I should like to report to the Assembly on the meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in sectoral format in Dublin on Monday 26 June 2000. Mr Dermot Nesbitt and I attended that meeting. The Government of the Republic of Ireland was represented by Mr Joe Walsh TD, Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development. This report has been approved by Mr Nesbitt and is also made on his behalf.
This was the first meeting of the council in its agriculture sectoral format and the areas of co-operation as presented to the plenary meeting on 13 December 1999 were agreed. The broad areas of co-operation are: common agricultural policy (CAP) issues; animal and plant health research and development; and rural development. Within these areas the council reviewed the high level of existing co-operation between the two Departments and discussed a range of matters for enhanced co-operation. The council recognised the important contribution already being made to the development of agriculture by the two Departments and endorsed a proposal that officials prepare a detailed programme for joint action for consideration at the next council meeting in sectoral format.
On specific issues, the council noted the difficulties in both the North and the South in implementing new area-based schemes for less favoured area payments. In seeking to secure European Commission approval, the Agriculture Departments in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are working to minimise the risk of their new schemes producing big winners and big losers while at the same time ensuring that their schemes comply with EU regulations. Both Departments agreed to keep in touch regarding these difficulties and in their respective negotiations with the European Commission. On BSE the council noted my continuing efforts to achieve low BSE incidence status for Northern Ireland. In particular I welcomed the support of Minister Walsh and that of EU Commissioner Byrne.
The council also noted the activity which has taken place in the area of animal and plant health and research and development, and officials in the two Departments will now consider how continued activity might be formalised. For the next meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in its agriculture sectoral format, officials will produce a programme of work identifying those areas with the greatest potential for enhanced co-operation, together with a timetable for further work.
The council received a progress report on the joint study of the pig meat processing capacity in Ireland commissioned by both Agriculture Departments in December 1999. The council acknowledged the very severe contraction in the pig industry, particularly in Northern Ireland and noted that the study, together with the views of the two Agriculture Departments, would be presented to the next North/South Ministerial Council meeting in its agriculture sectoral format. We also noted that there has been an improvement in the price of pigs in recent times, which is very welcome.
On the broader rural development front, the council agreed to reconstitute a steering committee on cross-border rural development. The terms of reference of this committee, together with the rules of procedure, were agreed. The committee, which was first established in 1991, comprises senior officials from both Departments. It will consider ways to promote maximum co-operation in the implementation of rural development and EU programmes. The committee will also exchange information on experience and best practice in both jurisdictions in relation to rural development. It will also continue to develop common approaches to cross-border area-based strategies and rural development research.
A detailed work programme will be drawn up, and the agreed proposals will be tabled for endorsement at the next meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in its agriculture sectoral format. The council agreed that it will meet on a quarterly basis in this format and that the next meeting will take place in October in Northern Ireland. The council also agreed the text of a joint communiqué, which was issued following the meeting. A copy of the communiqué has been placed in the Assembly Library.
How much time was spent discussing the number of BSE cases in the Irish Republic? These seem to be increasing. The figures that I have before me are quite alarming. They show that in Northern Ireland there were six cases in 1998-99. I understand that so far this year there has been one case, whereas the numbers in the Irish Republic go into hundreds. Did the Minister take time with her colleague to discuss that matter? It seems strange that she is delighted that the Minister in the South is backing her case for low incidence BSE status for Northern Ireland, while at the same time there seems to be a rising tide of BSE cases in the Irish Republic.
I thank the Member for his question. My main concern is to get low incidence BSE status for Northern Ireland. I am aware that the Northern Ireland figures are better than those in the Republic, and it is for this reason that I am actively pursuing low incidence status for Northern Ireland. I did not discuss the situation in the Republic. I am pleased to inform the Member that, in relation to low incidence BSE status for Northern Ireland, I have the full support of the Minister for Agriculture, Joe Walsh, and that will be extremely important when our case reaches the stage of going before the member states.
I thank the Minister for her report. Has the Minister any views on the development of a common approach to developing cross-border rural development strategies?
I think that developing cross-border rural development strategies is extremely important, and they have been very beneficial to areas on both sides of the border. For example, in the integrated approach involving the Clogher Valley and Ballyhaise in Cavan, farmers on both sides have co-operated in improving their situation. One of the problems for such areas in the past has been that they have, in a sense, developed in a back-to-back approach, which has had a negative impact on areas on both sides. There is now the potential, within the developing cross-border rural development strategy, to allow those areas to work in an integrated basis using EU funds. This can be of real benefit to the rural communities on both sides of the border that have suffered from a back-to-back approach in the past. They can now work together on the basis of an integrated approach.
Thank you, A LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s statement. Can the Minister have any input to the question of planning in rural areas? Is there any way of alleviating the difficulties that the farming community is experiencing presently by, for example, trying to encourage planners not to be so restrictive in relation to planning where land has become almost obsolete and is the only form of income a farmer might have at present?
Also, while the rural development programme is important in the drive towards economic and social revitalisation of deprived rural areas throughout the North of Ireland, would she give consideration to ensuring that all sections of the rural community are involved in their own rural regeneration?
I thank the Member for his two questions. I have no formal role in planning. That particular area is the responsibility of the Department of the Environment, but I hope to work closely with it because I recognise that there are problems relating to planning, particularly for diversification in rural areas. I will work closely with the Department of the Environment, but I do not have a formal role in the development of the planning strategies.
The second part of the Member’s question concerned the involvement of rural communities. There has been quite a lot of welcome involvement by rural communities in the designing of their projects and in identifying their needs. Because rural communities know their needs better than anyone else, they are best placed to identify those needs. That has been going on with the help of officials. Local involvement is an integral part of the rural development programme, and I hope that the new rural development strategy continues to strengthen and encourage it.
If the Minister permits, I will ask two questions. First, I welcome the reconstitution of the steering committee on rural development, but I note that the Minister’s statement specifically says that it comprises senior officials from both jurisdictions. Is there any value in senior officials exchanging information if that information does not reach the ground where it might be of direct benefit? Can she explain how that will happen? I suspect that at times we have an information overload at senior level, yet sometimes the practical examples are not communicated to people working on the ground.
Secondly, the Minister referred earlier to the difficulties in implementing the new area-based schemes under the less favoured areas (LFA) proposals. Both jurisdictions are having difficulties getting those plans approved in Brussels. Can the Minister provide some more detail on when Northern Ireland farmers are likely to hear anything concrete on that? Unfortunately, to hear that we have problems with Brussels is not new; it would be much more beneficial if we could hear when those problems were likely to be resolved.
I thank the Member for his two questions. I will try to oblige and be very patient. I hope that everyone is not going to ask me two questions together.
In response to the Member’s first question about people at senior level, officials take on board the views of everyone when discussing these issues. In the rural development programme people are involved at all levels, and local people are particularly involved in local action groups, the INTERREG programme and community networks. Although senior officials are clearly the people who will be steering it along, as has been the case in the past, it will be in conjunction with rural communities and the people on the ground. Their views will be taken on board.
In relation to the LFA schemes, we are, as the Member is aware, currently revising our proposals. There will be further discussions with Brussels this month and after that there will be further consultation. The reality is that Brussels sent back the scheme that we put forward for the less favoured areas, as it sent back the schemes put forward by other UK regions and the Government in the Republic of Ireland. Our scheme was aimed at minimising the numbers of losers and winners and had an environmental component based on area rather than on headage. I am afraid that, in conjunction with the less favoured area farmers, we did not quite succeed in getting what we wanted. It is difficult to say when the proposals will be ready, but I can tell the Member that we are working on them and that they will be ready as soon as possible.
It comes as no surprise that Mr Walsh TD is fully backing our case for low incidence BSE status. If I were sitting with one hundred times the cases of BSE that another country had, I would be backing its arguments for low incidence BSE status. It will help his case significantly.
Since devolution, has the Minister at any point questioned the Irish Republic’s Minister about BSE cases? Does she recognise that it will impinge upon Northern Ireland’s case because cattle imported from the Irish Republic may contaminate livestock in Northern Ireland with BSE?
Also, has she raised the problem of the higher levels of tuberculosis and brucellosis in the Irish livestock herd compared to those in Northern Ireland’s? Finally, will she outline the proposals which she has been making to Brussels regarding the area payments?
I cannot remember how many questions I have had on that, but I will take the last first and then work my way back. The last one was about what proposals we are making in relation to LFA. I would need to have had a secretary beside me to keep track of all those questions — was it four? I am not sure. In relation to the LFA we are looking at putting forward new proposals which we hope to finalise very soon. We are looking at various areas, for instance, the idea of capping payments, raising the minimal acreage or hectarage for eligibility and at various proposals which will help us to ensure that the redistribution does not have a negative impact which it might otherwise have on our farmers. We want the redistribution to be as fair as possible and to have the minimum number of winners and the minimum number of losers. That is what we are working on. We are also looking at the situation of phasing in the changes over three years. We have not finalised our proposals yet, but those are the kind of areas that we are looking at. My priority is to ensure that the redistribution will not have a negative impact on those who most need help in the less favoured areas.
With regard to the low-incidence status, the Northern Ireland case is separate from that of the Republic of Ireland. Its position will not affect ours. Therefore, it is not necessary for me to raise the points that the Member mentioned. What we are looking for is low-incidence status for Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland will, in that situation, be treated as a region of the United Kingdom with separate status from the other regions of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Our main priority is to ensure that we get that low-incidence status; that it will be based on the strong case that we know we have because of the fact that last year we had only six cases. That is my main priority. It is not necessary to raise anything relating to the Republic’s incidence.
I am sure the Minister will agree that it is not in the interests of farmers, North or South to have fluctuations in BSE promoted by elected representatives at a time when there is a real chance of putting the problem in its true perspective, which, I understand, is that the scourge is minimal compared to other European countries. In relation to cross-border rural development, what has the steering committee achieved to date?
Since 1991, when the steering group was set up, it has acted as a useful forum for exchanging information, for example, on the evaluation of European Union programmes, such as LEADER II. It has also encouraged LEADER transnational co-operation and has reconciled policy and practice on both sides of the border to facilitate progress on rural development initiatives, for example, exchange of guidelines on LEADER II. Reports on progress were presented to the Intergovernmental Conference.
It would seem that the Minister is putting more emphasis on cross-border institutions, rather than taking the initiative in promoting rural development to its full potential in this Province which is her responsibility. It seems ludicrous for the Minister to be in discussions with the Minister of the Irish Republic in connection with areas of common interest at a time when no clear indication of policy on rural development has been made to the Assembly’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development Committee. When will the Minister be able to give us a clear indication of policy on rural development in this Province?
The Member will understand that in this report I am dealing with the North/South Ministerial Council in its sectoral meeting, which is specifically dealing with North/South issues, and for that reason the emphasis has been on North/South co-operation in rural development and other areas.
In relation to rural development in Northern Ireland, I can assure the Member that, for me, that issue is a high priority. It is an area that is close to my heart. I recognise the need to provide support and economic regeneration for deprived rural areas in Northern Ireland, which, given the changes in agriculture and world markets, are under severe pressure.
I am extremely interested and concerned that the rural development side of my portfolio should be progressed. My Department is at present working on a rural development strategy, and I am taking a keen personal interest. I hope that that strategy will be completed by the autumn of this year, and I can assure Mr Kane that as soon as it is available, I will make it available to the Committee. I will consult with the Committee and shall be interested to hear its views and have its comments. Perhaps I will take advice on where, or how, changes might be made.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s report, and especially the references to the reconstruction of the steering committee on cross-border and rural development, promoting co-operation and the implementation of rural development. Does the Minister agree that it is about time that we had an agreed agricultural policy on the island?
The Member will realise that as we are presently part of the United Kingdom we have to work within its framework. The United Kingdom is the member state; that is how Europe works, and we must work within the context of being a region of the United Kingdom.
That is not to say that we are not able to find common cause with the Irish Government on many areas within Europe, and a perfect example is our search for low-incidence BSE status. We have been guaranteed the full support of the Irish Government and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development in the Irish Government, Joe Walsh TD, when we come to put our case to the member states. We want to co-operate strongly with them on such issues.
I recognise the Member’s point about common agricultural interest, North and South, but we have to live in the real world, and, at the moment, we are working through the United Kingdom Government as a region of the United Kingdom.
I noted in the Minister’s statement that she acknowledges the severe contraction in the pig industry, but is she aware of just how severe it is? Something like 60% of the pig industry has now disappeared. What steps is the Minister going to take to stop this trend? If we have to wait for another long period before there is an announcement or a statement from the Minister, the pig industry will have retracted further.
At the moment pig prices are such that there is no profit in Northern Ireland pig production, and that situation cannot continue. Is the Minister aware of that crisis, and will she assure this House that she will not wait for action by her counterparts across the border, whose position is less severe, but will take all the necessary steps to rejuvenate this sector of the agriculture industry?
I thank the Member for his question. It is not related to my report, but I will attempt to deal with it as best I can. The Member will note that that is one of the first issues that I discussed at my first informal meeting with the Minister in the Republic as soon as I became Minister. The crisis in the pig industry was the main issue of discussion, and the Member will be glad to learn that at that meeting we decided to set up a joint study of processing capacity on the island in recognition of the processing capacity problem experienced at that time, particularly in the North.
That study has been put in place, and we will hopefully receive a report on how it has been going at the next meeting in October. The study will cost approximately £100,000, and Northern Ireland will contribute 25% of the cost, which will be shared equally between the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Industrial Development Board. The Republic of Ireland will pay the rest. That was one clear benefit which accrued from our first meeting and which is ongoing in relation to helping the pig producers.
The Member will also be aware that help for the pig sector was put in place at the Prime Minister’s summit in March. The pig scheme, which is actually being processed at the moment, is to help outgoers and those who wish to remain in the pig business. The outgoers scheme will be retrospective and will help those who have already left. Ongoers will be helped as regards interest payments. The Member will also be aware that one of the problems in the pig industry is oversupply.
In relation to the Member’s point about the pig crisis, I was speaking only two hours ago to two young farmers, and they were confirming the price of pigs. About 10 days ago the price was about 89p per kilo and then it went to 93p per kilo. The price of 89p per kilo was just about the break-even point. Now the industry is barely in profit. I am not suggesting that that is in any way satisfactory — it is not at all — but it is at least some improvement on the position where they were losing all the time. I welcomed that as a sign of movement. However, it is a little chink of light on the horizon. The other matters I have referred to will also be put in place. I am keenly aware of the very difficult situation pig farmers have been in. I have pig farmers in my constituency, and I well know the problems they have been facing. I am doing all that I can to help them, within the constraints of the European regulations.
Bearing in mind that the Departments seem to know that there is a need for their agencies to work together and collaborate regarding animal health and plant health, and also bearing in mind that this morning £8 million was transferred to pay for cattle taken off farms because of tuberculosis and brucellosis, are there any plans to seriously deal with this matter on a North/South basis? We seem to be going downhill rather than gaining. Maybe, in future, the £8 million could be better spent in other ways. There is a big problem. Will the Minister be dealing with that in the future?
I am sorry I could not hear the first time.
In Northern Ireland, policy reviews will be beginning in the autumn. We will take the Republic of Ireland’s views on board. As the Member is aware from my report, there is ongoing and continuing co-operation between the scientists in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and those in the Republic. We will continue that co-operation because it is in our mutual interest, as we share the same land mass, that we should do all in our power to work together and pool our resources at various stages in order to deal with the scourge of brucellosis.
This is really a follow-on from the last question. The Minister will be well aware that the United Kingdom Government are perhaps more stringent and timely in implementing EU policies on animal health and welfare, sometimes to the disadvantage of our farmers who can be forced into capital expenditure that others have not entered into. What efforts are being made at cross-border level to bring farming in the Republic of Ireland up to Northern Ireland standards?
This was not one of the areas that we discussed. It is not part of my report, so it is not something that I can answer at the moment. I am aware of the concerns of our farmers about the stringent health and welfare regulations. However, I cannot at the moment answer the question because the matter is not part of my report since it was not discussed.