Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture and Rural Development – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 7th February 2000.
6. asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development how her Department intends to fund the increased uptake of agri-environment schemes.
The agri-environment schemes will be supported from existing baselines and funds raised from modulation. While existing budget baselines are sufficient to support the continuation of the environmentally sensitive areas scheme, meaningful development of the organic farming scheme (OFS) and the countryside management scheme (CMS) depends largely on the additional funds delivered by modulation. I will also be seeking additional funds for a range of agricultural priorities in the year 2000 spending review and the programme for government.
I thank the Minister for her response, and I note very clearly her comment that if CMS and OFS are to be expanded, the money will have to come from additional modulated funds. Can she explain, in the light of her reply to my Colleague Mr McCarthy, how using modulated funds for her Department’s forest service will directly benefit farmers?
There has been much confusion relating to the reallocation money, particularly that given to the forest service. I did not give money to the forest service. There was a shortfall in the budget, as expected revenue from the forest service was not realised. This was because of the high price of sterling and the damage done to the forests by the 1998 storm. A shortfall occurred in that budget, and that had to be rectified. Therefore what looked like giving money to the forest service was really using money to plug a gap in the budget. This had to be done.
At what stage does the Minister anticipate a payback for farmers from rural development initiatives? I ask this question in the light of the gravity of the economic crisis and the urgency with which a solution must be found.
I would like to think that there will be, as the Member has said, a payback to farmers in the area of rural development. The money from the modulation funds that relates to the rural development regulation will increase in the next few years up until 2006, and during that time, I expect to see money going back into the farming community.
Does the Minister accept that there is an urgent problem in respect of drainage in rural areas? Some 15 or 20 years ago a great deal of improvement work was carried out on drainage systems in rural areas, but due to the clogging of the systems, all this good work has now been undone, and water is pouring out on to the roads, thus causing a great deal of damage. Would the Minister be prepared to co-operate with other relevant Departments and introduce an agri-environmental scheme to restore the good work that was done some 15 or 20 years ago? Water on the roads is causing millions of pounds’ worth of damage, and the drainage system should be improved urgently.
That was a lengthy question, and I did not quite hear a part of it. The acoustics in this Chamber are not the best — unless it is my hearing. Will the Member please repeat the question.
This is not the first time a Minister has found it difficult to hear a Member. There is no difficulty hearing what some Members have to say — they are absolutely clear — but others are much less clear. I appeal to Members to speak clearly and to use the microphones — which is difficult if their heads are down in their papers. When asking supplementary questions Members should not need the assistance of papers and written notes. Perhaps on this occasion, for the benefit of the Minister, Mr Gibson will repeat his question.
Some 15 or 20 years ago a great deal of improvement work was done on drainage systems in rural areas. Many of these drains have now become ineffective. Water is pouring off the land and on to the surface of the roadways, causing great damage. Will the Minister help remove this excess water by increasing land-drainage grants?
I will consider what needs to be done to improve this situation. I cannot give an exact answer today. I will consider the matter, but I will not make any promises, as I will have to look at the expenditure and the benefit to the environment.
The next question for oral answer was asked as a supplementary to a previous question — not best practice. We will therefore move to the following question.