Flooding: Financial Support for Farmers

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 22 April 2024.

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Photo of Sinéad Ennis Sinéad Ennis Sinn Féin 2:45, 22 April 2024

2. Ms Ennis asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to outline what financial support measures he intends to provide to farmers as a result of flooding. (AQO 310/22-27)

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I thank the Member for her question. I recognise that 2023 was a challenging year for potato growers, and that our very wet and late spring of 2024 is now negatively impacting on farming operations across almost every sector in the industry. I am conscious of what the wider impact will be if wet weather continues in the weeks ahead and have therefore made representations to the UK Government about the need for central government intervention if the situation does not improve.

In the meantime, I encourage all farmers who are seeking advice on management of their farming operations during this ongoing poor weather to contact the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) through their local CAFRE adviser.

A financial support scheme for potato growers affected by last year's flooding in the counties of Armagh and Down has been rigorously examined by DAERA. A business case was developed to test the need for, and value for money of, a potential support package and to look at what the net additional NI economy impact might be. However, the conclusion of that process was that government intervention was not likely to meet the threshold associated with 'Managing Public Money' that is required to justify and authorise that expenditure. For that reason, DAERA has not implemented a support scheme.

I previously advised Members of my intention to review the impact of the flooding event. As part of my review, I instructed officials to undertake inspections of fields that were identified as being subject to flooding. That work has been completed, but it did not support a change in the conclusion.

Photo of Sinéad Ennis Sinéad Ennis Sinn Féin

I appreciate the Minister's answer, but the farming community feels very much left behind in help and support following the recent flooding event. I appreciate the dire financial situation that Departments are facing after years of Tory underfunding, but will the Minister commit to continuing to raise the issue with the British Government to ensure that, if additional money is found, farmers can avail themselves of financial support, which is much needed due to the recent severe flooding events?

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I can. I raised the matter with Minister Steve Baker last Wednesday, whilst in London. I outlined the critical nature of the issue. We have had a few days of good weather, but the forecast for the days ahead is not great, and I am aware that that is a real issue of concern. I am also aware that the Irish Government have brought forward a support scheme. However, what we need here is UK Government intervention, because this is of such enormity that it requires the UK Government to step up.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Minister and, in particular, his officials with whom I have engaged on behalf of potato farmers since the autumn floods, but I cannot adequately express the disappointment felt by those farmers who, frankly, believe that the Minister was not brave enough to intervene and give them the vital financial support that they needed following the extensive loss of crop, while other businesses were able to avail themselves of support. How does that decision sit with the Minister's desire to champion the horticulture sector, much of which may go out of business as a result of his inaction?

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I thank the Member for her question and for her engagement with our officials in relation to potato growers. As Minister, I have to satisfy myself on the use of public funds and the tests associated with that. I am also conscious of the budget situation, and my Department looks forward to receiving support from Members to improve that situation. I am keen to support the horticulture sector, but I need to be able to satisfy myself on the use of public funds and on the budget cover for the issue. I am aware that ministerial directions have been issued around the issue previously, but, as a former member of the Public Accounts Committee, I am also conscious of the threshold that needs to be reached. It is important that we lobby the UK Government for a UK-wide support scheme.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

Will the Minister outline his Department's plans under the new farm support and development programme for supporting farmers who are impacted by crises?

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

The key objective of my Department's approach through the new farm support and development programme is to encourage farm businesses to better manage risk in their own businesses, to become more resilient and to be better prepared to cope with such situations as bad weather. A crisis framework is being developed under the programme. It will enable my Department to assess potential industry impacts, such as weather or market failure, and determine the most appropriate timing and form of intervention necessary for a specific crisis. That will involve setting out trigger points, such as scale of impact or market price reductions, to inform the operation of the framework. I look forward to receiving a briefing on the work that has been done to date from officials.

On preparedness for exceptional weather events, my officials continue to engage and collaborate with government and agency partners, through such fora as the Northern Ireland flood strategy steering group and the regional community resilience group, to ensure that our collective response to, and recovery from, adverse weather is efficient, effective and targeted.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

We all know that fodder is running low, that cattle and other animals cannot be put out in the fields and that crops cannot be planted. Have you ever considered a mechanism that, with certain conditions being met and the Department having analysed the situation, would allow for an automatic kick-in of provision of support for the farming and horticulture sectors?

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I thank the Member for what is a constructive question. That is something that we need to consider for a future farm support and development programme. The reality is that climate change is affecting all of Northern Ireland, and, unfortunately, is here to stay. We need to be able to build resilience in our agriculture sector, and initiatives such as what you have outlined can be considered in future. Budget is key to it.