Pig Industry

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:00 pm on 5th October 1998.

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Motion made:

To call attention to the unprecedented and ongoing crisis within the pig industry, and to call upon Her Majesty’s Government, in conjunction with the European Union, the banks and those involved in the processing sector, to take the necessary immediate steps to alleviate the present crisis and ensure the future viability of the pig industry within Northern Ireland; and to move for papers. — [Rev Dr Ian Paisley]

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

Let me say something about how I shall, by leave of the Assembly, conduct the debate on this motion, which begins "To call attention to" and ends "and to move for papers." It is the practice elsewhere that such motions should not be contentious or amendable and are not pressed to a division. The mover of the motion is accorded the right of reply and will formally beg leave of the House to withdraw the motion.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

The motion was originally in the name of my deputy, Mr Robinson. As there are few farmers in East Belfast, I am taking it over for the farmers of North Antrim and elsewhere. I became uneasy when my colleague, Mr Sammy Wilson, also from East Belfast, spoke about guinea pigs. There are no guineas in the pig industry. It is in serious crisis, and it is right that public representatives should have this opportunity to express their views on the serious situation in farming.

The industry is important. It employs about 4,000 people, has 1,800 producers and 2,200 processors and is worth approximately £200 million to the Northern Ireland economy. Those who know the pig industry knows that its fortunes rise and fall, but this could be its final fall, and Northern Ireland could be left with no viable pig industry. When some Members of the Assembly met the Minister, Lord Dubs, they put just one question to him. They asked, "Do you want a viable pig industry in Northern Ireland or are you prepared to preside over its demise?" The pig industry is not on the road to recovery. We face its demise, and we had better wake up to that hard, terrifying fact.

The pig industry had the fire at the factory in Ballymoney, and that was a terrible blow. Forty per cent of the killing and curing power was taken out of the industry. Such a blow in any industry would have been seen as an emergency in any other part, not only of the United Kingdom but of the whole of Europe. Yet our Government, and those who sit farther down the road from us in this very estate, did not think it was an emergency. They did not go immediately to Europe and say that 40% of our industry had been destroyed. We expect them to do for us what has been done in Germany, in France, in Spain and in Italy in such situations. The Government have never acknowledged this to be an emergency situation. In fact, wearing the hat of a Member of the European Parliament, I approached the Government and asked what approaches they were making to Europe. They replied that they were making no approaches to Europe because there is no money in Europe for this.

I then went to Europe. I talked to Mr Fischler, the Commissioner, and he said that there is money in Europe. This is an emergency, but the United Kingdom Government have made no application for help. So I went back and they said they would consider the matter. After considering the matter they decided that they were not going to make an application. However, there will be a debate in the European Parliament this week on the pig industry and its tragedies, and I welcome that.

The United Kingdom Government, the Secretary of State and our Ministers should have been on the ball to get from Europe not charity but something that we have paid for. Northern Ireland, according to the Exchequer at Westminster, has never got out of Europe what we have paid in per head of our population while the United Kingdom has been a member. It is all right for the Irish Republic to get £6 million a day, but we have never got out what we have paid in. The Government have not been faithful stewards of the pig industry, and for that I castigate them.

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP

Dr Paisley has said that killing and processing have been reduced by 40% owing to the fire at Lovell & Christmas in Ballymoney. Is he aware that the remaining 60% capacity is increasingly being taken up by the processing of pigs imported from the Republic of Ireland?

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

I was about to come to that. I am very glad that things from the South can be slain in Northern Ireland, but our pigs should have priority.

I come now to the very important matter of pricing. It is very important. In the basement cafeteria here I asked for a sausage and was told that it cost 35p. I then asked for a slice of bacon to go round the sausage, and that was another 30p — 65p for one sausage and one slice of bacon. Look at the prices the farmers are getting for their pigs. Why is it, with the drastic fall in the price to the farmer, that the housekeeper and the buyer in the shops are getting nothing? In fact, it seems that the prices of pork and bacon are rising, not falling.

During the week that commenced 20 June 1998, around the time of the fire, the price was 85p per kilo. During the next two weeks Maltons had no pigs taken in, but in the week that commenced 6 July 1998 it shipped its first pigs to England at 85p per kilo. During the next week it shipped again, and the price dropped to 78p per kilo. No pigs were moved during the next week, but in the week that commenced 27 July 1998, the price dropped to 60p per kilo. No pigs were moved during the week after that, and during the following week the price dropped to 50p per kilo. These are drastic cuts in price.

The farmers waited impatiently — and rightly so — for Maltons to make a decision. There were lots of negotiations, which I will not go into today, and I am aware of them all but the Industrial Development Board paid a large subsidy to buy Wilsons, the Unipork people, and make the deal with Maltons. I must pay tribute to Lord Dubs and the Industrial Development Board because a lot of money was paid for this. Wilsons changed hands and did very well out of the deal — Mr Wilson got all his debts paid, and £10 million into his hand as well. He nearly did as well as he has done out of mushrooms, but that is a story for another day.

We all thought that the first priority in Cookstown would be to kill Northern Ireland pigs. What has happened? Northern Ireland pigs have been killed, but more pigs from the South have been killed in Cookstown than ever before. A backlog of pigs is now rising. Somewhere in the region of 20,000 pigs are waiting to be slaughtered. If that figure rises to 40,000, where will the pig industry be? We, as public representatives, have a duty to make known our alarm about what is taking place. There are no two arguments to this.

These are facts, and facts are stubborn things. I cannot give names, but I have studied these figures very carefully. Producer A, since the fire, has been able to ship just 28% of his pigs. All Members, even those who have no experience of farming, will know that pigs have to be fed. And, of course, if the pigs get too fat, the farmer will not benefit from all the meal that he has bought. In fact, the pigs become a liability. That is the tragedy. Producer B has shipped 39% of his pigs, while producer C has shipped only 30%.

It is important to remember that the farmers have to wait 12 days before getting a penny in payment. There is no cash flow in the pig industry today. These people have their backs against the wall. Indeed, some of them have contemplated suicide. That is a fact. They have had to be counselled. Why? Because people in the pig industry always had a cash flow and worked hard to make their industry viable. Now they cannot meet the feed bills. I understand that around £40 million is owed to the millers at present.

What have public representatives done? Assembly Members have met all the bankers, together with the Secretary of the Northern Ireland Banks Association. We have talked to them. We have pleaded with them to ease their pressure on farmers.

They told us that they had difficulties, but we said that banks did not go bankrupt. They are all in the money. They boast of making millions of pounds every year but farmers are going bankrupt. The banking sector has a responsibility.

We have also talked to the Department of Agriculture for Northern Ireland. Last weekend, we put pressure on it again about the slaughtering of pigs that had been raised in the Republic of Ireland. I was at a meeting at which the Social Democratic and Labour Party Member for Mid Ulster, Mr Haughey, proposed that pigs be sent to a factory across the border to be slaughtered. Instead of that, pigs from the South are being brought up to Cookstown to be slaughtered, thus preventing the slaughter of pigs that have been reared in Northern Ireland.

The Government must face their responsibilities. This is an ongoing crisis. The backlog that is starting in the pig industry will increase and, as it increases, farmers and pig men will go to the wall.

I know that I speak for all those who have the interests of agriculture at heart when I say that the Government must not allow this industry to go to the wall. How can the Industrial Development Board justify using taxpayers’ money to finance Maltons without first purchasing all Northern Ireland pigs, before topping up with Southern pigs? Is it for financial reasons? Are their commercial requirements more important than the preservation of a viable industry in Northern Ireland? It is annoying that Southern pigs are being killed in Cookstown, and it is totally unacceptable that the price paid for Southern pigs is approximately 10p per kilo more than for Northern Ireland pigs. That averages out at £7 per pig. That means that our farmers are losing £7 per pig in a factory that is financed by Northern Ireland taxpayers, and that should not be. The House needs to make its presence felt on this matter.

Photo of Mr James Leslie Mr James Leslie UUP 3:15 pm, 5th October 1998

Most North Antrim Members are here today, and the House will hear a great deal from us on the subject of pigs because the Agivey bacon factory is an important employer in our constituency. It was with some relief that we heard of the acquisition of Unipork by Unigate although, as Dr Paisley has ably pointed out, there seems to be a little more to it than meets the eye. By investing £27 million in the takeover, that firm is showing confidence in the future of the pig industry in the area. It remains to be seen whose pigs it will put through the factory.

We have to focus on the conduct of the Government and their attitude towards the structure of the pig industry: the unilateral legislation that forced our pig producers to get rid of the stall-and-tether method of keeping sows; the range of health and hygiene requirements placed on the rearing, slaughter and processing of pigs, which added considerably to the cost of producing pork products.

I stress the word "unilaterally" because the same measures have not been applied elsewhere in Europe. In the future that may mean that United Kingdom pork produced to the standards required by regulation will set the benchmark price.

At the moment pork producers elsewhere in Europe are not applying the same standards and are supplying pork to the pig-meat industry in the United Kingdom. This is yet another area where the United Kingdom, by assiduously applying regulation, has disadvantaged its own producers to the benefit of those in the rest of Europe.

This has coincided with a period when both the pound and the green pound, which sets our prices, are particularly strong. It has coincided with a period when pig production has risen by 10% over the previous year and, worse still, with a drop in the demand for pig products due to the financial crisis in Russia and parts of South-East Asia.

This is the situation that industry dreads. It has increased production; its production costs have gone up; and its market has been reduced by factors beyond its control and which it could not have foreseen.

These problems apply equally on the mainland. The difference in Northern Ireland is that we have come face-to-face with the problem sooner. Due to the loss of the Agivey bacon factory the build-up of pigs on Northern Ireland farms was much more rapid.

It is almost inconceivable that the Government can be so lacklustre in their approach to this problem. Any of these factors, if applied to some other industry, would have caused an equally serious problem.

The problem of a strong pound is universal. The whole of British industry is complaining about it. Other industries have lost part of their market due to financial problems elsewhere in the world. However, the pig industry has to face every one of these problems and in its case the only person who is losing money is the farmer. The loss is not being shared the whole way up the production chain. I feel that the Assembly should give careful consideration to the profit margins of the retailers.

One of the most unfair aspects of the pig crisis is that the best producers are the ones who are being burdened with the greatest debts. They were the producers who acted most promptly to take on board the new regulations, who accumulated debts to produce a better pig which would comply with the regulations due to take effect by the end of the year. They have invested in a pig industry which now has a distinctly reduced market.

This is not the first time that there has been difficulty in the pig industry. From time to time in the farming industry, there are periods of overproduction, lost markets and reduced profit margins.

This is the first time that so many parts of the agriculture industry are suffering from variations on the same problem. It is also peculiar how, just as only the pig farmer is losing money in this crisis, only the beef farmer is suffering from BSE. The meat processors are not having any difficulty at all. The Department, therefore, has an immediate responsibility to address this issue and, furthermore, being the custodian of the industry, it must look to the future. It would be daft to address this problem only for it to recur in a short time. We must be sure that we have a viable and sustainable industry for the future.

Since it invested so heavily in Northern Ireland, Unigate clearly believes that we have the highest standards of health, hygiene, pig production and pig processing available. These are essential to the future of the food business and, in due course, pork produced in the United Kingdom will set the benchmark and be the premium product. If we cannot get immediate action to address the acute financial problems of the pig producers or solve the problem of disposing of live pigs, that future — which may well be right, may well be rosy — will never come for many of our pig farmers.

We have a long history of successful pig production in Northern Ireland, and pig producers have coped with tight margins, with loss-making situations, with blue ear disease and with swine vesicular disease and have come through them all. We have a very high standard of pig husbandry in Northern Ireland. It would be an absolute disgrace if all that were to be thrown away by a lack of action now.

Photo of Mr Denis Haughey Mr Denis Haughey Social Democratic and Labour Party

I support the motion. Although I cannot always support what Dr Ian Paisley says, I am very glad to do so on this occasion.

I regret that the motion is not more inclusive, for the entire agriculture industry is in crisis — the worst crisis in recent times. A two-hour debate is not sufficient to deal with the problems of the pig industry, and is certainly not sufficient to deal with the problems of agriculture as a whole. The Assembly has a duty to look at that whole matter and to look at it very urgently.

We need at least one full day to debate the crisis in agriculture which is affecting our economy so drastically. Mr Initial Presiding Officer, can you advise us on how we might best make arrangements for such a full day’s debate? Can you also advise on how we could arrange for the House to hear evidence from the Ulster Farmers’ Union, the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers’ Association and other relevant bodies? The crisis is one of monumental proportions, and the Assembly has a duty to deal with its effects and the impact of it on the community as a whole.

I further propose — this could be dealt with through the usual channels — that, having had a full day’s debate on the agriculture industry and having taken evidence from the farmers’ representative bodies and others, we take an all-party delegation to meet the Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to try to impress upon him the size of the disaster facing the industry and the serious implications which that will have for the whole of our economy and for rural society in particular.

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP

I apologise for interrupting Mr Haughey’s flow and endorse everything he has said. Does the Member agree that the appropriate Committee to take such evidence would be the Committee to be set up to scrutinise the work of the Department of Agriculture and that that highlights the necessity of assigning the Committee portfolios even while the Assembly is in shadow mode? If the Assembly is going to get into full gear, these portfolios should be assigned as soon as possible.

Photo of Mr Denis Haughey Mr Denis Haughey Social Democratic and Labour Party 3:30 pm, 5th October 1998

I take the Member’s point entirely; he is right. However, I do not wish to overlay the discussion of this extremely serious matter with a political distraction which we will have to settle at another time and in another way. There are urgent issues facing us as a community —issues which need to be addressed in a structured way — and the sooner we get on with doing that the better.

I accept that the pig industry is a special and an extremely urgent case. There is a crisis — not just here but all over Europe. There is a glut of pigmeat in the European Union, but I will not go into how that came to be now.

A glut of pig meat means a serious problem for pig-meat producers because prices fall. That, in turn, is exacerbated by the current absurdly high value of sterling which makes it extremely difficult to clear that glut of pig meat by exporting it outside the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. That crisis, exacerbated by the sterling problem, has been turned into a disaster for the pig industry following the fire at Agivey. The situation is urgent, and special measures are needed to deal with it.

I have pointed out to the Minister and to others responsible that agri-monetary compensation is available from the European Union at the request of the relevant Minister. That funding could be used to alleviate the crisis facing the pig industry, but it has not been requested. And the reason it has not been requested is the operation of the so-called Fontainebleau Agreement — a mechanism under which the former Prime Minister, Madam Thatcher, secured a rebate on the United Kingdom’s net input into the European budget.

I disagree with Dr Paisley on one matter. The United Kingdom’s so-called net input into the European Union does not come out of British taxpayers’ pockets. It comes about by virtue of the fact that the United Kingdom, unlike other European Union member states, continues to convert a disproportionate element of its trade outside the European Union, therefore the Customs and Excise duties collected on goods coming into the United Kingdom — many of them in transit to other European Union member states — go into the European Union budget as its own resources. So when Madam Thatcher thumped the table and demanded the return of her money, it was not her money and it was not coming out of European taxpayers’ pockets.

Agro-monetary compensation is available, but the British Government have not asked for it, because under the Fontainebleau Agreement, it would not make financial sense to do so. But it makes good financial sense and this is a matter that the Assembly should press with the British Government and with the Secretary of State for Agriculture.

We need to concentrate on the immediate need to increase the slaughter capacity available. Dr Paisley referred to a suggestion that I made in a previous meeting that there was spare slaughter capacity available just south of the Border. I have been in touch with the proprietor of the plant in question, and he is prepared to talk to Maltons, and I have also been in touch with Maltons to urge them to have discussions with him. I hope that they have already contacted each other and that there may be action on that front.

I have also been in touch with the Department of Agriculture in Kildare Street, and I have discovered that the plant in question was inspected recently and was passed for immediate production, so all that is required is a business understanding between Maltons and the proprietor. I intend to continue to pursue that matter.

If there is not an increase in slaughter capacity within a couple of weeks, as Dr Paisley has correctly said, there will be an unmanageable amount of pig meat on farms with the consequent pressure on farmers. That must be cleared because, for three to four months, it will not be possible for Maltons to expand slaughter capacity at the Cookstown plant that it has taken over. One obvious way to provide for that three- to four-month period would be for Maltons to take a short-term lease on the plant that is available just south of the border. That would meet the immediate need.

The European Union has a duty to address the crisis in the pig industry throughout Europe. It is not good enough for Commissioner Fischler to say that the problems must be resolved by market forces. As other Members have said, if market forces are allowed to reign, there will be bankruptcies by the hundred. Our pig-meat industry will collapse. Not bringing production into balance with consumption, but rather losing capacity, will almost certainly mean a shortfall in pig-meat production in the foreseeable future, with consequent imports from outside the European Union. We cannot and should not contemplate such a future.

Pig-meat production has to be reduced rationally in a way that preserves our capacity to provide the quantity that we need. I have written to Commissioner Fischler within the last few weeks with a proposal along those lines. However, I understand that the Commission is not willing to commit huge sums to support the pig industry because that might lead to difficulties with other product sectors. Pig-meat production can be managed downwards by the imposition of weight limits at slaughter and by quotas; that will not require huge sums. I have written to the Commissioner urging him to adopt those suggestions, but I have had no reply.

I respect what was said at the start of the debate, that we need at least one full day to debate the crisis in agriculture. We need to be able to take evidence from the relevant bodies to equip a delegation to meet the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to impress upon him the seriousness of the crisis in agriculture in Northern Ireland and the consequences for our whole economy.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

Three specific questions were put to me in terms of a ruling. There is no technical reason why we should not have a full day’s debate on agriculture. That is a matter for discussion through the usual channels, and I shall certainly ensure that the matter is raised and discussed.

Secondly, I was asked about holding a hearing. As Mr McCartney correctly said, the proper forum would be one of the scrutiny Committees. We do not currently have such a Committee and the tenor of the remarks suggested some urgency, which may mean that the matter ought not to be left to that. However, that leaves us with a technical dilemma as to how it can properly be achieved. I shall explore the various possibilities to see whether agreement can be reached through the usual channels, on how the matter might be addressed.

The third question was about an all-party delegation. That is entirely a matter for the parties. It is not a matter for me, and it should be taken up between the parties at whatever level is deemed to be appropriate.

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP

Is there any reason why the Assembly cannot at this stage convene an Ad Hoc Committee of all parties to deal with that matter?

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

Surely the House has the power to become a Grand Committee itself to examine such a matter?

Photo of Mr Denis Haughey Mr Denis Haughey Social Democratic and Labour Party

A way of getting around this might be for the House to appoint an all-party delegation and give it authority to take evidence.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

We can see that three rather experienced politicians have come up with three very reasonable ways of proceeding, and there may indeed be other ways. This demonstrates how, if the will is there, the means can be found.

I will ensure that the matter is discussed through the usual channels and hope that an agreement can be reached. It is clear from the remarks made by Members across the Chamber that the matter must be attended to.

Photo of Eddie McGrady Eddie McGrady Social Democratic and Labour Party

In view of the remarks that have been made across the Floor about the urgency and importance of this subject to the farming community and their financial plight, may I suggest that the party Whips get together. They should be able to orchestrate the appropriate action without there being any problem about the Assembly’s rules and regulations.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

It is clear what the will of the Assembly is on this matter.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

A Chathaoirligh, may I thank Dr Paisley, the Member for North Antrim, for providing us with the opportunity to raise this matter. There is a crisis not only in the pig industry but in agriculture generally throughout the Six Counties.

Farmers are wondering whether this is a deliberate policy by the British Government and the European Union simply to wind up the agriculture industry here. We seem to go from one crisis to another, and no attempt is made by either the British Government or the European Union to resolve them.

We have had the BSE crisis and the attempts to resolve that crisis involved isolating beef produced here from that of British beef. Remember this is different — it is reared and looked after in this country. As Dr Paisley has said, the strip of water between us is all that separates the two standards. We need to recognise that the beef and pork produced here have probably been of a higher standard than that in the rest of Europe.

Now we have the decline of the pig industry, which is a major crisis for pig producers, and for the small farmers in particular. For years they have survived on mixed farming, producing beef cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry. Every part of this industry has been affected by scares of different kinds. Why do we have these scares? Sometimes there is little fact to support or substantiate the claims that are made.

A lot of blame has been attached to the fire at the Ballymoney plant, and that did reduce the killing and curing capacity. But that in itself has not created the crisis. There have been many different reasons, but I would like to concentrate on the packaging of bacon and pork products in the Six Counties. Time and again we see pig products on the shelves labelled "Processed in Northern Ireland", but that does not tell us the source of those products. Many of them come from Denmark and other Scandinavian countries.

There is confusion with regard to packaging. Source needs to be clearly identified so that customers may be assured that they are supporting the local industry.

The crisis is a result of the absence of an overall agriculture policy. The Six Counties has been linked to Britain industrially but has lost out on the agricultural side, as Dr Paisley has said, whereas for years the South of Ireland has benefited from European funding.

We need a co-ordinated agriculture policy in Ireland. It is important that we speedily move to set up appropriate Departments, the scrutiny Committees and, most important of all, a North/South body to bring about an all-Ireland agriculture policy.

What is the point in blaming Ministers who have other responsibilities? We need to move speedily to the appointment of a Minister who can demonstrate to the Assembly that he is doing all in his power to ensure that, for example, the pig industry prospers.

Undoubtedly we need support from the European Union.

We have heard today how all aspects of the pig industry in the North and in the South are linked. I welcome the news that throughout Ireland there is growing co-operation in all aspects of farming — not excluding the unions. We have an opportunity to help. We should not sidestep the issue but should set up appropriate Ad Hoc Committees with power to scrutinise and to plan for the future. Let us stop moving from one crisis to another.

We should move speedily to set up an Executive that is responsible for a Ministry of Agriculture and will lead to the establishment of a North/South body. It is important that this Assembly have powers of control and scrutiny.

We have an opportunity today to speak with a united voice in support of the pig industry and to show that we are concerned. Meetings are all very fine, but we need to move speedily to practical issues. We must use practical means to deal with the crisis.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance 3:45 pm, 5th October 1998

Like Mr Haughey, I welcome this debate, but not the motion’s exclusion of certain matters. There is a crisis in the pig industry, but this is not the only sector of agriculture which is suffering. For example, lamb producers in Great Britain are getting even worse prices than those in Northern Ireland. In the case of beef, there is no doubt that flagged suckler herds in Northern Ireland had their chances in the certified herd scheme sacrificed so that others could make progress, albeit slowly. Producers are still waiting for their 1997 compensation while we discuss problems that have arisen in 1998.

There are many problems throughout agriculture, but we have a major crisis in the pig industry, which requires not just a debate but action.

A number of factors have been highlighted by Members. The strength of sterling is a fundamental problem for all of British industry, whether agricultural or manufacturing.

There are economic problems in Russia and the Far East which are beyond the capacity of this House to solve. There is over-production across Europe, and action is required at European level. The fire did not help the situation.

The Government must take action. We need to move on to the point where we take responsibility, but all we can do at this stage is put pressure on others. The pressure which is being applied by farmers’ representatives, with the support of people from every part of the House, has helped to make a difference. It has put pressure on Lord Dubs in particular, but it has also shown how difficult the problems are to resolve.

We met Lord Dubs just after the initial proposal for the welfare scheme — it was proposed that under the scheme pigs would be removed from the food chain at nil compensation — and forced him to produce a fairly minimal amount of compensation. At the meeting Mr Small, the Permanent Secretary for the Department of Agriculture, said that he would have to satisfy the Government and the European Commission to get them to agree and then find the money from somewhere.

We all hope that in a few months we will have the power to decide on agriculture here. I do not know how much we will be able to do in co-operation with our neighbours down the road. We will still have to go through the British Government when we go to Europe.

However, having power solves only the first problem. We will still have to satisfy Europe and come up with the money from somewhere. The short-term aid provided by the Government was a minimal financial payment which was dressed up as a welfare scheme to ensure that it met the European criteria. Unfortunately, it was a one-off scheme and the difficulties continue. We need to press for the reintroduction of that scheme to take away the surplus pigs that we still have.

Mr Haughey highlighted the issue of the green pound. One of the reasons for every part of agriculture suffering is that the Government have refused to make any application for agri-monetary compensation. We, as a united Assembly, should be putting pressure on them, because that is something which would benefit every sector.

It was pleasant to see the direct action taken by many of the producers to highlight issues such as sourcing of meat, the way in which retailers have been buying elsewhere and the prices which consumers have had to face. Many customers are going into shops — and it is not just the farmers’ wives — and looking at the labels to see where food is coming from. This, and our standards, are to be welcomed.

We should also be asking why the consumer is paying as much as he was paying three months ago while the farmers are receiving virtually nothing. It is a long time since I studied economics, but that does not sound like a free market to me.

In Northern Ireland we have high standards, the highest in Europe — quite possibly the highest in the world in a number of areas — in food quality, health and animal welfare. We should not be seeking to reduce those standards, but to maintain them, and we should be ensuring that people are aware of them. During the next century this is what the consumer is going to demand. It will not be a matter of cheap food but of quality food. If we take this crisis as an opportunity to publicise our standards it may help us; if we take it as a reason for reducing our standards we may destroy our long-term viability. There are signs at Westminster that the creation of a Food Standards Agency for the United Kingdom has been put on the back burner. That is something that the Assembly, when it gets its full power, should take up for the benefit of our consumers and producers.

It is vital that consumers get the information to make an informed, fair choice from what is available. If we are going to work to alleviate this crisis, we must also prepare for the future to ensure that there is long-term viability for every sector of agriculture.

Photo of Mr Roger Hutchinson Mr Roger Hutchinson DUP

All Members agree that farmers in general and pig farmers in particular are in a state of crisis.

As we consider their plight it is worth remembering that we are speaking of people who have worked hard to set up their businesses and who, over the years, have provided not only employment but also a service to the people of Northern Ireland. An industry that employs approximately 4,000 people and is worth around £200 million to the economy of Northern Ireland deserves immediate help from the Government.

There are some 65,000 sows in the Province, producing some 25,000 pigs for slaughter each week. On 28 August 1998 the Government provided some help with the announcement of the pig welfare slaughter scheme to cull overweight pigs. Compensation of £30 per pig was payable and applications for some 27,000 pigs were made, of which 15,000 were presented for slaughtering. That is now complete and most of the payments have been made. To its credit, the Ulster Pork and Bacon Forum provided a top-up payment of £3 per pig to encourage people to enter pigs under this scheme.

We have all heard about Maltons which recently took over the Unipork processing plant at Cookstown. Many farmers had hoped that this would result in slaughtering increasing a little more quickly. However, because the plant has limited chill facilities it cannot increase slaughtering numbers until new facilities can be built. In the meantime Maltons continued to ship pigs to England, agreeing to take some 4,000 pigs per week, but the number actually shipped is considerably less. Farmers are very unhappy with the way they have been treated by Maltons and unless something is done there will be a second backlog of pigs building up when it was hoped that the slaughter scheme and Unipork takeover would help to stabilise the market.

Pig prices have shown no sign of improvement and farmers continue to make a large loss on every pig. For example, in September 1997 the loss was £7·08, but by August 1998 it was £17·03. No producer can sustain that level of loss without it having a severe effect on his business. Aids to private storage were introduced on 28 September. Farmers welcomed this but its effect will be limited as the meat must be exported outside the European Union when it comes out of storage. In addition to the strength of sterling, oversupply problems and the ever increasing specifications required by supermarkets, pig farmers in the Province are disadvantaged for other reasons.

First, the rigid implementation of welfare regulations such as the stall and tether ban. The ban will come into effect in the United Kingdom on 1 January 1999 and will require pigs to be kept in loose housing systems. Many farmers have not yet been able to build new loose-house systems because they cannot afford to do so; the money is not there for them to convert facilities.

By contrast, the European Union — including the Republic of Ireland — banned only tethers and no mention has been made of stalls.

Secondly, feed costs are approximately £10 per tonne higher here than in England, due largely to transport costs. This is roughly equivalent to £2·50 per pig. There is no subsidy on that at all, and no cheap long-term loans as in France or Germany. No grant aid is available for modernising, as it would be in the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland has poor Aujesky’s disease status, but any eradication programme would have to be for the whole island of Ireland: the Republic of Ireland has not reciprocated.

Meat-and-bone meal cannot be fed to pigs in Northern Ireland. It is not suggested that MBM should be legal in Northern Ireland, but imported pork from animals that have been fed on MBM, and therefore produced at reduced cost, is becoming increasingly common in our supermarkets. That needs to be looked into.

There are ways in which our industry can be helped. Pressure should be put on Maltons to ensure that there is no further backlog. That can be done by rapidly increasing exports to England. That company is responsible for the majority of the slaughter capacity in Northern Ireland. As my party leader has said, sourcing policies at Cookstown need to be examined. Maltons should be encouraged to take more pigs from Northern Ireland in preference to pigs from the Irish Republic. Co-operation within the industry should be encouraged, possibly with financial assistance. A recent report by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on the competitiveness of the United Kingdom pig industry pointed to the lack of co-operative producers’ groups as a major weakness.

Processors must pay a realistic price that covers the cost of production. There should be grant aid for modernising and a common-sense approach to the implementation of legislation. Producers should be able to average their returns over a five-year period for tax purposes. Long-term low interest rates would help, as would better access to education and training. There is currently a shortage of skilled labour. Transport assistance for grain from the United Kingdom is another option. Unless drastic action is taken on the pig industry, many homes in the Province will be in danger of falling apart; I would urge the Government to take the steps that are necessary to help our pig farmers.

Photo of Mr Boyd Douglas Mr Boyd Douglas UUAP 4:00 pm, 5th October 1998

Farming in Northern Ireland is in decline, mainly because of the strength of the pound and the BSE crisis. The situation has been exacerbated by the failure of the British Government to take up the monetary compensation that has been made available in eight other European Union countries. Although much reference has been made to the European Union, it falls to the United Kingdom Government to obtain that money for our farmers.

The pig industry is part of an industry that is in oversupply not only in Europe but in the world, to the tune of 10%. While that continues, many difficulties lie ahead for Northern Ireland producers. The fire in mid-June at the Lovell & Christmas factory could not have happened at a more difficult time for pig producers. Before the fire, Maltons had been processing up to 15,000 pigs a week. After the fire, that fell to 2,200, and although it had promised that a further 4,500 pigs per week would be transported to England, that never transpired.

After much lobbying from the Ulster Farmers’ Union, political leaders and devastated farmers, the Government helped to alleviate the desperate oversupply on farms. This was mainly because of the welfare issue — there was little consideration for the welfare of the farmers themselves. The buy-out scheme – at approximately £30 per pig – still left farmers losing in the region of £30 as it takes approximately £60 to cover all production costs, including overheads.

Because of the very serious crisis during the last months, the Government, through the IDB, have helped facilitate Maltons to purchase the factory in Cookstown in the hope that a new factory can be built within two years to cater for pig processing in Northern Ireland. At the present time Maltons is paying only £31 per pig at slaughter in Northern Ireland, while in Great Britain the price is in the region of £45 per pig. This payment is to pig producers who are applying the same code of practice as their counterparts across the water, hardly what one would call a level playing field. Maltons is currently processing a substantial number of pigs from south of the border, when we are still in oversupply. As a substantial amount of taxpayers’ money has been used through the IDB, pressure should be brought to bear by the Government on Maltons to pay producers at least on a par with their counterparts in the remainder of the United Kingdom and to source all their pigs in Northern Ireland while we have this oversupply.

The other two processing plants in Northern Ireland are paying a higher price per pig at present, and surely this disparity needs to be addressed. At Cookstown on Saturday, weaned pigs were being sold for £2 each. Before this crisis these pigs were making between £18 and £20. At this level, each sow will lose about £100 per litter. If the depressed situation continues — and there is no better outlook in the near future — many producers will be selling their pigs to cut their losses. Surely this cannot be allowed to continue. If some further steps are not taken to help producers through the next few years, most of our 1,800 producers will not survive — certainly not at an economic level.

I urge the Government to take further steps to help farmers, especially in the pig sector, to set up structures to ensure that our producers, in future, have an organised market to enable them to compete on a level playing field. Unless immediate steps are taken to stop the decline of the pig industry, there will be further depletion of the rural population, which will have serious implications for the country as a whole.

I support this motion.

Photo of Prof Monica McWilliams Prof Monica McWilliams NIWC

Rural development, as much as urban development, is the concern of every Member in the Chamber, and we have heard today about the serious crisis in the pig industry. We have heard from other Members what the problems are and so I will be brief in making some suggestions for action.

Mr Douglas described the problems facing those who are rearing pigs and told us that producers are getting £2 for each weaned pig at the Cookstown market. That really does signify a total collapse in that market.

We have also heard about the problems facing the pig processing industry. It seems from recent articles in the ‘Farm Trader’ that the industry has had a pre-tax loss every year since 1991, ranging between £4 million and £7·6 million a year — there is not much profit to be made in processing either — and we have a crisis on both sides of the industry. I heard Robert Overend on Radio Ulster this morning saying that he is a farmer and asking where the trading margins are for pig producers. He also asked "What happens when the little pig goes to market?" We really need to know the answers to those questions to enable us to find long-term solutions to the problems as well as short-term ones, and I am thinking about the surplus that exists at present and the call for action on it. Bob McCartney is right: the sooner we get the Executive and the scrutiny Committee for agriculture in place, the sooner we can look at both the short-term and long-term problems.

Something must be done about the fact that these pigs are still on the farms. There is a huge surplus and this is a major crisis, not just for animal welfare, but for farmers’ incomes. As Dr Paisley pointed out, many of these farmers are in such a psychological state that some have recently committed suicide — and the number is rising.

I also take Mr Ford’s point that there is no contradiction between having good food safety and good food production. The debate has often been between the producers and the consumers, and many of the regulations that have been introduced have somehow been pointed to as being part of the problem. I do not see it like that. The suggestion I am making is one that John Simpson made recently in ‘Farm Trader’. It points to the European Union and, as the United Kingdom Unionist Party Member pointed out earlier, to some assistance in relation to the materials that are being transported. The European Union has a provision that could allow some assistance towards the transportation of surplus pigs to other outlets. Several Members referred to the fact that the outlets in Northern Ireland are not dealing with them — either because of the Republic of Ireland’s pigs or because they do not currently have the capacity.

After the fire, pigs were transported to England, but the shipments were not large enough, and because the farmers were not getting enough assistance, they stopped, as there was nothing in it for them. Within the European Union there is a provision that allows assistance, particularly for transport aid, to trade from peripheral regions. This has been accepted elsewhere, and it seems to me that Northern Ireland is a peripheral region and should be making use of some of this transport aid to deal with the current surplus. If aid were made available, we might be able to deal with some of the short-term problems, so incentive schemes must be put in place urgently. Processors should be invited to tender, and those with the lowest bids should be considered for that aid.

In common with all Members I have been lobbied by the Farmers’ Union on this issue, and I am only too glad to offer my support.

Those of us who attended the transition seminar last week were invited to take up some of the suggestions made by the chairmen of the Farmers’ Union and the Agricultural Producers’Association. When they addressed Members they said "Gentlemen of the Assembly, we ask for your support". On behalf of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, may I say to both Leslie Craig and Will Taylor that the women in this Assembly take agriculture every bit as seriously as the Gentlemen.

Photo of Mrs Joan Carson Mrs Joan Carson UUP

Most of the problems have already been considered today.

I am concerned that the pig producers are currently facing heavy losses and severe financial difficulties, and as a housewife and an Assembly Member with many concerned constituents who depend totally on pig farming for their livelihood, I want to make two points.

The Government’s reaction has been tardy, and pig farmers and their families have suffered greatly. I have seen this with my own eyes in my constituency. The financial aid offered was too little and much too late. The reorganisation of the pig processing industry in Northern Ireland and the restoration of facilities to replace the loss of Lovell & Christmas may bring better times, but it will be an uphill struggle for some time. For some pig producers and their families it may be too late.

My second point concerns point-of-sale marketing. I am very basic and down-to-earth. I appeal to all Ulster housewives to show their loyalty and demand home-produced pork products in their local shops and supermarkets. That would be worthwhile. I know that is pretty basic, but it would demonstrate their concern.

At our seminar last week, Mrs Joan Whiteside from the Consumers’ Council said that it had conducted a survey which showed that Northern Ireland people were not supporting local products. Some supermarkets have responded to the pressure from pig producers and their families to stock local products. Now the public can see products clearly marked "Produce of Northern Ireland". However, in local supermarkets some sausages are marked "Irish produce", but a closer inspection shows that they have been made in England. Shoppers can play their part by reading the print — which, admittedly, can sometimes be quite small — and ensure that they buy local products.

There has been an expansion of multiple supermarkets here, and that has led to the dropping of local suppliers, not only of pork but of vegetables and dairy products. Even milk has been found to be packaged in Manchester.

I appreciate that we all depend on others accepting Ulster products, and it is important that we increase our exports, but charity begins at home. A good home market will ensure a sound foundation for future development. I appeal to Ulster housewives to support the pig farmers by buying locally-produced pork.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party 4:15 pm, 5th October 1998

I support the motion, and I was pleased that Dr Paisley stopped short of calling for passports for Southern pigs so that the Assembly can be united on this major issue.

The crisis, of course, is not confined to the pig industry; it affects agriculture as a whole. Whether one owns a picturesque farm in Fermanagh or a window box in Cullybackey it does not matter — everyone will be affected by this crisis if it is not dealt with. I support Mr Haughey’s suggestion to widen the whole debate about the crisis in agriculture.

In 1996, farm output in Northern Ireland was £942 million; in 1997 it dropped to £803 million; and estimates for this year put output at £756 million. That is an overall drop of 20%. In terms of income, the situation is even more serious. In 1996, total income was estimated at £319 million; last year it dropped to £203 million; and this year the figure is no more than £156 million. That is a drop of over 50%. We must seriously consider Mr Haughey’s comments because the drop in income is not confined to pig producers. Income from pigs is down 24%; sheep income is down 25%; cattle income is down 12%; and income from broilers is down 8%. However, I am happy to report that potato growers are making some money — but only potato growers.

Dr Paisley referred to debts. I think he said that £40 million was owed to the manufacturers of feeding stuffs. I would add to that the £500 million that is owed to banks and the £80 million that is owed to hire-purchase companies. That shows the seriousness of the matter.

The reasons for the crisis in agriculture have been well documented here, and I do not propose to go over them again. The solutions, of course, are also well known. Some reference has been made to the Ulster Farmers’ Union and the Northern Ireland Agriculture Producers’ Association. Let us take forward the suggestions that have been made in the debate, and fully involve those organisations in solving the problems.

A whopping 62,000 people are employed in agriculture in Northern Ireland on 32,000 farms. The market is valued at £2·28 billion, which is 8% of gross national product. The crisis has implications for the wider community. I do not own a farm, but I live in a rural area and am wise enough to know the effect that this crisis will have if it is not dealt with.

I am involved in rural regeneration programmes vital to the future stability of Northern Ireland. They are part of the peace process, and they could be put in jeopardy if this problem is not dealt with. Members have asked questions about who is getting the profit. We have been told that retailers may be creaming it off, but I do not think so. There is a chain of middlemen which needs to be uncovered.

Sometimes we can look to the Republic of Ireland for inspiration. The Government there recognised the problems that large multinational supermarkets would create and put appropriate controls in place. Only last week, one of the largest, Tesco, announced plans to import huge quantities of potatoes. The Government of the Republic stopped this, so there at least, the potato growers can breathe freely for another while.

There are many difficulties facing the agriculture industry. Some of the solutions are long term; the industry needs reinvestment and financial support. Above all, it needs a level playing field. The Assembly should take on board the excellent and very positive suggestions that have been made here today.

Sometimes I wonder why two thirds of the world is starving, while the other third cannot find a market for its foodstuffs. It leaves me bewildered. In supporting the motion, I also ask that the suggestions that the debate be widened and that the Assembly give its support to the agriculture industry as a whole be taken up immediately.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea DUP

No one can overstate the tragedy that is facing Northern Ireland’s pig farmers. If this matter is not dealt with, where is the pig industry going? Will we have a pig industry after this crisis? I have no problem with the suggestion that we should have a wider debate on agriculture — I know that there are problems in the lamb and sheep sectors of the industry as well, such as BSE and other related matters. But if we wait to consider and debate the full range of problems in the farming industry, there will be no pig farmers in the Province at all — they will all have gone bankrupt. We cannot allow this to be lost in a general debate on agriculture; the present crisis must be dealt with urgently.

Photo of Mr Denis Haughey Mr Denis Haughey Social Democratic and Labour Party

I did not intend to suggest that consideration of urgent action on the pig crisis should be delayed until we have a general debate on the agriculture industry. In the course of my remarks, I called several times for immediate action.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea DUP

I accept that, but I feel it is important to make clear that we are dealing with a very serious crisis. There are people in the province who are about to "go over the top" mentally, who are about to commit suicide because of this situation.

The Government, the European Union and the banks must do something now. This is not something that can be dealt with further down the line. They must do something now to help this industry out of this crisis.

The pig industry problem is not a problem the pig farmers created for themselves. It is true that there is overproduction and a glut of pigs throughout Europe. But in Northern Ireland, at the very time when there was overproduction across Europe, the Government and the Department of Agriculture were aiding another processing factory to expand its kill in the Province.

Let us get the facts absolutely clear. The pig industry was encouraged to increase its production here. The Industrial Development Board encouraged many of the pig farmers to take out bank loans so they could put up bigger houses and increase their production. The farmers are innocent of any part in this crisis and should be helped to face it.

The second part of the problem was the fire at the Agivey processing plant which, tragically, took place at a time when the industry was going through problems across Europe. One night 40% of our kill capacity was wiped out. From that moment on, there was a dramatic change in pig prices. On 20 June, when the fire took place, Northern Ireland pig farmers were being paid about 85p per kilogram, a reasonable payback for their hard work. But from that time onwards there was a decrease in the amount that pig farmers were paid.

After the fire at the Agivey processing plant, there was a total lack of communication between Maltons and the pig farmers facing a processing crisis. Any blame ought to rest with those who should have been consulting and assisting the farmers — many of them faithful Maltons producers. But very few pigs — sometimes no pigs — were removed from their farms despite Maltons promise to take 4,000 pigs across the water each week.

Let us look at the facts. There were weeks when not one pig was sent across the water to England. On most weeks it averaged 2,000 pigs — not the promised 4,000. At the time of the fire the pig price was 85p per kilogram. Then it dropped to 78p, then to 60p, and last week to 50p. What else has happened during this time? A grading system was introduced as another way of lowering the price to the producer. One pig producer averaged 46·3p per kilogram, yet pigs, sent to other factories in the province, fetched 63·52p per kilogram. The difference between what has been paid at Maltons processing plant at Cookstown and what has been paid by other factories in the province is 17·22p. This difference of £12 per pig is a disgrace. While farmers are going bankrupt, someone is making a fat kill. The housewife is not paying less for her bacon, yet the farmers are getting a pittance. They are losing £20 per pig. No farmer can sustain such a loss. The Assembly must identify who is making the profit, and that is why this issue is before us today.

It is interesting that the pig producers in the Irish Republic are paid approximately 10p — £7 per pig — more than the Northern Ireland producers. They are coming from the Irish Republic to the Malton factory in Cookstown and getting £7 per pig more than producers here. Surely there is something wrong with such a situation, even allowing for other fluctuations such as the 2p per kilogram VAT refund. Northern Ireland farmers were getting 50p and under for their pigs while pigs coming from the Irish Republic were worth 59·4p. That surely is wrong at a time of crisis.

The Industrial Development Board is paying money from our Exchequer to ensure that the producers from the Irish Republic get more than the producers in Northern Ireland. In fact 1,000 more pigs were taken in Cookstown from the South of Ireland, thus depressing the market further for pigs produced by Northern Ireland farmers.

To add insult to injury, at the weekend the ‘Mid-Ulster Mail’ and the ‘News Letter’ reported Maltons as saying that it was paying over the odds and that Northern Ireland farmers were getting more for pigs. This came out of a meeting between the Ulster Unionists and Maltons, and the public relations exercise by Maltons was bought hook, line and sinker by someone. Maltons is not paying over the odds. In fact they are undercutting the farmers in my constituency and paying more to those coming from the Irish Republic. I resent that. Also, while farmers here are getting 50p for their pigs, those across the water are getting 70p. This is wrong. We demand equal treatment for our farmers from this company. They should get a just reward for all the hard work that they have put in. It is about time this firm faced the reality that the farmers are having to face.

The Government have done precious little to help the farmers. The French Government in similar circumstances brought in an initial measure for farmers in difficulty and other financial aids, yet our farmers got nothing.

We need to research this issue. The farmer gets a miserable pittance for his pig, the housewife pays exorbitant prices and in between are the processors and the supermarkets. Where is the fat cat? Who is getting the money? It is about time the housewife and the farmer got their share.

Photo of Barry McElduff Barry McElduff Sinn Féin 4:30 pm, 5th October 1998

A Chathaoirligh, Mr Initial Presiding Officer, ba mhaith liom mo thacaíocht a chur in iúl do na feirmeoirí uilig atá faoi bhrú mar gheall ar easpa straitéise ó thaobh na hÚdaráisí, mar a thugtar orthu, agus mar gheall ar dheacrachtaí áirithe a thit amach ar na mallaibh.

I want to support the motion. Aontaím go ginearálta leis an rún atá idir chaibidil againn. I endorse the comments of other Members who have spoken in this debate. All of us have been well lobbied through our daily contacts with farmers in our constituencies and through extensive correspondence from the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers’ Association and the Ulster Farmers’ Union. Farmers are in despair and under tremendous strain. In the past they earned a reputation for complaining, but on this occasion the complaints should be listened to.

The crisis extends across the whole agriculture sector. Cattle and sheep prices have plummeted to record lows, but the pig industry is a special case. The agriculture industry has suffered a succession of body blows and neither the British Government nor the European Union have responded appropriately to the crisis.

Immediate, radical action is needed to arrest the general decline.

There is a tendency towards rural depopulation, a drift from the land. A comprehensive, integrated, rural strategy with agriculture at its core and supported by the EU is needed. That strategy should consider sympathetically the plight of small farmers. It should aim at making small farms viable and try to keep farmers on the land. To make farming viable, it could consider agri-tourism and diversification.

Many farmers are under severe pressure. They wonder whether they have made a wise choice in travelling the road less travelled. Agriculture is obviously one key area where all-Ireland development would be beneficial to everyone, North and South, cross-border, all-island. It suits my party to make that point politically, but it is also common sense. The same could be said of the delivery of the Health Service and on other issues. It is navel-gazing for us to restrict ourselves to the Six Counties in considering the delivery of services or the development of industry. Farmers will not thank us for being myopic in that regard.

Can the relevant agencies increase kill and cure space and slaughter capacity? Is there any scope for the adaptation of meat plants which are presently on low production? My point about all-Ireland development is pertinent when one considers what happened at Ballymoney. Was it not prudent, from a cost-saving perspective alone, to look south for spare slaughter capacity when there was no readily available spare capacity in the Six County state?

We should stop navel-gazing and look towards all-Ireland development of the agricultural economy. Our farmers will thank us for doing that.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important topic, which requires urgent attention. I am conscious of the fact that many of the points that I shall make have already been made, but it does no harm to reinforce them. I am concerned not just about the pig industry, but about agriculture as a whole in Northern Ireland. That is because I come from the largely rural constituency of Newry and Armagh. Many of my constituents who are involved in agriculture as a whole, and specifically in pigs, are near the bottom line in terms of livelihoods and in terms of their own lives. We are aware of the worries that they and their families share. It is crucial that the Assembly give urgent attention to their plight. The state of the agricultural economy gives rise to grave concern. Everyone in Northern Ireland ought to be concerned about that because what affects the farmer affects everybody, although I am not sure whether everybody realises that at this time.

The reasons for the crisis have been outlined. The current economic situation has been managed, or perhaps mismanaged, by the Government in terms of high interest rates and so on. There is overproduction of pigs in other European Union member states, and there is no sign of that lessening.

As a result of other crises within agriculture, particularly beef, many farmers went into pigs to try to survive. Unfortunately, they are now in even more dire straits as a consequence. There was the unfortunate fire at the Lovell & Christmas factory and the closure a couple of years ago of the local Ulster Farmers’ Bacon Company plant at Newry in my own constituency.

Many of us warned then that it would have dire consequences, resulting not only in the loss of jobs, but in the availability of the local plant that was working well. The plant had worked for over 25 years and, with the exception of one year, had never lost money. Yet it was closed without rhyme or reason. We also had the closure of the plant at Enniskillen. So the unfortunate fire at Lovell & Christmas compounded the crisis that we found ourselves in.

I have grave concerns about the agriculture policy of the present Labour Government. They have proved that they are no friend of the farmer or of agriculture. I am concerned that this will continue, as there is no sign of any improvement.

We have had a beef crisis; we have had a poultry crisis; and every now and again we get a mad scientist who publicly warns us of another new crisis — potentially in sheep. I wish that Government spokesmen, even if they are academics and scientists, would act sensibly and speak carefully so as not to raise consumers’ fears when no real fear exists.

I welcome the limited scheme that was put in place after a lot of toing and froing by the Government, even though it is clearly insufficient to deal with the overall problem. Therefore, I endorse the calls on the Government to bring forward a new more equitable scheme urgently that will address the needs of local pig producers. Other European countries can deal effectively with crises in agriculture and bring forward proper schemes to give real assistance to their people.

I wish that our Government, Her Majesty’s Government, would initiate the same arrangements. There is mounting concern that pigs are dying and leaving the farmers in debt to the tune of over £20 per animal, yet there is no decrease in costs to the consumers. We urgently need to find out who is making the money, where it is going and the reasons for that.

We need to address all these issues urgently, and I look forward to the Assembly’s playing its part in that. Many in the agriculture industry will be looking to see what leadership the Assembly can give and how it acts on behalf of the industry and in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Mr Eamonn ONeill Mr Eamonn ONeill Social Democratic and Labour Party

I support this vital motion. When a topic has been well aired by other Members, one wonders if anything more can be said. One issue that does need to be addressed is the role of the Department of Agriculture, our local Department in all of this, referred to by Dr Paisley as the people down the road in the same campus as ourselves.

It worries me to think that the large number of civil servants, on secure, handsome salaries, have not been able, in spite of all their endeavours, to provide crisis plans for an industry that has already had a considerable number of crises.

What is wrong with having a crisis plan so that European Union funds can be accessed quickly when an industry is affected? Why can imaginative ideas not be introduced to prevent the worst kinds of suffering?

There is a very serious crisis in the sheep industry and, as a representative for South Down and the Mourne sheep farmers, it is incumbent on me to comment on it. This crisis is rapidly becoming as serious as that in the pig industry. I am calling for action — sheep farmers need an emergency deal now.

Mr Kennedy referred to the Government’s misinformation about BSE in the sheep industry. Consequently there is alarm in that industry. There is almost the development of a food-scare cult, and some people think it is fashionable to make alarmist statements without realising their disastrous consequences.

The Department of Agriculture could develop a proactive plan — for example, a very practical measure would be the early payment of the sheep annual premium. Indeed, moneys that are currently outstanding should be paid over now.

The Assembly’s Agriculture Committee and the cross-border committees will have to scrutinise the Department’s lack of imagination. Plans will have to be scrutinised so that they can deal with tragedies such as that faced by the sheep industry.

Hill farmers are also alarmed that Agenda 2000 proposals may lead to the Hill Livestock Compensatory Allowance being removed. Again, the Department needs to provide clarification and assure farmers that that will not be the case.

An average small farmer in my area may have only 100 ewes and 10 cows from which he receives an income of £675 and £1600 respectively — a total income of only £2275 for a marginal hill farmer. There would be disastrous consequences were that allowance to be removed, considering all the other things that farmers have had to suffer in recent times.

I support the motion.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party 4:45 pm, 5th October 1998

We have had a good debate.

There is a reason why we have highlighted the crisis in the pig industry, although I am fully aware, as is every informed Member, that there is a crisis right across the board in agriculture.

There have been times in the Province when individual sectors of agriculture have been under intense pressure. The whole of agriculture is under intense pressure but the most intense pressure, at the moment, is on the pig industry. We have heard in this debate, and rightly so, that there are worldwide pressures. There is a strong pound. We will not be able to do anything about that in time to save the pig industry. These are the facts. The Prime Minister is saying that he is keeping the pound strong, and the Chancellor is backing him up, yet this policy is utter folly — it will destroy the economy and especially the manufacturing industry. But that is the policy and if we wait for a change of heart, we will have no pig industry. That is the sad fact that we have to face. Of course, there are ramifications from Russia and Europe. But if we wait until they are solved, we will not have a pig industry. We need immediate and effective action.

I have my qualms about Europe as everybody knows. But we are in Europe, and Europe controls agriculture. Have we never heard of the Common Agricultural Policy? The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food does not make decisions; down the road does not make the decisions — the decisions are made in Brussels. Let us remember that.

If we are going to do anything by way of an Agriculture Committee or an inquiry, we need to go to Brussels to put the pressure on. If we are going across the water, let us go to the Prime Minister. He seems to have little bags of money here and there, and when he gets into difficulty, he throws a few million out.

There is no use in going to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food — the hardest and cruellest civil servants ever brought out of the womb of the Civil service sit in that Ministry, and I do not know whether the good Lord can convert them to a reasonable point of view, though, of course, I believe in the majesty and sovereignty of grace, being a Presbyterian. However, we must take this matter to the Prime Minister and to Europe as soon as possible, because every day men are facing ruin.

A beef producer whom I know now owes £45,000, and he is terrified. He never owed money like that in his life. Another producer in the pig industry owes £25,000 as a result of the last three months. These men cannot live with this. It is terrifying because they always had a viable industry and a cash flow. There is no cash flow now, so some things need to be done immediately and pressure must be exerted to ease the financial worries of farmers.

I believe that this can be done in two ways. One way is to give money direct to the pig producers. There is no use in giving money to the factories. There is no use in giving money to the meal men. We need to alleviate and lift the strain. We must bring hope amidst despair; we must work; we must make demands because if we do not, there will not be a viable pig industry remaining. If the pig industry goes, more parts of farming will be sacrificed. If we allow the British Government or any power to let the pig sector of agriculture disappear, all sectors will be destroyed. We need to go to the authorities and put pressure on them.

We must also talk to the bankers — and I would like the Assembly to do the talking. The bankers were very good at going around the farmers, encouraging them and saying "You know you should do this, that and the other thing — there is money here for you."

The evil day comes when the bank manager sends for you. We have all had the experience. He looks over his glasses and says, "Your credit is too much — you must reduce it each month". The man has no way of reducing it. He is at wit’s end corner. We need to make immediate decisions on those two levels because financial pressure will kill the industry.

This is a serious business and many factors are involved. Some of the pig merchants have been in the industry for generations and they are broken-hearted. At breakfast time there is a shadow over them and at teatime the shadow is still there. We must think of them. If this part of agriculture is torn out of our country where will those people find employment? Where will the pig men and their families go? They will be for ever unemployed.

We can make progress. It will not be easy because the Government always say, "You want more money". We do want money. We want money to bail out this industry and to keep it going. Slaughtering must be speeded up by those who have got money from the Government to keep the industry going. I have a good personal relationship with the management of Maltons, but I am greatly disappointed by what has happened, and I am making representations direct to the company. We must have action. Some of the people who are suffering were good Malton customers. They were not Wilson customers, and they are feeling the burden and heat of the day. We must push them for action.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Is the Member aware that the supermarkets are marking up pork cuts by as much as 900% and that promotions have been running on imported pork which has not been adequately labelled? Does he agree that if the multinational supermarkets will not back our industry properly, we should not support their major planning applications?

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

I agree with my Friend 100%. He asked a strong question at the seminar I attended a few days ago. He said, "Show me the bankers, the producers and the feed men who have gone bust. You cannot show them, but I will show you the farmers who are going bust every day." He was not liked for that, and I understand that his invitation to a great dinner was withdrawn. So he did not feast at that table.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion because of the procedural difficulty. I do so reluctantly, but that is the way it has to be.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.