BSE

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:00 am on 7th November 2000.

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Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker 12:00 am, 7th November 2000

I have received from the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety notice that they wish to make a joint statement on the BSE inquiry report.

Photo of Ms Brid Rodgers Ms Brid Rodgers Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am grateful for the opportunity to advise the Assembly formally of the publication of the report of the BSE inquiry, known as the Phillips report. Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, made a detailed statement to the House of Commons on 26 October 2000, but this is the first opportunity that I have had to advise the Assembly of the report’s publication.

The BSE report is a substantial piece of work, consisting of 16 volumes and some 4,000 pages. For that reason, it has not been practical to supply Members with individual copies. However, the report is available on the Internet, and Minister de Brún and I have supplied members of the Agriculture and Rural Development and Health Committees with individual copies of the two most relevant volumes of the report, along with a CD-ROM version of the full report. I will speak now about the agricultural aspects of the BSE report, following which Minister de Brún will deal with those aspects which more directly concern her.

The inquiry was commissioned by the GB Agriculture and Health Ministers and by the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1997.

Its terms of reference were as follows:

"To establish and review the history of the emergence and identification of BSE and new variant CJD in the United Kingdom, and of the action taken in response to it up to 20 March 1996; to reach conclusions on the adequacy of that response, taking into account the state of knowledge at the time; and to report on these matters to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Secretary of State for Health and the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland."

The members of the committee were Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers (Master of the Rolls), Mrs June Bridgeman CB and Prof Malcolm Ferguson-Smith. The committee faced an enormous task. More than 1,000 people submitted written evidence. Some 140 public hearings were held, involving over 300 witnesses, some of whom were from Northern Ireland. The inquiry team sifted through about 3,000 files of contemporary official documents, including those relating to Northern Ireland. Against that background, Lord Phillips and his team are to be congratulated on providing such a comprehensive report — the outcome of almost three years of thorough investigative work.

The advent of devolution in Northern Ireland — as well as in Scotland and Wales — since the committee’s work began means that it falls to the devolved Administrations to consider the report’s findings and to take appropriate action.

The report makes a significant contribution to our understanding of BSE, how it emerged and its tragic consequences for the new variant CJD victims. It catalogues the action and inaction of the Government of the time in their response to the emerging crisis. It does so with balance, and it recognises that hindsight should not be a factor. The history of BSE, the emerging science and CJD linkage unfold through the events outlined in the report.

The inquiry report concentrated on the way that policy measures were developed; delays in taking action at various points in the BSE story; concerns at how messages about BSE were conveyed to the public; Government expectations of their scientific advisory committees; enforcement of BSE controls; matters relating to cosmetics, medicines and occupational health risks; concerns about communications failures between Departments; and a collective failure to revisit key scientific assumptions about BSE on a sufficiently regular basis. It highlights the key lessons to be learned, and it is important for the Assembly to identify those. The main message is that animal health and disease issues are no respecters of geographical boundaries.

The inquiry has been a necessary process. CJD victims, their families and carers are owed an explanation. The food and farming industries need to understand what happened. The report will help us to learn the lessons of the BSE crisis.

The first area that the committee looked at with regard to Northern Ireland was whether it was right for Northern Ireland to look to London to take the lead in combating BSE. The report concludes that it was. The second area related to whether the then Department of Agriculture for Northern Ireland was sufficiently rigorous in its approach to the enforcement of the BSE control measures. The report concludes that the over-reassuring line taken on BSE in Great Britain was mirrored here, but there is no evidence to suggest that it led to any laxity of enforcement in Northern Ireland.

The third area related to an aspect of which different line was taken in Northern Ireland, the notification requirement for cases of BSE in cattle. Notification in Northern Ireland was made compulsory some five months later than in Great Britain. The report concludes that, while it may have been prudent to keep in step with Great Britain, the delay was reasonable in the circumstances and unlikely to have led to cases being missed.

We also differed from Great Britain in the introduction of the ruminant feed ban, in relation to which Northern Ireland acted later than Great Britain. The committee asked whether the delay was reasonable and whether it contributed to the prolonging of the epidemic in Northern Ireland. The report concludes that, with hindsight, it would have been preferable not to have had the delay, and that it may have contributed slightly to the 1,710 BSE cases which occurred between 1988 and 1996.

Nevertheless, the report states that the decision to delay the imposition of the ban in Northern Ireland was not unreasonable. The report considers whether Northern Ireland should have argued for an independent animal health status, as opposed to being linked with the United Kingdom position, and concludes that Northern Ireland was correct to follow the overall UK line.

Finally, the committee looked at the contention made by some that Northern Ireland’s animal health computer system helped to alleviate the effects of the BSE crisis in Northern Ireland. The committee agreed with my Department that, although the computer system was helpful in facilitating the early resumption of beef exports from Northern Ireland, it had no effect, during the period in question, on the progress of the disease.

Overall, the fact that the report does not criticise the actions of any Northern Ireland Minister or official is, to some extent, cold comfort. The impact of the BSE crisis on Northern Ireland has been profound. In particular, I would like to express my sympathy to the family of Maurice Callaghan, who was one of the earliest victims of vCJD. I am sure that other Members would wish to be associated with that expression of sympathy. For the Callaghan family, that was an obvious personal tragedy.

The BSE story has, of course, had other implications. One thousand eight hundred cases of BSE have been identified since 1988, resulting in the slaughter of 2,300 animals and the payment of £1·6 million in compensation. However, the effects go much wider than that and include lost beef export opportunities, damage to consumer confidence in beef and other meats, and the impacts on other sectors which have had to shoulder the burden of tight controls. All those things have had a serious impact, particularly on the lives of people in the rural community.

The Government have announced that they are to review in detail the contents of the report, and my officials — together with those from the other devolved Administrations and from Whitehall — will be fully involved in that process.

I shall end by setting out some of the action that has been taken by Government in the period following that covered by the inquiry. In 1999 the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) was created as an independent body charged with guarding public health in food matters. The FSA, which is accountable to the Northern Ireland Assembly for its work here, recently published its draft review of BSE controls. Subject to confirmation shortly, that draft review will not propose any change to the existing control measures that the FSA considers sufficiently robust to allow the public to consume UK beef with confidence. The FSA has a key role in protecting health and in giving sound information to the public. The agency is required to operate openly and that is an important factor in addressing some of the deficiencies identified by the BSE inquiry report.

Much work must now be undertaken to implement the remaining findings of the BSE inquiry. That work has already started, and I will ensure that it is accorded priority by my officials in the weeks and months ahead.

Photo of Bairbre de Brún Bairbre de Brún Sinn Féin 10:45 am, 7th November 2000

Mr Poots raised a point about my statement yesterday. Anything that was said in the Chamber in one language was also said in the other language, but, owing to an administrative error, a sentence was left out from the English written version of my statement. I apologise for the administrative error, and I have now circulated copies to Members. However, I assure Members that the statements given in the Chamber were exactly the same.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

I am grateful to the Minister for referring to the matter. That is extremely helpful.

Photo of Bairbre de Brún Bairbre de Brún Sinn Féin

A Cheann Comhairle, tá mé buíoch as an deis a bheith agam le fáilte a chur roimh Thuairisc Phillips agus le seans breac-chuntas a thabhairt ar na bearta a rinne mé agus a bhfuil mé ag déanamh machnaimh orthu i bhfreagairt ar na léirmheasanna agus ar na moltaí sa tuairisc.

Rinne an tAire Talmhaíochta agus Forbartha Tuaithe tagairt do stádas na tuairisce anseo agus thug sí cur síos ar chuid dá príomhchinnte. Cé go gcuireann an tuairisc bearta agus rúin rialtais maidir le ESB suas go dtí 1996 i gcroinic, titeann sé ar Airí cineachta anseo feidhm a bhaint as na ceachtanna a foghlaimníodh agus bearta a chur i gcrích le fulaingt na ndaoine sin a bhfuil an GCJ athraitheach orthu a mhaolú agus le fulaingt a dteaghlach a mhaolú fosta.

Chuir foireann an fhiosrúcháin ar ESB agallamh ar agus ghlac sí fianaise ó fheidhmeannaigh ghairmiúla agus riaracháin ón iar-Roinn Sláinte agus Seirbhísí Sóisialta lena n-áirítear an Rúnaí Buan deiridh agus athphríomhoifigh mhíochaine chomh maith leo sin atá ann anois. Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le gach feidhmeannach a d’oibríodh don Roinn agus leo sin atá ag obair di anois a chuidigh leis an fhoireann fhiosrúcháin ina cuid oibre. Pléann an tuairisc rólanna agus freagrachtaí fheidhmeannaigh na RSSS, ach níl lochtú inti ar fheidhmeannaigh aonair na Roinne, nó go comhchoiteannta, ar bhearta na Roinne le linn na tréimhse a bhfuil scrúdú á dhéanamh uirthi.

Is é mo phríomhchúram sa tsaincheist seo ná an tragóid daonna atá ag teacht chun cinn i ndiaidh éifeacht uafásach na géarchéime ESB ar an chomhphobal feirmeoireachta. Galar meathlúcháin inchinne é an Galar Athraitheach Creutzfeldt-Jakob i ndaoine, agus creidtear gur nochtadh don ghníomhaí ar faoi dear é ESB san eallach is cúis leis an ghalar. Is forbairt thromchúiseach sa tsláinte phoiblí í teacht chun cinn an GCJ athraithigh, a mbíonn iarmhairtí uafásacha ann do na híobartaigh, ar daoine óga iad a mbunús, agus dá dteaghlaigh.

I am grateful for the opportunity to welcome the Phillips report and to outline the actions that I have taken, or am considering, in response to its comments and recommendations.

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development has already mentioned the status of the report here and described some of the main findings. Although the report chronicles the actions and intentions of the Government on BSE up to 1996, it falls to devolved Ministers here to carry forward the lessons learnt, and to implement action to help alleviate the suffering of vCJD patients and their families.

The BSE inquiry team interviewed and took evidence from professional and administrative officials within what was the Department of Health and Social Services, including the previous permanent secretary and the previous and current chief medical officers.

I thank all the departmental officials, past and present, who helped the inquiry team. The report discusses the roles and responsibilities of Department of Health and Social Services officials. However, it contains no criticism of individual departmental officials, or, collectively, of the actions of the Department during the period under consultation.

My primary concern is the emerging human tragedy following the devastating impact of the BSE crisis on the farming community. Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease is a degenerative brain disease in humans, which is believed to be caused by exposure to the agent which causes BSE in cattle. The emergence of vCJD is a serious public health development with terrible consequences for victims, most of whom are young, and their families. The disease is always fatal, with the average duration of illness being 14 months. Currently, there is no simple, non-invasive diagnostic test for vCJD. Knowledge and techniques are improving and give hope that early diagnosis will result in appropriate care for patients. Sadly, at present there is no effective treatment and consequently no cure.

According to our latest information, there have been 85 cases in England, Scotland, Wales and here, most of whom have already died of the illness. There has been one confirmed case of vCJD here, and I would also like, as Minister Rodgers has done, to take this opportunity to extend my sympathy to the family of Maurice Callaghan.

There has also been one confirmed case in the South. As the incubation period for the illness is likely to be long, we cannot be certain about how many victims there will be in the future. The inquiry said that vCJD victims and their families have special needs. My Department will be issuing guidance before the end of the month aimed at assisting health and personal social services to respond rapidly, in a co-ordinated manner, to the physical, social and psychological needs of vCJD patients and their carers, as they arise. In particular, the guidance focuses on the following: the identification of a key worker to co-ordinate care for patients and families, regardless of the setting in which care is given; the co-ordination of a care plan for the patient and support for carers; the need to adopt a flexible and creative approach to care that is responsive to the needs and wishes of each patient and family; the involvement of specialist palliative care wherever possible; and support for families caring for patients at home.

In the light of the emphasis that the report placed on the health care needs of variant CJD patients and their families, I am considering a number of additional components, including the availability of central Government moneys to fund care and the development of a managed clinical network. My officials are exploring those issues with colleagues in England, Scotland and Wales.

I am also considering, in consultation with England, Scotland and Wales, a number of options relating to ex gratia payments for variant CJD patients and their families. The legal advice is that there is nothing in the BSE inquiry report that requires Government to accept liability in such cases. However, in recognition of the suffering of patients and their families and the expense that they have incurred, there is a strong argument in favour of some form of ex gratia payment without prejudice to any court proceedings. Any proposals would have to be fully discussed and agreed with representatives of the patients. It is anticipated that any resultant costs would be met directly by the Treasury.

As the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development noted, the establishment of the Food Standards Agency will be an important part of our response to the problems of food safety identified in the report. The agency will be a vital tool in ensuring that public health is safeguarded and in developing public confidence in the food that we eat. As I said yesterday, I am pleased to note that the agency is now in operation here.

I look forward to working closely with the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development on these issues and on the other issues that flow from the report.

Photo of Tommy Gallagher Tommy Gallagher Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the statements from both Ministers. The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development said that work on the implementation of the remaining aspects of the inquiry was beginning. What steps are involved in that process and what measures have been put in place to safeguard public health?

Photo of Ms Brid Rodgers Ms Brid Rodgers Social Democratic and Labour Party

My counterparts in England, Scotland and Wales and I will be responding to the report’s findings. My officials are considering those findings at the moment, but the report runs to 16 volumes. There will be a preliminary Government response, probably in the new year.

Numerous safeguards are now in place. Cattle suspected of having BSE are compulsorily slaughtered and their carcasses incinerated, and milk produced by cows who are suspected of having BSE may not be used for human consumption. Specified risk material (SRM) controls prohibit the use of specified materials that are known to — or might, theoretically — harbour BSE, including imported beef, sheep meat, goat meat and certain other animal products. Bovine, ovine and caprine vertebral columns cannot be used to make products for human consumption; that applies particularly to mechanically recovered meat. Bovine meat that is over thirty months old at slaughter may not be sold for human consumption. Bones from cattle over six months that originate in this country may not be used in the manufacture of food or food products that are not supplied directly to the ultimate consumer; that would apply, for instance, to a restaurant. We are also setting up surveillance for BSE, ahead of the EU requirement to do so.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr DUP 11:00 am, 7th November 2000

I welcome the publication of the report and the statement by the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development. It is unfortunate that the Health Minister, in her opening comments, made a joke of these proceedings. This is a most serious and tragic matter, and it was turned into a farce and a play on language. I think that is very sad given the set of circumstances that we are dealing with today.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

Order. I will give the Minister an opportunity to respond as soon as the Member has completed his question. It is not possible to intervene during the question.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr DUP

There is no doubt that BSE has had a devastating impact on our export beef trade, and the Agriculture Minister is still having to deal with a problem of immense proportions. The Health Minister is having to deal with a problem of unknown proportions — that must go on the record.

I wish that the matter could be put behind us, but I believe that that is unrealistic. It is clear that the Minister and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development have in place the most rigorous standards which protect the beef trade and go towards assuring the entire industry that our beef is safe and, therefore, that consumers are also safe.

I welcome the announcement that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development will be carrying out a review on the Phillips report, but I would like to know how much public money will be spent on that.

I would also like to ask the Health Minister how much will be spent on ex gratia payments to the victims of variant CJD. What resources will her Department be putting into examining the problems identified in the report?

I would like to refer both Ministers to volume one, page 29 and the section referring to victims and their families. The report states quite clearly that the victims of variant CJD and their families have special needs which must be addressed. I would like to know how those special needs are going to be addressed apart from ex gratia payments. The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development said that the Department here has not been found wanting in its actions, but that was cold comfort to the victims. People want to see a cure for this disease and want to find medication —

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

The Member has put a number of questions, and he has begun to make a speech on the issue. I am sorry, but I must ask the two Ministers to respond in the order they choose.

Photo of Bairbre de Brún Bairbre de Brún Sinn Féin

Given that I was specifically named by the Member in what I feel was a totally disgraceful way, I would, first of all, like to make it clear that I have made absolutely no joke of this. The Member is very aware that he is playing not only to the gallery but to the media, and he is misleading the public by suggesting that I have done or would do such a thing. It is he who is making a joke of this; it is he who is playing party political games with vital questions about public health. It is a pity he did not limit himself to real questions.

The Department will spend as much money as necessary to put in place proper public health. The population’s health is paramount in what we will be seeking to do arising out of the recommendations and studies which we carry out.

It would not be appropriate to discuss, at this stage, possible amounts for ex gratia payments, but officials are looking at options — including the setting up of a trust fund. Discussions have already taken place between the Department of Health in England and the families, and it is hoped that agreement can be reached on such payments. I believe it is important that we consider the issue of ex gratia payments to the families of variant CJD victims in recognition of the devastating nature of the illness and the fact that the Government are their last resort.

As to the question of how special needs are to be addressed by my Department, I refer the Member to my statement in which I outlined point by point some of the ways in which we are issuing guidance in order to ensure that this is addressed.

Photo of Ms Brid Rodgers Ms Brid Rodgers Social Democratic and Labour Party

The question to me was about public expenditure. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development will make available whatever public expenditure is necessary. Public health is a priority with my Department too, and whatever resources are required will be put to this use.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I welcome the statements by the two Ministers and, from this corner of the Chamber, associate myself and my Colleagues with the expression of sympathy to the families of sufferers from variant CJD, not merely in Northern Ireland but in every part of these islands. With reference to the need for a synchronised approach to the common problems of animal and human health — which is a topic for the future and which goes far beyond the potential of BSE and goes beyond what we were talking about yesterday with regard to the Food Standards Agency — what exactly is being done by their Departments to co-ordinate those arrangements with other regions of the UK?

The Phillips report ignored the Republic because that was not part of its function. However, we must ensure the co-ordination of cross-border health, especially as the border is an even narrower channel for protecting health than the Irish sea is. In view of the recommendation of the urgent need for screening sheep for BSE because of the danger of its being concealed behind scrapie, what is being done to set in motion that screening process in Northern Ireland? This is important as there is an urgent need to ensure consumer confidence.

Photo of Bairbre de Brún Bairbre de Brún Sinn Féin

With regard to the need for a synchronised approach, the officials from our two Departments are working closely to ensure that the lessons learnt are tackled in a synchronised and integrated way. That is the case not only between the two Departments here but also between officials in England, Scotland and Wales. We also have arrangements in my Department on an all- Ireland basis. This would be one of the key elements with regard to the North/South Ministerial Council, and my participation in that will be directed at food safety issues. The Minister of Agriculture will deal with the aspects in her remit. Discussions between the officials in my Department are ongoing with the chief medical officers and both the North/South Ministerial Council and the Food Safety Promotion Board. Also, the Food Standards Agency and the Food Standards Agency of Ireland will combine with the Departments to ensure that this approach is fully integrated across all aspects of society and all Departments here.

Photo of Ms Brid Rodgers Ms Brid Rodgers Social Democratic and Labour Party

My answer to the first part of Mr Ford’s question is that many meetings are taking place — sectoral meetings at North/South Ministerial Council level, at senior official level and at working level between the Departments across the water and here, North and South. Of course, more will be devised as we proceed.

As to the question of sheep, there is no evidence that BSE is actually in sheep, and what the Food Standards Agency was talking about was the need to establish the facts and, in the meantime, to take sensible precautions to protect public health. It also referred to the need to have a contingency plan to deal with the situation should it emerge that BSE is in sheep. Research work is underway to determine whether the disease is present in sheep but, to date, has not produced such a result.

In the meantime, we already have controls to ensure that animals suspected of having bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) do not enter slaughterhouses or get into the food chain. It is not possible to screen live sheep for scrapie or BSE, but we are setting up arrangements to screen sheep for genetic resistance to the diseases, so that that resistance may be bred into the national flock. We intend to co-operate with the Republic of Ireland on the eradication of scrapie from the island. The disease is, in any case, quite rare north and south of the border, and much rarer than in Great Britain. Finally, we are currently involved in the development of the UK contingency planning exercise.

Photo of Alan McFarland Alan McFarland UUP

I welcome the report and associate my party with the expressions of sympathy for the victims of CJD. It is fair to say that this crisis has caused enormous damage to confidence, particularly confidence in medical and scientific advisers. Aside from the sheep BSE issue, I notice that many countries in Europe are experiencing a fairly dramatic increase in BSE. What steps are in place to ensure that products coming into this country — since we cannot export — are checked, so that we do not have another crisis looming in the future?

Photo of Ms Brid Rodgers Ms Brid Rodgers Social Democratic and Labour Party

Exactly the same controls apply to products coming into this country as apply to products in this country. Those controls are strictly adhered to, and we have continuous monitoring and inspection of carcasses coming into the abattoirs. Our staff are there to ensure that the controls are in place and are working.

Photo of P J Bradley P J Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I also welcome the report, and I welcome the prompt action of the Departments of Agriculture and Health in bringing their analysis to the Assembly so soon after the report. Given that the report is a 4,000-page document, with an accompanying CD-ROM, I think that I will be reading it until after Christmas. I therefore welcome the analysis that has been given this morning.

Does the Minister accept the conclusion of the report that Northern Ireland was right to follow the overall UK line rather than argue for independent animal health status? Was that the correct procedure?

Photo of Ms Brid Rodgers Ms Brid Rodgers Social Democratic and Labour Party

I take it that the question is whether I agree with the report. I would be very reluctant to disagree with a report that has been so thorough and which has gone into such great detail on all aspects relating to this extremely serious matter.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

As a result of the BSE crisis, I believe that the Government took action in Northern Ireland to ensure that the most stringent measures were put in place for the production of beef. To some extent that has restored consumer confidence in Northern Ireland beef production. However, one of the issues mentioned in Ms Rodgers’s statement was about delays in taking action at various points in the BSE story. Very regrettably there have been deaths here and in other parts of the United Kingdom as a result of those delays. We also would like to convey our sympathies.

It is essential that Northern Ireland’s stringent standards be applied to beef imported into Northern Ireland. I would like the Minister to confirm today — because I am not sure that she is actually saying this — that beef over 30 months old cannot be imported from the Irish Republic, and that Irish Republic animals that have had BSE cannot be imported into Northern Ireland. These matters are essential. If we cannot learn from our past problems and apply the same stringent standards to items imported into the Province, then we are in for a turbulent time.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

Perhaps it would be helpful to the Minister if the Member were to put the question again.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

It was quite clear. Can animals over 30 months old be imported into Northern Ireland from the Irish Republic, which has a growing BSE problem? Can beef from those animals be imported into Northern Ireland? If so, what steps will be taken to prevent that happening?

Photo of Ms Brid Rodgers Ms Brid Rodgers Social Democratic and Labour Party 11:15 am, 7th November 2000

I apologise. I understand the question now. It can be difficult to figure out the question from the midst of a speech.

The position is that such animals are not used for human consumption in Northern Ireland. They cannot be used.

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Alliance

I welcome the statements by the two Ministers. Will they assure the House that there will be a substantive and co-ordinated ongoing review of compensation to include future cases of variant CJD? The Minister of Health outlined the matter in her statement in a substantive way. May I ask the Minister what guarantees can be given to patients and their carers that their needs will be addressed given the problems of community care at the present time?

Photo of Bairbre de Brún Bairbre de Brún Sinn Féin

Serious consideration is being given to making ex gratia payments to families of victims. Legal counsel has advised that compensation is not appropriate but people are working diligently on the question of the options for making ex gratia payments to patients and their families. I will announce full details when discussions have been concluded and a final decision on the scheme has been made.

Given the expressions from all sides, the Assembly will also give careful consideration to the resources needed to ensure that the points that have been made will be taken account of and the needs of the families met should future cases arise.

Photo of Patricia Lewsley Patricia Lewsley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I would like to express my party’s sympathy to the families and the carers of the variant CJD victims. I too welcome the report.

Does the Minister of Agriculture accept that the logical and best course to follow is to develop a single animal health regime for the island of Ireland? Close co-operation with the Southern authorities would give more direct control over animal diseases which have the potential to do serious damage to agriculture industry.

Considering the report I am assuming it will not affect her lobby to secure low incidence BSE status for Northern Ireland. Perhaps the Minister will tell Members how Northern Ireland beef compares to beef in other countries?

Photo of Ms Brid Rodgers Ms Brid Rodgers Social Democratic and Labour Party

There are two or three questions there. In relation to animal health I am pleased to inform Ms Lewsley that animal health is one of the issues which I have put on the agenda for the next North/South sectoral meeting with the Minister for Agriculture. I am aware of the all-Ireland nature of animal health because of our land border, and that is an important issue. Without the enhanced co-operation that comes from the North/South Ministerial Council the matter would not be as easily dealt with.

The other question was in relation to the implications of the report for the relaxation of the export ban. Was that the issue which the Member raised?

Photo of Patricia Lewsley Patricia Lewsley Social Democratic and Labour Party

My question was with reference to the Minister’s lobby to secure low incidence BSE status for Northern Ireland.

Photo of Ms Brid Rodgers Ms Brid Rodgers Social Democratic and Labour Party

Critics will find grounds on which to object to our case if they wish, perhaps even on a political basis. Any fair-minded reader of the report will find it reassuring that Northern Ireland handled the BSE crisis properly at the time and produced effective controls.

We do have a genuinely low incidence of the disease. I sent that message to my European colleagues as recently as two weeks ago when I was at the Salon International de l’Agro-Alimentaire (SIAL) Exhibition in France. I had some meetings over there. I will continue to send that message and a reading of the report will give reassurance on just how strict our controls are and how we have reacted to the problem. It is hard to see that the report would be anything but helpful in our case.

As regards the difference between Northern Ireland beef and that from other countries, in my view, Northern Ireland beef is very safe. In fact, in relation to the ban on feed going to animals, we have a wider feed ban than other countries in Europe. I am happy to say that our very strict controls are effective in that regard. The fact that our incidence of BSE has gone down considerably to very low figures is an indication of that.

Photo of Mr Oliver Gibson Mr Oliver Gibson DUP

I thank the Ministers for their report today, and I particularly welcome the Phillips report. May I ask both Ministers what measures are being taken and what research and monitoring is being done to ensure that there is no further transference of disease? Yesterday Mr McCartney referred to the introduction of sewage pellets as a means of ground fertilisation. What efforts are being made to ensure that there is no further transfer of disease to the human food chain?

What is being done by both Ministers to ensure that confidence is given back to a devastated industry? The Phillips report quite rightly points out that the farming community, and indeed the population in general, deserve a full explanation as to how this plague arrived. What are the Ministers doing to ensure that ingredients, whether from the rendering industry, or any other industry that supplies an ingredient that may enter the food chain, are sterile and inert and cannot carry disease? The rush for cheap and easily produced food products is always a threat, and therefore I ask both Ministers to say what they are doing to ensure that monitoring is effective.

I represent a rural area that has been devastated due to this plague, and one of my constituents suffered a very long and lingering death. That constituent, a child evangelist, was probably the least likely person to contract the variant of BSE. Is that family, after 17 months of attending hospitals and looking after their dear one, not being insulted by the paltry ex gratia payment? I ask the Ministers to treat this case as it deserves. I would expect them to be honourable in these payments.

Photo of Ms Brid Rodgers Ms Brid Rodgers Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will take my part of the question and let my Colleague take hers.

I thank Mr Gibson for his question. First, he asks what efforts are being made to ensure that this never happens again. I have referred to some of those efforts, in my speech and in my responses to some of the questions. The Food Standards Agency is there to ensure that it never happens again. The spongiform encephalopathy advisory committee is continually monitoring the situation and giving scientific advice. We will always look at what more can be done and will be guided by the scientific advice and by our own information at ground level. Rendering is also covered in our monitoring processes and controls.

In relation to restoring confidence, I can only say that my Department is doing, and will continue to do, everything possible to ensure food safety, and we will look at what more can be done. We will be open and honest about the situation, as I have been today and will continue to be, and we will let the public know precisely what we are doing and how we are doing it. Nobody can ever guarantee that something will never happen again, but we are doing everything we can to ensure that the human tragedy of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease will never affect another family.

Photo of Bairbre de Brún Bairbre de Brún Sinn Féin

My Department contributes to the research funding for CJD, along with health Departments in Great Britain — there is a very extensive research programme. The CJD Surveillance Unit in Edinburgh also monitors the disease, and clinicians here refer matters to it to ensure that all possible connections are made. The Food Standards Agency has been reviewing current BSE control through public meetings since April 2000. The most recent open meeting was held in London on Thursday 2 November. The Food Standards Agency will submit a published report to Health and Agriculture Ministers in Westminster, the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and this Assembly. The report will take account of the report into the BSE inquiry. The agency’s review will include a revision of the main measures employed to protect the public against BSE variant CJD via the food chain and will consider both the adequacy of the measures to protect public health and their proportionality to the assessed risk.

From my opening statement and comments, Members will appreciate that we recognise that there is a very strong argument for making ex gratia payments to families in recognition of the devastating effects of the disease on patients and their families.

Photo of Carmel Hanna Carmel Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the statement from both Ministers. I ask the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development how exactly the report will be developed and its findings implemented to prevent the development and to control the presence of this awful disease. We are all very aware that, at present, there is neither an effective treatment nor a cure.

Photo of Ms Brid Rodgers Ms Brid Rodgers Social Democratic and Labour Party

We will take the findings of the report forward and produce responses to them in conjunction with my colleagues in England, Scotland and Wales. At the moment, officials are considering in depth the findings of the report, and there will be a preliminary Government response, probably in the new year. It is a very lengthy and broad report, and we are treating this as a matter of urgency and gravity. There are many lessons to be learned from the report and, to do it justice, we will need to study it in depth and discuss it with officials in England, Scotland and Wales in order to produce a response.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

If Members wish to ask questions they must let us know in advance. Otherwise it is extremely difficult to manage the situation.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea DUP

I did indicate to you, Mr Speaker, that I wanted to ask a question, and you nodded your head in my direction. Anyway, I am happy that you let the question in.

I accept the debt that we owe to Lord Phillips for the report on a very serious situation. Nobody could fully understand the pain of those who have suffered or are suffering from CJD. Neither can anybody fully understand the pain suffered by members of the farming community and families, bearing in mind that, almost overnight, a very vibrant industry was turned into a total disaster.

Many farmers are on the verge of bankruptcy; and some are floundering in bankruptcy itself.

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development has rightly stated that her Department and its predecessor handled the crisis appropriately and produced effective and efficient measures. We owe the officials in that Department our appreciation for their work.

It is important that we have all the facts. As the Minister promised to give the people of Northern Ireland the facts for the future, can she tell the House and the people of this Province how many infected animals have been identified in Northern Ireland in the past 12 months, and how many in the Republic of Ireland? Is it not a fact that Northern Ireland’s quota proved the lowest in the whole of Europe, while statistics for the Irish Republic tended towards the highest? As our community must be protected so that we have neither victims of the disease nor a continuation of BSE, how will the Minister prevent infected animals from the Irish Republic coming into the food chain here?

Photo of Ms Brid Rodgers Ms Brid Rodgers Social Democratic and Labour Party 11:30 am, 7th November 2000

Last year we had six cases of BSE, and so far this year we have had 16. That is not a cause for concern. As we reach the final tailing-off of the disease we will not have a straight, linear decrease; the graph will fluctuate — up one year, down the next. However, the incidence of the disease here is well below the recognised threshold for low incidence status. As far as I know, Northern Ireland does not have the lowest BSE incidence in Europe, nor does the Republic of Ireland have the highest. I am not the Minister of Agriculture for the Republic of Ireland, but I will get the figures for the Member. At this moment, I do not have that information.

However, as I have already assured Mr Poots, I can remind Members that animals coming here from the Republic will not be available for human consumption if they are over 30 months old.

Photo of Mr Danny O'Connor Mr Danny O'Connor Social Democratic and Labour Party

I address my question to the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. In some of the most recent cases of CJD, sufferers have been somewhat older than before. As dementia has similar symptoms, in some cases their illness has been misdiagnosed. Are statistics available to illustrate the depth of this problem?

Photo of Bairbre de Brún Bairbre de Brún Sinn Féin

The elderly patient to whom the Member referred was not suspected of suffering from variant CJD in his lifetime, but a post-mortem examination proved that he had the disease. There is little evidence to date of cases of variant CJD having been missed, but we cannot rule out the possibility that some illnesses among the elderly were misdiagnosed. The case of the 74-year-old patient in England emphasises the importance of this case, and it also underlines the need for diagnostic vigilance, whatever the age group.

One of the gaps in our knowledge about variant CJD is the extent to which people may have the disease, or may be incubating the disease, but have not yet shown the symptoms. However, it is something we are aware of and are concerned about.