In reply to the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that his party leader's is the only voice that speaks for Ulster, may I say that my vote in the European election was more than those of his two party colleagues. The ballot is the answer.
If the hon. Gentleman intervenes much more, he will not catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and will make no speech. I shall therefore be the only person to speak for Northern Ireland in the House tonight. In Ulster, the dairy industry and its ancillary industries employ 3·5 per cent. of the working population. Agriculture is not a small problem for Ulster. We are talking about one part of our industry which employs 3·5 per cent. of those lucky enough to have jobs in Northern Ireland. The proposals for a super-levy based on 1981 deliveries of milk would have cost the Northern Ireland milk industry £25 million out of a total income of £189 million this year.
That will strike a death knell for the dairy industry in Northern Ireland, and I associate myself with the remarks of those hon. Members who have spoken about the seriousness of the situation.
Northern Ireland farmers are opposed in principle to a supplementary levy based on 1981—or, indeed, on any other year. A much more constructive approach, they say, would be a policy of price restraint, coupled with financial inducements to encourage farmers to cease production for a substantial period. That is the evidence that has been put to the Agriculture Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly by the farming community in the Province.
We see no point in doing away with the subsidy on butter and forcing people to eat margarine. Surely it would be more sensible to keep the price of butter down, thereby increasing consumption and reducing the cost of intervention procedures.
I shall say a brief word about cereals. The organisation of the cereals sector is of the utmost importance to our intensive livestock industry. This part of our industry in Northern Ireland employs 10,000 people and depends heavily on imported cereals with consequent high transport costs. The United Kingdom Government should argue strongly that intervention stocks should be available on equal terms to all grain deficient regions, where a need can be demonstrated. Surely we in Northern Ireland have better arguments than most people have to justify the transfer of intervention grain for storage here.
In 1982, the value of beef produced in Northern Ireland was more than £220 million. That is more than one third of the value of our total agriculture output. That part of our agriculture sustains a large number of jobs, not just in farming but in meat processing factories, cold storage, transport, distribution and marketing. About 70 per cent. of the beef that we produce is exported, mainly to Britain and the rest of the Community. We also have a valuable and increasing trade in non-member states. The industry is, therefore, of great importance and is of immense value in terms of our total economy.
Unfortunately for us, most of our beef is exported in carcase form, and a move towards more sophisticated products seems necessary. Such a move would mean the creation of more jobs in the industry, particularly in processing. For such a development, we need a strong stable basis at farm level.
The beef industry in Northern Ireland is a most important sector of our industry, and there is enormous potential for further development. As with milk production, the beef sector is based on our lush grasslands, which is the main raw material and is in abundant supply throughout the Province. When we joined the EC, the beef industry was expanding and developing. However, since 1974, for various reasons, the industry has suffered a crisis of confidence, and as a result there has been a steady decline in the beef herd. However, in the last couple of years EC aids introduced into Northern Ireland the calf premium scheme, and the extra payments under the suckler cow premium scheme have helped to restore confidence in beef farming and the first signs of a halt in the decline in cow numbers are there to be seen. This trend is most encouraging. I hope that we shall see the rebuilding of our national herd towards the levels of a few years ago.
It is true that the Community produces more beef than it consumes, that production is rising faster than consumption and that the general world expansion in beef production will make it more difficult for the Community to market its surplus in other countries. We all recognise these facts and that the Commission feels that it must recommend some changes to the support measures to prevent any serious imbalance occurring in the beef market of the Community.
We also know, having read the documents, that the Commission stated:
A cost cutting exercise, conducted without regard to the social and economic consequences, would render no service to the development of the Community.
If these cuts and the Commission's proposals go ahead, they will lay the axe at the very root of one of the few businesses in Ulster that is progressing at present and promising the possibility of more jobs.
The Commission's proposal on beef will have very serious social and economic consequences for Northern Ireland not just now, but by placing the future potential for employment in our Province in serious jeopardy.
On the question of sheepmeat, Northern Ireland will be in great difficulty, for it is clear that the Commission wants to stop the advance payment of the annual ewe premium. Our producers currently get a proportion of the estimated premium at an early stage and the balance is paid at the end of the year when the final value of the premium is calculated. If this advance payment is stopped our producers' cash flow problems will be increased.
It must be remembered that most of our sheep farming is concentrated in the hills. These are the less favoured areas of our land where it is necessary to apply special measures to aid our farmers.
As a final word to the House, I wish to say that I am seriously alarmed at a report in The Irish Times:
The British Foreign Secretary Mr. Geoffrey Howe acknowledged here yesterday that the EEC milk super-levy proposal presented an 'unacceptable situation' for Ireland … A British official said last night that Mr. Howe's remarks were intended to be 'mildly helpful' to Ireland.
Its having been stated there would be no concessions there now seems to be a concession in mind.
If there is any concession and any imbalance as a result of that concession, it will tell against the interests of Northern Ireland agriculture which is the basis of our economy and the largest employer.
When Lord Mansfield came to the Agriculture Committee of the Assembly he said:
If as a result of the negotiations this or that class or race of producers obtain some kind of advantage we must see to it that the Northern Ireland fanner is not disadvantaged.
Will the Minister say whether the Government are sticking to that principle? Will the Government ensure that Northern Ireland does not get the rough end of the stick as the result of our membership of the EC?