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.