Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: Wednesday, 06 May 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson) 
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson) 
Ms Martina Anderson 
Mrs Dolores Kelly 
Mr Barry McElduff 
Mr Francie Molloy 
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:

Mr Clarke Black ) Ulster Farmers’ Union 
Mr Graham Furey )

The Chairperson:

I welcome the president the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU), Graham Furey, and chief executive, Clarke Black. A copy of their written submission has been included in the members’ packs. The session will be recorded by Hansard for inclusion in our report. Please make an opening statement or presentation, after which members will ask questions. We anticipate that the sessions will last 30 minutes, but our experience is somewhat different.

Mr Graham Furey (Ulster Farmers’ Union):

I thank the Committee for the opportunity to give evidence on European issues, which are important to us.

I will begin by providing some background to the UFU and what we already do in Europe. I will then ask Clarke Black to detail some specific areas. We are happy to deal with any questions that you may have or to cover any areas of evidence that we have not already addressed.

The Ulster Farmers’ Union represents approximately 12,500 farming families in Northern Ireland. As well as working with the devolved Administration, we work our sister organisations in England and Wales and with representatives in Brussels. We have a lot of links, direct and indirect, with Brussels. We are involved regularly with the Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Affairs, and much more so in recent years with the Directorate-General for the Environment, the Directorate-General for Regional Affairs and the Directorate-General for Health and Consumers. We are also interested in areas of European competition law.

In Brussels, the UFU and its sister organisations — the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) for England and Wales and NFU Scotland — have an office with five full-time staff, which includes a director, an officer who liaises with the European Parliament and two administrative staff. We pay a subscription to that office and have a lot of contact with it. We also receive a lot of briefings at the start of policy developments from people in that office, who act as our eyes and ears in Brussels. They feed us information on any policy documents that are in their initial stages and ask for our comments. Therefore, we have a good way to influence policy at an early stage.

We work closely with our three MEPs and various issues that they are involved with that link the European Parliament with the Committees on particular policy issues. We have dealt with a number of those issues over the past number of years. We have always had a very close association with all of our MEPs. We believe that they work hard out in Brussels for Northern Ireland agriculture and probably punch above their weight. We are indebted to them for the many occasions that they have got us into meetings and facilitated meetings between us and other Commission officials. We want to put that on record.

We also work fairly closely with the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels, which is only a stone’s thrown from the European Parliament, particularly with the representative of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD), Eileen Kelly. Furthermore, we have contact with Evelyn Cummins. Again, for the size of Northern Ireland, those people are punching above their weight.

The Northern Ireland Executive should perhaps have a bigger office out there — I know that it is moving, but I do not know whether that means that it will employ more personnel. We work closely with those people on a range of issues, and they are the link between the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, the permanent secretary of DARD and the Minister. I will now hand over to Clarke to deal with the specific matters on issues such as rural development. We are happy for Committee members to interrupt us to ask questions.

The Chairperson:

We will not encourage interruption at this stage, otherwise we will get it.

Mr Clarke Black (Ulster Farmers’ Union):

I will try to keep my presentation brief, because you will probably want to ask some questions. I will try to summarise what we believe the Assembly’s role is on European issues.

A significant amount more could be done about the Assembly’s relationship with Europe. The role and the relationships between the Assembly and Europe have been largely abdicated to officials, so it is important that there should be a significant increase in the amount of direct contact between the Assembly and Europe.

We understand some of the difficulties, in that Northern Ireland is a region of a member state as opposed to having direct representation, and we certainly sometimes look with envy at the access given to our colleagues in the Republic of Ireland. We could give a lot more specific examples, and we have given you some of them on how regulation is simply being adopted and implemented rather than being shaped. Anyone who works in the European system will know that the implementation of regulation is a long process and takes several years, but also that the influencing and making sure that a regulation relates to a region such as Northern Ireland can usually be done early on. However, if that is done too late in the process, it becomes quite ineffective. Graham already mentioned the contact that we have with MEPs and the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels, which has been very useful for us on many occasions.

We were asked to give some recommendations on how to improve scrutiny and engagement. There is considerable scope to improve in that area, and we have suggested that responsibility should be designated to a Minister. We are not trying to get you to make extra ministerial positions, but European responsibility should be allocated to a Minister. We would split the scrutiny and engagement aspects. We believe that engagement is a ministerial responsibility, and that scrutiny is down to Departments. Departments can scrutinise only in the areas in which they have specific knowledge, are implementing specific regulations and dealing with specific issues. However, the engagement would be significantly improved were someone to have responsibility and could overarch and work together.

We believe that the Barroso task force was a missed opportunity. We were significantly heartened when it was introduced, but the final report focused purely on research and innovation. We are not denigrating the importance of research and innovation, but we felt that the report could have delivered more. For instance, it could have addressed some of the disadvantages, particularly about funding arrangements. We have been involved with research and innovation projects at a European level, but we find them quite cumbersome to get involved with and to deal with. Again, we find that they tend to dissipate their benefit as they go on purely because of the bureaucracy that is involved in them.

Finally, I want to talk about the prospective ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. We believe that the enhanced co-decision responsibility will significantly increase the pressure and the workload that we as organisations must do when working in Europe with the Commission and the Parliament. The Parliament will become an additional point of contract and influence. It will not be a burden, far from it. For a small region such as Northern Ireland, and for a small organisation such as the UFU, that puts significant pressures on our resources and on our ability to represent our members and the Northern Ireland economy.

The Chairperson:

Thank you for your presentation. You mentioned the importance of the shaping of the EU regulations. From your perspective, and from your industry’s perspective, do you have any more concrete suggestions regarding how that can be improved upon? Some representatives are primarily interested in dealing with agricultural issues, and you said that the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels has at least one officer who deals with agricultural issues. Are you keen to see that enhanced? How would you improve that? A feature of our inquiry has been how we can have input at an earlier stage, rather than simply having to implement EU regulations. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Mr Black:

We would like to talk about the more recent issue, but one very good example is the soil directive. It was introduced to start work on dealing with issues of soil erosion in parts of Europe where there is not enough rain. In many ways, it duplicated a lot of other environmental directives, and to have that sort of a directive placed on somewhere such as Northern Ireland, where it seems to be continually raining at the minute —

The Chairperson:

We hope that it does not rain during the Balmoral Show.

Mr Black:

It is difficult to get an overarching response to an issue that does not impact adversely or does not over-impact on one region or another. There are other areas of concern, such as pesticides.

Mr Furey:

I will say something about the implementation of regulations and legislation from Brussels. The earlier we act and the more people we have working on our behalf, the more people we can potentially influence. As a small region of a member state, and there are now 27 member states, our influence is diluted more and more.

A great deal of misinformation is fed to MEPs about the impact of certain legislative proposals that become directives. Plant protection products are a classic example of that. Many people did not know what they were talking about, and if they had taken all the plant protection products that they were talking about off the market, it would have potentially reduced food production in Europe by 30% at the stroke of a pen. No impact assessments or risk analyses were carried out.

People sometimes become emotionally tied up in some of those situations rather than considering the issue in a practical fashion. It is better to try to influence policy at the start of a process. The Northern Ireland Executive could do that, because we can feed information in from our point of view and from a Northern Ireland perspective, as the chief executive said. That which affects Northern Ireland may not affect Spain or the Czech Republic in the same way.

Mrs D Kelly:

Thank you for your presentation and your pragmatic suggestions. I suppose that farmers are pragmatists. Mr Black mentioned the potential ratification of the Lisbon Treaty and how that will make the work of your organisation more difficult. How can recommendations that we make help organisations such as the UFU so that your burden is reduced? Would it be useful if the Assembly provided greater resources? How would that work in practice?

Mr Black:

That would be useful. The burden lies in spreading our limited resources even further. Once the European Parliament gets more involved, it is likely that there will be a completely new, useful and influential type of contact and engagement between parliamentarians in the Assembly and Europe and those from other areas.

Mr Spratt:

The Chairperson said that what you have told the Committee has been said again and again in some of the evidence that we have heard to date. You mentioned the contact with Evelyn Cummins and said that you did not know whether the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels would obtain more personnel. It is obvious that you believe that that office does not have enough personnel. Could you elaborate on that issue? It has come up several times.

I am a bit surprised; I believe that there may be a communication problem. I read some information not so long ago about the number of ministerial visits at a high level and at Committee level that take place on a monthly basis. It is an impressive list, and a good few Ministers have been lobbying in Brussels. There is a problem of communication with organisations such as the UFU that depend heavily on lobbying in Europe. It would be good to get another copy of that list, which was supplied by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM), and share it with organisations such as the UFU. It would be good if you knew when Ministers were going to Brussels so that your people could contact them and lobby them to raise issues that are of interest to your organisation. If you saw the list since devolution, you would be impressed by the number of visits that have taken place, given the lack of interest and visits that took place pre-devolution. We will have to raise that issue with OFMDFM.

Do you feel that you are not getting the required service from the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels and that it needs more people? I know that it does its best, but the people in the office itself would say that it does not have enough personnel in Brussels.

Mr Furey:

We find that, even in our own office, which has six people. The Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels has about the same amount of people. One can always talk about being understaffed and find more work for staff to do. We have a good working relationship with the office in Brussels, as we have with our own office. Even on agricultural issues, that office has a lot of different aspects to deal with and it is stretched at times — possibly overstretched — and I am sure that it would welcome more personnel. However, I am not saying that it should be doubled or trebled. Co-decision could, potentially, come up in the Parliament, which would mean more work for the office to lobby at that level.

We realise that Brussels has had a number of ministerial visits, and we initiated one or two of those ourselves. We asked Ministers to go out on behalf of the farmers to lobby for export refunds on milk, the economic situation, the dioxin incident, and so on. We are thankful when Ministers go to Brussels and work on our behalf.

I think that the chief executive was talking about general issues and trying to influence policy before it happens. It is about being proactive, as opposed to being reactive. It would be interesting to see the list, and I would be interested in seeing the number of ministerial visits to Brussels over the past two years.

Mr Spratt:

Have you examined the systems in the legislatures in Scotland and Wales, or the Government in the Republic, regarding the relationship that they have with their farmers’ organisations? Obviously, you are tied up with the Scottish organisations.

Mr Furey:

We are tied up with the Scottish and the English unions. Sometimes when they meet with their MEPs or officials, we work in conjunction with that. We launched an EU manifesto for farming organisations, and approximately 20 MEPs were present at that event, including representatives from Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and even the Republic of Ireland. We have good contacts through our sister organisations, and they can put us in touch with the RoI MEPs, whom we have met on a number of occasions. They seem to work in much the same way. The English may have a closer relationship because they can scoot across to Brussels on the train. A flight from Belfast to Brussels would be useful.

Mr Black:

If you wanted to draw a direct comparison between Wales and Scotland, you would find that their Ministers have a closer working relationship with their farming organisations than is the case here. When I say “closer”, I mean that on many occasions the farming organisations would accompany Ministers on visits, either to give them advice on particular issues or to attend meetings. We understand fully that there are times when that is not good protocol, and there are times when it is better to do it separately. However, we believe that more consideration is given to working together closely in Wales and Scotland. We have not developed to that stage yet, and therefore, that is not a criticism. Nevertheless, it would be worth considering the situation.

Mr McElduff:

In a previous evidence session, someone mentioned UKRep (United Kingdom Permanent Representation to the European Union). I now know how to say it, and I have the opportunity to say it myself. Do you have any concerns about how well UKRep has represented the local interests of farmers? Are you broadly happy, or do you feel that the particular circumstances of farmers here are properly absorbed, understood and represented?

Mr Black:

To answer that question, it would have to be question specific or issue specific. There are times when we are not happy with the UK position, and there are times when being part of the UK position is very beneficial. It would have to be specific. For example, the UK position on rural development funding is particularly disadvantageous to Northern Ireland. In that sort of situation, even the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels has little influence on the UKRep position. The position is based on one representative, and a UK position is put in place. However, there are other examples of Europe working for us.

The Chairperson:

Thank you. That is a very good answer.

Mr Molloy:

Thank you for your presentation. On the issue of how legislation can be influenced at an earlier stage, do you have any ideas about how the staff could be better co-ordinated at the various offices? The Scottish representatives in Brussels focus on specific issues, and everyone works on those.

You said that the present legislation has simply been adopted here. We have all had bad experiences of that, and to some extent, it has been gold-plated. Is there any other way of dealing with that legislation, particularly from a farming point of view, to try to take advantage of the early part of the process and start to get our influence in? We will soon be working for the next five years.

The results of the Barroso task force, which could have been to the advantage of everyone here, was poor. Will it be possible in the future to come forward with ideas for what you want to be included from a farming point of view?

Mr Black:

The initial access is largely through the structure of Committees. Legislation originates through the Commission, and we find its officials to be quite open. They are quite prepared to sit down and discuss issues, particularly with practitioners. When we take farmers to Europe, officials are willing to listen to the problems, issues and the bits and pieces that are involved. The initial drafting is done by the Commission, and the Committee structure then kicks in to examine the legislation. It is difficult, as Graham said, for 780 MEPs to actively consider, for example, all 200 amendments to a piece of legislation.

The Committee structure is useful; there is a strong Committee on Agriculture and there are other Committees. Our organisation, which represents the interests of farmers, and the Assembly should best direct their influence to the Committees. That should be done earlier on in the curve of the legislative process, rather than at the tail end.

Mr Furey:

Sometimes, it is important to pick and choose priorities. It is impossible to go into detail on every issue, so we must put our thoughts, views and amendments into the legislation that will have the greatest impact here. Some legislation will not affect us to the same extent as other legislation, so prioritisation is required.

Mr Molloy:

You said that the benefits from the process around the Barroso task force had not been fully exploited. Are there specific aspects of that that should be considered?

Mr Black:

We highlighted several areas, including rural development, support for restructuring the food industry and the agrifood sector as specific issues that could have been considered. None of those were taken up in the final report, and we were disappointed by that.

Mrs Long:

Thank you for your presentation and written submission, which were very useful.

Other people who have given evidence to the Committee have spoken about the opportunity for collaborative working with other regions and the importance of that in building a louder voice. Are there opportunities to do that with farming issues, and are the mechanisms in place to give you the support to exploit that to its full extent?

Mr Furey:

The Committee of Professional Agriculture Organisations (COPA) represents the farming unions in Europe, and the General Confederation of Agricultural Cooperatives in the European Union (COGECA) represents the co-operatives. Bimonthly meetings are held at which specific issues are discussed.

If you are asking whether there is anything that Northern Ireland Assembly Members can do beyond that with other regions, I think that a lot of work can be done, especially on some of the rural development issues.

Funding is available for joint European work with member states or regions within member states. We have conducted work on agricultural issues that was to do with binary mediation and willows, and that was in R&D as much as anything. Those kinds of issues would be possible and could potentially be built on.

Mr Black:

COPA is an umbrella organisation. Some 76 farming unions are represented across 25 countries. That is probably the largest umbrella organisation that operates in the European system.

Mrs Long:

Having read through your submission, would it be a fair summary to say that your assessment of the current situation — your relationships and connections with the Assembly and the MEPs — is that they are not bad, but they could be better co-ordinated, and that communications could be improved?

Mr Furey:

That would be a fair enough summary. We feel that our MEPs have worked very well as individuals and in groups over the years. They have represented the views of Northern Ireland agriculture on that stage in Europe, as opposed to party political views. That has been welcomed by the industry.

At times, there is a lack of communication. I do not know how much contact that the Assembly has with the MEPs, other than directly through party politics. I am sure that that could be improved upon.

The Chairperson:

I do not think that we will go there today.

Ms Anderson:

More structural links between the Assembly and the MEPs, regardless of their composition, would be beneficial. The MEPs advocated that when they gave evidence to the Committee.

You talked about Minister with responsibility for Europe, and other people have spoken about a dedicated Committee. When this Committee reports on EU issues, some dedicated focus needs to be given to that area.

As regards to the Barroso task force report, you identified some programmes that were not in the report. Our understanding is that the action plans are not set in stone; they can evolve year on year. An opportunity has not been missed; there will be opportunities in the time ahead that should be tapped into.

You said that you have already submitted to DARD and to other relevant Ministers issues that should be contained in your lobbying, but it may be good for us to get the information on the kind of programmes and projects that you talked about.

Our party has already said, in regards to progress and globalisation, that there were opportunities that were not reflected in the action plan. We would like to see those be at least considered by the relevant Department and Minister in the time ahead.

It would be good to get a more developed view from the UFU regarding rural development and the agricultural process and sector, and what you would have liked to have been included in the report. I think that you should continue to engage with the relevant Ministers and Committees to ensure that the evolution of the action plan will reflect that.

Mr Black:

I have been encouraged by that. We had more or less set it aside, because we felt that we had made a contribution and had not got a lot of encouragement. That was shaping our view of the position of the Barroso task force report. There may be something going on at a much more macro-political level that we are not aware of, and if that is the case, well and good.

Ms Anderson:

Individuals in some of the evidence sessions suggested that to us that it was not set in stone and that it would be an evolving action plan. You should probably put your foot back on the pedal.

The Chairperson:

Thank you for your presentation. That completes the questioning. If you wish to provide any additional information to us, we will be happy to receive it. Likewise, if there are any points of clarification that we may seek from you, we will be in touch.

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