to huge problems in trying to persuade people about the realities of farming. For example, the DOE civil servants argued that in the year in which the regulations were introduced in England and Wales, pollution incidents were cut by 50%.

I asked the officials whether they could explain how such an amazing change could happen, and also for the rainfall statistics for the two years in question, since most people know that problems with silage effluent are closely related to rainfall. However, they did not have any rainfall statistics. Since they were quoting statistics for overall pollution incidents, I asked whether they could give me a 10-year trend rather than just taking two random years, which might have illustrated how successful the regulations had been. The civil servants did not have those figures either.

I then asked the officials whether they were aware that farmers in England and Wales were able to get capital grants to install slurry stores and silage effluent run-offs at the time that the regulations were introduced there and which did not exist in Northern Ireland five years ago. They did not even know that grants were available at the time. However, they expected Northern Ireland farmers, at a time of huge financial difficulty, to fund the additional required storage. It was only through pressure being put on the DOE civil servants by the Committee for the Environment, coupled with lobbying by the Ulster Farmers’ Union and others, that there was any change in the way in which those regulations were applied.

When some capital funding was obtained — inadequate though it was — DARD went ahead and gold-plated the storage requirements so that all the extra funding that was given for capital grants was used up on that gold-plating. The two Departments responsible were totally inadequate in their understanding of the needs of the farmers for whom they sought to legislate.

DARD officials should take back responsibility for reflecting back to other Departments the needs of the agriculture industry and working farmers. They should not always assume that their job is to impose the wishes of other Departments on farmers, when those Departments have simply lifted regulations as they have been applied across the water but which do not apply in Northern Ireland. Sadly, that is one example of the many things that DARD officials have failed to do in liaising with other Departments. The key requirement of the Ulster Farmers’ Union’s five-point plan — the need for DARD to start to review its red tape — is absolutely correct. Until DARD examines what is necessary, appropriate and reasonable, we will not move forward.

P J Bradley referred to the issue of public procure-ment, and that is another area in which Northern Ireland has failed to make any of the changes that have been made in the Republic or across the water. Government spokesmen talk about the need to cut down on transport. The issue of food miles has suddenly become a major issue in the UK; however, in Northern Ireland, the response from DARD is doing nothing to encourage a reduction in food miles, which would benefit the environment by cutting down on unnecessary transport and assist agriculture and food processing, which remain, despite all the recent changes, vital sectors of our economy. Those industries would have a future if DARD would only give them the support that they need.

Notwithstanding the issue of procurement, the Government have completely failed to act on the issue of energy. The Government recently produced a £59 million renewable energy fund, which, among other things, gives grants to individuals for micro-generation on their own houses. However, at the same time, the challenge fund that helped some farmers to develop biomass businesses with willow and miscanthus has ended. What worse example could there be of a lack of joined-up government when the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) is funding a set of grants for renewable energy while, at the same time, DARD is stopping funding for the production of the materials that produce renewable energy?

NIO Ministers have completely failed to take account of initiatives that are joined up, match one another, or have any real opportunity to give farmers the long-term security of income that they need and require — it has been about initiatives that look well.

DARD is not the worst Department when it comes to looking at the issues, although there may be people who believe that it is. In the previous Assembly, I was a member of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development and the Committee for the Environment, and DARD civil servants had a greater understanding of what needed to be done. However, at times there was an inability to reflect that understanding elsewhere, and DARD was unable to look at the overall needs of the industry with civil servants from other Departments.

Until there is some form of joined-up government in which OFMDFM works with DARD, DOE and DETI on issues such an energy and public procurement, there will be no prospect of giving farmers — on whom much of our economy, and all our rural economy, depends — the income and security they need. That will only happen when we have a working Assembly. Today’s debate should reinforce the need for the Government and those parties that have the opportunity to put structures in place to do so now so that our farmers and everyone else will benefit.

Dr McCrea: Agriculture remains Northern Ireland’s primary industry, and yet the unacceptable amount of red tape imposed on it is crippling and threatens the future of those employed in the industry. It also threatens rural life in Northern Ireland.

Recently, I had the opportunity of raising the issue of Northern Ireland agriculture in a debate in the Great Hall in Westminster. I pointed out that agriculture is three times more important to the Northern Ireland economy than it is to the UK economy as a whole. Through such debates, and today’s debate, I trust that someone in Government will wake up to the serious threat facing the industry and take the action necessary to remove some of the impediments that stand in the way of progress.

There are more than 27,000 farms in Northern Ireland, half of which are large enough to have at least one full-time employee. Similar to other regions of the UK, there have been great changes to the agricultural sector here, resulting in many farms merging with others and becoming larger. That reconstruction has resulted in the number of farms falling by approximately 1% to 2% per annum. Fewer young people are entering the industry and older farmers are leaving — we are seeing a haemorrhage in the farming industry.

I understand why so many young people fail to enter the industry. They cannot enter an industry if there will not be a viable wage at the end of their labours — and the tragedy is that there is not a viable wage. There is a great hoo-ha when we hear that farm incomes have increased by 10% due to something that has happened in the previous year, but 10% of little is still little. We must realise that the agricultural industry is facing a crisis. Departments — not only DARD — have an interest in this debate, and issues must be faced and grappled with. Everything humanly possible must be done to save the industry.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)

It is noteworthy that farmers on large holdings have a younger age profile than those on smaller holdings. Therefore it is vital that farmers are given the help and assistance necessary to survive. I fear that the agrifood sector, Northern Ireland’s largest employer, will be unsustainable without larger holdings having a secure and viable long-term future.

Northern Ireland farmers supply the Province’s main food-processing companies. Furthermore, a large volume of milk is exported from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland for processing. The Northern Ireland food industry has a gross annual turnover of more than £2 billion, which accounts for approximately 21% of the total turnover of our manufacturing sector. The two largest sub-sectors of the food industry — milk and milk products, and beef and sheep meat — account for almost 50% of that industry’s turnover. That reflects the importance of those commodities for Northern Ireland’s primary production.

My colleagues and I again recently met an Ulster Farmers’ Union team, which was led by its president, Mr Kenneth Sharkey. We discussed the union’s ‘Cut it Out’ campaign, which calls for more farm work and less paperwork. I thank the union for its active leadership in the fight to preserve Northern Ireland’s farming industry. I assure the union and the industry that the Democratic Unionist Party will resolve to support their efforts, and that we will use our team at Westminster to constantly press the Government to act in the interests of the farming community. Similarly, our MEP, Mr Jim Allister, has used his skills to great effect in the European Parliament on the matter, and he will continue to do so.

The Assembly informs the Departments of its disgust at some of the gold-plating for which they are responsible and its disgust at the regulations that are being forced on the farming community. Although other regions of the United Kingdom can focus on local supply, such as farm markets, and on niche markets, such as organic produce and traditional breeds, that is not an option for Northern Ireland farmers because they rely on exporting 70% of their produce outside the UK.

The Government can do more, and they could display a better understanding of the crisis that the industry faces. For example, the high number of farm inspections was mentioned earlier. There is duplication of inspections, which may originate from DARD, DOE, and the farm quality assurance scheme, etc. That duplication means not only a duplication of costs; if one wants to bring disease to farms, a good way to do so is to have inspector after inspector visiting and moving around. That threatens the security of the disease-free status that the Northern Ireland farming community has enjoyed and has sought to protect.

Instead of having a plethora of officials who inspect one farm after the other, filling in their own forms and keeping themselves in a job, we must seek practical solutions. More is spent on officialdom in Departments than on trying to keep the farming industry alive. We must ensure that the issues are tackled practically and cohesively.

The DOE seems to hold a different opinion than DARD. I concur with the Member for South Antrim Mr Ford, who said that there seems to be a lack of cohesive thinking in the Departments. I recall a meeting that our party held with the DOE and DARD. When they were together, it seemed that, although DARD took the lead, the DOE tail was wagging the dog. It seemed as though the DOE was the unmovable object and wanted to gold-plate legislation. I can understand why we have gold-plating, but it must be applied across the whole of Europe. I am sickened that regulations are being forced down the throats of farmers in Northern Ireland, while in the Irish Republic or other parts of Europe, it seems that anything will do. There is no level playing field, and we demand that there be one.

I remember the crisis in the pig industry in Northern Ireland, and I recall meetings that took place at that time with Lord Dubs. Before that crisis, the Depart-ment told farmers that if they gained a quality-assured certificate, they would be on the pig’s back and that everyone would want their produce. In reality, instead of being on the pig’s back, they were under its belly. The Department placed so many regulations on the farming community that it put it into the pig’s manure.

It is time for realism in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. There has to be joined-up government to ensure that we save this vital industry for rural Northern Ireland. I believe that it produces the best produce in the world. We should be backing the industry to the hilt.

1.00 pm

Food produced in Northern Ireland should be labelled so that people know that they are getting the best possible quality — instead of food from another part of the world getting a Northern Ireland label just because it is processed here. We must ensure that there is honesty and integrity in the industry. Elected representatives and the Assembly must stand 100% behind the farming community, which forms the backbone of Ulster industry — in fact it is our primary industry. We have a duty to give that community our wholehearted support.

Mr Kennedy: It is always a pleasure to speak after Dr McCrea. He is a hard act to follow, and I congratulate him again on another fine speech.

I welcome the opportunity to participate in this important debate, and I thank my colleague Tom Elliott and Assemblyman P J Bradley for bringing this important issue to the attention of the Assembly. A high degree of public interest has been created today.

Agriculture remains one of the largest employers in Northern Ireland, and it is one of the key industries — if not the key industry. It is certainly a key industry in my constituency of Newry and Armagh. I join with others in paying tribute to the UFU. For many years, the UFU has provided its members with good, steady, consistent leadership, and its administrative department has produced excellent briefing papers and documents that are an important asset to public representatives.

On behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party I welcome the ‘Five Steps to a Better Future’ initiative, which was launched by the UFU in November 2006. The first step in that initiative is to reduce bureaucracy in agriculture, which has led to the new ‘Cut It Out’ campaign. There is too much red tape in the agriculture industry affecting the day-to-day work of farmers. I can confirm — as will other Members — that it is causing unnecessary stress and worry, leading in some cases to serious medical conditions and suicide. Farmers are finding themselves in difficult situations, and the quicker that the Government realise that they are adding to the pressure on farmers — in many ways, they are inflicting it — the quicker they will realise that they need to do something about it.

The general view expressed by Members from all parties in the House is that there is too much red tape, not only from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, but from associated Government agencies and, in particular, the European Union.

Earlier, it was mentioned that Government agencies have commissioned 18 business surveys into local farms, costing approximately £318,000. However, the cost to genuine farmers was £2·3 million in penalties. Therefore, we must ask what manner and level of madness are DARD and Government agencies permitting when an industry — in particular, the agriculture industry — has to employ professional form-fillers?

Mr Hussey: It is my understanding that the ratio of DARD civil servants to farmers is between 1:7 and 1:8. Is there a degree of self-protectionism from the Department in that it must generate red tape in order, at times, to justify its existence?

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Kennedy: I thank the Member for his well-made and relevant point.

Northern Ireland’s farmers and agriculture industry need and want a locally devolved Administration at Stormont as quickly as possible. On behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, I hope that that is achieved as quickly as possible. Direct rule Ministers have been either incompetent or not sufficiently interested in Northern Ireland’s agriculture industry. Therefore, they have not represented the industry properly and have not dealt with its problems.

In addition, since 1997, the Labour Administration has been largely unsympathetic to the United Kingdom’s rural communities. I have no doubt that a devolved Assembly would be more responsive to the needs of the agriculture industry in Northern Ireland. It might not solve all the industry’s problems and would not be — and could not be — a panacea for all its ills.

Mr Simpson: Does the Member agree that red tape is a problem in the farming community? For example, one of the major obstacles faced by farmers is that when they consider re-diversification, they are met by the bureaucracy of the Planning Service.

Mr Kennedy: I very much share the Member’s concern about that. I make the point that not only will dealing with the problem of red tape be a priority for the Minister of Agriculture in a newly devolved Administration, it will be the Executive’s priority to create the conditions for joined-up government, which, hitherto, have not existed. If the agriculture industry is to find its way through many of the problems that it faces, such conditions must exist.

I have no doubt that an Executive and working Assembly would make a significant contribution to renewing confidence in the agriculture industry. I welcome this debate.

Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

I support the motion. However, it highlights the weaknesses of the business conducted in the Chamber for the past number of weeks. The motion:

“calls on the Government to implement legislation/regulations with less gold-plating”.

The fact is that the elected representatives in this Chamber should be the Government. Unfortunately, we have spent the past hour outlining the agriculture industry’s problems. The agriculture industry knows what its problems are. It needs solutions to those problems from an effective local Administration that can help to resolve them.

The EU is responsible for much red tape. However, it is down to civil servants to interpret that red tape. We have seen examples of how other EU nations interpret red tape. Indeed, we need only look to the Government of the Twenty-six Counties.

Indeed, many farmers who are in the Public Gallery or are watching this debate on television have farms that straddle the border. On one side of the border, DARD implements a ridiculous amount of red tape, and, on the other side of the border, an Administration operates a policy that is pro-farming and pro-agriculture. A local Administration could greatly improve the situation for the agriculture industry. We cannot solve all its problems, but one hour’s debate — or one, two or three days’ debate — will certainly not solve those problems.

We were elected to make decisions and to implement legislation and policy; that is what we should be doing. Would it not be more effective for Assembly Members to debate this motion at an all-Ireland ministerial council meeting than in this Chamber? Would it not be more effective to lobby the European Union with a single voice? It has already been stated that the agriculture industry does not have the same impact on the UK economy as it does on the economy of the island of Ireland. Agriculture does not have a voice in the British Government, but an all-Ireland ministerial council could be a single voice for agriculture that could not be ignored.

I am my party’s health spokesperson, and Members may wonder why I am speaking to a motion on agriculture. The basic tenet of a healthy society is the food that it consumes. Our locally produced and manufactured food is undoubtedly the best in the world, and over the years it has been proven that food from local farms is second to none. That is why we need an agriculture industry. We must ensure that our food is produced locally and is not shipped some 1,000 miles from various places around the world to the plates, diners, restaurants and schools meals kitchens of Ireland. The longer that food travels and is stored, the less healthy and nutritious it is.

The rural community is under attack from various quarters. There is Draft Policy Planning Statement 14 (PPS 14), proposals to close some rural post offices — which we will debate later today — health planning and threats to our rural schools. All those attacks are detrimental to the agriculture industry and rural communities and should be resisted by a local Executive, not an Assembly debating shop.

After today’s debate, a single voice will emerge from the Assembly. Unfortunately, DARD is not packing its computers into removal vans and pulling out of DARD offices. Tomorrow morning, DARD officials will implement the same policies that they implemented today, and the agriculture industry will face exactly the same problems. All we can do is debate. It is clear, a LeasCheann Comhairle, that we are in danger of producing more methane than the entire agriculture industry. Go raibh maith agat.

Mrs D Kelly: Several Members have highlighted overly bureaucratic administration in the agriculture industry, and I support those views. My contribution on behalf of the SDLP will be to call for the imple-mentation of the Ulster Farmers’ Union initiative for origin labelling of beef in the food sector industry.

Throughout 2006, the Ulster Farmers’ Union was in correspondence with DARD, the self-proclaimed rural champion, but to no avail. It is clear from the correspondence that not only was there an attempt to kick this issue into the long grass but, in typical Civil Service-style manoeuvres, to pass responsibility to an agency — in this case, the Food Standards Agency Northern Ireland. That ploy got short shrift, but the anomaly still exists in Northern Ireland of food-labelling regulations for beef applying to retail products but not to beef destined for the food service sector. The food service sector is growing rapidly in Northern Ireland and, in 2005, was estimated to be worth £1·6 billion, representing a growing market opportunity for local producers.

1.15 pm

In recent days, we have heard commentators, including celebrity chefs — I do not know if my colleague from Upper Bann is one of those or not, but I do know that he has such a background — speaking about food miles as being a deciding factor when meat, chicken, fruit and vegetables are being purchased.

More people are becoming increasingly discerning about the food they buy: we know that from the way major retailers have advertised Northern Ireland produce so enthusiastically. The measure was introduced in response to customer demands to be able to buy local products. Why should customers of the food service sector — restaurants, pubs and other catering outlets — not have the same choice?

DARD quotes European legislation as its guide and states that costs are prohibitive — not something that seems applicable when determining whether to hire consultants to advise on policy matters. DARD has even asked the UFU whether the industry could meet the potential increase in demand if such an initiative were to be introduced. Therefore, DARD is not contemplating that such a demand is possible, and, if one does materialise, DARD is wondering whether it can be met. Is DARD a rural champion or defeatist?

I assure Members that the farming community will rise to the challenge gladly. After all, farmers are not afraid of hard work or long hours. Consumers too will meet the challenge gladly. They have already indicated their desire to have “labelling of origin” introduced. Consumer research conducted by the UFU in the ‘The Irish News’ and the ‘News Letter’ in 2004 showed that 96% of consumers would like to have the option of having dishes prepared with local produce in local restaurants; 99% want local produce to be labelled on restaurant menus; 97% would support a restaurant that voluntarily promoted local produce and low food miles; and 100% of respondents want to see more restaurants providing local produce.

Further research by Periscope and the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD) also shows a growing interest among Northern Ireland consumers in purchasing local produce. DARD should show some leadership, even at this stage, by introducing a voluntary scheme. I know that that would be welcomed by the UFU.

During the debate, we have heard examples of good practice and proactive measures by the Government in the Republic of Ireland. The Minister, Mary Coughlan, announced the introduction of the Health (Country of Origin of Beef) Regulations 2006, which came into effect on 3 July 2006. That decision by the Govern-ment in the Republic of Ireland highlights the need for urgent progress to be made on the issue in the North. The Scottish Parliament is also taking steps not only to assist the farming community but to give the public the good information that it wants by introducing a voluntary code.

A restored Assembly could make a difference to the industry. The SDLP welcomes the will to work positively for the good of all in Northern Ireland, and I trust that other parties will show moral courage in the days and weeks ahead. Indeed, Mr O’Dowd talked about how this Assembly, while it can debate, has no power. That is true, but let us hope that he and his party will stop giving the DUP a veto on policing so that we can all move ahead.

Finally, I too congratulate the UFU on its vision and on its efforts to cut red tape in the industry. I support the motion.

Mr Paisley Jnr: I welcome the debate and the immense interest being shown in it. I was a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly and of the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development, and it became very hard to drag people out to a debate on agriculture. Perhaps the presence of so many people watching us today has encouraged Members to come to the debate, and I genuinely welcome that interest. As well as that, there may be an election coming, and that may have something to do with some people’s interest in the issue.

However, it is good to get packed Benches, new faces and new Members speaking in the debate. People from the farming community and the rural community will judge for themselves as to the voices that are committed to the subject, and I hope that after today’s debate they will continue to see that there are people in public life who support them and want to see them endorsed, encouraged and supported in a practical and efficient way.

I apologise that after my speech I will have to break with convention and leave for the meeting with the Security Minister in the Senate Chamber. I do not want the Member who will follow me to think that I am leaving because he is speaking.

A Member said earlier that we should be the Government, that we should be in charge and that we should be responsible for running the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Of course local people want Northern Ireland’s elected representatives to have their hands on the levers of power and to run an efficient and effective Government. What they do not want, however, are parties in here that are not truly democratic and that are not linked to the democratic way forward. What they do not want is an Assembly that will become unstable, as happened in previous efforts to get an Assembly up and running.

What farmers want to hear today is that there is going to be a real, genuine, solid commitment by all parties to the rule of law, support for the police and for the courts. Then we can move on and see progress happen instead of this nonsense of paying lip-service to the democratic principle and then ignoring it in the breach. Perhaps the reason — and this may have dawned on some Members — that health rather than agriculture spokespeople are taking part in this debate is that certain selection processes have not taken place. Perhaps some people are going to be deselected. We just do not know; however, stranger things have happened. We shall see in the days ahead.

This is a worthy motion and one that the DUP, through its agriculture spokesman, Mr Clyde, has supported admirably today. ‘Five Steps to a Better Future’ is a very progressive document and shows that the UFU is taking the initiative. Where the Department has failed to identify issues or, worse still, has ignored issues, the UFU wants to do what it claims to do best — to represent the men and women of the field and try to identify and resolve the issues.

The motion focuses a good deal of attention on red tape and bureaucracy; however, it would be wrong to assume that that is all that the UFU has identified in its report. It has identified a host of issues that the Department should get to grips with.

Mr Shannon: Is the Member aware that there are 1,440 Department of Agriculture and Rural Development officials in County Down — one for every two farmers — while in the west of the Province there are only 400 in each county? Is he also aware that such is the monitoring and the officialdom in County Down that the Department has been known to hire a helicopter to check on farmers? Will the Member agree that the introduction of a citizen’s charter would be the best way forward so that there would be no criminalisation or penalisation? Will he further agree that 14 days’ notice of an official visit to a farm is the way forward?

Mr Paisley Jnr: The issues that the Member for Strangford has identified go to the heart of the motion. It is not just the gold-plating; it is the crippling effect on the industry in Northern Ireland. There are so many officials, as Mr Shannon has rightly pointed out, that they almost outnumber the people entering the agriculture industry.

The UFU report identifies real, positive wins, and we should not have to wait for an Assembly Government to get up and running. DARD could start putting them in place immediately. I know that departmental representatives are here today, and I would encourage them to look at this report and recognise that there are points in all five sections that could be acted on and put in place immediately, if they really cared about listening to the farming community.

Mr Storey: Does the Member agree that there is a serious issue when a Department has an underspend of 40% of EU Peace II money, which equates to €32·5 million, at 19 September 2006? Surely serious questions must be asked about why the Department has allowed that scandal to continue?

Mr Paisley Jnr: I am glad that the Member has raised that point. I have just picked up the publication, ‘Department of Agriculture and Rural Development: Resource Accounts 2005-06’. The Member has identified the startling waste that goes on. Members should study Mr Storey’s remarks, which he makes as a member of the Peace II monitoring committee. I congratulate him on the work that he does in that area.

In the publication, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development claims to have four aims, including improving the economic performance of the agrifood industry and strengthening the economy and social infrastructure of the farming community. However, the red tape that currently exists and that is being introduced is at such unprecedented levels that it is crippling the industry. The Department cannot fulfil the aims of its report if it allows that to continue. It must cut the tape and let people be free to do what they are supposed to do, which is to be good businesspeople who efficiently and effectively carry out the important task of providing food for the community.

In its 2006 ‘Cut It Out’ campaign, the Ulster Farmers’ Union said that form-filling errors cost the local industry £2·3 million. We see the effects of such errors not only in farming, but across the business sector. If the Federation of Small Businesses supported us in a debate tomorrow about red tape, the same themes would be identified. There is a poison at the heart of Government: if they cannot deal with a process, they put red tape on it to slow it down. That is a minefield, and it must be tackled urgently.

In Northern Ireland, a lot of legislation must be complied with, principally that which comes from the European Union. However, other Departments encourage that because of the enforcement systems that add significantly to such legislation. Mr Shannon and Mr Storey have illustrated that issue very clearly. Other EU member states do not add the same amount of red tape and compliance legislation that we do.

Clearly, a balance must be struck. Enforcement is good in principle: there must be enforcement and compliance so that the consumer has confidence in the product. However, a balance must also be struck between over-enforcement, which we clearly have, and the over-indulgence that seems to occur on the part of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. There have been many examples of that, and I would like to pick up on two.

The first is water quality. In Northern Ireland, that is dominated by not one, two or even three European directives, but four. There is a new Groundwater Directive; the existing Groundwater Directive, which stays in place and still has to be complied with; the Nitrates Directive, which caused untold problems for this House and for the farming community; and, of course, the Water Framework Directive. Those highlight the over-bureaucracy in the Department. Europe should streamline all that into one simple directive and one simple enforcement regime, instead of having the separate regimes that are associated with those directives.

In this morning’s post I received Northern Ireland Statutory Rule No. 508, which has the very long title The Sheep and Goats (Records, Identification and Movement) (Amendment) Order (Northern Ireland) 2006. That has nothing to do with the goats in the Assembly; it is to do with another additional requirement on sheep and goat farmers. In addition to the current ear tag that they have to put on sheep and goats, they will now have to find a blue tag — I do not think that all tags are red, white and blue — to put in sheep’s ears. It actually specifies that the new tag must not obscure any other tag that appears on the sheep’s ear. Soon every sheep in Northern Ireland will have to have a filing cabinet for all the forms that are associated with it. That situation highlights the nonsense that the farming community has to go through. Instead of being able to raise the beast, get it to slaughter and get it into the food chain as quickly and efficiently as possible, we have this nonsense of filling in form after form.

The Department must review and reduce the burden of red tape that is on the industry and remove it as soon as possible. I hope that Commissioner Fischer Boel’s current review of the effects of the CAP across the member states gets to grips with this issue and deals with it efficiently and effectively.

1.30 pm

Rev Dr Robert Coulter: I too am glad that this motion has been brought before the House, and I congratulate those who have put their names to it. It allows us to highlight some of the problems that the farming community faces.

As others have already eloquently pointed out, red tape has gone beyond the realm of acceptability on farms. The other evening I was talking to some farmers at a function, and they were discussing ear tagging. The end product of the conversation was that the Department should develop sheep with six ears to accommodate all the tags. That shows the nonsense that is emanating from the Department.

Coming late to the debate as I do, there is little left to say. However, I would like to highlight the cost of inspections. Has the time not come for the Select Committee on Public Accounts to investigate the Department for value for money? How much do inspections cost? What is their end product? How does the Department achieve value for money if, as we have been told, there is one departmental official for every seven or eight farms in the country?

No other business is as burdened by rules and regulations as the farming industry. It is a major industry in Northern Ireland, supporting some 50,000 jobs on farms and 18,000 jobs in the agrifood sector, which has an annual turnover of £2·4 billion. What other industry is so vital to the economy of the country and so burdened with red tape? I cannot think of one. If an industry is brought in from America or another country, the Government bend over backwards to give it grants and other assistance. Yet a home-grown, home-made, home-serviced industry has a pile of red tape heaped on it year upon year. Surely the time has come for the Department to consider seriously its value to the industry. The Department needs a change of mindset on the matter.

This brings me back many years to when a town of which I was mayor was considering building a new meat plant. The number of regulations that we had to comply with was so burdensome that we wondered at times whether it was worthwhile. When we went to the Continent, however, we saw meat plants that had not half the regulation to which we were subject. Our regulations extended to the number of centimetres required in the approach to the killing zone. I am tempted to say that our officials must have a bureaucratic disease that requires them to place this burden on those who are doing something worthwhile in the country. I appeal to the Department to consider its attitude to farmers.

There are many other things that we could talk about. Food miles have already been referred to. There is no sense in bringing food halfway around the world when we could produce it at home; in treating that produce with radiation or chemicals to keep it fresh when our farmers can provide the same produce locally; or in bringing meat from the other side of the world when our own farmers produce the same cuts — only better.

Does the Department apply the same regulations to foreign meat producers and ask whether the same demands are made of them? What does the housewife think when she sees two cuts of meat in the supermarket, one from Northern Ireland that is overburdened with red tape, the other from a foreign country that seems not to be subject to the same regulations? Yet she is expected to provide meat for her family.

The Department must be challenged on those moral questions. I ask DARD to ensure that its attitude to the farmers of Northern Ireland is ethical.

Very little has been said about biofuel, although Mr Ford mentioned the energy side of the agriculture industry. What is the Department doing to assist and encourage farmers to get into the biofuel industry? This is a new era for farming, but, as Mr Ford said, it seems that the Department’s attitude is to make it more difficult for our farmers to get into something that will really help the industry.

We also need to help our farmers to deal with the supermarkets. Time after time, in rural communities, I come across farmers who say that they are up against it when it comes to the big fellows, who can pull down the price. Look at the cost of milk, for example. How much does the farmer get for his milk per litre? How much must a housewife pay for a litre of milk that she buys off the shelf? Where does the money go in between? Those questions need to be addressed and answered.

DARD has a great opportunity to take the issue by the scruff of the neck and deal with it ethically, honestly and straightforwardly, so that it can stand before the Public Accounts Committee and say that it is giving value for money.

I congratulate the UFU for its initiatives and for dealing with people on the ground. I plead with the Department to stop looking only at legislation and to look at people. The stress that farmers endure has been mentioned, as has the plethora of forms that they must fill out. Will departmental officials please tell me whether they are going to support the farmers, as they should, or whether they are going to support mere legislation?

Ms Gildernew: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I commend the farmers’ unions and others for the work that they have done in the rural and farming sector. I welcome the president of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, Ken Sharkey, and people from the farming community who have come to hear the debate.

Agriculture remains an integral part of the Irish economy, and the rural way of life is an essential part of our culture and heritage. For generations, the industry has withstood successive British Governments’ policies to force people out of farming and into towns and cities. Draft PPS 14 is the most recent example of those policies.

Agriculture employs more than 50,000 people in the North, and a further 18,000 are employed in the food-processing sector. The farming industry generates £2·4 billion for the economy, which is a significant contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP). However, the possibility of an end to devolved Government here leaves the farming community with probably more to lose than any other grouping or industry. Much of the primary legislation that affects farming comes from Brussels, and its application, interpretation and implementation is one of the biggest challenges facing the sector. Without a local Minister in charge, and without the Assembly and its scrutiny Committee in place, DARD is not fully accountable. The result of that is that farmers are being short-changed. Funding programmes that should have been fully implemented have not been, and, as a consequence, millions of pounds have been lost to the industry.

All parties have voiced widespread concerns in the debate about the way in which DARD operates. Its methods have caused unnecessary hardship. The culture of red-tape bureaucracy and the lack of support and flexibility offered to farmers are the hallmarks of the way in which DARD does business in the North. I presume that I speak for all parties when I say that that no one is attacking DARD employees; rather, the policies and the ethos at the top of the Department are the problem.

I have listened carefully to Members’ comments. In particular, one Member’s comments must be noted. It is unfortunate that Ian Paisley Jnr is no longer in the Chamber, but he should perhaps remove his blinkers for a second and put the interests of the farming community ahead of his own narrow political agenda. He is obviously not talking to farmers because, if he were, he would know that farmers continually say that local politicians should return to power and that there must be a local Minister for agriculture. If he cannot understand the relationship between health, good diet and farming, he is sorely missing the point. It is good to hear that he missed me, having thought that I should have spoken earlier in the debate. It is good that he noticed my absence.

Sinn Féin has consistently highlighted problems with DARD and, more fundamentally, the continuing damage to the local industry through its being tied to a UK position on agriculture, particularly with regard to Europe. The British agricultural policy actively supports a cheap food policy that is destroying rural communities. That policy permits the import of cheap food from countries across the world that, as Bob Coulter pointed out, do not have the same stringent controls as here. At the same time, the British Government support the dominance of massive supermarkets that control the prices paid to farmers. That must be reversed. Bob Coulter also highlighted the difference between the farm-gate price and the supermarket price. I thank God that it is no longer only housewives who go to the supermarket nowadays — consumers come in all shapes, sizes and genders.

Sinn Féin has repeatedly argued that the development of an all-Ireland agricultural framework is in farmers’ interests, particularly in respect of EU negotiations and the implementation of EU guidelines and directives. Nowhere is an all-Ireland approach more urgently needed than in tackling the rural crisis that affects much of Ireland. There are clear benefits to the removal of UK status from food exports from the North. An all-Ireland food promotion agency and an all-Ireland strategy to promote animal health and consumer confidence must also be established.

Ireland’s agricultural industry and rural life is continually being damaged by central Government on both sides of the border, by the EU and by world economic policies. That requires an urgent all-Ireland response. Greater co-ordination across Ireland is needed in order to find more effective ways to challenge the implementation of the raft of EU directives that will have a massive impact on farmers’ futures. Rural communities are right to feel betrayed: farm incomes are plummeting; promises of investment in employ-ment, housing and infrastructure in rural areas have been broken. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people will leave the farming industry in years to come.

A common agenda for Irish farmers, fishermen and rural communities is essential. There is strength in unity. If Irish farmers took a moment to examine how their French counterparts act to support one another, they might learn that united they stand, divided they fall. There is much agreement between Sinn Féin and the Ulster Farmers’ Union on the problems that face the industry, not least the fundamental problem of red tape and bureaucracy in DARD and the practice of gold-plating regulations to the detriment of farmers. Others Members have said plenty on those issues already, so I will not go into any more detail.

The UFU has identified five clear priorities for an incoming Executive in order to make early progress on a range of issues. Food miles will be an issue for a local produce public procurement initiative. It is ironic that some hospitals import patients’ food from Wales when some of the best quality food in the world is available here.

Beef-labelling, in particular, should be compulsory. The poultry industry is under pressure from labelling requirements. More must be done to support the poultry industry. A renewable energy public procurement initiative should be introduced. Much more could be done to support new technologies. We can also learn from research into developing markets that has already been done on the island by organisations such as Teagasc. We must also be mindful of the VAT and taxation requirements on biofuels, as those must be made as attractive as possible to consumers.

The abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board is also one of the UFU’s five priorities. Sinn Féin endorses all five priorities and gives its commitment to champion them.

It is a time of huge challenges and opportunities for the farming industry and rural community. Without going into more detail about red tape, I wish to highlight the huge difficulties surrounding the single farm payment.

1.45 pm

The “duplicate field” issue has been a huge problem, particularly for smaller farmers who are often the worst affected as the duplication query on their farms can comprise a large percentage of the overall claim and may, in fact, lead to a larger penalty, or, in the worst-case scenario, cancellation of the entire payment. Farmers should not face considerable financial penalties given that the system was new, extremely complicated, and that errors were made through no direct malice on their part. Sinn Féin supports the UFU’s efforts to have the problem highlighted in Europe through derogation on penalties for duplicate claims.

Another example of the different approach taken in the Twenty-six Counties is the ‘Charter of Rights for Farmers 2005/07’, which was introduced by the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Ms Mary Coughlan, a year ago. It provides information on many issues mentioned this morning, such as application procedures, inspection arrangements, eligibility and compliance issues. It also sets out specific details on time frames for the delivery of payments.

Critically, the charter is tolerance-based, a concept that has been accepted by the EU Commission. The lack of tolerance by local Government Departments has led to high financial penalties on the local farming industry. A farmers’ charter could help to address that and would make an immediate difference to farmers’ lives. We are all aware of the amount of forms that have to be filled in and the penalties that are imposed if they are not. It seems that DARD’s policy is “do as I say; not as I do”. However, when the Department makes mistakes, the same obstructions are not placed in its way.

Members have talked about how rural communities have been undermined. Draft PPS 14 is an example of one policy that undermines those communities. John O’Dowd talked about rural post offices and schools and the loss of access to healthcare services, and it is clear that the industry faces huge challenges.

The reform of the common agricultural policy (CAP) and single farm payments were supposed to ensure that farmers had the freedom to farm and to diversify. However, the culture of bureaucracy that continues to exist in DARD makes a mockery of that objective, and the situation is now much worse. Farmers are facing death by a thousand cuts, and that situation has to be reversed immediately.

We need a local Minister — there is no question about that. Sinn Féin has argued consistently that farmers in the North are not getting a fair deal. The Department has not been their champion. A local Minister would do a better job than any direct-rule Minister, and, as I have said many times before, it does not matter to which party that Minister belongs. The British framework does not just fail our industry; it also sells us short. We have so much going for us — our clean green image and the quality of our food — but we are being hampered. We should have one of the most vibrant farming communities in the world, yet we do not. We need a local Minister, and we need one now.

Go raibh míle maith agat.

Dr Deeny: Mr Deputy Speaker, thank you for allowing me to speak in the debate. I thank Mr Elliott and Mr PJ Bradley for raising the matter, and I commend the comments that Members have made.

Some people might ask why a doctor would speak on the issue. However, as Mr Paisley Jnr mentioned earlier, agriculture is our main industry, which makes it an immense issue for the people of Northern Ireland. I represent a cross-section of the community, not just across different churches, but across different occupations and professions too.

Members will have to excuse me as I am just getting used to the reading glasses that I bought in Dunnes Stores for £5 — as a doctor, I should have gone to see an optician. Anyhow, when I read the first line of the motion:

“That this Assembly deplores the over-bureaucratic administration”,

I thought that it referred to all professions in Northern Ireland. I have been a doctor for 27 years, and I know that healthcare staff certainly find it soul-destroying and demoralising that they must deal with so much bureaucracy. I am married to a teacher, and I know that the same bureaucracy exists in the teaching profession. As Tom Elliott mentioned, there is bureaucracy across many professions and it is driving people away from them.

What qualifies me to speak on a farming issue? Farming, like medicine, is a vocation. When people talk about vocations, they often mention medicine, teaching, or the spiritual or ministerial life. However, farming is a vocation, too. As Mr Clyde said, farmers work from six in the morning until six at night.

I did not discover until I did general practice that farmers often do not get holidays because they do not have cover. I believe that farming is a vocation.

What qualifies me to speak on this? I am not from a farming background, but I now live in a farming setting in Tyrone. My mother came from a farming background in the very far east of County Down.

Mr Coulter and Mr Kennedy referred to an important matter. I am a GP in a farming community. Many of the farmers are not just my friends but also my patients. The health concerns that I have for the farming com-munity are down to red tape. Although we laughed about the six years on the sheep that Mr Coulter talked about, it is serious. In the Health Service, we feel the same.

I got involved in politics through a health issue. I was often quoted as calling the Health Service, because of what is happening here, an administrative monster, indeed, a bureaucratic cancer. I have been watching it for over 20 years now. I do not know what sort of a disease it is, but it is certainly contagious. And it is not just the Department of Health that has it: it has spread to the other Departments, including farming. This is a nonsense, and it is time that we as a society that is a part of Europe looked at our legislation. I agreed with Mr Coulter when he asked what was more important. Of course, we need legislation within reason, but we need to talk to the farmers.

My concern is, primarily, what this is doing to our farming community. The loss of incentive has to be mentioned. Many young people are being put off farming simply because of the red tape and the amount of time that they would have to give to it. Rather than dealing with the livestock and the beasts, as they are called, they are dealing more and more with paper. As an experienced GP more of my time, and that of my colleagues, is now spent looking at forms and ticking boxes than dealing with sick people. I know from my farming patients that they are doing the same rather than dealing with the beasts.

I do not like the blame game that goes on in politics. I have a brother in the legal profession. Some of my fellow Assembly colleagues who not here today are in the legal profession. The legal profession — I will keep going because they are not here today. [Laughter.]I say this in front of my brother: lawyers have to catch themselves on. They are ruining society. Everything now is defensive. We are practising defensive medicine in case we are sued in the High Court. The same applies to how farmers work. Instead of using common sense, we are being defensive because of fear of the High Court.

Without pointing the finger solely at our legal colleagues, the fault may also lie with our claim culture. People are now into claiming. In the medical profession we call it “compensationitis”. We have to put a stop to it and bring common sense back into the equation, where we can support the people working in these important jobs, including farming.

We should not forget that this part of the world is rural, both North and South. Setting aside the populations of the cities, the vast majority of people, North and South, live in the country. Yet all of this bureaucracy is due to centralisation. The rural people seem to have been forgotten about. The Government should not forget that people who live here in the North are rural people.

When Members canvass for votes, they should show their support for the farmers.

It is a pleasure to support the motion, and it seems that everyone has supported it. It is wonderful to have everyone on board. Other Members have mentioned that all parties support the farmers. It is great to see that in Northern Ireland, and I do not intend to rock the boat.

Mr Poots: With the exception of the odd jab between the DUP and Sinn Féin, everybody has been speaking with the same mind. Perhaps I should keep the debate going and remind Sinn Féin Members that the only party preventing Northern Ireland from having an agriculture Minister is Sinn Féin. Perhaps Sinn Féin will tell us today when its Ard-Fheis or conference will be called and when Ms Gildernew and those of her colleagues who do not support their leadership will do so in order to allow the party to call the meeting. Perhaps we can get on with establishing a Government in Northern Ireland on the back of that.

The motion contains many issues that must be addressed. Northern Ireland has been bogged down with red tape and bureaucracy for some time. We need to know what the detailed rules for the implementation of the nitrates directive are, and the farm nutrient management scheme must be more practical. The scheme that will deal with the protection of air, soil and ground waste is another example of the gold-plating of environmental issues in which the Government have gone over the top.

Are the Government interested in the environment? I heard Mr O’Leary from Ryanair taking on a former Minister who had responsibility for agriculture in Northern Ireland, Mr Pearson. Mr Pearson came out worst in the exchange. I was glad to hear Mr O’Leary taking on the Government on the environment, because the Government merely pay lip-service to the issue. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the agriculture industry.

Many regulations are being applied to the agriculture sector across Europe, but the most damaging factor to the worldwide environment is the deforestation of South America. Forests are being burned to create more land in which to produce more beef that will be shipped to Europe to prop up a low beef price so that supermarkets can flog cheap beef and screw the farmers in the United Kingdom. That will prevent United Kingdom farmers from getting a decent price for their beef. The Government are happy with a cheap food policy when that process can be applied, and they are not concerned about the environment, deforestation or its impact on Africa and other parts of the world.

We hear a great deal about ethical food policy. The United Kingdom imports chicken from south-east Asia that is not produced ethically. The chickens are reared on wire-mesh floors that are suspended above carp pools. The carp feed on the faeces of the chickens and are then used in food production. The intestine, bones and offal of the carp are cooked, turned into meal and fed to the chickens. That would not put the desired sizzle into your chicken, but the British Government allow that food to be imported into our country. Consequently, chicken prices are driven down, and the people who are producing it properly, ethically and with regard for the environment are undermined.

Today, the poor old Department has been hit, quite rightly, left, right and centre. However, in a declining agriculture industry in which the numbers involved and the profits have reduced, DARD has been innovative in creating jobs for civil servants — not for anybody else. Since there are fewer farmers, one would anticipate that fewer people would be required to regulate farming. However, what has happened? More regulations have been produced to sustain the same number of civil servants to regulate fewer farmers. That is a critical problem for farming, and consequently many people have been driven out of it. The regulations make farming less profitable and more burdensome, and they make it more difficult for farmers to do their job.

(Madam Speaker in the Chair)

2.00 pm.

There was a recent document on animal welfare legislation that was to have been responded to by December 2006. The best thing that DARD could do for animal welfare would be to allow farmers to do what they are supposed to do, and that is the farmer’s primary job of animal and crop husbandry. Farmers are not allowed to look after their animals and crops, because they are burdened by paperwork. It can be more detrimental to profitability to make a mistake in the paperwork than a mistake on the farm that might lead to the loss of livestock. It is sensible for farmers to look after that paperwork because of the burden that the Department could apply to them. The more that DARD puts costs into the industry, the more that people leave that industry.

The issue of BSE arose 10 years ago and led to the decline that has taken place in the agriculture industry in Northern Ireland. At that time, we were warned of an epidemic in CJD and new variant CJD (nvCJD). On reflection, more farmers have lost their lives through suicide than through nvCJD. Although is has been a terrible thing for those families who have lost relatives through nvCJD, the impact goes beyond those individuals. Many people have gone through traumatic experiences as a consequence.

I left school to go to agriculture college and to become a farmer; that was all I wanted to do when I was at school. A generation on, my oldest son is 17 and I would not contemplate the possibility of his leaving school to come home to farm on a full-time basis. That is the difference in the agriculture industry over one generation. Young people, the lifeblood of anything, are staying away from the industry to go into other jobs where they earn decent wages and get respect for the work that they do.

We hear people on programmes such as the ‘Stephen Nolan Show’ talking disparagingly of culchies. There is no respect for those people who work hard to produce a high-quality product. The most important product that people use is the food that enters their bodies. Northern Ireland farmers do that job, and they do it well. We need a Department that will support them to do that job, a Department that is slimmer and more efficient. I am not suggesting that civil servants be sacked, but we must look to efficiencies in the Department and consider a situation where civil servants who leave are not replaced. The Department must not cost the public exchequer more money than the agriculture sector actually makes. It is not sustainable for a Department to cost the taxpayer more in pounds and pence than is yielded to the people in that industry.

I welcome the many people from the farming community who are here today, and I trust that we can look to a better future in farming. However, that can only happen when the Government give proper and full support to that industry.

Mr Gallagher: I welcome the debate. I want to mention the important contribution that farmers can make to the development of renewable energy and the reduction of our reliance on imported coal and oil, which contributes enormously to the problem of climate change.

Before doing so, I agree with those Members who spoke about the excessive levels of bureaucracy, particularly in DARD. Some of the regulations that have been mentioned are daft and nonsensical: one states that a farmer must use red diesel in his tractor for certain tasks but change to white diesel for others. Some of the red tape concerning the cutting of hedges and the disposal of the cuttings is absurd. Although some level of bureaucracy may be necessary, it could be significantly reduced.

I hope that someone from DARD will get the message from today’s debate that the present use of red tape causes high levels of stress, considerable anxiety and worry for many farming families. In its policy document ‘Five Steps to a Better Future’, the UFU recommends the involvement of the farming community in producing renewable energy.

This winter alone, everyone has experienced floods and storms. We can see that climate change is happening here in Northern Ireland, not in another continent or at the North Pole. It poses a threat to future society, and something must be done about it. Although Northern Ireland covers a small area where carbon emissions are concerned, we have a responsibility to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

Some measures are being taken to address the problem. For example, there is some agreement at EU level and beyond — among some countries, at least — to take the problem seriously. Targets have been set to reduce CO2 emissions in Northern Ireland: by 2010, they should be reduced by 20% from their 1990 level, after which there should be continued annual reductions of 1·5%. The target date is 2010; it is now 2007, and Northern Ireland still relies almost entirely on imported coal and oil for its energy needs. Those fuels contribute most directly to global warming. At the same time, there is a failure to harness those energy sources, such as biomass and biofuels, that could bring enormous benefits.

There are some exceptions: in my Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency, a well-known company, Balcas, has won international awards for its use of wood pellets to produce energy. It is a large company that employs almost 1,000 people, and it meets all its energy needs through the use of wood pellets. Wood has been described as a carbon-neutral fuel, because as it grows, it absorbs roughly the same amount of carbon as it emits when later burned.

Land and climate conditions here mean that every farm in Northern Ireland can help to reduce the reliance on imported fossil fuels by growing willow and different forms of grass, such as pampas, or sunflower crops.

The Government must also be prepared to take some brave steps, to show the way and to encourage the development of renewable energy systems. That is why the UFU’s initiative calls on the Government to procure locally sourced renewable energy to use in its Departments. That should be a priority for the new Executive.

We need that commitment, not just from the Department of Agriculture, but from all Government Departments. For example, they are committing themselves to converting to the use of woodchip to heat and provide energy for buildings, but we need other incentives to encourage the building of low-energy housing and the installation of renewable energy sources in existing houses.

Alongside that, we need a policy for vehicles, at least for those vehicles belonging to Government Departments that are taking their responsibilities seriously by increasing their reliance on sustainable fuels. There is more that can be done by the Government to demo-nstrate to farmers that there is a future for them and that it is a future for the development of a sustainable and profitable supply of renewable energy.

There is undoubtedly untapped potential for our farmers to grow the crops to produce biofuels and wood, such as willow trees, for biomass. I welcome the debate, and I hope that its result will be that the plight of the farming community is taken more seriously by an incoming Executive.

Mr Armstrong: I rise to support the motion as a paid-up member of the Ulster Farmers’ Union. As a farmer and an Assembly Member, I know the problems that the farming community has faced over the past ten years since Lord Dubs came to Belfast at the time of the pig crisis.

It gives me great pleasure to conclude the debate deploring the over-bureaucratic administration of Northern Ireland’s farming industry, and I back the call made by the Ulster Farmers’ Union to implement initiatives that would have a positive impact on the circumstances and morale of the farming industry in Northern Ireland.

The publication of the agricultural census in 2006 shows a continuing and worrying decline in the number of farms in Northern Ireland, with a loss of 325 farms recorded last year. The total number of active farm businesses in Northern Ireland stands at 27,000. Over 50,000 people are employed on local farms with a further 18,000 in the food processing industry, contributing to £2.4 billion to our economy.

If any other industry suffered the same decline, there would be an outcry, but sadly the Government are slow to support Northern Ireland’s largest private sector industry. Instead, it seems that DARD is intent on policing the farmers instead of supporting them. DARD used to be there to strengthen agriculture. That was the case eight years ago — that is what Ian Paisley said, and most of the farmers today in the Assembly know that. However, it is now entangling farmers in more red tape, which slows the agriculture industry down. Furthermore, we have fewer farmers. As Derek Hussey said, there is one farmer to every seven or eight officials. That is a big problem, and it seems that someone is keeping himself in a job.

I welcome the Davidson Review of the implementation of the EU legislation. It said that in many cases, the legislation has been gold-plated in its implementation to the extent that it may run contrary to its objectives. That means that the extra measures that are implemented can seriously harm the competitiveness of the farmers in Northern Ireland.

In recent times, farmers have had to face a vast range of new legislation imposed by the EU. Those have been further imposed by Westminster and implemented by DARD. Members in our debate today have referred to the various implications of the new regulations including farm waste, farm nutrient management and single farm payment, and many have not even received the weather aid for their potatoes. I think that Mr Bradley highlighted that.

All have agreed that the Government have painstakingly imposed EU legislation and that they have created huge unnecessary problems. We all know of the planning problems: a farmer who wants to build an extra chicken house or put up a wind turbine cannot get his plans through without a pile of red tape.

In farming, the volume of red tape is excessive. Members have heard outcries from numerous farmers in Northern Ireland, many of whom are facing heavy financial penalties. The strict approach taken by Government — by DARD — in applying penalties for non-conformities is totally unacceptable, especially since such an approach is not applied in other EU states.

2.15 pm

At present, five separate Government agencies are responsible for the inspection and enforcement of these regulations. That is overly bureaucratic, and those agencies should be subsumed into a single inspectorate.

I support the introduction of a farmers’ charter, which would allow farmers to be free from administration and unnecessary paperwork and offer Northern Ireland farmers the same level of protection that is available in other EU states.

In October 2006, I visited Denmark to look at dairy farming methods and how Danish farmers deal with nitrates, in view of the new EU legislation now being implemented in Northern Ireland. I was amazed and encouraged at seeing how closely Danish farmers worked with their Agriculture Department, each supporting the other to ensure that the industry was promoted.

All our farmers want is a common-sense approach, but they are not getting that. I commend the Ulster Farmers’ Union on its paper, ‘Five Steps to a Better Future: Early Initiatives for a New Programme for Government’. It is straightforward and to the point in its recommendations to Government and a future devolved Assembly. Colleagues have already detailed the merits of the five points.

Agriculture is the single largest private sector industry in Northern Ireland, and it requires the support of all consumers. In the competitive world in which we live, it is necessary for Government to ensure that the industry is helped — rather than hindered — in reaching the best possible export markets, because Northern Ireland is an exporting country.

In recent years, Northern Ireland’s consumers have been educated to demand higher quality food, which our farmers supply to supermarkets, restaurants, schools, hospitals, and so on. Northern Ireland consumers recognise the quality of local produce and choose it for themselves and their families. However, the increasing demands placed on farmers hinder the work that they endeavour to carry out daily.

I fully support the motion and call on the Government to implement the initiative of the Ulster Farmers’ Union and to demonstrate to farmers that they will be supported in ensuring the future of the agriculture industry in Northern Ireland. These initiatives, if adopted, would be relatively inexpensive and would offer a much-needed boost to the largest industry in Northern Ireland.

However, since 1998, when I was first elected to the Assembly and met Lord Dubs, the then direct rule Minister with responsibility for agriculture and rural development — we all know the stories about him — only lip-service has been paid to the agriculture industry. Until we, as elected representatives, can hold local Ministers accountable, there is little chance that anything can be achieved beyond debating the issue.

Danny Kennedy referred to the Labour Government’s inability to feel sympathy; we know how much sympathy the Labour Party has shown over the past eight years — that is, not much to rural communities in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, Members have already referred to the need for devolved Government.

These problems are another example of Northern Ireland being held to ransom by lack of progress in the political process. For Northern Ireland to move forward we must get the democratic Members of this Assembly up and going. The Ulster Unionist Party has shown leadership over the past eight years. It is now time for Sinn Féin to show some leadership and a commitment to fundamental democratic principles.

I am pleased that all parties support the motion. I wish to thank Tom Elliott and P J Bradley for tabling the motion, and also all Members who have taken part in the debate. I also thank the Ulster Farmers’ Union, which is working hard in a difficult situation to highlight the plight of local farmers.

All Members have agreed that our farmers demand not only devolved Government but joined-up government in Northern Ireland.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly deplores the over-bureaucratic administration within the Northern Ireland agricultural industry and calls on the government to implement legislation / regulations with less gold-plating, and to put in place a review of current legislation and regulations with a view to reducing any unnecessary bureaucratic burden; and further calls on the government to implement the initiatives set out in the Ulster Farmers’ Union document ‘Five Steps to a Better Future’.

Closure of Post Offices

Madam Speaker: Order. The Business Committee has allowed two and a half hours for this debate. The Member proposing the motion will have 15 minutes, and there will be 15 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members will have a maximum of 10 minutes to speak.

Lord Morrow: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Is it not the custom that, when you are on your feet, all Members should be in their seats? Today in particular, I noted that when you stood to announce the next item of business, Members made a point of leaving the Chamber. Will you clarify for Members — yet again — that when you are on your feet, every other Member of the House should be in his or her place?

Madam Speaker: I am most grateful to Lord Morrow for making that comment. Indeed, I have mentioned to the Clerks that I will raise that issue again at the tomorrow’s meeting of the Business Committee. Before Christmas, it seemed that that issue was commented on every week. I am at the stage where I may bring in my school cane — however, Members may enjoy that too much.


Mr Hay: I beg to move

That this Assembly deplores the introduction of proposals by the government to close a number of Post Offices across Northern Ireland; and the implications these proposals will have for rural Post Offices.

The motion stands in my name and in the name of the Member for North Down Peter Weir. However, I will accept the amendment in the names of Mr McGlone and Mr Dallat, as it certainly adds to the motion.

The debate is important because the proposed changes will have a serious, devastating and unprecedented effect on the post office network across Northern Ireland and will lead to the closure of over 100 post offices in Northern Ireland. Members have had this debate before: in March 2000, the Government announced a review of services in the post office network across Northern Ireland. The Member for East Londonderry John Dallat tabled a motion that rightly criticised a number of issues in that review.

Mr Dallat’s motion received the House’s full support, and I hope that this motion will command the same level of support.

Out of that review, the Government announced several initiatives, the real purpose of which was to strip and downgrade essential Post Office services. The Government determined that social security benefits and other important payments would be paid directly into customers’ bank accounts.

Any business, irrespective of what it is, that loses, or is stripped of, essential services, can go only one way — it must close. It will become unprofitable and will no longer be economically viable. That has been the history of Post Office services across Northern Ireland, and the outcome of every proposal that the Government or Post Office Ltd have acted on here. In March 2004, the Government announced more initiatives, which, they claimed, were about transforming Post Office branches in Northern Ireland. Those initiatives led to the closure of almost 20 post offices.

Alistair Darling is the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry at Westminster. I do not know whose darling he is, but after this debate he will probably not be the darling of this House. In December 2006, he announced a restructuring plan to help modernise post offices. As I have said, every initiative from the Government or Post Office Ltd has ended in the closure of post offices. That has been the bottom line.

Every Member will agree that local post offices, whether in rural or urban areas, are a vital part of our community. The Government’s latest proposals will have a major impact, especially in rural communities across the country. The closure of village post offices will have a disastrous effect on rural life. I acknowledge that the plans will also result in the closure of urban post offices, but my information suggests that the rural community will suffer more than anyone else in Northern Ireland.

Mrs I Robinson: Does the Member agree that the rural community will suffer a double whammy? Not every small village or hamlet has a bank. Our roads infrastructure and bus services are so poor that even to travel to larger towns requires a major effort, meaning that rural communities are the worst hit by closures.

Mr Hay: I agree with the hon Member. The figures show that the vast majority of post office closures will occur in the rural community. When considered alongside the effect that draft PPS 14 will have on rural planning, the proposed closure of rural schools, and rural transport concerns, we are all aware of the serious effect that those closures will have. The rural community is facing many other problems, but insult is added to injury when we see what the Government have planned in the way of post office closures in Northern Ireland.

2.30 pm

Every Member would agree that rural and urban post offices form the backbone of local society and economy and that they provide essential services to the community. Post offices in Northern Ireland have been social outlets, especially for the elderly. Going to the post office is probably the only time that many elderly people get out and socialise. People in Northern Ireland have always felt that post offices provide more than a service — they are a vital social outlet.

The Government’s plans threaten the whole post office network on a large scale as never before. If the proposals go through as the Government plan, 2,500 post offices across the United Kingdom would close, including 100 in Northern Ireland. However, the tragedy is that it does not stop there. Post Office Ltd has told Government in the past few days that of the 14,300 post offices in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it intends to operate just 4,000 in the next few years. By 2009, 2,500 post offices will have closed, but Post Office Ltd has said that it wants to go further. For commercial reasons, it would like to operate only 4,000 post offices in the United Kingdom, which is a serious situation for post offices in Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales.

The closures do not affect post offices only. Many small businesses, including shops, are built around post offices in rural areas and they operate successfully. My greatest fear is that the number of intended closures will have serious financial knock-on effects for small businesses. That is a tragedy.

Members have debated this issue before. The Member for East Londonderry, John Dallat, moved a motion in the House in 2000. At that time, Members believed that the Government would listen to their views on post office closures and how we might run post offices in future. Practically all the debate fell on deaf ears. Indeed, before 2000 the Government and Post Office Ltd were determined to have fewer post offices across the United Kingdom. Eighty-two per cent of small businesses believe that the closure of post offices will have a serious effect on their business. Information from the small business sector shows that 88% of small firms send their mail through the Post Office every day and 69% send invoices: 87% of mail is business mail. That is a flavour of the real — if limited — business carried out by post offices in Northern Ireland. Just imagine the effect that the Government’s proposed post office closures would have on the small business sector in Northern Ireland.

This is not simply a matter of the closure of post offices; I believe that it will have serious consequences for the entire Northern Ireland economy. There is no doubt that the Government’s proposals — if they are allowed to get away with them — will lead to the United Kingdom being absolutely stripped of post offices, particularly in Northern Ireland.

The Government have proposed mobile post offices — that may work in England and Wales, but it will not work in Northern Ireland. That suggestion is intended to soften the blow of the closure of post offices. This House should be very critical of the Government’s proposals and should call on them to sustain our post office network, particularly in rural areas. The Government must put real finances into the post offices that are still open and operating. Those post offices want to operate and remain open for business, but we face the problem of a Government that have continually withdrawn services, leaving those offices non-profitable.

The Government tell us that the post office network is £2 million in debt, but that is simply due to the Government’s stripping of services at every opportunity. The Government say that they are examining the development of mobile post offices across Northern Ireland. The Government believe that that proposal might work, but the only measure that will work in Northern Ireland — and, I believe, in England, Scotland and Wales — is for us to clearly tell the Government that if they really want to sustain post offices in the long term, they must provide long-term finances and recognise that post office services are vitally important to the Northern Ireland economy.

Mr Dallat: I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after “for” and insert

“all Post Offices, urban, suburban and rural; and calls on a future devolved administration to work in conjunction with the Post Office and the Social Security Agency to retain Post Office card accounts; and further calls for the development of other government and financial services which address the needs of recipients of state benefits and pensions, other Post Office users and future potential customers.”

I welcome the decision by Mr Hay and the DUP to accept the amendment. I am delighted that we shall be unanimous in our determination to ensure that the post office network continues to exist. Mr Hay pointed out that a previous Assembly had debated this issue. At that stage, it seemed that the future of the post office network was guaranteed, particularly in rural areas, but also in disadvantaged suburban and urban areas. At that time, officials from the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister visited Coleraine, which was to be the site of a pilot scheme for new services. Unfortunately, other political matters overcame the need to save the post offices, and the matter was ignored by the various Government Departments that could have introduced new services throughout the post office network and thereby removed the threat of closure that so many offices now face. The Government could at least have defended the present service, rather than stand idly by and watch those offices be whittled away.

There are various predictions about the number of sub-post offices that might close — some say 100 of the 540 that still exist. However, we all know that the situation will probably be much worse if we do not immediately begin to develop our own model for future post office services. The amendment was intended to illustrate what could and should be done.

During the long regime of direct rule, we have been forced to adopt models in practically every facet of life that are alien to the rural environment in which many of us live. The issues that face rural communities were highlighted during today’s earlier debate on agriculture. By and large, we do not live in cities of hundreds of thousands, or millions, of people in close proximity to one another. We are a scattered community with a poor transport infrastructure, and the further one moves from the greater Belfast area, the truer that becomes. In those circumstances, the post office is often the hub of the local community and performs a unique service — in both parts of the island. The post offices are worth saving, not just for the sake of keeping them, but to improve, update and enhance the level of service for the people whom we represent.

I am an eternal optimist. Assuming that there will be a new Assembly, it must immediately put its stamp on the urgency of the delivery of Government services. It would be reasonable for the Assembly to do a deal with the Social Security Agency, over which it would have the control, to continue the payment of benefits through the Post Office card system. The Assembly would not be dependent on Britain for that. The Assembly could also direct the Departments to make better use of the Post Office in their attempts to put into the public arena the information, advice and help that those people who are often in the greatest need require to qualify for the millions of pounds of unclaimed benefits.

In the Republic of Ireland, where post offices are experiencing similar difficulties, the Government have acted to inject new life and services into the network. That is not perfect, but it is a start that will sustain rural post offices in areas where there are no banks and no other means to address financial matters.

In life, everything changes, and the Post Office is no different. The tragedy is that no one is controlling the changes in the Post Office, and rather than modernise post offices in a way that ensures that they keep pace with the passage of time, the Government are quite happy to allow them to be killed off. There have been various schemes, but none of them has been supported properly. Perhaps the worst example of that is the card system, which worked very well and was welcomed by many people who did not want to use banks.

Despite their best efforts, postmasters — in particular, sub-postmasters — have been treated extremely badly. Indeed, very often, as we heard during a recent meeting in the Long Gallery, they are forced to invest their own finances to keep in place services that are not only wanted, but badly needed. That is shameful and illustrates just how far removed Government are from the people whom they are supposed to represent. That must change now. I suggest that that is another reason to get the Assembly up and running.

In other parts of the world, post offices are used as centres where various public services can pitch their tents to deal with and listen to members of the public. In some rural areas, the police or their administrators are available at certain times to deal not necessarily with serious crime, but with local issues and complaints from members of the public. There may be a role for organisations such as the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) that support and help the public in an ever-complex society. There are no limits to how the Post Office could be modernised to continue serving the people, which has been its role since the introduction of the penny black stamp and the mail coaches.

We remember many people from the past for what they created. Examples are John Boyd Dunlop who invented the pneumatic tyre, Harry Ferguson who invented the hydraulic tractor, and many others who transformed the lives of people today. Would it not be a pity if this generation were to be remembered for what it destroyed rather than what it created? Let us begin by saving the Post Office and let us do that from today.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Beggs: Although I support the motion, I welcome the amendment tabled by Mr McGlone and Mr Dallat. There is a need to go further than the motion, and I am pleased that Mr Hay has accepted the amendment. The amendment enhances the motion by highlighting that, because both are at risk from the current proposals, there is a need to support urban and rural post offices.

Recently, there have been a number of closures in my constituency. Kilwaughter post office closed after financial uncertainty meant that it failed to attract a new sub-postmaster. Furthermore, in the urban Carrickfergus area, Woodburn post office and Eden post office have closed. In Larne, the Harbour sub-post office and Waterloo Road post offices have closed Clearly, it is an issue that has affected and will continue to affect urban and rural post offices.

2.45 pm

Post offices are particularly important to the rural community, but, as I said, they are also an important focal point for many urban communities. The financial pressures on the post office network exist in urban and rural settings equally.

The amendment mentions the Post Office card account and calls for a future Administration to work with the Post Office and the Social Security Agency to retain post offices. The card account has become almost the heart of post offices. With the transfer of some payments to banks, post offices now make a significant part of their earnings from the card account. Were the Government silly enough to award the contract to PayPal or some other service, it would be the death knell for many post offices, and perhaps for the whole network. It is strange that the account is out to contract, and there appears to be a real risk that it may go elsewhere. That would be unacceptable. The Government should stop playing about and sort out the details well in advance because uncertainty does not help the post office network.

There are approximately 14,000 post offices in the UK, and around 8,000 of them serve the rural community. On 14 December 2006, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Alistair Darling, announced the publication of the consultation document ‘The Post Office Network’, which includes the Government’s proposals for restructuring the national post office network. He said that he expects that 2,500 post office branches will close. However, it appears that the total may go far beyond that figure, and I do not think that that is an exaggeration. Therefore sustainability is a huge problem facing urban and rural post offices.

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry proposed also that there should be further investigation into the role that local authorities and the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland might play in influencing Post Office services and how they might best be delivered. However, I must issue a word of warning. Does he want to transfer more funding from the central Exchequer to a devolved Assembly or to local ratepayers or is this a neat way of passing down the costs? It would be worthwhile to have discussions on the matter, as this should not be a basis for simply transferring costs from central Government to local devolved Administrations.

The Citizens Advice Bureau has advised that the post office network serves about 84% of people in rural areas who live within one mile of a post office and that, in addition, two thirds of villages with between 500 and 1,000 inhabitants have a local post office. Not only do the post offices provide a range of postal, Government and commercial services, but their presence brings additional benefits to the local community. For example, they make a positive contribution to local businesses by increasing the number of people who pass through a particular location.

Frequently in the rural setting retail stores are under pressure owing to the success of supermarkets, etc. The post office network is a vital part of the rural community as it keeps local shops open. It must be remembered that many people do not have the ability to travel to supermarkets regularly so those rural retail operations are an essential requirement for the rural community.

Postwatch found that:

“whether affluent or disadvantaged, traditional village or post war estate, the closure of the rural post office appeared to have had far-reaching effects upon both particular individuals and the community in general. It became apparent that the post office played an extremely important role in the rural community, a role that transcended the provision of post office services or even the goods sold at the store which was often attached.”

Many bodies have recognised the importance of post offices in isolated areas. There is a real risk that if rural post offices were to close, the viability of local convenience or grocery stores would be lost. That might apply to urban areas also, meaning that pensioners or young mothers would have to walk considerable distances to get to the grocery shops. The closure of post offices could make it difficult for disadvantaged people to obtain cash and basic groceries, if these were previously provided by their local post offices.

I have noticed an increasing number of cashpoints in rural settings, but they are the type that charge users £1 to withdraw £10. Many people who cannot afford banking services, or who are not financially secure enough for the banks to want their business, are reliant on the services provided by post offices. Even if they have a bank account and are able to use a cashpoint, 10% of their money could be lost to an access company. If there is no local post office, people often have to pay for transport in order to obtain their cash. That is another problem, with many people taking all their money out at one time, which may put them more at risk.

Why do many of the main banks in Northern Ireland not allow their services to be used in the post offices? The banks in England and Wales do, and it is a major benefit to local communities in accessing their bank accounts. The issue is under review by the Competition Commission; I hope that it will force the banks’ hands, because the ability of people in Northern Ireland to access competitive banking services has been restricted. It is an important issue that must be addressed.

There is also a lack of joined-up thinking among Departments. The Post Office and the BBC are both publicly owned. Why on earth has the contract to sell television licences gone outside the public sector? We are paying for a private sector company to collect those payments. Surely the Government should adopt some joined-up thinking, retain the TV licence contract, and enable some of that income to pass through the post office network.

There have been developments in other parts of the United Kingdom. In Wales, £750,000 a year has been approved for rural retail services and post offices. The Scottish Executive are encouraging post offices to provide an Internet-access service. Such issues will also have to be addressed here.

The Ulster Farmers’ Union has highlighted the potential closure of post offices and the adverse effects on rural communities. This comes on top of the centralisation of health services, the pressure on rural schools and changes to planning policies. Rural communities are at serious risk. I support the motion and the amendment. I hope that all Members will support them.

Mr McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I also support the motion and the amendment. I commend my colleagues on bringing them before us. It is an important opportunity for us to send a clear and united message of support for our post offices.

The plan to radically reduce the number of post offices will have a dramatic effect on local communities, particularly, but not exclusively, in rural areas. Post offices are the mainstay of many shopping malls and high-street retail centres, but, in a very particular way, they benefit rural communities.

In a relevant study, Postwatch Scotland found that due to the limitations of transport in rural Scotland, if post offices were closed, there would inevitably be an increase in vehicle use and a negative impact on the environment. Therefore, the argument for maintaining a strong network of rural post offices is that it would be good for the environment and for accessing important public services.

The postal authorities have an obligation to ensure that no more than 5% of users’ premises are further than five kilometres away from an access point that is capable of receiving registered mail — normally defined as a post office — but in Scotland this has already gone beyond 19%. This part of Ireland — and the area west of the Bann in particular — has similar rurality. I echo the comments of Tom Begg, chairman of Postwatch Scotland, who said thatrural post offices need “long-term clarity” together with “short-term certainty” — a bit like the Assembly, I suppose. He said that they also need:

“a change programme based on clear criteria of customers’ needs”.

I also agree with him that:

“Change should not be a top-down approach … Government’s consultation should be based on evidence and recognition [and prioritisation] of customer needs”.

Dr Begg argued for local consultation on individual changes because:

“One size does not fit all … Local needs and capabilities differ”.

That precisely echoes the conclusions of the Assembly’s own economic subgroup in respect of Treasury’s general strategy for the regeneration of a regional economy. One size does not fit all. What works in London or in the south east of England does not necessarily benefit any other region. Clearly, rural areas will be particularly affected by the loss of a service as essential as the local post office. In many rural areas, the post office is not only a commercial enterprise, but the eyes and ears of a community. Often the postmaster or postmistress is the first to realise that an elderly member of the community may be ill or in need of assistance as a direct result of noting the disruption of longstanding routine or because regular clients do not turn up to collect their pensions or avail of other post office services.

The closure of post offices will affect economically deprived areas the most, as it is in these areas that many people have no economic rationale to have bank accounts. Of course, these citizens are often the most vulnerable in society and are therefore even more dependent on post offices for essential services. If these cost-saving measures are permitted to go ahead, the most disadvantaged in society will suffer: the elderly; people on low incomes; people with disabilities; people who cannot afford to own or maintain a motor vehicle. Many people in these categories carry out most of their financial transactions in the local post office, and closure would be a major disruption to their way of life. In rural districts, where transport provision is often very limited and banking facilities invariably scarce, how can those without personal transport access bank or post office services?

The withdrawal of Government business has created this crisis. Deliberate Government policy and dogma is the real reason that many local offices are now considered unviable. It is the inevitable result, not of the loss of any traditional customer base, but of Government action in running down many services that were once the mainstay of post offices.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Wells] in the Chair)

This Government understands cause and effect better than most. When payment of benefits moved from payment books to electronic accounts, post offices lost out dramatically because Government encouraged recipients to have their benefits paid through bank accounts. The loss of the NIE powercards, TV licence saving stamps and other prepayment cards to convenience stores was yet another blow. Therefore I contend that it is deliberate Government policy that has the post office network in the state that it is in; and deliberate Government policy is required to secure the survival of this essential community service.

Rather than closing post offices, Government should be looking for ways of expanding the range of services available through this vital community network. Post offices provide community and social benefits, as well as direct and indirect economic benefits, and should therefore be supported to the maximum extent. The Government need to realise that investment and support for building up human and social capital is as important as many other mainstream Government programmes for giving local and sometimes isolated communities a sense of worth and well-being.

For the rural community, all of this is additional evidence of Government’s intention to destroy a traditional way of life. First came PPS 14; then the announcement that some — perhaps many — rural schools would have to close; and now the local post offices may also be shut.

Those developments continue the worrying erosion of essential services in rural areas. That will lead to depopulation and the fragmentation of long-standing communities.

3.00 pm

To survive, rural communities need the post office network. We need to see actions that will regenerate our local communities and our rural communities, not irresponsible and unaccountable actions that will decimate them.

UFU president, Kenneth Sharkey, speaking on behalf of the farming community on the potential closure of post offices, said:

“This is removing a very valuable service from the rural areas affected and is another example of how policy makers are ignoring the impact of their decisions on rural communities”.

He continued:

“Many farming families live in isolated areas and they feel their services are becoming less and less accessible.”

The UFU highlighted recent decisions that will impact negatively on rural communities. Issues causing concern included: healthcare services being centralised; rural schools facing an uncertain future; plans to reduce the number of fire appliances covering rural areas; draft PPS 14 dashing many people’s expectations of living in their communities; many school bus routes in rural areas not being treated, despite icy and frosty conditions; and the wider transportation policy, particularly as it affects the rural community.

The cumulative effect of all those measures will serve only to force people out of rural areas and into larger towns and cities, further depopulating the countryside. This Assembly should unanimously endorse the motion in order to make it clear that that will not happen. I support the motion and the amendment.

Mr Neeson: I also support the motion and the amendment. I deeply regret the fact that this Assembly has no powers. These debates are beginning to resemble the weekly rituals that we experienced at the Forum for Political Dialogue in the Interpoint Centre. This is not so much a transitional Assembly as a pretend Assembly, given the way in which things are going. It is like the old definition of an Irish Parliament — everybody talks but nobody listens.

On 24 October 2006, more than 30 MLAs met with the National Federation of SubPostmasters (NFSP) in the Long Gallery. That meeting came before the statement from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Alistair Darling, on 14 December 2006. One could understand the NFSP’s deep concerns about the future of small post offices in Northern Ireland and the business as a whole. In my constituency of East Antrim, several small post offices have already been closed. My local post office at Milebush has closed, and many people miss it badly.

Mr Hay outlined how the closure of post offices affects other businesses. My colleague Naomi Long reminded me today of the experience in Ballybeen. After its post office was closed, the shops alongside it closed down. When the post office was moved out of the town centre in Carrickfergus, businesses there were also badly affected. Therefore the closure of post offices does have an impact on other businesses.

One of the NFSP’s main concerns was the possible demise of the Post Office card accounts (POCAs) by 2010. Some 4·3 million people use POCAs every week to access their pension and benefit payments. POCAs currently bring in an average of 10% of a sub-postmaster’s income. December’s ministerial statement seems to suggest that the POCA will continue or at least that another method of payment will be introduced. That is to be welcomed, and it reflects the efforts of the NFSP’s national campaign at Westminster and in other UK regions.

A great deal of pressure and competition has been coming from the banks and building societies. According to an NFSP briefing paper, recent research from the National Consumer Council (NCC) has found that:

“the Post Office is well regarded as offering a good, accessible service”.

The briefing paper continues:

“and is viewed as both better trusted and more accessible than the banks.”

Older people and the less well off tend to use post offices most. Research by Postcomm shows that sub-postmasters and post offices play an invaluable roll in communities by providing support for vulnerable residents, including older and disabled people.

Post offices in rural areas also provide a focal point for communities. The Welsh Assembly created a post office development fund, which provided grants of up to £50,000 to 125 small post offices in a bid to ensure that they continued to exist as the hub of their communities. Research has shown that that particular scheme has worked very well.

As I said at the outset, if the Assembly is serious about making life better here, the restoration of devolution by 26 March 2007 is seriously needed.

Dr Birnie: I support the motion and the amendment. My party agrees with the fundamental principles of the motion, and the amendment brings additional value to it in two senses. First, it widens the scope of con-sideration to all post offices, not simply those in rural areas — there is also an issue about post offices in urban areas, which I will refer to later. Secondly, the amend-ment makes valuable suggestions as to how the Govern-ment and their agencies might react to that position.

The context to the motion is the proposal to shut around 2,500 rural Post Office branches across the UK. In the last few years, there has already been a reduction of around 3,000 branches in urban areas across the UK. Northern Ireland has been part of that so-called rationalisation of the network.

I want to highlight those bodies that have responsibility for the current situation and might have responsibility for its improvement. First and foremost are the Post Office and Royal Mail. It must be emphasised that, to some extent, they are victims of the situation. The Post Office is primarily a commercial organisation. However, as has already, rightly, been indicated in this debate, its business and operations have significant social and community benefits. Given that the Post Office is required to balance its books, there is a problem when demand for its services is in a trend decline.

It is to the credit of the Post Office, Royal Mail and indeed Postwatch, the associated consumer protection watchdog, that elaborate consultation processes are in place to deal with situations that arise from proposed closures. However, my experience in south-east Belfast — and I am sure that many other Members can confirm this from their own experiences — is that in the past six years there have been between six and 10 branch closures and relocations. I am aware of only one case in which the decision has been reversed following consultation. Therefore, my experience is that while consultations pretty much run their course, the decisions go ahead as previously announced.

Critically, the Government also have responsibility for those matters. Postcomm has recently reported on the extent to which the reduction in the UK-wide post office network, both urban and rural, is largely a product of the fact that the Government, and their agencies and corporations, have stripped back the number and type of products that can be provided by post offices. I am sure that that point has been made many times during the debate.

Consider the move away from the payment of benefits at post offices, the prospective withdrawal of the Post Office card account in three years’ time, and, more recently, the fact that the Post Office lost the contract to sell television licences. Strictly speaking, the decision on the contract was not so much central Government’s as the BBC’s. Of course, the BBC is a public corporation, and we should perhaps be asking why it decided to make that decision.

It is also important to mention a third set of organisations with responsibility in this area: the high-street or commercial banks — although thus far they may not have adequately recognised their role. Like the post offices, banks are commercial, and, as we well know, profit-seeking and profit-making organisations. It is entirely understandable that the major banks, such as the Ulster Bank, Northern Bank, Allied Irish Bank, and so on, do not relish competition, and that has been the subject of enquiries by the General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland and the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) in recent months.

However, the banks in Northern Ireland could have done more to ally themselves with the network of Post Office branches. Arrangements could have been worked out to allow banks to use post offices as additional outlets at which certain bank services — the operation of accounts and so forth — could be provided. We have still to come to terms with the fact that a high percentage of people on low incomes in the Province do not have proper access even to basic bank accounts. That denies them many advantages, such as debit arrangements, which are taken for granted by those of us who do have bank accounts.

At the heart of the debate is the need to resolve a tension between two different ways of running organisations and two different logics. On the one hand is the market-based, commercial approach, and, in normal circumstances, the importance of that approach would be stressed for most business activities because it provides a competitive service and choice for the customer and it maximises the benefits to the customer.

However, a second approach may apply to post offices. There is a strong argument for advocating that the postal service be regarded as a universal service. In other words, provision should be the same wherever you live, be it on the Orkney Islands, in Strabane or central London, regardless of location or density of population. Basic postage rates and delivery standards — next-day delivery for first-class letters, for example — should be the same, regardless of where people live. If we accept that logic for that aspect of the postal service, we should also accept that there is a need to ensure that universal provision of service applies to the geographical spread or density of the network. That is why the amendment quite properly refers to the scale of the Post Office network, both urban and rural.

3.15 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker: I apologise to Jim Shannon.

Mr Shannon: Mr Deputy Speaker, your apology is accepted. I knew that you would call me in time.

The Post Office network reaches into every urban community and almost every sizeable rural settlement. The fact that 94% of the UK population lives within one mile of a post office is an indication of their importance.

The Post Office has around 28 million customers who use the 170 different services available to meet their individual needs, at their convenience. The Post Office has more branches in the UK than all of the banks and building societies combined. Those figures paint a fairly positive picture, but the reality is not so rosy.

Post offices have had to face more than their fair share of challenges in the last few years. Every business has its ups and downs, but the network has had to take one bitter blow after another. Some 2,500 urban post offices have been closed under the network’s reinvention programme. The network has been losing £3 million a week, and it is currently supported by an annual £150 million social network payment from the Government. That payment was set to expire in March 2008, but I am glad to say that the deadline has been extended until 2011.

Nevertheless, the future sustainability of the Post Office beyond 2011 is anyone’s guess. It may seem to be a hopeless loss and bad business to keep pouring money into something that appears to be unsustainable. However, it should be taken into account that Royal Mail Group registered recorded profits of £537 million for 2004-05, while the Post Office recorded a 7% loss of £110 million in the same period. The crux of the problem has been the change to the direct payment of pensions and benefits, which traditionally accounted for 40% of Post Office income. The maths are not difficult — a 40% loss of income has resulted in a 7% drop in profits. It is clear what, if not who, is to blame for that loss.

While the introduction of the Post Office card account has alleviated some losses, the Government have revealed their intention of withdrawing the card account by 2010 and have already begun the migration of card accounts into bank accounts. Frighteningly, 10% of sub-postmasters’ pay comes from the card account, while other Government contracts, which are under threat, such as bill payments, account for a further 5% of that pay. The new products, despite being great for everyday customer use, do not come close to offsetting the loss of Government contracts.

There is yet another set of numbers, which speak for themselves. The biggest petition ever signed in the United Kingdom was carried in 98 mail sacks to London on 18 October 2006. Those sacks contained four million signatures of people who did not want the closure of any more post offices. That cannot and should not be overlooked. That volume of support is almost unheard of, and that warrants a more detailed study as to why so many people are worried about post office closures.

The Government must step in and halt the absurd withdrawal of support for a national institution. Instead of desecrating that institution and running it down, there must be more provision for the suite of post office-based banking products, including an enhanced form of the card account, and offering improved customer service options that include financially excluded groups.

The Government must realise the important role that post offices play in the social life of towns and, more importantly, villages, as a place where members of the community can mix and mingle, where the vulnerable elderly are recognised and looked after by friendly staff who understand their needs, and where the youngest children can come to open their first savings accounts and learn a little about the other vital services offered. That is a vital part of country and town life, and its loss will socially exclude even more people who feel uncomfortable with banks, or who cannot use the internet to access their accounts or download the stamps that they need.

The 2007 consultation on the future of the Post Office states the aim for 90% of people to live within one mile of a post office. At present, in the rural community, 95% of people are, on average, three miles away and that rises to six miles in more remote areas. Imagine how that distance will lengthen with the closure of more post offices.

The mobile van service, which has been mentioned during the debate, is ludicrous. Opening a community hall once a week does not come close to fulfilling the needs of our rural communities, or the needs of our vulnerable elderly, for whom taking a bus into a main town elevates the fear and probability of being watched and perhaps attacked. That fear is prevalent in the older community.

The Government have a duty to the 28 million customers who use post offices each year. Those people require, and have come to depend on, Post Office services. They do not want the unnecessary changes that have been brought about by pen-pushers in Whitehall who have no idea what it is like to live in rural areas.

A survey by the National Consumer Council showed, overwhelmingly, that post offices were thought to be more accessible than banks and, more importantly, more trustworthy. As well as that, only 4% of villages have a bank, but at least 60% of villages have a post office. It is clear that many people do not have access to a bank, and, if rural post offices are closed, those people will be isolated from the necessary funds and weekly essentials, as have been, and should be, provided by post offices.

Rural businesses that are situated near to post offices attribute over 15% of their business to them. A recent survey by the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) cited that an overwhelming 82% of small businesses said that the closure of their local post office would adversely affect them. The Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) has stated that post office closures will hit blind and partially sighted people particularly hard. They will be left feeling even more socially and financially excluded than they already do, and they will no longer be able to rely on local post offices to help with the mountain of forms pushed on them by the pen-pushers.

Many people see post offices as their link to the wider world. They are places where staff are available to help them, where they are known and where their abilities and disabilities are known and catered for. The Post Office is an institution that must be given precedence for Government business, where it is reasonable and just, as is the case here. Members should encourage the public to support the Post Office’s valid and useful system to help them to learn about the many services that the Post Office provides and to inform them of how well trained the staff are to offer advice and support. That should be the task before the House; we should not have to fight the Government for the Post Office’s very existence.

The future of the Post Office must be considered with a view to how the Government will sustain post offices in the long term, not simply abandoned without thought for those who rely on them and trust them. Why should small towns and villages be made to suffer once again the costs of a revolution that is unnecessary and repugnant to the people for whom we have the greatest duty of care: the pensioners, children, disabled and millions of others who depend on the services that are so excellently provided by people who work so hard in post offices. The Post Office deserves the reputation that it has acquired over the years as trustworthy and secure premises for the everyday needs of local communities. I support the motion and the amendment.

Mr Brolly: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. At the root of the legislation and policies that are threatening country dwellers, there seems to be a widespread lack of understanding and knowledge of the rural way of life. As we know only too well, bias is cradled in ignorance. In the certainty that the nitty-gritty of the motion and amendment will be well and fully presented by others, I will take a wider look at what lies behind this kind of legislation and the reason why legislators think that they can make these changes.

In debating the motion, it is important to consider the historical and — it now seems — endemic bias against rural dwelling and rural development. Historically, the Roman Empire has a lot to answer for in this part of the world.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Brolly: Not only the Roman Catholics. I have no doubt that the building of cities by the Romans was an important part of their control strategy: if the people were herded together, they could be monitored, serviced, educated and disciplined more efficiently and more economically.

The cities were beautifully constructed to sugar the pill of wrenching people from their natural, rustic environment, and citizens of Rome had rights that did not apply to the general population. The right not to be flogged for transgressions was one of many attractive incentives offered to them —

Mr Weir: We are all interested in the history lesson. Would the Member even bring it up to 1798? At least that is AD instead of BC.

Mr McLaughlin: Do you not want to hear about 1690?

Mr Brolly: He knows all about it. Thank you for that intervention. I intend to carry on, and I will get to the point.

One incentive to go to the cities was that, if you were a citizen of Rome, you had a right not to be flogged when you transgressed. In that way people were persuaded to leave their wee farms, and head up the Appian Way.

Thus, the building of cities, the marketing of city dwelling and the inevitable development of a bias towards urban culture came about courtesy of the invasion and occupation of England by the Romans. As the English gradually became almost as Roman as the Romans, native leaders emerged to promote and maintain the Pax Romani. Centuries later, the English did what the Romans did not do — they invaded and occupied Ireland.

Among other things, civitas is the Latin word for city. A related word, civilitas, has come into the English language as meaning civility or being civilised. When the Romans invaded and occupied England, the natives naturally struggled with the language of their new masters, just as the colonised Gaels of Ireland and Scotland were later to have difficulty with the mishmash of Anglo-Saxon Latin that is modern English. West Cork English and lowland Scottish English are good examples of the many regional dialectal products of the failure of the Gael to master English and speak it like gentlemen. Is it plausible that the early Roman English failed to appreciate the distinction between the words civitas — a city —

Mr Deputy Speaker: I am sure that this has some relevance to the closure of rural post offices, but would the Member come to the point.

Mr Brolly: I can assure you that I will come to the point, and I will do so within the 10 minutes. You have interrupted my flow.

Is it plausible that the early Roman English failed to appreciate the distinction between the words civitas, meaning a city, and civilitas, meaning civilisation, and that the legacy of that is that, to this day, to be considered civilised one must live in a city — Belfast? Could that be why rural dwellers, and their places, are given derogatory names such as “culchie” and “the back of beyond” by city dwellers? The term “culchie”, as my hon Friend said earlier, specifically describes a native of Kiltimagh in Co Mayo.

Whatever the historic origins of anti-rural bias, there can be no doubt that such a bias does exist, and that the corridors of power are trodden mainly by city slickers — we can name-call too — who have little understanding of country people and no understanding of Latin.

Country people from this part of Ireland have been under siege by current British direct rule to an unprecedented degree. The ink is not dry on one piece of repressive and destructive anti-rural legislation before the next is prepared.

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Therefore those of us who live in rural Ireland need our city cousins to stand with us in our fight to maintain a viable and vibrant rural constituency and to appreciate that country people, who love and care for their countryside, are its eyes, ears and protectors. Down through the ages, rural communities have proven to be the safe repository of our indigenous cultures and genuine enlightenment.

Everyone must say no to an Administration that seem intent on destroying the urban-rural balance that has served us so well for hundreds of years. Everyone must reject any legislation or proposal that would contribute further to rural decline, be that the centralisation of healthcare services, the decimation of the rural school network, reduction of cover for the Fire and Rescue Service, Draft PPS 14, reluctance to provide proper public transport, road infrastructure and road maintenance in rural areas and —

Mr Kennedy: What about post offices? [Laughter.]

Mr Brolly: Mr Kennedy took the words out of my mouth. [Laughter.]

Finally, everyone must say no to the proposal to close rural post offices, which for so many country people are their focal point and potential lifeline. I support the motion.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá áthas orm seans a fháil leis an rún seo a phlé. I was going to title my speech, “The role of the Vikings in the desecration of rural post offices in Northern Ireland.” [Laughter.] However, after hearing Mr Brolly’s speech, I changed my mind.

I am pleased to support the motion. As Members have said, rural community life has been under threat from various sources for several years. Not least among them, as you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, is Draft PPS 14, which Members have debated in the House. During that debate, I outlined the dangers to small rural schools inherent in that draft policy.

The latest threat to rural life is the news that several post offices are threatened with closure. The withdrawal of the POCA creates the risk of hundreds of post offices closing as a direct result of the loss of income and spin-off businesses that the card account generated. That could potentially affect every area in Northern Ireland.

More than four million people use the card account to access pensions and benefits, and it is due to be scrapped in 2010. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has already begun to take away the card account from more than 40,000 customers, forcing them to have their pensions and benefits paid into bank accounts. Many banks still refuse to allow their customers free access to their accounts at the post office.

Post Office Ltd is still outside the Link system. A bank account is of no use to pensioners or persons without a car whose nearest bank is miles away and who cannot draw money from their local post office because their bank has not signed up to the scheme. Millions of customers chose the POCA as their most suitable method of payment. The Government should respect that choice, not restrict it.

A recent Age Concern report shows that 99% of older people in rural areas consider their local post office to be a lifeline. Many older rural dwellers already feel isolated, and that report shows that 56% of those aged over 60 who live in the countryside fear that post office closures will leave them even more isolated. Some 73% of older people believe that they will not be able to access similar services to those provided by the Post Office if its card account is withdrawn. The only viable way in which to ensure that rural dwellers, especially older people, have access to the services that they require is to retain the POCA, thereby ensuring the survival of many small post offices.

The closures will create problems for disadvantaged residents who want to get cash and basic groceries, given that those services were previously provided by their local post office. Problems will be created for the elderly, the disabled and anyone who has restricted mobility, such as mothers with young children, who may experience difficulty travelling to branches that are further away.

The increased pressure that closures put on other branches means that we can expect longer queues and poorer services and facilities. Local residents will feel a loss of independence and community spirit, and there will be damaging repercussions on local shops and businesses.

The threat is not only to rural post offices. ‘The Last Post’, a report from the New Economics Foundation (NEF), states that when an urban post office closes, businesses, community groups and local people experience significant knock-on effects. One in six of the urban closures occurred in deprived areas where the role of the Post Office is, in the words of the report, “particularly valuable”.

Evidence published in November from the Trade and Industry Select Committee showed that sub-postmasters in urban areas are also under threat from the withdrawal of the Post Office Card Account. The account is currently worth £403 a month to those sub-postmasters, compared to an average of £249 a month. The New Economics Foundation believes that that lost income could prove to be the “tipping point” at which many post offices become no longer viable.

The local post office is as integral to the community infrastructure as the local school, the doctor’s surgery or the library. It is often in the local shop, and one supports the other. Without the business that the post office generates, the shop will close, and the community will lose two key services in one fell swoop. If our local communities are to remain strong and vibrant, they must retain those vital services, not least, the local post offices.

The Government can still act to allow the Post Office to retain the card account and to extend the range of services that it offers, and they must do so before it is too late.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I am pleased to support the motion and the amendment. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Mr Newton: I support the motion, and I am indebted to my colleagues for tabling it. I shall concentrate on two areas: the social and business aspects of the impacts of the closures.

There is an affection for local post offices. Closing them would create a great deal of emotion. In making his announcement, Alistair Darling said that the loss-making Post Office network — and we know that it is a loss-making network — cannot be left as it is and needs to be rescued. Any sensible person will realise that, in a UK context, that rescue plan means taking about 2,500 offices out of circulation. There can be no doubt that that plan will have a negative impact on the Post Office network throughout the Province, where there may be dozens of closures.

The section of the community that will be hardest hit by the plan will, of course, be our senior citizens. However, others will also be hit hard, and I will discuss them later. Closing local post offices will mean that senior citizens will have to travel increased distances for their pensions or for their other business. That will make them more vulnerable. We all know that our senior citizens are in many cases being specifically targeted because they have money in their home or on their persons at some stage in the day. That makes them more vulnerable to those who prey on them.

As other Members have said, post offices are not just places to buy stamps. They are, in many cases, a part of the fabric of society and a focal point in many urban districts and villages. They serve needs far beyond the commercial, and Government financial support for the service should be a priority. It is the actions of the Government that have created the problems: they have steadily withdrawn Post Office services: the sale of TV licences, pension payments and so on.

I will quote a sub-postmistress who appeared on a local BBC news broadcast. When interviewed, she told it like it is. She accused the Government of stealthily eating away at the income of post offices through the withdrawal of services:

“We’d like the government to undertake an assessment of the social … role played by post offices in communities right across the UK and for them to provide ongoing support to the non commercial parts of the network. We’d like a network that is viable, a network that isn’t subsidised totally.

“We want the work and we want to do it well and we want to serve our customers. We are a part of a community.”

She continued:

“In many places when the post office closes, the community loses its heart, the people don’t come down to the towns and villages ... and the communities just die.”

I can testify to the truth of that with respect to urban post offices as well.

With respect to business, there are nearly 14,000 post offices in the UK; 480 of them are Crown offices, and 13,280 are private businesses. Those are small, independently-owned businesses, each of which is important to the success of the Northern Ireland economy in the regional context.

A Member who spoke earlier referred to research carried out by the New Economics Foundation, an independent think tank separate from the Government. For the first time a reputable organisation has quantified the contribution that urban post offices make in some of the most deprived areas of the UK. The report says that they play a particularly valuable role in deprived urban areas and outlines the threat that they now face from changes to the Post Office network. As has already been said, post offices in urban areas have borne the brunt of recent closures. Over the past two years more than eight urban post offices have closed for every rural post office closure. More than one in six of the urban post office closures took place in deprived areas. Three wards in East Belfast are among the ten most deprived wards in Northern Ireland.

Further in-depth analysis of the impact of post office closures on small businesses reveals that in Manchester, following the closure of the local post office, 60% of local businesses witnessed significant impact to their businesses, their clients, their customers or to the area in general. Local businesses also reported difficulties with making cash deposits and other banking issues. Extra costs were incurred with increased staff time required to visit post offices further away; and there were longer queues at the remaining post offices. Trade associations noticed the knock-on effect in reduced footfall in shops in the vicinity of the closed post office, and small businesses reported significant loss of custom. That indicates that in an urban district a post office performs the same function as an anchor tenant in a huge shopping centre.

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The danger is that when an amenity such as a post office disappears from a community, those who are financially mobile are more likely to leave, leaving a higher concentration of deprivation, which, in turn, can lead to further loss of amenities. Analysis by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) of the social value — as distinct from the business value — of urban post offices reveals that 66% of people surveyed in Manchester said that they would be affected by the closure of their local post office.

The NEF analysis found that groups affected by post office closure included schools, local universities, credit unions, and community groups. Some 53% of people surveyed in the vicinity of just one closed post office in Manchester now buy groceries elsewhere as a direct result of the closure of the post office, which has meant significant implications for that community and the local traders. Qualitative research from the NEF study emphasises the vital and overlooked social services role played by post offices. That evidence supports previous research that found that half of sub-postmasters in disadvantaged areas keep an eye out for between 20 and 50 vulnerable customers.

The issue is clearly not one of stopping a haemorrhaging network of offices; there is more to the problem than the Government are prepared to consider. Any decision regarding the Post Office network must be taken holistically. A thorough review of the social and economic impact of post offices should be undertaken, and a balanced decision made. The Government must take significant steps to safeguard the vital role that post offices play at the heart of communities.

Mr Hyland: A LeasCheann Comhairle, I support the motion and the amendment to it. Between 2001 and June 2006, the number of post offices fell from 17,743 to 14,376 — a loss of nearly 20%. In the North of Ireland, 11·5% of post offices have closed during that same period. Moreover, the Government are intent on closing thousands more. Royal Mail believes that it can run a commercial network with 4,000 post office branches instead of the current 14,000. As other Members have outlined, the impact on local communities should be considered, as should the numbers of full- and part-time jobs in the post office sector.

The chief reason for the closure of post offices is the change in shopping patterns. There has been a failure to recognise, or even appreciate, that for some people — particularly older people in rural areas — post offices offer an essential community service and that the closure of a local office can be a real blow.

Age Concern’s director general, Gordon Lishman, has stated that thousands of older people in rural areas have told Age Concern that the local post office is an absolute lifeline. He also said that many older people use their local post office as a one-stop shop, somewhere where they can access their pensions and benefits, pay their bills, find information and — above all — socialise.

However, post office closures do not impact on rural areas and communities alone. Sean Neeson talked about the impact on Carrickfergus. As a Newry person, I wish to talk about the impact of the loss of Newry city post office, which Danny Kennedy and Dominic Bradley will know about. For years — indeed, decades — that post office was the hub of Newry. It was located in the middle of Newry’s main street opposite its famous cathedral. It was a meeting place for all the people of Newry: young and old, Catholic, Protestant and dissenter, men and women, boys and girls.

Where is the post office now? It is hidden away at the back of SuperValu supermarket. As a result, part of old Newry has died, sacrificed for expediency and bigger rents. The hub of Newry is now its shopping centres. That is a sad reflection on the Post Office and its treatment of its customers — the people who ensured its survival over the years.

All post office closures are subject to public consultation, so it is vital that everyone voices their views and opinions if a local post office is under threat.

Postwatch, the postal service watchdog, examines every proposed change to assess whether the local post office network can remain accessible and sustainable and offer a good quality service. Though Postwatch cannot veto closures, it should be remembered that its efforts, combined with those of the general public, have had some saving effects in the past. However, as Esmond Birnie said, the consultation process is often a fait accompli.

The motion makes sense and deserves the support of all Members of the Assembly as well as the wider community, who have suffered most from the ill-placed and ill-timed Government directive on Post Office services.

Ms Gildernew: Go raibh míle maith agat, a Leas­- Cheann Comhairle. Like many in the Chamber today I am in favour of the motion and the amendment on the closure of post offices, both rural and urban, though I am going to concentrate mainly on rural post offices.

As has already been said, post offices are a vital backbone of our communities, especially in rural areas, where they are often the last piece of social infra-structure left in place. This matter is similar to this morning’s topic of the challenges facing the farming community in that both amount to the same thing — death by a thousand cuts. Services have been haemorrhaging from post offices over the years and now they have nearly nothing left, rendering them no longer viable or sustainable.

I recently made representations on behalf of the proprietors of a post office in Augher who were trying to expand its services in an attempt to sustain their business. It is one of the many that has a shop relying on its footfall. It was difficult for me to help them to enhance and improve the services that they already provided. Part of the reason for that difficulty can be traced back to the first Assembly and our experiences in the Committee for Social Development, when changes were being made to the legislation concerning the move from benefit books and giro cheques to card transactions. That Committee fought hard to ensure that Post Office services were not lost; I was opposed to anything that would cause a deterioration of those services.

Since then, I have had first-hand experience of the difficulties that those changes caused. When my first child was born I went to open a Post Office account for my family allowance payments. If I had given my bank details the matter would have been sorted in two minutes. However, because I wanted to use my local post office I had to fill out forms and bring them back to be stamped in the post office, which was much more difficult and inconvenient. I felt that I was being pushed towards using the bank and away from the post office. Nevertheless, because of my commitment to local rural post offices, I did my best to ensure that I used that service.

That death by a thousand cuts is evident in the age profile of sub-postmasters and ‑postmistresses. The Federation of Small Businesses issued a briefing today containing a survey of its members. I wonder whether the federation has surveyed how many sub-postmasters and ‑postmistresses are approaching retirement age. Again, there is a correlation between this issue and farming. Post offices are becoming so unprofitable that people are not being encouraged into the business. Obviously, more money can be made more easily in other businesses. Many of the people who run local post offices are keen to get out of that business.

It does not seem to me that running a local post office that is not attached to some other venture could be profitable in 2007, given the reduction in transactions and services that they are facing. The British Govern-ment’s policy is to run them down to such an extent that they cannot be sustained. I welcome and support the motion and the amendment, and I hope that we can do all in our power to ensure that that vibrant link with rural communities, the elderly and the vulnerable, and those without access to public transport — the local post office — is kept and maintained and is sustainable and viable. Go raibh míle maith agaibh.

Mr Hussey: I support the amendment, although I have a greater affinity with the original motion, which concentrates on the area that I am concerned about.

On 14 December 2006, Alistair Darling made a statement to the House of Commons on the Post Office. He said:

“We will therefore consider what role local authorities in England and the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland might play in influencing how the postal services are best delivered in the future.”

I wonder what notice Mr Darling will take of our debate today. It is a pity that the MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Ms Gildernew, could not have been in the House of Commons to challenge Mr Darling when he made his statement.

Postwatch found that:

“whether affluent or disadvantaged, traditional village or post war estate, the closure of the rural post office appeared to have had far-reaching effects upon both particular individuals and the community in general. It became apparent that the post office played an extremely important role in the rural community, a role that transcended the provision of post office services or even the goods sold at the store which was often attached.”

Members are familiar with that scenario and have addressed that issue this afternoon.

I am reminded of a small rural post office between Castlederg and Ederney. It is about four or five miles out of the town up to Killen and another seven or eight miles to Ederney. Think of the area that would be affected if that post office were to close, and think of the small hardware store attached to the post office, the adjoining village shop, the pub and the nearby chippie. There is also a small local store selling agricultural supplies.

Mr Kennedy: What about the church?

Mr Hussey: Killen does not have a church. However, the orange hall is directly opposite the post office. That post office is truly at the heart of the community. Postwatch has described how many of our rural post offices are at the heart of communities.

The closure of a rural post office can result in problems for disadvantaged residents and those who live in the surrounding area when they try to access cash and basic groceries, which were often previously provided in the post office. The heart is ripped out of the community when the post office goes.

Reference was made during this morning’s debate to remarks made by Kenneth Sharkey of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, who said that it seemed inevitable that we would lose some rural post offices. Members can agree with that, despite the fact that the Government are putting this matter out to consultation. We all know about Government consultations.

A very valuable service is being removed from the rural areas affected, and that is another example of how policy makers are ignoring the impact that their decisions will have on rural communities in Northern Ireland. Many farming families live in isolated areas, and they feel that some services are becoming less and less accessible. Members will agree with that.

In the same House of Commons debate, Mr Darling said:

“The post office provides an important social and economic role, particularly for our rural communities and deprived urban areas”

— so he proposes to cut them back. The Government also published new access criteria for post offices. They stated that 90% of the population should be within one mile of a branch — that is great. In rural areas, 95% of the population should be within three miles of a branch, which doubles to six miles in remote areas — talk about being peripheral. I can think of a post office at Killeter that closed a couple of years ago. If people lived beyond Killeter towards the Donegal border, they were seven miles beyond that post office in any case, and it was another six miles from Killeter to Castlederg.

Someone who lives near the Donegal border in the Aghyaran area may have to travel 13 miles to reach the nearest post office. Even by the Government’s standards, that is not acceptable. Where are we going?

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The House of Commons Trade and Industry Select Committee issued a report that attacked plans to end the Post Office card account and demanded more funding for the Post Office network. The report called for the maintenance of both urban and rural networks, which it described as “the heart of the community”. Post offices must be the gateway for Government services, and more products must be developed to assist in protecting their long-term viability. That point is relevant to the latter part of the amendment, which is very welcome. We are simply asking the Government to do what the Trade and Industry Select Committee’s report recommends.

I support an investigation into the role that local authorities and devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland might play in influencing how Post Office services are best delivered in future. The Government must at least listen to us and try to act on the good sense that they are hearing from this Chamber. I support the motion.

(Madam Speaker in the Chair)

Mr Armstrong: I support the motion. Post offices play an important social and economic role in the communities that they serve. The announcement by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry that the Government intend to close 20% of its 600 post offices in Northern Ireland is likely to have a detrimental effect, especially on our rural areas.

As mentioned in today’s earlier debate on agriculture, it seems that the Labour Government’s policy is to concentrate on our cities and towns and to move people’s homes out of the countryside and rural areas, as imposed by the implementation of draft PPS 14. The Government’s policy means the closing of rural schools, as proposed by Sir George Bain, and forcing people out of jobs in the countryside, whether in farming, agriculture, rural schools or post offices.

It is obvious that the Labour Government are out of touch with the realities of Northern Ireland, which is a predominantly rural region of the United Kingdom whose character is defined by precisely those elements that the Government are trying to remove from our way of life.

For the second time today, I state that a devolved Assembly is essential for the future of Northern Ireland: it is time to progress to a fully democratic Assembly without delay.

Many post offices are situated away from main centres of population, and their closure would result in a marked downgrading of services for rural dwellers. A post office is not just a place to buy stamps; it is often a focal point in a district on which the elderly depend. The removal of that central point in rural communities, coupled with the closure of rural schools, could prove the death knell for rural communities.

The Government have been instrumental in funding community groups, which bring people in rural areas together. However, the Government are not consistent because they are closing the lifeline of rural areas — the post office. The very presence of post offices in rural communities makes a positive contribution to local businesses by increasing the number of people passing through a particular location.

If the post office in a rural community is closed, many people, particularly the elderly, the disabled and those without personal transport, will be cut off from society, from accessing cash and from the ability to carry out basic tasks such as buying groceries and paying bills. In Northern Ireland, rural communities can stand alone without people having to go to larger towns and cities as part of their daily lives. Rural communities have to survive without the first-class road structure and public transport systems that exist everywhere else. What is the sense in removing those facilities from our rural communities without first ensuring that those living in them will not be cut off from society?

I acknowledge the hard work and dedication of our postmasters and postmistresses who have had to deal with the modernisation of facilities in post offices, including card systems. They have also had to cope with the loss of various facilities, such as customers’ ability to pay for their television licences. They continue to provide an excellent service to their customers, despite continually having to prove their worth.

Although post offices used to be a service admin-istered by Government, they must now show that they are cost effective. Just like traffic lights, post offices will continue to provide a service for everyone in our communities. Traffic lights cost approximately £30,000 but generate no income: they are a service. They alleviate the huge cost of road traffic accidents. However, can a price be put on the rural way of life? Just as traffic lights are essential to the rural way of life, post offices are the focal points of communities.

Post offices are now present in many large supermarkets as franchises, selling off what was the Royal Mail. Many areas of Northern Ireland seem to be becoming more like other parts of Europe where it is difficult to find a post office, let alone a stamp. Is this the result of another European directive that has been filtered down to Northern Ireland?

Government policy should be to support our post offices. The Government have considered only the financial picture and have failed to recognise the contribution that post offices make to Northern Ireland society. I support the motion and the amendment.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh míle maith agat. As someone who lives in and represents a rural area, I can state that the role of post offices has been articulated amply here today. In isolated communities, local post offices provide older people, disabled people and those on low incomes who cannot afford extra travel costs with access to their attendance allowances, disability living allowances, income support and pensions.

I listened intently to the debate, and feel that the Assembly should pay tribute to those postmasters and postmistresses who, over many years, when providing services to the public, showed exemplary courage when faced with numerous attacks and robberies from a variety of paramilitary fundraisers.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr McGlone: As Mr Hussey said, post offices generate business for other businesses. Many post offices are located in small rural shops. Indeed, many of those are under threat from multinational retailers. Card accounts were introduced to allow people to withdraw their tax credits, benefits and pensions in post offices. The withdrawal of that system, seemingly at the whim of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), and the Post Office’s loss of the right to sell TV licences, has been referred to as death by a thousand cuts. That is exactly what it is.

This morning, I spoke to a postmistress who told me that the Government and the management of the Post Office must get their act together. The Post Office has said that it cannot plan without there being certainty, but it must plan nevertheless. As was said by my colleague from Mid Ulster, and has been stated by the National Federation of SubPostmasters, the Post Office must modernise its facilities.

It has been drawn to my attention that, for example, an elderly person who pays his or her bills either at the end of each month, every two months, or whenever suits, cannot withdraw more than £600 from a post office in one day, which means that if he or she needs to pay an exorbitant or increased fuel bill, he or she must return to the post office the next day. Indeed, unlike most supermarkets, post offices cannot provide customers with cashback. The facilities must be modernised.

The Government should be taking a leading role in ensuring that banks enable their customers to access their bank accounts and carry out a wide range of transactions in post offices. Major banking groups do not allow their customers to access their current accounts in post offices. The Government must provide balanced information about the payment options for benefit claimants and pensioners, including the availability of the cheque payment service.

Why should there not be new services? There is talk of investment — there should be investment for the future. Why should sub-postmasters not provide front-line financial advice and be trained, accredited and rewarded for doing so? As Post Office Ltd’s only shareholder, the Government should oversee this process. All post offices should provide convenient access to public services, from the payment of fines to fielding lost property. Why not?

The Government must actively encourage their Departments — and local authorities — to make a range of services available and accessible through kiosks in local post offices. They are the hub of rural communities, both socially and economically.

Today we must send a clear message to Government and to Post Office Ltd that, on behalf of our constituents, we want twenty-first century services from a twenty-first century Post Office, and that they should be planning and investing in that. Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

Mr Weir: I will try to keep my remarks brief. A vast range of issues has been well covered during the debate — indeed, probably a much greater range of issues than one had initially anticipated.

We have gone from the very interesting analogy between our Post Office system and the traffic lights to delving into a deep sense of history. I thought that at some stage during the debate someone would mention Postman Pat; however, it seems that it is Postman Caesar who is at the heart of our problems. Indeed, I wondered briefly whether the Member opposite mistakenly believed that he was in some sort of panel game where the idea was to describe the motion without actually making any reference to it. Fortunately, after approximately eight minutes the words “post office” did appear in the Member’s speech.

The points have been well made and well covered, and I am very glad to say that we are speaking today with one voice. It is important to recognise, as the amendment does, that this issue affects both rural and urban areas, although there is great concern that the current proposals would hit particularly hard in rural areas.

From a personal point of view, this is something that matters deeply to me. Both my parents worked all their lives in the Post Office, and I commend in particular the remarks of Mr McGlone about the faithful service that postmasters and postmistresses gave throughout the Troubles, when many of them were subjected to horrendous attacks and robberies by various paramilitary groups and criminal gangs. They strove, both in rural and urban areas, to try to retain a sense of normality and a sense of community throughout that time. In their hour of need, it is incumbent on us to stand up for them.

While we are focusing on the situation in Northern Ireland, a number of Members also pointed out that this important issue goes beyond our shores, and there are a number of indicators of that. For example, with regard to the importance of post offices, a 2004 Postwatch survey indicated that 75% of people felt that their local post office was extremely important, 59% regarded it as essential to their way of life and 91% felt that it played an important role in their community.

Since this issue has come to the fore in the last few months, a vast range of organisations has expressed concern at the Government’s plans, including the various UK churches, all the major trades unions and the Federation of Small Businesses. Age Concern has expressed grave concerns about the effects on the elderly, and Citizens Advice has come out very strongly against the proposals. In local papers throughout the United Kingdom a range of concerns has been raised by local councillors, councils and MPs of different political parties. It is very clear that the Government do not have strong political support for their proposals. In the House of Commons an early-day motion expressing concern over the potential threat to the Post Office system was signed by 400 MPs, including Kate Hoey, who is the chair of the parliamentary all-party group on sub-post offices.

Indeed, there could be no greater expression than the petition handed to Downing Street in October, which had over four million signatures. I am informed that it was the largest petition ever on a peacetime issue. That shows the strength of feeling that there is on this.

4.15 pm

Given that amount of heat, it was inevitable that Alistair Darling would try to alleviate the level of concern by throwing out some sops in his statement on 14 December. Two things in particular were mentioned. One was the idea of 500 mobile post offices — a number of Members have been rightly sceptical about whether that would operate particularly well in any part of the UK and especially in Northern Ireland. I do not think that any of us, with the greatest respect to the fast-food industry, want to see our post offices trans-formed into a sort of mobile chip van moving from area to area. It simply would not work in Northern Ireland. Again, I am very sceptical that it would work anywhere. There were general references to services being provided in village halls, community centres and pubs. This is a very clear spinning exercise on the part of the Government in order to pretend that they are not downgrading the system.

The proposer of the motion referred to some of the euphemisms with which we are all too familiar on this issue as with others. We are talking about “transforming” and “restructuring” post offices. Those are euphemisms; the Government are supporting post offices in the same way that a rope supports a hanging man. That is the level of support that has been provided by the Government. They have shown disregard for post offices and the rural community. As a number of Members have said, this Government are blind and deaf to the needs of that community. Time and again this Government, who see themselves largely dependent on urban votes, have disregarded countryside issues.

The second sop that was thrown out by the Minister was some movement on the original plan to scrap the card account in 2010, with an indication that there would be some kind of replacement system. That has been highlighted by a number of Members. The Minister gave no guarantee that that replacement system would be controlled by the Post Office. As Mr Beggs said, it will be put out for tender. The extent to which Labour Back-Bench Members seized on this as some great concession that would safeguard the future of post offices shows that they were happy enough to fall for the con. If the intention is to replace the card scheme with something else within the Post Office, why abolish it in the first place? It is simply an effort by the Government to get over the hump of the next election; to try to buy off some of the vast opposition to this; and then continue with what they have been doing to post offices for years.

As many Members have said, this will have a significant effect on people, particularly in rural areas. One thing that has not been mentioned is that there will be a large reduction in the number of jobs, and not just directly in the post offices themselves. In many cases the post office is the hub of the community. Remove the post office — force people to go into the towns and cities — and you not only take the custom away from the post office, you take it away from the surrounding shops as well. The level of convenience is simply not there.

It has been said that a number of villages and hamlets around the country have no bank facility. I know from experience in my constituency that that extends beyond the smallest of villages. Millisle, for example — a village of 2,500 or 3,000 people — does not have a bank. Until a few years ago, it did not even have a bank machine. If an area of that size does not have a bank, how many other small villages around the country do not have one? How much is this an attack on the heart of the rural community?

The most vulnerable in our society will be hit: the elderly, who are most dependent on post offices; the disabled; and those without personal transport. Those are the people who will suffer. It is right that we consider economics, but when we look behind that cold hard face, the daily lives of many people are adversely affected.

The present crisis has arisen because the Government have deliberately and stealthily taken services away from post offices. For example, the payment of benefits, once purely the domain of post offices, is now subject to much wider distribution. Indeed, it has been proposed that the payment of benefits should be shifted entirely away from post offices. Television licensing, car taxation and other services have also been removed. Post offices have not been allowed to operate on a level playing field.

We can propose a positive agenda for creating a productive role for post offices in the future by ending the restrictions that are placed on them. We are told of various monopolies that post offices have enjoyed in the past regarding various services that only they have provided. It is no longer appropriate that only post offices should provide those services, but let us at least create a balanced picture and allow post offices to lift some restrictions on their activities.

There is currently a limit on the amount of money that can be withdrawn from a post office at one time, which means that some people must go back a second or third time to withdraw more cash. Moreover, post offices cannot work with carriers other than Royal Mail. Perhaps that could be examined. Various suggestions were made in the House of Commons, such as a greater degree of co-ordination among post offices and local councils to identify services of outreach to the community that councils could provide. Dr Birnie mentioned the Welsh model of support. There is a vast range of possibilities. However, the most important single measure, as the amendment emphasises, is the retention of the card account scheme. If that scheme is retained, it will provide at least some security for the future.

Our concern is to protect both urban and rural communities. We face difficulties but, on this occasion, there is not a lone voice calling from the Assembly to the Government, as is often the case. We have support across the country on this issue, which affects everyone. I believe that we should use our strong and united voice to state that it is unacceptable to destroy the post offices and the way of life of many of our communities. The Assembly must clearly say no. I urge Members to support the motion, as amended.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly deplores the introduction of proposals by the government to close a number of Post Offices across Northern Ireland; and the implications these proposals will have for all Post Offices, urban, suburban and rural; and calls on a future devolved administration to work in conjunction with the Post Office and the Social Security Agency to retain Post Office card accounts; and further calls for the development of other government and financial services which address the needs of recipients of state benefits and pensions, other Post Office users and future potential customers.

Adjourned at 4.24 pm.

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