Beef and Pig Sectors

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 11:45 am on 27th March 2001.

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Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party 11:45 am, 27th March 2001

I beg to move

That this Assembly accepts and endorses the findings and recommendations contained in the two reports published by the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development — ‘Restoring Profit for the Beef Producer’ (2/00/R) and ‘Restoring Profit for the Pig Producer’ (3/00/R) — and urges the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (and others involved in the beef and pig sectors) to take all the necessary steps to implement the recommendations.

Let me make it clear that this motion was unanimously agreed by the Committee. It is the Committee’s motion, and it was agreed by all parties who attended the meeting.

Last year, as Chairman of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, I tabled a motion in the House seeking the Assembly’s endorsement of the Committee’s first major report, ‘Retailing in Northern Ireland — A fair deal for the farmer’. The motion was agreed without a division. That report was the first of a series of three to come out of the Committee’s inquiry into debt in the agriculture industry.

Today I have tabled a similar motion, on the Committee’s behalf, seeking the Assembly’s endorsement of the final two reports and asking that the Assembly seek the implementation of the 15 recommendations contained in the beef sector report and the nine recommendations in the pig industry report. I was asked if now was the appropriate time to introduce those reports? My answer is emphatically "Yes". Farmers are in desperate need of some hope for the future. Even before the current crisis, hope was a rare commodity in the farming community. Some farmers are going out of business, and others are struggling with crippling debts. The recommendations in both reports offer hope for the future, but only if they are implemented.

I firmly believe that the Assembly’s endorsement of the reports and recommendations, and the momentum for change in those recommendations, will be too great for the Department and others in those industries to ignore.

12.00

The title of each report says it all — "Restoring profit". Would any of the Members here expect to run a business, support a family and uphold their local economy without the prospect of a fair return for their labours? Not one. That is all that farmers are asking for, and all that my Committee is being a voice for in the House. The Committee has investigated those important matters and has given a real insight into what is happening in agriculture today.

The report on the beef industry was launched on 15 December 2000, the report on the pig industry two months later. Those reports were the result of the Committee’s consideration of 14 long written submissions and 13 very long oral evidence sessions. That represents a significant body of evidence from all sides of the industry. The Minister must lend her ear to the evidence. I commend all those who took part in the inquiry and I commend those in the Committee who worked hard at their task.

The Committee made 15 recommendations on the beef industry. They covered a wide range of subjects including EU matters, herd improvement, the creation of effective and efficient partnerships, opening new markets, branding, quality and strategic involvement of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in the industry. I only have time to concentrate on a few of those today.

First, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s strategic role. Based on the evidence before it, one of the Committee’s firm conclusions was that the massive superiority of the market power of both processors and retailers was leading to the poor returns faced by beef farmers. We also found that the fragmentation of beef production was a real obstacle to the creation of a modern responsive supply chain.

Therefore one of our main recommendations was that the Department should set a high priority on the transformation of beef production from a collection of individual farmers with no market power to a market-oriented organised force, able to respond with a quality product. We recommended that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development should create and lead a task force to help that to happen. What is the use of having the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development if it is not going to help the farmers? What is the use of turning the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development into a police force to look after and monitor farmers, rather than helping them to win markets?

Within the existing supply chain, Northern Irish beef is being processed and sold profitably but without an acceptable return for the producers. They are the Cinderellas of the high business strategy employed by large companies in our Province today. Those large companies are not going bankrupt, but the farmers are. The directors of those companies are not committing suicide, but some farmers are. Those companies give a tremendous return to their shareholders while the farmer has a pittance and his income is cut by over 50%.

Another issue that the report highlighted was the alleged price differential between Northern Irish beef and that sold in Great Britain. The Committee defends Northern Ireland’s farmers — their beef is second to none. They deserve the same reward for their labours as their fellow farmers in the rest of this United Kingdom. We have recommended that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development investigate the allegations with a view to securing comparable returns for similar livestock.

The Committee was most concerned about evidence regarding the deterioration in the quality of beef cattle presented for slaughter. There are several reasons for that, including the high percentage of input from the dairy herds. Another significant factor is the lack of price incentives from processors to encourage farmers to present animals of a higher quality. During evidence sessions even the processors agreed that there was not a wide enough gap in prices in Northern Ireland.

Therefore the main thrust of the Committee’s recommendations in that area is twofold. The Department must prepare an overall strategy for herd improvement that involves the whole industry, and processors must alter their pricing policies to offer stronger incentives. The Committee welcomed the Department’s beef quality initiative, announced in the Programme for Government, as a major step in the right direction. However, when the Committee questioned officials about the proposed scheme at the beginning of March it was disappointed to learn that processors had not commented on the individual proposals, although they supported the principle of the scheme. We want to see the principle not just supported but transformed into action.

That demonstrates the importance of the fully developed involvement of processors, as recommended by the Committee. If processors do not act, we fear, the initiative will not succeed, as the main tangible benefits to encourage farmers to undertake quality production — a premium for their animals — will not exist.

I am pleased to inform the Assembly that the Minister has responded positively to the beef report. In her letter of 22 February, Ms Rodgers congratulated the Committee on producing a concerted and concentrated examination of the issues. Although it may appreciate those remarks, the Committee is more interested in action. Of the 12 recommendations directly relating to the Department, the Minister either will act or is already taking action to implement four of them. Those involve agrimonetary compensation, swift dispersal of payments to farmers, supporting efforts to reopen new markets and, crucially, conducting an investigation into the price differential between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The Committee welcomes those actions.

On a further three recommendations — those relating to herd improvement, farm quality assurance and traceability — the Minister appears to accept the Committee’s findings but is not necessarily committing herself to taking to the action proposed in its report. The Committee will be interested to hear today whether the Minister will expand on those areas. In any event, it will seek to ensure that the actions taken by the Minister meet the objectives of its recommendations.

In her reply, the Minister appeared unconvinced about the recommendation to brand Northern Ireland beef. In hearing evidence, the Committee learned about a successful branding exercise to sell our beef in Holland. The Committee also heard that the Great Britain market was largely based on a known-label strategy.

The Committee firmly believes that branding offers the only real protection against product substitution by the big retailers and that it must be pursued. Despite the Minister’s apparent reluctance, the Committee welcomes the fact that the Livestock and Meat Commission is to undertake a study of the scope of branding Northern Ireland red meat. That study should not be delayed, and Members will take a close interest in its findings.

The Minister appears to have rejected three of the Committee’s recommendations. Those recommendations included the banning of imports of foreign beef if there is a risk to consumers or a threat to the industry. That is all the more important today, when meat that has not been properly handled — even under EEC rules — is coming from the continent into Northern Ireland. We also recommended that the Department become a more proactive participant in the beef sector and that producers should be organised into a market-orientated force.

It could be argued that only three rejections out of 12 recommendations is not a bad result for a Committee report. However, recent events, including the importing from Germany and other European countries of beef from which the spinal cord had not been removed, make our recommendation on that all the more valid. As recently as last Thursday, the Ulster Farmers’ Union called for the suspension of EU beef imports. Stern measures are called for.

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s involvement and leadership in creating a modern, responsive and powerful production force is crucial to the Committee’s vision for a better future for the beef farmers of Northern Ireland. If the Minister does not accept that our task force recommendation is the right way to go, the members of the Committee and I will be interested to hear her alternative suggestions for improving co-operation among producers and securing real partnership arrangements with powerful processors and retailers.

The final report, ‘Restoring Profit for the Pig Producer’, was launched at a press conference on 16 February. In that report, there were nine recommendations. The Committee has not yet received the Minister’s response to that report, which puts me at something of a disadvantage. I do not criticise the Minister for that; we all know and appreciate that she has been preoccupied in recent weeks. Nonetheless, we look forward with interest to her response today. The Committee will find out only today what the Minister plans to do about our recommendations, so we look forward to meeting her again and having further discussions.

The Committee’s findings covered four areas: the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s strategic involvement in the industry; the Department’s response to the crisis faced by pig producers; producer-processor partnerships, and reserved matters outside the direct control of the local administration. As was the case with the beef sector, the Committee found that the Department should be more proactive in certain areas of its dealings with the industry.

The Committee was most impressed by the efforts of the United Pig Producers’ Co-operative to make a significant change in the supply chain. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development would appear to agree, as it has allocated significant moneys to the co-operative to make it work. However, like the beef sector, there is an imbalance of market power. Pig producers have to either take it or leave it when processors offer them a price. Members felt that there must be a real advantage for processors in the assurance of a ready and consistent supply of quality pigs at an agreed price. However, we heard that the major processor, the Malton bacon factory, had not engaged in a meaningful way with the co-operative. Without such co-operation, further progress is impossible. For that reason, one of our main recommendations is for the Department to become much more closely involved in the negotiations. That processor has benefited from a very large grant assistance from the Department, and the Committee believes that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development therefore has the right — indeed, the obligation — to intervene in that matter.

The Committee also heard evidence on the disparity in prices between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. As was the case with beef, the Committee would have recommended that the Department investigate that differential. However, before the report was finalised, the Minister announced an investigation into the conformation of Northern Ireland pigs. The Committee welcomes that. If the findings reveal — as we expect they will — that the processors’ allegations of poor quality are absolutely unfounded, the Committee in its recommendation has urged the Department to follow that up most vigorously.

During our inquiry, there was much debate about the Government’s handling of the crisis in the pig industry, particularly in relation to the catastrophic fire at the Ballymoney processing plant. Northern Ireland pig farmers look endlessly across the border to their counterparts in the Republic of Ireland. The welfare scheme offered for pig farmers was nothing in comparison with that, and should not be likened to it. The pig farmers believe that the Government there understood the problems and acted accordingly. They do not believe the same could be said of the Administration here.

Our report calls for the Minister to put in place a scheme that will take into account the specific difficulties faced in Northern Ireland. That would be in addition to the UK-wide pig industry restructuring scheme and would ensure that our producers are not disadvantaged compared to those in the south of this island. I will be particularly interested to hear the Minister’s response to this recommendation which, I believe, has the full support of the pig farmers.

The UK-wide scheme I have just mentioned will have an effect on the overall industry in Northern Ireland. The Minister told the Committee recently that there had been some 800 applications for the outgoers element of the scheme. It is obvious that the Northern Ireland pig industry will be much smaller when that scheme concludes. The Committee believes that its recommendations lay the foundations for more profitable times for those who decide to continue rearing pigs.

It is essential that support be given to the pig farmers quickly. It is now a year since Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food announced the UK scheme. Such a delay, I trust, will not be the fault of the local Minister, and the Committee finds it acceptable and recommends that she lobby Colleagues to ensure that funds reach their destination much sooner in the future.

In conclusion, these reports are important milestones in the hopes for the recovery of the two important sectors of our industry, which at the moment are in turmoil. I commend them to the Assembly. I ask the Assembly to support the motion in order to send a clear message to the agricultural and wider rural communities that it is aware of, and is seriously concerned about, the future of our greatest industry in Northern Ireland. The Assembly must show that it is seeking to help farmers remain in the industry and give those that have given their lives to farming a proper retirement. It must bring new people into the farming industry who wish to remain in the farming community.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker 12:15 pm, 27th March 2001

This is a time-limited debate and a substantial number of Members wish to participate. I have to put a limit of seven minutes on subsequent speeches, save for the Minister, to whom the usual rule of thumb of 10 minutes per hour of debate will apply. Even with that limit, all who wish to speak may not be able to do so. We must adhere to the time limit.

Photo of George Savage George Savage UUP

As Deputy Chairperson, I support what the Chairperson of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee has said. Our recommendations in the two reports were not made lightly. I hope that our efforts have gone some way towards providing a new beginning for the two parts of our industry that are in grave need.

As we pursued the two elements of our inquiry, the similarities in the problems faced by pig and beef producers in Northern Ireland made an impression on Committee members. Farm debt in both sectors had its roots in many different fundamental causes. Some of these were outside the control of farmers and others in Northern Ireland. However, it also became clear that in both cases producers were not getting a fair crack of the whip when it came to making profit from the food chain.

The Chairman has rightly concentrated on the Committee’s recommendations to the Department and I would encourage the Minister to implement them without delay. It is also worth noting that we made several recommendations to others in the industry and I wish to highlight some of those. In the beef report we recommended that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development should create and lead a task force to organise production. We followed that through by recommending that producers co-operate fully with that initiative and make any investments necessary to ensure its success.

There is a saying about leading a horse to water. Similarly, one cannot make farmers co-operate or participate even if the best of schemes are provided. However, our report recognises that producers must get involved and act together rather than stand alone. They are at the mercy of more powerful forces.

Making investments will not be easy decisions for farmers, but I fully expect that farmers will put their hands in their pockets if they are convinced that it will ultimately secure a better return. I say that again: they will do so if they are convinced that it will ultimately secure a better return.

When we made recommendations on beef herd improvements, we asked the Department to prepare the strategy and asked the processors to play their part by offering the right incentives. We have also asked producers to pay more attention to improving the overall quality. Even if the incentives are there, it is the producers who will still have to make them operable. Farmers should not fall into the trap of saying "Why should I bother?" A far more valid response would be "Make it worth my while." Farmers must throw out the challenge to factories and processors and say "If you make it worth my while, I will produce the best beef this country has ever seen." That is where the crux of the matter lies.

We continued this theme in our report on the pig industry. We included two recommendations aimed at the producers and processors: to take their product and to make their product. We have urged the establishment of an equal partnership between processors and co-operatives. We have encouraged those involved in co-operatives to stick to their task. If co-operatives can provide a quality supply on which processors can fully depend, processors must see the attractions eventually.

A team effort is required from both the beef and pig sectors. All sides must have equal standing and respect for each other if the supply chains are to operate to their full potential. These are two good reports that have gone to the heart of the problems faced by local farmers and have offered some solutions. The problems will not go away because many aspects of the industry are currently outside the control of the producers. However, in the coming days I hope that those problems will be overcome. I urge all farmers to take on board what the Committee has been trying to do. We will not walk away from the problems. I hope that farmers will rise to the challenge that lies before them and make Northern Ireland a place where we produce only the best.

I have great pleasure in supporting the motion.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have consulted with the Committee Clerk. We did not receive the letter to which the Minister referred. I have also sent word to my office, and we did not receive a letter there either. I would be grateful to the Minister if she would let us have a copy of the letter.

Photo of Ms Brid Rodgers Ms Brid Rodgers Social Democratic and Labour Party

I have a copy of the letter here which was issued by my Department.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

I cannot be responsible for the Post Office or for whatever service delivers — or in this case does not deliver. However, since we are now due to break for lunch, I trust that it may be possible for a copy of the letter to be conveyed to the Chairperson, and then all needs will be satisfied.

The debate stood suspended.

The sitting was suspended at 12.28 pm.

On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Sir John Gorman] in the Chair) —

Photo of P J Bradley P J Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:00 pm, 27th March 2001

I will not dwell on the beef aspect of the motion since the announcement made in Brussels at lunchtime has rather overtaken us. I am pleased to be one of the first Members of the Assembly to welcome the announcement that regional status has been granted to Northern Ireland. As a South Down MLA and a Newry and Mourne district councillor, I accept the Minister’s explanation that the entire Newry and Mourne area will have to wait a short while before it too can enjoy this regional status. I am, however, satisfied that we will not have to wait a moment longer than is necessary before the restrictions are removed.

Now that regional status has been granted, I thank Ms Rodgers, who is not present at the moment, and her team for their endless efforts and for overcoming the unforeseen problems which arose on the way to achieving this. Well done to the Minister and to everyone else concerned.

On the question of profit creation and who should have a role in the recovery of the beef industry, we all agreed that the process should start with the farmers. However, that responsibility also extends to the processors, the retailers and the housewives — particularly the Northern Ireland housewives — who need to ensure that profits return to the farmers.

The obstacle presented by the strength of sterling will continue to burden the agriculture industry and all local industries that depend on export markets. It is an obstacle that we could do without, but it would be pointless to ask Tony Blair or Gordon Brown to do anything about it.

The report highlights the level of mistrust between the farmers and the rest of the supply chain. A united approach to supplying the market with adequate quantities of top quality produce at the right time for a mutually agreed price is an important piece in the jigsaw of recovery. However, as I said at the outset, we held our breath today as we waited the outcome of the Standing Veterinary Committee’s deliberations in Brussels. The decision in our favour gives us a new foundation upon which to restore profits. Without knowing the full details of the regional status announcement, and despite the current gloom, this is a good day for Northern Ireland farmers.

On the section of the report which deals with the pig industry, the fight to restore profits to this sector will be more difficult than our long fight for beef recovery. I recall the evidence of Mr Forbes of the Ulster Curers’ Association in response to a question about the role played by such supermarkets as Sainsbury’s.

Mr Forbes’s reply reflected the views of many when he pointed out that the multiples pushed for quality assurance but then failed to pay the price for quality goods. They buy foreign products as an alternative. Until we can break the stranglehold which the multinationals have upon the agriculture industry, we will continue to have a non-profit situation on our farms.

I have decided, in the short time available to me, to deal with labelling and branding. I wish to look at the evidence given by the President of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, Mr Douglas Rowe, on that issue. Mr Rowe’s view is that everybody in the agriculture industry must explore the branding concept. I share his view that Northern Ireland needs a brand of its own — a brand name that will indicate quality produce at a glance. I call upon the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to lead on the issue of branding. It has the necessary finances at its disposal and the marketing expertise to back it up.

That gives me an opportunity to raise an old hobby horse of mine and to re-emphasise a point that I have often made in the past — although it is probably an issue for another day. I refer to the stamping of our pork and the tagging of our animals for live export. All references to being UK born and bred will have to be removed from the identity tags and replaced by an Irish or Northern Irish identity if we really want to cash in on our many advantages and new regional status.

I want to express a personal view — that the demise of the small producer was the beginning of the end for the pig industry. The disappearance of the 10 to 12 sow units is a factor that has probably led to the current problems. Why did they exit the industry? I believe that the people who would be most embarrassed if they were asked that question today would be the millers and the grain traders. They ate into the profits of the small producers with weekly increases in feed prices until they eventually put the farmers out of business. Northern Ireland producers had to pay up to £15 per tonne more than their counterparts in the Republic of Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. Is it any wonder that they went out of business?

The vast majority of young people in Northern Ireland under 20 years of age and living in the countryside have not seen a sow or a pig in their lifetime — that is how serious it is. As I look around the House, I would say that there are many Members who have not seen a sow or a pig in the last 30 years. The return of the pig to the small farms in Northern Ireland could well be the lifeline that the industry needs. I believe that that aim — albeit somewhat ambitious at this stage — should be addressed by those designated with the responsibility of regenerating the countryside.

From our numerous sessions of evidence, there emerged the belief that the setting up of producers’ groups and co-operatives would be to the overall benefit of the industry. I agree, but it is my belief that this is not completely achievable if the small pig producer does not return to the industry. I repeat that regionalisation is the key to restoring profit to the beef industry. I thank the Minister and her team for their success on that issue. Restoring the pig industry to what it was in the late 60s and 70s may well be the way to reinstate profit for the pig industry.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr DUP

This is a most opportune time to debate agricultural issues, given the crisis that is being experienced in our country. It is unfortunate, however, that many of the Benches in the House do not seem to reflect the seriousness of this crisis as they are empty today. I hope that Members realise that if they are going to appear on television and go to other places and talk about a crisis in agriculture yet fail to turn up here and debate the crisis, then people will read into that that their only interest is a self-interest.

I am very pleased that our Committee was able to come to unanimous recommendations on restoring profit to both the pig and beef sectors. It is good that we have had this debate, and I commend to the House the report that has been proposed by the Committee Chairperson and supported by the Members who have spoken so far. If anyone takes a moment and goes into the Senate Chamber of this Building —

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

Does the Member not find it strange that no representative of the Government is in the House today to sit at the Bench and listen to this debate? That would not be tolerated in any other Parliament in the United Kingdom. The Minister responsible — or someone she has deputed — should be here to listen to the debate. How can she reply to anything said in this debate if she has not even heard it?

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr DUP

I am bitterly disappointed that there appears to be a lack of interest, particularly on the Front Benches.

I think that that should go on the record. We are supposed to be in an era of joined-up Government, but where is it? That is evidenced by today’s debate on this serious issue. If one takes a moment to go into the Senate, one will see three representations on the gallery backdrop of the prime industries that ran Northern Ireland when this building was first opened: the industries of textile, shipbuilding and agriculture. If we in this House are not careful, we will be writing an obituary for the agriculture industry. It is very unfortunate that those other industries have declined so rapidly, but it would be a shame to see an obituary for this premier industry.

We want to see the Department implement what these reports say. We want to see a can-do attitude to ensure that an industry so important to Northern Ireland is developed and grows. We do not want to have a cannot-do or a not-allowed-to-do attitude because of European Regulations; we want to have a can-do Government.

The officials in our Department are very clever men and women who have shown their ability in times past. Those people must be allowed to use that ability to get this industry out of the crisis that it is in. A lot of people are concerned that their abilities are being hampered by regulations and rules from other places rather than being used, and that is a scandal.

It would be odd not to say something about the regionalisation announcement today. It has come at last, but people are right to say that it took long enough to come. Others seemed to be out on the starting-blocks before us, and it is disappointing that Northern Ireland still has to wait another week before the effect of that announcement will kick in. I hope that when it does kick in we will get some benefit from it, for the good of the industry.

I also want to refer to an article that appeared in Saturday’s ‘News Letter’ by Mr Alex Kane. In it he took to task not only the Minister here but the Minister at MAFF and, indeed, the Agriculture Committee for not doing enough. He said

"Politicians need to take a fairly ruthless look at the so called plight of our farmers. So far there has been no evidence that the Assembly Agricultural Committee is prepared to do this. For it seems prepared to act as a tax-payer funded lobby group for the industry pleading for new funds and increased understanding rather than face economic realities".

If Mr Kane had taken the time to read the reports he would have seen that they proposed fairly radical measures for the restructuring of the industry. The industry does need to be restructured. Farmers say to us "We want to see the industry restructured" because they know that by having the industry restructured they will find a better way, they will become more economically successful and they will become much more successful and productive. It was wrong for those words to be used in any way to batter the Assembly when reports are being debated today which propose the very things that he says are missing from the Assembly.

We also need some clarity from the Department. On 7 September last year the Minister wrote that she had very real reservations about the value of pursuing the course of bringing in producer co-operatives which the Committee was then considering; yet on 22 February she welcomed that proposal. I am glad that the Minister has welcomed that proposal and indeed is taking some credit for it. I do not really care who gets the credit, but what I want to see is clarity on policy, and the farming community, the consumer and indeed everyone in the food production chain want to see clarity from the Government.

I shall deal very briefly with the pigs report. We hoped that the pig outgoers scheme would be helpful to pig producers. Indeed, we encouraged farmers who wanted to take that drastic step and get out of the pig industry to apply for the pig outgoers scheme. I understand that up to maybe 500 people in Northern Ireland in pig production made applications under the pig outgoers scheme, and I am alarmed to learn that fewer than 100 of them were accepted by the scheme in the first round.

People are desperate to restructure their industry. However, they are playing cricket only to find that everyone else is playing rugby. It is wrong that people are riding roughshod over them. The Department must get a handle on that to ensure that Northern Ireland farmers get a fair deal. It must take the lead on restructuring so that in the future —

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr DUP

We can say that we delivered profits to pig and beef producers.

Photo of Gerry McHugh Gerry McHugh Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important issue. I also welcome the regionalisation status that we have been granted. However, the Newry and Mourne area may find itself locked into the exclusion zone, and Departments should do all they can to help not only the tourism industry there but also other interests that could be affected.

For some time we have been asking for regionalisation in relation to BSE, and given that this has now been granted for foot-and-mouth disease, the argument could be made to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the European Commission that we are also entitled to BSE regionalisation. We have been locked into a negative situation for a long time because of foot-and-mouth disease and BSE, and markets must be opened up.

I accept the points that were made about the article in the ‘News Letter’ at the weekend. The views of people outside the industry can be challenging, especially when Alex Kane says that the Committee is simply a lobby group. Part of our remit is to lobby on behalf of farmers and others but the article was wrong to say that this was all we do. The points he made are unproven and unsubstantiated.

We have already discussed the reports on the beef and pig industries, and their findings still stand. The problems of both industries are similar, as are the reasons for their non-profitability. These issues will have to be dealt with in the months and years to come. Tony Blair has said that livestock production must be approached in a different way. There must be a full overview of the industry, and whether or not this is done on an all-Ireland basis, we must ensure that we do not face this same situation in one year’s time or 10 years’ time. We could eradicate foot-and-mouth disease now, but under the present regulations it could return in six months’ time because almost anything can be imported from the countries we deal with.

The reports make several recommendations that should be followed through. I strongly urge the Minister to put those recommendations into practice.

In the Committee’s evidence sessions we tried to get to grips with the reasons for finding ourselves in this situation: sterling, the BSE crisis, the loss of markets (which continue to deteriorate), the fire at Malton’s pig plant in Ballymoney, the processors, and the power that supermarkets have beyond the farm gate.

Foot-and-mouth disease has an impact beyond the agriculture industry. Shares dropped and the economic growth of the South will fall by 2% next year. In what is a multi-billion pound industry, talk is of billions being lost. However, farmers ask themselves "What billions are being lost?" They are certainly not making billions. The problem is that people outside farming have made the money. They have gained most from what is a very profitable industry. The problem is that the industry is for those outside the farm gate. That is where our problem lies. We have to get to the stage at which everybody in the industry makes a return and has a fair future. If we do not, the whole industry will fall apart and we might as well do as Alex Kane seems to say: hand it over to big landlords and do away with small farming families. From his article, that appears to be the only option.

There are many stakeholders in the industry, including the bodies that deal with it. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is one with a major role to play. Groups such as the Livestock and Meat Commission (LMC), the Northern Ireland Meat Exporters’ Association (NIMEA) and others also have a role to play. From the evidence sessions, we learned from some of those groups that problems exist to do with price-fixing by cartels. Allegations were made, as yet unsubstantiated, but many farmers believe that that is one of the major reasons for their finding themselves in such difficulties over the years, leaving aside BSE and the current foot-and-mouth disease outbreak. Difficulties in making a profit have existed for decades, and for the same reasons. A farmer is an individual who has to work on his own, having been isolated by those all-powerful bodies who have control over the budget and over how they treat farmers. Farmers told the Committee that they are all working towards producing a quality product. We cannot have a quality product unless it is paid for at the primary producer end, which has never happened to any great degree. Farmers are manipulated through grading, and money is kept from them in other ways as they strive to produce a quality product.

If we are going to change the entire agriculture industry we will have to act on the recommendations of the reports. We must not allow them simply to gather dust because they are as relevant now as they were in the past number of months.

Photo of Mr Boyd Douglas Mr Boyd Douglas UUAP

I endorse many of the comments that have been made in the debate. Many factors are affecting our farming industry, and in the reports the Committee has sought to address the issues that are pertinent to the profitability of beef and pig producers — two of our main farm sectors that have been beset by problems over the past five years. A widely recognised point that I take from the report is that processors of red meat have never made more profit than they have done since the BSE crisis struck. They have used various excuses to cover their practices of offering low prices to producers while charging high prices to butchers and, hence, the consumers. LMC livestock figures show that the difference between what a supermarket charges for a bullock and what a farmer receives at the farm gate is £635. That is hard to believe. The consumer cost is 238% higher than the amount the primary producer is paid. Consider the timescale of production for a farmer of two years’ keep for an animal against a timescale of approximately two weeks for the meat processor and supermarket. That equates to a farmer’s receiving 63p per day while a processor and a supermarket gets £45·35 per day for their efforts.

In the report, the re-establishment of niche markets in Europe is recommended. That I would also highly endorse, as many of the beef industry’s problems stem from a reliance on UK supermarket trade alone and the power that those giants wield. I quote from the report:

"The best of Northern Ireland’s grass-fed steer beef stands comparison with any competing product in terms of farm quality, traceability, hygiene, service and eating quality."

However, there does not appear to be enough of that product at the top end of the market, and that is due to various factors. Many producers would say that the grading standards have tightened, and they often appear to be correct in those assumptions. Nevertheless, other factors have a detrimental effect on beef quality, such as — and this is a bit rich, coming from a dairy farmer — the high percentage of dairy cows in the Province, which influences the grading quality. That is something that must be addressed.

Secondly, there is a lack of price incentives and encouragement for the beef producer to produce better quality. Perhaps the most important factor is the subsidy system, which does nothing to encourage quality but only promotes quantity. I do not blame the farmers here. They are out to make a profit and they will do anything they can to produce the meat necessary to make a profit. However, something needs to be done here; something needs to be tweaked a little to encourage quality. On that subject, I welcome the fact that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has proposed a beef quality initiative. I look forward to its implementation at ground level.

The pig industry is having similar problems to the beef industry, with producer fragmentation and with large processors and supermarkets calling the shots. The report has recognised the need for strong producer groups in the pig sector. The United Pig Producers’ Co-operative (UPP) tried to address the problem but processors actively encouraged people not to get involved. They discouraged farmers from joining and tried to strangle the venture in its infancy. The Department must address that type of action so that the producers have some say and power over their own destiny.

There is also the problem of the weakness of the euro resulting in the sucking-in of inferior products from Europe because of lower prices. We have a situation whereby our industry is regulated like no other in the world and, as usual, the producer has to pay. We had unilateral action by the UK Government to ban stalls and tethers seven years before the rest of Europe, with no compensation given to the farmers affected. A ban on meat and bonemeal was imposed, at a cost of £5·26 per pig, also with no compensation.

Countries exporting to Northern Ireland must meet the same specifications imposed on our producers or face the consequences of their product being banned from the UK until they meet our standards of health and animal welfare. Our producers only want a level playing field and a fair market for their product. Give them that and they will produce the food as efficiently as they do now, but the difference will be that they will receive proper recompense for their efforts.

We must also have a responsive Department, especially with reference to the implementation of assistance schemes such as the Pig Industry Restructuring Scheme. That scheme was introduced on 30 March 2000, but to date has not produced any revenue for pig producers or for those who have had to leave the pig industry. Ian Paisley Jnr referred the fact that a very small number of people have been received into this scheme to date. This is highly unacceptable because this scheme was put in place to help those who went out of business. Many are down hundreds of thousands of pounds with no comeback whatsoever. Many people from my constituency phoned me last night and none of them has been received into the scheme. Instead, they have been asked to reapply. Some had submitted very small bids and find it difficult to understand why they have not been offered any finance.

In conclusion, I urge the Minister to heed the recommendations of the report and act on them. Most of them do not cost a great deal of money but require the Department to go that extra mile to lobby for the beef farmer and the pig farmer. I support the motion.

Photo of Mrs Joan Carson Mrs Joan Carson UUP 2:30 pm, 27th March 2001

I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. I also welcome the fact that the Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development is present to reply to what is said. I welcome the two reports on restoring profit to the agriculture industry. This debate is most timely, especially considering the problem of profitability.

Our agriculture industry is going from crisis to crisis, and those involved in farming are getting deeper and deeper into debt. The farming industry has been under threat for some time. The BSE crisis, the strong pound, deep distrust of the pricing practices of processors and supermarkets, and now, of course, the dreadful foot-and-mouth emergency have all contributed to that.

If actions are not taken, the producer base in Northern Ireland will fragment and disintegrate. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development should play its part in helping to stabilise the agriculture industry by encouraging and facilitating better communication and co-operation among all levels of the supply chain. The recommendation that the Department should work with the farmers to secure an equitable price for their pigs and beef is one towards which we should work.

Northern Ireland is at the bottom of the United Kingdom price league. That inequality is unacceptable. I also welcome and support the recommendations to create producer/processor partnerships in order to look at and serve market trends. It is important that quality produce receive a fair price for everyone involved.

Improvements were mentioned in the beef producer report. The recommendations do point out the difficulty that the beef producer has had with regard to incentives for producing beef. The Department should look at, and perhaps instigate, an overall strategy to obtain better herd quality as a matter of urgency.

I have spoken about branding before, and it is also mentioned in the beef producer report. Image and brand are both very important in the competitive market. Northern Ireland beef and pork are second to none. Consumers in the United Kingdom and Europe should be able to easily recognise that they are buying a product form Northern Ireland. A brand should be promoted and protected, with DARD taking a lead in partnership with the producers and the processors.

The problem of debt is also important. Point 13 in the executive summary of ‘Retailing in Northern Ireland — A Fair Deal for the Farmer?’ says

"These factors are not helped by the current climate of suspicion and allegation, with primary producers concerned that they are unequal partners in an other wise profitable business".

We must ask for that to be addressed.

The financial assistance is needed not only to help our farmers to overcome the debt, but it must be structured to take into account a long-term strategy that will allow farmers and their families to survive and make their farms profitable and secure for future generations. Fianancial assistance is also needed to make sure that Northern Ireland is not disadvantaged compared with the Republic of Ireland and the rest of Europe.

In October 1998 I spoke about the problems of pig producers. Very little has changed since then, and little help has been offered.

In conclusion, I support the report’s recommendations. I encourage Northern Irish consumers to make sure that the produce and the products that they buy in the markets and supermarkets are really produced here. The future of the Northern Irish agriculture industry is at stake. I support the motion.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

I too support the report. It demonstrates agreement between various groups with a common interest in restoring profitability to the farming industry. Indeed, we are all grateful for the contributions made and do not dismiss any of them out of hand. We must give very careful consideration to what has been said by all the groups, not least the farming unions.

The principal causes of crisis in the farming industry are well established, so they do not need to be repeated. In addition to the BSE problem, there were the problems of currency exchange rates, cheap imports and the loss in the value of direct EU payments. Those are all well documented in the report. The current grading structures in particular have come in for criticism, and that criticism is well justified. The issue will rumble on because there is an urgent need to make fundamental changes if the farmers are to be given a fair price for their products. There is a widespread belief among farmers at the moment that they are being cheated and that belief must be addressed.

According to the report, there is a view that the farming industry is too vulnerable to the might of those who influence and control the retail market — the meat processing plants and the large supermarket chains. The supermarkets are so powerful that farmers are frightened to offer criticism in case they lose everything. That situation is unacceptable in a modern society.

Farmers are encouraged to offer a constant supply of top-class products to the processing companies, but there are no tangible benefits to the producers for doing that. That issue cannot be dismissed as being the result of the normal effects of market forces. During the gathering of evidence there was a useful dialogue on how the farming industry might overcome some of the powers of those who control so much of its livelihood at the moment.

The concept of co-operatives emerged time and again and was mentioned earlier by the Deputy Chairperson of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee George Savage and others. That must be pursued, and I welcome the agreement of the Department to assist and encourage the movement towards co-operatives. I fully accept that it is not a direct responsibility of the Department but of the farming industry to set up the co-operatives or control them. However, it is not feasible for farmers to do that without a great deal of support, including financial support in the early years.

The Department has the expertise to influence the emergence of successful co-operatives that will not suffer from the weakness of previous models. In the past, the emergence of co-operatives broke the stranglehold of the gombeen men and that success can be repeated. In the recent Programme for Government, resources were set aside for education and training in the agriculture industry. Those resources are fundamental for equipping young people with the education and skills needed to tackle new concepts in marketing to deal with the current crisis.

Both farming organisations support the co-operative ideal and have indicated that they will support the development of such worthy principles. The Ulster Farmers’ Union put forward constructive suggestions for the development of co-operatives. Those are worth examining and are detailed in the report. The Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers’ Association gave evidence and also supported the concept of co-operation. It highlighted mistakes of the past but offered full co-operation, and that is very welcome.

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development emphasised in its submission that any new producer co-operative would need to be involved in processing and marketing as well as in selling primary produce. It cautioned about the massive investment needed and the risk of duplication. However, we cannot leave the industry to the monopoly of the large combines or allow opportunities for cartels that have the capacity to wipe out the industry.

We can learn from the past so that we can chart a new future that offers the hope of new prosperity based on sound financial principles. There is now a unique opportunity to move forward in partnership. For the first time there is a devolved Assembly that has the power to call witnesses, scrutinise the work of the Department and question the Minister on all aspects of her work.

The new dawn of democracy could not have come at a better time, and the new Minister could not be more helpful in her willingness to assist with change. The farming industry, in this time of crisis, is aware that this is a time for solidarity among all interested parties. They will thank no one who exploits their situation or attempts to make political capital of them. They are watching carefully and are determined that they will not be used by politicians, some of whom have never cultivated so much as a window box.

Time has not permitted me to deal with the pig industry in particular, but that does not indicate a lack of interest. The pig industry, like the beef industry, has a future. However, it must not be left to the control of market forces or the producers will become the victims of exploitation once again. I support the report.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I would like to address two points in the report. The first of those is recommendation 2, which states:

"The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development should press the United Kingdom Government to introduce a ban on imports of foreign beef that presents a threat to the local agricultural industry and a risk to consumers."

In recent weeks and months we have seen evidence of the risk that that poses to the industry and to consumers. The crisis that we are in today is the result of cheap imports into the United Kingdom. Cheaply imported pork and chicken products from the Far East that are used in the United Kingdom can enter the animal food chain through pigswill.

There have been several other instances when food of a lesser quality was imported to the United Kingdom, put on supermarket shelves alongside United Kingdom products, and used to keep the price of food down. The cheap food policy has not proven to be good for the industry or for consumers. We are in a crisis. Animals throughout the United Kingdom are being slaughtered because of the cheap food policy. That issue must be addressed.

If food is imported, farmers in the United Kingdom should face equal and fair competition. That competition should not come from people who are not applying the same standards to food production as those rightly expected by consumers in the United Kingdom. Both the Minister of Agriculture and the Minister of Health — who has a role in this through the Food Standards Agency — should ensure that all food meets the high standards that are expected of Northern Ireland farmers. We have seen the meat plants and the different companies taking the opportunity, on too many occasions, to drive down the price of primary produce in Northern Ireland by introducing cheaper imports. That must stop; it is bad for the consumer, the farmer and the industry.

Recommendation 11 states that processors should

"alter their pricing policies to offer stronger incentives in favour of selling carcasses with a higher value within an overall price regime that is commercially viable to both buyer and seller."

That issue must be addressed. For many years now Northern Ireland has had a pricing regime based on what the meat plants actually want. Butchers are asking why they must pay certain prices for R grade animals. Farmers are expected to produce U grade and E grade animals. Butchers are not receiving those grades, yet they must pay the price that is expected for that animal. The farmers are not receiving the higher price; the butchers are not paying the lower price; but the processors in the middle are making a handsome profit.

It has not gone unnoticed that since BSE came into the equation about five years ago, farmers incomes have slumped, but at the same time the meat processors’ incomes have rocketed. Why has that happened? One of the key reasons is that farmers no longer have the ability to export live cattle; they can only export cattle that have been slaughtered.

There are five meat-processing companies in Northern Ireland. They own nine meat plants. They are strong companies that dominate the market. Almost all their supplies go to supermarkets throughout the United Kingdom. The problem is that the farmer has no means of pushing up his prices. The livestock markets cannot be used in the way that they were used pre-BSE because buyers from the Irish Republic are not coming to Northern Ireland to buy live cattle and thus provide some balance to the market. The balance has disappeared from the market since BSE arrived five years ago. That has left the processors in an advantageous position, to the detriment of the agricultural community.

I welcome this report and the report on the pig producers. I hope that we shall soon see profitable times for beef and pig producers in Northern Ireland once again. The work that the Committee has done has been useful, unlike the comments that were made in the ‘News Letter’ on Saturday by Mr Alex Kane.

The Assembly should take the opportunity to try to restore agriculture to its position as a dominant industry in Northern Ireland. What has helped the Irish Republic in the past few years is that it has shown a greater level of support for its agriculture industry than we have shown ours. In that case, we should learn from what has happened in the Irish Republic. Grants have been made available to farmers so that they can improve the way in which they produce their food.

The Minister would do well to take account of some of the measures taken there, rather than take policy directly from Westminster on each and every occasion. We have a devolved Administration and finance of our own. We should be looking at how to spend that money, and not necessarily at following the line taken in the rest of the United Kingdom.

I congratulate the Committee on presenting the report. I hope that it leads to better days for the agriculture industry.

Photo of Mr Gardiner Kane Mr Gardiner Kane DUP 2:45 pm, 27th March 2001

I support the motion and welcome the announcement on regionalisation. I hope that it will be a major step forward for agriculture and trust that the Minister will use her skills to regionalise Newry and Mourne district when everything in that area becomes foolproof. We hope that that will be sooner rather than later.

In compiling the report, the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee took evidence from all quarters of the industry. I am certain that everything possible was done to work through what are complex and multiple problems. However, it is not in the Committee’s remit to call for direct intervention into market arrangements. Many producers and farmers in the Province may feel that that is the only course of action to take to stem the huge losses the industry has endured over the past five years.

I know of no measures that will promote co-operation between farmers and processors in the immediate future. It is insulting to call on producers actively to seek co-operation with processors because of the current distrust that is a result of processors’ greed and opportunism. It is up to processors to rebuild trust, for it was they who undermined it in the first place and who have continually undermined it since. If processors have a reliable and wholesome Northern Ireland product to market, they should show appreciation of its value by allowing an adequate return to the producers who made that possible.

The beef quality initiative is a step towards improving Northern Ireland’s herd quality. Moreover, strongly branded Northern Ireland produce would be an effective marketing tool. The Northern Ireland farm quality assurance scheme has its merits, but it will only be of value if implemented by the Livestock and Meat Commission (LMC) in a way that does not leave it open to abuse. There must be no opportunity for mixing and matching product or for "product substitution". To that end the LMC has complete responsibility and must exercise its authority over what is its scheme, otherwise the exercise is nonsensical and its objective will be completely undermined.

Although the report is extensive and considers many opinions, at best it can only touch on some of the current problems. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development must constantly consider its obligations to the farmers and should ensure that its policy does not deliver the dividends to those who least deserve them. The encouragement, promotion and development of farming in the Province must be given higher priority. Farming underpins much of what makes Northern Ireland the place that it is. The report is just one step in the furlongs towards achieving that goal. I have much pleasure in supporting the motion.

Photo of Billy Armstrong Billy Armstrong UUP

I welcome this opportunity for Northern Ireland to export some of its produce again to the wider world market. That will restore the confidence that our farming community needs, but our farmers face many more problems. The report relays the need for the agriculture industry to open up new markets and to ensure healthy living and competition to exploit the superior quality of Northern Ireland produce. The current exchange rate greatly reduces those opportunities.

It was also pointed out that consumers have much more power than the farmers, and it is suspected that processors dictate the price. The Department cannot afford to be a mere spectator on this matter; it needs to take the lead. I do not say that the Department does not lead, but more leadership would be helpful to our farmers, who would appreciate such support. Our farmers need a good deal of support. For example, branding would allow consumers to offer more loyalty to Northern Ireland produce. We need more help on that.

We all know that farmers should look beyond their present difficulties and become more positive, but that can only happen if they are given a level playing field. More trust between the producers and the processors is necessary. That will bring profit to the farmers, and result in more profitability to our Province.

I welcome the report and support it.

Photo of Ms Brid Rodgers Ms Brid Rodgers Social Democratic and Labour Party

I notice that, although the Chairperson of the Committee had a prop, I do not have one. I wonder whether we have swapped places, or is it simply an oversight?

I shall begin by placing on record the fact that I welcome the two reports from the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development that we are debating here today. I apologise to Mr Bradley, in particular, for my absence during his speech. I thank him for his understanding of the fact that I was not able to be here and for the kind remarks that he made. I also apologise to Dr Paisley for not being present for the first part of his speech. I am told that he did not show quite the same understanding as Mr Bradley, but that is hardly surprising.

The pig and beef sectors are an important part of the industry because they represent 35% of the gross output of the agriculture sector and provide significant employment on farms and in processing. Both have faced significant difficulties in recent years. The loss of our export markets for beef after March 1996 meant that the industry had to refocus on the Great Britain market. Several of our local processors have built up a substantial trade with the Great Britain retail multiples. However, the Great Britain beef market is extremely competitive, and the strength of sterling has made it attractive for many countries to send beef there. The result has been a drop in prices for our beef producers.

In the pig sector the downturn in the production cycle, the strength of sterling, and the consequences of the fire at Ballymoney combined to create the effect that for several years, pig producers were making a loss, and in many cases a substantial loss. At present, both sectors are living with the difficulties caused by the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. I have already detailed to the Assembly the actions that have been taken to control the outbreak and to deal with the trading implications. I do not propose to repeat what I have said here before. Although there has been some increase in prices for both finished cattle and pigs as a consequence of the disruption to supplies in Britain, the situation remains so uncertain that we cannot confidently predict what it will be in the long term. I repeat that it is clearly in the best interest of all sectors that we continue to apply stringent measures to deal with the outbreak.

Much of the content of the Committee’s reports, and of what has been said today, relates to the longer-term future of these sectors. I want to concentrate on those issues. First, I shall respond to Dr Paisley, Mrs Carson, Mr Armstrong and others on the issue of branding. I note the support for branding, especially of beef, but I must make it clear that I have an open mind on this. It is not a simple matter. It requires careful consideration and full commitment from all parts of the industry if it is to work. I am pleased that the LMC has commissioned a study on the scope for branding Northern Ireland red meat. That is to be completed by early summer, and I look forward to the outcome. The LMC’s study is being funded from the money allocated to it for red meat marketing.

Great emphasis has rightly been put on the relaxation of the BSE beef export restrictions. The Assembly will be aware of strenuous efforts, both on my part and that of my officials, to secure a relaxation. It was extremely frustrating that, just when we were ready to lodge a formal bid with the European Commission, BSE-related food scares once again surfaced in Europe, producing a political climate that would have been extremely prejudicial to our bid. Since then we have had the results of the survey of casualty slaughtered cattle aged over 30 months. That survey indicated a much higher incidence of BSE in those animals, including the Northern Ireland herd, than was previously thought. All member states are now undertaking their own surveys in accordance with EU requirements. Once the results of those surveys are known — and it may be some months yet — we shall be in a better position to take forward the case for relaxation of restrictions on our beef exports.

I can assure the Assembly that I am fully committed to that cause and will be pressing for relaxation of the export restrictions. Some people have called for a ban on beef imports. I can only impose such a ban if there is a threat to the health status of the domestic beef herd. Although I did impose a ban on trade with GB because of foot-and-mouth disease, I cannot ban imports from other countries unless clear evidence of a threat exists. Whether beef imports from any country represent a risk to human health is a matter for the Food Standards Agency and the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Hitherto, the Food Standards Agency has not recommended any such ban.

I now turn to the need to improve the marketing strength of producers — a theme common to both reports. I am firmly convinced of the need for effective partnerships among all parts of the supply chain in both sectors. A partnership approach among the different interests, acting in conjunction with Government, is the only viable way forward. Although I recognise the need for producers to improve their marketing position, that should be done in conjunction with processors and retailers, not in isolation from them.

The emphasis should be on strengthening the vertical links in the supply chains, building on the existing work taking place and building on the support mechanisms of both a technical and financial nature that are available. That requires collaboration and co-operation, not confrontation. It is not for Government to impose solutions on the industry. Business dealings in the supply chain must be governed by commercial considerations and driven by market needs.

Mr Paisley Jnr said that I had reservations about producer co-operatives. My reservations are based on the experience of some producer co-operatives whose plans backfired because, at the end of the day, those who took their produce could find other sources of supply. My Department and I can help the different sectors in developing whatever solutions are appropriate to their circumstances, be they formal co-operatives or other arrangements. Indeed, we have done that in the past and will do it in future.

I firmly believe that the long-term interests of the beef industry lie in a broadly based marketing strategy, targeting those markets — be they in Great Britain or elsewhere — that are capable of ensuring that a premium price is paid for Northern Irish beef. That is why support has been provided to the industry in developing the red meat marketing strategy. The strategy was developed by all parts of the industry and the relevant Departments. An important part of that strategy is a focus on premium markets capable of providing a premium return for our beef.

However, we need to produce top quality cattle for those markets. It is well established that there has been a decline in the quality of finished cattle. I have secured £2 million per year in the Programme for Government to reverse that trend, and I welcome the fact that Members have referred to that today. Details of the proposed measures have been provided to Committee members, and I was please to note that they have also supported them. The measures will be introduced as soon as state-aid approval has been obtained.

Much has been said about producers getting a rough deal from processors. I deplore any exploitation of one part of the food chain by another. As a public representative, I hear just as much about it as other Members. If it were proved that that was happening, I would push for strong action to be taken. The Office of Fair Trading examined the alleged existence of a beef cartel and found insufficient evidence on which to undertake a formal investigation. Although the differential in beef prices between Northern Ireland and Britain has narrowed in recent months, there are still concerns about the prices that Northern Ireland farmers receive for their cattle. I have decided to commission an independent study of the differential. The Committee recommended that I do that, and the move is supported by producers and processors. I hope that Members will recognise that, in responding positively to that proposal, I am making it clear that I am open to constructive and helpful suggestions from the Committee or from any other quarter.

I do not pretend that my Department or I have a monopoly on wisdom. In this devolved democratic institution, in which we all participate, all ideas are welcome. I shall would not be right to proceed with the investigation now, until the current difficulties with foot-and-mouth disease have eased. That said, I remain committed to ensuring that the study takes place.

I am acutely aware of the importance of making prompt direct payments to farmers to help with cash flow, especially in the current circumstances. Everything possible is being done to expedite all grant and subsidy payments. In the coming weeks, we shall make all the balance payments for this year’s livestock schemes, as well as the payments under the new less-favoured area compensatory allowance scheme and the additional agrimonetary compensation. In total, those payments will be worth £55 million to local farmers.

I can assure the Assembly that representatives of the pig industry made me aware of the problems that they face from the minute that I took up my post as Minister. It is a matter of some regret, however, that I have not been able to convince the pig producers that my scope to offer them cash help is almost non-existent. I can truthfully say that I explored every suggestion put to me on the matter but found insurmountable obstacles to all of them.

Some of the issues covered in the report, such as the pig welfare disposal scheme, relate to the period before devolution, and it is not for me to explain or defend them. However, on numerous occasions, I have reminded MAFF Ministers of the plight of our pig producers and have pressed them to devise the pig industry restructuring scheme and obtain EU clearance for it. I was disappointed to read a suggestion in the Committee report that I was in some way to blame for the European Commission’s tardiness in approving the scheme. I accept responsibility for my actions, but I am not prepared to accept responsibility for the operations of the European Commission. I know that the pig industry restructuring scheme is seen by some as a case of too little, too late. I am afraid that it is the only show in town, and our job is to see that Northern Ireland’s pig producers derive maximum benefit from it.

I have noted Mr Paisley Jnr’s comments about the pig industry outgoers scheme. That scheme, as we have said from the beginning, is a UK-wide scheme. It was based on a tendering exercise, therefore the lowest tenders were accepted. The unfortunate result of that was that, on the face of it, Northern Ireland appeared to have received less than its full share. However, Northern Ireland did get its fair share on a pro-rata basis of sow numbers. I have already taken the opportunity at a recent ministerial meeting in London to make the point to Nick Brown — in view of the fact that there is now to be an extended outgoers scheme — that, although we may have got pro rata on the basis of sow numbers, we did not get pro rata in relation to our problem, which is a much bigger, deeper and difficult one than that faced by the rest of the UK’s pig producers. Mr Brown was sympathetic to that view and made it clear that in the next tranche he will endeavour to see whether there are any methods compatible with the scheme that can be used to help us in that area.

I am aware of the concern of many in the industry that the marketing of Northern Ireland pigs must be improved. I am pleased to announce that after protracted consideration by EU authorities we have obtained approval to spend £400,000 to further support the pig industry’s marketing effort. That money will be used primarily to promote pig meat in Northern Ireland, but will also be applied to help develop quality pig meat and improve the structures used to market pigs. Those were the priority areas for action as agreed with the pig sector. Officials will soon discuss with the industry the detailed arrangements of how to spend that money. I must say that the less direct forms of financial and non-financial assistance that my Department provides for pig producers tends to be dismissed too readily.

As I stated in my written response to the Committee’s report, my Department has spent a great deal of time and effort on counselling and advising pig producers throughout the past three years. We have allocated a significant amount of money to support marketing initiatives and to working with producers to enhance co-operation and collaboration. We have done what we can to encourage the local uptake of Northern Ireland pig meat. Indeed, last year we also consulted with the Department for Social Development. That Department and my officials have worked hard to advise and facilitate pig farmers, who are not used to dealing with social security. The aim is to make it easier for them to access their entitlements in a situation in which they are losing money and in difficult financial circumstances. However, short of acting illegally by giving cash subsidies to pig producers, there is simply nothing more that my Department or I could have done to help. It is a sad fact that it has taken the foot-and-mouth disease crisis to force the Northern Ireland pig meat price over the £1 per kilogram level for the first time.

I understand that during my absence from the Chamber Mr Bradley expressed concern about our inability here to put certain things on labels. Existing EU rules constrain what can be put on meat labels. However, there is scope for some flexibility, and I am willing to work with the industry — [Interruption]

Photo of Sir John Gorman Sir John Gorman UUP 3:00 pm, 27th March 2001

Will the people in the Gallery please stop talking.

Photo of Ms Brid Rodgers Ms Brid Rodgers Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am willing to work with the industry to explore how this can be used the industry’s benefit. In particular, the rules on beef labelling should allow Northern Ireland beef to be clearly identified for the consumer. However, the UK mark must also be displayed.

By the way, I welcome Mr Poots’s remarks. It was refreshing to hear an unbiased and honest opinion from someone whose political views I totally respect and understand. I do not expect that those views will have changed, but nevertheless he was prepared to give credit where credit was due to the Republic. He also recognised that our devolved Administration have made and are making a difference, especially in the agriculture sector.

Finally, I shall deal with those who have said that the Department and I are not doing enough for those sectors. I am not clear as to what other action they have in mind beyond the range of activities on education, training, research, technology transfer, marketing assistance, disease control, animal welfare, traceability and the implementation of the livestock subsidy arrangements. All those are currently taking place.

However, I assure the Assembly that my Department and I shall continue with our efforts to assist in the development of the beef and pig sectors and the rest of the industry. I am committed to that and will remain so as long as I am Minister of Agriculture in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

I regret that I have not got more time to deal with some of the matters that have been raised. The fishermen who made some noise entering the Gallery are seated, Mr Deputy Speaker, and they even come from your bailiwick, so do not be hard on them. They have enough hardship already without you turning on them.

There is one matter that I view very gravely. Neither my office nor the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee’s office received the Minister’s statement on pigs. However, in a section of the report, the Minister makes the claim that Malton Foods received "considerable Government assistance". In a recent letter to me she stated

"I cannot speak for the whole of Government, of course, but as far as Northern Ireland is concerned, I would like to record formally that neither IDB nor DARD has given any direct financial assistance to Malton at any time."

I know the whole story about Malton Foods; it is in my constituency. I was called in by the directors of Malton Foods after the fire. I also had talks with Mr Peter Small, the Department’s permanent secretary. I ask the Minister why she stated "any direct financial assistance". Everybody knows — even the dogs in the street know — about the deal that was done in Cookstown and the amount of money that the owner of the Cookstown plant took when he agreed to enable Malton Foods to take it over. Malton Foods would not have been in possession of the Cookstown plant if that deal had not been done. I was involved at that time.

Nobody knows to this day how much money was given to the owner of the Cookstown plant. There should now be an inquiry to find out how much Government money was handed to the owner of that plant to make it acceptable for Malton Foods to obtain that factory. It does not matter whether the money was paid directly or indirectly. The letter referred to "considerable Government assistance", and there certainly was such assistance. I resent the Minister’s coming today and referring to a letter that we did not receive with that statement in it, because that is not being utterly transparent. Everybody knows that a deal was done to get the Cookstown factory into the charge of Malton Foods.

Today we have a report, produced by the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, that has the voices of all sides on it. It was resolved by the Committee unamiously, and it was the Committee that drew up this motion. I did not draw up the motion. I am sick, sore and tired of hearing people say, "Oh, that is Paisley’s doing." My business is to chair the Committee, and I have never heard anyone — even my political opponents — say that I have given them a raw deal from the Chair. They all admit that I call them carefully. I call some of them prayerfully, but I do call them all.

Today the Minister has been talking about defending herself and her Department. This debate is not an attack on the Minister or the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. It is an attack on those responsible people who still do not realise that farmers are in a catastrophe. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development officials must remember that we are dealing with a catastrophe, but I fail to see recognition of the seriousness of the matter when I talk to them. A whole section of agriculture is going out of business. The situation is the same as that facing the fishermen. I met the Minister this morning and she knows that she told me that she could do nothing for them. It seems that nothing can be done for pig producers or farmers.

I do not understand why French farmers and French pig farmers can get money into their pockets, or why farmers in the South of Ireland got money into their pockets when they got their deal. However, Northern Ireland had a welfare scheme and the Department kept trying to bluff people by saying that it would be good for the pig farmers.

Northern Ireland now has the outgoers scheme, and I noticed that the Minister did not challenge what my son, Mr Paisley Jnr, said in the House about the numbers involved in it. What good is that scheme to the agriculture industry if 500 farmers apply and not even 100 are successful? What good is it if the remaining farmers are told to reapply?

Northern Ireland’s situation is different because our pig farmers faced the burning of Malton’s. Pig farmers across the water did not have to face that. The pig producers’ main factory was destroyed and that put them in a grave situation. Why was that not taken into account when the outgoer scheme was planned for Northern Ireland? Special consideration should have been given because of the difference between Northern Ireland pig farmers, whose main processing factory was burned down, and those in the rest of the United Kingdom. Special provision should have been made, but it was not. Therefore, pig farmers have great anxieties. They are being told that there is an outgoers scheme. However, when they apply for it, it can give them nothing. What can they do?

There must be something wrong with the system when beef and pig processors are doing exceptionally well while beef and pig producers are going out of business. There was a time when pig producing was the strongest part of intensive farming in Northern Ireland. Those farmers are now going out of business while the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development says that its hands are tied.

There are doors in Europe that we are told are closed. It is funny that when one hammers on those doors they tend to open. A statement has come from Europe a few hours ago saying that if it can help with tying up the boats it would be prepared to look at that. That is an amazing statement.

It is about time we stood at the door and hammered on it until it opens. It has opened for many other countries that have breached European law more than Northern Ireland ever has. European law is monitored and policed in the United Kingdom like no other place in the European Union. The time has come when the House must say forcibly to Europe — and the Minister must take the message to Europe — that the door must be opened. If it is not opened people are going to lose out and there will be no way back. The Agriculture and Rural Development Committee wants a way back for pig farmers and beef producers. We want a way back for Northern Ireland agriculture, it must not die. We must get oxygen into it and keep it alive until this serious situation is over.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly accepts and endorses the findings and recommendations contained in the two reports published by the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development — ‘Restoring Profit for the Beef Producer’ (2/00/R) and ‘Restoring Profit for the Pig Producer’ (3/00/R) — and urges the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (and others involved in the beef and pig sectors) to take all necessary steps to implement the recommendations.

(Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair)