Agriculture (Northern Ireland)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 14th December 2005.

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Photo of William McCrea William McCrea Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 9:30 am, 14th December 2005

I absolutely agree with that sensible comment. A balance has to be struck, but there is a desire to prove something to Europe by gold-plating legislation coming from Europe instead of dealing with the spirit of its intention, so the UK tries to maximise the legislation, instead of having a balanced reaction to it. That causes grave concern to industry in general and to agriculture in Northern Ireland in particular, bearing it in mind that some of the legislation could destroy the industry completely.

To return to the case of the pig farmers, at that time, we were begging our Government to save an industry that was going down. Many farmers had been encouraged to spend money by the Department. They did so and found that the Department left them high and dry when they were up to their eyes in debt. Many of them went under. In fact, farmers committed suicide because of the tremendous debt they faced because of the Department's encouragement and because, when they were faced with a crisis, they were deserted. There is now another crisis.

I come to the end of my earlier story. When I spoke to the then Minister about the crisis in the pig industry, I said to him that the difference between the French Government and ours was that they would save the pig industry but ours would have it destroyed. In many ways, that was true because of the number of farmers who were totally destroyed at that time. It was not their fault. If one could say that they had contributed to their situation, it would have been their fault, but it was totally out of their control. There was a fire in one of the major factories; it seemed that one thing after another happened, and the pig industry was in a terrible situation.

I referred earlier to finding alternative uses for slurry, particularly in the intensive pig and poultry sector. Instead of forcing farmers to invest large sums in putting up storage, it would be more economical to consider investing the money in a system that would process the slurry into a valuable by-product. That is more rational and acceptable, and would be more acceptable to the environmental lobbies in Europe and elsewhere.

There are also small producers who cannot afford the adjustment to meet the new environmental legislation. Surely, urgent consideration should be given to the introduction of an out-goers scheme. Let us take the example of a small pig farmer who is asked to put up thousands upon thousands of pounds, to which the Government will add £30,000 or £40,000, to put in tanks in which to keep slurry. If he were given a certain amount of money to go out of the industry, because he would not be viable in the long run, it would be a more rational way of spending the money, and more helpful to the industry than giving him that first sum. Will the Minister ask the Department to consider the introduction of an out-goers scheme for the smaller producers who cannot afford the adjustment? Otherwise, they will have to apply for and take grants to keep going at least for a short period.

Before leaving the issue of implementing the nitrates directive, I ask the Minister to provide me with two assurances. First, will the Government give farmers more time to adjust to the new regulations? It is unacceptable that farmers have only until next August to complete all the works and submit the receipts to DARD. In reality, it is not practical and it cannot happen within that short time. Given that the Government still have to finalise the action programme and decide whether to introduce a roofing scheme for farmers, surely the additional time could be given.

Secondly, I should welcome a commitment from the Government that Lord Rooker, the Minister in charge of DARD and DOE, will take a more proactive role in the negotiations. It is essential that the Minister lobbies on the issue to get the best possible deal for the industry.

I spoke in the House the other day about the other side of the agriculture industry: fishing. Major debates are upcoming in Europe about quotas and how to deal with the fishing industry, yet I am led to believe that our Minister will not be present. It is vital that he takes an active role, batting in Europe for the farmers, taking on the battle himself and not leaving it to the officials. The Minister has good batting power, and I trust that he will lobby on those issues on behalf of the farming industry in Northern Ireland. Other pieces of environmental legislation likely to impact on Northern Ireland's agri-food industry are the water framework directive, integrated pollution prevention and control—the IPPC—and the climate change levy.

I welcome the issuing of single payments to many producers in Northern Ireland. However, with time running out, I encourage DARD to ensure that the maximum number of payments can be made to farmers before the end of 2005. There is some disappointment that, according to DARD's timetable, approximately one third of producers will not receive any other farm payment this year. I was also disappointed that only 75 per cent. of the single farm payment was issued to farmers in Northern Ireland, whereas 80 per cent. of it was issued to producers in Wales. If it can be done in Wales, it can be done in Northern Ireland. I wish my Welsh colleagues well, and I am happy for them, but I am looking for the same happiness for the Northern Ireland farmer.

Although many farmers have already received their single farm payment for 2005, many are still apprehensive about the inspection procedures under cross-compliance. It is vital that the inspection process is not over-zealous, and that the farmers are not severely penalised for minor non-compliance.

I turn to the potato sector. Despite the area of ground that is planted in potatoes decreasing annually, the sector still has a key role in the Northern Ireland agri-food industry. Although I do not agree entirely with everything in the recent Quinn report, "Review of Support Arrangements to the Northern Ireland Potato Sector", I believe that it could act as a basis for driving the potato sector forward. Northern Ireland traditionally had a lucrative seed potato sector. It is therefore vital that DARD puts increased resources into supporting this sector, to ensure that the critical mass remains in place to keep the sector viable.

Until there is an agreement over the EU budget, we still do not know how much money will be available for rural development in Northern Ireland for the period 2007–13. We do, however, know that the budget will be significantly less than that in the current round of funding. The rural development fund includes measures to boost farmland biodiversity, to restructure the rural economy and to improve the quality of life in rural areas. These constitute tangible public benefits that will support the EU's social and environmental objectives. However, this budget has been cut by 25 per cent., compared with the Commission's original proposal.

In the future, it is likely that that share of the rural development spend will be funded through compulsory and voluntary modulation of the single farm payment. It is therefore vital that the larger farmer who is likely to have contributed a greater amount of modulated funds in the first place is able to receive some funds through rural development. There is an opportunity here for intensive farmers to get some assistance to meet standards through rural development.

There is a significant lobby for rural development money to be spent on wider rural society. I support more funds going to rural schools, roads and health care. I also believe that the Government should be spending core budget funds on these areas, rather than targeting rural development money.

The future of the agri-food industry in Northern Ireland depends on young people coming into the industry. I welcome the new entrants scheme for Northern Ireland and hope that it encourages many young people into the industry. Despite all the negativity, I believe that there will be a bright future for those who are willing to adapt to new circumstances.

A number of changes could be made to the new entrants scheme that would help to encourage more people to avail themselves of it. I would like to see a mixture of a lump sum payment and a low-interest loan available under the scheme. I would also like other young people who commenced agricultural activity over the last five years to be able to avail themselves of the scheme.

If it is right that we have a scheme that encourages new entrants, it is also right to have a scheme that encourages and enables older people to move out and allow the younger people to get in. We are talking about an industry here—although the Government refer to it as an industry only when it suits—and in the past a farm enterprise was able to finance not only the older generation, but the incoming farmer and the new generation too. Quite often, two or even three families could be sustained on a farm holding. That is no more. Even the larger holdings could sustain only one family. Therefore, it is vital to encourage young people to come in and to encourage older people out. That can be done only if we have a scheme that allows it to happen.

I should like to say something about the high calibre of young people in the industry. For over 80 years, Queen's university, Belfast, has been training graduates in a degree in agriculture and they have gone on to lead the industry throughout Northern Ireland and further afield. It is vital that one of our main universities in Northern Ireland provides a high-quality agriculture degree to train young people for the largest industry in the Province. Others offer quality training for young people coming into the industry, but if one of our main universities does not offer an agriculture degree, we will not attract our brightest students and they will go elsewhere to qualify.

Will the Minister make it a priority to ensure that one of our universities offers a pure agriculture-based degree? I am concerned that in years to come the best export from the industry will be our young people, who are committed and interested in it but will go elsewhere to be trained. We cannot afford a brain drain from the agri-food sector in the Province.

In conclusion, I shall deal with renewable energy policy. DARD is currently consulting on a renewable energy policy for Northern Ireland. That strategy, together with the recent announcement of a £50 million budget to be spent on renewable energy in Northern Ireland over the next two years, will help renew interest in considering alternative land uses in Northern Ireland. I welcome this innovative move by the Government. With the current trend towards the globalisation of food products and massive increases in the price of oil and gas, many farmers look forward to the day when alternative land uses, such as planting oil seed rape for biodiesel or planting biomass for bio-remediation, will be economically viable. The Government's recent announcement regarding their renewable transport fuel obligations will hopefully allow some farmers in Northern Ireland to diversify into these new niche markets.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to draw hon. Members' attention to the importance of this industry. Many are the challenges that the industry is facing. I believe that Northern Ireland farmers are willing to face, and meet, those challenges. There is a future; I am simply asking the Government to ensure that they do all within their power to give the farmers that future.