As a result of new information that became available over the weekend, I have adjusted my statement. The revised statement will be available in the Business Office.
I am grateful for this opportunity to update Members on the foot-and-mouth disease situation as it has developed over the past week. Since making my last statement on this subject there have been no futher outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease in Northern Ireland. My efforts have been devoted to ensuring that that remains the case and to discussing with the industry how we can deal with the practical issues which flow from the present situation. As time goes on, we can be increasingly hopeful that we have been able to nip what could have been a major disaster for the agri-food industry — north and south of the border — in the bud.
The process has required enormous effort on the part of Department of Agriculture and Rural Development staff. We have slaughtered and incinerated some 2,500 cattle, sheep, pigs and goats that were in contact with infection. We have been manning the checks at the points of entry to and exit from the 1km zone around the outbreak area — 24 hours a day — for almost two weeks. The helpline which I established on 21 February to deal with queries had, by last Tuesday, handled over 12,500 enquiries, including over 3,000 on one day alone. This has been a huge operation by any standards, and I want to take this opportunity to place on record my appreciation of the efforts of all the staff concerned over the past few days.
I am acutely aware, of course, of the enormous impact that the outbreak has had on farmers, the public and the agri-food industry in Northern Ireland. My officials and I have been meeting with all sectors at regular intervals, collectively or individually as appropriate, to hear at first hand about the practical impact of the disease and the effects that our controls have had on it, and to see how we can help.
My officials have also been having regular meetings with the RUC and the Army to keep them up to date with the situation, to explore how our controls are working on the ground and to sort out any difficulties. Contrary to what has been portrayed by some sections of the media, I have no difficulty at all in seeking and obtaining RUC and Army assistance where I thought it was needed, and they have duly provided it.
The foot-and-mouth disease situation in GB is much less happy, and there are as yet no signs that the outbreaks there have been contained. The contrasting situations there and here vindicate my decision on 21 February to ban imports from GB of the relevant livestock and products. I know that that decision has caused problems for various parts of the industry and, indeed, the public. However, this is a price which simply has to be paid to protect us from foot-and-mouth disease.
So far as the Republic of Ireland is concerned, I met with Joe Walsh TD last Wednesday to compare our respective situations. The Irish Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development and his officials were able to assure me that, while they have a number of herds restricted on a precautionary basis, foot-and-mouth disease has not been found in the Republic. The situation remains that there is no justification for controls on imports of animals or produce from the Republic over and above those that have already been imposed at EU level.
As time has moved on, the emphasis of our work has shifted away from containment and eradication to other issues. After the outbreak in County Armagh, it was necessary for the Department to follow up all instances where animals had moved to Northern Ireland and had been traded illegally. That we have now done, and the papers have been passed to the RUC so that the necessary actions can be taken against those responsible.
At this point I need to depart slightly from the wording of the printed version of my statement, which went to Members on Friday, to take account of the latest information I have received over the weekend. There are now anecdotal reports that the consignment of sheep which came from GB and which led to our single outbreak in Armagh may — and I stress the word "may" — have been larger than we had been led to believe.
My staff are presently working with the various police forces to get to the bottom of this, but we are receiving little co-operation from those who are under suspicion, which makes the task much more difficult. Until our enquiries into this new information are complete, I am unable to state categorically that all the potentially infected animals have been traced and accounted for. This matter is being pursued with the utmost urgency, and I will update Members as soon as I can. I want to emphasise that we need as much information as possible, and I appeal to anyone who has any information to let me or the Department have it immediately.
Understandably, people’s minds are now turning to the financial aspects of this outbreak. In broad terms, current Government policy is that compensation is paid only for anything the Government require to be destroyed — whether animals or, for example, feed. My Department is processing the compensation claims we have received, and payment will issue shortly. We are, as Members would expect, looking at all those claims to ensure that those responsible for the illegal trading which was at the root of this outbreak do not benefit further from it. We are also arranging to pay out as soon as possible as many subsidy payments as we can in order to help farmers’ immediate cash-flow situations.
Members will have noted from what I have said that there is no provision for compensation for consequential losses.
While I realise that many businesses are losing substantial amounts of money as a result of the foot-andmouth disease crisis, the financial implications for Government of compensating for those losses is potentially enormous. Nevertheless, I know that Ministers in Great Britain will be under pressure to pay compensation for such losses, and obviously I will be stressing that any change in policy in that area will have to apply in Northern Ireland too.
As the present controls begin to bite, we are all becoming aware of the practical problems that they cause and I am increasingly being asked to make exceptions in relation to particular situations and activities. The fundamental principle under which I have been working, and will continue to work, is that my prime objective is to prevent any further foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks in Northern Ireland and to ensure that should the virus still be present somewhere in Northern Ireland, its spread will be limited. So, while I will, of course, look at particular problems thrown up by our controls, I am simply not prepared to agree to any relaxation which may undermine that prime objective.
Looking to the future, it is imperative that all of us continue to exercise the utmost vigilance against the threat of foot-and-mouth disease. As the days go by with no fresh outbreaks here, there will be an understandable temptation to drop our guard. However, with such a major disease outbreak on our doorstep, that must not happen, and I urge everyone, whether involved in the agri-food industry or not, to adhere to the guidelines issued last week by the Executive Committee.
Finally, I would like to pay tribute again to our hard-pressed farmers and to the wider agri-food industry for their continued fortitude in the face of this crisis, and to assure them that I will continue to do everything that I can to help.
I congratulate the Minister on all the steps that she has taken, and pay tribute to all her staff. I know that we are going through a very difficult time. One of the main issues, which we cannot get away from, is that yesterday in Great Britain was one of the biggest days for outbreaks since this foot-and-mouth crisis began. This emphasises a point raised in the Minister’s statement this morning — that we cannot afford to drop our guard. I hope that people will bear that in mind. Again — to quote the Minister — it can be short-term pain for long-term gain. I read a press statement in the paper at the weekend —
I will come to my question; I am building up to it.
In the statement there were comments made that those responsible for this outbreak in the very first place would be immune from prosecution if they were to come forward with information. I was surprised to read that in the press. I urge the Minister not to go in that direction.
I too have read those reports in the paper. I assure Mr Savage that my departmental fraud investigation unit, the veterinary service enforcement unit and the serious crime squad of the RUC are meeting again this morning to take forward the issue of investigations into the individuals concerned.
The Minister has our full support in the restrictions she has imposed. However, looking to the medium or long term, the Minister will be aware that many social, sporting and cultural organisations have cancelled or postponed events because of the crisis. Can she give any indication when she believes the controls can be relaxed?
I understand the concern that is out there. Before I answer the question, I want to pay tribute to the many sporting organisations such as the Gaelic Athletic Association and those involving soccer and rugby and, indeed, other event organisers who have so willingly co-operated in a situation that makes life very difficult, not only for those participating in the sports but also from the commercial interest point of view. I do appreciate that.
It is extremely difficult — even more so when one has people who are still not co-operating — to be sure of when this crisis will end. As soon as my veterinary advice tells me that there is a possibility of relaxing the controls in any way, I will review the situation. However, given the additional information that I received over the weekend, there is absolutely no question of relaxing the controls at the moment and I want to make that clear. Whenever it is possible, be it in a week or so, we will review the situation with a view, possibly, to making some adjustments to the present restrictions.
In relation to the east-west trade, however, and given the situation in Great Britain, it will be a fairly long time before we can afford to make any adjustment to the present restrictions on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
I thank the Minister for her statement and for bringing this additional information to our attention. I note that the papers are with the RUC. I hope that prosecution will be swift, certain and severe and that an example will be made of the reprobates who did this to the industry in Northern Ireland. I trust that the Minister agrees.
With regard to the additional information that the Minister gave us this morning, I have two questions. If the beasts have not all been traced, can she give the House an idea of how many of them are unaccounted for? Have the Republic of Ireland Government confirmed to the Minister how many have been slaughtered in its jurisdiction and sold on to France as Irish lamb?
Turning to the issue of compensation, has the Minister been able to calculate the loss to the Northern Ireland tourist industry and the agri-food sector? Does she agree, and can she give a commitment to the House, that now is the time to put together a special case for widespread compensation in order to assist the entire sector in Northern Ireland that has been affected by this terrible disease?
I thank Mr Paisley for his questions. There seemed to be not two but rather three or four. However, I will try to deal with them.
First, there are possibly 60 animals that are unaccounted for, but, given the manner in which these illegally traded animals have been moved about, it is impossible to be absolutely certain of the number. It is not clear whether they are here or in the Republic. To the best of my knowledge, there have been 4,500 animals slaughtered in the Republic to date as a precaution.
In relation to animals’ being slaughtered in the Republic and sold on, the Member is aware that under the current EU regulation, processing plants are not required to designate the country of origin or the country of slaughter on their produce; they merely have to give details on where it was processed. That will be a matter for the Republic. I do not want to comment on that, but it is perfectly legitimate to have animals processed in another state and then have them exported elsewhere as produce of a particular processing plant.
The loss to the tourist industry is not a matter that comes within my remit; it falls to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, as the Member will know. I cannot, at this stage, give the Member any such figures, but I do understand the real difficulties being faced by the tourist industry and empathise with it. The sooner these people are brought before the courts and prosecuted and the Department gets all the information it needs, the sooner normal trading and business will be resumed in the industry. However, there will still be problems for the tourist industry, given the situation in Great Britain.
As the Member knows, farmers will receive 100% compensation for each animal. The slaughter premium that they will lose will be added to the market value.
Mr Paisley’s question is also concerned with cash flow difficulties. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is doing everything possible to ensure that farmers are receiving cash as quickly as possible via subsidies in other areas.
Consequential compensation is a matter for decision at national level. My monthly ministerial meeting with Nick Brown and the other regional Ministers will take place next Wednesday, and I have already asked Mr Brown to put consequential compensation on the agenda.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s statement. Last year I wrote to her Department about the practice of spreading blood from slaughtering plants on to farmland. At that time I had grave concerns about the implications of that for the spread of diseases, particularly BSE. However, given the rapid spread of foot-and-mouth disease, can the Minister say whether that practice is still going on in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and whether it will continue?
I welcome the Minister’s statement, but I am sure that I am not the only Member who is concerned about the additional information that the Minister brought to the House this morning. I am sure that there is a unanimous feeling that there should be no immunity from prosecution for those people responsible for bringing foot-and-mouth disease to Northern Ireland. Does the Minister think that there should be a reward scheme for those people who may be in a position to provide tip-offs? Some people who work for dealers may be in a position to supply information that would benefit the police and the Minister’s officials in following up the issue.
At the Agriculture Committee meeting last Friday, I asked Dr McCracken about the issue of permits for special movement of animals where welfare conditions required it. Dr McCracken highlighted the issue of dairy heifers coming close to calving. Will the Minister confirm that that is still an option, despite these further concerns? Obviously we will expect the Department to maintain the highest standards of scrutiny for any possible effect on the disease.
The investigations should be allowed to run their course. That is my priority. My officials are having one of their regular meetings with the RUC this morning in order to bring forward the investigations.
Animals can only be moved for welfare reasons under licence authorised by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. That is due to the risk involved.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I appreciate your ruling, but an advertisement has been placed in the newspaper, with advice from the Assembly’s Executive for the public and other bodies to cancel events. Therefore it is right that the Minister should involve herself and give some direction to the Speaker on this matter.
I hope I do not incur the Deputy Speaker’s wrath with my question.
I welcome the statement, and I congratulate the Minister on what she has done so far. I am sure that she has had very little time to spend with her family. It must be the same for her officials also, due to the amount of work that they have put in.
I have a serious question, which needs to be answered. I am totally confused about the way in which we are dealing with this matter. There are hundreds of people in this building today. Some have come from rural communities and others come from farming communities. My difficulty is in that we are telling people that they cannot go to events.
At the weekend, Rangers and Celtic fans travelled to Scotland to watch football, and they mingled with people from the community there. Some of them will be back today. Manchester United’s match was called off. If it had not been called off people from both sides of the border would have travelled to the match. There would have been large numbers of people involved — not just a couple of hundred.
Why have the Minister and others called for the cancellation of junior soccer and Irish League soccer, considering that one of the matches cancelled was between Cliftonville and Crusaders in north Belfast, which does not have a rural community? There are probably more people in the Chamber today than would attend that match.
I thank Mr Hutchinson for his kind remarks and his consideration for the problems my family are going through. I will pass his comments on to my husband — it might go some way towards compensation. I assure the Member that he has not incurred my wrath, for his question is perfectly legitimate. I understand that there is confusion.
The Executive Committee have issued guidelines which people need to look at and apply to their own situation as individuals or as organisers of events. The guidelines were worked out on the basis of clear advice from the experts, who are the Chief Veterinary Officer and other veterinary officers.
With regard to events and public amenities, the guidelines state that events in urban areas, which do not involve large numbers of people travelling from England, Scotland or Wales, can go ahead. I am not aware that I have asked for any junior soccer to be postponed. It would be crazy not to go ahead with junior soccer in urban areas that involves only people from urban areas. However, it is understandable that large numbers of people should not travel from England, Scotland or Wales given the present situation across the water.
I cannot ask Celtic, Rangers or my own team — Manchester United — to cancel their games, for many people across the water go to them, and that is their business. I am trying to protect the Northern Ireland industry. People who travel to those matches should look at the guidelines. For instance, if they are farmers abiding by the guidelines of fortress farms, in their own interests they should not travel to those matches. That is the first rule.
The first line of defence is the farmer himself. Secondly, anyone in a rural community, or in touch with farming people, land or animals, should certainly not be travelling across the water at this time. I ask individuals to take responsibility for themselves. It is impossible to police every person. The guidelines are there and the implications of foot-and-mouth disease coming in to Northern Ireland have been spelt out. I am simply asking for continued public support.
If someone from north Belfast, the lower Shankill, west Belfast or another urban area is a supporter of either of those teams and is going across there and coming back here again, the risk is possibly not as great. It depends on whom they are in contact with when they are over there. It is impossible to legislate for everyone. In relation to large crowds coming to events over here, the guidelines clearly state that in urban areas, events which do not involve large numbers of people from England, Scotland or Wales should go ahead, but if they do involve such visitors, then cancellation should be considered.
I thank the Minister for all that she has done over the past weeks on foot-and-mouth disease. I have some concerns. Can the Minister assure me and the House that she will encourage the United Kingdom Minister for Agriculture, Mr Nick Brown, and the Prime Minister to put measures in place that will ensure persons or traffic at ports are monitored, especially if they have been in contact with farmers on the UK mainland?
My biggest worry is that foot-and-mouth disease could be brought across to this Province on clothes or vehicles because of lack of precautions at the ports on the UK mainland. I do not think that precautions at the UK mainland ports are as stringent as those in our own country. When a person or vehicle from the UK mainland comes into Northern Ireland carrying foot-and-mouth disease, it is there, and you cannot send it back.
I agree with the Member and share his concern. I will be reviewing, and possibly tightening further, the GB controls. I visited Larne last week to see for myself and was entirely satisfied by the enormous effort being put in by my staff and by the vet in charge there. Not only were the lorries there going through a very wet and squelchy disinfectant mat when they arrived; they were then being brought into the yard and sprayed with disinfectant. I saw that for myself.
We have now ensured that mats have been placed on ships and boats, so that lorry drivers, in particular, who would otherwise simply drive off, have to go through the mats on the boat before they get into their lorries. That measure was not there before. Our measures are very strict and well adhered to, but I will be keeping them under review. It is an issue that I will be discussing next Wednesday at the ministerial meeting. As the situation in GB worsens, we have to keep our controls very tightly under review.
Like other Members, I commend the Minister and her officials on their tremendous work and their dedication to this particular problem. I am sure that every Member is concerned that there may be some animals that have not been traced. We hope that that problem is resolved as quickly as possible. In view of her statement, will the Minister look at particular problems thrown up by the existing controls? Is she aware of that substantive economic sector in the agriculture community — horse-breeding? The studding of the mares must be carried out at this time of the year, within a particular time frame.
Can she examine the controls and negotiate with the Republic of Ireland’s Minister of Agriculture so that carefully controlled licensing of movement between mares and stud farms can be facilitated thus allowing the industry to survive the season? If this cannot be achieved within the next couple of weeks then the breeding season will be cancelled until next year.
That is a very relevant question because specific problems are being faced by the equine industry at the moment. Horses are not susceptible to the disease, but they can be carriers. I assure Mr McGrady that my chief agricultural officer had a productive meeting with equine industry representatives at the end of last week. Some adjustments to the controls have been made and, as a result, the industry has expressed satisfaction with the current position. Mares can be brought in to foal, and, in welfare situations — where they cannot be treated on the premises — horses can be brought to the vet under licence. At the moment, all animal movement is permitted only under strict licence.
How does the Minister expect the co- operation of farmers to restrict the spread of foot-and- mouth disease when Greenmount Agricultural College was spreading cattle slurry on land at a rented farm last Thursday? I am sure the Minister is aware that the spread of foot-and-mouth disease is a risk, but so is the spread of brucellosis — and I believe that Greenmount has had an outbreak of this disease. Has the Minister and her chief veterinary officer considered the risk in spreading animal slurry? What steps can be taken to prevent it in the future?
Will the Minister consider that there may be an opportunity to reduce the number of cattle being transported across the Province by suspending the over-30-month cull until the end of the incubation period? These animals are being slaughtered at Langford Processors, Largy Road, Crumlin. This transportation and slaughter is not necessary, and it is putting neighbouring farms at risk. Can the Minister give this House constructive advice on the issue?
My Chief Veterinary Officer advises me that slurry spread is not a problem, and I have been guided throughout this crisis by his expert advice. I cannot comment on Greenmount, except to say that it is not a problem.
I am not aware of the situation regarding transport of cattle for the over-30-months scheme cull. I know that cattle are being transported for slaughter because that is essential in order to keep the food chain going. It is carried out on the basis of cattle going straight from farm to slaughterhouse in order to minimise risk. All over-30-month scheme cattle are going direct to slaughter and not through the marts. The old practice of collecting cattle from different farms before taking them to be slaughtered is not happening.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s statement and her prime objective of preventing further outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease. Does she think that the continued running of events in Belfast will give the wrong message to the public?
Hugh Byrne, who is a Minister in the Southern Government, said today that Britain was now the leper in Europe. We seem to have a "business as usual" attitude in the face of the foot-and-mouth crisis across the water. Should people not have a more responsible attitude in terms of cohesion and how we approach the whole subject, in relation to events in Belfast that bring large numbers of people from rural areas, and, in particular, the meeting of the General Assembly of the Free Presbyterian Church at the Odyssey complex next weekend? [Interruption]
Such remarks are unfortunate at a time of crisis for such an important industry.
One of the issues that we must face when holding events is that of public confidence. We need to protect our industry, and we need to ensure that there is a proportionate response and not an overreaction. As the guidelines spell out, there will be events in urban areas that can go ahead with minimal risk. I can only appeal to the public and to those holding events to look at the guidelines, apply them to their own situation and take whatever action they feel is responsible and necessary.
The first line of defence against this disease lies with the farmer. Therefore people in rural communities, and particularly on farms, must not go to any such event in case they bring back infection. They must take responsibility for the availability of disinfectant and so forth as they go in and out of their farms. The "fortress farmer" attitude is important.
I will not comment on other remarks made by other people, except to say that in relation to this crisis I have had full co-operation from Minister Walsh in the Republic and I am entirely satisfied that that co-operation has been working well. Minister Walsh is on record as saying that we have been in constant contact and that he is entirely satisfied with the co-operation. Both Departments have been in contact on an hourly basis, and sometimes on a half-hourly basis — particularly my Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr Bob McCracken, and the chief vet in the South. There is entire satisfaction that everything is being done to keep foot-and-mouth disease off the island of Ireland.
I note with concern the Minister’s additional remarks regarding some untraced sheep. I thank her for bringing that matter promptly to the attention of the House. It is clear why she cannot be completely specific about this. I note the Minister’s assertion that she will not be relaxing controls for as long as she deems that there is a risk to justify them. I assure her of my full support in taking that stand. I trust that she will err consistently on the side of caution until we reach the end of this episode.
Further to the points raised by Billy Hutchinson and Billy Armstrong, I refer again to the vexed question of travel to and from Scotland. Surely the Minister has noted, as we all have, the severe clustering of cases of foot-and- mouth in the Scottish border counties. Unfortunately, these are absolutely adjacent to the main arterial routes that both cars and lorries travel up and down to get to Northern Ireland. There is an inconsistency and vagueness as to how real we think the threat is of infection being picked up by people travelling in that way.
I understand the restrictions in relation to those who have been on farms, but can the Minister assure the House that everything is being done to ensure that infection is not being brought in completely innocently by other people travelling through those areas?
It is impossible for me to say that I am completely confident of anything, given the situation I face and the amount of illegal trading that has gone on. This is a real concern, and we will look at how we can tighten our controls where necessary.
I take this opportunity to appeal to people who are travelling and who have been on or near farmland or in infected areas. If they have any doubt at all as to whether there is a risk, I appeal to them to own up on their return and to be disinfected at the port or airport to make sure that they are not carrying the disease.
It is virtually impossible to police everyone. We will continue to keep everything under review, and everything possible is being done at the moment, but we do need the co-operation of the public. People must recognise how important it is. There would be no problem if everyone were to take responsibility for his or her own behaviour, but I cannot categorically assure the House that every person will do that. All I can do is appeal to people to be responsible and to look at the guidelines. The clusters in Scotland are clearly a constant source of worry. A television programme a few nights ago showed the routes taken by trucks and the areas of infection. We can just do our best.
I welcome the Minister’s statement. Given this morning’s information, it is timely.
Would she care to comment on the suggested need to formally register legitimate cattle dealers in order to keep track of the movement of all farm animals now or in future?
Can she clear up confusion among the public about whether Northern Ireland’s resident sheep should be tagged?
I thank the Member for his question, but I am not sure what the last part meant. We will look at all those issues once we get over this emergency. Clearly, issues will arise from what has happened, and there are lessons to be learnt. Where there is a need to tighten up controls, we will do so.
As the Member will be aware, all Northern Ireland sheep are tagged and can be traced. Any lessons to be learnt from the disastrous events of the last few weeks will be learnt. At the moment, all my efforts are concentrated on trying to ensure that we do not exceed the one case of foot-and-mouth disease that we have.
The news that over 60 animals, which came from the infected area in England, are circulating somewhere in the Irish Republic or in Northern Ireland is alarming. Will the Minister assure us that she is encouraging the RUC to arrest and charge the people responsible for not co-operating with the Ministry of Agriculture on this issue? Furthermore, will she use this experience to clamp down on the illegal smuggling ring that has existed for many years — particularly in south Armagh — and take herd books from those farmers who take many thousands of animals into their herds each year? Those animals seem to go nowhere else. They seem to die on those farms, when in reality they go south of the border.
Will the Minister also act against those cattle dealers who buy calves in marts but have no permits to take them elsewhere? It is quite clear that those animals are being smuggled. Further to that, will she consider taking a case to the Agriculture Minister in England to get compensation for the livestock markets? Their business has been completely stopped, and they have had no income for the last three weeks. Will she support a reduction in their rates?
I thank Mr Poots for his five or six questions. In relation to his first few questions, I find it rather strange to be asked if I will encourage the RUC to arrest those responsible. My officials have been meeting — and, indeed, are meeting today — with the RUC and the Department’s fraud unit and veterinary investigation units. They are taking the investigation forward, and I imagine that they are taking it forward for no other reason than to seek the arrest and conviction of those responsible. I sincerely hope that they succeed.
Mr Poots talked about clamping down on illegal smuggling and acting against cattle dealers. These are matters that arise from the present situation, and clearly they will be looked at in the post-mortem of the foot- and-mouth disease outbreak. My concentration and my whole focus is to ensure that the policy objective of keeping Northern Ireland free of foot-and-mouth disease, with the exception of the one case that we have, is achieved.
With regard to the numbers of missing cattle, the figure could be up to 60, but, given the lack of co-operation, I am not certain. Further questioning is under way on that issue.
Mr Poots raised another question to do with compensation or rates; I am not sure which.
This is an issue of consequential compensation, and, as I have already stated, this has been put on the agenda for the ministerial meeting next week. I am aware of the problem, but it will be dealt with at national level.
When I met with the auctioneers last week, the issue of rates being paid by the marts was mentioned to me, and I raised this at the interdepartmental meeting of officials, which I chair. Following that meeting the matter has been passed on to the Department of Finance and Personnel, and I expect it to be discussed at today’s Executive meeting.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s statement and particularly the fact that the door has not been completely closed on compensation for consequential losses. An obvious example of this is a case where a dairy herd may be slaughtered, and the farmer will receive compensation for the livestock but not for the loss of milk products for a number of months. Rural tourism projects in the restricted zone in South Armagh area have been hit very hard due to events having been cancelled, and this has resulted in financial loss. If the Minister does not receive sufficient flexibility in order to make available compensation for consequential losses, can she at least ensure that next year, when her Department is considering grant aid to these projects, that situation will be borne in mind?
At this point I am not prepared to make any commitment about what might happen next year. I understand the difficulties that people are facing, and I sympathise with them. I am aware of the cash-flow situation in the farming community, and I would like to inform Mr Murphy that I have taken all necessary steps to alleviate it. Payments of the less favoured area allowances are starting to go out today — and 90% will be paid by the end of March. I have asked my officials to prioritise that so that money is getting into the farmers’ pockets as soon as possible. The balance of the sheep annual premium is being paid in March — this may extend into April — but it is being expedited. The first tranche of the sheep agri-money payment will be made before the end of March, and the balance of the sheep special premium will start to be paid at the beginning of April.
I have tried to do everything possible to ensure that subsidies will flow quickly. I cannot, at this point, make any commitments about what will happen in the future. Clearly, there will be sympathy in the Assembly and in the Executive for the industry’s plight. There will, I hope, be some flexibility when I come to the Minister of Finance and Personnel to look for additional money.
I thank the Minister for highlighting the need for vigilance against foot-and-mouth disease by demonstrating the use of a disinfectant at the port of Larne, in my own constituency. Can she assure me that all vehicles and foot passengers are required to pass over disinfected mats?
The Minister referred to illegally traded animals. Does she agree that the absence of individual sheep tagging in the Republic of Ireland has enabled this smuggling to occur with relative ease? Has she raised her concern about this lack of tagging in the Republic of Ireland with her counterpart there? Does she agree that the proof that sheep movements into the Republic of Ireland are associated with this foot-and-mouth outbreak demonstrates the clear need for the Republic of Ireland to introduce sheep tagging — in the same way as in the United Kingdom — to protect animal health in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland?
My response to the Member’s first question is yes. All vehicles are disinfected, as are all foot passengers who disembark. The problem of sheep tagging in the Republic of Ireland no longer exists because the Republic’s Agriculture Minster has announced that, from now on, tagging is to take place.
Will Mr Beggs please repeat his third question?
Does the Minister agree that this illegal movement and the fact that there was not proper sheep tagging have jeopardised animal health in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland? She will also be aware that the implementation of sheep tagging on all farms in the Republic of Ireland will take some time.
Of course, the illegal movement of sheep and the lack of co-operation have created a huge problem for animal health and, particularly, as we have seen, the spread of foot-and-mouth disease. I discussed all of these matters last week with Minister Walsh, and they will be discussed at the North/South Ministerial Council when we meet again.
Animal health is already on the North/South Ministerial Council’s agenda. Officials in both Departments are proposing joint strategies for animal health on the whole island. Mr Beggs’s question was well put, and I appreciate its importance.
I join the other Members in paying tribute to the Minister on behalf of the farming community for her ongoing efforts. I share other Members’ anxiety about the addition to this morning’s statement. The Minister stated that up to 60 animals from the controversial consignment may have — and I appreciate that she emphasised the word "may" — slipped through the net. How can the farming community help her to investigate and, if necessary, trace these animals?
Mr Bradley has made a good point, but we are not certain that these "additional" animals exist. However, I say to the farming community that it is essential that we get to the bottom of this matter. The entire industry will be aware of the implications of the possible existence of irregularly or illegally traded animals, particularly sheep, with which the infection seems to have started. I appeal to anyone in the farming community, the rural community or anywhere else in Northern Ireland to pass on any scrap of information which might help the investigations to me, to my Department or to the police.
Will the Minister consider applying the provisions and recommendations on disinfectant precautions to roads on, for example, the Ards Peninsula? Some of the farmers in that area have told me that they would be happy if very strict restrictions were imposed to control any possible outbreak of the disease. At the moment, we are fortunate not to be affected.
What is the Minister’s advice to those farmers who are bringing their cattle and sheep off the hills for winter grazing or moving them close to their farms? What is the correct method of bringing livestock closer to home?
With regard to Mr Shannon’s queries about restrictions on the roads, it would simply not be possible for my officials to do this. They are already over-stretched. I visited the Newry office last week, and I was very impressed by the enormous burden of work that those people have been doing since this thing broke out two weeks ago. Some of them have been working around the clock to try to deal with one outbreak. It would be simply impossible to put restrictions on roads just as a precaution.
I must reiterate the need for a fortress farm approach. All farmers, in the Ards Peninsula and elsewhere, need to be aware that they are the first front line of defence. They need to guard their farms and take all necessary precautions. The Ulster Farmers’ Union has emphasised that this is the best way of ensuring that they remain free of the disease.
In answer to the question about sheep, I am aware that there are problems — particularly with bringing ewes down for lambing, and it is the lambing season. Indeed, I met one farmer last week going into the Newry office who had a real problem getting his sheep down for lambing. I am keeping this under review, and I will be guided by the advice of the Chief Veterinary Officer at all times.
Movement of sheep would be very risky at this time. I am not yet in a position to say whether it will become possible to make some adjustment under very strict supervision. I am examining all options and if there is a possibility of any easement on the advice of the Chief Veterinary Officer, I will be prepared to move. However, given the information I have put before the House today, I am extremely reluctant to do anything that might endanger the industry. I know that ewes can lamb on a hill when bedding and straw are put down. It is more difficult, and there is a slight risk of losing the lambs, but I have to balance those risks. Which is the greater — the risk of spreading foot-and-mouth disease or the risk of losing one or two lambs? I am aware of the huge inconvenience.
I would like to thank the Minister for the work she and her officials have done and for her report to the House today.
The additional information supplied today deepens my concern on one count. The Minister has referred to the fortress farm approach to help to restrict the possible spread of foot-and-mouth disease. The Minister has also referred to the safeguards put in place at the ports. In the interests of the fortress Ulster approach, I urge her to be aware of the back door.
We do not know where these 60 animals have disappeared to. The Minister will also be aware of the theory — perhaps anecdotal, perhaps factual — that BSE in the Republic may have been curtailed by the JCB. If that continues to be the case in the Republic, and if there is foot-and-mouth disease there which we are not aware of, would the Minister not consider it circumspect for us to check the borders in the same way that the Irish Republic is checking the border?
With thanks, I hope that Mr Hussey is not playing politics with this. Maybe he is not. He may be genuinely concerned.
As I have already said, there is no sign of foot-and- mouth disease in the Republic and the resource implications of closing the border would be enormous at a time when our resources are focused on the essential task of keeping foot-and-mouth disease out of the North. The most important area to patrol is the point of entry from GB, where the disease is spreading at an alarming rate.
I would like to add my thanks and deep gratitude to the Minister and her Department. The past couple of weeks have been particularly tough in County Armagh, and when the going gets tough, the tough get going, and we very much appreciate the tough way in which the Minister has approached this problem. We also appreciate how well she understands the problems of the farming community in south Armagh that are over and above the problems of the farming community throughout Northern Ireland. When we get through this crisis, will the Minister look at those farms in County Armagh in particular, taking measures to ensure that depleted flocks and herds are replenished, and will she also consider how lost markets can be restored? Will she put in place financial counselling to rebuild lost farm businesses and take such measures as are needed to alleviate the emerging problems in relation to collateral and credit with financial institutions?
I thank Mr Fee for his remarks and for his questions. I empathise with what he has said about how the farmers in south Armagh are suffering. I have spoken to some farmers who have lost their herds, and I know the trauma they are suffering. I fully understand that many people will need counselling, and I am considering ways in which farm families can be supported.
I will look sympathetically at all the consequences, and there will be immediate compensation for the loss of animals. Any consequentials will have to be looked at at a national level, and I will raise this issue at the ministerial meeting in London next Wednesday. I cannot go further at this stage, except to say that I sympathise with the farmers. However, my current focus is on eradicating and eliminating the disease.
First, in view of the 60 untraced animals and the fact that an RUC agriculture fraud squad is virtually having to be established, does the Minister not accept that this calls into question the traceability which was much hailed in recent months?
Secondly, I thank the Minister for arranging compensation payments because a west Tyrone lobby has come to me saying that cash-flow problems are strangling the agriculture industry. Will the Minister move quickly, because farmers are in a desperate situation?
Thirdly, on behalf of the consumer as well as the distressed farmer, why has the cost to the farmer gone up by only three pence per kilo over the past month. From an original high of 172p he is now facing a reduction, whereas, I am told, butchers have faced an increase of 12p? Is there evidence of a meat cartel using foot-and-mouth disease to increase its profits?
The problem with untraced animals is not the traceability system; rather, it is that some people have been trading illegally. We will have to look at that and tighten it up. Some people have been acting outside the law, trading illegally and flouting the law.
I thank the Member for recognising the measures that I have taken to deal with cash-flow problems. Last week I also had meetings with the grain trade and the banks. I had a very sympathetic hearing and was assured that they are aware of the cash-flow problems that the agri- food industry and farmers in particular are experiencing. They are prepared to be flexible and will not come down hard on people with real cash-flow problems at present.
In relation to the consumer and the prices being charged, I have no evidence of a cartel, and if there were one I would be very concerned about it. That would be a matter for the Office of Fair Trading. I have met with the General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland this week to hear its concerns. I would be extremely concerned if the price of meat was rising at a time when the price of animals was falling. That is a commercial issue that I could not get involved with, but it would be an indication of what could be called an unfair exploitation of farmers at a time when they are in real difficulty.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. In relation to Mr Hussey’s comments about fortress Ulster, is that two thirds of the nine counties of Ulster?
Is the Minister satisfied with the measures put in place by the Post Office, given its central role in the matter? I have been informed that farmers from the restricted area of County Armagh have to travel to Newry to collect their post, and in some cases disinfectant matting is not in place. Can the Minister assure me that there is close liaison with Post Offices to ensure that appropriate measures are taken?
I consider this particular crisis to be an all-Ireland crisis. It crosses the border, so the term "fortress Ulster" refers to the nine counties. Indeed, it is fortress Ireland at the moment, so I do not have a problem with the term used. It is not a time for making political points.
The Post Office is aware of the guidelines that we have set out. I will look at the matter, but I cannot give an exact response as it has just been brought to my attention.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. My point of order is further to a point of order on this subject which I raised in September. It is to do with the taking of points of order during questions on ministerial statements. We seem to have at last achieved consistency, and questions are not taken during questions to Ministers. However, I understood that the Speaker ruled in September that points of order would not be taken during the hour allocated for questions to a Minister on a statement, but would be taken at the end of the period. There seems to have been serial recidivism on the matter since. I ask you to confer with the Speaker’s Office so that a clear, unequivocal and consistent line will be taken on the matter.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I accept your earlier ruling about the use of the term "papist bigot". The Member who was alleged to have made the comment from a sedentary position has not denied it. Such language is not of a political nature but, rather, of a religious nature that is deeply offensive to the House. I think that all Members will share that deep offence.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like you to reflect on your ruling and perhaps give further advice to the House with regard to such deeply offensive religious abuse. Perhaps you could tell the House what further action might be taken in such circumstances and advise the Member concerned to avoid such offensive religious remarks.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. You, rightly, gave a ruling on this matter. It is my understanding that, under Standing Orders, this matter cannot be re-examined. It is therefore an abuse by the Member for North Belfast to attempt to re-examine it in these terms. It is unhelpful to the House, and it is a clear abuse of his responsibility as a Member.
I have listened to both points of order, and I am grateful for the advice from both sides of the House. I ruled on the issue, and I repeat that the dignity of the House or any of its Members must never be compromised. However, this matter will be taken up with the Speaker for further advice.