Seeds (Fees) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2002:  Prayer of Annulment

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:30 pm on 17 September 2002.

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Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party 2:30, 17 September 2002

I beg to move

That the Seeds (Fees) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2002 (SR 257/2002) be annulled.

The entire Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development has endorsed my speech, so I speak not only as the Chairperson of the Committee, but on behalf of all the Committee members. The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee, Mr George Savage, asked me to apologise for his absence and to make it clear that he supports the motion. He has other urgent business to attend to.

My Committee does not want to pray against Statutory Rules — they are a prayerless bunch. However, the Committee believes that it has no option but to bring the matter before the House. This Statutory Rule, which increases seed growers’ fees by 5%, came into operation on 2 September and is a burden that the agriculture industry in Northern Ireland should not be asked to bear at this time.

At its meeting on 24 May, the Committee discussed the proposed Regulations and agreed that it could not make an informed decision without knowing the number of people who would be affected by the proposed increase, and without knowing the outcome of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s consultation exercise. The Committee had an opportunity to consider the Department’s response at its meeting on 28 June. Despite concerns raised by the Ulster Farmers’ Union in its response to the consultation exercise, the Department was determined — even at that early stage — to proceed with the introduction of the Statutory Rule. The Department’s response clearly demonstrates the reason behind that determination. It states:

"not to increase the fees would mean that those in Northern Ireland would be further out of line with those in GB, which would incur adverse comment".

The Committee did not accept that the fear of incurring "adverse comment" — presumably from Mrs Beckett — was sufficient reason to add to the industry’s financial burden. However, it reluctantly agreed that, given the relatively small number of seed growers affected, and the fact that fees in Northern Ireland would remain lower than those in the rest of the United Kingdom, the Department could proceed to make the Statutory Rule.

However, when the made and laid Regulations came before the Committee on 6 September, the situation for the agriculture industry had considerably, even drastically, worsened. In that meeting, the Committee resolved that the Deputy Chairperson and I should seek a meeting with Mrs Beckett. The meeting was urgently required to discuss the impact of unprecedented wet weather on the industry and the need for the United Kingdom Government to apply for EC wet weather payments on behalf of Northern Ireland producers.

In June and July this year, Northern Ireland had 155% and 150% more rainfall respectively than for the average of those months between 1961 and 1990. With that in mind, the members present at the meeting on 6 September could not approve the Statutory Rule, because, by doing so, it would add to the industry’s financial hardship. At a meeting on the matter a year ago, the Committee was adamant that, while the plight in the farming industry continued, it should not be asked to vote for an increase in payments from farmers.

My Committee wishes to send a clear message to the farming industry that it recognises its plight and will take action to help in whatever way it can. I call on the House to do likewise. I would be a happy man if I could say that problems will be over by a certain time, but the problems have yet to be solved.

Therefore, I call on the House to support the motion to annul the Seeds (Fees) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2002 and put this matter on hold.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea DUP

I concur with the remarks made by the Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development. I find it strange that the Department’s answer is that it is desiring to have the payments equal to those in the rest of the United Kingdom. On 16 November 2000 I raised a matter with the Minister on pre-basic seed potatoes and Northern Ireland inspection charges, which were not the same as in the rest of the United Kingdom. Payment was being demanded in Northern Ireland, but it was not being paid in the rest of the United Kingdom.

I have frequently written to the Minister, and I have got answers back. I have requested meetings with the Minister since November 2000, but those requests have been refused. I intend raising with the Speaker the fact that a Minister can refuse to have a meeting with a Member of the House on such a basic matter. If fees are supposed to be basic across the United Kingdom, but are not being paid in the rest of the United Kingdom, then the Department is trying to have a bite at both cherries — it wants it both ways, and I do not accept that.

The farming industry is on its knees, and everyone can see that the farming community is facing crisis after crisis. For reasons outside of their control, no sooner are farmers out of the depths of the slough of despond than they are driven back into the depths of despair again. The Chairperson, on behalf of his Committee, has outlined that now is not a time to be putting further weight upon an industry in which farmers, for all their labours, are not even getting the basic minimum wage. That is disgraceful, and the Department must rethink this matter. I hope that the Assembly has the guts to stand up to the Department and say that it will not go along with this rise. We will endeavour to do our part to alleviate the great suffering of the farming community.

I trust that the Minister will renege on her refusal to meet me. I have many letters from her Department on that, and I have made many telephone calls trying to get answers. I trust that, even yet, she will have the decency to speak face to face with people in the potato industry who are aggrieved. Even if the answer is the same, she should at least have the honour to speak to those who are suffering and to tell them the facts, rather than relying on a review that has been promised since 16 November 2000, and which is unfinished. Something is seriously wrong, and answers could easily be provided on this matter. The potato industry, which is suffering like the rest of the farming community, deserves at least that.

Photo of Gerry McHugh Gerry McHugh Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Along with the rest of the Committee, I agreed on a position about this particular Regulation. This is little different to many Regulations that come through the Committee, but this is an issue on which the Committee took a stand.

We are looking here at costs that are continually being placed upon producers. Those producers have faced lower returns, a decline in their income and a decline in the entire industry on an ongoing basis over recent years. That is not the fault of the Minister, but it is caused by the fact that Britain, the member state, has policies that do not help farmers here. One of the basic problems is that the policies coming from Europe, or the member state — now led by Margaret Beckett — are damaging to the industry here. This Regulation would place additional costs on the producers of cereals; they have faced problems, as have the producers of milk or beef.

They have faced BSE and foot-and-mouth disease; tuberculosis and brucellosis have had quite rampant effects in the border counties of Armagh and Fermanagh; and lower returns — especially on milk — have signalled meltdown to many of them.

Many small farmers — and large farmers who years ago would have been sustainable — are now thinking of leaving the farming industry because they see little future in it. We do not like to admit that that is the situation, but it has happened because of increased costs, outside competition and imports that are not subject to the same Regulations or costs as local produce. It is not a level playing field. The push towards world prices and the mid-term review of the common agricultural policy (CAP) taking place in October will put further pressure on the future of the industry in this part of Ireland.

The problem is that farmers are expected to pay every time, regardless of how much has gone before. The Minister may have difficulty with that, but it does not look well for the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development to be adding more costs to farmers. The farmers question how much representation they have in Europe with regard to European Regulations and the fact that it is people such as Margaret Beckett who represent them in Europe and who have the final say. We must fight to be treated as a region with its own agriculture industry and priority. That will not happen while British Ministers represent us on farming matters. All Committee members, including the Members on my right, agreed the position on that, and I cannot see why they are becoming chummy with the Minister. We should not be increasing costs now. Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of Billy Armstrong Billy Armstrong UUP 2:45, 17 September 2002

We should accept that there must be an increase owing to the extremely bad weather this year. Changes are made in all sorts of issues, because nothing in life ever stays the same. However, it could be postponed until a later date and no expenses put on the agriculture industry now. We should wait until after the growing season next year, and I ask the Minister to reconsider and hold off any expenses on the farming community until then.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr DUP

It is always very difficult to follow a speech by Mr Armstrong, as he is so erudite, humorous and lengthy. His oratory has given me something to live up to.

Northern Ireland has had a terrible summer; appalling wet weather has affected the entire country in a very bad and unstable way. It has affected the farming community, who make their living by the land, in the worst possible way. On that basis the Minister should reconsider, and recognise that the potato sector is not grant-aided and does not get handouts like other sectors. It lives and falls by the marketplace, the sweat on the brows of men and women, and on what farmers put into and get out of the land. When that land has been saturated as a result of the wet weather we realise something of the problems and plight that the potato sector has had recently.

I hope that the Minister will accept that changes at this time are burdensome and ought to be rejected for that reason. I hope that she is prepared to stand down this bill, which will otherwise be sent out to potato farmers, and that she will grant them the assistance that they require so urgently. I support the prayer of annulment.

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

I have noted Members’ comments and concerns on this matter, but I must oppose the prayer of annulment and ask for the Assembly’s support in rejecting it. Although, having heard the views of the various parties represented, I think it highly unlikely that it will be rejected, I shall make my position very clear.

Like all Departments, my Department is required to recover costs from the beneficiaries of the statutory services that it provides. The requirement that fees cover the full cost of service delivery where a benefit accrues to an individual business has been a justified policy feature of the Treasury and, in our case, the Department of Finance and Personnel for some time.

Northern Ireland sets its own seeds fees, although traditionally those have always been set at the same level as those charged in Great Britain, even though they have not been sufficient to achieve the full recoupment of operating costs. Indeed, on this occasion, the Northern Ireland seeds fees were being increased by 5% instead of 18%, the level required to keep Northern Ireland in line with its counterparts in Great Britain. I was particularly conscious that a decision not to increase the seeds fees for a second year in succession would mean my having to fund the additional costs involved from my Department’s resources again. I see no valid justification for rejecting the increase, and I wish to make that very clear. If I cannot gather fees in this way, the costs will have to come out of another part of my budget; something else will have to be cut.

On 13 May 2002 my private secretary wrote to the Clerk of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development apprising him of my Department’s intention to consult bodies representative of the local industry on the proposed fee increases. The Committee Clerk responded on 27 May 2002, stating that the Committee had considered the proposal and had resolved to await the outcome of the consultation exercise before commenting. Members also asked for some additional clarification on the proposal.

On 21 June 2002 my private secretary wrote again to the Committee, advising members of the outcome of the consultation exercise and providing the additional information sought by the Committee members on various points. On 1 July 2002 the Committee Clerk replied, stating that the Committee had considered the proposals in the light of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s consultation exercise and the additional information provided. He said that members objected in principle to fee increases and also that a member’s proposal to reject the increase had fallen by the narrowest of margins. However, the Clerk further stated that the Committee was content for the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to make the Statutory Rule, having taken into account the small numbers affected, the relatively small fee increase and the information that fees payable in Northern Ireland would remain the lowest in the United Kingdom.

I sought and obtained the Committee’s approval for the Statutory Rule and proceeded on that basis. The Regulations have already come into effect. An 18% fee increase would have been needed to achieve full cost recovery in 2002-03, but I decided to limit the increase to 5%. Even with that increase, our fees will remain lower than those in Great Britain. For instance, in the case of crop inspection, £12·90 a hectare in Northern Ireland still compares very favourably with £13·20 in Scotland and £13·55 in England. The figure of £12·90 a hectare amounts to an increase of 25p an acre.

My decision to increase those fees should be supported. Annulment of the Regulations will create an unwelcome precedent and will revoke the entire basis for such fees. A new Statutory Rule will be required to reinstate the 1999 level of fees, and that will mean a waste of time and resources.

I apologise to the Chairperson of the Committee for my absence at the start of the debate: the business of the House went faster than expected. However, I have listened to some of the remarks that have been made. I am well aware of the difficult circumstances facing the farming community. My officials, the unions and the veterinary association have apprised me of those circumstances, and on my visits to farms I have seen the damage that has been done and the costs that will be incurred this winter and beyond.

I have done everything possible to help the farming community. My officials and advisers have provided technical advice to farmers from the beginning. My Department is setting winter management options in motion, which will be rolled out from Hillsborough and throughout the North. Workshops will help farmers to manage their difficult circumstances. I have received permission to use set-aside land for grazing, and I am working hard to get permission from Europe to increase the amount of advance beef premium to help with farmers’ cash-flow problems. I have also asked for a meeting with the Northern Ireland Grain Trade Association and the Northern Ireland Bankers’ Association.

With regard to weather aid, the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development and the House know that well before 1 July, when the Committee made its decision to go ahead, we were aware of the difficulties facing farmers. There was twice the normal rainfall in June. The Committee and the House knew that I had already asked the UK Minister, Margaret Beckett, to examine the possibility of seeking wet weather aid from Europe.

I do not wish to give false expectations to the farming community; the last thing they need is to be told things not as they are but as they wish them to be. We cannot begin to build a case for wet weather aid until we reach the end of the growing season. In June, I instructed my officials to monitor the situation so that if there were a case to be made, we would be able to make it. If we can prove that the loss fits the criteria that Europe requires, we will make that case for permission to have wet weather aid. However, there is no European fund to pay for that aid. I shall have to seek it from within the Northern Ireland block grant. I have already spoken to the Minister of Finance and Personnel, who is aware of the difficulties. That is as far as I can go at the moment.

The farming community knows that I have its interests at heart, and that I am doing everything possible. I do not want to be lectured about what the farming community is going through as if it was something I was not aware of. At least Mr Armstrong’s comments are always consistent and honest. Sneering at Members, or trying to put them down, is of no use to our purpose, which is to deal with the serious issues facing the farming community.

Mr McCrea, or should I say Dr McCrea — I can never remember these titles — talked about not having meetings with me.

I remember having at least one meeting with Mr McCrea. He will be aware of the serious hiccup in the agriculture industry between 2000 and the end of 2001 when much of its work had to be halted and the serious crisis addressed. Many matters were put on the long finger. I told him then that there was no point in having another meeting until the review was finished and I knew what proposals were being made to the Department. That still stands. I think that Mr McCrea is confusing the fees about which he wrote to me with the fees in question here.

I do not accept that the Committee’s change of mind was because its members suddenly realised that farmers were facing difficulties. I knew that the farmers would probably face a difficult time because of the awful weather in June; the Committee may not have been aware of that, but I knew it was a possibility by the end of June. The Committee said that it was "prepared" — I shall not say "happy" because nobody is happy, and the members said that they were not happy — to accept the small fee increase for a small number of people, but a few months later it changed its mind. It will not do anything to build a good working relationship or increase my confidence in dealing with the Committee if it changes its mind. When I get a view from the Committee I want to know that I can depend on it remaining the view while I go ahead and take action.

I ask for the support of the Members in rejecting the motion to save the Committee, if nothing else, from appearing ludicrous.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party 3:00, 17 September 2002

The Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development does not think it is ludicrous for its members to be fighting for the farmers, and the farmers are with the Committee all the way. If the Committee was divided and if members of the Minister’s party were not supporting it, let them say so. However, that is not what was said to me, and that was not what I was to do as Committee Chairperson.

I bitterly regret the Minister’s attitude and her implied threat that it will be hard for her to work with the Committee because its members take a different view to hers. This is a democracy. I am entitled to put the views of those whom I represent to the House.

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

No, I want to have my say and then the Minister can come in by leave of the House if she is granted leave.

I take what the Minister says as a threat, and I regret her attitude. I also regret that she implied that one member of the Committee was honest — I do not know what she thinks of the rest of us. Are we dishonest or a parcel of liars? She said at her party conference that I was a liar, so I can expect nothing less from her.

Minister, do not malign the Committee. I made it clear that the Committee had a change of heart. It is entitled to a change of heart, especially when farmers are committing suicide when their income is ludicrous compared with what is required to keep life and limb together. The Committee is also entitled to do what it can in Europe to make Mrs Beckett face up to her responsibilities, and it will continue to do that. The Committee has never raised the hopes in the hearts of the Ulster Farmers’ Union or the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers Association. We told them the plain truth in language that they understood. The Minister should not say that there are people going around and raising hopes.

The Minister says that the farmers should pay the fee. What about her cutting some of the salaries of the fat cats in the Department? Some £80 million are paid out in salaries in her Department. What about telling those people to take a salary cut? Do struggling farmers always have to pay for those cuts? Does the Minister not realise that the industry is on its knees? Does she want it to end up on its face? If the Minister is to have a cutting programme, she should start with her Department rather than with people who cannot even make a decent wage.

The Committee does not want to have to pray to the Minister in this way. It would prefer to argue the arrangements in Committee, but, in a time of dire crisis such as this, it is the responsibility of all Committee members to take their duty seriously. I am amazed that the Minister is stressing that this would cause a great deal of trouble: it is about time that the Department had some trouble. It is about time that the British Government realised that we are in trouble. It is about time that they got the message that farmers in Northern Ireland are not going to lie down any longer; they are going to get up and fight for their existence. What does it matter if the British Government get angry or if someone else gets angry? The poor farmers must be delivered.

I plead with the Minister to change her mind and to get the idea out of her head that everyone in the Committee is an enemy and that she has to fight them as such. I smiled today when I heard that the Minister said that she would have no regrets about getting out of my hair. Well, I will not be in her hair any longer, but the whole Committee is in her hair today. I am only a spokesperson — do not kill the messenger. The Minister should start by killing off the people in her own party who have the same views as I do. She should turn her guns on her own side before she turns them on people who are only trying to do their jobs. I regret that this issue has had to come before the House today. I also regret that, in the midst of the farmers’ dire plight, we are arguing over this matter today.

The Minister has every reason to support the Committee. Then she could face up to the row, which would be most profitable, because it would teach people that they cannot continue to whip farmers and not expect them to rise, dig in their heels and say that enough is enough.

I appeal to the House to support the Committee. It is up to Members as to how they cast their votes, but if they were in the same position as the farmers, I know how they would vote. Let us think about the farmers and about the suicides in their community. That is of great concern to me. Let us vote today to say that we are masters in our house, that we are here to help the farmers and not to obey the rules of some people who have never been in Northern Ireland and do not know what we are up against.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the Seeds (Fees) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2002 (SR 257/2002) be annulled.