It is not clear what the Member has in mind with this question. EU payments must comply with state-aid rules. Those rules relate to all state payments, whether EU-funded or not, and to industry in general. They apply across the European Union, and their purpose is to prevent member states putting their industries at an unfair advantage by paying state subsidies. Northern Ireland Ministers will be able to influence decisions on the reform of state-aid rules as they fall due for such reform, but at the moment, we have to work with them as they presently stand.
In the rural farming community there is a real sense that the rules and regulations coming from Brussels are unduly inhibiting and are resulting in a decrease in the amount of money going into that community. Will the Minister assure us that in any negotiations with the European Union she and her officials will do what other member states do — try to negotiate as much flexibility as possible into the delivery of European payments? There is a real sense that money is being lost, and although these may be small grants, when taken across the industry as a whole they add up to a substantial sum each year.
As I have already stated, when the next round falls due, I will ensure that our voice is heard. Flexibility is not a route that is open to us at present. Once the rules have been agreed, they apply equally across the European Union, and we have to be careful that we do not fall outside them. Were we to do so, we would be penalised, which would leave us in a worse situation.
Does the Minister recognise that the current rules governing the sheep meat regime actually work against farmers in Northern Ireland? The sheep annual premium is calculated on a European-wide basis, as opposed to a regional basis, and consequently farmers are losing £7 to £8 per head. Does she intend to support the Irish Government, who have already asked that the rules in the EU regime be changed?
I am not sure that I heard the last part of the question clearly, but I know that it was about the sheep premium. I am aware that there are difficulties here, and, as I have stated, the rules are as agreed. We have no option but to follow them. When it comes to the next round my officials and I will be arguing the case which Mr Poots has mentioned.
The Minister must recognise the problems facing the agriculture community, in terms of both young entrants to the industry and established farmers unable to receive compensation. Will the Minister commit some of the £30 million of additional money secured under the modulation scheme from 2001 to 2006 to the development of an early-retirement scheme for farmers or to a young entrants’ scheme for those not yet on the farm?
Under modulation it is open to me to have an early-retirement scheme, but if I were to use the modulation money for such a scheme, there would be nothing left for anything else. The industry has made it clear to me that it wants the maximum number of winners and the minimum number of losers. If I were to opt for the early-retirement scheme most of the money would be going to a small number of farmers — about 740, I believe — leaving 29,000 out. Much as I would like to have such a scheme, I believe that the industry itself would consider it on the whole unfair when taken across the board.