A large part of the rise in income in the years up to 1996 was due to a weakening of sterling and a strengthening of international commodity markets. Currency and market movements in the opposite direction have caused most of the fall since 1996, with the BSE crisis adding to the downturn.
Controlling the ebb and flow of national and international markets and economies is beyond the control of any Government — much less any regional Administration — and to attempt to do so would be pointless. Ultimately, the only factor that we can control is how we respond to such external influences, and it is there that we must direct our efforts and resources. The vision project was initiated with that in mind, and that offers the best chance we have of meeting the challenges and grasping the opportunities that lie ahead. We will underpin our future through ability and raise the prosperity of the agrifood industry and rural economy.
I thank the Minister for her answer to that question and, particularly, for her answers to questions 1 and 5. I remind the Minister that most farmers in West Tyrone have been struggling financially for some years. The inclement weather over the past six weeks has left many in a state of almost catastrophic peril; therefore is the Minister considering any inclement weather aid package that could assist the farming community at this time of almost desperation?
I am aware of the problems being caused by the current unseasonal weather. I raised that with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Mrs Beckett, at the ministerial meeting in London last week and said that if things get worse, if that is possible, I would like to see weather aid being applied for in Europe.
I have asked for that to be kept under consideration. In the meantime, I have asked my officials to give advice to farmers on how to cope with the severe situation. That has all been published in the papers, and I ask farmers to take that advice and contact local advisers.
One hopes that because it is early in the season and if the forecast that I listened to carefully this morning is to be believed — the weather is supposed to improve before the weekend — all is not lost. A dry spell would mean that the hay could be saved and the situation would improve. However, I am doing all that I can to give advice to farmers, and, as I have said, I have asked the UK Minister to consider seeking weather aid from Europe if the situation deteriorates too much.
I hope that that bright note from the Minister on the forecast comes true. As other Members have said, the climate has never been worse in living memory.
Will the Minister say what steps are being taken to ensure that farmers receive their subsidy payments in time? Cash flow remains important to them.
The Department has a good track record for making subsidy payments on time. Advance and balance payments for the 2001 scheme year have been completed within the time limit set by the EU. The vast majority issued within the challenging targets published by the Department in October 2001. More than 99% of beef special premium payments and 98% of slaughter premium balances have been completed. The majority of extensification payments and suckler cow premiums will be paid by the end of the month.
The Department will strive to build on the experiences of this year to achieve a high level of performance for 2002. Free details of the timetable for 2002-03 will be published around September 2002. When I talk about 98% or 99%, the Member will appreciate that there are always a few cases in which queries cause payments to be delayed.
The Minister will be aware that the average farm income is still only about £7,000 per annum. Will she progress the farmers’ early retirement and loan scheme, which was first proposed in the House by my Colleague Mr Savage in December 2000? It is the only means of restructuring the agriculture sector in an ordered way and without any further suffering.
I previously said to the House that I have an open mind on early retirement and new entrants. The vision report did not recommend an early retirement scheme, though it did recommend new entrants. I have commissioned research from University College, Dublin, and Queen’s University on the effectiveness and feasibility of either of those schemes. I expect to have the results of that research by the end of July, and I will be able to make a decision then.
However, if early retirement is a good way of achieving necessary restructuring in farming, and if that emerges from the research, I will consider it carefully. Of course, I will also have to get the necessary funding. When I have the facts on which to make a decision in the best interests of the industry, I will make it, and I hope that I will have made it when I announce my action plan in the autumn.