HC Deb 22 June 1998 vol 314 cc701-3 3.30 pm
Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (by private notice)

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether she will make a statement on the burning of the Lovell and Christmas factory in Ballymoney on Saturday 20 June, the effect that this disaster will have on local employment and the impact on the Northern Ireland pig industry.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Paul Murphy)

The Lovell and Christmas pig processing factory at Ballymoney was extensively damaged by fire on Saturday 20 June. I understand that the cause of the fire has not yet been established, but the House will want to know that there is no evidence of terrorist involvement. The fire is a serious event for the Malton Bacon company, which is part of the Unigate UK group which owns the factory, for the employees, and for the Northern Ireland pig industry in general.

Officials have been in contact with the company since the fire. The company has told us that, in conjunction with its insurers and advisers, it is assessing the problem in terms of its work force and operational requirements. Understandably, it wants to do that before making decisions about the future of the plant. It hopes to complete that process within the next few days, and to inform the work force of its plans as quickly as possible. In the meanwhile, the work force has been sent home on full pay, initially for the rest of the week.

Pig production and processing is an important sector of the Northern Ireland agrifood industry, which employs 2,500 people at processing plants and a further 1,300 people on farms. The Lovell and Christmas factory at Ballymoney had been slaughtering 13,000 pigs a week, which is roughly 40 per cent. of the average weekly pig slaughterings in Northern Ireland. Of that number, approximately two thirds were sourced from Northern Ireland producers. At this early stage, it is not possible to say with certainty what impact this event will have on local employment and the local pig industry, but it is clear that there is a significant potential problem in the short term as to how to deal with the pigs that are on farm and will be ready for slaughter over the next days and weeks.

I understand that representatives of the industry are currently addressing how that difficulty might be overcome, taking account of the slaughtering capacity available at the other three major pig processing plants in Northern Ireland. I welcome the fact that the industry is co-operating in that way.

I emphasise to the House that the Government fully recognise the potentially serious implications of the fire. Staff from the Department of Agriculture were at the site even before the fire was extinguished. Officials from the Department of Agriculture and the Industrial Development Board have been in contact with company representatives at the highest level to assist in overcoming the difficulties arising from the fire.

I am aware that the pig sector has been experiencing the same difficult trading conditions as other parts of the industry, in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the country. The fire represents an additional problem. The Lovell and Christmas factory is important to the pig industry in Northern Ireland, and I pay tribute to the significant work which the company had put into developing the scale of operation at the site, and the investment in the plant structure and facilities before the fire.

The company has undertaken to inform officials immediately it has developed its thinking on the future of the plant. The Department of Agriculture and the IDB will continue to work closely with the company and the industry to offer whatever assistance they can in dealing with the problem.

I pay tribute to the work of the Northern Ireland Fire Service, which dealt with the outbreak with the skill and courage that it has shown in Northern Ireland on so many occasions over the years.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I thank the Minister for that very full statement, which will prove to the people of Northern Ireland that his Government are taking the matter very seriously. I am sure that he will agree that such an accident, in an important factory that has just launched into more than –10 million of expenditure, is a terrible tragedy. He will understand the feelings of the workers as they stood outside the plant on Saturday, watching their future go up in flames. I am sure that he will want to assure them that the Government will do everything in their power—although I accept that that power is limited in this matter—to encourage the plant owners to rebuild and get the factory operating again on the site.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there is now a huge gap in the indigenous pig processing industry. Some 40 per cent. of all pigs slaughtered in Northern Ireland are slaughtered at that factory. Something must be done urgently if we are not to lose our indigenous pig processing industry.

I associate myself with the Minister's remarks about the firefighters, who did an excellent job against terrible odds. I am sure that the House will want to convey our wishes for a speedy recovery to the one person who was injured and the two people who suffered severe shock.

Will the hon. Gentleman assure the management of the company that their work is appreciated? We hope that they can pay all their suppliers this week, so that the farmers will not run out of cash.

Mr. Murphy

I give the hon. Gentleman the assurance he seeks, in so far as I can do so. The House is aware that between 300 and 400 people are employed at the plant, which is the biggest employer in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. It is a major tragedy for his area, and also for the rest of Northern Ireland, especially the agricultural sector.

As I said in my statement, officials in both Departments are prepared to do all they can to help, and will consider whatever sort of help may be needed. Of course, it depends on what the company has in mind for the future of the plant. My noble Friend Lord Dubs has been in touch with officials on this matter. If the hon. Gentleman and other Northern Ireland Members want meetings with him or with my other ministerial colleagues, they will be most welcome.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

Will the Minister be good enough to convey the Opposition's concern and good wishes to all who work at Lovell and Christmas—and, for that matter, the people of Ballymoney, who must be extremely worried following that dreadful fire?

We are grateful, as the people of Ballymoney will be, for the positive answer that the hon. Gentleman has given to the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley). We are pleased to note that the Minister and his officials will do everything possible to ensure that a new plant is built, and that it does not go elsewhere in the United Kingdom or Europe. Can he give us an assurance that that will be the case—or, at the very least, that he will continue to use his best endeavours to ensure that it is the case?

Mr. Murphy

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. As more than 40 per cent. of pig processing in Northern Ireland was carried out at that plant, it is vital that the plant remains in Northern Ireland. That is uppermost in everybody's mind. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments, which I will pass on to the plant's management.

Mr. Jim Murphy

(Eastwood): On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

I will deal with the hon. Gentleman's point of order later.