There has been substantial interest in the motion that is coming up and substantial interest in speaking in the debate. I already have a long list, and I expect that it will get longer. I therefore see little option other than to make the same arrangements as were made for yesterday’s debate — to give the mover, Dr Paisley, 10 minutes to open and five minutes for his winding-up speech, the Minister 10 minutes to respond prior to the winding-up, and five minutes for all other Members taking part. This will ensure that as many Members as possible will have the opportunity to contribute. I seek the leave of the Assembly to proceed in this fashion.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This motion has the backing of the whole Committee, and I would have liked more time to introduce it. However, I appreciate that there is widespread interest among Members and that they have constituency interests. In the interests of the Committee, I am content — not happy — to accept the 10 minutes, with the further five minutes at the end.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have no problem with the spirit of the motion; in fact, I will be supporting it wholeheartedly. However, I have some difficulty in understanding the intention of the expression in line three. Is it singular or plural? Students of the classics will know that the word "crisis" comes from a Greek root. If, therefore, the intention is plural the spelling should be "crises". However, if the intention is singular the syntax is defective in that the indefinite article has been omitted — it should read "a serious crisis". For the sake of accuracy, I ask that the motion be corrected.
I am grateful to the Member for drawing that to my attention and for giving me notice of it, which enabled me to check the original submitted by Dr Paisley. It said "a serious crisis". There was an administrative typographical error, and we take full responsibility for that. When we reach the vote I will remind Members that the motion should read "a serious crisis". I hope that that clarifies the matter.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek direction. I was one of the Members who had questions down for oral answer by the Health Minister yesterday. Questions finished, I think, at No 3, and mine was No 7. I went up to my pigeon-hole immediately after the debate, but there was no answer there. Nor is there an answer in Hansard. When may I expect to receive an answer?
Order. That is not a point of order for the House; it is an administrative matter in respect of the Executive. However, I will certainly explore the matter and try to get an answer for the Member.
I beg to move the following motion:
This House contends that the cuts in farm incomes, the market pressure on each sector of agriculture and the lawlessness of the French Government constitute a serious crisis in the Northern Ireland agriculture industry and calls on the Northern Ireland Executive to recognise this and take emergency measures to save the industry.
The agriculture industry is facing a very serious crisis, perhaps even a catastrophe, and I am not happy with the way in which the Department of Agriculture is handling this matter. Many of my friends in the farming community feel that the Department is acting against them and not for them. My views are known both to the Committee and to the Minister. The Minister should release herself from the trammels of her Department, take it by the neck and make it reverse the policies that have led to the ruination of the farming community.
This is not the time for a velvet tongue or soft words. Farming is the largest industry in Northern Ireland. It employs more people than any other industry, and it is dying. It is not a matter of it’s being on a life-support machine; the undertaker is waiting to measure the corpse and bury it. The Minister and her Department must now change their attitude towards this crisis. I have not found evidence of any change of mind in the Department — and I say that with regret, for I have a good relationship with the Department’s officials, but they just do not realise how serious this crisis is.
Recently I, along with some other Members, met bankers and meat processors. I asked the bankers how many of them were going bankrupt, but it seems that their incomes are tremendous. I also asked the meat processors if any of them were going bankrupt or preparing to commit suicide. They all laughed and said "Not at all. " I informed them that in the farming community, and especially in the pig industry, some farmers had already committed suicide. Many of the farmers are going bankrupt, and homes where their families have lived for generations are being sold over their heads.
Some of us are criticised when we stand up for the farmers. We are told that we are not interested in the consumers. The housewives of Northern Ireland have had no benefit. Indeed, they now pay more for their cuts of meat.
Agriculture is sick unto death, and we must do something to change this urgent situation.
I am not happy about what the Prime Minister is going to say to farmers today. By standing among them and telling them to diversify what he is really saying is "There is no room for you in the farming community; go and do something else." And he is saying this without any offer of compensation and without any possibility of the farmers’ being able to diversify. A farmer might diversify if he could get planning permission, but all constituency workers know how hard this is to obtain. It is difficult for them to get planning permission to build on the farms where their families may have lived for 300 years. All that the Prime Minister can say is "Diversify."
Something radical needs to be done. Those who support the farming cause have been blamed for being very strong in diagnosis and very weak in prescription, but there are things that could and ought to be done. First, we need a new entrants’ scheme to preserve the industry. There must be a future for farming. The Minister and her Department must now give an encouraging signal to new entrants. They must have some way of getting into farming. We must relax building control; we need a new special rural benefits structure; we need to initiate an agri-compensation scheme; we need to assist the Farmers’ Union and others in their battle to get low —- incidence BSE status; and we need a special injection of cash for pig projects. These are things that must be done.
Along with others who are interested, I have gone, cap in hand, to the Department and to successive Ministers. The Minister has, of course, inherited this situation — she is not responsible, and we are not blaming her for something she did not do. Nevertheless, we will blame her if she does not do something about it.
We have always been told that this cannot be done. I have been involved in Europe for 20 years, and, without wishing to boast, I have some little experience of the European scene. If we were to exploit Europe in the way the Irish Republic does, the farming community would be far better off. We need to realise that there is, at present, money in Europe that we should be getting. DANI tells us that we cannot do this — of course, it is no longer called "DANI", but I am a Puritan still living in the Dark Ages. We no longer want to listen to their saying that we cannot do it.
The Southern Government did it, and to say that the compensation scheme under which pigs were bought is the same as this is nonsense. The two schemes are entirely different; it is wrong to try to tell farmers that they are one and the same scheme and say to them "You have already got your money". It is wrong to say that we cannot go with a scheme like the one in operation in the Irish Republic. We have to get something for the farmers, and we have to save our pig industry.
I put this question to the Minister: "Do you want there to be no pig industry in Northern Ireland?" Half of it has almost gone, and, in a few weeks, half of the remaining half will be gone. That is how serious the situation is. This is an emergency, and in an emergency, one does not do ordinary things, one does extraordinary things. Something extraordinary has to be done to help the farming community. Every effort must be made to save this industry.
Farmers are the custodians of our soil. I detest the environmentalist lobby who tell us that the farmers can leave and that they will look after the countryside. That is ridiculous nonsense. These environmentalists who say "We have a right to walk everywhere; we have a right to do this and a right to do that." are not thinking of the best interests of the custodians of the soil who, for generations, have kept this country going and ought to be honoured today. We should be determined, come what may, to do our level best to see that something is done.
The farmers that have come here today are not looking for nice words — they are looking for actions. This case can be easily made; we do not need to dwell on all of its complications or ramifications. Out there are decent people from both sides of the community who have invested their labour and their talents in order to help this country and keep it going, and they must be repaid. The talent in this Assembly, the talent in the Department, the talent of the Minister and the talent of our Committee must join forces. Let the message go out from this House that we are determined to save the farmers and to do the extraordinary if that is what is needed — and it is.
The latest figures from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development indicate that income from our agriculture industry fell by 22% between 1998 and 1999. It went down from £91 million to £70 million within one year. The total income from farming has fallen by 79% in five years, with the knock-on effect of hundreds of millions of pounds being lost to our economy.
Northern Ireland is a very small country, and we cannot afford to continue with this level of economic decline in an agriculture industry that has a workforce of approximately 85,000 people. I applaud the efforts that have been made by the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) to present reasonable policies to rescue an industry which has been drastically affected by a series of crises in the last few years.
Most recently, the French Government have chosen to become a law unto themselves by refusing to lift the ban on beef exports. Why should Ulster producers have to suffer because the French make a unilateral decision to ignore EU rules? Local producers have done everything required of them by the regulations. While the UK pursues the law-breaking French through the courts, it is not unreasonable to expect the UK Exchequer to aid local producers who are suffering as a consequence of France’s selfish and illegal actions.
I also support the UFU’s efforts to secure the release of the £50 million to £60 million of agri-money compensation which is available to us through EU-funding. Part of this funding is to protect common agricultural policy (CAP) area aid and livestock payments from the impact of the gap between sterling and the Euro. Another part is to offset the damage done to all farm commodities by the current strength of sterling. In both cases the release of the compensation funds depends on specific commitments and actions by the UK Government, and these have not been forthcoming.
I urge the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to lobby her Westminster and EU counterparts on our behalf. This is not a demand for extra money. It is a demand for compensation which is already available and budgeted for. I ask the Minister to support the UFU’s campaign to gain low-incidence status for Northern Ireland in respect of BSE and to secure the implementation of exceptional measures such as a one-off rescue package for the local pig industry, similar to that which has recently been concluded by the EU and the Irish Government. It is essential that we establish and promote a province-wide "Buy Ulster" campaign.
Opinion polls conducted last year by a local consumer affairs organisation presented evidence which showed that two thirds of the population would buy local produce if it were available and reasonably priced. Almost half of those surveyed also said that they would be willing to pay a little extra for good quality local produce. However, the national supermarket chains which have moved in to Northern Ireland in the last few years either refuse to source from the local market or do so for a farmgate price, which is economically non-viable for the local producer. This is absurd and unjustifiable. The supermarkets could actually help the local producers and the local economy by raising the farmgate prices while freezing the retail prices. That might decrease their profits in the short term, but in the long term it would stimulate the local economy, please the consumer and contribute to larger profits at a later date.
The agriculture situation in Northern Ireland is more difficult than in other parts of the United Kingdom, not least because of the increased competition from across our land border with the Republic of Ireland.
I anticipated the comments made by other Members in their opening remarks, so I will try not to repeat them. Since joining the Agriculture Committee I have found a great willingness on the part of the Chairman and members to address the plight of the farming industry. I am pleased to put on record that I pay tribute to the sincerity of all members of the Committee.
I wish to pay tribute to our Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development for her prompt actions and efforts to address the multitude of problems that faced her when she took office. In less than two months she has put a tremendous effort into tackling the ever-increasing problems of the farmers of Northern Ireland.
Ms Rodgers has taken up the problems of our fishermen. She has sought to have the aids to private storage scheme reopened and increased export refunds put in place on behalf of our pig farmers. These issues are of the utmost importance and must be worked at until a satisfactory outcome is achieved. Unfortunately, time is not on anyone’s side.
I wish to compliment the Minister on her decision, which Mr Savage referred to, to seek special status for Northern Ireland in respect of BSE. The fact that we had only six recorded cases of BSE last year is surely a plus factor in her negotiations.
If a start could be made on exporting our calves that would lay the foundation for further improvement. In a short time the number of calves would reduce, thereby reducing the number of cattle being finished on farms. There would be better factory prices owing to the reduced availability of beef cattle.
This weekend I spoke with one major livestock expert who advised me that if the ban on live exports were lifted, he could be in business again within 24 hours, exporting calves to Spain and Holland. We are as close as that. However, any resolution must start with the British Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Nick Brown. In two recently published statements Mr Brown praised the efforts of Minister Rodgers when she made strong pleas to him for special BSE status for Northern Ireland. When Mr Brown puts our case to Europe I am confident that Ms Rodgers, together with my party leader, John Hume, whose record in Europe goes without saying, and the other MEPs will be able to accumulate sufficient support in Brussels for the concessions being sought. In respect of the future of farmers in Northern Ireland, the ball is firmly back in Nick Brown’s court.
It is fully recognised that many of the problems in agriculture are a result of a lack of interest on the part of the British Government. Their level of interest is on a par with the size of the Northern Ireland agricultural economy within the overall finances of the British Government. That is not good enough when thousands of our farmers are faced with financial ruin.
I wish to make a special plea to those Members — many of whom are not in the Chamber this morning — who perhaps have no great interest in our farming community but have set their sights on bringing down the Assembly. It is my view that whatever chance of survival our agriculture industry has will be achieved only through the combined efforts of the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Committee and the Assembly. I do not believe that Nick Brown in London or the British Administration in Brussels will thank or support us if we fly in the face of the Government’s wishes regarding devolution. I ask everyone to think seriously about our position. I believe that if the Assembly fails, the farming industry will come down with it.
We are the only hope, the only friends and the only lifeline our farmers have. We must not fail them in their hour of need. We also have to get our priorities right. Northern Ireland farmers and rural dwellers will be here at noon today seeking whatever help the Assembly can give. To bring the Assembly down, or even to attempt to bring it down, would be the equivalent of closing doors in the face of the farming community. I am confident that the sentiments outlined in the motion will receive the full approval of the House.
Thank you, a Chathaoirligh. I want to address the issue of the agriculture crisis. The difficulty is that I have too short a time for my speech. We face a crisis, and I commend the farmers who are protesting.
There was a protest here by the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers’ Association (NIAPA) about two years ago. That too was at a time of imminent crisis when prices were just as bad as they are now. Farmers should have put their foot down then and voiced their concern to the Government.
I hope it is not a case of bolting the stable door when the horse has gone.
There is a desperate situation in the rural and farming communities. Much debt has built up, and there is no respite in terms of a renewed price rise or help from the Government, or anyone else. There are a number of reasons for the crisis such as the difference between sterling and the Euro and the backlog of the BSE crisis which still affects us. There is also the question of exploitation. Since 1974 and beyond farmers have been exploited and are still being exploited. The UK Government exploited them for cheap food and their only respite was in time of war. They are currently being exploited by retailers, processors and everyone beyond the farm gate, and those people are making exorbitant profits at their expense.
The figures that we received yesterday show that farm incomes have hit rock-bottom because of low prices and unfairness. The Ulster Farmers’ Union states that only £1 in every £30 on the business, processing and farming side goes to the farmer. The average beef carcass is worth £400 to the farmer, but it will cost the consumer £1,200, so the consumer is not winning as a result of low farm prices. Some people claim that the consumer can gain from this situation, but neither the consumer nor the farmer is gaining. Someone else is gaining in a big way.
All the extras on the processing side such as £5 here and there were all traditionally passed back to the farmer as if he had a bottomless pit. Those industries should take their share of costs when the farmer puts his produce through their doors.
Why are we at this point? We are told about the problems of the BSE backlog. We talk about BSE being history, but we never had a high incidence of BSE in the North, and we do not have it now. We hardly register on the bottom of the graph whereas in Britain, the incidence of BSE goes through the top of the graph. It will be difficult to achieve BSE status here because of the fact that the regulations have become more stringent. We will never get over that barrier. As long as we are tied to the situation in Britain we are hanged in terms of getting out of the BSE dispute with Europe.
We were told by the Department of Agriculture that the changes in the regulations in respect of tags that were imposed on farmers would get us back in to the European market. We could not implement those changes, so the objective was unachievable. The Department agreed to regulations that are now crippling farmers and preventing them from getting to the markets.
That is not a point of order. The situation is made absolutely clear on the Order Paper. The debate is from 10.30 am until to 12.30 pm. What happens outside the Chamber is not my business, and I certainly cannot rule on it.
I am glad to support this motion and to add to the large measure of agreement. I see that some DUP Members welcome the fact that I agree with them occasionally.
They might have referred to the fact that the UK Government must take action as well as our own Executive. The information we received on incomes clearly shows the extent of the crisis that still exists in the UK. It has bottomed out in England, Wales and Scotland but is continuing to get worse in Northern Ireland. It is a disaster and is something which quite clearly needs particular attention here. However, that will be partly dependent on what Nick Brown does in Whitehall.
I can understand why farmers question whether those in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development — either the Minister or her officials — know what is going on. According to the statement issued by the Department yesterday, a large measure of the drop in income is attributable to the rise in input costs. Unfavourable weather conditions resulted in an increase in the amount of feedstuffs and fertilisers purchased. I do not claim to be an expert in this sector, but I find it difficult to see how bad weather could have affected pig meat production which is down 13%, poultry production, which is down 6%, or egg production which is down 10%. I wish that the Department would stop covering up for what is going on in Whitehall and start arguing the case for farmers here.
Various measures are being proposed, and they may be of some benefit. Some people can diversify — but only some. The farmers’ market initiative may help a few people — but only a few. Some of the major schemes which are supposed to benefit all farmers in Northern Ireland are not producing the goods. Dr Paisley was critical of the environmentalist lobby. I would be less so. There may be occasion when farmers will have to accept the fact that money which comes from agri-environment schemes may be the best way of maintaining incomes.
Let us look at agri-environment schemes — for instance, the new rural development regulation. An excellent briefing paper from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and two farm unions points out that this year, farmers are losing £3·9 million because of existing baselines and because the Department’s budget has not kept up with its commitments. Next year we will see some of the modulated European money coming through. Of the £7·7 million which ought to be going to farms, £5·7 million is being creamed off — and I have heard people use worse words than that — in Dundonald House, and only £2·0 million (25%) is going where it was designed to go. That is barely a quarter of the money which should be going to farmers for essential agri-environment schemes to benefit the environment and farm incomes. If that is a measure of the Department’s, complacency we need answers from the Minister quickly.
I welcome the fact that the Minister has talked about having meetings with the other UK Agriculture Ministers. That is one benefit of devolution. We can ensure that the interests we share with the Scots and Welsh are made known to Nick Brown so that he is aware that the UK fringes are heavily dependent on livestock and are subject to difficult conditions with regard to export markets.
We also need to make sure that Nick Brown is told that no other country of the UK shares a land frontier with "Euroland", with all the difficulties that that creates in terms of our economy compared to the Scots and the Welsh — whatever they are suffering. I was invited to visit some farms in mid-Wales last year, and, superficially, the similarities with the Sperrins or the Mournes are quite clear. Their farmers are certainly suffering as well. However, taking into account the issue of cross-border trade — or the lack of it — it is clear how much more suffering there is in Northern Ireland and how much greater the need for our Minister to make this clear to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
There is a major threat to our society. It is ludicrous to suggest that the future of rural areas in places like south Antrim or north Down is as a sort of commuter bungalow land, or in areas like the Mournes or Sperrins or the Fermanagh Lakes is as a weekend bungalow land. The only way we will maintain a viable society in rural areas is to maintain viable farms as the basis of those societies. Without those farms the businesses, the schools, the shops and the post offices will go, and we will be left with completely dead wasteland. That is the crisis we face unless the Minister takes action.
Farming is the largest industry in Northern Ireland. It accounts for 10% of employment and 8% of gross domestic product. The industry is in a serious crisis — total farm income fell by 22% last year, and over a five-year period the fall has been 80%. Together with the fall in income, the agriculture sector owes the banks approximately £520 million — a veritable debt mountain. Over the last five years approximately £600 million has been taken out of the local economy, and there has been an exodus from farming. Only about 7% of those currently involved in agriculture are under 35 years of age.
The BSE crisis has virtually closed off our export markets, and the control measures, whatever their merits, introduced by the Government have imposed considerable costs on agriculture. An overwhelming case can be made for giving Northern Ireland special treatment in respect of both exports and compensation to make up for the costs incurred as a result of the control measures. Statistics show that for 1999 the incidence of BSE per million head of adult cattle in Northern Ireland was 14·2; in the Republic it was 22; and in Great Britain it was 513. This shows that Northern Ireland has had the lowest incidence of BSE and should be given low incidence-BSE status for export purposes.
I recognise the difficulties faced by the Minister. As a region in the UK, Northern Ireland does not have that status already because of the agriculture politics in the rest of the UK. We then have the greater problem of the politics in the EU which are putting the French in the position of trying to keep a total export ban on British beef.
Another cause of the crisis is the weakness of the Euro. Our export prices are becoming uncompetitive, and the import prices are making it difficult for us to compete in our home market. All of this means that farm income in Northern Ireland is at an historically low level. One immediate source of alleviation would be the agri-monetary compensation package for the year 2000, which is approximately £450 million. Twenty per cent — about £88 million — has been used, so there is £360 million left for the rest or the year for the UK as a whole. As I understand it, that would give about £50 million to agriculture in Northern Ireland.
The farming community will have to take immediate steps to strengthen its position in the market with the supermarkets and food processors. It should not rely on the Government. An industry that relies on the Government has written the recipe for its own destruction.
The action taken by the Executive to date —rather, the inaction — demonstrates a total absence of any coherent policy or strategy to deal with this situation. Two weeks ago the First Minister announced that he had put a proposal for a £100 million aid package for agriculture to the Prime Minister.
I support the motion. The House should realise the implications of the crisis in farming for the Province’s economy as a whole. Falling farm incomes are jeopardising the sustainability of farming, the countryside and the rural economy, and this inevitably will have Province-wide repercussions.
By way of introduction, and to illustrate the severity of the situation, let me give an example. Dairy farming was for many years thought to be the best of farming enterprises, but the agriculture industry has reached such a crisis point that many dairy farmers, despite having 100 cows, are struggling to stay in business, and a lot of them are depending on family credit to put food on the table.
Make no mistake: the writing is on the wall for many farming families unless they are given a fair deal. Serious difficulties in the agricultural sector and in the rural economy have largely been the result of forces beyond their control. For example, agricultural fuel prices have almost doubled in the last year. Furthermore, the exchange rate — particularly the strength of sterling — affects the farming community in a way which cannot and should not be underestimated.
The House should be mindful that since agriculture support measures and direct payments are in Euros, changes in sterling are applied almost immediately. Therefore both domestic and export prices are seriously affected by the strength of the pound sterling in the exchange rate. This is especially the case since a sizeable percentage of agricultural income is generated by exportation into Europe, and, consequently, the stronger the pound sterling, the less competitive are British products.
This, along with the BSE crisis, has meant that farmers find themselves in a great deal of debt with no conceivable means of repayment. Animals with little or no value will invariably become a liability, and so the farmers’ financial situation continues in a downward spiral. This has led, as was mentioned earlier, to desperation and a sense of hopelessness which has driven many farmers to suicide.
That is not to say that there has not been help. Much emphasis has recently been put on rural development through locally forged partnerships which are EU-funded. In short, this is not enough. Although some farmers at local level have benefited from receiving funding for innovative ideas, this type of initiative will not be sufficient to sustain and retain the majority of those who live in rural areas.
It is all very well to praise rural dwellers and tell them that they are the custodians of the countryside, but mainstream farming should be profitable and maintained at a level where re-investment is possible.
British farmers are in a more difficult position than workers in any other sector in the United Kingdom, and the British Government have failed to compensate the agriculture industry during the last four years. The United Kingdom was notably the only member state of the European Union not to do so. The Labour Party manifesto in the last general election supported radical reform, but it has not delivered. The British Minister for Agriculture, Nick Brown, said that compensation to help farmers over the changes would be generous, but he has broken his word. Broken promises appear to be the only consistent factor in the new Labour Party policy.
As has been mentioned, there has been speculation that the Prime Minister will inform representatives of the National Farmers’ Union that no financial help will be made available to farmers to see them through the present crisis. Furthermore, he thinks that they ought to diversify and seek alternative sources of income aside from the money required to speculate to accumulate. Were 533,000 farmers to diversify, a crisis would be created in more sectors than one. The Agriculture Committee has encouraged the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to do all in her power to rectify this by lobbying in London.
I urge the Assembly to support the Minister, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the National Farmers’ Union to work together to ensure that the full agri-money compensation which is due to the farming community and which was established to protect all European farmers is paid. I support the motion.
We have heard and will continue to hear more and more statistics. These add to the gloom and difficulty being experienced by the agricultural economy that seems to be under attack from every quarter. There are difficulties that come from Europe; there is the inability of a British, so-called Labour Government to move away from the advocated laissez-faire economic culture; and there is the apathy which exists among the Northern Ireland public.
We have seen the problems caused by companies who import every single item for their shops — not just a large percentage of their goods but every single item. I have been told that such a company has set up in Dungannon in spite of there being a hinterland full of suffering farmers. It does not matter whether they be sheep, pig, dairy or beef farmers, they are all trying to work the land and are struggling in economic difficulty.
What about helping ourselves? In the negotiations we had an opportunity to think about helping ourselves, yet we denied ourselves the ability to have tax-varying or tax-raising powers. This means that we now have the begging bowl out once again. We are holding out the begging bowl to Westminster and to Europe. Frankly, however, we are not doing very well because the laissez-faire economic culture is stronger in the hallowed halls of Westminster than any argument that we have yet made. And unless we are going to kick doors in at Westminster —
Does the Member accept that by revaluing the green pound we would not need to go anywhere with the begging bowl? That would help farmers in the UK at no cost to local taxpayers, although there would be a cost to the European Community but taking such action would bring funds to our farmers which all other farmers are getting.
I do not disagree with the Member at all, but we need to look at the position we are in. The reason all these people are in the Galleries is that they hope that we can help them by delivering something better than what they currently have. Long-term ideas are all right, but if people are leaving the land and contemplating suicide, as we heard earlier, if difficulties and incomes are as bad as all that, we need to act now.
I come from an urban background, and the perception is that I have no concept of the difficulties of the agricultural community. We live in a country that is 90 miles long and 90 miles wide, and its economy affects all of us. For that reason I say that the situation is intolerable. If people working on a factory floor were bringing home what those in agriculture are bringing home, there would be an outcry. No one — but no one — would tolerate it, yet not only do we tolerate it, but we go to the shops and purchase goods which are putting our people out of business. We should demand that shopkeepers stock at least a certain percentage of goods produced in Northern Ireland. It is all very well to say nice words, but we need to do something.
First Ministers and Deputy First Ministers are afraid to agitate because of European attitudes to free enterprise and open borders. However, it is perfectly reasonable for a trade union or a farmers’ union to agitate and to continue to agitate until the people of Northern Ireland know that until we can kick down doors in Europe and at Westminster and be listened to and answered, the only option we have is self-help. That is our only option at present.
If Members intend to tackle the distressing circumstances of the agricultural economy, they had better think about doing it very soon. We had better think of cross-party support for the people who are suffering. We had better think of ways to fund trips to Europe and of ensuring that we are in Westminster at every conceivable opportunity to make people take notice.
There is a great deal of criticism of the French. I do not advocate that we go to the same lengths as the French do, whether they be truck drivers or farmers, but they sure as hell make their Government sit up and take notice. What do we do? We speak in platitudes; we say the farmers have our support, and meanwhile, back at the ranch, these people are continuing to suffer.
The Women’s Coalition supports this motion. We recognise the crisis in the farming industry. Every Member who has spoken has talked of the soaring figures, of terrible debt, of children leaving farms and of the drastic cut of up to 80% in farmers’ income. We are aware of it, and we recognise that it is drastic. This is not crying wolf; this is a genuine crisis. We can all see that. We give our full support to the appeal being made by farmers, by those gathered outside this building today, for what Dr Paisley has called an "extraordinary" approach to this crisis.
Why do farmers need our support? It is not merely a matter of jobs or individuals. We are faced with the possible death of our rural communities and traditions. It has been said here today that we must protect the social fabric of the rural economy. David Ford said that it is about post offices, banks and market towns — our rural economy and people.
We must protect them. Many a farmer would call me a city slicker, but this is not a matter of the rural-dweller versus the city dweller. We must not forget that when farm incomes are cut and the young men and women of farming families have to leave, this sparks rural depopulation, thus putting pressure on cities. Calls are made in towns and cities for the green belt to be protected. In spite of this, more accommodation is needed because rural areas are being depopulated. This is not a matter of country versus city. No matter where we live, all of us in Northern Ireland must recognise that the farming community has to he helped.
Paddy Roche talked about the main causes, and I should like to dwell on these for a moment. There is no doubt that the two main causes are the fallout from the BSE crisis and the strength of sterling. I ask the Assembly and the farmers whose fault this is.
Let us turn to the BSE crisis. I know all about this, for I was involved in the European Commission at that time. The Government did not stick to the rules on BSE set down by Europe. They bent those rules and farmers are now being expected to accept responsibility for that.
Who is to blame for the strength of sterling? It is not the fault of the farmers. What can they do? Perhaps we could look more seriously at allowing Northern Ireland to enter the Euro-zone as a pilot project. Perhaps farmers would support that.
Neither of these problems is the fault of farmers. The Government must accept responsibility. We cannot accept Nick Brown or Tony Blair saying that farmers must diversify. We have heard about the golf courses and the bed-and-breakfast businesses. That is not good enough. We need a concerted approach to protecting the rural community.
I should like to send a message of support to farmers and their families. I support this motion. As I close, I should like to remind the House of Dr Paisley’s words this morning. These farmers are
"decent people from both sides of the community."
We must do something for them.
Everyone in the House is united on this issue. All the interesting and informative speeches have illustrated the grievous plight of the farming industry. They have explained in great detail the reasons for that plight. What are we going to do about it? It is all very well for each of us to say that the plight of the farmers is awful. The crisis exists, and the reasons for the crisis are the strength of sterling and BSE. That does nothing for the farmer, though it may exorcise the guilt we feel at our impotence.
The truth is that this Assembly can do very little to alleviate the effects of the farming crisis, which is due to many circumstances totally beyond our control. Perhaps the best statement made was on what the people of Northern Ireland can do for themselves. It is true to say that any industry, including the farming industry, which relies on the munificence of the Government for its future is on a hiding to nothing. What we can do is focus the attention of the entire community on the fact that if it does not support its own producers then it is unlikely that anyone else will. Interposed between the consumer and the farmer is the retailer. The retailing industry in Northern Ireland has been transformed over recent years by the introduction of the multi-national supermarket chains. They came here when things were getting better. They supplanted the local traders who had kept business going throughout 30 years of internecine warfare in Northern Ireland, but the introduction of the large supermarkets has laid waste to a great many small traders in a number of small towns.
The real question is: what can we do to ensure, insofar as it is possible, that those retailers support the produce of the people from whom they are extracting their profit? Anyone who goes into Tescos or Sainsbury’s should know that it is acknowledged throughout Europe generally that the major food chains in the United Kingdom are making far higher profits than their counterparts in Europe, and they are making those profits largely at the expense of the producers. They go through the fraud of labelling their goods "Sourced in Northern Ireland" — not "Produced in Northern Ireland" — but "Sourced in Northern Ireland". That covers a multitude of sins, including purchasing from agents who are in Northern Ireland but who source their produce from abroad.
If this Assembly can do one thing, it can alert the electorate to the fact that if they do not support their own farmers and buy produce clearly labelled as being produced by farmers in Northern Ireland, then they are destroying a large part of their own economy.
In broad terms, Europe does what suits the major members of the European Commission. They can forget about the fines that were levied on Italy for milk quota frauds. They can turn a blind eye to Spain injecting capital directly into Iberia Airlines. They can do whatever they want, and unless we ensure that we back our own people then, as some of the Members have said, Northern Ireland will be turned into a farming waste land. Golf courses and other leisure amenities will dominate the countryside, but the farmer will be destroyed.
It is good to see some familiar faces from the farming community in the Galleries today. I know that it is not every farmer who can afford to leave his livestock for a few hours to attend rallies and listen to debates in the Assembly. I recognise the sterling work done by Will Taylor and Douglas Roe of the Ulster Farmers’ Union.
Agriculture is the largest single industry in Northern Ireland. However, figures released yesterday show that total farming income has fallen by 79% since 1995 — an astounding statistic. Farmers in less favoured areas are realising an average annual income of £179. Our farmers now owe approximately £523 million to banks, and this figure continues to increase. Farm incomes in Northern Ireland decreased by 22% in 1999, compared to an estimated 1% in the UK as a whole. We can clearly see that Northern Irish agriculture does not get a high priority with the UK Government, and we cannot let this situation continue.
Approximately 60,000 people are employed in this vital industry. Since £572 million has been removed from Northern Ireland’s economy over the last five years, it must be brought home to the Government that Northern Ireland is no less important than any other region. Other parts of the UK are more industrialised, and agriculture is less important to them. The Government do not value this industry or consider it worth saving. Other major industries receive financial help in times of crisis.
Northern Ireland has always had high health and welfare standards, dating back to the days before the EC. We had stringent legislation on the importing of agricultural products. When we became part of the European free market, products of lower quality came into Northern Ireland. We are well known for our excellent traceability records and distinguished levels of health, welfare and efficiency, as well as for the high genetic value of our livestock.
Northern Ireland farmers have complied with all the EU legislation on health and welfare standards. They were promised a premium for their products, only to find inferior products from other parts of Europe on our supermarket shelves. Fancy packages and low prices seem to appeal more to the consumer. Premium prices were not realised, and all hopes of recovering the money invested have been dashed.
Furthermore, UK companies have imported certain products whose health and welfare standards do not match our high standards, and that has created unfair competition. These products have also been cheaper. In Northern Ireland we had only six cases of BSE in 1999. France recognised about 30 cases in 1999. We had only 27 cases in 1997, yet the French refuse to buy British beef. It is totally unfair that our high-quality products cannot be exported across Europe. It is time that we were treated as a low incidence area for BSE.
We are all aware of Holland’s lucrative market for bull calves. As an exporting area, it has been very important and beneficial to us to export products that are in short supply in other countries. At present, these calves are worth £70 to £100 in the Irish Republic and are being exported from there to Europe. It could be said that there are more cases of BSE in the Irish Republic.
I am particularly concerned about our pig farmers. They have not been able to cover their costs for the last 20 months. Many face debts of £200,000; some owe as much as £500,000 to the banks and meal companies. None of the Government bodies seems to want to do anything to alleviate this problem. The importing of pork and bacon products which are of a lower standard than similar products produced in Northern Ireland should be discontinued. There should be a level playing field.
As has already been said, all parties in the House will support the farming community in this emergency. I fear that the fact that it is an emergency has not been communicated properly to the community. I can repeat, as can every other Member, the horrendous statistics on the fall in incomes, the lack of revenue and the higher costs which have been reproduced for the first time, almost coincidentally, throughout all sectors of the community.
Political representatives and representatives of farmers’ unions have failed to convey the enormity of the situation to the general public — the consumers. First, as Mr Roche has said, farming is a base industry involving 10% of the civil population and accounting for 8% of GDP. What other country would allow that volume of industry to be sacrificed? Secondly, the farming community is the custodian of our heritage, rural communities, land and environment. Are we going to jettison those as well? The problem is that the same criteria are being applied to Northern Ireland’s agriculture as are being applied to agriculture in the UK, where it is not an important economic factor — and Members need to face this. The Government’s response reflects that.
In some respects that is why we have failed to inform the European conscience of our drastic situation. Our local Minister and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development must put pressure on Whitehall to insist that the national Government take this issue seriously and save this base industry by a special dispensation or arrangement within the EU to reflect our special circumstances. That must happen as a matter of urgency. Europe knows that this is a huge problem. The recent Eurostat report indicates quite clearly that Northern Ireland incomes, and indeed UK incomes as a whole, fell dramatically in the years from 1995 to 1998. Europe knows this from its own statistics, so it really is time to "kick in that door", as one Member so elegantly put it.
There is no point in Members debating the statistics, horrendous though they may be. The forecast for 1999-2000 is of net loss to farming incomes throughout the community. Members, and the farming community, cannot tolerate that. The community can tolerate loss for only one or two years at most. The rescue package must then be in place to help the community out of that morass and into prosperity.
Members should not adopt the pessimistic attitude that nothing can be done. Similarly, the repetition of statistics will not energise us. We must make suggestions. There should be special arrangements in Europe to address a special problem. Other national Governments can do it, so our national Government should also be able to do it. The agri-monetary compensation must be claimed and released to farmers in proportion to their requirements, particularly in this region.
The reassessment of the green pound has already been mentioned, and that should be done. At home, the financial institutions, which are servicing the £520 million deficit must give special consideration to farmers. For decades, the high street banks have ridden on the gravy train thanks to the Agriculture and other industries; now it is their turn to feel some pain as well. Arrangements to rescue the farmers need to be agreed.
Restructuring may be required. The agricultural retirement scheme, which is available in the Republic of Ireland, must be made available here to allow good economic restructuring to take place. I would like to see a task force established immediately in Northern Ireland involving representatives from the relevant Government Departments: Agriculture and Rural Development; Enterprise, Trade and Investment; Health, Social Services and Public Safety; and Environment.
It should urgently investigate this issue on a cross-departmental basis and produce a plan to alleviate the problems. Merely tinkering with the problem of diversification or environmental improvements will not help. We must be more dramatic in our approach.
I do not intend to concentrate on the agriculture industry’s problems — they have been well covered already. We are all aware of the £520 million farming debt and the fact that only 7% of farmers are under the age of 35. What we need are solutions. The Permanent Secretary is in the House, and although we do not know what the future of the Assembly will be he will still hold his position whether Alf Dubs or Bríd Rodgers is the Minister. There is more responsibility on the Permanent Secretary’s shoulders than on anybody else’s.
The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development needs a radical shake-up. Farmers have had regulations imposed on them over the years, regulations that have been implemented and policed by the Department, yet the same Department has not managed to deliver a full lifting of the BSE ban. We need to see that we get low-incidence status quickly. Is it right that the Irish Republic, which has many more cases of BSE than Northern Ireland, can export calves and get £130 per head when farmers from Northern Ireland have to pay to get their calves slaughtered? How can France continue to export beef when they have more incidences of BSE than Northern Ireland? It is time that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development put the case of the Northern Ireland farmers to Brussels and Strasbourg. Farmers have applied all the regulations; now it is time for the Department to deliver.
The European sheep meat regime should also be looked at. Has the Department ever asked Brussels to look at it? The Government in the Irish Republic have asked for the regime to be changed. Last week, it was announced that sheep farmers are to get an annual subsidy of £13·48. Given that lamb prices are lower than they have been for five years, I would have expected that that subsidy would have been over £20. However, because the system under which the sheep meat regime operates is unjust, we are given less compensation than we should.
We need a strong implementation of policy on the importation of potatoes. Northern Ireland is presently importing potatoes that are of a lower standard than those produced here. Disease standards are not being maintained. The imported potatoes are not subject to the same standard scrutiny for brown rot disease as is applied to Northern Ireland potatoes. There is a danger that this disease could be brought into Northern Ireland and ruin the local potato industry.
The Department has handed out money in FEOGA grants to two firms to expand their potato marketing operation. They have imported thousands of tonnes of potatoes from Scotland and Europe, and this has driven down the price of potatoes in the Province. Farmers now have to sell potatoes at £20 per tonne, because the Government have paid for these firms to build cold stores. It is not the Department’s role to improve the marketing conditions of firms in Northern Ireland; its role is to improve the marketing conditions for farmers in general.
The Department must get its act together and work on behalf of the Northern Ireland farmers. Time and time again new regulations are introduced. I can recall the introduction of the Maedi-Visna regulations. There was no a need for those regulations to be introduced, but, as there were obviously surplus staff in the Department’s veterinary service, this was a good way to keep them occupied. We are spending more on the administration of agriculture than farmers make in profit. It is time for the Department to get its act together. The farmers are doing their bit. No more regulations should be imposed on them, for they cannot afford to implement the regulations. The Department should go to Brussels and fight the Northern Ireland farmers’ case. There is no point in blaming others; the main reason for our problems is the Department’s inadequate representation of the farmers’ case.
Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. Like my Colleague Gerry McHugh, I support the motion. At the outset, Mr Speaker, I would like to say that the philosophy of "ourselves alone" has been well ventilated this morning, so I will not dwell on it.
The crisis in the agriculture industry is very real — not for me, but for the farmers and their families who are suffering as a result of it. I welcome the farmers and their families who are here this morning.
Much has been made of the connection between the North and the South. I am not trying to make a political point, but had the agriculture industry in Ireland acted as a single unit, 10, 15 or even 20 years ago, then the present agriculture crisis would not be as severe as it is. One has only to look at the agriculture industry in the Free State to know that they milked the system, very astutely and acutely, while we were tied in to British agricultural policy within the EU. Consequently, the only people who suffered were the farmers of the North of Ireland. Had we gone forthrightly into the agriculture sector in Europe as a single unit, then we would not be facing the crisis that we face today — or at least it would not be as bad. Agriculture is in crisis universally, but I believe that we would not be facing the crisis that we are facing had we acted as a single unit.
I would like to turn to the schemes that were inaugurated to help farmers — the ESA scheme in particular. Prior to Christmas, I was inundated with calls from farmers who had still not received their ESA payments. These were due in August, and by December they still had not been paid. It was the people on small farms who were suffering. They needed the money not only to buy fodder, but to run their homes. When one of them rang the Department he was told that the payments had not been made because the computers were down. So there is a new excuse being given now. It is no longer "The cheque is in the post"; it is "The computers are down". That was the excuse given. Those schemes need to be seriously and rigorously looked at to ensure that if farmers are participating in such schemes they are paid the amount of money that has been guaranteed to them — and on time.
The situation in respect of rural planning is a disgrace, and something must be done about it. Time after time the Department refuses planning permission to the sons and daughters of farmers who are seeking to develop their own land, because this does not fit into the environment. What other environment is it going to fit into? They are living in the country. Is it spoiling the countryside? What is the real reason? I accept that there must be planning controls, but those controls should not be so rigorously applied in relation to rural planning.
Additionally, when a farmer who has a small piece of useless ground seeks planning permission for it in order to sell it — there is nothing wrong with that, because the land is useless, and he is looking for some other form of income — he is refused. That is an issue that needs to be looked into urgently.
My Colleague and others have mentioned the issue of consumers paying top prices for bacon, beef, lamb, poultry and other agricultural produce while producers receive the lowest prices. Someone, somewhere has to put in place a mechanism which investigates this, and one which puts some controls on the prices that consumers are paying as compared with the money that producers are receiving. Realistically these are things which should be looked at now, and a way should be found to alleviate the problems that exist in the farming community in the short term.
To link the agricultural crisis with the present political crisis is a crass piece of political opportunism. We are talking here about an industry that is in crisis. We are talking about a whole population that is in crisis and a countryside that has been denuded of its population. We should be trying to address life-support measures — and addressing them seriously — not trying to make a political point.
When addressing problems in the agriculture sector we must do so in the context that it is, in most respects, the last-state controlled industry. The snag is that it is not state-owned, and therefore the state is not responsible for the wages or costs of the industry. But the state controls the output prices by way of a mixture of policy, action, inaction and the subsidy process. The common agricultural policy has essentially distorted the market in agricultural produce, and not always to our disadvantage. Sometimes the markets have been distorted to the farmers’advantage, and the subsidy system tries to correct that, but it distorts the market further.
When the Agenda 2000 proposals were originally produced they were flagged up as being an attempt to address these distortions and gradually restructure the industry to make it more responsive to market forces. Unfortunately, such an outcome did not emerge from the negotiations this time around. While there was some short-term relief, I question whether there will be a long-term benefit. A House of Lords Select Committee looked at the problems in the agriculture sector and said
"If the long-term prospect of adjustment to globally competitive agriculture is not to cause great and prolonged hardship, it is critical that the reorientation of the industry to a position where it can compete successfully is commenced as soon as possible. If not, change may be thrust upon the industry at an unnecessarily painful pace."
It seems that we are in the latter scenario. It is a great pity that the expertise that was available when the report was made is no longer available to the House of Lords.
The Treasury is no friend of the common agricultural policy, which consumes over half of the total European Union budget. As the United Kingdom is a net contributor to that budget, the only way it can see its net contributions falling is if it can reduce expenditure on the common agricultural policy. Therefore the interests of the Treasury are completely contrary to those of the farmer. Unfortunately, the Treasury is much more powerful.
I urge the Minister to address the restructuring of the industry to see what the Department can do to help this process. She should also address the £45 million of the Department’s budget, which is flexible and which relates to teaching, advisory and technical services. We are turning out very competent farmers, but we may have made them competent in a sphere from which they cannot make money. I urge the Minister to see whether the curriculum is able to produce the right skills for the market into which agriculture is moving.
The words "restructuring" and "diversify" are used too loosely. There are some opportunities, but it is hard to see that there will be enough for everyone. I welcome the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee’s intention to look into freshwater fishing. Farmers fortunate enough to have land along a river bank might want to turn to that as a possible source of future revenue.
I mentioned earlier that farming is essentially the last nationalised industry. When the steel industry, the car industry, and the coal industry were restructured and returned to the private sector the Government provided a very considerable cushion for the workforce. The situation is analogous to agriculture, but because farmers are self-employed, there is no onus on the Government to provide any such cushion. The Government should look very carefully at their duties in this regard, because they control much of the output price, and that is what governs the success of the industry. That is why Mr Savage presented his "soft loan" scheme — not to subsidise farmers, but to help soften the process of change. The Government must also provide a cushion and an incentive for the farming industry.
The farming industry needs practical and financial support, and it needs it now. Otherwise the family farming tradition, so typical of Northern Ireland, will fade away, and we will have other consequences to contend with. Members know that, owing to the fall in farming prices, this crisis impacts on the wider community. Farmers have less disposable income.
In the last three years more than £100 million has been lost to the local economy as a result of this crisis. It is causing particular difficulty in my constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, as farming has always been a more difficult enterprise there because of the climate and the soil. Indeed, 30% of the County Fermanagh workforce is involved in agriculture. Members will agree that that is a much higher percentage than in any other part of Northern Ireland.
In the UK, the average percentage of the workforce involved in agriculture is a mere 2%. We have a large number of small farms and a small number of large farms. Farm incomes are measured in terms of standard gross margin (SGM). The SGM for farmers in County Fermanagh is 14·7, in County Antrim 25·5, and in County Down 22·3. But all farming communities need alternative employment opportunities and part-time employment opportunities.
I commend the Minister for beginning to put in place a new strategy for agriculture and rural development. I reject what Mr Roche said with regard to the present Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development and her record. He was talking nonsense. The Minister needs the support of the Executive and she needs to link in to other Departments in order to provide more opportunities for those who run our farming industry.
Until now, worthwhile ideas coming from the farming community have had little encouragement from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. Look at the importance of tourism in Fermanagh and the importance of good co-operation between the farming community and those promoting tourism.
Another employment agency responsible for small businesses is LEDU. Why have better links not been developed between LEDU and the farming community? Why have some of the good ideas for enterprises on farms not had LEDU’s support? This needs further investigation by the Executive.
It has already been said that rural planning policy is a major obstacle. However, it is not just in relation to housing, as my Colleague John Kelly said. Any farmer who wants to embark on a new enterprise runs into an obstacle right away when he seeks planning permission in rural areas. He is invariably told it cannot be done.
The Minister and the Executive can iron out many of these problems. Both anti-agreement and pro-agreement Members will have failed to live up to their responsibilities under the agreement if there is a return to direct rule, for our farmers will suffer more than they have ever done.
I have listened with care to the debate so far, and we have all heard the Prime Minister say that he is going to tell farmers that they will have to diversify, but I do not know how many of them are going to be able to diversify. Many will be bankrupt, so what are they going to diversify with?
Farmers want to farm their land; that is what they were brought up to do, and they should be able to get on with it. They understand the problems of other sectors of industry. Take, for example, the textile industry. Many farmers’ families are also feeling the pinch there, because many of their children have worked in the textile firms that are closing down. The farming industry in this Province is haemorrhaging seriously, and the Department is seeking to put a sticking plaster over the problem.
The crisis in pig farming has been going on for many months. We do not have to gather the facts; they are already there. If officials in the Department do not know the facts about the pig industry, something is seriously wrong, and it is about time that they vacated their positions and let others take over. We have to take this matter to where it really counts.
In the midst of this crisis I am sick, sore and tired of hearing from one person after another that there is nothing they can do. With the greatest respect to the Minister, I know she did not make the problem, but she now has the responsibility for handling it — we do not need the parroting of official lines. All we hear is that there is nothing that Europe allows the Minister to do. Why can nothing be done? What are the French doing? Are they not supposed to be the great Europeans? They are saving their farming industry. They are pouring money into it, and they will save their pig and other sectors. Of course, we hold up our hands and self-righteously say "There is nothing that Europe will allow us to do." That is absolutely disgusting.
We do not have just the strong pound problem, the BSE problem, the offal payments, the differential in meal, electricity and water costs; we also have the unfair differential between the price our farmers get for their products and what others get in the remainder of the United Kingdom. We are fed up with people telling us that there is nothing they can do. There must be a financial package for this. Farmers are going to be totally bankrupt. Many of them have gone as far as they can possibly go, and all we are saying to them is that there is nothing we can do.
I heard it said today that tax-raising powers would be the answer. Whenever there is a problem and a factory is being closed, are taxes raised to bring in the money? Not at all; money is sought from the Exchequer. Gordon Brown’s Exchequer is filled with money ready for a general election — they have to hand out the goodies and buy people off at election time. The money is there — you do not have to raise taxes to get the money; the money is already in the coffers. The problem is this: they are unwilling to cover pound for pound, and the farmers are going down. It may seem funny to some people, but I have had farmer after farmer sitting in my constituency office crying about his situation, and no one is willing to do anything about it. The Minister should go to Europe and say that we were told that everyone was dying to help us in Ulster because we have this Assembly going. Let them put their money where their mouths are. Let them prove themselves by backing us and allowing farmers to survive instead of going under.
Gordon Brown told us that he was urgently looking at offal charges, that he was willing to back us and that he believed that he could do something about them. Farmers were given the same answer, but we are still awaiting his help.
What about the special BSE status? Nick Brown said that he would back our Minister if a presentation were made. My party leader, representatives from the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party and I were told by Nick Brown that he would instruct his officials to work with our officials to get that presentation.
A Chathaoirligh, go raibh maith agat. I agree with the motion, and I support it. It is important to recognise that there is a crisis in the entire industry. I agree with Dr Paisley that the British Prime Minister’s call for people to diversify is not the answer. It may be the answer for some, but not for everyone. What would they diversity into? Where will the money come from? Is the Prime Minister prepared to ensure that the money going into industry will be transferred to agriculture? Will he make sure there is money available for farmers who want to diversify and that they will get the planning permission, which Mr Gallagher talked about, to set up an industry in the rural community?
Farmers want to be on the farm, and they want to be producers. To most farmers diversification into some other industry of which they have no experience is not an option. Diversification, if it is to take place, will have to be into something associated with land and farming.
The main problem — and I am not making a political point — is that we in the Six Counties are linked to Britain. Britain is an industrial country, and it does not have any great interest in agriculture. It has an industrial base, which it wants to preserve. Britain has not made the case for our farmers in Europe, as was best illustrated during the BSE crisis when they failed to represent farmers. It is important to recognise that we will have to work within our own base. No one else will speak on our behalf.
As Dr Paisley said, we need to make the link with those who have exploited Europe to the full — the Twenty-six County Government. They have shown how to get the most out of Europe — by putting the least in, as some people would say. We must ensure that the Irish Government, as a European Member, produces and markets Irish goods, whether they are from the North or from the South. We should be asking the Irish Government to do more to ensure that that happens. It can be achieved within the North/South Ministerial Council in the form of a common agricultural policy.
Many farmers in border areas have paid a very heavy price because of currency differences. We need to ensure that this does not happen. Currency differential affects not just the border areas and farmers but also imports and exports. The fact that Britain is not part of the European single currency has had a detrimental affect on farmers.
All aspects of farming are now affected. In the beginning the problem may have been BSE and the beef crisis, but it is now expanding across the farm spectrum. Beef farmers, milk producers, pig producers, sheep farmers, potato growers and now mushroom growers are all affected. The fact that mushrooms are being imported from Europe and beyond is flooding the market, causing the price to drop. Cheap poultry imports will mean that another part of the industry will begin to fail. A situation similar to that which is happening in relation to the meat plant in Dungannon will occur. Imports will come in, and nothing will be produced here.
We have the basis for resolving this matter. We are paying the price for European membership. We have been part of the European Community but with our hands tied behind our backs. Because we are linked to an industrial nation we have not been able to exploit membership in the way other countries have. We need to make a link with a nation that is agricultural so that we can start to make agriculture work as they have done in the Twenty-six Counties.
We also need to remind ourselves that not all the money in the Twenty-six Counties went to the farmers. A lot of it went to meat plants and various associated bodies, and some of it went astray. Meat plants should put back into agriculture some of the money they have benefited from.
If we are serious about reversing the situation we must do something about it. We need to pull together a common agricultural policy for the island of Ireland, not just for Europe.
On a point order, Mr Speaker. Could the time allocated to the motion be extended? A number of Members wish to speak, and if the time were extended by half an hour most of them would be able to do so.
I regret that it is not possible to do that. First, half an hour would not cover it. The Business Committee made the decision about the amount of time which was available, and it was clear. However, the Member is correct, and I was going to say this in any case before the Minister spoke. A substantial number of other Members have indicated their desire to speak and undoubtedly have made preparations to do so, but I regret that it will not be possible.
Members must understand that we have further business today which is also time-limited and which is urgent. It is important that those in the Assembly — as well as people outside — know that many other Members wished to speak in this debate but were unable to do so because of time constraints.
This crisis — and it is well defined as such — has been thoroughly debated in this Chamber. The fact that £600 million has been lost to the economy over the last five years speaks for itself.
Mr Roche highlighted the importance of the wider industry — the agri-food industry — to Northern Ireland. It accounts for 10% of all civil employment and 8% of gross domestic product, and it is three times more important in Northern Ireland than in the United Kingdom overall. Therein lies some indication of where our central Government are coming from.
In 1997 a farm income averaged at a mere £3,093. I dread to think what the situation is now. At that time 38% of farms were showing a loss. What is the percentage today?
Dr Paisley highlighted the amount of money that farmers owe to banks, feed suppliers and hire-purchase companies. If these companies had any sense of generosity or gave any thought to where their past profits came from, they would offer assistance.
This crisis affects all sectors of the industry: pigs, sheep, poultry, milk, beef — the list goes on. Farmers have been left to defend an industry that is worth millions to the economy. What have Departments done in the past? They have followed United Kingdom policy. If the Assembly is to mean anything the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development must adopt a Northern Ireland policy — one that truly reflects our needs. It is only a matter of time before there is a chain reaction to this crisis, and it will expand beyond the rural community to affect the high streets of villages, towns and cities throughout Northern Ireland. This crisis will impinge on us all.
Despite all of this it is obvious to me that there remains a deliberate Labour Government policy of non-involvement in the agriculture industry. The crisis continues to deepen, and the Government must take exceptional measures. Central government must identify genuine and meaningful solutions — not the response given by the Prime Minister that has been well castigated by other Members.
It is time to introduce a differential low-risk BSE status for Northern Ireland. It is well-documented that the Republic and Great Britain have both had a much higher incidence of BSE than Northern Ireland. This was reported in ‘The Irish Times’ today.
The traceability scheme which is in place in Northern Ireland means that our produce is the best authenticated in the world — a fact that has not been properly recognised or promoted.
The Government have made some mistakes in the past at great cost to the industry. Think of their decision to discontinue the calf processing aid scheme. That was wrong. William McCrea quite rightly highlighted the non-use of finances and the agri-monetary compensation which could be introduced. Mr McGrady mentioned the agricultural retirement scheme, and there are many other possibilities.
There are also wider issues: the millennium trade round, which takes over from the Uruguay trade round; the European model of agriculture, which will be under attack at World Trade Organisation discussions; disparity in the implementation of animal welfare legislation; the strength of sterling; the inexplicable differences between prices on the farms and those at shop counters; the lack of proper labelling — the list goes on.
Give our farmers a level playing field, and they will be able to compete with anyone.
I wish to thank all Members for their contributions and to apologise in advance for the fact that I shall be unable to respond to every point today. Outstanding issues will be dealt with in writing.
I understand the anger of Members and the farming communities, and I understand why they are having a peaceful protest today. They have the right to engage in peaceful protest, and I welcome their action.
I have arranged to meet a delegation of farmers and their wives after this debate. I note that Members spoke of the men in the farming community, but I am very well aware that many women also work there in support of their husbands and on the farms as well. This is a people industry.
I have great sympathy with the farming community. Since taking over as Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development I have become very aware of the huge decline in their incomes in recent years. This is why I have been working so hard in the Assembly and in London and Brussels to achieve something on their behalf.
The income figures released yesterday were a result of circumstances beyond my control, beyond the control of the Executive and, I stress, beyond the control of my Department, which has been unfairly criticised today for not doing enough and not caring. That is not true. I am impressed by the caring attitude that the officials in my Department display towards the farming community for whom they are working, as I am, in very difficult circumstances and with all of the constraints of the European regulations and the financial implications that surround us.
The strength of sterling, world markets and other factors have been referred to by many people. I am conscious of the burden that I carry in representing the farmers, and I intend to do everything in my power to help them — and I stress "in my power".
Dr McCrea said that I should let someone else take over if I am not able to do the job. We all enjoyed his rhetoric. He is good at that. We also note, however, that although there was an opportunity for someone else to take over responsibility for this industry, Rev Dr McCrea’s party decided not to take on that very difficult challenge.
But I am not afraid of challenges, and I will do my best in the circumstances in which I find myself. However, I do not like to be preached at by people who tell me that I could do better and should do better but who were not prepared to do the job themselves.
I am not going to have time to deal with every issue, but the Executive and I are doing everything that we can. The fact that we recently put £6·7 million of the reallocated money towards making up for the budgetary shortfalls of my Department is an indication of our commitment to helping the farming community. In spite of some ill-informed commentary, both at that time and since, the vast majority of that money has gone to the farmers.
I was in Brussels last week lobbying Commissioner Fischler on behalf of Northern Ireland pig farmers. I have also had meetings with Nick Brown. I am told that, in his speech today in London, the Prime Minister said
"In areas such as the pig industry, which is the most parlous at the moment, I do not rule out further measures to help. It must, however, be linked to a strategy which provides a long-term framework."
I welcome that statement. I am, however, both anxious and interested to know what he has in mind. I hope to have a meeting with Nick Brown very shortly, and I shall certainly be anxious to hear about this and discuss it.
Members have referred to the agri-monetary compensation available to the UK which has not been paid, and I know that the Ulster Farmers’ Union has briefed some Members on this. The matter has been raised by Mr Savage, Dr Paisley, Dr McCrea, Mr Hussey and others. I agree in principle that moneys available to farmers should be paid to them. It is wrong that our farmers should suffer because of fiscal policies developed for other reasons. These policies should not put UK farmers at a disadvantage in comparison with those in other member states.
Northern Ireland farmers, as other Members have pointed out, are doubly disadvantaged, as they share a land border with the Republic. I have demanded an urgent meeting with Nick Brown to discuss agri-monetary payments. I do, however, recognise that he is constrained. I do not underestimate the resistance from the Treasury, but I would like some other Members of the House to assist me as I do my best to make the case for Northern Ireland pig farmers.
I shall briefly refer to some of the points made before I go on. I am very aware that I shall not have time to do everything. Dr Paisley raised the question of help for new entrants. There is provision in the rural development plan for new entrants. It is one of the optional schemes, and we shall look at it. I shall deal with all of these matters in consultation with both the Agriculture Committee and the industry itself, which I have consulted many times already during the past two months.
Dr Paisley has made comparisons with the Republic of Ireland on European money. These are false comparisons, since the Republic is not under the same financial constraints that we are, and whether we like it or not, we must operate under UK financial arrangements.
I have every reason to suspect that Dr Paisley and, indeed, Mr Poots, who raised the same issue, are not suggesting a more radical solution to our problems.
I am merely making a point, and I think that it is a fair point.
I have been to Brussels, and I have left Commissioner Fischler in no doubt about the problems in our pig sector. I have further meetings planned with Commissioner Byrne and him, and I am meeting the chief executive of Malton’s later this week. I shall also be meeting retailers.
Although Mr McCartney is no longer here, I shall respond to his point. I am aware of the problem of local sourcing. Mr Savage made the same point, which is of great importance. As I have said, I shall be meeting retailers and impressing upon them the need to source locally and to recognise that our pork is produced under conditions conducive to animal welfare. Indeed, I have written to all public-sector purchasing bodies in Northern Ireland making the same points. Together with Joe Walsh in the Republic, I have set up an investigation into pig-processing capacity on the island of Ireland.
I also welcome and support what Mr McCartney said about local people supporting local produce. The £400,000 which has been made available for pig-meat marketing will be a help in proceeding along those lines. We also have £2·5 million for the red-meat marketing strategy. It is extremely important that my Department has made this provision. Many of the problems in the market at the moment have been caused by the BSE crisis and the resistance to red meat.
We need to explain to the people, not just in Northern Ireland but also further afield, that Northern Ireland beef is the safest on these islands. I am determined to pursue low incidence BSE status for Northern Ireland. I have made that one of my priorities. Mr Savage, Mr Bradley, Mr Roche, Mr Armstrong and Mr Poots, and perhaps others, have referred to this. I spoke to Nick Brown about it again last week, and I have his, and Joe Walsh’s, support. We are making progress, but I am not unaware of the potential difficulties. I know that the idea does not command 100% support, even within Northern Ireland, and there could be major hurdles in London and Brussels. I am determined to do all that I can for the beef farmers of Northern Ireland.
I realise that I am about to run out of time. Mr McGrady referred to the early retirement scheme. That scheme would be extremely costly. If we could afford it, it would be welcome to the farmers. One of the things that have been impressed upon me by the industry is that, whatever money that is available, there should be maximum winners and minimum losers. The early retirement scheme would mean minimum winners and maximum losers.
I will reply in writing to the other points.
First, I would challenge the Minister about the millions of pounds of additional money. This money went to the Department to pay off bad debt. She has failed to respond to all the prescriptive measures.
The demonstrations converging on the grounds of this building today are the result of neglecting the primary producers of that upon which life depends — food. Let nobody in the House think that farmers are crying wolf or that the agriculture crisis is something affecting only farmers and their families. An 80% reduction in farm incomes must translate into a colossal reduction in purchases from the multitude of suppliers who surround agriculture. The devastation will be widespread if it remains unchecked.
An array of factors are cited as having contributed to the collapse of the value of agri-produce. The strength of sterling, a world surplus, and a worldwide ban resulting from the discovery of BSE in our cattle have all been mentioned. The strength of sterling in comparison with the strength of other currencies is obvious. A world surplus of agricultural produce is a likely factor, since other non-members of the EU are also experiencing problems in agriculture. The weakest of reasons for explaining what is happening to this industry, arguably Northern Ireland’s staple industry, is the export ban. Scientists have concluded that, our beef is safe to eat. We already knew that. Subsequently the ban was lifted. However, despite the scientific evidence and the European Commission’s removal of the trade embargo, the French Government have imposed their own embargo, thus contravening European law.
With the price of its agricultural produce, Northern Ireland is fast becoming the poor man of Europe, and we do not need any further disadvantages imposed. The farming industry requires immediate financial aid, for its survival. Circumstances make our farmers the poorest in Europe as well as the least well-off in the United Kingdom. In the week ending 22 January 2000 the average steer price in Northern Ireland was 158·6p per kilo, while in Great Britain the average price was 176·7p per kilo.
That is a difference of £63·35 on a 350-kilo carcass, representing a considerable margin between the two producers. It is a similar situation with lamb. In the same period the Great Britain price per kilo was 185·5p, as opposed to 176·07p in Northern Ireland, and that means a disadvantage to the Province of over £2 on a 21-kilo carcass. These examples highlight the disparity between the regions.
Producers here have also had a reduction of almost one third in the price of milk. This, combined with the removal of the calf processing scheme, produces an animal welfare problem as well as a financial one.
Despite pleas to the Government and the new Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the pig industry is disappearing even as we speak. The industry does not perceive the reduction contained in the Agenda 2000 CAP reforms as a means of increasing prices. Rather, it is seen as a method of curbing production in an already distressed market. A 4% cut in suckler cow quotas, or a 2·5% cut in premium levels through modulation, can do nothing but further damage an industry already on its knees.
Yet, with the resolve of the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to push for low incidence BSE status for Northern Ireland, we could regain our exports of beef to the continent.
I commend the motion to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
This House contends that the cuts in farm incomes, the market pressure on each sector of agriculture and the lawlessness of the French Government constitute a serious crisis in the Northern Ireland agriculture industry and calls on the Northern Ireland Executive to recognise this and take emergency measures to save the industry.
The sitting was suspended at 12.32 pm.
On resuming —