HC Deb 18 February 1981 vol 999 cc401-14 1.35 am
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Butler)

I beg to move, That the draft Agricultural Trust (Abolition) (Northern Ireland) Order 1981, which was laid before this House on 3 February, be approved. The purpose of this order is formally to abolish the Northern Ireland Agricultural Trust by repealing the Agricultural Trust Act (Northern Ireland) 1966. The order seeks to effect the dissolution of the trust by repealing the Agricultural Trust Act (Northern Ireland) 1966 under which the trust was set up and operates; providing for the repeals to take effect from an appointed day to be determined by order; vesting all outstanding rights and obligations of the trust, including the payment of compensation to staff for loss of employment, in the Department of Agriculture in order to ensure that the affairs of the trust may be completely and properly wound up.

The order does not transfer the trust's statutory functions to the Department; it transfers only residual rights and obligations.

The order provides for the trust to pay such compensation as it considers appropriate to employees of the trust who suffer loss by virtue of the order, and the Department is also empowered to fill this obligation if necessary.

The abolition of the trust was announced by the Government in December 1979, that is to say, more than a year ago, and has been the subject of debate in this house on two occasions. Therefore, many of the arguments are known to those who might wish to speak in the debate. Perhaps it would still be helpful if I were to repeat some of the arguments which have been used before.

The Government have decided to abolish the trust for the following reasons. In the first place, opportunities for the trust to fulfil its original role of pioneering new commercial developments in agricultural production and processing have declined significantly in recent years. Secondly, duplication of effort will be minimised, administration simplified and costs reduced. Thirdly, it is declared Government policy to reduce, where possible, the number of quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations—or quangos.

The decision to wind up the trust was announced after discussions with the Ulster Farmers Union and representatives of the trust. Its position had been under review as part of the overall review of quangos and public expenditure, and also under a special review of the institutions for industrial promotion in Northern Ireland.

Perhaps I may remind the House briefly of the history of the trust. It was set up in 1967 to pioneer new commercial developments in the production and processing of agricultural produce. It subsequently assumed a major role in the marketing of such produce. Over the years, the trust had been involved in a large number of pioneering projects, ranging from the fairly ambitious to the strictly limited. But recently the pioneering side of its role had accounted for as little as one-fifth of its activity and could be judged generally to have achieved its primary object.

In the marketing field, the role of the trust had been to identify and promote marketing opportunities for Northern Ireland food processors in Great Britain and overseas. To this end, the trust encouraged firms to participate in marketing seminars, food fairs and trade promotions in Great Britain and abroad. The financing of the trust has been carried out by the Department of Agriculture at a current cost of £400,000 per annum.

In fact, since the Government's announcement more than a year ago, the trust has been run down. All outstanding commitments have been met. With no new projects being undertaken during the year, the staff have become redundant. I am glad to be able to tell the House that the 15 members of the staff have now all found other jobs. I should like to repeat what previous Northern Ireland Ministers have said and pay a late but well-deserved tribute to the work of the staff and to the chairman and eight other members of the trust who have served the agriculture industry in Northern Ireland so well.

The important question for us, and particularly for the industry, is whether the former role of the trust is being, or can be, fulfilled in other ways. I believe that the answer is undoubtedly "Yes". The Government are satisfied that at farm level the more important activities of the trust can be absorbed by the Department of Agriculture at less cost to the taxpayer. The education, research and advisory services of the Department of Agriculture will continue to be available to help farmers. Food processors will be able to make use of the continuing aids to industrial development, and seek the advice and assistance of the development institutions such as the Local Enterprise Development Unit, the Northern Ireland Development Agency and the Department of Commerce.

The Central Council for Agricultural and Horticultural Co-operation will continue to encourage the formation of agricultural co-operatives and to help in marketing activities. Food processors and manufacturers will be able to participate at international food fairs under the aegis of the British Food Export Council. That is important because it is claimed, with some justification, that in the past the trust has played an important role in this respect. I do not believe that there is any reason to doubt that effective overseas marketing can be carried out by the export council on behalf of Northern Ireland fanners. Of course, it is up to them to make use of its services.

Mr. James Kilfedder (Down, North)

What will be the saving to public funds as a result of the abolition of the trust, and what is the additional cost as a result of the Department of Agriculture taking on some of its functions?

Mr. Butler

The hon. Gentleman will not expect me to give him an exact figure. However, one can assume that all, or the greater part, of the salary costs will constitute a saving because this role will be taken on by those who are already engaged in some of the functions which the staff previously performed. For example, with regard to export marketing activity, the export council is already involved in this work. I judge that a relatively low extra cost will be involved in the council extending its services, as it is already doing, to those who wish to market Northern Ireland produce overseas.

It is correct to say that not all the £400,000 will be saved. That is a gross cost. However, I anticipate that at the end of the day the greater part will be saved.

There was a worry about export marketing. I believe that there are no grounds for worry because of the excellent work which the British Food Export Council does. I think that there was also some concern about domestic promotions in Great Britain. Again, help is available from both the Department of Agriculture and the Ulster Office in this respect. There is no reason why the Ulster Office should not continue to provide an excellent service for food producers in the Province in the same way as it does for other manufacturers. Here is an example where costs can be saved. The Ulster Office is used for promotional work and displays from time to time.

The Government's view is that the industry will not suffer from the abolition of the trust because there are alternative and satisfactory means of serving the agriculture industry. On the contrary, the previous duplication may have been harmful. It certainly became unnecessary, and it was costly. The cutting of unnecessary and costly public expenditure must, at the end of the day, be of benefit to farmers and to the agriculture industry as to the rest of the community. It is for that reason particularly that I commend the order to the House.

1.46 am
Mr. Tom Pendry (Stalybridge and Hyde)

The debate on the order to abolish the Agricultural Trust in Northern Ireland is largely academic, for in truth the trust exists in name only. The decimation of the trust's powers and functions began in May last year, and in January the last of the staff were made redundant. If one were to ring the trust today, one would find only one person manning the telephone, and the office in which he works will soon pass into new ownership. According to the press office of the Northern Ireland Office, the trust no longer exists.

Despite the now incorporeal nature of the trust, and partly because of it, the Opposition do not intend to allow the order to abolish the trust to go through the House without restressing the reasons why we have opposed its abolition all along. We have opposed it because, although it is a small cut in public expenditure—according to the Government it is a significant cut—the trust is worthy of support.

The trust has made a valuable contribution to Northern Ireland agriculture in regard to the marketing of produce. Its help in that respect will be and indeed is being sorely missed. If that is not so, perhaps the Minister will tell us when he replies.

A number of questions on this score need to be answered tonight. We need some positive answers from the Minister if those who have lost out through the abolition of the trust are to have any hope of help in future.

The Minister referred to the treatment of former staff of the trust. Here, too, is an area of confusion which is in need of clarification. I hope that the Minister will see fit to clear the air on this matter tonight. I hope that he will make it clearer than he did in his opening speech. I shall return to this important point later.

The abolition of the trust must be seen in the context of the agriculture and food processing industries in Northern Ireland, not in the context of public expenditure savings. Agriculture is the most important industry in Northern Ireland. The House knows that not only because I have said it on many occasions, but because hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies are for ever saying it. It contributes 6 per cent. of the gross domestic product of the Province and, together with the agricultural processing industries, employs just over 14 per cent. of Northern Ireland's work force. In proportion agriculture in Northern Ireland is five times more important than that same industry is to the rest of the United Kingdom.

After the meeting of representatives of the Ulster Farmers Union with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and his colleague the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food last month, all Northern Ireland Ministers must now be fully acquainted with the unfortunate state of the agriculture industry in the Province. EEC policies fail to recognise the unique nature of the Northern Ireland economy and the role of agriculture within that economy. Most Northern Ireland fanners work on a very narrow profit margin, which has inhibited the introduction of technology and those production techniques which require high investment. Net farm incomes dropped by 60 per cent. in the two years up to 1979, and at the end of January the Government gave their estimate of the fall in net income between 1979 and 1980 as about 60 per cent. in money terms. Translated into real terms, that means that the Northern Ireland farmer will have taken an 80 per cent. fall in net income over the last year.

As yet, there is no indication that action will be taken by the Government to correct or remedy the position, despite, I may add, the kind words which were echoed many times during the meeting between the Secretary of State and members of the Ulster Farmers Union. Instead, we are spending time tonight discussing the abolition of the trust, which has in the past made a positive and direct contribution to the marketing of agricultural produce around the world. It is difficult to escape the irony of the situation. One could coin a new phrase to sum it up—what the Government take away with one hand they have not the slightest intention of giving back with the other.

At a most inauspicious time for agriculture in Northern Ireland, the Government are asking the House to give formal recognition to action which they have already taken in abolishing the trust. The trust has an impressive record, despite the adverse conditions facing any business venture in Northern Ireland today.

I must now comment on the fact that the trust's most recent report is dated January 1980 but the report for 1980–81 is not yet published. It will not be published until after this order is passed—if it is passed—tonight. Why is that so? The report was submitted in September of last year. In my view, it can only mean that when the report is published it will show the good work of the trust, and that would have been inconvenient for the Government tonight if it had been available tonight.

However, in the most recent report which we have, the trust listed 14 production projects, six processing projects, and widespread success in marketing exhibitions in London, Paris and Berlin. Last year one operation in Bahrein secured over £500,000 in exports, and as recently as May the trust held a marketing exhibition in London which was acclaimed as one of the most successful trade exhibitions ever.

Since 75 per cent., or £300 million worth, of agricultural produce in Northern Ireland is exported in one form or another, I repeat the question which I asked during an Adjournment debate on 7 May last year: How can Northern Ireland afford not to have the Agricultural Trust?

In their explanatory memorandum on the order, the Government refer to the trust as a body whose work has come to overlap with that of other industrial development agencies and whose role in the marketing of agricultural produce has merely become a duplicate of the work done by agricultural marketing boards and livestock commissions.

That is nonsense. I suspect that the Minister who was formerly responsible for agriculture, the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw), who was a marketing man before he became a Member of the House, did not look into the situation as carefully as he might have done. He had to deliver his quango to the Prime Minister as quickly as possible, and he received few thanks for that. His prize was his movement to be Under-Secretary of State to the biggest quango hunter of them all—the Secretary of State for the Environment. I bet that, in truth, if the hon. Gentleman had his time over again he would not begin this crazy exercise.

I have the greatest respect for the work done by the Pig Marketing Board, the Milk Marketing Board and the Livestock Marketing Commission in selling the produce of Northern Ireland farms, but my view is that the trust complemented and indeed enhanced their efforts rather tham duplicated them. At food fairs throughout Europe the trust provided an image of Northern Ireland agriculture, which no one on these boards is able to do alone. In other words, the trust waved the flag for Northern Ireland and the boards participated in and benefited from this coordinated effort. So I do not consider it fair of the Minister to suggest that the functions of the trust can simply be passed on to the boards, because what the marketing efforts of the trust brought to agriculture was unique, and we shall soon see that it is irreplaceable.

The marketing boards can individually take over where the trust left off in the marketing of their own specific products. Most of them were involved in marketing at international fairs before the trust was set up in 1967, and I am relieved to hear that their overseas effort will not be diminished by the abolition of the trust, although I am sure that it will lose some of its force.

The people who really stand to lose from the abolition of the trust are those engaged in small food processsing operations. Here I am referring specifically to the pet food processors, fish and trout farms, the manufacturers of jam and conserves, as well as small meat processing factories and specialist cereal and bakery firms. These companies do not have the staff or the financial resources of the large marketing boards, and under the aegis of the Agricultural Trust they were developing good European and world export trade links.

It would be no exaggeration to say that they relied on the trust to get their chance to exhibit at international food fairs. The trust organised transportation and the booking and arranging of stands, as well as dealing with Customs and hygiene requirements—all of that quite apart from providing an appealing marketing framework within which these firms could operate. They will be the real sufferers from the abolition of the trust, because I fail to see how they are to find the resources or the manpower to exhibit at these fairs in future. I say "in future", but already there are indications that these small firms are being pushed right off the scene, and perhaps the Minister will tell us something about that.

In view of the repeated statements by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on the paramount importance of marketing, I find the attitude of the Government towards the trust contradictory, to say the least. It would also appear to be directly at variance with the innumerable statements made by just about every Minister on the necessity to help small firms to grow. How on earth are small firms to grow if the organisation for marketing their products is swept from under their feet? I should like the Minister to direct his closing remarks to that question.

No doubt it will be argued that the Departmant of Commerce will come to the rescue of these small firms. I am glad that the marketing of agricultural produce is now within the ambit of the promotional work of that Department. That is to be welcomed. However, I have grave doubts whether the Department can ever fill the gap left by the trust. I understand that at the forthcoming Olympia food fair there will be eight sections on the Northern Ireland stand, but this year not one of them will be a small firm of the kind to which I referred earlier. At the last SIAL food fair in Paris last November there was only one exhibitor from Northern Ireland. Perhaps the Minister can tell us more about that.

These examples do not bode well for agriculture in Northern Ireland. Without the catalytic effect of the trust and the specialist knowledge of the staff, there will be a serious depletion in the marketing opportunities for small firms which cannot be replaced. No longer will the image of Northern Ireland agriculture be promoted abroad in the way that it has been in the past. Instead, it will be in the hands of civil servants who by and large do not understand the problems, or it will be under the aegis of the British Food Export Council.

Where agriculture constitutes such a significant part of the gross domestic product, I view such a change with apprehension and dismay. The decision to disband the trust was made for the wrong reasons. It was a neat amputation operation, but the effects for the patient—Northern Ireland agriculture—are critical.

I have given examples of the disadvantage to Northern Ireland agriculture since the trust was operationally disbanded late last summer. I should like to hear from the Minister what progress has been made in the profitability and marketability of Northern Ireland agriculture in the past sixe months. That is a fair question. In short, will he give us a progress report? I believe that he would find it hard to do so, because I believe that there has been no progress but only regression in that period.

I turn to the treatment of the former staff. I hope that the Minister will not gloss over it, as he did when he opened the debate. I am angry because the trust was wound down and the staff were made redundant well before the order came before the House. That is a reflection on the Government's arrogant view of the House, which has been demonstrated many times before.

I had always understood that the staff worked under conditions of service broadly in line with those of civil servants, and I should therefore expect to hear that redundancy payments were made in accordance with those normally paid to civil servants. Last May, when the Minister replied to my Adjournment debate, I was perturbed, but not unduly worried, to hear him say that the staff would be treated as local government officers. He said that that scheme in certain cases can be better than the Civil Service scheme itself."—[Official Report, 7 May 1980; Vol. 984, c. 498.] However, it would seem from the severance pay received by the former staff that that is not so.

Why were not the former staff treated as mobile civil servants when it came to determining redundancy payments? If they had been, most of them would have received 50 per cent. more money than they have received under the scheme devised by the Minister's Department, a scheme that is a hotchpotch of the local government officers scheme and the mobile civil servants scheme. Within the Civil Service the terms "mobile" and "non-mobile" apply to grade. Why did the Department concerned disregard grade when it determined whether severance pay for the staff in the Agricultural Trust were in this category or that? In short, will the Minister tell the House exactly what the staff of the trust were? Were they local government officers, low-grade, non-mobile civil servants or civil servants?

The Government have demonstrated their characteristic meanness in paying off the trust's staff. They should all have got the best terms possible, regardless of whether their work was carried out in one place. Of those who subsequently found employment, some have had to take a drop in salary and job status due to redundancy. At the very least, the Government could have ensured that each member of staff received the best possible payments.

I call on the Government, even at this late hour, to reconsider their decision and to take note of the harm being caused to the agriculture industry in Northern Ireland by the abolition of the trust. In Northern Ireland, all the marketing boards regret the passing of the trust. It is clear that the industry as a whole will suffer because of the lack of co-ordination in marketing efforts. The Northern Ireland committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has joined many others in this protest. We endorse that opposition. We shall listen to the Minister very carefully when he replies to the debate. However, he will have to be most forthcoming. If he is not, I shall invite my colleagues to oppose the order.

2.6 am

Mr. James Kilfedder (Down, North)

The Northern Ireland Agricultural Trust was strangled by the Government in pursuit of their ruthless policy of public expenditure cuts, without any regard being paid to the special conditions that exist in Northern Ireland. Help is needed, yet not enough is being given to meet the desperate situation.

In the early hours of the morning, we attend the wake of the Northern Ireland Agricultural Trust. We have often pointed out, but must point out again, that it is ridiculous and unfair that we should discuss the first of two Northern Ireland orders after 2 o'clock in the morning. There can be no joy on this occasion for anyone, particularly when the depressed condition of Northern Ireland's agriculture is borne in mind. Farm incomes have been greatly reduced and they are well below those of English farmers, who also complain about the level of their incomes.

The Government put an end to the Northern Ireland Agricultural Trust in order to add to the number of quangos that they have abolished. When the Minister opened the debate, he specifically mentioned quangos. That uncaring attitude to the economic and industrial problems of Northern Ireland has exacerbated unemployment in the Province.

In May 1980, when the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) raised an Adjournment debate on the phasing out of the trust, I pointed out that agriculture was the largest industry in Ulster and employed—directly or in ancillary industries—a considerable percentage of the employed population. At a time when, despite hard work, careful management and keen efficiency, the Ulster farmer is suffering severely, the Government should attempt to assist him. Instead of that, they make life more difficult for the farmer and for the food processor in Northern Ireland.

I shall not repeat what the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde said. He spoke eloquently about the Northern Ireland Agricultural Trust. He made an overwhelming case for its retention. If the Government had been thoughtful and caring about Northern Ireland's problems, the one way open to them would have been to improve the food processing and marketing for the industry by putting more funds at the disposal of the Agricultural Trust. Instead, the Government have axed this organisation, which has done valuable work for the agriculture and food processing industries in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland farmers have worked hard to meet competition abroad. It is a credit to the Ulster farmer and food processor—this is one point made by the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde which I shall repeat—that the proportion of production which is exported is three-quarters of the output, amounting to £300 million.

Yesterday—we have not been to bed yet, so it is really the same day—the Government capitulated to the miners because the miners intended to shut down all the coal mines. The Government, who took a very firm stand with regard to the miners a few days ago—although the miners had a good case—have now made a complete U-turn, which they said they would not do. It is not too late for the Government to reverse their decision with regard to the trust.

The amount of cash involved would be less than what the Government will now provide for the coal mines, and agriculture is as important to Northern Ireland as coal mining is to Britain. As the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde pointed out, small firms in Ulster are in jeopardy, and food processing firms are no exception. Every assistance must be given to help them to survive. But it seems that the present Government are treating them with a degree of indifference which would not have been shown by a Stormont Parliament and Government if such a devolved Assembly and Executive were in existence.

I ask the Government to think again. If they will not change their minds at this late hour, I intend to support the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde if he puts this matter to a Division.

2.13 am
Mr. Wm. Ross (Londonderry)

When the Northern Ireland Agricultural Trust was set up in 1966, Northern Ireland was a place of considerable hope. It appeared to be facing a fairly bright future. A great deal has happened since then, and I do not think that the same description would apply to Northern Ireland today.

This organisation was set up to try to bridge the gap between a bright idea and the reality that could, with the help provided by the Agricultural Trust, result from that idea. In the Act which set up the trust, it was given a considerable range of functions. They are all set out in detail in the Agricultural Trust Act (Northern Ireland) 1966. They were to supplement the activities of the Ministry of Agriculture … in securing, and to encourage and assist other persons to secure, improvements in, and the development and expansion of, agricultural production, and the processing and marketing of agricultural produce". There are a couple of pages of such sentiments expressed in one way or another.

As the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) said, a considerable amount of work was done in the early years, as it has been done until recently. The reports produced in 1975 and 1979—two that I happen to have to hand—show about 20 projects in each year. Some were minor but some were major. I shall mention two that, in the event, were unsuccessful. One was the effort to bring back the linen industry and the growing of flax to Northern Ireland. I had an interest in that project. My father was among those who grew flax for the experiment. The crop grew. The only difficulty was that the fancy idea dreamed up for retting the scutched fibre did not work out. After some considerable expense, the other end of the experiment failed. That was not any fault of the trust, which did an excellent job.

The other major item that failed was the "Richgrass" experiment of dried grass to make a feed for livestock at Limavady. It was very successful. It was a very large business. However, with the rise in oil prices in 1973, it simply went to the wall. I regret that. It was not the fault of the trust. At a certain energy cost, the project was viable. It was useful and provided a lot of employment.

In relating my remarks to those two failures, I illustrate the vast gap that exists between a bright idea and the reality of a viable function and business at the end of it. That gap exists in any body that is trying to project into the future something that is, at best, marginal in its economic application and promise.

A quango such as the Agricultural Trust will come out badly when judged against a business operation. As someone remarked in the Northern Ireland Parliament at the time, the trust was set up as an act of faith. That faith was supported by the Ulster Farmers' Union. It did not raise any objection when £250,000, needed in the first year, was taken out of the remoteness grant. I should like to hear from the Minister a history of the trust from that date and how the money was provided in latter years. I am curious to know whether it always came out of the remoteness grant.

The trust was severely limited in the sums of money that could be spent on any project. It was tied tightly to the Department of Industry and then to the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland. When the Minister says that the opportunity for pioneering work was reduced, he might address his mind to the problem of attempting pioneering work when tied to a small sum of money. Such work, by its nature, is fairly costly. One wonders whether the trust did not become so circumscribed in regard to money and red tape that it was not able to carry out the function originally envisaged.

The explanatory memorandum accompanying the order states: Farmers are now more able and willing to assume the risks in new techniques for themselves and to make their commercial decisions accordingly. Food processors also are now more aware of marketing requirements, more able to decide what they need to do in order to make a success of their business. That sounds much better in a period of prosperity, but we are not in such a period. I wonder whether farmers and food processors are as willing to take risks in 1981 as they were in 1979. I suspect that they are not.

The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde referred to the savings of £400,000, or perhaps rather less, that were to arise from the abolition of the trust. He referred to duplication and overlapping. It is strange that there was reference to duplication and overlapping in a different context in a previous debate. This body was not set up to duplicate or overlap the efforts of others. It was set up as the grease between the joints to complement the work of others. I wonder whether it actually did that. If it was overlapping or duplicating, where did the fault lie? Did it lie in the Department of Agriculture or in the Trust? In any case, if a mistake was being made, why was it not corrected? Why were the duplication and overlapping allowed to persist where they were not needed?

I should also like the Minister to tell us what the net saving will be as a result of the abolition of the trust. We are told the gross saving, but we need to know what the net saving will be. For instance, have posts been created in the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland or in other departments of the Civil Service as a result of the trust vanishing? If so, what is the cost to those departments?

The danger in withdrawing the trust is that through saving a small sum of money we may find that someone with a bright idea now lacks the vehicle to carry that idea into reality. Some of the things which the trust supported succeeded. There may well be other bright ideas which will never bear full fruit because the vehicle is not there to help them happen. If that were to be the case, the hoped-for saving might turn out at the end of the day to be a very heavy cost.

There were criticisms and an enormous number of grumbles about the trust, and one would be unwise to conceal them. I have a little grumble. It is a fear that the gap which the trust was originally set up to bridge still exists. The question is how far the functions that it was supposed to carry out have been met by other bodies and in other ways. If we find that there is a function, albeit a limited one, that is not being carried out, will the Government look at this matter again and try to cover the gap?

I turn back to section 2 of the Agricultural Trust Act (Northern Ireland) 1966. The first sentence states: The functions of the Trust shall be exerciseable for the benefit (whether direct or indirect) of agricultural producers in Northern Ireland". Negotiations are taking place within the EEC for structural aids for Northern Ireland, and something like the trust might be the vehicle to adminster the cash whenever we get it, if we get it. If we had the trust, it could direct attention to projects that are very much needed. It might have been funded by EEC moneys without any cost to the national Government.

I take up one of the matters raised by the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde—namely, the meeting that the Ulster Farmers' Union had with the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and his ministerial colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office. We were assured afterwards by the Ulster Farmers' Union that it would bring good and speedy results. There has been a deathly silence since the meeting. There seems to be no progress being made. If there is any help coming for Northern Ireland agriculture, it appears that it will not come in the current financial year. I strongly suspect that there will be none this year. There may be something next year.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)

Will my hon. Friend refresh our memories and confirm in the account and minute of the meeting with the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Lord Elton it was stated that the solution to some of the problems would be found in a matter of weeks rather than months?

Mr. Ross

My hon. Friend draws attention to the crucial phrase in the communique that emerged from the meeting. It referred to weeks rather than months. Those weeks have passed. If it is not already one month, it soon will be. No doubt the delay will run into two months, into three months and into another year and there will still be no cash.

Circular No. 35, which was issued by the Ulster Farmers' Union on 14 December 1979, refers to the abolition of the trust. I was rather surprised by the cool regrets that were expressed by the union on that occasion. I suspect that there were many people in all sorts of queer places who saw the trust as a competitor and as something with which they were not happy.

The trust may not have been all that its detractors said it was. It probably was not all that those who loved it said it was. However, I believe that it performed a useful but limited function in Northern Ireland. I fear that with its passing we may find a gap which may be hard to fill and which may yet do us fairly severe damage.

2.30 am
Mr. Adam Butler

I shall try to answer as fully as I can the points which have been raised. I hope that my remarks will allay some of the anxieties that have been expressed. I may find that difficult because some of the remarks were repeated in the House on two previous occasions, and the theme has hardly changed.

I shall begin with an important subject, namely, the staff of the trust. I think that the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) knows the position because he referred to some of the points to which I shall refer. The staff contributed to the Northern Ireland local government officers superannuation scheme, and as such their only entitlement would have been preserved pensions under that scheme, with exceptions for officers aged 50 and above, and also statutory compensation under the Contracts of Employment and Redundancy Payments Act (Northern Ireland) 1965.

Following various representations, it was decided that it would be proper to treat the trust staff as if they were civil servants. There then arose the question whether they should be treated as mobile or non-mobile. Because the trust is a single location organisation, it was judged that they fell into the non-mobile category. That is the position relating to the staff. It is interesting to note that in October 1980 the trust was given approval to supplement the payments to which the staff were entitled to bring them up to an amount equivalent to the redundancy compensation payments that would be payable under the Civil Service scheme. Therefore, the staff will be treated as civil servants, but as non-mobile because of the single nature of the location.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the current year's report. I am mystified by his suggestion that the report has already been made. The report outstanding is that for the current year of 1980–81, which is not due for publication until after 31 March.

Mr. Pendry

My point is that generally the report is published in January of each year. My understanding is that the report is ready for publication, and was ready for publication at the appropriate time. We are waiting for it. I wonder why we are waiting. Is it because it is such a good report?

Mr. Butler

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I have not seen the report. I do not expect a report that deals with 1980–81 to be on my desk at this stage. The report will show the position as I reported it to the House, namely, that during the past year the trust's activities have been run down. The commitments that it had in hand at the time of the Government's announcement have been fulfilled. I am sure that they have been fulfilled to the utmost ability of the trust. No new commitments have been undertaken, and compared with previous years, therefore, the level of activity will have declined considerably.

The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde said that food processors stood most to lose from the abolition of the trust. In his remarks about the food processors and in other remarks about the future marketing of agricultural produce, he and others were doing an ill service to the marketing boards, an ill service to the British Food Export Council and an ill service to the other organisations involved either in marketing or in helping the food processors and others.

All food processors can participate at international food fairs under the aegis of the British Food Export Council. The services of the council have been offered to any firm in Northern Ireland which needs advice and assistance, irrespective of size. Many firms in Northern Ireland have been and continue to be members of the council. The same applies to domestic promotions in Great Britain under the aegis of the Department of Commerce and the Ulster Office. Support would be available for food processors, as appropriate, from the Local Enterprise Development Unit, the Northern Ireland Development Agency and the Department of Commerce.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to small businesses. It is significnt that in the case of the Ballymoney Food Co. the Local Enterprise Development Unit was already involved. That was good evidence of unnecessary duplication.

The hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross) asked whether any additional staff posts had been created in the public service to take on the redundant staff of the trust. I assure him that there have been no additional posts. Any functions have been absorbed without an increase of staff.

Concern has been expressed, properly and understandably, on behalf of the farmers in the Province. Whether one chooses to talk to the farmers or to read the White Paper statistics, it is clear that the Province has suffered a severe drop in farm income in the past year. That drop has been greater than in the rest of the United Kingdom. It is a serious matter. Undoubtedly the points made tonight were made strongly by the Ulster Farmers Union on 15 January when its representatives met some of my ministerial colleagues, including the Secretary of State, who was impressed by the case that was put to him. He is seriously considering what, if anything, it may be possible to do with the resources that are available. I cannot say more on that matter now, but the urgency of the situation demands a decision one way or the other as soon as possible.

Mr. Wm Ross

When the Minister referred to the resources available, did he mean the money which has been allocated already to Northern Ireland?

Mr. Butler

We come back all the time to the question of resources, and whether they will be borrowed or taxed from other people in order to meet the needs of one section of the community. That was the context in which I was using the phrase.

Therefore, the anxieties of the industry are understandable. One should perhaps not be too critical of the attitudes which have been expressed in regard to the winding up of the trust. If such a winding up might damage the industry, it would be right to draw the fact to the attention of the Government.

Mr. Pendry

Will the Minister give a progress report? I gave him an impressive catalogue of moneys that had accrued to the Exchequer as a result of the expertise of the trust. I was hoping that we could know what has been done by the bodies taking the place of the trust in the six months that it has no longer been doing the job.

Mr. Butler

I shall not give the hon. Gentleman a list of activities and promotions in recent times. I am confident that effective promotion is being carried by the various marketing boards and other organisations that have been referred to so many times this evening.

The point at issue is the one that I referred to in my opening remarks—whether the industry will suffer. It is too easy to clamour for more and more funds. It is too easy to argue that an organisation that is once in being should continue ad infinitum. The decision should surely be based on whether the work that the organisation is doing is valuable or whether it is unnecessary because it can be done or is being done by other bodies. The Government argue that the work of the trust meets those two specifics. It is no longer necessary because it is being done by the other bodies and it can successfully be done by them. I have no reason to suppose that any project carried out under the auspices of the trust cannot be carried out under the auspices of some of the other bodies.

Mr. Kilfedder

Surely if that argument applies now it applied when the Conservatives were in power previously, when they praised the work of the Northern Ireland Agricultural Trust. What has changed, apart from the situation in Northern Ireland now being worse?

Mr. Butler

It is acknowledged that when the trust was set up in 1966 there was a purpose for its existence, particularly in pioneering. However, its pioneering role has declined considerably as a proportion of its activity. It has seen a greater need for a marketing role. It has undertaken only a limited number of pioneering projects in recent times. That is one answer.

The second is that this Government are perhaps a little more conscious of the need for prudent housekeeping—the need for examining where money may be being wasted. In this House we should concern ourselves above all with whether taxpayers' money is being properly used. We believe that it is no longer necessary to put taxpayers' money behind the trust. It has been run down over the past year. That is why be wish to abolish it and ask the House to support the order.

Question put:

The House divided: Ayes 64, Noes 6.

Division No. 76] [2.43 am
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset) Molyneaux, James
Benyon, Thomas(A'don) Murphy, Christopher
Berry, HonAnthony Neubert, Michael
Best, Keith Newton, Tony
Boscawen, Hon Robert Page, Richard (SW Herts)
Braine, SirBernard Parris, Matthew
Bright, Graham Patten, John (Oxford)
Brinton, Tim Pollock, Alexander
Brooke, Hon Peter Powell, Rt Hon J.E. (S Down)
Browne, John(Winchester) Proctor, K. Harvey
Butler, Hon Adam Ross, Wm. (Londonderry)
Carlisle, John(Luton West) Rossi, Hugh
Colvin, Michael Shepherd, Colin(Hereford)
Cope, John Shersby, Michael
Cranborne, Viscount Speed, Keith
Dorrell, Stephen Speller, Tony
Fairgrieve, Russell Stainton, Keith
Faith, MrsSheila Stevens, Martin
Garel-Jones, Tristan Stradling Thomas, J.
Goodlad, Alastair Thompson, Donald
Griffiths, Peter Portsm'thN) Thorne, Neil(Ilford South)
Grist, Ian Townend, John(Bridlington)
Gummer, JohnSelwyn Waddington, David
Hawksley, Warren Wakeham, John
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm) Wall, Patrick
Jessel, Toby Waller, Gary
Jopling, Rt Hon Michael Wells, Bowen
LeMarchant, Spencer Wheeler, John
Lloyd, Peter (Fareham) Wickenden, Keith
Major, John Wolfson, Mark
Marlow, Tony
Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Tellers for the Ayes:
Miller,Hal(B'grove) Mr. Carol Mather and
Mills, Iain(Meriden) Lord James Douglas-Hamilton.
Concannon, Rt Hon J. D. Pendry, Tom
Cryer, Bob
Davis, T. (B'ham, Stechf'd) Tellers for the Noes:
Fletcher, Ted(Darlington) Mr. A. W. Stallard and
Kilfedder, James A. Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours

Qustion accordingly agreed to.


That the draft Agricultural Trust (Abolition) (Northern Ireland) Order 1981, which was laid before this House on 3 February, be approved.