An outgoing member of the Stormont agriculture committee says a proposed bill which would guarantee minimum income for farmers is “sound”.
The UUP’s Robin Swann said he had been considering the proposals, which have been drafted by Farmers For Action (FFA) supported by the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers Association (NIAPA).
“FFA and NIAPA have employed a legislation drafter from Westminster and have brought us the draft bill to see if it is practical,” he told the News Letter.
“The basis of it is sound and it is something that we know that we need to be looking at.”
The aim of the bill is to guarantee minimum farm gate prices for producers, financed by their supply chain.
Mr Swann said that similar legislation has been in place right across the UK for four years but has “no teeth” and has not yet been enforced.
The Groceries Code Adjudicator is intended to spread agri-food profits equally between primary producers, processors and supermarkets, where an excessive proportion often goes to the supermarkets, he said.
FFA had taken their proposals to the Stormont agriculture committee in the previous mandate and there were some concerns expressed that the law could result in food prices becoming prohibitive to the consumer, he said.
A major question is whether the Assembly will reconvene after the election or whether the bill might face difficulties through direct rule, he added.
Mr Swann and the bill proposers believe it could be a critical step to protect the many farmers struggling to survive across Northern Ireland.
Lyle Mackey of the FFA steering committee said that Mr Swann had been “a terrific help” with his advice regarding the bill.
“The legislation bill is almost complete and will soon be ready for Stormont, which we hope will be back in action after the election,” he added.
According to a report on the bill by expert Paul Gosling in January 2016, the legislation would return over 10-20,000 jobs and save Stormont £280m in welfare costs.
In February 2016 chairman of the Assembly agriculture committee and DUP man William Irwin said the committee was advised the bill was not possible under EU rules – but FFA said it could be allowed for welfare reasons.
The European Commission said that “while minimum prices are not allowed in general, they may be allowed under certain conditions” for example, on alcohol.