Brexit: Agri-food Sector

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 3rd October 2016.

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Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:45 pm, 3rd October 2016

6. Ms S Bradley asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for her assessment of the impact on the agri-food sector of the decision by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. (AQO 371/16-21)

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

A full assessment will depend on new arrangements that will be put in place and on how well we can exploit the opportunities that leaving the European Union will present. Since the referendum in June, we have seen a positive impact on the Northern Ireland agri-food sector. There has been a significant depreciation in the value of sterling, compared with the euro and the dollar, and that continues to be beneficial to exporting companies, and that devaluation has had a positive impact on the value of basic farm payments to farmers. As I announced last Friday, the total value of 2016 basic payment scheme and greening payments is 16·5% greater than in 2015, resulting in a boost to the total net value of 2016 direct payments to local farmers of £39 million compared with 2015.

As I said during questions two weeks ago, most farm-gate prices have also improved, partly as a result of exchange rate movements. That is encouraging, and we can say that the early impact of the vote to leave has been positive for agriculture. The longer-term impacts remain to be seen, but I intend to do all that I can to protect and promote the interests of the Northern Ireland agri-food sector in the forthcoming negotiations. I intend to be closely and directly involved in the domestic agricultural, environmental, fisheries and trade policy agendas as they unfold in order to maximise the opportunities that we will have from leaving the European Union.

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for her answer. I applaud her optimism, although I do not fully share all of it. Is it now time for us to have a more balanced debate? Should we be forced to leave the EU against the will of the people of Northern Ireland, is it not realistic that we should start to look at the risks and threats that exist, particularly for those who work in the agri-food sector?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for her question. If she missed it, the UK voted to leave. I do not want to refer to her in the same way that the First Minister referred to "Remoaners", and I hope that she is not falling into that category. However, there is no doubt that there are conversations that need to be held, which is why my Department is working hard on them. I have established a consultative group, and I now regularly meet colleagues in the various jurisdictions, and that work will continue. We are not going to redo the referendum. The referendum result was very clear: we will be leaving the European Union.

Photo of Michelle Gildernew Michelle Gildernew Sinn Féin

Has the Minister raised the concerns of the agri-food industry with the British and Irish Governments around the issues of exports and the workforce?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for her question. I have; I held the first meeting with the agri-food sector just a couple of days after the result was known. Those were the issues that were highlighted to me, and they were the basis for most of the conversations that I have had with Minister Creed in the Irish Republic and with George Eustice, Andrea Leadsom and David Davis, the Secretary of State. While it is accepted that there are issues with those matters, those conversations will need to continue. They have been highlighted by me and by other colleagues, who are very aware of them.

Photo of Jo-Anne Dobson Jo-Anne Dobson UUP

Following yesterday's announcement by the Prime Minister that we now have a time frame for triggering article 50, will the Minister update us on a proposed time frame for negotiations on key agri-food support, such as a new basic payment scheme and rural development programme?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for her question. As she indicated, that announcement was made yesterday, and, obviously, we are at today. My Department has been working over the last number of months on the issues pertaining to it, and that work will continue. Over the next number of months, we will have other conversations with George Eustice, Andrea Leadsom, David Davis and so on. I have invited George Eustice to Northern Ireland, and he is planning to visit in the next number of weeks. We are still at a very early stage with regard to a timescale for what the basic payment will look like, but I assure the Member that we will be looking for the best outcome for Northern Ireland.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

In light of the very particular characteristics of the Northern Ireland market, such as the number of businesses that conduct their activities on a North/South basis and the scale in our economy relative to other places, what is the Minister's assessment of the best model for Northern Ireland agri-food's future trading arrangements?

Is it the single market? Is it the Norwegian model? Is it WTO rules? Is it something else? What is her view on the best way forward for a trading regime for the local sector?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP 3:15 pm, 3rd October 2016

I thank the Member for his question. Again, those are scenarios that we are looking at when considering what is particular to Northern Ireland, especially given the issues around our land border, which, in itself, is peculiar to this part of the United Kingdom. I do not want to get into a position where I tie myself to a particular scenario at this stage. It is still early days, but I am happy to share it with the House once it has been scoped out.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

That ends the period for listed questions. We now move to 15 minutes of topical questions. The Member listed to ask question 1 has withdrawn his name.