Ulster Unionist agriculture spokesperson, Harold McKee, has called on the NI Executive to clarify whether it is still committed to the Going for Growth pledge to deliver £250m through the Farm Business Improvement Scheme.
The South Down MLA was commenting after ministers repeatedly refused to confirm their support through a series of Assembly Questions, and have so far only agreed a budget of £40m for the Business Improvement Scheme.
Mr McKee said: “Agriculture, along with the agri-food businesses, are major players in the Northern Ireland economy. There are approximately 100,000 jobs connected to the industry here and therefore it was only right that the last Executive made a commitment to help it develop through difficult times.
“The headline recommendation by the Agri-food Strategy Board was a £250m budget over three years for a Farm Business Improvement Scheme. This was to fund financial and advisory development support for farming, and also increase investment in the food processing industry.
“In response the last Executive then agreed to a scheme of £250m, comprised of knowledge transfer, advice, training and capital investment schemes as part of their wider £623m Rural Development programme.
“This support is now even more important given the uncertainty surrounding support for agriculture post 2020.
“Worryingly, however, when I asked both the current Finance and Agriculture Ministers, neither of them were prepared to give a direct answer as to whether they are still committed to providing the full £250m.
“Concerns have been growing over recent times as the Agriculture Minister has only provided £40m to cover two tranches for the Farm Business Improvement Scheme.
“In response to one of the Assembly Questions Michelle McIlveen told me that there will be ongoing monitoring as the two tranches of each tier roll out, and the uptake for the two initial tranches will allow her officials to gauge the realistic demand and affordability of the Capital Scheme for farmers and growers. This information will then supposedly be used to inform future decision making about any further roll out of the Scheme.
“To me that is code for the department backtracking on their original commitment of £250m,” he claimed.