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Budget 2016-17

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 5:30 pm on 19th January 2016.

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Photo of Oliver McMullan Oliver McMullan Sinn Féin 5:30 pm, 19th January 2016

Go raibh maith agat. First of all, I congratulate the Minister on his new role and wish him well. I am speaking on the Budget today as the party's spokesperson on agriculture. Having looked through the Budget and the papers, I want to commend the Agriculture Minister, Michelle O'Neill. She has, in this mandate, been unafraid to meet head-on the problems that needed to be tackled. One of the first projects that the Minister took on was the decentralisation of DARD's headquarters to Ballykelly. Phase one will be in 2017, with the rest in 2020. She was the first Minister to relocate an entire Department. We will also see the relocation of the fisheries department to south Down, the Forest Service to Fermanagh, and the Rivers Agency to the Loughry Campus.

Single farm payments, as has already been said by the Chair of the Committee, are the lifeblood of the farming industry, and without them farm businesses and, indeed, community businesses that supply farms, would simply cease trading. The Minister inaugurated public meetings across the Six Counties in order to listen to farmers; she went out and listened to the farming industry and their families, and she promised them that she would speed up payments. Now, we have seen 95% of farmers paid their single farm payment by Christmas. The payments were in their banks, including, as the Chair said, nearly 1,700 cases where there had been inspections. This is all part of the Minister's campaign to have more applications completed online. It was recognised that a lot of the applications done by hand contained quite a lot of mistakes such as dual fields etc. Online applications help to do away with a lot of those mistakes.

During negotiations on the new CAP programme, Minister O'Neill once again listened to the farming industry. She secured recognition for the hill farmer and has ensured that, in future, there will be equality between the hill farmer and the lowland farmer. There will be no two-tier system in farming.

The recent crisis in the dairy industry saw the Minister stand with the industry. She took representatives of the industry with her to London and Brussels. Over there, she was the only Minister who got an audience with the Commissioner. She has shown that she has an open-door policy. The industry was accommodated when it looked for a meeting, and she secured some sort of recognition for them. She got £5 million for them.