Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture and Rural Development – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 7th February 2000.
4. asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what approaches she has made to the Executive Committee and the Department of Finance and Personnel to persuade them that extra funds are needed to alleviate the current crisis in the farming industry.
Since my appointment I have taken every opportunity to secure additional resources for Northern Ireland agriculture. I was pleased to secure an additional £6·7 million in the December public expenditure monitoring round. During the forthcoming expenditure review and during the collective discussion of our programme for government I shall be pressing the Minister of Finance and Personnel to treat agriculture and rural development as a priority to which extra resources must be committed.
I welcome the Minister’s response. Does she accept that, while the UK Government have a role in seeking assistance such as monetary compensation, there is also a desperate need for local action? Will she make a start by transferring modulated funds under the rural development regulations from her Department’s core expenditure into schemes that directly benefit our farmers?
The European component of the modulation funds comes with specific conditions and can be used only in four prescribed areas: early retirement, forestry, less-favoured area schemes and agri-environmental schemes. I do not have the freedom to use it for anything else. I reiterate that all those schemes pay money directly into the farmers’ pockets.
Given that Northern Ireland needs to export over 70% of its agricultural produce, does the Minister accept the need for a task force to examine all aspects of production, including the associated food-processing sector? Such a task force should also examine the marketing of the finished food products and make sure that they are safe and of the highest quality.
Does the Minister accept that all sectors of agriculture in Northern Ireland need Government support to rebuild confidence in the future of farming in the context of the European Union’s Agenda 2000 common agricultural policy proposals?
I agree with much of what the Member has said. In my view, one of the problems is that Northern Irish agriculture has been trying to manage crisis after crisis. I have set up a strategic review group to look at all areas of the industry. This is made up of people from the industry and some from outside who will be able to take a strategic, non-sectoral view. I hope that they will come forward with a broad, balanced view of what is required for both the farmers and the agri-food industry at this time. I agree that it will have to be broad-based and look at all aspects of the industry.
Can the Minister detail the percentages of the additional moneys that have gone directly to the farmers’ pockets, to rural development, to her Department and to the processors? Will additional moneys, if agreed by the Executive, be allocated in a similar fashion? Does the Minister agree that at present it is the farmer who is in greatest need?
I do not have the figures requested in the first part of the question to hand. I will try to obtain them and give them to the Member later. As regards the second part of the question, I do not think that the agri-food industry, the processors or the farmers should necessarily be seen as being in competition with each other. One of the problems for pig farmers at present is the lack of processing capacity following the burning of the Lovell & Christmas factory. Therefore if the processors are moving and improving, opportunities are being created for the farmers. I see them as being complementary rather than in competition. I see all these aspects as being worthy of assistance from my Department.
I wish the Minister every success in her efforts to elicit further funding for the sector. However, does she agree that the agriculture industry will be best served in the long term if any extra funding is used as an incentive for lower production, as excess production has been the principal cause of the output pricing problems and a major cause of environmental damage?
One of the current problems, particularly in the pig sector, apart from the collapse of world markets, is overproduction. That aspect of the problem will be one of the issues that will be looked at by my strategy review committee to see how it can be addressed.