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.