Pig Industry

Part of the debate – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:45 pm on 5th October 1998.

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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.