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Stevenson and Company, Cullybackey

Matters of the Day – in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 13th October 2008.

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Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Mr Mervyn Storey has sought leave to make a statement on a matter that fulfils the criteria set out in Standing Order 24. I shall call Mr Storey to speak for up to three minutes on the subject. I will then call other Members from the constituency of North Antrim, as agreed with party Whips. Those Members will also have up to three minutes in which to speak. There will be no opportunity for interventions, for questions or for a vote on the matter. I will not take any points of order until the item of business has been concluded. If that is clear, we shall proceed.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

Members will have seen on television, or read in news reports over the weekend, of the proposed closure of Stevenson and Company, who are pork processors in Cullybackey in my North Antrim constituency. The business has been in operation since 1850 and has been located at the Cullybackey site since the 1980s. It had previously been located, and had its genesis, in Ballymoney.

Such a closure would be a blow at any time, but, in the current economic climate, it will be a major blow, not only for North Antrim but for the entire Northern Ireland pig industry. Recently, the costs of producing food have risen sharply. Trading costs for the Stevenson plant have risen by more than £4,500 a week; electricity costs have risen by around 40%; and the cost of oil has risen by around 37%. Indeed, businesses in Northern Ireland have the highest electricity costs of anywhere in the United Kingdom. Although a larger company may be able to absorb those costs for a longer time, small processors such as Stevenson’s simply cannot bear that kind of cost.

I have had discussions today with Mr Hamill and other representatives from the company, and also with the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Arlene Foster. I appreciate the time that she gave to the company this morning to facilitate that meeting.

The Minister has assured me that if her Department can do anything to help the company, it will do so. We, alongside our colleagues in the House and the constituency, will continue to do all that we can to ensure that all the options for the future are considered. I hope that all is not lost, and I am certainly doing all that I can to find an alternative way forward.

I hope that I speak for all sides of the House when I say that our thoughts are with those people who face the prospect of job losses at this particularly worrying time. For families, the situation is immensely stressful. Many of the families affected live in the immediate vicinity of the plant, but others live further afield, too.

We should also be concerned about the wider effects on the pig industry in Northern Ireland. At a time such as this, I would have thought that the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development would be prepared to meet with her Executive colleagues. Unfortunately, her party’s priorities seem to lie elsewhere. The devolution of any other issue, or the consideration of any other political matter, is cold comfort to the families in my North Antrim constituency who face the prospect of job losses. I hope that such events will help to focus everybody’s minds, time and talent on the realities that face Northern Ireland.

Photo of Daithí McKay Daithí McKay Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank Mr Storey for bringing this issue to the Assembly’s attention. I echo his comment that the news of the proposed closure of Stevenson and Co is devastating, not only for North Antrim, but for the pig industry as a whole. Utmost in our minds are those families who will be so badly affected by its closure, particularly in the run-up to Christmas.

The company has announced that it may close as a result of rising overheads, and we are all well aware of the recent huge increases in the price of electricity and oil. The Ulster Farmers’ Union has highlighted the problem that is facing not only producers, but farmers: the cost of producing food is rising dramatically. Farm produce, such as pork, is being sold at a discount in the supermarkets in reaction to the credit crunch that consumers are facing. However, there is not enough revenue to cover the farmers’, or, indeed, producers’ costs.

The announcement that the company is to close is clearly devastating for those who live in its immediate vicinity. However, it should also sound a warning bell to other players in the pig industry and to farmers in general. We must take cognisance of that fact. I am sure that all Ministers, including the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, will consider the situation and do their utmost to help those affected by it. Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of Robert Coulter Robert Coulter UUP

I congratulate Mr Storey for bringing this matter to the House. The current credit crunch has taught us a great many lessons that we would perhaps have preferred not to learn; chief among them being the fact that it is nearly always preferable to keep an enterprise open than to close it down. I deeply regret the proposed closure of Stevenson and Co, a very old firm that has done so much for the economy of mid-Antrim for so many years. The company has weathered many an economic storm: there have been many times when it found it difficult to carry on, but it always did so, until now.

I have learnt from conversations with the firm’s managers that the business was not brought to crisis point by one single issue; rather many economic pressures have led to this conclusion. I am also very sorry that the closure will happen in the mouth of Christmas, as Mr McKay said. I fully understand the reasons behind the firm’s decisions, and the firm and its workers have my deepest sympathy as they face this crisis.

We must all work together — this is not a time for one person or one party to be left to carry the burden. There must be an urgent reassessment of the margins for pig producers because the firm’s closure will have a domino effect. In addition to the firm’s owners, management and workers, it will affect farm workers, families and local shops.

The standard reaction of people to whom I have spoken in the last few days — in person and on the telephone at my home and office — is a lack of confidence in the Assembly. To put it bluntly, they are asking whether we are going to continue to make a pig or an ass of ourselves while people go to the wall. It is time for us to be realistic and to work together for the benefit of our people.

Some Members:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Declan O'Loan Declan O'Loan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank Mr Mervyn Storey for bringing this matter to the attention of the Assembly. I assure him that his words about the unfortunate likely total closure of the Stevenson factory in Cullybackey have the support of the entire Assembly. The serious concerns that have been raised are about the 100 jobs that could be lost, the hardship for those individuals and their families, and the economic blow to the local area due to the loss of wages and salaries.

As has been said, among the reasons for the closure is the serious rise in energy costs. Indeed, that is a worry for the entire industrial sector. In addition to the direct consequences of the closure for the factory’s workers, management and owners, there are serious consequences for local pig farmers who will not necessarily be able to find alternative outlets for their produce. That is a great worry.

I encourage all the agencies that have a role in the orderly rundown of the Stevenson plant — and all those who can make a contribution to the economic continuity of the agricultural sector, and other sectors in that area — to do everything that they can to help in a very difficult situation.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley DUP

I am sure that all of us are worried about the proposed closure of the Stevenson plant in the Ballymena area. However, it is a proposed closure. I am glad that representations to the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment are continuing, and it may be that the company can be sustained under a different ownership.

Members should do everything in their power to prevent the closure of the Stevenson factory, and I believe that Members for North Antrim will make that effort. It would be a good victory for us all if the plant were kept open. That would provide encouragement to every part of the constituency and, indeed, to every part of Northern Ireland. There is unity among the representatives of the area and those from outside. I trust that today’s short debate will help the situation.

As the Member of Parliament for the area, I will push as hard as I possibly can to achieve the continuation of the factory, albeit under different management. The present management is very keen for the factory to be saved; there is no selfishness in their minds or hearts. That is a good thing, because only a united approach can save the factory. I hope that this debate is heeded by the powers that be, and that the decision will be changed.

A word of warning — in the present situation there will be more bad news such as this. The economy is bankrupt. Without a change of attitude, all the mending skills in the world will not alter that. Everybody must co-operate as much as possible, in unity, in order to stave off disaster.