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.