HC Deb 24 July 1973 vol 860 cc1498-504

7.33 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Mills)

I beg to move,

That the Pig Production Development (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1973, a draft of which was laid before this House on 11th July, be approved.

The purpose of the order is to amend the Pig Production Development Act (Northern Ireland) 1964 to allow a higher levy to be raised under Section 4 of the Act.

The Act established the Northern Ireland Pig Production Development Committee, which consists of representatives of the Ulster Farmers' Union, the Pigs Marketing Board, the breed societies and the Ministry of Agriculture for Northern Ireland. The committee's functions are to provide services and facilities intended to benefit pig producers, to make pig production more profitable, and to encourage the genetic improvement of pigs in Northern Ireland.

In practice the committee carries out its functions by paying incentives to the owners of nucleus breeding herds to encourage them to record results in their herds and to test pigs at the Northern Ireland Pig Testing Station. It provides two-thirds of the capital costs of the testing station and 100 per cent. of the running costs. It pays incentives to encourage the dissemination of high-quality breeding stock and it is underwriting a pig artificial insemination service for a two-year trial period.

The committee meets its expenditure out of the Pig Production Development Fund established under Section 3 of the Act. The revenue raised by the levy on all pigs sold by producers to the Northern Ireland Pigs Marketing Board goes into the fund. That is the fund's only source of income.

At present the levy is fixed at five pence per pig. That is the maximum level permitted under the Act. The amount of money raised is insufficient to allow the committee to meet its present commitments and to proceed with its plans, which include the building of an extension to the pig-testing station.

The order amends the Act to allow for a levy of up to 20 pence per pig, though the intention is to raise the levy to 10 pence per pig by subordinate legislation in the first instance. The amount of additional money involved will, of course, depend on the number of pigs produced in Northern Ireland but it is likely to be in the region of £80,000 per year.

The Ulster Farmers' Union and the Pigs Marketing Board are agreeable to the Act being amended and to the levy being increased to 10 pence per pig. I think that hon. Members can rest assured that the people who will have to pay the increased levy, the pig producers of Northern Ireland, are content that they are obtaining value for their money and not getting a pig in a poke.

7.38 p.m.

Captain L. P. S. Orr (Down, South)

I apologise to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for the fact that I missed the opening sentences of what he had to say. None the less, I understand what the order is about. As I understand it, the objectives of the order are acceptable to everyone in Ulster. The pig producers as a whole and the farming community generally have great confidence in the present Pigs Marketing Board in Ulster and they have great confidence in what is being done in the areas which the moneys are intended to finance.

I hope that my hon. Friend will be good enough to say something About the extent of the smuggling of pigs across the border. It is a great problem. I understand that the rate was as high as 10,000 a week. It may have diminished a little since then but I understand that it is still a substantial number of pigs.

If the moneys are being paid by pig producers for the purposes of improving the Northern Ireland stock, those who smuggle across the border are to a large extent living off their fellows.

Mr. Christopher Woodhouse (Oxford)

Will my hon. and gallant Friend say in which direction the pigs are smuggled across the border?

Captain Orr

From north to south. Those who are paying the levy and who are not engaged in smuggling are to some extent subsidising those who are engaged in illegal activity. Will my hon. Friend say what is being done to contain that activity? Further, is there anything more that can be done to convince those who are engaged in smuggling that it is not good in the long run for the Ulster pig-producing community and for Ulster agriculture?

7.40 p.m.

Mr. David Clark (Collie Valley)

1 want to pursue the point raised by the hon. and gallant Member for Down, South (Captain Orr). The smuggling of pigs from Northern Ireland into the South is obviously affected by this order. I understand that the numbers are decreasing, and perhaps the Minister can elaborate on this. We are not, however, talking about a few pigs. At the peak, about six weeks ago, 10,000 pigs a week were mysteriously disappearing from the headquarters of the Pigs Marketing Board. We can only assume that the shortfall from 35,000 to 23,000 was caused by the smuggling which was clearly rife.

We appreciate that there are particular difficulties in Ulster at the moment. We sympathise with the police in their efforts to check the border. I understand that the livestock inspection officers supposed to look after this problem are not at full strength. Perhaps the Minister can comment on that. This is costing the EEC a great deal of money. At the peak period it would mean that £1 million a year was involved in a swindle on taxpayers in Europe because of this illicit trade. Not only that; it means, because of the number of pigs removed from the United Kingdom bacon market, that our bacon prices have risen correspondingly.

From my inquiries and from what Ministers have said I understand that the fall in the British bacon price has in some way offset this activity. I should be grateful to hear the Minister's views on this subject.

7.43 p.m.

Mr. James Kilfedder (Down, North)

I want to mention some of the matters raised by the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. David Clark). We have been asking Questions in the House about the smuggling of pigs from Northern Ireland into the Irish Republic for some time. The numbers have fallen, from about 10,000 a week to about 3,000 a week. It is still a sizeable figure. I was surprised, when I put it to one of the Ministers of State in the Northern Ireland Office, that I received a very brusque reply. I cannot remember his exact words but he said something to the effect that he could easily smuggle me into the Free State. I do not want to follow that line because I thought it was insulting then and I still think so. Coming from that Minister I say no more about it.

It is wrong that pigs should be smuggled into the Irish Republic, which is not taking effective preventive measures. The Republic benefits from this trade. This is a benefit from the Common Market Commission. 1 know that my hon. Friend will try his best to see that this is put right. It is not only a question of defrauding the Common Market Commission, and we have heard a good deal about frauds there, but it is also unfair to the other pig producers in Northern Ireland. It further means that the price of bacon and pork products in Northern Ireland is increased. This is hard on the housewife, especially at a time of rising prices. With those observations I welcome the order.

7.45 p.m.

Mr. Peter Mills

I shall try to keep strictly within the rules of order in replying to some of the points that have been raised. I cannot stray as far as some hon. Members did, much as I would like to. I am glad that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) welcomes the order. I am sure he is right and that it will be of benefit to the Northern Ireland pig industry. He referred to the smuggling problem. When we have the sort of border which exists between the North and South in Ireland it is highly tempting, to say the least, for farmers to get their pigs across the border if they can obtain £2 or £3 more per pig. I am glad to say that the smuggling has diminished considerably.

My hon. and gallant Friend has raised an important point in referring to the question of fairness. A large number of pig farmers in Northern Ireland are paying the levy, thereby contributing to the work which the committee does in pig testing and producing a better type of pig for the benefit of the whole Province. Yet at the height of the smuggling it could be said that perhaps 10,000 to 12,000 pigs were being smuggled and the farmers were getting all the benefits but not paying the levy to the committee. These farmers are not playing fair.

It is important that Northern Ireland should keep all the pigs that it can so that we may have full employment in our meat and processing factories for the benefit of everyone. If the farmers enjoy the benefits of these schemes to improve the pigs, which are so important to Northern Ireland as a pigmeat exporting country, they must also pay the levy. It is difficult to contain the problem in present circumstances because the police and security forces are dealing with other sorts of problems. Dealing with terrorists is their first priority, but I am certain that when things get quieter they will turn their attention to this.

Mr. Peter Archer (Rowley Regis and Tipton)

Can the hon. Gentleman tell us whether discussions have been held with the Government of the South?

Mr. Mills

That is so. The Government of the South are just as anxious as we are to see that smuggling does not continue.

Mr. Woodhouse

It is probably within the recollection of my hon. Friend that, when we had foot-and-mouth disease in this country, the authorities in Southern Ireland found no difficulty at all in preventing cattle moving across the border from the North.

Mr. Mills

That may be so but I can assure my hon. Friend that the border is very difficult to define. Some farmers have some of their fields in the South and some in the North. It is not as easy as it seems. I must correct my hon. and gallant Friend when he said that this smuggling was only one way. I am not saying that there is smuggling to the North, but there are certainly cattle and pig movements to the North.

Captain Orr

Will my hon. Friend say precisely what is the incentive which leads to this problem?

Mr. Mills

It is fairly simple. The South went for high food prices as soon as it entered the Common Market. Therefore, the curers and pig dealers were able to pay a much higher price in the South. There were other problems concerning compensatory amounts too. I do net want the House to hold me to this figure, but at one stage there was a difference of approximately £4 per pig. Dealers were able to tempt farmers in Northern Ireland with an extra £4 a pig. Things have altered considerably and it is balancing out now. As the transitional period goes on and prices level out, I hope that the smuggling will be reduced to zero.

The hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) has left the Chamber. He was upset by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, but he must accept that my hon. Friend's recent remarks were a joke. He was not being rude.

I commend the order to the House. It will be of great benefit to the pig farmers of Northern Ireland.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Pig Production Development (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1973, a draft of which was laid before this House on 11th July, be approved.