Independent Strategic Review of the NI Agri-Food Sector

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:00 pm on 8th November 2021.

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Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP 3:00 pm, 8th November 2021

3. Mrs Dodds asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for an update on the independent strategic review of the NI agri-food sector (ISRAF). (AQO 2681/17-22)

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I am pleased to provide an update on the independent strategic review of the Northern Ireland agri-food sector, which, of course, the Member was instrumental in setting up. Sir Peter Kendall, who was appointed to lead the review, has met a range of stakeholders over the past six months to explore the challenges and opportunities that the agri-food sector faces. I look forward to reading his findings and recommendations in the final report.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

I thank the Minister for his answer. If I recall correctly, one of the issues that we wanted to tackle in the independent review of the agri-food sector was competitiveness and productivity. Recently, I read that the Finance Minister is interested in low productivity in Northern Ireland. He seems to think that the way to increase productivity is within the EU, despite the fact that we have just spent 40-odd years in the EU and it has not been a particular help. Will the Minister bid to the Finance Minister, along with the Economy Minister, for funding to invest in those world-class businesses in Northern Ireland's agri-food sector to help them increase productivity and competitiveness?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

As the Member knows very well, that crosses two Departments: DFE and DAERA. Agriculture is more involved in the primary sector, and DFE is more involved in the business side. I am very supportive of bids going to the Department of Finance to sustain our agri-food industry, which employs 30% of our manufacturing sector, has a turnover of over £5 billion and has the potential to increase that significantly.

The tricky bit of it is that we are now in a circumstance where, for the long-term security of the sector, we need investment that will not necessarily create jobs. A lot of the food sector needs to mechanise and become technologically smarter by using more robotic equipment to sustain the industry. However, that will not give a headline about more jobs, but it does ensure that there is real sustainability for the jobs that exist. I hope that Invest NI and, indeed, the Department of Finance will work with us to ensure that the agri-food sector, which has been through a number of transformations to be the successful powerhouse that it is for the Northern Ireland economy, can continue to be that for many decades going forward.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am tempted to point out that the Member who asked the previous question mentioned competitiveness. I cannot think of anything more competitive than having unique dual access to two different markets. Given the importance of the all-Island component for our dairy sector, has a single food producer or farming sector body approached his Department or him and supported the principle of the UK's triggering Article 16?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The dairy sector was mentioned very heavily in advance of the protocol. Everything seemed to be based around the problems that would exist in the dairy sector, but nobody seemed to pay any attention to the problems that would exist in every other sector should we have a protocol of the nature that eventually arrived. Consequently, we are in a circumstance where there are so many goods that we either pay a premium for or struggle to get into Northern Ireland as a consequence of that protocol. When we make decisions, we make them on behalf of all of industry, not one sector. I believe that it would be really positive if we were to invest in the dairy sector in Northern Ireland and ensure that more of the milk produced here is processed here. It makes absolute sense to me, and that milk, as a processed product, will mostly end up in the GB market. Having that circular economy makes considerable sense.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

The Northern Ireland agri-food sector has been heavily dependent on a flow of EU workers, which has stopped due to the UK's post-Brexit immigration rules. Can the Minister provide us with an update on what actions have been taken to address those labour shortages?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I thank the Member for his question. Yes, there has been that stop of new EU workers coming here. Of course, those who are here are welcome to stay, and those who returned home during COVID are welcome to come back, but many have chosen not to. I might add that there are other people — some have estimated a figure of at least 1 million and, possibly, 1·5 million across the UK — who have decided to opt out of the workforce over the COVID period. That is a lifestyle choice for many people who are perhaps over 55 but who still have the capacity to carry on working for a number of years. However, they have made that lifestyle choice, having got used to how things are, to live on less and enjoy life. We cannot force people to do otherwise.

The Government's aim is to get more people out of unemployment and into work, and that is a reasonable aim. It has proven to be particularly tricky when it comes to the food sector. There is availability of considerable numbers of people from other places, including the Philippines, and we can get people from those areas should the UK Government decide that that is a policy they wish to engage. We have been seeking to encourage that because it helps to sustain industry, certainly in this interim period. They have opened the doors for an additional 800 workers to come through. I am just after having a phone call with George Eustice. We hope to get a reasonable number of those people through for December, which will help to alleviate some of the pressures on our food processing sector.

Photo of Áine Murphy Áine Murphy Sinn Féin

Minister, will you clarify whether any potential recommendations arising from the independent strategic review of our agri-food sector will be considered in the draft food strategy for the North?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

We need to pull all those strategies together. They need to have connectivity. The strategy on green growth and the environment strategy, which I hope to talk about tomorrow, will all help us to pull together the various areas we need to address here in Northern Ireland and ensure that we go forward on our best foot. That is ultimately very important to us.