Minister for Agriculture rejects jobs privatisation calls

By Martin Cassidy
BBC NI rural affairs correspondent

image captionShould farmers bear the brunt of the cuts or the DARD?

Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development Michelle Gildernew has rejected calls for hundreds of civil servants' jobs to be transferred to the private sector.

The Ulster Farmers Union says the move would save millions of pounds and help the industry meet the savings laid down in the draft budget.

However, Mrs Gildernew has rejected a cull of civil servants and said she still planned a new multi-million pound department headquarters.

At the heart of the argument over the Department of Agriculture's budget cuts is the question of who should feel the pain.

Should it mainly be farmers through cuts in things like compensation for diseased cattle?

Or is it, as the Ulster Farmers Union has argued, time for the department itself to be slimmed down and for a more efficient civil service?

The Ulster Farmers Union said it accepted that agriculture had to bear its share of the cuts, but claimed that the local farming industry could no longer sustain the department at its current size.

With a staff of 2,700 some think the Department of Agriculture is too big and too costly.

Controversial plan

The Ulster Farmers Union pointed to the number of medium and large farms locally, and said that, just like the department's staff, they numbered 2,700.

Farmers believe privatising many of the department's front line services would save millions.

The union said transferring front line veterinary work from the department to private veterinary practices would save £26.5m.

Similarly, privatising the APHIS herd recording system would produce another £8.8m in savings.

Mrs Gildernew countered that by saying her department has already produced many efficiencies and that more are planned.

The minister has also cautioned that privatisation could leave farmers open to price hikes by private service providers.

The icing on this budget row is the £13.3m earmarked to build a new headquarters for the department west of the Bann.

At a time when young farmers clubs and agricultural shows are seeing their budget allocations wiped out, the new headquarters plan is proving controversial.

But here too the minister seems determined to stand up to opposition arguing that rural communities should have opportunities to apply for relatively well-paid government jobs.

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