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I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this debate, however briefly.
As the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) said, the effect of the BSE crisis in Northern Ireland has been much more dramatic than in Great Britain. Not only have the farming community, the downstream industries, their employees and the other manufacturing processes been dramatically affected; the whole economy has been subjected to the possibility of disaster because beef is a base industry.
We had hoped that the Florence agreement last June would be quickly implemented. The practical farmers of Northern Ireland had no idea that it could be renegotiated. At the beginning, we knew that it was the base on which the door could be opened, so we were extremely disappointed when, on 19 September, the Government decided not to proceed with the selective cull. That bad decision has held us back for 11 months—from March to February.
Some parts of the beef industry in Northern Ireland depend on intervention. I do not want to rehearse the beneficial attributes of the Northern Ireland beef industry because they have already been rehearsed well this evening and on previous occasions. Northern Ireland farmers do not seek privilege in this matter; they simply seek an acknowledgement of the circumstances—traceability, and so on—and that, once the new submission is agreed, further selective culls will take only three weeks to complete. Shortly after the Government submit their terms to Brussels, therefore, Northern Ireland would be ready to take advantage of whatever is agreed.
In the Northern Ireland Committee, which discussed BSE last week, the Under-Secretary of State, Baroness Denton of Wakefield, and her heads of Department were somewhat ambivalent, although not maliciously so, when they heard that we had not had a clear message on two fronts. First, when the Government submit their detailed response, there will be a further period in which to negotiate that response. That has worried farmers in Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole. We were under the impression that the submission would open the door immediately, so what is this talk about further negotiation of the terms?
Secondly, the point about Northern Ireland's unique position is not that Northern Ireland should be accorded privilege but that it should, as has already been said, be used as the key by which to unlock the ban imposed on us in Europe and more widely. We know from our contacts in Europe—I am sure that this view will be supported by the other Northern Ireland Members here this evening—that Commissioner Fischler and the chairman of the EU agriculture committee are receptive to the suggestion that that is the means by which the ban can be unlocked.
There is, however, one major proviso, which is why the hon. Member for East Londonderry, the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and I asked the Minister when he was at the Dispatch Box earlier to be absolutely explicit. I must say again that I did not get a definite answer on whether the Commission will require the Government specifically to ask for the Northern Ireland option to be implemented. Unless the Government ask, it will not be in the reckoning. That is the answer that the three of us were trying to elicit from the Minister in his "defence", if I may call it that, this evening, but no clear answer came through to me.
I hope that the Minister who responds to the debate will deal with that point specifically. We require almost a "yes or no" answer, but that might be too much to expect in a parliamentary debate. It would, however, be beneficial. It is the key to where the Northern Ireland farming industry is going; it is also the key by which the entire UK beef industry can have access to European and world markets once again.
In the meantime—I do not yet know what time frame we are in—I wish to draw the House's attention to one or two other matters. The agriculture community was heartened and gladdened by the announcement in October at the Agriculture Council meeting of £52 million to aid the industry. Some £9.25 million of that relates to Northern Ireland. Strangely, that announcement had a mixed reception in Northern Ireland, not because of the amount but because of the proposed distribution. It was felt that more attention should have been paid to beasts that went through the slaughter programme after 5 August last year. Owners of those beasts suffered from the cut in prices, delivered in spite of promises made as early as April that the price then pertaining would continue throughout the slaughter programme.
The flagged herd seems not to have had the attention that it should have had in the distribution of that £9.25 million. It is a small section of the industry, representing only 3 or 4 per cent., but it is in a dead end and needs additional sustenance to keep it alive over the winter.
My second point on continuing support relates to the intervention contract mentioned by the hon. Member for East Londonderry. I have two points to make about that. Northern Irish beef producers are inordinately dependent on the intervention price. The industry was always geared to producing a heavy beast. The intervention weight limits have been restricted from 390 kg to 370 kg. I understand that there are proposals to reduce it to as low as 360 kg next month, and eventually down to 340 kg. The situation is disastrous for the type of animal that has been produced on Northern Ireland's farms. That cannot be turned round in one season or five. I should like the Minister to take on board that point about alleviation.
The second point on intervention relates to price reporting. Price reporting is across the board of all prices. Logically, intervention price reporting should reflect only the intervention prices, not the lower downmarket prices of other animals not in intervention.
To summarise, we need the lifting of the ban as a first point of entry—someone said the first ship in the convoy. We also need an adjustment of the compensation distribution and an early increase in the permissible intervention weight.