I met the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development last week, and she raised the issue of wet weather payments for farmers. Her Department is reviewing the situation and will be unable to assess the position until the autumn, when the growing season has ended. The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development and I have agreed that she will keep the issue under review, and, indeed, she has written to Executive Colleagues to advise them of the matter.
I am surprised that the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development raised the issue only last week; perhaps she did so because she knew that there would be a question to be answered this week. Is the Minister of Finance and Personnel aware of the severe problems that farmers have faced, and still face, as a result of the wet weather earlier this year? Does he realise that harvests are substantially down on previous years and that farmers are in hardship and crisis? What assistance can he offer to the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development so that she can deliver help to the rural community?
I am aware of the situation from my own observation and through direct contact with members of the farming community. I am sure that the Minister did not first consider wet weather payments last week. She advised me that she was reviewing the matter then, but that followed ongoing consideration of the matter by her and her officials in recent months. As I suggested in my initial answer, when the position becomes clear, then, and only then, can decisions be taken about allocations under the wet weather payments scheme.
The farming industry has suffered badly as a result of various diseases over the past few years, and the situation has been made much worse this year by the atrocious weather. Will the Minister of Finance and Personnel assure the House that if the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development agrees that there should be an application to the European Commission for wet weather payments, she will have his Department’s full support? Should such an application to Brussels be successful, will he tell the House whether it will be funded entirely from the European Commission, entirely from the Northern Ireland allocation, or from both? If a wet weather payment scheme proceeds, will payments be made to the agriculture industry generally in Northern Ireland or to individual farmers?
I thank the Member for the three invitations to speculate on what action would be sought from the Executive on a situation that might arise. I hesitate to become involved in such speculation, but in my previous response I said that I am aware of the situation that has been affecting the agriculture industry. However, my Colleague, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development must advise me about the precise situation as regards wet weather payments.
I will try to ask a question that Mr Taylor may have left out. There are currently no central EU funds from which the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development can bid for aid. Will the Minister, therefore, assure the Assembly that he will be sympathetic to any bids from the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to address the problem?