With your permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement in compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 regarding the twenty-sixth North/South Ministerial Council agriculture meeting, which was held in Armagh on Wednesday 26 October 2016. Chris Hazzard MLA, Minister for Infrastructure, and I represented the Northern Ireland Executive at the meeting. The Irish Government were represented by Michael Creed TD, Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and Michael Ring TD, Minister of State, Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. Minister Creed chaired the meeting. This statement has been agreed with Minister Hazzard, and I make it on behalf of both of us.
Ministers discussed the implications of the result of the recent UK referendum on EU membership. They noted that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM), the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) had undertaken an initial scoping exercise to assess the impact of the UK decision.
The Council welcomed the ongoing collaboration between DAERA and DAFM aimed at maximising the drawdown of EU funding under Horizon 2020 for the agriculture, forestry, food and marine sectors and the bioeconomy and the €26 million secured in funding to date by successful applications from both jurisdictions. Ministers noted the progress made in funding projects in both jurisdictions under the DAFM national competitive call and the extension of the United States-Ireland research and development partnership to include agriculture research themes.
The Council noted the ongoing progress made by DAERA and DAFM on the implementation of the common agricultural policy (CAP) reforms agreed in 2013 and the up-to-date situation with regard to the implementation of the rural development programmes. Ministers also noted the potential implications for future CAP funding of the result of the UK's decision to leave the EU and the determination of Departments to implement European Commission proposals for CAP simplification and push for further simplification where appropriate.
The Council noted the current position with regard to the ongoing difficulties being experienced in agricultural markets, the associated measures introduced to address those difficulties and the continuing close contact between officials from DAERA and DAFM on a range of issues, including CAP reform implementation issues and the impact that the UK decision to leave the EU will have on the agri-food and fisheries sectors in both jurisdictions.
The Council welcomed the continuing work on the delivery of the all-island animal health and welfare strategy action plan since the last North/South Ministerial Council agriculture meeting on 20 January 2016 and, in the context of the recent UK referendum, looked forward to the continuation of practical and effective cooperation on animal health and welfare and disease control in both jurisdictions in order that the health and welfare of livestock is maintained at the highest level.
Key points noted included the introduction of a mandatory bovine viral diarrhoea eradication programme by DAERA on 1 March 2016, similar to that introduced by DAFM in 2013; that, on 29 September 2016, the Executive agreed the recommendation for DAERA to submit an application to the World Organisation for Animal Health for BSE negligible risk status for Northern Ireland — the application has been submitted and the decision will be taken in May 2017; that agreement was reached at a meeting of the North/South disease control and trade working group in March 2016 on ways to enhance trade between the two jurisdictions, in particular agreement on how to streamline the health certification processes for deer and pigs being moved to Northern Ireland for slaughter; that a shared contract for the emergency supply of carbon dioxide for whole-house gassing of poultry has been in place since June 2016 and will be valid for three years; and that a memorandum of understanding for sharing livestock culling teams in the event of an exotic disease outbreak in either jurisdiction was signed by Chief Veterinary Officers in June 2016.
The Council noted the progress made with the review of the all-Ireland Chalara control strategy by officials from DAERA and DAFM in response to ongoing scientific and surveillance evidence; the research being undertaken to develop a population of Irish planting stock tolerant to the Chalara — ash dieback — disease; and the ongoing commitment to continue to work towards the shared objective of achieving and maintaining good plant health status on the island. Ministers welcomed the continued cross-border cooperation in dealing with tree and plant health and the shared approach to regulation, as evidenced through a common approach to Epitrix, which is the potato flea beetle, risk management. Ministers welcomed the joint approach to the continued sharing of science and diagnostic capability and the regulation of the use of pesticides.
The Council welcomed the continuing cooperation between both jurisdictions, the ongoing work to improve farm safety and the agreement between the Health and Safety Authority and the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland on the joint development of farm-safety e-learning packages. Ministers welcomed the success achieved in raising public awareness of the inherent health-and-safety dangers on farms during the international farm safety week 2016 and the forthcoming tripartite meeting of the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland, the Health and Safety Authority and the Health and Safety Executive of Great Britain to discuss farm safety that will take place on 1 December 2016.
The Council welcomed the good progress made in both jurisdictions in implementing the LEADER element of the rural development programme. DAERA and the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs organised a LEADER cooperation event, held in Newry on 8 and 9 November 2016, to launch cooperation between local action groups from all regions of the UK and the Republic of Ireland. Ministers also welcomed the opening of a new social farming capital grant scheme in Northern Ireland to complement the existing support office in Cookstown. They also noted progress made on the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas funded social farming grant scheme and the Republic of Ireland's new town and village scheme, and they agreed that officials should explore opportunities to share experience gained from initiatives aimed at sustaining rural settlements.
The Council agreed to hold the next agriculture meeting in the spring of 2017.
I thank the Minister for her statement. Will she provide an update on what she is doing to reverse the recent ruling that has barred boats from Northern Ireland from fishing inside the six-mile limit of the Republic of Ireland? Surprisingly, it was not a topic at the sectoral meeting.
I thank the Member for his question. I did not quite catch the last part of it, but the Supreme Court ruling in the Republic in the last few weeks that upheld the appeal came as something of a surprise. I have spoken to the Minister responsible — Michael Creed — on a number of occasions in the last two weeks to determine what will be done to correct that.
The Member will be aware that it is based on the Voisinage Agreement, which dates back to 1964. That was a written agreement between officials with regards to fishermen from the Irish Republic fishing in Northern Ireland waters and Northern Ireland fishermen being able to fish in waters around the Irish Republic to a six-mile limit. It has been in standing for a long time. Obviously, it is recognised in the European Union as a long-standing agreement. It is quite lucrative for our fishermen; not being able to fish in those waters could cost them somewhere in the region of £300,000. It is of concern to me. My understanding is that Minister Creed is currently getting legislation drafted — it needs to be underpinned by legislation in the Oireachtas — and he is hopeful that it will make its way through the various procedures early in the new year. I am keeping in regular contact with him in that regard. Obviously, I hope that that will correct the issue. In addition, I have spoken to George Eustice, the Minister of State in DEFRA, on the further implications that that will have.
I thank the Member for her question. The aid package translates to just over £4 million for Northern Ireland. It is very welcome, as we lobbied to get a greater proportion of the allocation of moneys from the package.
You will be aware from previous comments that I have made that I want to maximise the impact of the money. I want to get it out as quickly as possible to farmers and also get the best value from it, as I want it to make a meaningful difference to the industry. Within the next number of days, I plan to make available the information on the schemes that I am funding. I appreciate that there have been calls for match funding, although not all regions are match-funding it, as the Member will be aware. She will also know that I do not have a surplus in my budget at present to match-fund. It is something on which I will have to have further discussions with the Finance Minister, but, at this stage, I do not have the money. The Member will also know from discussions in farming circles that farmers have not quite been united on how the money should be disseminated. I plan to let the Member know in the next number of days how I plan to go forward with this.
I thank the Member for his question. Indeed, a hard Brexit and a hard border would not help either Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland with trading. The Republic of Ireland exports a considerable amount of goods to Northern Ireland in a year. The figures for 2015 indicate that exports were worth almost £750 million. Likewise, €569 million of goods were exported from Northern Ireland to the Irish Republic.
There are issues for both sides. The Member will be aware that 29% of the raw milk produced in Northern Ireland is processed in the Irish Republic; that 39% of live lambs produced in Northern Ireland are exported to the Irish Republic; and that 31% of all pigs that are slaughtered in Northern Ireland come from the Irish Republic. At the moment, it is an issue that is much greater for the Irish Republic than it is for us. Currency movements are 15% less competitive for the Irish Republic, so it is in its best interests to be able to retain what is a particularly lucrative market within the United Kingdom. Therefore, a hard Brexit will be very difficult for the Irish Republic, as it will be for Northern Ireland.
To broaden the theme of the previous question, officials have been ensuring that there is close contact on both sides. It is paramount that that continue. Will the Minister provide us with any detail of specific items of work that officials on both sides have been commissioned to start as a result of the NSMC meeting?
I thank the Member for his question. He will be aware that I keep in regular contact with the Minister in the Irish Republic. We speak regularly on a number of issues, be they to do with agriculture or fisheries. The specific piece of work that is being carried out is a scoping exercise that will be looking at trade, fisheries, animal health standards, food standards and plant health standards. All those issues are part of the day-to-day work that officials carry out anyway, but there will be particular scoping done to determine the implications that the referendum result will have.
I thank the Minister for her statement. I notice that in three separate paragraphs she refers to the potential implications flowing from the EU referendum in the UK. Given that we are now four months on from that referendum and given the points that she has just made in response to Mr Irwin about an integrated agri-food business across this island, is it not time that we had a bit more detail rather than merely being told that Ministers have discussed the issue? Should the Council not be meeting before next March to deal with these urgent issues on behalf of farmers North and South?
I thank the Member for his question. He will be aware that I regularly meet my counterpart in the Irish Republic and that my officials meet regularly to discuss issues of mutual interest, sometimes daily depending on the issue, and that will continue. There will be a Council meeting when we believe that it is necessary, and if we need to have an additional Council meeting we will do so.
I thank the Member for his question. A mandatory eradication programme was brought in on 1 March 2016 similar to that which was introduced by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in 2013. Its aim is to control, and ultimately eradicate, BVD in Northern Ireland. It is an industry-led scheme operated by Animal Health and Welfare Northern Ireland (AHWNI) in support of the industry's action to eradicate BVD. The Department provided funding of £219,000 to assist with start-up costs, and my officials have worked very closely with AHWNI to facilitate the introduction and implementation of the tag-and-test legislation. We continue to liaise with AHWNI and the industry to bring forward phase 2 of the legislation when the monitoring requirements and necessary IT systems have been developed.
The most up-to-date figures that I have are that somewhere in the region of 335,000 calves had been tagged and tested by the end of September and that there was a positive test rate of 0·73%. AHWNI has surpassed its target for tests being returned within seven days, which has been helpful to the industry. We are looking to the future, and it is likely that phase 2 of the legislation will cover herd monitoring and more rigorous movement and enforcement controls.
BVD eradication programmes are in operation not only in the Republic of Ireland but in Scotland, our two main trading partners. The test is intended to help to increase our competitiveness here and to improve our efficiency at farm level. We are hopeful of positive results.
I am pleased to see that there was a discussion about farm safety at the meeting. Did Ministers give consideration to making IT packages more available to the farming community? I am looking at the farm business scheme that has just been launched here. It is a matter of deep regret that IT is one of the ineligible items when you consider that anyone who goes online to apply gets 12 extra marks. Will you look at changing that to allow IT packages to become part of the grant scheme?
I thank the Member for his question, although I am a little bit confused by it. I know that there is an e-learning package, which is being developed in collaboration with the Republic of Ireland. Farm safety is vital for all of us and is something that I take very much to heart. Any death on a farm is one too many and it is something we really need to focus our minds on.
I am committed to the safety of our farmers, their families and their employees. We are working very closely with the Farm Safety Partnership to maximise our impact. The Stop and Think SAFE campaign is a really hard-hitting advertisement, which we are investing heavily in.
We are looking at online tools, and you highlighted our Making it Safer tool which is associated with the farm business improvement scheme. While all applicants have to complete that form, and it is about raising awareness of what they do on their farm, we are encouraging others who are not applying for that scheme to also go through that assessment, and it is to focus their minds on the risks that, perhaps, they are taking on their farm.
You will also know that as part of the rural development programme, through the business development groups and the farm family key skills, this is an integral part of not only the discussion but the training that we are moving forward with. We cannot emphasise enough to farmers the need for them to assess risks and to be aware of the dangers around them.
I welcome the statement by the Minister. I ask the Minister whether, at the sectoral meeting, there was any discussion on cross-border rural crime, which is very prevalent in my constituency and with criminal gangs travelling up from the Irish Republic to wreak havoc on rural communities. Will the Minister undertake to have this matter placed on a future agenda and seek input from the respective Justice Ministers to address this important issue?
I thank the Member for his question. I do know that it is an issue of concern for the Member. It was not on the agenda for this meeting but I will undertake to do as the Member has suggested for the next meeting.
With reference to paragraph 14, I welcome the LEADER cooperation event that took place and the opportunities to discuss cross-border projects in the rural development programme. Can the Minister provide an update on the event and outline what steps her Department will be taking to facilitate the process of cross-border applications?
I thank the Member for her question. The event was attended by around 120 participants. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend as I was out of the country at that time and sent my apologies. Obviously, it is very much about cooperation and assistance and, where there are issues of mutual benefit, it is important to encourage that.
I will do all I can to work with groups. Obviously, the LEADER element in Northern Ireland has been very successful to date. We have had in the region of 229 applications, which amounts to somewhere in the region of £8 million worth of grant which is being sought, and that work is continuing very positively. We will work to assist where we can to make things easier for applicants.
I thank the Member for his question. At this stage, I do not have any other information. This is being developed by the health and safety executives in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Once I get the information, I will be happy to share it with the Member.
I welcome the Minister's recognition of the very severe consequences of a hard Brexit, both for the Republic of Ireland and also for farmers and agri-food in Northern Ireland. Given the very high levels of integration in the agri-food economy across the island that have developed over the last 40 years, does the Minister believe that whatever outcome emerges from Brexit, that we have to ensure that the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland remain part of the same market system for agri-food, otherwise we are going to see massive diseconomies of scale, inefficiencies and a loss of prosperity in both parts of the island?
I thank the Member for his question. Obviously, he will be aware that we are very cognisant of the unique situation that Northern Ireland has in having a border with a member of the European Union and what that will look like going forward. That has been raised at various levels. It has been recognised in ongoing discussions with those in the Republic of Ireland and Westminster and very much highlighted by the industry itself. My concern is very much around Northern Ireland going forward and making sure that the industry in Northern Ireland is best placed.
At the meeting or elsewhere, did the Minister encounter any recognition by the Republic of Ireland that, if they were to permit the EU to erect a hard border — it will be their choice — by the imposition of average CAP tariffs of up to 18%, the biggest loser would be the Irish Republic because of the loss that would then result to its biggest market — GB — and that there would, in fact, be immense opportunity for the agri-food industry in Northern Ireland to fill that gap? Is there recognition by Dublin that they need to protect themselves by ensuring that those in the EU do not insist on a hard border, given that they seem to be the only people talking about one?
I thank the Member for his question. I am aware that they are very concerned about it. They have had meetings with every other member of the EU to put their special case forward so that they are very much on the mind of those members once negotiations take place. The opportunity for Northern Ireland moving forward in all this is immense, given the vacuum that is likely in the GB markets. We saw just last week the interest that there is in British product, when Dunbia (Ballymena) was able to sell its site to a mainland producer. I think that those are positive signs, and there are certainly opportunities for Northern Ireland in all of this.
That concludes questions to the Minister on her statement. The next item of business in the Order Paper is Question Time. I therefore propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm.
The sitting was suspended at 12.52 pm.