Farm-gate Prices

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 1:30 pm on 7th December 2020.

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Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent 1:30 pm, 7th December 2020

1. Ms Sugden asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for his assessment of farm-gate prices in Northern Ireland. (AQO 1258/17-22)

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

I thank the Member for her question. Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, with your permission and before we start, I inform the House that I am happy to stand in for my colleague and that I spoke to him this morning. He had his toast and porridge, was in very good form and is looking forward to getting out of hospital. Obviously, he had quite a traumatic period over the weekend. We will do our best to answer your questions as they arise.

The Department publishes statistical reports that contain the latest average farm-gate prices in Northern Ireland. Each of those reports average prices for the latest period, along with comparisons against prices in previous periods. Those reports show that average beef, lamb and pig prices from January to September 2020 were higher than those of the same period in 2019, whereas average milk prices have been 0·9p per litre lower. They also show that average prices since September have remained around or above prices of the previous year for each of the farm products that are reported.

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

Thank you, Minister, and please pass on my best wishes to Minister Poots for a speedy recovery. It is quite fortunate that the Minister for the Economy is answering these questions. If the Principal Deputy Speaker will indulge me, can I ask the Minister for the Economy to give her assessment of farm-gate prices in Northern Ireland given that agriculture is one of the largest industries in Northern Ireland and underpins our local economy?

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

Thank you for the question. In many ways, agriculture was an area of policy that I looked at for many years in the European Parliament. I really enjoyed meeting and talking to the sectors right across Northern Ireland. We understand, from the published statistics, that milk prices are, on average, a little lower. Although milk prices for September were 1·59p higher than in September 2018, the average price across the period is 0·9% lower. That represents volatility and shows that the price is lower than the rest of the United Kingdom. It also represents the market and the exposure that Northern Ireland milk prices have, for example, to the commodity market. In GB, much greater supplies of milk go into the liquid market and supermarkets and producers can have longer and more stable contracts.

We understand that, for the week ending 21 November, beef prices are 13·2% higher than for the same period last year.

That is a difference of £150 per finished head of cattle and is a significant uplift in beef prices. In fact, we probably are third in the EU league table for beef prices. Nevertheless, and again from a processing point of view, this is typically a low-margin process where issues of competitiveness and productivity are hugely important.

Pig prices have remained much the same, and —

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

— dropped calf prices are round about, or slightly higher, than we would have expected.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I am loath to interrupt the Minister, and she will probably give me a kicking for it afterwards

[Laughter]

but it is important that we try to stick to two minutes or less.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Looking forward, Minister, under the iniquitous protocol, overheads and production costs will be very adversely affected by reason of feedstuff and fertiliser imports. What is the likely consequence for profitability, for farm-gate prices and, indeed, for consumer prices, of the gallows for the Union that Mr Poots is building at our ports?

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

Of course the ports issue is an implementation rather than an end of the transition period issue. For Northern Ireland as a whole, let us be absolutely clear that my party believes that having a free-trade deal and zero quotas and zero tariffs is in the best interests of Northern Ireland. We think, and we want people to understand, that there are issues under the protocol that could be sorted out. We want to see unfettered access between us and our main market. I understand that the Internal Market Bill is being reintroduced in Parliament today and that there is a legislative route for that in the United Kingdom. However, there are also routes for that in the Joint Committee. Sensible, practical, pragmatic approaches by the EU could ensure that those things happen. We want to understand that goods at risk will be sorted out in the Joint Committee and that, as the Member quite rightly says, goods coming into Northern Ireland for input into the agricultural sector are treated as not being at risk of going into the single market.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

I join others in wishing Edwin all the very best for a speedy and full recovery. It is a tricky enough situation that he found himself in over the weekend.

Minister, I do not necessarily expect you to know the answer to my question because it is a bit complicated. However, I was contacted this morning by a sheep farmer who has bought hundreds of sheep that are in the UK. Before the sheep can be brought over here, they have to be a year old and that year will take them into the new year. With everything that is going on at the moment, he finds himself in a new year limbo as to whether he may bring them over. He has invested hundreds of thousands of pounds in that stock. We spoke earlier about productivity, but we need the product in order to be productive. Perhaps the Minster could get back to me with some clarity on that.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

Yes. Thank you for your good wishes to Edwin. I will certainly pass on the good wishes of the House when I speak to him later and give him an update on how we got on.

In fact, the Minister updated the Executive on this issue at our EU meeting on Thursday, as he has been working on it over the past number of days. As yet, there still needs to be a resolution, but I will, of course, ask the Minister to write to you specifically on the issue and on any ways of resolving the impasse.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

Minister, if you could also pass on my good wishes to Mr Poots and wish him a speedy recovery.

Might an oversight body similar to the Groceries Code Adjudicator, in place throughout the United Kingdom but tailored for Northern Ireland's needs, improve farm-gate prices in future?

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

Again, I thank the Member for her good wishes.

There has been much talk about minimum-price legislation and about Northern Ireland primary producers being price-takers as opposed to price-makers in the whole supply-chain system. Personally, I think that, while the Groceries Code Adjudicator had the potential to do good things, the lack of any kind of enforcement powers meant that, although it sounded good, it did not actually have the powers to respond to the needs of the supply chain. Therefore, if we were to have more of that, it would need to have much more legislative power to take remedial action.

Photo of Emma Sheerin Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin

This follows on from the question asked by my constituency colleague Mr McGlone. I have written to your colleague Mr Poots about the fact that sheep are now being brought in from Scotland, the majority of which are blackface sheep that require scrapie monitoring. I just want to impress upon the Minister the urgency of the situation, given that, as Mr McGlone mentioned, this involves thousands of pounds for local sheep producers, who are depending upon sheep that they have already bought from Scotland.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

Again, I know that the Minister is alive to the situation and will respond to it. On a general point, this demonstrates the issues with the protocol and how some in the House who call for its full implementation are creating rods for the backs of some of our farmers.