§ 5.37 p.m.
§ Lord Elton rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 3rd February be approved.
§ The noble Lord said: The order seeks to abolish the Northern Ireland Agricultural Trust by repealing the Agricultural Trust Act (Northern Ireland) 1966. The decision to abolish the Agricultural Trust was taken by the Government because opportunities for the trust to pioneer new developments in agricultural production and processing had declined significantly in recent years; and duplication of effort would be minimised, with a consequent lowering of administration costs. The decision is also in line with Government policy to reduce the number of Quangos where possible.
§ The Agricultural Trust was set up in 1967 in order to pioneer commercial developments in the production and processing of agricultural produce. The trust also assumed a major role in the marketing of such produce. During the period of its existence the trust has been involved in a wide range of agricultural activities; some of them have been fairly ambitious such as grass drying, the growing and processing of flax, and gravel tunnel drainage. Others have had limited objectives and application (such as potato processing, 1017 apple processing and intensive lamb production). In marketing, the role of the trust has been to identify and promote opportunities for Northern Ireland food processors both in Great Britain and elsewhere.
§ The trust has done this by encouraging participation in marketing seminars, food fairs and trade promotions. The Government are satisfied that the abolition of the trust will not mean that its more important activities will cease. At farm level, the education and advisory services of the Department of Agriculture will continue to be available to help farmers, and food processors will be able to use continuing aids to industrial development. The Central Council for Agricultural and Horticultural Co-operation will continue to encourage the formation of agricultural co-operatives, while participation at international food fairs will continue abroad under the aegis of the British Food Export Council and in Great Britain with the assistance of the Department of Commerce and the Ulster Office. In this respect, steps have already been taken to bring the various bodies together. Both the British Growers LookAhead National Exhibition at Harrogate this week and the International Food Exhibition at Olympia next week will have stands sponsored under the new arrangement.
§ The trust consists of nine members appointed by the Department of Agriculture for Northern Ireland, four of whom were nominated by the Ulster Farmers' Union. The trust employed up to 15 staff and it is anticipated that the saving will be some £400,000 per annum. The order seeks to effect the dissolution of the trust by repealing the Agricultural Trust Act (Northern Ireland) 1966 under which it operates and by providing for the repeals to take effect from an appointed day to be determined by order. The order will vest in the department all outstanding rights and obligations of the trust, including the payment of compensation to staff for loss of employment. This is 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 function to the department, only residual rights and obligations. I should not like to conclude this brief introduction to the order without a word of thanks to the trustees themselves. Many people apart from myself are grateful to them for their services and I therefore endorse wholeheartedly the remarks made by my honourable friend Mr. Goodhart in another place on 7th May 1980. I commend this order to your Lordships.
§ Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 3rd February be approved.—(Lord Elton).
§ Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge
My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend, having been for a brief two years in charge, in an indirect sense, of agriculture in Northern Ireland, I should like to ask a couple of questions. The first is: What is the attitude of the Northern Ireland Farmers' Union towards this? They were, I thought, a very fine body of men whose interests were not only in favour of their own pockets but of the whole country. I should be very interested to know what kind of reaction they gave. Perhaps the noble Lord could tell us that.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, I welcome the intervention by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson. Having already 1018 said how glad I was to see him in his place for the Museums Order, I am also glad to see him on this order too. It is a pleasure to have someone with us with such direct experience of the matters we are discussing. I share his admiration for the Ulster Farmers' Union. They did indeed make representations on this order to my honourable friend, but they decided that, in a climate in which economic savings were necessary, this was one of the least painful savings that could be made. Therefore, they did not produce strenuous opposition to this order.
§ Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge
My Lords, I should like also to refer to exports. I once had the honour to chair a breakfast in Paris for Northern Ireland foods, and it was a great success once we got the wireless turned off. I believe the firms taking part found that this was a very useful exercise. From what the noble Lord has said, I understand that this sort of thing will go on.
The Duke of Abercorn
My Lords, since this is the first opportunity I have had to congratulate my noble friend Lord Elton on taking over the portfolio of agriculture in the Northern Ireland Office, I should like to wish him all possible success in his mission. Perhaps I need hardly remind him that agriculture is still our biggest and most important industry in Northern Ireland. Its health has a direct effect on the wellbeing and prosperity of a rural community.
I regret the demise of the Agricultural Trust and I doubt if a Government could have foreseen the extent of the recession hitting the agricultural industry at the present time, whether the trust would have been wound up, since it was widely recognised as being cost-effective, efficient and providing very considerable assistance in marketing of agricultural, fisheries and horticultural products. Frankly, I am not convinced by my noble friend's explanation that the substitute marketing facilities will in any way fill this vacuum since the disappearance of the trust clearly leaves a vacuum in marketing assistance at the worst possible economic time. It should be only too obvious to the Northern Ireland Office that practical and constructive marketing assistance is of vital importance for agricultural products—in fact, of parallel importance to marketing assistance for small and medium-sized firms. Surely, therefore, the time is not only opportune but vital to reassess the need for a marketing body for Northern Ireland goods which could be grafted on to either the Department of Commerce or the Northern Ireland Development Agency. Can the Government reassure this House that the Northern Ireland Office are prepared to reassess this necessity, since the survival of so many small firms depends directly on being able to find an alternative market literally overnight in order to survive at the present time?
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, may I now conclude my reply to the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson? I apologise the the House for having got to my feet prematurely in response to his first question. I will now reply to his second question, which relates closely to that raised by my noble friend the Duke of Abercorn. They were both concerned with sales. I do not know of the circumstances which the noble Lord described in Paris, 1019 particularly as I do not know what was on the wireless before it was turned off or whether these are typical of the promotional efforts which we undertake, but this is a very serious matter and I am fairly well seized of it, having been professionally engaged in international trade fairs before being appointed to the present Government. Therefore I sympathise very much with the motivation of both the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, and my noble friend the Duke of Abercorn, whose good wishes I gratefully acknowledge in this task.
I accept that the marketing is of great importance. It is no good producing the stuff if you cannot get rid of it, to put it crudely. We have certain advantages and, I think, considerable disadvantages in driving our trade where we do in the Province, and it is no good if we handicap ourselves by not being able to sell in the best circumstances. I can assure the House that I regard this as a matter of some priority and I am already looking very closely at the existing arrangements for the marketing of agricultural produce. It is a large and complex subject in itself. As soon as I feel myself the master of that I shall be doing the same thing with my colleagues in the context of other products of the Province to see what assistance we can give to industry by organisation, advice, or in whatever other way may suggest itself, to enable the products of the Province—principally agricultural, so far as I am concerned, but there are other products as well—to be on the best footing they can in all the markets which are open to them, in spite of any handicaps that may exist. I cannot be more precise than that, but I assure noble Lords that I share their anxiety and also their assessment of the problem. In due course, I hope to come to a conclusion which may be helpful. I beg to move.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.