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1. Mr Swann asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for her assessment of the recent comments made by the chair of the Agri-Food Strategy Board, at the meeting of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs on 6 October 2016, that there are too many farmers in Northern Ireland. (AQO 581/16-21)
The Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister is aware of the recent remarks by the chair of the Agri-Food Strategy Board on the structure of the local industry. As the Minister previously said in the Chamber, she is focused on championing and strengthening the position of all farmers in Northern Ireland. The future of the industry is dependent upon building a resilient, sustainable, competitive and forward-thinking sector, and she will not be selective about who she supports.
That is why the Minister is working with colleagues across the Executive to deliver the many actions detailed within the Executive response to 'Going for Growth', which are intended to assist the agri-food sector in realising its ambitions and maximising its potential contribution to the local economy. Farmers in particular will benefit from various schemes under the rural development programme, especially the farm business improvement scheme, which aims to build knowledge and expertise, improve innovation and cooperation and support capital investment in modern, fit-for-purpose infrastructure and equipment.
The Minister was delighted to launch the capital component of the farm business improvement scheme on 31 October. That initial phase is worth some £40 million and represents a significant investment in the future of farming here.
I share the views of the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister, who, I think, responded at the last Question Time to a question posed by Mr Swann on this very issue. I fully agree with what she said in the Chamber that day, and I reiterate today that she wants to see a strong, robust, resilient and sustainable farming sector across Northern Ireland and she will have no favourites in and will not be selective about who she supports to achieve that ultimate positive aim.
The Member is right that I am co-sponsor of the Agri-Food Strategy Board with the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister. Whilst in this instance I do not agree with what the chair said to the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee, it is worth acknowledging the positive role Mr O'Neill has played down through the years in the industry and right across the sector in a range of different roles, particularly the role he has played of late as chair of the Agri-Food Strategy Board in developing the 'Going for Growth' report, which points to a very positive and ambitious vision for the future of the agri-food sector in Northern Ireland. Whilst I, like a lot of people, may not agree with everything people say, I am happy to work with those who want to make that positive contribution to the sector and industry. In spite of what was said, I think that is where Mr O'Neill's heart clearly lies.
I was at a breakfast meeting hosted by Diane Dodds, our MEP, at which Mr Eustice made a range of comments, including some not dissimilar to that the Member read out. It is entirely for Mr Eustice to come forward in the context of the UK exiting the European Union with positive remarks about seizing the opportunities that presents and with positive ways in which the whole system of farming and the agri-food sector in Northern Ireland and right across the United Kingdom can be supported. I look forward to playing my part as Economy Minister, and I know the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister is already incredibly active in working with Mr Eustice, who she has met on, I think, several occasions, to impress upon him the importance of the sector here in Northern Ireland and the need to have a good support system in place that can ensure our agri-food sector and, indeed, our fishing sector can thrive — not just survive but thrive — as the UK exits the European Union.
I know you are not the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister, but I would certainly like to hear you say a wee bit more about farmers. I recognise that you are the Economy Minister and therefore may have an eye to that more than to farmers, but I am concerned about what Tony O'Neill said. I do not disagree with you in a lot of what you said about him. He is very good at what he does, and I think he has a lot to bring to the Agri-Food Strategy Board. However, the farmers out there are, quite rightly, very concerned by what he said. What assurances can the Minister give us that farmers will get the support that they need from the Department going into the future to ensure that they have equality of production and sustainability?
You will not hear me, in whatever role I am performing, stand up and agree with what Mr O'Neill said about the number of farmers that are needed in Northern Ireland. I will reiterate again the views that the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister expressed in the Chamber already. She wants to see a strong sector and will not support one sector over another. She will not be selective about whom she supports to achieve her ultimate aim of having a strong, resilient, sustainable farming sector in Northern Ireland.
Mr O'Neill said what he said. I do not agree with what he said, nor does the Minister, and we have made that pretty clear. I may not be the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister, but I know a bit about the farming sector, and people in it are not shy about coming forward and saying what they believe, and I am sure that many of them have already made their views very clear to Mr O'Neill about what he said. Therefore, what was said has been said. It cannot be unsaid, but we need to move forward and continue to work with Mr O'Neill and the Agri-Food Strategy Board, which I have had the pleasure of meeting since taking up post as Economy Minister, to implement the recommendations contained in 'Going for Growth' for the sector to go from strength to strength.