HL Deb 13 February 1986 vol 471 cc351-3

7.21 p.m.

The Earl of Swinton rose to move, That the scheme laid before the House on 24th January be approved. [10th Report from the Joint Committee.]

The noble Earl said: My Lords, the variation scheme is a modest but important measure. It allows the Northern Ireland agricultural development programme to be adequately funded from existing provision pending its review. This requires the extension to 31st March of the closing date for incurring expenditure under the Agriculture and Horticulture Grant Scheme and a corresponding extension to 30th September of the deadline for the receipt of claims.

Noble Lords, will be aware that agriculture in Northern Ireland has to contend with many disadvantages not suffered on the same scale by farmers on the mainland. These include low soil fertility, difficult topography and adverse climatic conditions which largely dictate the type of agriculture which has developed—mainly extensive livestock production with a high dependence on grass. Lack of natural resources and remoteness from markets have resulted in minimal development of industries outside agriculture. But they have also increased input costs due to the additional costs of importing fertilisers and feedingstuffs and they have reduced returns because of the additional costs of marketing on the mainland.

Against this background, the Northern Ireland agricultural development programme was introduced in 1982. Its main legislative basis is EC Regulation 1942/81 which gives it a 10 year life and requires it to be reviewed after four. That review is now taking place. It is designed to offset the disadvantages I have referred to without generating pressure for similar measures elsewhere in the United Kingdom. It provides a stimulus to the development of agriculture in the less favoured areas, mainly by means of enhanced rates of grant for capital improvement works such as drainage, roads, land improvement and buildings.

These grants are funded jointly by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of Agriculture for Northern Ireland. The Ministry's contribution is equivalent to the grant rates paid under the wholly nationally funded Agriculture and Horticulture Grant Scheme. The Department of Agriculture for Northern Ireland provides a small enhancement of these rates. Up to 40 per cent. of the total grant paid is reimbursable from Community funds.

Financial provision for the MAFF contribution is made in the MAFF vote for agricultural support which includes the AHGS. Without that contribution the programme cannot continue on its present basis. My right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, is the Minister designated under the Agriculture Act 1970 in relation to the operation of the AHGS in Northern Ireland. That is why he signed this variation scheme.

For most purposes, the AHGS closed to new expenditure in July 1985 under the provisions of Schedule 2 to the Agriculture Improvement Scheme 1985. For the purposes of the programme, however, the date was extended to 31st December 1985. The deadline for the receipt of claims became 30th June.

It is now necessary to extend both dates by three months to allow the programme to continue pending the outcome of the current review and its negotiation in Brussels. The review has implication for the four agricultural departments and for the Treasury. I can assure your Lordships that there is full consultation between them on all aspects of the programme.

May I say in conclusion that the variation order is necessary to safeguard the development of agriculture in Northern Ireland in the brief period pending the completion of the review. It applies only in the less- favoured areas and until 31st March. It has no effect outside the operation of the programme and is the only way available to us at present to maintain the programme. I beg to move.

Moved, That the scheme laid before the House on 24th January be approved. [10th Report from the Joint Committee.]—(The Earl of Swinton.)

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, my noble friend Lord John-Mackie apologises for his absence. I am grateful to the noble Earl for moving the scheme and for his clear explanation of it. We are happy to accept it.

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, has no need to apologise. Her noble friend Lord John-Mackie is a most delightful person and I like seeing him across the Dispatch Box but it is equally as pleasing to see the noble Baroness's pretty face. There is no reason why she should apologise following the very kind remarks she made about the scheme. I thank her for supporting it.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.15 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The sitting was suspended from 7.26 until 8.15 p.m.]