Information about cryptosporidium and its effects is in the public domain. However, I would like to explain briefly the nature of cryptosporidium, outline the history of the present outbreak and explain the way that the Department has been working with the Eastern Health and Social Services Board in responding to the outbreak. I also want to assure Members of the seriousness with which I and all involved regard this present problem and express my sympathy to all those affected.
Cryptosporidium is a parasitic organism which can be water-borne and is resistant to normal disinfection processes. Cryptosporidium can cause serious ill health, although normally in humans it is self-limiting and clears within two to three weeks. For those people whose immune systems are weakened or compromised, it can be much more serious. The first reported UK outbreak associated with public water supplies was in 1988. Following a further outbreak in 1989, the Government appointed a group of experts, who reported in 1990 and in 1995 on measures to mitigate the risk of cryptosporidium in the public water supply. Their recommendations were adopted by the Water Service.
The group further reported in 1998 and made over 50 revised recommendations, one of which was that water utilities carry out risk assessments on all their supplies. In early 1999 the Water Service assessed the risk of contamination at all 59 sources then in use in Northern Ireland. The methodology used was based on models used in England, Wales and Scotland and developed in consultation with the Northern Ireland drinking water inspector.
This assessment identified the Silent Valley as the only source with a risk factor that indicated the need for continuous sampling and analysis during the spring, which is the highest-risk period. A further 22 sources were identified as having lower risk factors, but at these sources it was considered prudent to undertake single 24-hour sampling of both raw and treated water in both spring and autumn of each year. Similar 24-hour samples of both raw and treated water are taken at the remaining sources each spring. I must emphasis that the risk assessments are based on the protocol used in Scotland and that the associated testing regimes are fully in line with those required by cryptosporidium regulations in England and Wales and by direction in Scotland. These arrangements have been agreed by the drinking water inspector and the chief medical officer.
Having given Members the background information, I would like to turn now to the recently detected outbreak of cryptosporidiosis in the Lisburn and Poleglass areas.
During the week beginning 21 August 2000 the Eastern Health and Social Services Board became aware of a number of cases of crytosporidiosis in the Poleglass area. By 25 August there were more than 20 confirmed cases, and an outbreak control team had been established. The outbreak control team is chaired by the consultant for communicable disease control (CCDC) and includes representatives of the Water Service. Investigation and control of the outbreak is the responsibility of the Eastern Health and Social Services Board. The Water Service role is to assist the CCDC in every possible way, taking steps to identify any possible contamination of the public water supply and measures to limit the impact on the community. In accordance with established procedures for dealing with major incidents, the Water Service set up control teams in eastern division and at head office.
The Water Service began sampling for crytosporidium oocysts at Poleglass reservoir on 22 August. Although by 25 August there was no test evidence to link the outbreak to the public water supply, the CCDC decided to issue a precautionary notice advising the elderly and those suffering from serious medical conditions to boil their water before consumption. A press statement to this effect was issued on 25 August.
Continued sampling of water from the reservoir, in the period 25 to 29 August, revealed increasing levels of cryptosporidium in the water supply, and the outbreak control team, acting diligently and methodically in accordance with agreed protocols, decided on the evening of 30 August 2000 that a "boil water" notice should be issued to customers within the Poleglass reservoir supply zone. The CCDC, on the morning of 31 August 2000, issued a press statement to this effect and later that day Water Service staff hand delivered 17,500 "boil water" notices to affected households.
By 31 August the Water Service had established that a number of the confirmed cases lived in the supply zone served by the neighbouring Northern Service reservoir, and the decision was taken to issue "boil water" notices to all remaining customers supplied with water from the Forked Bridge treatment works through the Lagmore conduit. These were delivered the following day.
Approximately 28,500 "boil water" notices were delivered to households, schools and industrial and business premises in the Poleglass, North Lisburn, Twinbrook, Dunmurry and surrounding areas. An estimated 90,000 people were affected by the notice. Water Service and Eastern Board customer help-lines have been in place since the start of the outbreak to provide information to members of the public who have concerns about the "boil water" notices or any other matters. The Water Service has provided bottled water, on request, to nursing and residential homes. Bottled water has also been provided to schools by the education and library boards.
Water Service investigations of possible sources of contamination concentrated on the Lagmore conduit — a brick conduit approximately seven miles long. This conduit, which is 110 years old, carries water from the Forked Bridge treatment works to the service reservoirs. Detailed investigations of the conduit, including using CCTV in a section pinpointed by bacteriological sampling, confirmed that there had been ingress and contamination of the treated water. Further investigation revealed that the conduit had been damaged when an outfall was being laid from a private septic tank attached to a property built in the last few years. This damage has been repaired and the conduit sealed at this point. However, investigations will continue until the Water Service is satisfied that there are no other sources of contamination.
Consistent with the need to maintain the water supply at all times, an intensive programme of cleansing the service reservoirs is underway. This is a huge task — for example, the Poleglass service reservoir holds almost 10 million gallons. It is 16 ft deep and the size of one and a half football pitches.
As part of the ongoing programme to replace and upgrade ageing infrastructure, work commenced in April this year on a £2·5 million contract to replace the entire brick conduit with a modern ductile iron pipeline. The new pipeline was programmed to be brought in to service in November, but it has been decided to utilise a section of it to provide a bypass of the suspect area of the existing conduit. This bypass should be completed by the end of this week.
I now move to the removal of "boil water" notices. It will be for the outbreak control team to decide when the notice may be lifted. This decision will be informed by test sample results and geographical analysis of clinical evidence from the affected areas.
I am fully satisfied that all involved in controlling this outbreak and investigating its cause have acted correctly, swiftly and in accordance with agreed protocols. In less than a week from the initial indication that the water supply was implicated, the entire system had been thoroughly investigated, a source of contamination had been detected, the conduit had been repaired and sealed, reservoirs are being cleaned, and works are ongoing to link the old conduit to the newly constructed pipeline.
I pay tribute to the hard work and dedication of staff in the Water Service, other Departments and agencies and, in particular, the consultant for communicable disease control, the Chief Medical Officer and the members of the outbreak control team. The way they have handled the enormous workload arising from this incident has demonstrated their great commitment and service to the community.
My officials will continue to consistently work with the other members of the team to take every possible step to enable the "boil water" notices to be lifted and normal water supply to be restored to our customers at the earliest possible date.
I described earlier how the Silent Valley had been identified as the source which was at highest risk of contamination by cryptosporidium when the risk assessment was undertaken last year. The Silent Valley reservoir serves approximately 250,000 people.
To protect the quality of water entering the public supply from this source the Water Service, earlier this year, temporarily excluded sheep from its land, which includes the catchment area, as spring is recognised as being the period of greatest risk. The temporary exclusion period was subsequently extended.
A further review of the management of the Silent Valley catchment has shown the need to continue to exclude the sheep, and I therefore had no alternative but to announce last week that the exclusion must continue. I understand fully the difficulties this will cause for local farmers, and I sympathise with their position. My officials have been liaising and will continue to liaise with officials from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to establish what measures can be taken to assist those farmers. I regret having to take this decision, but it is unavoidable owing to the interest in public health. Who in this House would do otherwise?
On completion of the new £35 million water-treatment works for the Silent Valley, the position regarding future grazing will be reviewed. This is scheduled for completion in the financial year 2003. That investment, coupled with the ongoing £32 million replacement of the Mourne conduit, which carries the water from the Silent Valley, demonstrates the Department’s commitment to continue the delivery of wholesome drinking water to our customers.
Finally, the provision of adequate water and sewerage services is important to everyone in Northern Ireland, whether a domestic consumer, a commercial or industrial user, a farmer, a fisherman, an environmentalist or someone concerned with public health issues. The Water Service has suffered significant underfunding over the last 20 years. On the basis of assessments derived from an asset management plan completed in 1993, the Water Service needs to invest approximately £3 billion over the next 20 years to replace out-of-date infrastructure, meet the needs of new development that satisfies public health requirements, and comply with European directives on drinking water and waste water.
Recent events, including the flooding in Belfast, have confirmed just how essential it is to raise the funding of the Water Service to levels which will enable the provision of a service that meets the requirements and needs of all our customers in the twenty-first century.
Quite a number of Members have indicated that they would like to question the Minister on this subject. We have set aside one hour for the debate, which will bring us up until 1.45 pm. I must ask Members to be as succinct as possible in their questioning.
I welcome the Minister’s thorough and detailed statement in relation to this very serious problem that has affected the people of Lisburn, Poleglass and Lagmore, and I want to thank him for the detailed and frank way in which he has dealt with this issue. At my request he willingly arranged for an official to attend a Committee meeting and present a very thorough and detailed report. I am sure that all Members are very mindful of the suffering, distress and worry caused to those affected by this outbreak, and the House should extend its sympathy to all of them. It is particularly worrying for parents of small children and for those with elderly relatives, and I am sure all Members would agree that we feel deeply for them.
The report from Mr Robert Martin was very detailed.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Loath as I am on this occasion to rise against the Chairman of my Committee, I must draw attention to your reference to the limited time scale for this matter. Many of us wish to ask questions. Can Members be directed to ask questions rather than make statements?
In relation to the overall problem, can the Minister assure the House that he believes that the Department’s officials acted as promptly as they could, given the circumstances of this outbreak?
From reading the press and listening to local reaction, I know that members of the public felt that officials could perhaps have acted earlier. I would like the Minister to reassure the House that they acted as promptly as they could, given all the circumstances.
Can the Minister confirm if the contamination source is human? Is he satisfied that the septic tank referred to in the report is the source of contamination, and the only source of contamination? Is he satisfied that all possible remedial work has been carried out in order to provide a safe water source for the people living in the Lagmore, Poleglass and north Lisburn areas? Finally, as regards funding for the Water Service, what measures, in relation to the Executive, has the Minister taken to rectify this historic underfunding so that the people of Northern Ireland will have an up-to-date water service adequate to meet their needs?
There was a range of questions, and I will endeavor to deal with each of them. Mr Maginness, the Chairman of the Committee for Regional Development, offered his sympathy to the people affected. I have already done that, and I repeat my sympathies to them.
The first question referred to satisfaction with the way officials acted and the speed with which they acted. Given the complex nature of this problem and the length of time it took to establish that there was a possibility that the public water supply was the cause of the problem, my officials acted very speedily. As I said in my statement, it was on 31 August that the outbreak control team directed that a "boiled water" notice should be issued, and within hours of that notice being issued copies were was being hand delivered to 17,500 homes.
The other issue concerns how I and my Department are dealing with funding to ensure that we have a sufficient water supply that can deal with the problems that Northern Ireland is faced with in the twenty-first century. I referred to that towards the conclusion of my statement, and the bids that we have made, and are making, will reflect that. We hope that we can address those problems.
A possible source has been confirmed as being human. At this stage it is not possible to be absolute, to be positive beyond any doubt, about the only source. However, we have established that there is a human source.
From what we know about the source, a developer, or someone, breached the outer skin of a Victorian pipe carrying this water and removed bricks to provide a better angle for an outflow from a sewerage system. I understand that the pipe is marked with ventilation shafts, so there is a degree of surface visibility.
The question is whether the developer was aware of what he had come across and what he was digging into. Or did he know what he was doing and proceed anyway?
Should there be a better system for marking the pipeline by including some sort of warning notice? Given the likely end cost of this in human terms, in medical terms — and I am talking about the cost of hospital services — and in terms of Water Service costs, can the Minister give any indication of how much this will cost and whether anyone will be held accountable?
Mr McFarland’s question is a difficult one, in that there are many legal issues involved, particularly in relation to the developer to whom he referred. The Water Service is anxious that no inference should be drawn as to any individual and that no household or dwelling should be identified as being in some way responsible for the problem. There is no evidence that this was anything other than an accidental ingress.
The hon Member also talked about identifying the route of the conduit. For precisely those reasons — and clearly I will have to go into this in some detail with my officials — I believe that the Water Service would not be of a mind to do that. It could add to the possibility, for example, of some type of terrorist attack or some type of deliberate, malicious or malevolent intent to interfere with the public water supply. While I understand the rationale behind the hon Member’s thinking, I hope that he will understand the complex issues surrounding this matter. My officials are looking at ways and means of ensuring that nothing like this ever happens again.
As a public representative for the Lagan Valley and Lisburn Borough Council areas, where most of the contamination occurred, I have had to deal with angry constituents — elderly people as well as those with young children — who have been infected by cryptosporidium. The extent of the community’s anger at the fact that their water system could be contaminated in this way should not be underestimated.
The Minister has now given us the relevant facts, and it appears that this problem was imposed on the Water Service in that it was caused by an ingress into its water system by an outside party. What parts have the building control division of Lisburn Borough Council and the Department of the Environment Planning Service played in relation to this problem? Also, is there any connection between this outbreak and the cryptosporidium outbreak in May, which came about as a result of contamination by sheep in the Silent Valley?
I am conscious of the nature of Mr Poots’s concern and want to assure him and his constituents that at the conclusion of this major incident my officials, in conjunction with health officials and, where relevant, Department of the Environment officials, will be looking at all aspects of it to see what changes, if any, can be introduced to prevent recurrence.
Let me give some idea of the scale of this problem.
At the time of identifying the Lagmore conduit, my officials initially walked the entire line of the seven-mile conduit, examining the air wells along it and taking bacteriological samples. They identified samples where there was bacteriological contamination and used this information to identify a specific stretch of conduit, which was then examined by closed-circuit television. There followed a series of consequential actions.
At the close of this outbreak, my Department will liaise with every departmental official necessary to try to ensure that this does not recur. If there is a possibility that public health officials at Lisburn Borough Council could be of assistance, they will liaise directly with them.
Go raibh maith agat. Like other Members, I welcome the Minister’s statement and the chance to put one or two questions to him. Is it not true that, but for the diligence of a local GP and the actions of the consultant for communicable disease control, the outbreak of cryptosporidium would not have been discovered, given that, as late as 25 August, the Water Service still refused to accept that it was at fault? Can the Minister outline what steps will be taken to ensure the future monitoring of the water supply, since, according to a number of reports he mentioned, Lagmore was at lower risk than Silent Valley, in spite of the fact that there were outbreaks in both? The Minister assures Members of the seriousness with which he takes this issue. However, comments in the weekend press belie this. I ask the Minister to reassure my constituents, as he did those of Mr Poots, by confirming that he will meet with Sinn Féin representatives from that area to discuss this issue.
I should like to outline once more the response in the specific time period referred to. In the week beginning 21 August the Eastern Health and Social Services Board became aware of a number of cases of cryptosporidiosis in the Poleglass area. On 25 August there were more than 20 confirmed cases, and at that stage an outbreak control team had been established. That control team is chaired by the consultant for communicable disease control, which is not the responsibility of my Department.
Conducting an investigation into the outbreak is the responsibility of the Eastern Health and Social Services Board. My role and that of the Water Service is to assist the outbreak control team in every possible way. It was only on 31 August that a "boil water" notice was issued on the direction of the outbreak control team. On that day my officials were hand delivering the request to 17,500 homes. I hope that gives some indication of the sequence of events and the speed with which the officials dealt with the matter.
Last week, on an approach from the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, I requested that my senior Water Service official, Mr Robert Martin, go to the Executive Committee to give a comprehensive briefing on this issue. The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister must have been aware that my election manifesto commitment meant that I would not be at that meeting myself. It is impossible for them to have been unaware that that was the case.
I am prepared to come before the House to make statements and answer questions. In addition, I have offered myself to the Regional Development Committee for further presentations, as the situation develops, and to respond to further questions. In the minds of most people I am offering full, frank and co-operative consultation with all Members of this House. However, I will not respond to or engage in party politicking on this issue.
Currently, very rigorous monitoring of the public water supply is in place, and this will continue. At the conclusion of this outbreak there will be a review of that monitoring process to see if it has been sufficient. I will report subsequent to that review.
I thank the Minister for his statement, particularly the penultimate paragraph. The name of the bug may be cryptosporidium, but the cause of this parasite getting into our water supply can only be put down to a mixture of carelessness, negligence and complacency on the part of the Department. I welcome the fact that the Minister has recognised that, to a degree, in his penultimate paragraph, where he refers to the underfunding of the Department over the past 20 years and the fact that the infrastructure is out of date. Only a complacent, careless or negligent Department would permit a 110-year-old conduit to continue to exist.
Under the Water and Sewerage Services (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1993, there is a duty on the Department to supply water that is wholesome at the time of supply and also to keep itself informed about the wholesomeness of the water supply. At this juncture the Department has failed in that respect.
As one who lives in the area I am expressing the view of a number of people who are extremely concerned. They are concerned at the length of time —
I will pass those comments to the Speaker on the appropriate occasion.
The questions I have put — and I will re-emphasise them — are to seek an assurance from the Minister that the Department has failed and was negligent or complacent in the fulfilment of its duty under the Water and Sewerage Services (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1993 by not supplying a wholesome supply of water to my constituents.
The other point on which I want to seek assurance from the Minister is that there was a degree of what verged on a cover-up in the length of time it took for information to be passed to our constituents. It has been known since early this year that there was a potential problem. Sheep and the poor farmer, rather than the bug, were being blamed.
To be direct, why were people who became ill with the bug cryptosporidium directed to take a water-only diet when it was the very water that was causing their illness? Patients in a particular home became very seriously ill as a result. I put it to the Minister that if the information had been presented earlier the outbreak would have been prevented.
Finally, does the Minister agree that the extra expense incurred by my constituents in Lagan Valley through having to boil water, or acquire bottled water — and where the amount of bottled water being consumed is 180 times the normal amount — should be rebated through the rates? Does the Minister agree that water and sewerage account for approximately 30% of the regional rate and that as the regional rate constitutes two thirds of the overall rate, there is a perfectly logical argument that my constituents should receive a rebate?
I refute the accusations of carelessness and negligence. There was a wholesome supply of water. The problem in relation to Lagmore conduit was as I have outlined. My officials have done everything possible; they continue to do everything possible; and they will in the future do everything possible to ensure that there is wholesome drinking water for the public.
Mr Close referred to the rates element. Any rate rebate — and I have seen that referred to previously in the public domain — is not a matter for the Department for Regional Development. Rating issues are the direct responsibility of the Department of Finance and Personnel and, therefore, ought to be directed to them.
The problems faced by Mr Close’s constituents in the Lisburn area are ones that all of us identify with. The issue has to be speedily resolved, and we are currently doing that. Later this week, I hope to be in a position to announce the tie-up of the new connection to the Lagmore conduit to ensure that the bug is eradicated from the system. The new conduit, which is currently being laid, will be linked up within the affected area to ensure that wholesome supply of public water in the Lisburn area.
I welcome the good work done by the Department in getting to the source as quickly as it did. However, I have immediate and local concerns about the latter part of the Minister’s statement concerning a ban on grazing in the Silent Valley catchment area.
Can he tell the House what is the acceptable level of cryptosporidium in the water supply? Will he specifically tell us how many instances there were in the survey — and in the ongoing surveys — where the level was exceeded in the Silent Valley catchment area? Can he also tell us by how much the level was exceeded? Will he tell us whether those samples — and I am talking about the Silent Valley again, not the most recent outbreak that my Colleague asked about — contained infection from a human or an animal source?
Will he also tell us whether these samples identified — and I refer here to the Silent Valley — contain infection from a human or an animal source, and if the actual source of this contamination can be identified? Will he also tell us why, since he has decided to ban grazing in this area, he and his Department are not prepared to pay compensation to those farmers who are already in straitened circumstances — perilous as Dr Paisley described it earlier — because of the state of the industry and who will, as a result, lose their winter fodder through no fault of their own? Did he consult with the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development on the impact of such a decision and on the implications of the timing of the decision on the farming community in the Mournes?
Finally, why will he not do the responsible thing and sit down with his Executive Colleagues in health and agriculture and work out a sensible solution to all of the aspects of this crisis and not give the impression that this decision was nothing more than a political decoy, taken to save the DUP’s face and shift the blame to someone else in order to cover up the incompetence of the policy of rotating ministerial posts?
There are a number of issues here with which I will attempt to deal.
With regard to compensation to the farmers in the Mournes, the legal advice to the Department is very clear. Grazing rights on these lands, which are owned by the Department for Regional Development, have traditionally been reviewed on an annual basis. The contract confers rights to grazing only and not possession of the grazing land itself. The legal advice is that we can discontinue the practice of granting grazing rights, regardless of how many years this practice has been in existence. I know and fully understand that this will come as a great disappointment to the farmers, but I must have regard for the legal position.
I have asked my officials — and I hope this will answer the other question about agriculture and rural development liaison — to continue their liaison with Department of Agriculture and Rural Development officials to establish what measures, if any, can be taken to assist those farmers affected.
Mr ONeill also asked about the acceptable levels of cryptosporidium in the water. I will provide him with written specific details of the acceptable level, the level beyond which a "boil water" notice is issued. However, may I say to him that if there had been a breach of that level, which is accepted throughout the United Kingdom and is enforced in Northern Ireland, in the Silent Valley, a "boil water" notice would have been issued. It would not have been the responsibility of my Department to issue such a notice, as I have made clear in my response to previous questions.
I am disappointed with the Member’s last question. I have endeavoured at all times through these problems and dilemmas — as I have with others — to deal with the subject matter efficiently and as effectively and impartially as possible. I have not and will not take party political advantage over such an issue as this. In this respect I find the question —
I find it an unfortunate intervention that relates to participation in the Executive Committee when the Member knows that I stood on an election manifesto commitment which precluded my participation in an Executive in which there were members of an organisation linked to a paramilitary group. That continues to be my position.
In relation to the timing of the outbreak, it has been brought to my attention that on 25 August the public water supply was highly suspect, but the Water Service refused to acknowledge this. One of the doctors told the Health Minister when she visited Dunmurry last week that it would be foolish to underestimate the seriousness of the outbreak. However, only a few months before this a spokesman for the Eastern Health Board said that there was no reason to be unduly worried. Can the Minister confirm that there were sheep or cattle in the Silent Valley reservoir in May? Can he tell us — or find out — whether, in the various strains of this bug where people have been confirmed as infected, slurry has been confirmed as the problem? This has been identified as the cause in one case in Lisburn. Finally, does the Minister agree that it is extremely important to review the procedure so that information can be circulated to the general public more quickly?
Mr Davis has raised a number of issues. In relation to timing — and I thank him for that information, which we will follow up — the clear indication was, as I mentioned in my statement, that a risk assessment was done for Northern Ireland’s water supply. The conduit, within which a breach has occurred, was not identified as high risk. I am satisfied that the risk assessment, which was undertaken by the Water Service, has been diligently carried out in accordance with the national standards. However, it would help to improve public confidence in the water supply if there were an independent review of these risk assessments. One possible approach might be a review undertaken by the Northern Ireland drinking water inspector. I have briefly mentioned this to the Minister of the Environment but need to speak to him further on this issue. The public can be reassured that every possible step will be taken to protect the public water supply.
Mr Davis referred to the possibility of sheep in the reservoir. Since the notice was issued to remove sheep from the lands surrounding the reservoir a small number of sheep have re-entered the reservoir. Steps have been taken to have them removed. I am not aware of any further information in addition to that. I have no information regarding the slurry. My officials will pursue this and will respond in writing to Mr Davis.
I congratulate the officials at the Department for Regional Development, and those working in and under the authority of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, for their response to this crisis. The Minister will want to take make it clear publicly how scandalous, inane and scurrilous the comments by the deputy leader of the Alliance Party and by the Member for South Down from the SDLP were. To suggest that he denies his — [Interruption]. The Member will get plenty of questions.
On a further point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it not common practice that the debate and questions last for an hour after the Minister has finished making a statement? The Minister finished at one o’clock. You declared that this debate would finish at quarter to two, and I notice also that the clock has not been set for the one-hour period.
Thank you for that point of order. It was agreed by the Business Committee that there would be one hour for this debate. I am just checking Standing Orders to see if it is one hour following the ministerial statement. It is up to the Speaker to determine. The Business Committee has said one hour. That said, while we may try and go a little over the time allocated, I would prefer it if everyone could be succinct.
I can assure you that I will not take longer than Mr Close did to ask his question.
Does the Minister agree that it was scurrilous to suggest that he, his officials or the Water Service were responsible for a third party reaching the water system? Is Mr Close suggesting that there should be some monitoring so that the moment a cryptosporidium enters the water system, the Water Service should be aware of it? To help Members understand how absurd that suggestion is, perhaps the Minister will confirm that a cryptosporidium oocysts is one two-hundredth of a millimetre long. The length of water pipes and conduits in Northern Ireland is about 15,000 miles — more than the distance from here to Australia. It is just conceivable that an oocysts could enter the water supply via a third party. Should the criticism not therefore be of the contractor, or of the Planning Service for allowing it to happen, or of building control for not supervising it properly, instead of attempting to blame those hard-working officials in the Department for Regional Development?
Does the Minister recognise that the crisis that we have seen over the last number of days is such that the people in Northern Ireland will want from him a clear indication that we can have full confidence in the public water supply? Will he ensure that proper steps are taken to change the enquiry forms that are sent to the various Departments and agencies by Planning Service so that this kind of issue is taken into account? Planning decisions should be taken so as to ensure that no houses are built close to or beside the main water supply, especially if they have septic tanks.
I take this opportunity to refute again the terms used by Mr Close. The terms "carelessness" and "negligence" were totally inappropriate. The only issue on which I concur with the Member — and I expect and hope for his support — is the continuous underfunding of the system for almost 30 years. If there is a semblance of an issue arising from Mr Close’s question with which I concur, it is that.
I thank Mr P Robinson and agree with him. It may be possible to address planning issues. I will consult with the Department of the Environment, and my officials will look at any possible measures that would preclude this from occurring again in close proximity to a dwelling.
There are five more Members who want to ask questions. I am aware of the time and also of the need to break for lunch. Therefore I ask those Members to put only one question each.
It will be one, Madam Deputy Speaker.
The expert group on cryptosporidium appointed by the Government made a further report in 1998 with 50 revised recommendations. Has the Water Service adopted and implemented those 50 revised recommendations?
The other point of clarification concerns the test evidence. On 25 August the Water Service was reluctant to accept that the public water supply was the cause of the outbreak of cryptosporidosis because there was no test evidence available. Can the Minister say if the results of the samples taken on 22 August were not available? Did the present test procedure fail, or was there no evidence of cryptosporidium in the samples? In the case of the latter, is the Minister satisfied that the present test procedure is adequate if it failed to detect cryptosporidium in the samples that subsequently proved to be infected?
I will deal with the issue of the recommendations arising from the original report. All 51 recommendations have been adopted, and implementation is ongoing.
I will return to the dates lest there be any doubt regarding the sequence of events. On 21 August — and only on 21 August — the Eastern Health Board became aware of a number of cases of cryptosporidiosis in the Poleglass area. There was no indication on 21 August that that could be traceable to the public water supply. By 25 August there were 20 confirmed cases, and an outbreak control team had been established.
Continuous sampling took place between 25 August and 29 August, and on the evening of 30 August the control team agreed to issue a "boil water" notice. That was issued on the morning of 31 August, by which time my officials were in the process of hand delivering 17,500 "boil water" notices. I hope that clarifies the speed, nature and chronological sequence of events that took place from 21 August to 31 August.
I thank the Minister for his statement, and we join in his praise for the Department for Regional Development officials on their actions, given the logistics that they presently operate under. However, I trust that a review of this particular incident will lead to more efficient methods of dealing with incidents of this nature in the future.
In his presentation, the Minister stated that 22 sources have been identified as having lower risk factors. Indeed, the incident occurred on one of these sources as a result, admittedly, of an external incursion into the system.
Will the Minister undertake to identify the other 21 sources and give the House an assurance that there will be an upgrading of risk assessment methodology? I would not expect that to be done today, but perhaps in writing at some later stage to the House.
I thank the Member for the succinct nature of his question; I will endeavour to be equally as succinct.
I want — and I am sure the Member will agree — to ensure that nothing is said that will lead to an increase in fear and suspicion among the public regarding the public water supply. While I take his point that the ingress occurred on one of the 22 sources identified as being lower risk, I would not want to publicly identify the other 21. I will undertake to write to the hon Member indicating measures that we can take in relation to the assessment of risk once this issue has been dealt with and is over.
I thank the Minister for his frank and honest statement. I too join in the thanks to Mr Martin and his colleagues for their very swift and professional reaction to the present outbreak. Is the Minister content with the communications between his Department and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development?
Yes, there has been comprehensive liaison. It has been instructive and very helpful in dealing with the problems. I am perfectly content with the relationship and hope that we can learn from this and build on it for the future.
Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. As the Silent Valley has been identified as the source with the highest risk of contamination, does the Minister agree that the 2003 timescale is totally inadequate? It is putting at risk the health of 250,000 people as well as placing a financial burden on sheep farmers. Does the Minister agree that, while an investment of £32 million to replace the conduit is welcome, to wait until 2003 for completion will put a terrible strain on the 250,000 people who expect to receive pure water? Given that funding should take priority over other matters, does the Minister agree that in the interim, compensation should be given to farmers? There is talk of farmers receiving some compensation for this year, but there is no mention of 2002 and 2003.
It is very unfair. Like everyone else, I am entitled to ask this question, and I want it answered.
With regard to the outbreak in the Lisburn and Poleglass areas, what financial assistance will be given to those who have suffered from the financial strain, especially those in receipt of benefits who have had to buy bottled water, incurred higher electricity bills, and so on?
With regard to compensation I have already said that legal advice is of a particular nature and therefore precludes me from making any assurance on those grounds.
With regard to the Silent Valley, there is a proven risk of contamination to the public water supply from livestock grazing in reservoir catchment areas. There was an outbreak of cryptosporidiosis in the Manchester area last year, and it was linked to sheep grazing around a reservoir.
The risk assessments carried out on the Water Service reservoirs have shown that the Silent Valley is particularly at risk due to the lack of a satisfactory level of treatment. The system to provide that level of treatment is in place, but it cannot be completed before the 2003 financial year. That is why sheep have been excluded from the area surrounding the Silent Valley. Any other measures taken by the Water Service to protect the wholesome water supply derived from there will be taken. However, a more categoric assurance can be given with regard to the completion of the treatment works in the reservoir area. They cannot be completed until the 2003 financial year.
My Colleague Mr ONeill adequately covered most of the problems pertaining to South Down. According to my notes he asked eight questions, but I picked up on only two answers. I will have to wait until I receive Hansard tomorrow to see all the answers.
I am disappointed that the Minister did not attend the Executive meeting on this specific issue. I am disappointed that he put party before people. It was his one chance to meet with the Executive and not have to make any excuses for doing so.
My question refers to compensation. Some farmers have to sell stock due to the lack and loss of grazing. When the funds from such sales are put into the bank they are not put into deposit accounts — the bank will keep the money. Meanwhile, three or four years of inflation will occur. Will the Minister introduce a subsidy scheme, or some form of financial assistance, to help farmers restock in three or four years time, bearing inflation in mind? The money farmers would receive by selling stock now will not be enough to purchase stock in three or four years’ time. Will the Minister put in place a scheme that would adequately fund a restocking scheme in three or four years’ time? Let us be hopeful that the farmer will get back to grazing the land.
I am sure Mr Bradley will appreciate that his latter point would be more appropriately made to his Colleague the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development. I await that Department’s response to those comments. The Member would not expect me to comment on them.
Mr Bradley raised the issue of my non-attendance at the Executive Committee. This matter required immediate action — not prolonged discussion — and that is what I undertook.
The problem in relation to Lagmore was not in the intrinsic nature of the conduit. There was a third-party breach of the conduit. It was therefore a difficulty caused more by others than by the fact that the conduit was 110 years old. Up until this ingress there had not been incidents of this nature.
The sitting was suspended at 1.58 pm.
On resuming —