Official Report: Minutes of Evidence

Ad Hoc Committee on the COVID-19 Response, meeting on Thursday, 30 April 2020

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Christopher Stalford (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Jim Allister KC
Ms Martina Anderson
Ms Clare Bailey
Mrs Rosemary Barton
Mr John Blair
Ms Paula Bradshaw
Mr Tom Buchanan
Mrs Pam Cameron
Mr Gerry Carroll
Mr Pat Catney
Mrs Sinéad Ennis
Mr Paul Frew
Mr Harry Harvey
Mr William Irwin
Mr Declan McAleer
Mr Colin McGrath
Mr Philip McGuigan
Mr Justin McNulty
Mr Mike Nesbitt
Mr Matthew O'Toole
Mr Edwin Poots
Ms Emma Sheerin
Mr John Stewart


Dr Denis McMahon, Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs

Ministerial Statement: Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Stalford): Members, agenda item 3 is a statement from the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. The Speaker's Office received notification on 27 April that the Minister wished to make a statement to today's meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee. A copy of the statement can be found in your pack at page 15.

I welcome the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to the meeting. I also welcome Mr Denis McMahon, the permanent secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), who is accompanying the Minister.

I invite the Minister to make his statement, which should be heard without interruption. Following the statement, there will be an opportunity for members to ask questions. Given how well we all did with the Minister of Health earlier, we should stick to that format: short, sharp questions without long preambles or introductions.

Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): Thank you, Deputy Chairperson. I am grateful for the opportunity to update the Ad Hoc Committee today. I want to speak to you about the arrangements that are being made in my Department to support the people of Northern Ireland in these challenging and, indeed, worrying times.

As leaders, each of us must continue to do what we can to help everyone through the crisis. As well as impacting the health of our people, the pandemic is driving economic, social and environmental change, so, while we need to address the problems of today, we also need to keep our eye to the future. The world will have changed in the aftermath of COVID-19 and we will have changed with it.

We must sustain our efforts to help and comfort each other through the personal challenges brought by the disease. We must work together and maximise cooperation between people, businesses and the public sector to get through these difficult times. We must address the economic and social challenges that we can see and that are emerging in the wake of the public health impacts, and we must begin to plan to ensure that, as we leave this dark hour, we are prepared to renew ourselves, our economy and our environment.

As the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, I am committed to ensuring that we make every possible effort to protect the health and well-being of our staff, our customers and the general public and to ensure that we continue to carry out our essential services safely.

On the theme of working together, we have made it a priority to work with and support others across the system. That is consistent with our aim as a Department, because protecting the environment and public health are key priorities for DAERA under all circumstances. I am, therefore, very grateful that DAERA has been able to provide Belfast City Hospital with 30 powered respirator units, which will undoubtedly contribute to saving lives. The Chief Veterinary Officer is working with the Southern Health and Social Care Trust to provide veterinary resources, which will assist with COVID contact tracing and, potentially, assist healthcare professionals in the trust area. Our College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise has made over 20,000 coveralls and other personal protective equipment (PPE) available to the health and social care trusts and to colleagues in the Department's veterinary service animal health group, some of which have already been collected.

DAERA continues to undertake a vast amount of work to ensure that we can deliver essential services to the people of Northern Ireland and, with your agreement, I will update you on that programme.

As many of you will be aware, we have a huge spread of responsibility, including the agri-food industry, waste, fisheries, the environment and the rural sector. Each and every one of us comes into contact with at least one of those services daily, but, most of the time, they are hidden from view. Many people do not even realise that they are there, which is a good thing, because it shows that they are working. However, if there is one thing that we have learned in the crisis, it is that we should cherish those services and never take them for granted.

We provide food for some 10 million people, so it is crucial that our supply chains do not falter. I want to pay tribute to everyone across the private and public sectors, from farm to fork, for maintaining those supply chains so well. Those supply chains are working effectively thanks to the dedication and commitment of workers in the chains.

It is entirely understandable that there have been concerns across stakeholders that staff may contract the virus and that they could be unable to work. I am grateful, therefore, to everybody who has helped put safety measures in place. When the industry made calls for their key workers to be tested for COVID-19, we listened. In fact, we have listened at every stage, meeting with the industry at least once a week and, for the majority of the crisis, two or three times a week.

We are currently working with agri-food stakeholders to identify the categories and numbers of key workers, private and public sector, that could be tested to inform government planning exercises. Estimates from the Northern Ireland Food and Drinks Association (NIFDA) suggest that output from the sector remains at around 100% in terms of meeting customer demands. Levels of absenteeism are reported as having reduced to 8·5% on average from a high of 14%.

As the crisis continues, however, there is concern that farm incomes could fall due to a COVID-19-related slump in market prices. That could be made worse if farmers cannot get product to market or get feed, or if input prices rise. We must ensure, as far as we can, that the flow of produce from farms is not interrupted. Thankfully, that has not happened to date, and, hopefully, the risk of it is receding, although we cannot rule out future problems.

Industry representatives have raised concerns that a sharp fall in beef prices is on the way. The latest market statistics show that beef prices, which had been stable since the beginning of the year, have started to fall. There are also concerns about what lies ahead for the dairy sector, because international markets have weakened considerably in recent weeks. We know also that there are difficulties in ornamental horticulture, with dedicated growers facing major difficulties in getting produce to markets.

I can assure you that my Department is working diligently with representatives of the red meat and dairy sectors, listening and offering support and guidance. More importantly, we are taking action where we can. Officials are in daily contact with the industry on those matters and have recently received independent analysis of the impacts that COVID-19 is having on both production and processing in the red meat industry. A similar industry-sponsored report for the dairy sector is expected by the end of next week. We are closely monitoring local, national and international markets to obtain information and intelligence. Both streams of work will go some way to help us develop and deliver the type of support that may be needed to weather this particular storm.

Moving on to fisheries, my Department has provided a substantial scheme of £1·5 million worth of support for the sea fish catching sector, and letters of invitation to apply for the scheme have been issued. Some vessels continue to fish where there is a market for the catch, but overall activity is greatly reduced due to the market collapse for fish. There has also been a severe drop in sales of aquaculture products.

DAERA officials have been gathering the relevant economic information to examine the extent of the impact and what measures might be necessary to support the sector. That includes consideration of the recent amendment to the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF), which provides the possibility of granting financial compensation to aquaculture farmers for the temporary suspension or reduction of production as a result of COVID-19. Additionally, as a result of the drop in sales, increased stocking densities may increase welfare and disease issues. The Department continues to engage with the sector on these matters.
My officials have been working tirelessly with farmers to assist them in completing their single farm applications. With less than three weeks to the closing date for single applications, DAERA’s single application advisory service will be available from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm over the weekends of the 5 and 6 of May and the 12 and 13 of May.

We are providing enhanced advisory services and have seen a substantial increase in the number of applications that have been received to date. The latest figure for received applications is 13,188. That represents 53% of the total number of applications expected in 2020, and an increase of 23% compared with the same date in 2019. I welcome that increased rate of applications by farmers and agents and encourage those with applications outstanding to act now. The deadline for entitlement transfers is 4 May 2020 and the deadline for single applications is 15 May 2020.
My Department will continue to do all that it can to ease the burden and worries of people and businesses in rural communities. DAERA officials are working in collaboration with a wide range of delivery partners in the statutory, community and voluntary sectors. In the past three weeks I have secured £2·5m for DAERA for the 2020-21 tackling rural poverty and social isolation programme. I have pushed that support towards dealing with the immediate impacts of COVID-19 in the rural sector and I have also fast-tracked over £2 million in payments to projects. Those payments will support rural businesses and the community and voluntary sector, providing them with some degree of assistance and security during these difficult times.

Rural Support has reported an influx of calls to its helpline on a range of issues. Those have included farmers worrying about benefits, their mental health and a possible slowdown in the supply chain. Rural Support continues to provide a listening ear and help. Working in tandem with local councils and the Department for Communities, DAERA people and vehicles are delivering food parcels to the most vulnerable people in our communities, ensuring that they can keep safe.

The Minister for Infrastructure and I recently confirmed a collective arrangement for rural community transport partnerships (RCTPs). Those partnerships play a key role in delivering services to rural people and communities. Working in tandem with local councils and health trusts, the RCTPs are proving to be a very effective means of delivering food, medicine and other services to vulnerable people.

Last week, I confirmed that forest and country parks were open for pedestrian access. The purpose of that is to provide people with open green spaces to exercise, consistent with public health advice on social distancing. In doing so, it is important that people maintain compliance with the COVID-19 regulations, including where there is reasonable excuse to travel for exercise. Car parks, as well as caravan, camping, angling and associated facilities remain closed.

DAERA continues to deliver key public health and environmental protection messages around waste management. Those messages cover issues including bin hygiene, respect for key workers, the importance of recycling and warnings against fly-tipping.

Waste industry workers have been designated as key workers and I have issued a letter to all those who are working in the waste industry, thanking them for their continued work and recognising their role. The waste sector is vital in safeguarding public health, protecting the environment and servicing the economy. Waste and recycling services are critical public services. They should be maintained as far as possible in order to protect the health of the Northern Ireland public from a build-up of waste, safeguard the important flow of materials — such as materials that are needed for food packaging — and to deliver a low-carbon circular economy agenda.

I recognise that there has been an increase in reports of fly-tipping and I have used a range of communications to remind the public that it is not only illegal but damaging to public health and the environment. Our waste workers are already burdened with increased household waste, so fly-tipping is a further burden on them. An added risk in dry weather is that fly-tipping increases the risk of wildfires. I have approved guidance to councils to inform their decisions on the reopening of household waste recycling centres. Clearly, those decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis, but as these services start again when the time is right, they will help to reduce fly-tipping incidents. I also assure members that my officials in the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) are closely monitoring the situation and are working with our local councils.

NIEA staff are continuing to operate their 24-hour pollution response service as part of their work to protect our waterbodies. That is particularly important in catchments that supply drinking water and it is why scientific staff in our laboratories are prioritising their work on analysing raw water quality samples. That will support Northern Ireland Water’s provision of safe drinking water and effective waste water treatment. In addition, NIEA’s drinking water inspectorate is working closely with Northern Ireland Water to ensure that it maintains the required drinking water standards for all of its customers and for those who use a private water supply.

I also wish to acknowledge the valuable contribution of environmental non-government organisations and recognise the impacts of COVID-19 on that sector. DAERA staff continue to work with them and with other government colleagues to understand and seek a way forward.

My Department and I remain fully committed to playing our part in tackling the crisis. We will ensure that every effort is made to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic. Importantly, we understand that that means not only helping ourselves and our stakeholders, but reaching out and helping as many people as possible.

As we push on and continue to deliver those essential services that we can deliver safely, it is important to remember that we will recover. Over recent weeks and months, we have been forced to live and work differently and to behave differently. I pay tribute to everyone who has played their part, but even in these darkest times we need to look ahead. We owe it to everyone to ensure that everything we have learned in facing these challenges is put to good use. When planning for recovery, it is crucial that we do so in a holistic manner; everything must work in tandem. DAERA has developed new and innovative ways of working; travelling less, using less energy and finding new ways to communicate and learn. We must take that learning with us and use it in developing future plans.

I pay tribute to the staff throughout the wider agri-food industry, including my staff in DAERA, for their dedication and commitment through this time. For many of them, the impact of COVID-19 on their work is far more profound than just changing where they work; it has also fundamentally changed the work that they do and how they do it.

Rather than picking up where we left off, we must reimagine the future. We must work across government and with the private and voluntary/community sectors to co-design and deliver social and economic renewal. Sustainability must be at the heart of what we do, and economic renewal must better recognise the importance of our environment as a pathway towards a sustainable future. That will require collective commitment and action, and I recognise the important role that the Northern Ireland Executive will have to play. I will also continue to work with Executive colleagues to do whatever I can to get us through the current crisis and to play a full part in the development of a recovery plan for Northern Ireland.

In my statement to this Committee on 7 April 2020, I informed members that my Department had already started developing proposals to support the recovery of our economy, environment and people. That work continues as we reflect on our enforced experience of COVID-19 and examine the lessons that we can learn from it and how we can take them forward to optimise flexibility, productivity and resilience. I look forward to sharing them with you in the coming weeks.

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Stalford): Thank you very much, Minister, for your statement.

Folks, the guts of 20 members want to speak. Let us have short, focused questions from members. If we ask members to do that, we should also ask for short, focused answers from the Minister.

Mr McAleer (Committee Chair - Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): First, I express my condolences to Minister Poots on the sad passing of his father last week. No doubt, your grief and that of your family have been compounded by the current COVID crisis and the requirements to maintain distance, including from loved ones. Minister, I pass on my condolences to you and thank you very much for being here today.

Minister, on page 2 of your statement, you refer to the slump in farm-gate prices. That is obviously due to many factors, including COVID, that have resulted in a severe carcass imbalance, brought on by the closure of the food services industry. It has created a severe crisis for farmers. Last week and the week before, we received estimates of a potential £105 million package to be co-funded by the EU and the Westminster Government to support the agri-food industry. Will the Minister give us an update on where we are with that support package?

Mr Poots: I thank the Committee Chair for his question. I also thank him for expressing his condolences and for doing so personally. I am greatly appreciative of that from every member who has contacted me on a personal basis. I genuinely appreciate it.

We have been pressing the UK Government, in particular, on the matter that the member asked about. Last week, Europe produced a package that, I believe, amounted to €80 million for all of Europe and was largely aids to private storage. That is better than a poke in the eye, but it is not a lot in terms of the crisis that exists across the European Union. We were looking at estimating a figure over the next year of around £100 million being required for Northern Ireland. That demonstrates the scale of what, we believe, the problem will be and the response thus far. I do not believe that Europe or the UK Government have responded in the way that is needed. There is a holding back to see what will happen, whilst some of the things that will happen are quite evident. In a very short space of time, the hospitality industry closed down — it was basically overnight — and, with that, 40% of the trade that is done through the agri-food sector disappeared. The consequence is very obvious when you are hit with 40% of your trade disappearing. Yes, the retailers picked up a decent amount of trade, but they did not fill that gap or go anywhere near it.

I presented to the Executive last week on our requirement for funding. We received £912 million; I think there is something like £80 million of that left. Transportation has a call on that, and I recognise the importance of transportation, especially in keeping our haulage industry going and keeping the ferries operating. However, I have encouraged Executive colleagues not to spend that money just at this time and to ensure that there is something left for agriculture in the absence of the UK Government stepping up to the plate, albeit that my focus continues to be on the UK Government. I have good support from my Scots and Welsh colleagues, and I think that we need to continue to maintain the pressure, because there is a problem. It is not a short-term problem; it will probably last for close to a year. The biggest issue is that this has been caused by COVID-19. We have helped other businesses to be there after COVID-19, and we need to ensure that we help the agri-food sector to be there, particularly given its importance to Northern Ireland.

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Stalford): Mr McAleer, would you like to ask a supplementary question?

Mr McAleer: I am sure that the Minister will welcome the recent confirmation that farmers can apply for the self-employed income support scheme, but he will be aware that many farms, particularly those in areas of natural constraint, are lucky to break even year on year, so the self-employed scheme will not be of particular use to them. Does the Minister see any benefit in introducing a small grant scheme, not unlike the one that was introduced by the Economy Minister for other small businesses, to support those small farmers, even as an interim solution until a wider package is agreed by Westminster and the EU Governments?

Mr Poots: I think the beef industry across Northern Ireland made around £8 million last year. When you divide that across all of the beef farms, be they on the uplands or the lowlands, it is a modest amount of money. The dairy farms, I think, made closer to £60 million, and all the projections are that they will not make anything this year. Therefore, what I commit to is that, if we can get an envelope of money, I will come to the AERA Committee before we spend it, to get the thoughts of the representatives here on how that should be spent. We need to customise it for Northern Ireland and the people whom we serve, and therefore I am happy to work with all the colleagues here, if we can get an envelope of money, to ensure that it is appropriately spent and goes to the places that need it most.

Mr Irwin: I thank the Minister for his statement and pass on my condolences on the passing of his father. I can assure him that our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family at this time.

The Minister may be aware that some farmers are finding it difficult to get their TB tests done. Can the Minister further review the TB testing controls as a result of COVID-19, to ensure that animals can be tested, while protecting human life?

Mr Poots: A level of TB testing continues. Some vets are furloughed, and some practices are not carrying out TB testing. I can confirm that, where practices are not carrying out TB testing and farmers in those areas need to have TB tests, they can go to a different practice. Previously, that was not allowed; you had to go to the practice that was designated by the Department. However, if that practice is not actually practising in terms of TB testing, then you can go to a different veterinary practice. If that practice is content that social distancing can be achieved, that veterinary practice can carry it out. We have also further amended TB testing so that calves under the age of 180 days — up to six months of age — will not have to be TB tested. Therefore, where farms have calves being born and need to move them on, those calves will not have to be TB tested before they move.

We recognise the issues and problems that the farming community faces with TB testing and are seeking to work with farmers to provide the service to them.

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Stalford): Would you like a supplementary, Mr Irwin?

Mr Irwin: Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I thank the Minister for his response and for the announcement that animals up to six months of age will not have to be TB-tested. That will be welcomed.

I had an issue just the other day with departmental vets. The Department was to test a particular farmer's animals, but it would not do so, nor would it let his own vet do so. We did get it resolved in the end, but is the Minister aware that that can be an issue?

Mr Poots: Once again, Irwin has delivered, as they say. He got a result in the end. I am glad that the Department worked with you to get the result, and I hope that it would be the case that any MLAs who bring an issue to my Department get the cooperation that they deserve. If they do not get the cooperation that they deserve, they should feel free to contact me, and I will try to ensure that they do.

Mr Catney: Minister, I also pass on my condolences to your family on the passing of your father, Charlie. I know that he was a freeman and a tireless worker in the community. Not always might I have seen eye to eye with him, but he was out to help and to do his possible best. I am disappointed that I was not able to attend your house, because, the night after the death of my mother, who died on a Thursday six weeks ago, you, Minister, were first at my door, at six o'clock. I commend him for that. I would love to have been able to go back and share in his grief at his family home. I am sorry that I was not able to.

Minister, you will be aware that many farmers reinvest any profits that they make in their farm. As a result, their profit returns are non-existent or minimal. Those farmers may be disadvantaged by the self-employed scheme. Does the Minister have a view on how we can support them?

Mr Poots: In response to your first comments, Mr Catney, that is how we should deal with each other. We should have that respect for each other when there are family bereavements and so on. It was my privilege to attend your home at that time, and I regret that you were not able to attend mine. Had the scenario been different, you would have been very welcome, as others would have been. That people were not able to attend my home is something of regret, but we just have to get on with it.

The point that you raised is extremely valid. Farmers tend to pump money back into their business, so profitability is low. They will repair a roof if they can afford it or put down a bit more concrete to tidy up a yard, or whatever it happens to be. They will make something better or more comfortable for the animals. Sometimes it will be more comfortable than their own dwelling. As a consequence, profitability is low. Many of them will therefore fall outside of the terms of the scheme. That is why it is critical that we identify a source of funding, wherever it is from. I very much hope that it comes from the UK Government. If not, the Executive should step up to the plate and provide support to keep those small businesspeople — farmers are small businesspeople — afloat and allow them to continue to practise. I make that very clear here, and I have made it clear to the Executive. There are 100,000 people who depend on the agri-food business in Northern Ireland, and it is important, when we get to the other side of COVID-19 and beyond, that we still have opportunities for those 100,000 people and that we can continue to grow the business.

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Stalford): Would you like a supplementary?

Mr Catney: Yes. Thanks very much, Minister, for your answers. As I heard in your statement, your Department is also forward-thinking when it comes to how we can reinvest when we come out of this crisis. Captain Tom has raised £30 million, and the British Prime Minister stated today that he is a beacon of light. We need that beacon of light. That beacon of light can shine through our town centres and shopfronts. Minister, you talk about the reinvestment that your Department is going to do. If we learn nothing else from this, we learn that we need to think seriously about a campaign of shopping local and supporting the businesses that are on our doorstep.

Mr Poots: That is a very valid point, and I am happy to work with the Department for the Economy and the Department for Communities beyond this crisis on a recovery plan of shopping locally. The best way of ensuring that people buy locally is to shop locally. Traditionally, local businesses have supported people in their community. People have been enticed away from some local shops. We have seen the shutters go up while others increase their buying power. It would be wonderful to see all our butchers, bakeries, fruit and vegetable stores and artisan shops making a comeback and grasping the chance to make something good out of COVID-19.

The lesson that we all need to learn from any crisis is that opportunities will arise as a result of it, and we need to grab those opportunities with both hands. If restoring locally owned business were to come out of COVID-19, that would be really good for this country.

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Stalford): Before I call the next member to speak, I remind members that, although I am keen to give everyone a supplementary, if they want one, there is no obligation to take it. I am not trying to put any particular pressure on Mrs Rosemary Barton.

Mrs Barton: Minister, I convey my deepest sympathy to you and your family on your recent bereavement.

Minister, I noted that you said that about 53% of the expected single farm payment applications have already been received. Those are due in on 15 May, which is coming very close. You know that we have broadband issues in the west. I do not need to reiterate them. Is there any possibility, given COVID-19, social distancing and the fact that many of these people get support from throughout the community, that the date of receipt for those applications could be put back for a week or 10 days to help them?

Mr Poots: Thank you, Mrs Barton, for another very valid question. At this stage, the figure of 53% is tremendous. We are 20% ahead of previous years, which is good, but I recognise that it will be a struggle for everyone, particularly when they are relying on others for form filling and there are not the same opportunities to call at a farm and get all the information down. Filling out the forms, and doing so accurately, will be more challenging.

People need to get their forms in. If people are concerned that their form is not completely accurate, they have until 9 June to amend it, without penalty, which gives them a bit of time. I do not think that now is the appropriate time to take our foot off the pedal. Our farmers are doing very well. If I were to say today that we would put it back until 30 May, I might be pushed to put it back to 15 June or whenever. I could put it back for a month — not a problem — but I do not want to put back the payment date of 16 October by a month. Consequently, I want to keep the pressure on and get as many of these applications in as possible. Towards the end, we will see whether there is a real problem. If so, we will work with people to try to address it.

At this time, the best thing to do is to keep the focus on 15 May. Let us see what we can achieve by then. I will not be surprised if the farming community has 98% or 99% of applications in by that point. At that stage, there would be very little excuse for the remaining 1% or 2%, but we will see how it goes.

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Stalford): A supplementary, Mrs Barton?

Mrs Barton: If you will give me slight leeway, I want to comment on DAERA and broadband. I find it a little disturbing that £14·3 million has been set aside in the DAERA budget for digital transformation, yet the amount for broadband is £7·5 million. I would have thought that, given the need in the community for broadband, perhaps it should be the other way round.

Mr Poots: I refer that one to my permanent secretary.

Dr Denis McMahon (Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): My expectation is that that money should be going to broadband. I will need to look at that.

Mrs Barton: Thank you.

Mr Blair: I add my condolences and those of my party colleagues to the condolences already expressed. In addition, I pay tribute to the Minister and, given that he is back to business and answering our questions so soon, the seriousness with which he takes these pressing and crucial issues. Following the Minister's appropriate thanks to those involved in the supply chain, could I ask if he shares my concern that we may need additional workers to enable the harvest to happen effectively this year? Although it is still early in the year and we may not be seeing the strain yet, I am sure that he would agree that there is a possibility that the need for social distancing and the lack of migrant workers could create pressures.

Mr Poots: We in Northern Ireland do not have the same fruit market that exists in other parts. Certainly, strawberry and raspberry growers in the south of England are facing problems. We see planeloads of people arriving from Romania, and people criticised that. You know what? I am glad of those people from Romania coming in to do it. The Government offered people who are furloughed the opportunity to keep their furlough money and go to work on those farms, and people chose not to do it. So, thank you to the people who have come in to do it.

We in Northern Ireland do not have the same pressures. The apple industry is the one that is least automated and, consequently, needs quite a bit of help in the autumn. We will keep an eye on the issue and address it as we get closer to that time. I am sure that Mr Irwin and other Newry and Armagh and Upper Bann colleagues will keep our attention on that matter if it arises.

Mr Blair: Does the Minister agree that we may well need cross-sector and cross-departmental attention to try to address issues as they arise?

Mr Poots: I do.

Mr Harvey: Thank you, Minister. First, can I say publicly that I am sorry for your loss on the recent passing of your dear father, Charlie? Indeed, I have fond memories of him serving as a Member of this House in 1973 and 1975 along with my father, Cecil.

Minister, I welcome the clarity that you have given on the use of forest and country parks. How is this working out in practice?

Mr Poots: I thank the member for the question. To date, we have had no issues raised with us by the public. It appears to be working well. We have sought to discourage people from travelling, and certainly from travelling long distances. We have kept car parks locked so that people will not be encouraged to travel. It is more local people who are using the facilities.

As things stand, there are no ice-cream vans, coffee vans or anything else in the parks, and that is how it will have to be for the foreseeable. We have encouraged people to use one-way systems in the parks. Social distancing has worked extremely well. I welcome the opportunity for people to get out into the fresh air; it is good for their physical and mental health. We want people to use these services; that is why they are here. The Northern Ireland public pay for these services. We want the Northern Ireland public to benefit from them, and they are benefiting from them in a way that will not contribute to any upsurge in COVID-19.

Mr Harvey: I had a supplementary on car parking, but you more or less answered it. There is no availability but you say that everything is working out fine, so that is grand.

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Stalford): I do not think that you need to respond to that.

Ms Sheerin: I thank the Minister for his statement and echo the condolences to you on the death of your father.

Following on from Mrs Barton's question — and I have written to you about this — in light of the COVID-19 crisis that we find ourselves in and the fact that we have social-distancing requirements, DAERA staff working from home and farm agents also working remotely meaning that a lot of farmers are not able to go and speak to their agents in the way that they did previously, will flexibility be granted to farmers who are going to miss the 4 May deadline for the transfer of their single farm payment entitlements?

Mr Poots: We have not put in flexibility for the entitlement transfers at this stage — there is flexibility as regards mistakes on the single farm payment form — but we can certainly give consideration to that if it is required.

Ms Sheerin: I appreciate that. In the response that I received, you referred to the online form. I just want to reiterate that a lot of my constituents have poor broadband and a lot of farmers are elderly and living in rural isolation, so accessing the form online is not always ideal.

Mr Poots: I respect that as well, and I know that in our area, Sky broadband went down for, I think, 48 hours recently. As we get closer to the time, that could very easily happen and cause a distortion in the community. So, we need to recognise


always delivers.

Mr T Buchanan: I extend my condolences to the Minister and assure him of our thoughts and prayers at this time.

Minister, going back to single farm payments, I note from your statement that applications this year are 23% higher than last year. With the high level of applications, are you confident that the basic scheme payments can be delivered by mid-October, or will it be a longer process?

Mr Poots: I am very hopeful that the farming community will respond; 15 May is the date that they recognise needs to be met every year. People have started well, and that has continued to be the case. There has been no drop-off. There has been an increase. If we encourage people to keep at it, I believe that we can get most of these forms in on time.

Mr T Buchanan: I thank the Minister for that. Given that we are in the midst of COVID-19 and that working from home makes it much more difficult for staff, can the Minister give an assurance that staff will be at hand to give that needed advice and assistance to those farmers who have a difficulty with their single farm payment application?

Mr Poots: We have more telephone helplines than ever, and we are offering a helpline service at weekends. I think that that is open between 9:00 am and 3:00 pm on Saturdays and Sundays, and that will be an additional service that is provided to people for the two weekends before 15 May.

Ms Ennis: I, too, echo the sentiments expressed on the passing of your father, Minister.

Communities and farmers alike have been sounding the alarm about the surge in fly-tipping and illegal dumping. Has the Department sought to keep track of the level of that? Have you looked at any COVID-proof policy initiatives to combat that highly irresponsible and, quite frankly, disgusting activity?

Mr Poots: NIEA have been working to support local authorities on tracing and identifying fly-tipping. It has increased, not alarmingly, but it has increased, and that is a significant issue for us to deal with. We have set out principles on the matter. They were not my principles but were produced by NIEA without any political guidance, and I happen to agree with them. Those principles have now been issued to councils for them to deal with household waste centres. I hope that councils will respond. For example, in the Mid Ulster council area recently, fly-tipping waste was set alight, which started a gorse fire and created a secondary problem. It is for councils to make their own decisions, and I respect the fact that they cherish their independence. I hope that the guidance enables them to make decisions that allow them to better manage waste.

Ms Ennis: If you will indulge me, Principal Deputy Speaker, I will go off topic slightly. We have heard a lot about and know from our own experience how rural clubs and rural communities are at the coalface of the civic response to COVID-19. I appeal to the Minster and implore him to consider implementing a rural development programme by way of a post-COVID stimulus package, especially for rural communities. Has he engaged with the shared prosperity fund to bring that forward?

Mr Poots: I have a written statement ready to go on rural needs. I wanted to include it in this oral statement, but I was told by officials that it needed to go out in written form. You will be getting that, and I think that we will be in a position to respond to that. We probably have a lot of work to do with the Department for Communities on meeting rural needs. That Department has money for sporting clubs, for example, and, indeed, £22 million that came through for charities. That is the Department that has the finances on that. I hope that all of that does not stay in urban areas, not that I have anything against urban people, but the money should be spread across the communities and, of course, include rural communities.

Mr McGrath: While there is much in this House that will divide us, there is a humanity that brings us together. Many of us know the loss of a parent and the loss of a father, and I offer my condolences to the Minister on his loss.

I welcome the support that there has been for the fishing communities. That £1·5 million has been of great benefit to those in the fishing communities in my constituency in Ardglass and Kilkeel. Given that the trade in fish going into restaurant businesses and the food sector is not likely to be back on its feet again in two, three or maybe even six months, is there long-term planning within the Department to support those industries?

Mr Poots: There are indications that some markets are starting to open up again. You are absolutely right. Of the fish that we catch locally, we do not use it locally. We use about 30% of it, and about 70% of it is exported. Of the fish that we actually use, about 70% is imported. We like cod and chips on a Saturday night; others like our nephrops and our prawns, and a lot of that goes to the Far East and a lot goes to the Continent. The Far East market appears to beginning to open up, but it is going to be a while, because a lot of the chilled containers and so forth are actually in China and they need to be got out to start movement again.

So, we will watch the markets and work to support the industry and work with it. At this stage, there is still quite a lot of buying going on. That material is going into cold stores. Ultimately that has to be sold at some stage, so it will probably mean that the price of fish will not rise any time soon, even if the markets are opened up again. Then, of course, we are all living with the cloud of a second outbreak over us and we are finding it challenging to deal with the first outbreak. We do not exactly know what the future holds but we just need to be prepared to be flexible whenever that comes along.

Mr McGrath: Likewise in the aquaculture sector, I know that there were some difficulties in the funding. From 1 April, that sector was going to be under pressure anyway. Is there more of a breakdown of what support there is for that sector? I know that some interim measures were being considered. Are those interim measures in place? Has a new funding stream been set up for that sector yet, because it is caught in this situation as well?

Mr Poots: Aquaculture is relatively small, so we probably can meet that funding from within our own resource without looking elsewhere. However, the Department is, and has been, working on that particular issue to see how it can help aquaculture, but we have not been given a paper yet as to how we might proceed on that.

Mr Nesbitt: I echo the sentiments on the loss of the Minister's father.

I was going to ask about the implications for seasonal workers, such as fruit pickers, but you have covered that issue. So, if you will allow me perhaps to move on from the statement a little bit, my question about farm incomes remains in your area of concern. The Executive Office Committee got a briefing yesterday from lead officials on the EU exit, who said that the policy was that there should be no loss of spending power through Brexit. Is that your Department's policy and do you think that it is ambitious enough, or should we actually be looking to become better off?

Mr Poots: Obviously, we want to be better off than we are now, particularly given that a lot of people in the farming community have seen their profits basically flatline. They need to be better off, going forward. The UK is a net importer of foods. We have seen a circumstance where, in the current situation, that food supply has kept going and it has been a bit more challenging to get food exported, and that could give us an indication of what could happen post-Brexit. However, it depends on whether there is no deal or a deal. If there is no deal, tariffs will be applied both ways, and that will mean that much more food that is produced locally will be used locally. Whilst we encourage a deal and want there to be a deal because it is probably in the interests of wider industry, it might not be in the interests of agriculture because most of our products can be sold and used within the UK, albeit that we sell a lot of dairy products to Europe, Africa and the Far East. We sell a lot of lamb to Europe, but we also import vast quantities of cheeses, wine, which we obviously do not produce here, pork products and, for that matter, beef products from Europe. It will complicated when we leave Europe. There is no doubt about that, but I believe that we can overcome those complications, because we have the spirit and the will to do it, and our response to the coronavirus demonstrates that we do.

Mr Nesbitt: I hope that the Minister will allow me to stretch even further from the statement. Yesterday, we were talking about the shared prosperity fund, and the officials from the Executive Office could tell us only that it is being led by the Department of Finance. Have the Minister and his Department been engaged by Finance about this fund, and what is its potential?

Dr McMahon: One of the challenges has been getting information on the fund, and, right the way through, the officials have been trying to get more information. Prior to the resumption of the Assembly, proposals were put in for us to get at least the same level of funding as we did before. At this stage, however, we are waiting on the outcome of that.

Mr Poots: I might add


we have a paper that indicates that we could do more with state aid post-Brexit than we currently have the capacity to do. That is a good thing in that, whilst we might not be able to reach the ceiling, at least it is not something that will hold us down.

Mr Frew: I will take the risk of not preparing a supplementary question, because I am sure that the Minister will respond sufficiently to my first question. Given the debates that we have had in the House and across the globe about climate change, and given that we are in the unique position where a lot of business and industry have stopped but farming has continued, will the Minister outline what scientific evidence his Department is looking at to ensure that the farming industry moving forward will be able to help in the fight around pollution and climate change?

Mr Poots: I could give a very long answer to that, but do not worry, Mr Deputy Chairperson, I heard what you said earlier. The population has not decreased, nor, indeed, has agriculture changed over the last six or eight weeks, but we have seen an improvement in the climate and a reduction in greenhouse gases, and all that has happened in this scenario. That gives me evidence, which I have always sought to promote since the last time that I was environment Minister, that much of what happens in agriculture is circular and that there is a lot of capture of carbon. People choose to ignore that and want to concentrate only on the output. Beyond this, we need Governments right across the world to look at how various agricultural practices best promote that circular environment where the greenhouse gases are reduced because there is a capture and to not just look at the emissions. If you look at the one without looking at the other, you are not getting a proper analysis of it, and given the circumstances that we now live in, it has been demonstrated very clearly that, when it comes to the environment, agriculture is not the problem that, in the past, some people have suggested that it is.

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Stalford): Before I call Ms Martina Anderson, I remind members to please ask questions that are directly related to the Minister's statement. Mr Frew, I will only slap you on the wrist because you did not ask a supplementary question, so thank you.

Ms Anderson: I too extend my deepest sympathy to the Minister and his family on the death of his father. It is a horrendous time to lose a parent.

You recently confirmed, as you said in your statement, the collective arrangements that have been put in place for the rural community transport partnerships. Will you give us some details of how that collective arrangement between you and the Infrastructure Minister is working?

Mr Poots: I was delighted that our two teams could get together on that issue. The rural community transportation partnerships have, for years, been collecting people who have had trouble travelling from rural areas into towns and brought people to the doctor and the shops and enabled them to have that part of their life continue. However, as a consequence of COVID-19, those services were not needed — well the doctors are still needed, but to go to the shops and to go to town. People need to be flexible, and we have been flexible and have identified that the need still exists. They needed those goods before and they needed transport to go and get those goods. Therefore, instead of them having to go to the town, we bring the town to them. That is basically it: the services are taking the goods to the homes of those people who need it.

I am delighted to be able to work with the Department for Infrastructure in doing that and I think that it is a significant demonstration of how the Executive works together. There are people who want to focus on a few arguments that we have — and those arguments are very often a microcosm of what is taking place in public — but there are an awful lot of good working practices and this is one of them.

Ms Anderson: Thank you Minister for that answer. I concur with what you said about the importance of that connectivity and the collective nature of the Executive. You mentioned rural needs and a statement coming out. I wonder if you will elaborate on any collective arrangement, perhaps between yourself and the Health Minister, on the issue of mental health, which you touched on in your statement. The rural community does not have mental health services like those in urban areas. For instance, I think of the dedicated services that we have in Derry, such as HURT or Inspire. There are very few dedicated rural mental health services, so is that something that you are going to take forward?

Mr Poots: There are two issues that we are aware of that have risen significantly as a result of COVID-19. One is people's mental health and the other is domestic violence. I believe that it is incumbent upon the Executive to seek to support communities in both of those areas, and they are very often connected.

Mental health is a big issue. It is a big issue in rural communities and it has been an issue that has led to the ultimate in terms of people taking their lives. The ability to do that in rural communities has always been greater because of the availability of the means to do it. We do have organisations within Health or within the rural affairs side of my Department. Health has also provided significant support to organisations that are freely available to everybody in the community, but I suspect that we are probably not doing enough. If we can identify an area and how best to meet a need, then we will need respond to that. I am happy to work with colleagues in the Committee to do that.

Ms Bradshaw: Minister, please accept my sincere sympathies on the passing of your father.

In your statement you said that on 7 April your Department was starting to develop proposals for rebuilding the economy. I represent an urban constituency that has been hit very hard, for example by the closure of our hotels and restaurants. How are you going to work with the Department for the Economy for the post-pandemic period and about how we can start recreating the co-dependence between the agri-food industry and our hospitality sector?

Mr Poots: Thank you for that. The Executive have started to do a course of work on recovery, so that is across all Departments. Economic recovery is very important. It is not just about the economy, though: the health service needs to recover. Waiting lists were horrendous before this happened. Those waiting lists will be even worse. People are not getting the screening that they should have had. Dentists are not practising at present. They regularly catch out oral cancer, and so forth. We will go back to major problems in health, education and the economy.

The economy that we left is not the one to which we will return. With the best will in the world, we will not get the same numbers of tourists for a number of years that we would have been getting in one year, like last year. We need to be on top of those issues. How do we actually change the economy? How do we look at where the benefits are? For example, many thousands of people who worked in large cities in Great Britain have returned home, and continue to work. Do they need to return to the big cities, or can we keep them here? Those people would help to drive the economy upwards. They would need to buy houses and would bring in money from their jobs, which are based elsewhere. If they lived here, they would go to restaurants here and use all the services that exist here.

As an Executive, we need to look at all the opportunities that exist and work collectively to harness those opportunities, create as many jobs here as possible, seek to replace jobs that have been lost through nobody's fault but that of COVID-19, and restore the economy. It will be a major challenge. It will not be easy. It is a course of work that we must do, however, because, if we do not do it and do it well, many people will face hardship as a consequence.

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Stalford): Ms Bradshaw is right: she actually represents the finest constituency in Northern Ireland.

Mrs Cameron: I commend the Minister for his very swift return to work — I am not sure that he actually ever left it — after the death of his dad. Our thoughts are, of course, with him at this time.

Minister, I was going to ask you about fly-tipping. I am heartened by the announcement of the phased reopening of recycling centres in south Antrim. It has been very much welcomed in the area.

I will move on to another topic in your statement. You touched upon the 24-hour pollution response service to protect waterbodies. I have being doing a little bit of scientific work of my own, which has involved one very energetic Labrador-Kelpie cross who loves to swim. Because I live in Antrim, he swims regularly in the Sixmilewater and also at the Antrim lough shore and Rea's Wood area. He has been a mad keen swimmer since he was a very small pup, going on four years. What I am trying to get to is that the water actually regularly made him sick. He had numerous visits to the vet, and whatnot, before we discovered the common denominator: what was making him sick was the water and, quite obviously, pollution. He has been swimming very happily for weeks with no ill effects. Minister, is there an opportunity here? Can we take some encouragement from that? Going forward, as industry returns to normal, how do we manage that and stop the pollution of our waters?

Mr Poots: The Sixmilewater is a tricky one because there has been pollution there quite a number of times and we have never identified the source of it. That has not been for the want of trying. We are pretty sure that it is from an industrial source. The anecdotal evidence that you have found yourself would seem to endorse that because, obviously, agriculture has continued and it has not been the cause of the problem there.

We need to continue to work to tackle water pollution. I remember reading that the River Lagan, for example, was full of salmon and trout many, many years ago before the Industrial Revolution. Whilst the Industrial Revolution was fantastic because it created hundreds of thousands of jobs, and we were really at the cutting edge at the turn of the 19th century. Nonetheless, there was an environmental impact. Whilst we seek to develop this recovery plan, we need to always ensure that the environment is front and centre so that we can create a better environment.

One of the things that COVID-19 has taught us is that we do not need to fly as much or drive as much. A lot of people have found that working from home is very good: it is good for their mental health and their family life. My wife has found that, maybe, there is too much of me at home


but nonetheless, most other people are probably happy enough. Seriously, going to these Zoom meetings is absolutely fantastic and there is no reason going forward that that cannot be continued. Once this is over, we do not need to drop what has been good practice, and that is what I referred to in my statement. We need to identify what has been good, hold on to it and use it in the future. It is fairly evident that the fewer planes flying and the fewer cars driving will be good for the environment.

Mrs Cameron: Thank you for those comments, Minister. I agree that life has changed and that we should take the positive from that and continue that change. I also want to commend your Department for its help in dealing with the crisis and, in particular, the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) for their work in making PPE. That is very welcome.

Mr McGuigan: I pass on my condolences to the Minister and his family on the loss of his father.

Following on from the previous question, a global pandemic costing many people their lives, livelihoods and businesses should not be seen as a way of bringing about change in our environment. However, as the Minister and others have pointed out, that has been a result. It is no secret that, worldwide, greenhouse gases have dropped significantly over the last number of weeks. There is less air pollution and there have been many more positive environmental changes. The previous question about water quality is just one. It has also been pointed out that there have been some negatives around fly-tipping and burning of woodland and shrubbery etc. Minister, is your Department continuing to carry out testing in the North of the environmental impact of lockdown? Can you give us a sense of what that is?

Mr Poots: Our water quality unit continues to carry out tests and continues to engage in the work that it needs to do. Reports of pollution will be followed up. Some checks that took place, for example on-farm checks, have had to be stopped. However, we will respond where there is any pollution. Water is still being tested to ensure that it is fit for human consumption, so there is still a series of work: work has not closed down, I can assure you.

Mr McGuigan: The Minister alluded to rebalancing and reorganising the economy and reprioritising how we do business. I noted comments yesterday, from his Executive colleague in the Department of Infrastructure, about protecting the environment or protecting some of the positives that have come out of this. In his statement, he mentioned that he intends to take that forward. As Minister responsible for the environment, how soon will that happen and will you be working with your Executive colleagues to bring changes to the House? We can all identify that a good habit is good, but if we allow ourselves to drift back to bad habits that have negative impacts, that will be hard to undo.

5.15 pm

Mr Poots: The Executive have set it out that they want to develop a recovery plan. For me, the environment is front and centre of that recovery plan. Any recovery plan that ignores the environment is doomed to fail.

Mr O'Toole: First, I join others in offering my condolences to the Minister and to thank him for his dedication to his role while he has been going through the grieving process. Whatever people's party affiliation may be, it is important that we note that commitment at a time like this.

I also welcome his commitment to a changed economy in the future. We have all acknowledged that we cannot go back to how things were. Like others in the House, I hope that the barbers reopen, because I cannot go on much longer without a haircut.

My question is on a subject on which we probably have not agreed in the past but on which, I hope, we can have some agreement, at least in the short term: the difficult subject of Brexit. In answer to an earlier question, the Minister talked about European continental markets for our farmers and for our fisheries. Would the Minister agree that it will be difficult in the months ahead for the UK and the EU to conclude a comprehensive trade deal that will secure continued access to those markets? Would he agree that it would be good if the Executive could come together to ask for an extension?

Before the Minister answers, let me say that I completely respect his support for Brexit, and my question is without prejudice to the final relationship between the UK and the EU. You do not have to agree on Brexit. You do not even have to agree on the implementation of the Ireland protocol but simply agree that neither our farmers nor our fishermen can live with us coming out of the transition period at the end of this year in chaos. We need an extension, even if it is just in the short term.

Mr Poots: I recall that, when I was at school, there were two kinds of people. There were people who were extremely organised and had everything set out and completed and handed in their school project a week in advance. Then there were those who could never get their work done on time, no matter how much time they had. I tended to fall into the latter category. The longer you keep delaying and delaying and putting things back, the more opportunity you give people not to focus. It is not a decision that the Executive will take; the decision on timings will be taken at Westminster. At this point — I have been at a number of meetings at which the issue has been raised — all the indications are that Westminster is sticking to the current date. That is where we are. It is above my pay grade to change the date, even if I desired to.

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Stalford): Before I call the Member for a supplementary question, I remind him that the Minister's statement relates to COVID-19. The question was quite long and not directly related to the Minister's statement.

Mr O'Toole: My follow-up relates specifically to COVID-19, and it may be one that the official may want to come in on. We may not agree in the short term on a Brexit extension, although I hope that fisheries and farmers will be able to make their voice heard in the months ahead. Can I ask the Minister or the official to indicate how many Department staff who had been working on Brexit and its implementation or on the implementation of the Ireland protocol have been reassigned in whole or in part to work on COVID-19? Do you have both the overall number and the number as a proportion of the DAERA workforce?

Dr McMahon: I do not have a specific breakdown. Part of the reason is that, in the early days — this has changed in the course of the pandemic — just about everybody who was able to was working purely on the pandemic for a time. Having said that, we have kept a core team working on the policy issues as they have arisen. We have had to, because Westminster has so many resources that we have had to be able to respond as best we can during the pandemic. That has varied over time, but I can find the current picture and respond to you in writing, if that is helpful.

Mr McNulty: I thank the Minister for his statement and for his answers so far. I join other Members in offering the Minister my sincere condolences on the loss of his father, Charlie.

The Minister referred to waste-recycling centres, and I have been contacted by constituents who are concerned about the build-up of rubbish after spring cleaning and are really annoyed by the rise in the revolting practice of fly-tipping. Does the Minister deem recycling to be an essential service from an environmental perspective and from a public health perspective? Furthermore, does he consider travelling to a recycling centre as an essential journey?

Mr Poots: Waste material tends to attract things that you do not want, such as rats, mice and other vermin, so waste material lying in the back garden is not a good thing. It attracts the wrong things. The opportunity for people to dispose of it is, therefore, necessary. I note that, prior to opening recycling centres, Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council will put bin lorries in places where people can bring their bags and leave them — on the Ulster Grand Prix circuit, for example. There is plenty of space there. People will leave their bags off and the bin lorries will take them away. We need to look at the opportunities for getting rid of that material.

There are also issues due to the fact that a lot of recyclables are moved on into industry. We have facilities that use that material to generate electricity, and that is becoming an issue not just here but across the United Kingdom. We need to ensure that there is a flow of material where people have made a large investment in ensuring that we have a circular industry and that we generate electricity from a source that was previously a waste source and use that material as fuel. Recycling is necessary, and the recycling targets that we have set have been set for good reason. We are falling back from those at this time. We, therefore, need to get focused and get back to delivering on that and ensuring that we can do it. Yes, our recycling and our recycling centres are extremely important to local communities.

Mr McNulty: Minister, I applaud your decision to reopen the marts. If you were watching the BBC news last night, you will have seen my neighbours Oliver and Fiona McCann arriving at Markethill's reopened mart. They were selling their stock, and they were relieved to be able to get further income at this time of need. They also applauded the operation of Markethill mart. There was a different system, in that sellers could not be with their stock, but they thought that they were treated fairly and appropriately.

Minister, I was excited to hear you talk about reimagining the future. Farmers and people who work in the agri-food sector are, by their nature, hard-working, industrious, innovative and resourceful. Their passion and expertise should be welcomed and embraced. How might the future look? How will it provide comfort and security for people who are now uncertain and fearful about the future?

Mr Poots: One thing about the farming community, more than most, is their resilience. Resilience is incredibly important — it is important to everyone — and the lack of resilience is one of the problems in respect of mental health. Over the years, we have seen the sons and daughters of farmers who did not have enough money in the farm to keep the young people at home go out and learn a trade. Many of those young people went on to establish businesses. You will find that a lot of businesses such as quarry crushing, the manufacturing of engineering products, wood factories, carpentry factories and so forth have been established by farmers' sons who did not have the opportunity at home but had the resilience and the get-up-and-go to make something happen. It is important that we in Northern Ireland, as a community, have the get-up-and-go, when this is over, to make a difference and to make this a better place than it was before. We have referred to the local shops and the need to support them.

This community has pulled together in a remarkable way, having been a divided community for so many years. I would love to see it pulling together even more in a way that would have been unimaginable years ago, where we do not get caught up with where someone goes or does not go on a Sunday, what sport they support or anything else but work together to make things happen for our neighbours, whoever they happen to be.

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Stalford): Folks, the Minister has been on his feet since 4.22 pm, and it is now 5.25 pm. That just demonstrates that there has been a bit of backsliding in keeping it short and pointed. I still have three members on my list, and it is my intention that those three members will get called and will get asking their questions, but it demonstrates that we need to keep it focused in these sessions.

Ms Bailey: I, too, express my condolences on the very sad death of your father, Minister. It is a hard thing to experience in good times, and I cannot imagine what it is like in the current situation.

Having read the end of your statement, I am convinced that you want to join the Green Party with your green thinking. I was really pleased to hear it, because the language in it is really good. Can we take that as a green light that, when we talk about reimagining the economy post-COVID, we will have tackling the climate crisis at the heart of that? Are we talking about installing and implementing a green new deal and a just transition?

Mr Poots: There are so many things that we can do to help the climate and have done and will continue to do. Northern Ireland is probably way ahead of the game but has not been properly recognised. We are ahead of the game on renewable energy. We are up there with recycling; we have exceeded our targets. With regard to how we produce our food, I have always maintained that, as a grass-based agricultural system, we are much more environmentally friendly than many of the practices, particularly across central Europe, where animals are kept indoors in feedlots. We do a lot, but we can do more and will continue to do more.

I do not care much for grand names for things; I care for outcomes. It has been demonstrated over the course of COVID that a lot of things that we have been doing have been delivering outcomes. It has been demonstrated to us that there is an advantage to Northern Ireland in our environmental practice if we fly less, drive less and, in energy production, ensure that we maximise what we get from green resources. In doing that, we can have more people living here; we can have a stronger economy because more people are living here; and we can provide fantastic services through new digital means without people having to travel as much as they did.

Ms Bailey: In your statement, you referred to substantial schemes that had been put in place for the fishery sector and the farming sector, but we know that the horticulture sector, for example, is on the brink of collapse. Why is there a disparity in the Department's response? To date, what plans have been made to help the horticulture sector?

Mr Poots: The biggest thing that we can do to help the horticulture sector is to allow it to sell its goods and allow people to go to its facilities to buy its goods. If we can socially distance in a supermarket or, indeed, in a facility that sells alcohol, which I do not have an issue about people doing, surely we can do it in a large facility like a horticulture centre, where there will probably never be more than 20 or 30 people at one time. It is ridiculous, and we look stupid having people queuing outside the local wine store when we do not allow people to buy a few plants, go out into their garden and get involved in exercise. It is good for their mental health. The biggest thing that we can do to support that industry is to allow that industry to reopen.

I hope and I plead with the Executive to do that. I do not want to go to the Executive. I have already raised the issue that we need to financially support them. They will need some financial support either way. However, we are either going to have a very small bill or a very large bill if we want to sustain that horticultural sector, going forward. We can achieve a very small bill without impacting on the number of people who contract COVID-19. I would not want to do it if I thought that it would lead to an increase in COVID-19. I do not believe that it will. I appeal to everybody in this Chamber to support me in doing the right thing.

Mr Allister: I join in the condolences to the Minister on the loss of his father. Charlie Poots was a good man.

I also support the Minister on what he has just said in the context of that, and his public call for the sensible reopening of garden centres and, indeed, for the facility of drive-in church services. All those are common sense, rational, safe proposals. In that context, he decided, quite properly, to open our forest parks. However, I do want to press him on why, in association with that, he has kept the car parks closed? Take the Stormont estate; it is not a forest park, but it is a place where people come for exercise. We all see that every day. Yet, as we drive out the gates tonight, we will see that there are cones at the car parking spaces, but the cars are just down the street parked in front of people's houses. Where is the logic? Where is the sense of that? If we are going to open the forest parks, do we not also need to facilitate people to get to them, particularly as they are an asset for many urban dwellers as well as those who live close by? Will the Minister, please, re-look at the issue of car parks and the forest parks?

Mr Poots: I am happy to do that. This is fluid. Everything is moving, and I am happy to do what the member requests. However, the week before close-down, it was a particularly sunny weekend, and masses of people descended on Tollymore Park, Castlewellan Park, Murlough Bay and the north coast. All those facilities were overloaded with people. Therefore, it was important — certainly at the outset — that people got the message that, "If you continue to do this, folks, you are going to cost lives, and you are going to cost a large number of lives". Now, we got the message out there. I believe that the public have embraced the message, and we need to show a little respect to the public for their ability to behave responsibly, because most people are on that page. Therefore, as an initial step, opening forest parks for pedestrians, so that they will be largely used by people from local communities, while discouraging people from driving distances to go to those facilities, is the right thing to do.

I get it that some people will park down the street and then walk round to it. It is largely to discourage large numbers of people from descending on those facilities, but we will look at how we can address that issue and how we can perhaps have people present to ensure that only so many cars can enter the car parks at facilities such as Tollymore, which are hugely popular because they are such beautiful places.

Mr Allister: Will the Minister give us an update on farm inspections? He indicated in an answer to me that the issue would be reviewed by today. What is the current position on farm inspections?

Mr Poots: Farm inspections were stopped until 30 April. Obviously, COVID-19 has not gone away. We believe, and certainly the evidence from the Chief Medical Officer shows, that there are fewer hospital admissions and a lower number of people are going into intensive care, which, ultimately, will lead to a lower number of people dying. Hopefully, we will see the downward trajectory on these figures. I believe that now is not the appropriate time to resume that activity, but it is something that we will consider later in May.

Mr Carroll: I want to join with others and give my condolences to the Minister on the passing of his father.

The Minister indicated that there could be 10,000 job losses in the agri-food sector. The UN has warned of the possibility of "biblical" famines. I raised with him before the need for greater state involvement, particularly, his Department, in food planning and production. Has any further work been undertaken on that?

Mr Poots: Generally, whatever the state puts its hand to tends to make things worse. I remember very well when I was at school studying how, when collective farms were brought in in Russia, its grain harvests were absolutely appalling. People tend to be much more productive when they are doing it for themselves rather than for the state.

Northern Ireland can make a contribution to ensuring that people across the world are fed. The great continent of Africa is buying large quantities of dried milk from Northern Ireland. That is good quality, safe, nutritious food coming from this place. Lots of food from Northern Ireland ends up in the Far East and other parts of the world. We can continue to drive up productivity by encouraging people to have that independent streak, and, believe me, we are very independent-minded people in Northern Ireland. The best way forward is to encourage that independence to continue.

Mr Carroll: The state has an important role, obviously, in health, as people can now see with the NHS workers. It has an important role in food production and planning, especially as shortages are a possibility. The Minister will be aware of people being forced to skip meals, and food insecurity is on the rise as a result of COVID-19. Wrongly, in my view, food shortages have been ascribed to panic buying. They are actually down to a market-driven approach to food production. In his statement, the Minister said that "we must re-imagine the future", which is something that I absolutely agree with. Does he believe that we need to re-imagine how food is produced and received in our society?

Mr Poots: In our food production methods, we need always to be reviewing, advancing and ensuring that we do things better. I am happy with that, and the people who produce food are happy with it. Food production methods have been evolving and changing, and we can continue to ensure that that happens.

We can have greater intervention in the distribution of wealth in the agri-food sector. Retailers are too powerful, and farmers and producers are too divided and weak to challenge them. That is where Government need to provide some support. I totally agree with fair trade policy, which ensures that a coffee farmer in West Africa gets something that is of value to him and allows him to grow his farm and feed his family. The same should be applied here. Where people are productive and working hard, they should get some return for it. The profits should not end up at one end of the process. The Competition and Markets Authority has not provided the support that it should to primary producers.

I thank everybody who expressed their commiserations on my father's death, and I want to say a really big "Thank you" to the staff in the Ulster Hospital for all that they have done.

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Stalford): Thank you Minister. The Minister started at 4.22 pm. It is now 5.40 pm. He went over the allotted time, but I am grateful that he stayed and answered all the questions.

Agenda item 4 is the time, date and place of our next Committee meeting. We have received confirmation from the Justice Minister and the Minister for the Economy that each wishes to make a statement to the Ad Hoc Committee at a meeting next Thursday. Unless otherwise notified about an earlier meeting, that is when the next meeting of the Committee will take place. Written notification to confirm that will be issued in due course to members in the usual way.

As we exit the Chamber, I remind everyone of the regulations on social distancing. That concludes the meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee. Stay safe. God bless.

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