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16th November 1999
Minutes of Special Meeting of Strabane District Council held in the Council Chamber, Council Offices, 47 Derry Road, Strabane on Tuesday 16 November 1999 at 9.20 pm
Present:- In the Chair:- Councillor I Murtagh Other Members: Councillors Mrs A Bell, I Barr, D A Bresland, J Donnell, J Emery, D Hussey, T Kerrigan, T McBride, C McHugh, E Turner MBE Total = 11
In Attendance- Messrs A Smyth, D Nelson, H Pollock - UFU
Messrs L Craig, S McBride, N Donaghy - NIAPA
Clerk & Chief Executive, Committee Clerk
Plight of the Farming Industry
The Chairman, on behalf of the Council, welcomed the representatives from the Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) and the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers Association (NIAPA) to the meeting. He explained the procedure whereby each group would be allowed 10-15 minutes to make their presentation after which Members would be given the opportunity to clarify any points and put forward comments.
Ulster Farmers Union
Members were circulated with a briefing paper prepared by the UFU which had been prepared for the attention of all Northern Ireland MPs and MEPs outlining further action necessary to safeguard the future of Northern Ireland’s single, largest industry. Mr Pollock outlined the present state of Northern Ireland’s agriculture industry as follows:-
£572 million had been removed from the NI economy over the last five years. This equated to £40 million being lost from the Strabane area; annual total farm income had plummeted by 75% to £82 million in that period; the agrifood industry was still Northern Ireland’s largest, single industry accounting for 10% of civil employment and 7% of Gross Domestic Product; the agrifood industry in NI was almost three times as important as at UK level; a recently produced EUROSTAT report showed that agricultural producer prices in the United Kingdom had fallen by much more than any other EU Member State in the period 1995-1998; in 1997 - average net farm income was only £3,093 75% of farms had a net income of less than £10,000 38% of farms made a loss farm incomes in NI were falling at twice the rate of the UK; farmers now owed approx. £520 million to banks and this continued to grow. Further action had been identified as follows:-
exceptional measures for the pig industry - call for the Government at Westminster to find a genuine and meaningful solution to the current crisis; differential BSE status (low risk) for NI/continuation of Calf Processing Aid scheme – call for a new approach which should be immediately adopted and pursued. The Republic of Ireland (ROI) and Great Britain have had a much higher rate of BSE incidence than NI. The ROI, however, had a lot more advantages than NI and it was requested that NI receive the same treatment. NI could not export beef on the bone, however, the ROI was allowed to do so. Live exportation of cattle of all ages should be recommenced and until this was secured, the Calf Processing Aid Scheme must be continued. The absence of a market for the vast majority of dairy bred male calves showed that the UK Government’s decision to discontinue this scheme had been wrong;
agrimonetary compensation – matching UK funds in 2000 and 2001. The Government must provide the £129 million matching UK funds in 2000 and 2001. The third and final tranche, worth £38 million to UK farmers, must be paid as soon as possible; the Agricultural Retirement Scheme must be introduced to ensure the orderly and necessary restructuring of the industry; a satisfactory outcome of the forthcoming review of the EU’s Sheepmeat Regime must be secured to encourage sheep production in the medium and longer term; it is essential that the UK Government matches EU Structures Funds allocation to secure their release and farmers’ access to these must be substantially improved; assistance to improve producer marketing; regionalisation of Agenda 2000 implementation; the European model of agriculture must be vigorously defended in the forthcoming World Trade Organisation discussions. Mr Pollock concluded by stating that the overall objective of the UFU was "a level playing field" and in so doing would allow the NI agriculture industry to be in a position to compete. He then invited his colleagues, Mr Nelson and Mr Smyth to outline their personal experiences.
Mr Nelson, pig farmer, remarked that NI had always accepted a pig cycle, however, there were additional burdens at the present time. Approx. 18 months previously 40% of the slaughter capacity was wiped out overnight. Following this, NI farmers had to accept prices lower than their competitors i.e. 50p/kilo instead of 80p/kilo. Money was spent on welfare friendly housing and there was also the burden of BSE which none of the competitors had to bear. Prices once again dropped with the result that pig producers were going out of business on a daily basis. Approx. 1,764 jobs were lost and the number was continuing to rise. It was felt that there were mechanisms within Europe which could deal with the current situation but the Government was not putting the case forward. There was a need for labelling of NI products. Supermarkets claimed to offer customers a choice but it was contended that there was no indication as to where bacon was produced, therefore, the customer could not make an informed choice. Food products should be labelled to facilitate the consumer and they should be demanding more information. Mr Smyth, beef farmer, outlined his experiences and spoke of the need for equality for farmers in NI and the ROI.
Mr Craig, past Chairman of NIAPA, stated that last year’s farm incomes were the lowest in 18 years and this year was the worst. The crisis affected all sectors i.e. pigs, sheep, milk and beef. He was of the opinion that the BSE announcement in March 1996 was unwise and was mishandled. He reiterated the previous comments in that it was primarily a problem in England and affected dairy cows with over 100,000 cases reported. NI experienced only 1% of the problem. A request had been made for NI to be treated as a special case in view of its traceability recording system etc. but this was not forthcoming. NI produce was the most authenticated in the world although this was not recognised. Out of 56 Commonwealth countries, 4 were buying British beef.
Mr Craig stated that he wholeheartedly supported NI produce. 80% of NI beef produced was for the export market and this caused major problems. NI was grass based and the climate limited the range of produce. It was contended that the Government had not been supportive. NIAPA supported labelling of produce as it assisted customers with choice. The European ban had been lifted, however, this did not result in any major impact. The strength of sterling was also a significant factor and this was particularly poignant in this area given Strabane’s close proximity to the border. The issues which had a major impact on agriculture were outside its control. Subsidies had dropped but the Government had refused to implement legislation. It was contended that there was a deliberate Government policy of non-involvement in the agricultural industry. On a general note, the change in eating habits also had a major impact with convenience foods to the forefront.
Mr Craig then invited his two colleagues Mr McBride and Mr Donaghy to outline their personal experiences. Mr McBride spoke of the decrease in animal prices i.e. in 1995 an animal was worth £900 but this Spring it was worth £480. He pointed out that the rural farmer normally spent his money in the local area but the knock-on effect from the farming crisis resulted in businesses closing such as Leckpatrick Agricultural Services (Millar’s Mill). The supermarkets were demanding animal welfare improvements and the consumer was paying "over the odds" for food, however, the producer was getting a very low return. He supported improvements in animal welfare but stated that if other countries had a similar viewpoint, this would result in fairer competition. He spoke of the costs of double tagging at approx. £4.00/head. Almost 50% of animals lost their tags which had to be replaced and the farmer had to meet the cost. He concluded by stating that he should be investing in his farm but could not afford to.
Mr Donaghy advised that he farmed sheep and cattle in a Less Favoured Area. His income had more than halved as a result of the BSE crisis. In addition to getting reduced prices for produce, farmers were faced with extra costs which contributed to the overall crisis and were experiencing a lot of hardship.
The Chairman thanked the UFU and NIAPA representatives for their informative presentations. He commented that the current system of support to and Government management of the farming industry had not just failed – it had become a total disaster. He felt that many farm enterprises were experiencing great difficulty and even ruin and in his opinion the current support system was wrongly based. Whilst farmers benefited from this system initially, they were now unwilling victims of it. Prices and values in the widest sense had been distorted, sometimes to an inordinate degree. Farmers needed support and should not be penalised in the process. The support mechanism needed restructuring to a more meaningful system and the current farm support system needed radical reform. Farming was in crisis as a result of mis-judged Government policy whether from Brussels or London.
Councillor McBride welcomed the presentations. He commented that some of the Councillors came from the rural areas and had an insight into the farming crisis. In response to the Chairman’s comments re. the failure of the current support system, he pointed out that one of the founding principles of CAP led to the support system especially that Europe had to be self sufficient in the food supply. In general, agriculture needed to be supported otherwise difficulty was experienced in encouraging young people to stay on the farms as agricultural incomes declined relative to other incomes.
Councillor McBride called on the Council, as a matter of urgency, to propose a strategic review of the future of agriculture in NI. He spoke of the need for a fundamental strategic review of agriculture which should be financed by the European Commission. He also called for the support of the three MEPs. He remarked that agriculture in NI was suffering from the indifference of UK politicians. He acknowledged the difficulty in impressing upon politicians that the farming industry was the single most important industry in NI. He proposed that the Minister of Agriculture be advised of the particular difficulties of farming in NI and be requested to take effective action as a matter of urgency. It was essential that NI was recognised as a special entity and a strategic review should be undertaken.
Councillor Kerrigan also welcomed the presentations. He congratulated Mr Craig on being awarded an OBE. He remarked that he had been involved in the agricultural scene for over 30 years and had witnessed many changes during that time. He commented that Councillor Turner and himself had recently attended a meeting in Belfast on CAP at which it was highlighted that the industry suffered a loss of £520 million. It was contended that the Government would have offered assistance for other industries suffering such a loss. He understood that pork was being imported into NI and put under NI labels. The farming industry needed help. Many reaped the benefits of the farmer and they needed support urgently.
In supporting Councillor McBride’s comments, Councillor Kerrigan also proposed that the Council seek the support of the other 25 Councils in NI in tackling the farming crisis.
Councillor Turner welcomed the presentations. He concurred with previous speakers and voiced particular concern at the impact at local level. He felt that the extent of the crisis was not fully appreciated nor the knock-on effects. He remarked that local produce was the best but felt that sufficient emphasis was not placed on this. He voiced support for Councillor McBride’s proposal. He also felt that the Council should liaise closely with the farming representatives. He concurred with Councillor Kerrigan’s comments with regard to Professor Sheehy’s presentation on CAP in the Queen’s University of Belfast which highlighted the crisis.
Councillor Emery welcomed the presentations. He remarked that farm income had fallen by 75% over the past year and the farming industry had no control over this. There were cheap imports to contend with and the strength of sterling. He called for these issues to be addressed by Government and for a new farming strategy to be implemented. He spoke of the knock-on effect which job losses in the farming sector had on other sectors. He contended that farmers had been left to defend an industry worth millions to the economy and it was only a matter of time before the "chain reaction" to this economic crisis hit the High Street, local shops and the rural communities. He also contended that the European Commission, through the interpretation of its policies and conditions, had been of no assistance to beef exports and had failed to appreciate the difficulties experienced.
Councillor Donnell explained that he was a farmer and appreciated, at first hand, the farming crisis. He spoke of the severe reduction in animal prices and felt that the Culled Calf Scheme should be reintroduced as it would assist the beef industry in the long term. If calves were culled it would reduce the number of calves at the Calf Punching stage and at slaughter stage thus reducing the amount of beef on the market. He sought clarification on whether live cattle being imported from the ROI were going into the food chain. Mr Smyth, UFU, advised that it was his understanding that they were processed in NI for European markets as ROI beef. Mr Craig remarked that cattle prices were also lower in the North as a result of the pound. The ROI did not have to go through the rigours of the export market. The factory owners had not been of assistance to the farming community.
Councillor Donnell queried whether cattle were being imported to NI for slaughter. Mr Craig commented that lambs were being imported from Scotland. Councillor Donnell suggested that funding should be sought from the Government to advertise NI produce. He also seconded Councillor McBride’s proposal.
Councillor Barr also welcomed the presentations and concurred with the previous speakers. He voiced wholehearted support for the proposal. He spoke of the fear that the current farming crisis could worsen and stated that his main concern was the cost to the consumer. He remarked that farmers’ income from produce was continuing to drop, however, there was no reduction in prices for consumers. The question, therefore, arose as to who was benefiting. Despite the crisis, the Government had not offered any assistance. He concurred with the view that the Council should support and liaise closely with the farming representative bodies in an attempt to tackle the problems and to identify the most appropriate way forward.
Councillor Hussey welcomed the presentations and concurred with previous speakers. He felt that there was a general lack of awareness of the importance of the farming industry to the entire community. He spoke of Government apathy. He reiterated the request for a "level playing field", the labelling of local produce and urged that a mechanism be set up to maintain the various sectors. He supported the motion for a strategic review of agriculture in NI. He spoke of the anticipated lower production costs in the Eastern European situation and urged that this be borne in mind.
Councillor McHugh also welcomed the delegations and concurred with the previous speakers in calling for a strategic review.
Councillor McBride stated that with Agenda 2000 and CAP reforms to contend with, it was vital that NI had an agricultural review. NI farmers had received a bad deal since the BSE crisis. The Council was calling for the restoration of the Calf Processing Aid Scheme. It cost more to put tags in their ears than the current value of a Friesan male calf. There was no substantial cost of reintroducing the scheme. He called for the extension of the scheme to cover the surplus of ewes so as to take these out of the current stock. With regard to the strength of sterling, nothing could be done at NI level. In the event that NI had been treated as a special case there would have been less difficulty. The main problem was as a result of lack of interest from the mainland where there was little understanding of the vital importance that agriculture still played in the NI economy.
Councillor Donnell suggested that the motion be amended to incorporate a request for Government funding to be provided for the marketing of the produce. Councillor McBride accepted this amendment.
In response to a query, Mr Craig commented that NIAPA would be willing to support Councillor McBride’s proposal. The support of the other 25 Councils would also be welcomed. He remarked that New Labour was elected on health and education promises.
Mr Pollock indicated that the UFU would be supportive of the motion. He reiterated the view that a lot of the problems arose from Westminster. The EU Rural Policy needed to be reformed and the rural communities maintained.
Councillor Hussey suggested that the motion also be amended to request Government to re-designate NI as low risk BSE status.
It was unanimously agreed that the Council write to the Secretary of State, Mr Mandelson, outlining the Council’s views as highlighted above and forward a copy of the letter to Mr Brown, the Agriculture Minister, Lord Dubs, MPs, MEPs and Assembly Members. It was further agreed that the support of the other 25 Councils also be sought.
The meeting closed at 10.50 pm.
DATED this 16th day of NOVEMBER 1999
Clerk and Chief Executive
DATED this 7th day of DECEMBER 1999