I have received notice from the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs that he wishes to make a statement. Before I call the Minister, I remind Members that, in light of the social distancing being observed by parties, the Speaker's ruling that Members must be in the Chamber to hear a statement if they wish to ask a question has been relaxed. Members still have to make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called, but they can do that by rising in their place as well as by notifying the Business Office or the Speaker's Table directly. I remind Members to be concise in asking their questions. I also remind Members that, in accordance with long-established procedure, points of order are not normally taken during the statement or the question period that follows.
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-seventh North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) agriculture meeting, which was held in the NSMC joint secretariat offices in Armagh by videoconference on Wednesday 18 November 2020. Nichola Mallon MLA, the Minister for Infrastructure, and I represented the Northern Ireland Executive at the meeting. The Irish Government were represented by Mr Charlie McConalogue TD, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and Heather Humphreys TD, the Minister for Rural and Community Development. I chaired the meeting. The statement has been agreed with Minister Mallon, and I make it on behalf of both of us. It was a very positive meeting, and a lot of progress was made. I will now take each paper in the order in which it was discussed.
The NSMC noted the collaborative approach to further studies of COVID-19 risk in meat-processing plants, the current position on the ongoing difficulties being experienced in agricultural markets and the associated measures introduced to address those difficulties. Ministers noted the continuing close contacts between officials from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) and the Department of Rural and Community Development (DRCD) on a range of issues associated with the pandemic.
The Council noted the work being carried out to prepare for the end of the transition period and agreed to investigate further the potential for cooperation to address specific challenges that may arise in the sector relating to the UK's withdrawal from the EU.
Ministers noted that DAERA, DAFM, and DRCD will hold a workshop in early 2021 to review the work programme in the agriculture sector and that an update paper will be brought to the next agriculture sectoral meeting.
On the common agricultural policy, the NSMC noted that DAERA intends to launch its future agricultural policy framework for Northern Ireland in the coming months. It also noted the simplifications that DAERA intends to make to the rules that govern direct payments for the 2021 scheme year and the longer-term approach to support payments that is being considered by DAERA. The Council also noted the future plans that are being developed by DAFM for the agri-food sector under the latest CAP proposals. Ministers noted the close contacts between DAERA and DAFM officials on areas of mutual interest in the agri-food sector, in particular on significant environmental issues as they relate to the implementation of future agriculture policy.
On animal health, the Council welcomed the continuing work and progress achieved on the delivery of the all-island animal health and welfare strategy action plan since the previous NSMC agriculture sectoral meeting. Ministers encouraged officials from both jurisdictions to seek ways in which to maximise existing cooperation on animal health and welfare and looked forward to the continuation of practical and effective cooperation on animal health and welfare and disease control in both jurisdictions so that the health and welfare of livestock is maintained at the highest level.
The NSMC noted the progress that has been made on the review of the all-Ireland Chalara control strategy by DAFM and DAERA officials in response to ongoing scientific and surveillance evidence and on the research programme being undertaken to develop a population of Irish planting stock tolerant to Chalara ash dieback disease. Ministers noted DAFM and DAERA's ongoing commitment to continuing 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 in the shared approach to regulation, as evidenced through a common approach to oak processionary moth risk management. Ministers also welcomed the joint approach to the continued sharing of science and diagnostic capability and to the regulation of the use of pesticides.
The Council welcomed the continuing cooperation between both Administrations and the ongoing work to improve farm safety. Ministers welcomed the issuing of a joint North/South press release on increasing awareness of farm safety across both jurisdictions, the sharing of information on the On Feírm Ground programme and on the EU-funded cooperation in science and technology (COST) action programme on farm safety, the sharing of the Northern Ireland Farm Safety Partnership's fourth action plan and the sharing of commissioned farm safety research results.
The NSMC noted the ongoing work in both jurisdictions to develop rural policy and the strong commitment to further enhancing the sharing of information and best practice on rural development policy. Ministers noted the good progress made in both jurisdictions on implementing the LEADER element of the rural development programme under the areas of cooperation and the excellent progress being made towards the development of a co-produced rural development support package for inclusion in the new PEACE PLUS cross-border programme, which will contribute to a more prosperous and stable society in Northern Ireland and the border region of Ireland.
The Council welcomed the ongoing good collaboration between DAERA and DAFM aimed at maximising the drawdown of EU funding under Horizon 2020 and the €102 million in funding that has been secured to date by successful applicants in both jurisdictions for the agriculture, forestry, food and marine sectors and the bio-economy. Ministers noted the progress that has been made in funding projects in both jurisdictions under the DAFM national competitive call and the agriculture research themes under the US-Ireland R&D Partnership programme.
Finally, the Council agreed to hold the next agriculture sectoral meeting in early 2021. I welcome the re-establishment of formal NSMC meetings and look forward to working with my counterparts in the South.
I thank the Minister for his statement. It states that he intends to launch his:
"Future Agricultural Policy Framework ... in the coming months."
He will be aware that the South of Ireland is consulting on its national strategic plan for the common agricultural policy, with a confirmed €10·5 billion budget along with more than €1 billion from the Brexit adjustment reserve. As a consequence of Brexit, we are no longer in the common agricultural policy and have the financial uncertainty of having possibly no funding beyond this Westminster mandate and no progress having been made on the UK shared prosperity fund. As a consequence of that, is the Minister concerned that our farmers and rural communities in the North could be at a serious competitive disadvantage compared with our counterparts in the South?
We have a commitment on the issues around Brexit and funding until the end of this mandate. No Government can make a commitment for a future Government; it will always lie with that particular Government. The EU runs seven-year cycles, and there is no commitment beyond the seven years in that respect either. Therefore, we should not be talking up the fact that there is no commitment beyond this mandate. We have a commitment for this mandate, and I believe that there will be substantial support for agriculture and the environment beyond the mandate of this Parliament. I do not believe that there is any profit in navel-gazing on this issue and seeking to create a straw man to suggest that this is something that may happen in the future. There is no evidence that that will be the case.
In relation to animal health, TB in Northern Ireland is one of the big issues and is very costly to the taxpayer. The Minister is aware that, in the Republic of Ireland, levels of TB are much lower than in Northern Ireland. Will he tell us what the Republic of Ireland is doing differently to Northern Ireland to give it lower levels of the disease?
We met officials from the veterinary division of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Essentially, they took a decision some time ago that they would deal with the wildlife transmitters of TB and, consequently, they saw a significant drop-off in TB in Ireland. Wildlife is a significant contributor here in Northern Ireland. All the evidence points to that, including the work that was done on the test and vaccinate or remove (TVR) project. The TB that is identified in the wildlife in particular areas is directly associated with the bovine population in those areas.
We have different strains of TB, but it is identifiable in particular areas that those strains of TB are associated with the wildlife and the bovine population. It goes without any real scientific argument that that is the case, and, therefore, we have looked at that in the development of the TB strategy. We will be moving forward on that strategy soon. We are just waiting on the completion of the business case, and that should be done by early March. We want to move ahead with the strategy. I could have done it now, but the consultation has to be done when the business case comes out. Therefore, we are holding back for the business case, but there will be no holding back thereafter in getting it out to the public.
I thank the Minister for his statement. I am sure that he will join with the rest of us in welcoming Minister McConalogue's announcement today that he will open extra ports in the rest of the country for access to fisheries, particularly at Greencastle, Rathmullen, Burtonport, Ros a Mhíl and Howth. That is a useful bit of progress, and I am sure that he will thank the Minister for that.
What kind of scoping exercise has been done, particularly with the agri-food sector, to establish that free movement of goods and services, North and South, that is so crucial in the agri-food sector continues to go ahead unimpeded and without any difficulties?
I raised in a letter to Minister McConalogue the issue of ports for landing. It was impacting on Northern Ireland vessels fishing in the Atlantic Ocean, so I welcome his announcement. It could have gone a bit further, but I welcome the change as far as it goes. I still intend to meet Minister McConalogue about that issue and about Dublin port in particular. We are seeking to have better access for hauliers who use Dublin port as a land bridge between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
The issue of unimpeded access between Ireland and Northern Ireland for food and livestock is something that continues. That is the case because we remain part of the single market. Our problems do not lie there; they lie where over half our trade exists, between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We would appreciate any assistance that we can get to resolve those issues. Those are not just issues for us. They are issues for Ireland, and they will grow when it comes to many of the key foods on their shelves. Some people may think that trifles and gravy are not important elements of a meal. They are only two elements, but there will be challenges with getting hundreds of products on our shelves post-1 April if some common sense is not applied beyond that point.
I thank the Minister for his statement. He will be aware that there are huge problems with plant and health pesticides, and I know that he had talks about that with his counterpart in the Republic of Ireland. What further cooperation can there be to resolve the issue of plants coming into Northern Ireland? As the Minister will know, there is a huge problem with parsley seeds that we plant in our gardens and with potato seeds.
There are clearly more significant problems getting many seeds into Northern Ireland than previously. Many of our nurseries are complaining. My local Christmas tree farm complained that it was ready for planting but cannot get supplies. Those issues need to be resolved, as they have a significant impact. Our high-quality potato seed in particular mainly comes from Scotland, as do other grain seeds.
As we move towards March, April and the springtime when farmers plant their product, they will need product to plant. Therefore, it is essential that those issues be resolved. We have been raising those matters for months now with the UK Government. Obviously, they had a lot of other things going on with Brexit, but those issues need to be resolved. I have been an absolute pain and have contacted UK Ministers and written to them, but I make no apology for that because we need to raise the issues on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland over and over again where those problems are being highlighted.
I thank the Minister for his statement and answers. I welcome the work of the all-island animal health and welfare strategy action plan, which officials, North and South, are working together on to maximise cooperation on animal health and welfare. Which stakeholder groups has the Minister's Department engaged with here in Northern Ireland on the action plan?
We engage with all stakeholders. People are in regular contact with the Department on those important issues, whether in writing or verbally. We seek to engage with key stakeholders. My door is always open to stakeholders. Obviously, things are slightly different now, but the virtual platform is something that we use extensively to continue that engagement.
Avian flu is very worrying. Just as it is very difficult to stop the spread of COVID-19, it is very difficult to stop the spread of avian influenza. The situation and circumstances are different, but the consequences for the poultry sector are huge. We need the cooperation of poultry farmers and suppliers to poultry farmers in everything that they do to take all possible steps to stop the spread of avian influenza. Poultry is a massive part of the Northern Ireland economy. Over £1 billion is traded by one poultry company alone, and there are a number of other companies. We need to ensure that we can continue to support this industry through good practice, and my Veterinary Service is doing that. Currently, we have two outbreaks of avian influenza. We will do our utmost to ensure that it remains at two, but we need full cooperation to do that.
Minister, there have been a number of references to and questions about paragraphs 10 and 11 of your statement, which are about cooperation on animal health, and I will follow on from Mr Bradley's question on avian flu. You have talked about the different strategy for TB in the South and about cooperation in the North between farmers and suppliers when dealing with avian flu. Can you give an update on your Department's joint efforts with the AFM Minister in the South to tackle avian flu and TB?
The Department in the South has always made it clear that we are not getting it right on TB, and it believes that we need to change our approach. We need to look at that, and I trust that the Assembly will look at it in a reasoned and sensible way when the proposals are brought forward.
There is significant cooperation between the two veterinary divisions on avian flu and, indeed, on other animal disease problems because we know that these things do not recognise borders. Therefore, sensible cooperation will help us to win the inevitable battle. It is important that we win that battle because it affects both economies very significantly.
The Republic has had a scheme for a period, and the Department looked at that before introducing the Northern Ireland pilot. Protein crops offer a number of advantages, particularly in an area like Strangford, where extensive cereal growing takes place, as they enable farmers to introduce a new crop for rotation purposes.
Mrs Barton raised the issue of pesticides in her question. Clearly, if crops are rotated, the use of pesticides can be reduced because there is less disease recurrence in the crops through the simple practice of rotation. Many protein crops are excellent for breaking up soil and providing a degree of renewal. They also draw nitrogen from the atmosphere and will reduce the proteins that we have to import. We can never replace the proteins that we import with our own cereals, given the level of proteins that we require. Nonetheless, we can reduce the number that we import, and that reduces pressure on materials coming from South America and areas where people are removing trees to create more farms. If we do it at home, it can be done in a more environmentally friendly way.
Minister, paragraph 4 mentions COVID in meat plants. Given the number of outbreaks in meat plants and how crucial those plants are to the supply of food, does the Minister support the call from the Meat Exporters Association to prioritise plant workers on the list for receiving the vaccine?
Not only do I agree with the Member but I have raised it at the Executive with the Minister of Health. At this time, his view is that vaccinations should be carried out as the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) recommends.
The food sector has been identified as an essential service, and, personally, I believe that we should seek to introduce the people who work in that sector, in cold, wet conditions that are suitable for the spread of the virus — we have had a number of outbreaks in plants despite best endeavours — into the scheme somewhat earlier than is currently the case. I will continue to press the case that staff in food factories get the COVID vaccine earlier. I do not believe that they should just be included with the rest of the over-50s, or whatever.
I accept that we need to get some of the population, particularly the vulnerable and over-80s, vaccinated first. However, beyond that, I believe that there is an opportunity to introduce it to people who are in more vulnerable situations because of where they work. That would include workers in the food sector. By the way, I would also include teachers and police officers in that.
I thank the Minister for coming today. I was not here yesterday. I trust that his health is getting better. Not to put his blood pressure up, but I wish him a speedy recovery for what comes in for him. <BR/>I see that the Council noted the work that had been carried out to prepare for the end of the transition period and agreed to further investigations of the potential for cooperation to address specific challenges. I noticed that, in the news, the Minister talked about food shortages. What is the Department doing to look at new supply lines so that that nonsense does not happen?
I suppose that it is for supermarkets and retailers to identify where their supply lines come from. There are strong supply lines that currently come from Great Britain to not just Northern Ireland but Ireland. Barriers, consequently, lead to problems for both Northern Ireland and Ireland. It is important that we ensure that we do not have barriers, particularly in an internal market. Therefore, work needs to continue at both a UK Government and European Union level to ensure that the barriers that are being proposed do not happen. Their consequences are significant.
With regard to cross-border trade, one of the issues that came up over and over again, after the Brexit decision was made by the people of the United Kingdom, was that of milk and the fact that we produce more milk than we process and the Republic of Ireland processes more milk than it produces. Consequently, milk is mixed, and once it is mixed, it cannot be unmixed. That is a significant problem. What we are pressing for, and what we wish our Irish colleagues to assist us to press for, therefore, is that Northern Ireland be part of the free trade arrangements that exist within the European Union and European Union sales to third countries where those free trade arrangements are in place. It seems somewhat odd that we have been kept in the single market but are then disadvantaged by not being part of the free trade arrangements within that single market. There is common ground between us and the Irish Republic because their processors need those opportunities to sell to the Middle East, Far East and other places where those free trade agreements exist.
I thank the Minister for his remarks so far. When the UK's withdrawal from the EU was discussed, was mention made of travelling with pets? It seems that one can now take a pet to Dublin and back unfettered, but that is not the case if one visits another capital city of the United Kingdom, where paperwork and a rabies jab will be needed — for the pet, obviously; not for oneself.
I might be looking forward to other vaccines, but I do not think that I need one for rabies just yet, thankfully. In any event, the Member is correct. However, it was always the case that we could travel to Ireland. The introduction of the rabies and tapeworm policy, which is coming from the European Union — let us be frank about it — is something that just has no benefit. There is no benefit to it for anybody. There is no benefit to the single market or European Union, but there is disadvantage.
First, there is disadvantage to the animals, because they have to get a rabies vaccine that they do not need. The British Isles, which contain the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, are free of rabies and tapeworm, so medical interventions are being imposed on animals that do not require them. Secondly, the implications for guide dogs are significant for people who require those assistance dogs. There are also the issues with training guide dogs.
In all that, we need common sense to prevail. I trust that people in the European Union in particular, who have been pressing for some of those things, recognise the damage that they are doing to Northern Ireland. They like to hype up their support for the peace process in Northern Ireland, so why hurt us now? Why does the EU want to damage Northern Ireland? Why does it want to damage the economy? Why does it want to put up the price of food in Northern Ireland as a consequence of introducing barriers? That is not necessary and does not help the single market. We need to get a bit of common sense and reality back here.
I thank the Minister for his statement and his ongoing work to mitigate the unmitigated disaster that is the Northern Ireland protocol. What evidence is there of the Irish Government taking a more constructive approach and starting to put the interests of people of Northern Ireland first, rather than seeking to isolate Northern Ireland as a punishment and pursuing their ideology of the reunification of the island, and joining you in trying to convince people like the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State, who are downplaying the problems of the protocol, not least today, by blaming the empty shelves on COVID? When will the Irish Government join the Assembly and seek to mitigate the disaster that is the protocol, along with the protocol deniers in the House: Alliance, SDLP and Sinn Féin?
Brandon Lewis is clearly going about like the emperor with no clothes; however, it is not a small boy who is pointing it out but the entire crowd. He really needs to reflect on that. It is not a good policy to go about saying something that is blatantly not the case. We know what the problems are and where they emanate from, and we know that those issues need to be dealt with.
I have had a request in for about two weeks now to meet my counterparts in the Republic of Ireland, because there are significant issues of concern. However, I have to admit that I am getting better cooperation in getting meetings with the UK Ministers than I am with Ministers in the Republic of Ireland. They may be busy, but everybody is busy, and these are significant issues. The port of Dublin is a huge issue; there are huge problems there. In some instances, hauliers are waiting there for days in very poor conditions, without good sanitary conditions or anything else. It is grossly unfair. Perishable goods are being lost as a consequence of those delays, and, from what I gather, a number of vehicles that would normally transit through Dublin are now coming through Belfast and Larne. They include vehicles that have the Republic of Ireland as their destination. We need cooperation in working those things out to the benefit of everyone.
Minister, thanks for your statement. In paragraphs 19 and 20, you refer to an update on EU funding. Others in the House referred to the issues that Brexit has caused fishermen across the country. In my constituency of Mid Ulster, we have the Lough Neagh fishing cooperative. That is a fishing community with real fears about Brexit that it has been communicating for some time. Last summer, I met you about a package of support for Lough Neagh fishing operators. On 11 September, you responded to a question for written answer that I submitted to tell me that a package worth £250 million was being worked on using the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF). In the Chamber, on 3 November, you told me again that that was soon to be delivered, and, on 12 November, you said that it would now be valued at £336,000. Was that package of support for the Lough Neagh fishing operators discussed at the NSMC?
No, it was not. That was a good angle to use to get that in; I will give you that. It is my intention to ensure that that funding goes to the fishermen. Officials are working on and refining it.
I would have preferred that the funding went out before Christmas, but it did not. However, I am still committed to doing that.
I thank the Minister for his statement, which refers to EU funding. I appreciate that the Horizon 2020 programmes have run out, along with the support programmes and the moneys. Was there a broader discussion about how we will replace that money and extend or protect those programmes to ensure that we do not delve into other pockets of money that are being used by communities and universities? It is important to find out where we will be with supports and funding for those groups.
There are commitments that a number of those funds will be taken up directly by the UK Government. There are funds that we can continue to tap into such as PEACE funding and so forth. We can continue to tap into European funding and will do so in cooperation with our colleagues in the Republic of Ireland.
The Minister will be aware of the disappointing withdrawal of prominent mail order horticultural plant and seed suppliers based in England in delivering their products to Northern Ireland because of what they see as draconian regulations that have been caused by the protocol. Does he believe that this is a temporary situation, and is there anything that his Department can do in the meantime to help to restore this valuable service to gardeners and ensure that garden centres will be in a position to maintain imported stock levels?
Gardening is an important activity for many people's mental health. At this time of the year, people get their seeds and have them well started for planting in the spring. It is hugely unfortunate that this circumstance has arisen. We have raised the issue regularly with ministerial colleagues in the United Kingdom Government. Do I believe that it can be resolved? Yes, I do. Whether it will be resolved is a different matter entirely, but we need to keep working on these things. There is the commercial side, as our farmers plant in March and April, and that is absolutely critical. If farmers do not plant, they do not harvest, so it is very important that planting continues. The issue is, therefore, a significant priority for the Department.
Yesterday, the Economy Minister told the House that 20% of Northern Ireland's agri-food traverses to GB through Dublin Port. She called on the Dublin Government to step up and take responsibility for the chaos at Dublin. That caused some Members who are key proponents of the rigorous implementation of the protocol to think that those comments were worthy of laughter. Is it a laughing matter? Does the Minister think that the Dublin Government are doing what they need to do to sort out that chaos?
If you take the 20% and the £5 billion in the processing sector, £1 billion of trade is affected. If you take the 100,000 people who are employed in the agri-food sector, 20,000 people's employment is affected. I suspect that people in the sector will not be laughing as a consequence of the problems at Dublin Port. Dublin Port is incredibly important, particularly for just-in-time goods and for goods traversing to the south of England. It is incredibly important that we, as a country that sells a large volume of food and relies on the food and food-processing sector for so many jobs, ensure that we keep all routes open to export our goods. The Dublin Government need to step up and work with us to ensure that that transit can happen.
Minister, your statement refers to close cooperation:
"on significant environmental issues, as they relate to the implementation of future agriculture policy."
We know already that, under current policy, Northern Ireland fails to meet its obligations under the habitats directive. I am starting to hear reports of animal waste now being moved across the border in what are suspected to be attempts to continue to circumnavigate those obligations in a few cases. What coordination is happening to ensure that we meet our obligations under the habitats directive across the island?
The Member referred to animal waste moving across the border, and that is an entirely legitimate act. I would refer to it as animal nutrients, because it can provide nutrients for the soil. If we have an excess of nutrients, and the Republic of Ireland does not have enough, it is entirely reasonable to export those nutrients to the Republic of Ireland.
Ultimately, as we move forward, I would like to see us having a much more efficient way of doing that. That will involve significant investment in anaerobic digestion, slurry separation and pelletising phosphates, as well as a need to produce nitrogen in liquid form, which can then be exported not just to the Republic of Ireland but right across the world. That could help us ensure that we meet our environmental obligations and continue to grow the agri-food sector in Northern Ireland, because it is a job creator.
I hope that the Green Party will recognise the benefits of the agri-food sector in putting food on people's tables and a roof over people's heads, because, in doing that, it is a very important sector.