Bovine Tuberculosis
Agriculture and Rural Development
2:30 pm

Photo of Thomas Buchanan

Thomas Buchanan (DUP)

3. asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what steps her Department is taking to eradicate tuberculosis in cattle.     (AQO 840/11-15)

Photo of Michelle O'Neill

Michelle O'Neill (Sinn Féin)

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I am pleased that considerable progress has been made in reducing TB incidence in cattle here. The annual herd incidence has almost halved, from nearly 10% in 2002 to just over 5% on 30 September 2011. My aim is to reduce and ultimately eradicate TB in cattle here, and I want to continue working towards that end.

We have a rigorous programme in place for TB eradication. We have achieved EU Commission approval for the programme for 2010-11, and formal approval for the 2012 programme is expected in the near future. That eradication programme is vital in safeguarding our annual £1,000 million-plus export-dependent livestock and livestock products industry.

EU Commission approval also enables the Depart­ment of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) to draw down £5 million in co-funding from Europe for 2010 and £4 million in co-funding for 2011. That helps us to offset the proportion of the costs of the programmes that we are carrying forward.

Considerable work has also been undertaken to enhance the TB eradication programme in recent years. We now remove as reactors those animals that give an inconclusive result after a second consecutive TB test rather than after a third, which was the case previously.

We have also improved communications with private veterinary practitioners and have strengthened the supervision process. We have improved DARD’s delivery of TB testing through the monitoring of key performance indicators. We also use DNA identity tags on reactors to help reduce reactor-identity queries, substitution fraud and associated disease risks. Although the progress made on TB to date is encouraging, there is clearly a lot more work to be done, as it is a very complex and challenging disease and is difficult to eradicate. There is no simple solution or quick fix.

Additional funding of around £4 million has been allocated in my Department’s budget to conduct TB and wildlife research and studies to help ensure that we have well informed, evidence-based strategies to address the issue of cattle-to-cattle spread as well as that in wildlife. We are engaging with the industry and with wider stakeholders to help us to identify and refine our TB evidence needs and priorities.

Photo of Thomas Buchanan

Thomas Buchanan (DUP)

I thank the Minister for her response. She has spelt out quite a bit in her answer, but does she feel that what she has in place is sufficient and radical enough to continue to reduce TB and eradicate it completely?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill

Michelle O'Neill (Sinn Féin)

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. As statistics show that we are moving in the right direction, I feel that there is a lot of good work being done by the Department, working with the industry. The things that I set out in my answer as regards what we are doing with respect to the programmes and prevalence studies are obviously helping to bring the figures down. There is not going to be a quick-fix solution. This is going to be a problem that we are going to have for the time ahead, but we are working actively with all partners to bring the rates down and, hopefully, get to the stage in which we will be free of the disease.

Photo of Willie Clarke

Willie Clarke (Sinn Féin)

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Will the Minister outline why she is looking to reduce the amount of compensation payable to farmers whose cattle come down with TB?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill

Michelle O'Neill (Sinn Féin)

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. There are a number of reasons for that. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the EU Commission brucellosis task force have highlighted that paying 100% compensation for TB and brucellosis does not encourage farmers to take all the steps needed to improve their biosecurity and prevent disease from entering their herds.

The PAC has also commented that at present almost 100% of the cost of animal diseases compensation is borne by the taxpayer. Surely, that is not right and cannot continue. Earlier this year, DARD consulted on introducing table-based valuations for TB and brucellosis reactors and in-contacts. As you know, through your role in the Committee, I reflected on the detail of content of the responses. I corresponded with the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development on the formal response and had subsequent discussions with its Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson. I decided not to proceed with the table-based valuation system, and that was broadly welcomed by the industry.

The Committee advised that the present compensation arrangements placed the full cost burden on taxpayers and suggested that a cap on compensation could be introduced. I believe that officials have told the Committee that that is how I am going to proceed. I think that it is right and reasonable that, where a cap can be introduced on compensation payments, that should be the case.

A further round of public consultation will end on 2 December. I intend to engage further with the Committee early in 2012 on the way forward.

Photo of Joanne Dobson

Joanne Dobson (UUP)

Will the Minister explain why, despite the clear benefits to farmers, cattle and the economy, measures to eradicate TB in cattle were not included in the recently published Programme for Government?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill

Michelle O'Neill (Sinn Féin)

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Member for the question. It is a very valid question because people may be concerned about why we have no target for TB when we have one for brucellosis. We are now in a very good position. It is clear that we are in a position to eradicate brucellosis in the period of the draft Programme for Government. That is why it is set out in that document. Although I am also very committed to the eradication of TB, that will not happen in the time frame of the Programme for Government, and that is the very simple reason why it has not been included.

The overall aim of moving to ultimate eradication of TB is what the Department is working towards. There will be a phased approach in a realistic time frame and in the most cost-effective way. We have our TB eradication programme, which has been approved by the EU Commission, and it is vital to safeguard our annual £1,000 million-plus export that depends on livestock. That is a major focus in our industry. We want to move to a position in which we are free from TB, but that will not be in the lifetime of this Programme for Government.

Photo of John Dallat

The Minister has just told us that there will be no quick fix. The Minister knows better than anyone that, over the years, millions of pounds have been spent on this matter. Does the Minister know where the hotspots are, and is she targeting her resources at those hotspots so that we might at last bring the curse of TB on farms to an end?

2:45 pm
Photo of Michelle O'Neill

Michelle O'Neill (Sinn Féin)

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Yes, we are very aware of where the disease is prevalent. As I said in my original answer, a number of prevalence studies are being taken forward and a number of scientific issues are being looked at through the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute and whatever research partners we have. As I also said, there is no quick fix; if we are to tackle this disease, we will have to do so in the most effective manner. That means that it will take time, but we need to get there, because we need to help our industry to survive.

Photo of Jim Allister

Jim Allister (Traditional Unionist Voice)

When will the Minister put pragmatism before dogma and sentiment and support a badger cull so that we can assist in stopping the transmission of TB from one farm to another?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill

Michelle O'Neill (Sinn Féin)

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. As I have said repeatedly in the Chamber, there are currently no plans for a badger cull. We have to bear in mind that the badger is a protected species. If we look at what has happened in England and Wales, we will see that legal challenges have been made to such a move. So, if we move in that direction, we need to be sure that we can withstand any legal challenge. I will watch with interest to see how things develop in England and in Wales.

We are continuing to work collaboratively. We have a lot of research and programmes going on, and I think that that is how we need to proceed. We also need to be mindful that a badger cull is just one option; vaccination is another that is being explored continually, and I think that we have to continue to look at that.