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.