I take the Member’s point entirely; he is right. However, I do not wish to overlay the discussion of this extremely serious matter with a political distraction which we will have to settle at another time and in another way. There are urgent issues facing us as a community —issues which need to be addressed in a structured way — and the sooner we get on with doing that the better.
I accept that the pig industry is a special and an extremely urgent case. There is a crisis — not just here but all over Europe. There is a glut of pigmeat in the European Union, but I will not go into how that came to be now.
A glut of pig meat means a serious problem for pig-meat producers because prices fall. That, in turn, is exacerbated by the current absurdly high value of sterling which makes it extremely difficult to clear that glut of pig meat by exporting it outside the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. That crisis, exacerbated by the sterling problem, has been turned into a disaster for the pig industry following the fire at Agivey. The situation is urgent, and special measures are needed to deal with it.
I have pointed out to the Minister and to others responsible that agri-monetary compensation is available from the European Union at the request of the relevant Minister. That funding could be used to alleviate the crisis facing the pig industry, but it has not been requested. And the reason it has not been requested is the operation of the so-called Fontainebleau Agreement — a mechanism under which the former Prime Minister, Madam Thatcher, secured a rebate on the United Kingdom’s net input into the European budget.
I disagree with Dr Paisley on one matter. The United Kingdom’s so-called net input into the European Union does not come out of British taxpayers’ pockets. It comes about by virtue of the fact that the United Kingdom, unlike other European Union member states, continues to convert a disproportionate element of its trade outside the European Union, therefore the Customs and Excise duties collected on goods coming into the United Kingdom — many of them in transit to other European Union member states — go into the European Union budget as its own resources. So when Madam Thatcher thumped the table and demanded the return of her money, it was not her money and it was not coming out of European taxpayers’ pockets.
Agro-monetary compensation is available, but the British Government have not asked for it, because under the Fontainebleau Agreement, it would not make financial sense to do so. But it makes good financial sense and this is a matter that the Assembly should press with the British Government and with the Secretary of State for Agriculture.
We need to concentrate on the immediate need to increase the slaughter capacity available. Dr Paisley referred to a suggestion that I made in a previous meeting that there was spare slaughter capacity available just south of the Border. I have been in touch with the proprietor of the plant in question, and he is prepared to talk to Maltons, and I have also been in touch with Maltons to urge them to have discussions with him. I hope that they have already contacted each other and that there may be action on that front.
I have also been in touch with the Department of Agriculture in Kildare Street, and I have discovered that the plant in question was inspected recently and was passed for immediate production, so all that is required is a business understanding between Maltons and the proprietor. I intend to continue to pursue that matter.
If there is not an increase in slaughter capacity within a couple of weeks, as Dr Paisley has correctly said, there will be an unmanageable amount of pig meat on farms with the consequent pressure on farmers. That must be cleared because, for three to four months, it will not be possible for Maltons to expand slaughter capacity at the Cookstown plant that it has taken over. One obvious way to provide for that three- to four-month period would be for Maltons to take a short-term lease on the plant that is available just south of the border. That would meet the immediate need.
The European Union has a duty to address the crisis in the pig industry throughout Europe. It is not good enough for Commissioner Fischler to say that the problems must be resolved by market forces. As other Members have said, if market forces are allowed to reign, there will be bankruptcies by the hundred. Our pig-meat industry will collapse. Not bringing production into balance with consumption, but rather losing capacity, will almost certainly mean a shortfall in pig-meat production in the foreseeable future, with consequent imports from outside the European Union. We cannot and should not contemplate such a future.
Pig-meat production has to be reduced rationally in a way that preserves our capacity to provide the quantity that we need. I have written to Commissioner Fischler within the last few weeks with a proposal along those lines. However, I understand that the Commission is not willing to commit huge sums to support the pig industry because that might lead to difficulties with other product sectors. Pig-meat production can be managed downwards by the imposition of weight limits at slaughter and by quotas; that will not require huge sums. I have written to the Commissioner urging him to adopt those suggestions, but I have had no reply.
I respect what was said at the start of the debate, that we need at least one full day to debate the crisis in agriculture. We need to be able to take evidence from the relevant bodies to equip a delegation to meet the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to impress upon him the seriousness of the crisis in agriculture in Northern Ireland and the consequences for our whole economy.