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Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1977

Volume 385: debated on Thursday 14 July 1977

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5.15 p.m.

rose to move, That the draft Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1977, laid before the House on 14th June, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move that this draft order be approved. It amends and extends various Acts dealing with agricultural matters and provides the legislative basis for the substitution of metric units for non-metric units and expressions in certain enactments. The amendments proposed are concerned in the main with correcting deficiencies and clarifying ambiguities which have become apparent as a result of the Department of Agriculture's experience in administering the Acts concerned. All interested parties were consulted about the provisions of the draft order before it was laid.

As noble Lords will no doubt have noticed, many of the provisions in this order bring Northern Ireland legislation into line with similar legislation in Great Britain. For example, Article 3 gives the Department the power to make hull licensing optional rather than mandatory. Articles 10 and 11 amend the Diseases of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 1958, and give the Department the authority to bring about the destruction of wildlife in order to prevent spread of disease to farm animals, and also give the right of entry of an authorised officer to any place where there are reasonable grounds for supposing that a dangerous animal pathogen exists. All these powers are already held by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and indeed I was one of the Ministers responsible for the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill which contained many of these provisions, which was passed by your Lordships' House last year.

One of the articles in the order which has been the subject of representation is Article 9. This extends to slaughterhouses operated by district councils the obligation—which already applies to commercial slaughterhouses—to slaughter animals at the request of local butchers. In this case the Government have tried to allay the fears expressed by providing that any butchers exercising their rights under this article must abide by the by-laws applying to the slaughterhouse involved. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1977, laid before the House on 14th June, be approved.—( Lord Melchett.)

5.17 p.m.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, for introducing, briefly but clearly to us, what is in fact a very long order, almost like a Parliamentary Bill. I should like to confine my comments on the order to the amendment which is contained in Article 17 to the Pig Production Development Act (Northern Ireland) 1964. As I understand it, Northern Ireland pig farmers at the moment pay a levy on each pig which they sell to the Pig Marketing Board, and the effect of this article is to replace this levy by a fixed percentage of each farmer's financial return from pigs sold to the Board. I am not quite clear whether that is to be a percentage of the gross or the net return which the farmer receives. I assume it is the gross return, but I am not sure. At the moment pig farmers in Great Britain, and presumably also in Northern Ireland—even more so there, as their feed costs are higher—are making a loss on each pig sold, so this seems to me an absolutely fundamental question.

What is to be the position of the Pig Production Development Fund in all this? In another place the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, when introducing this order, said:
"The change is intended to reduce the fluctuations in the revenue of the Fund which now occur when marketing of pigs falls substantially, by linking the contribution to producer returns, since these will normally be maintained by higher prices when pigs are scarce".
The question I want to ask is, what is going to happen when—as indeed is happening today—both the level of the pig herd and the prices farmers are getting are falling? Presumably the Development Fund will then also suffer. As things are at the moment, I fail to see how this new system which is embodied in Article 17 of this order will be any improvement so far as the Development Fund is concerned.

When the noble Lord replies he may perhaps be able to take the opportunity to tell me the amount by which the size of the Northern Ireland pig herd has fallen during the last year or so. I believe there has been quite a substantial fall. If the noble Lord could go so far outside the order as to indicate what plans the Government have to put Northern Ireland pig farmers back on their feet, I should welcome that information also. That is a feature of the order which I find worrying, but otherwise I welcome and support the order.

5.20 p.m.

My Lords, first of all, I shall take the point about gross or net return. It is the percentage of the gross return that is affected. The noble Lord, Lord Belstead, raised various questions about the pig breeding herd in Northern Ireland, not all of which I am necessarily entirely competent to answer. However, I shall do my best to cover some of the points that the noble Lord raised, and as regards any others the noble Lord will perhaps allow me to write to him.

I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, will be pleased to hear that the size of the pig breeding herd is not falling dramatically. Indeed, since this Government have been in office it has remained reasonably steady, or has even slightly increased in size. It is currently 75,100. The size is not expected to alter greatly in the near future. I think that to some extent that answers the noble Lord's worries about the Pig Production Development Fund. As the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, said, my honourable friend when introducing the order in another place, pointed out that the changes in the way that the contribution to the Fund is now levied are intended to allow the Fund to have contributions which will rise with inflation; and that, it was hoped, would be the case even if the number of pigs that were actually marketed was falling, because hopefully the price would then increase. However, at present, with the size of the herd remaining reasonably constant, I should hope that the number of pigs actually being marketed is not falling. If I can give the noble Lord further information about that I shall be happy to do so.

The general situation of the pig industry throughout the United Kingdom is a matter for concern and something with which my right honourable friend the Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is particularly concerned. His plans for the United Kingdom pig industry will obviously substantially affect the Northern Ireland industry. As the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, knows, the Northern Ireland pig industry is currently receiving Government support in the form of payments under the Meat Industry Employment Scheme and the Feed Price Allowance Scheme. As I have told the noble Lord when we have debated previous orders, we shall certainly be looking very carefully at the future of any such schemes, with a view to doing everything we possibly can to help the pig industry in Northern Ireland. I hope that I have covered the main points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Belstead. If there are any matters that I have not covered I shall endeavour to obtain the relevant information and write to him. I am grateful for his general welcome for the order.

On Question, Motion agreed to.