Agriculture (Foot-and-Mouth Disease): North/South Ministerial Council Sectoral Meeting

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 11:30 am on 23rd April 2001.

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Photo of Ms Brid Rodgers Ms Brid Rodgers Social Democratic and Labour Party 11:30 am, 23rd April 2001

I should like to report to the Assembly on a special meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in its agriculture sectoral format held in Dublin on Friday 6 April 2001. Mr Sam Foster, Minister of the Environment, and I attended the meeting, and the Irish Government were represented by Mr Joe Walsh TD, Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development. It was the third meeting of the Council in that sector, and it was exclusively devoted to foot-and-mouth disease and the efforts to combat its spread on the island of Ireland.

The Council received an update on the situation and acknowledged with gratitude the part played by so many people — North and South — in guarding against the spread of the disease by following the respective guidelines and acting responsibly. The Council fully understood the difficulties being experienced by agriculture and other sectors of industry and acknowledged the reasons why both Administrations were keeping restriction measures under continual review. It was hoped that, in the light of the determined manner in which the outbreak was being tackled North and South, the scale of the difficulties would be kept to a minimum and that that approach would bring real benefits to everybody in the long run. Ministers reiterated their personal determination, and that of their respective Administrations, to ensure that everything possible would be done to alleviate the difficulties.

Acknowledging that both Administrations attached the highest importance to animal health, the Council again underlined the value of enhanced co-operation on the issue. The Council noted that since the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, collaboration between the two Administrations had intensified, with the primary purpose of containing and eradicating the disease. It emphasised that the events of recent weeks illustrated the importance of an island-wide approach to such issues, and it agreed that sustained co-operation between the two Administrations was essential to reduce the risk of further spread of foot-and-mouth disease.

The Council therefore agreed that both Administrations should continue to: closely monitor the situation in their respective herds and flocks; exchange all relevant information in respect of animal movements; strongly encourage the public — particularly the farming and agri-business community — to continue to follow the advice being given to prevent any spread of the disease; review the activities that might be resumed and the conditions under which such resumption might be permitted; liaise closely in the prevention of the importation of susceptible animals from Great Britain; maintain co-operation in ensuring that proper disinfection arrangements are applied at all entry points to the island; monitor ongoing developments in respect of cross-border issues; and maintain liaison with the port and other authorities in Britain to ensure that appropriate disinfection procedures are maintained at ports and other exit points from Britain to this island.

The Council decided that officials of the two Agriculture Departments should develop a strategy for the control of animal movements on the island of Ireland, drawing on work done in both jurisdictions. It also decided that in the light of the experience gained from the current foot-and- mouth disease outbreaks, officials should consider the means of prevention, containment and eradication of future epizootic disease outbreaks on the island.

The Council requested that the officials report back to subsequent Council meetings in the agriculture sector. The Council agreed that the next meeting of the agriculture sector would take place in the South in June 2001. Following the meeting a joint communiqué was issued. A copy has been placed in the Assembly Library.

Photo of Derek Hussey Derek Hussey UUP 11:45 am, 23rd April 2001

Mr Speaker, I hope you will understand the difficulty that one has in responding to the second statement without making reference to the first. I thank the Minister for her statement. She rightly said that the Administrations are ensuring that everything possible is being done to alleviate the present difficulties. The House has heard of roguish actions having been being carried out, but that is an erroneous term. Deliberate illegal actions or actions of — at the very least — economic terrorism are being carried out.

What is being done on a North/South basis to address that issue? The Minister talked about the lax observation by some and the evidence — not reports or perceptions — to that effect. Will the Minister outline the sort of lax observation being talked about and tell the House who the "some" are?

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

The Governments North and South are continuing to share information about their investigations, and some of the lines that we are following with a view to prosecution are as a result of shared information between the two jurisdictions.

Will Mr Hussey repeat the other part of his question?

Photo of Derek Hussey Derek Hussey UUP

Mr Speaker, I thank you for your indulgence. I said that it was difficult not to relate the Minister’s two statements. The Minister mentioned lax observation by some and said that there was evidence of it. I asked her to reveal to the House the type of lax observation that there is and who the "some" are that there is evidence against.

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

I thank Mr Hussey for that clarification.

In my original statement — and I am not sure that I should be responding to it now, but I will indulge the Member — I referred to lax observation of fortress farming by some farmers, and I emphasise the word "some". The people delivering census forms are arriving at avenues and lanes in the country, but how are they to know whether they are at a farm if there is not a foot-and- mouth notice warning people to keep out? Lots of people live in the country but do not farm. Some people are not observing all of the advice that has been given about fortress farming, and that is what I referred to in my statement.

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

Can the Minister assure the Assembly that no four-footed animals of any kind are being imported from Great Britain or Europe on to the island of Ireland?

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

Not all four-footed animals are susceptible. Horses are not susceptible, but there is always the danger that they will carry the disease if they have been in touch with susceptible animals. I can speak only for Northern Ireland; I cannot speak for the Republic of Ireland on the four-footed animals that are allowed on to that part of the island of Ireland. However, I assure Mr Bradley that no four-legged susceptible animals are getting into Northern Ireland.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr DUP

What discussions has the Minister had with the Dublin Government about smuggling? Can she confirm if any of the 19 people who are under investigation by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development are also under investigation in the jurisdiction of the Irish Republic? Have any of those people been paid compensation or sought an amnesty from either Government? Has the matter been raised and discussed by Ministers? Has any compensation been paid from departmental money to those who have sought an amnesty or are under investigation? If so, what advice has she received from the Dublin Government?

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

The 19 cases that I referred to are being prosecuted by the RUC in Northern Ireland. Three cases are being dealt with by the veterinary investigation unit. I cannot speak for what is happening in the South, because I do not have the information here. However, I assure the Member that any information that we receive is shared with the Republic. I would be very surprised if it is not being followed up, because the Republic is taking a very hard line. It has already changed its legislation, and we are now looking at changing ours.

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has not offered or considered giving amnesty at any stage to people who have acted illegally. The compensation already paid out has been paid in the south Armagh cull area and the Meigh area where there was a precautionary cull of infected animals. No compensation was paid in at least two cases where the people involved were guilty of illegal activity. That is the policy.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. What animals are considered susceptible, and what animals continue to be imported from Britain? Will the Minister comment on the continued criticism from the Government and media circles in the South on the disparity between the approach to prevention and eradication by the Department in the North and the Department in the South? Will the Minister assure us that her Department operates on the same philosophy as the Southern Department? The priority is to eradicate the disease rather than take the London line which appears to be damage limitation and give the impression that things are OK. The priority is to eradicate the disease as the Southern Department is doing.

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

No susceptible animals or horses from Britain are allowed into Northern Ireland. The susceptible animals are cows, pigs, sheep and goats. Horses are not susceptible. However, if they are in touch with those animals, they can be a danger, and they can carry the disease.

With regard to eradication of this disease, I am pleased to clarify the confusion raised by some recent remarks. At my meeting with Joe Walsh last week I also clarified the fact that our policy on dealing with suspect cases is based on our commitment to eradicate the disease and to err on the side of caution and cull if there is a doubt in our mind about whether the disease is present.

Our policy is exactly the same as that in the Republic. When we come across a suspect case, the vets make a judgement as to whether it is likely to be foot-and- mouth disease or whether there are other circumstances that point to its not being. If there is less concern about it, we restrict the farm until we get the result. If there is more concern, we err on the side of caution and we cull. That is precisely what happens in the South. I am aware that, for instance, last week there was a suspected case in the South, and they restricted the farm but did not cull. In one case in Armagh we decided to cull, then changed our minds on foot of further evidence. As it happened, we were right, because the result was negative. From the beginning, my priority has been to eradicate the disease.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance

I thank the Minister for her statement and take this opportunity to reiterate the value of the North/South Ministerial Council. At a time when this whole island is under serious threat from a deadly animal disease, joint action is being taken to halt this plague. That can only be welcomed by every right-thinking person. I also point out that that special meeting was called — and rightly so — to show the determination of both Governments to tackle this serious problem.

How quickly will the strategy for the control of animal movements be agreed and in place? Has the Minister any plans to tighten the regulation on the individual tagging of sheep?

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

We will certainly look at the tagging of sheep. A subcommittee of the vision group is already working on the lessons to be learnt from the present situation. That issue is being looked at, and recommendations will be made. I will be very surprised if movement is not made in that direction. I also understand that the view of the Republic is to move towards individual sheep tagging.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance

Will there also be control of animal movements?

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

I believe that the Member was talking about movements across the border, rather than within Northern Ireland. We will be looking at how we can co-ordinate our efforts and our legislation, initially to minimise the incentive for that type of movement as well as to deal with it.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair)

Photo of George Savage George Savage UUP

I thank the Minister for her comments on the North/South meeting. One point was that both Administrations should continue to

"maintain co-operation in ensuring that proper disinfection arrangements are applied at all entry points to the island".

At the Committee meeting last week it was said that automatic demisters were to be installed. Can the Minister tell me when that will happen?

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

Automatic sprayers — not demisters — are to be installed, and we have been working on that for some time. I cannot give the Member a definite date, but I imagine that it will be before the end of this week. At the time of my last enquiry, it was a matter of sorting out the contract — the sprayers have to be made to specification to fit the vehicles — but I expect that they will be installed very soon. Automatic sprayers are not an improvement in the controls, but they need very little manpower and will simply allow us to use necessary resources elsewhere.

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Photo of Tommy Gallagher Tommy Gallagher Social Democratic and Labour Party

In today’s statement there is a recognition of the difficulties faced by the Department of Agriculture and other sectors. I want to ask about a sector which has been particularly hard-hit in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Retail outlets in that area rely on customers from the Republic of Ireland for a large proportion of their business. That is true in towns such as Aughnacloy, Augher, Belcoo and Belleek. The traders in those towns purchase milk and dairy produce from suppliers in the Republic of Ireland. However, when customers from the Republic purchase supplies in those areas — and I am sure this happens in other constituencies — under present restrictions they are not allowed to take those supplies into the Republic. This has led to a marked drop in trade for these retailers, and it seems that the local authorities are being far too diligent. Will the Minister raise this matter with the Minister in the South, and will she continue to press for more sensible arrangements to be put in place? Of course, such arrangements would be in line with the necessary precautions to prevent any further outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease.

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

I have been made aware of the issue and have raised it with Joe Walsh, who assures me that this is being dealt with. I am also aware of the fact that Easter eggs were removed from people crossing the border; that was over-diligence. A number of issues arose over the Easter weekend, but Joe Walsh has assured me that they have now been dealt with.

Photo of Paul Berry Paul Berry DUP

From the Minister’s statement I noticed that the North/South Ministerial Council meeting, which she attended on 6 April, was exclusively devoted to the foot-and-mouth outbreak. Were concerns raised at that meeting about grants, subsidy and inspection staff in Northern Ireland being ordered off a cull site when fraud was being investigated and exposed? Were concerns expressed that it was not a so-called farmer in south Armagh who ordered those staff off the site, but a veterinary officer?

Are the Minister and the people who attended that meeting on 6 April not concerned that there may be members of staff in the Department of Agriculture who are aiding and abetting smuggling in south Armagh?

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

The matter was not raised at the North/ South Ministerial Council meeting for the simple reason that it was not an issue. There is no truth in the allegation, and I have to refute the suggestion that grants and subsidy staff were ordered off the cull site. I have thoroughly investigated the allegations made and am satisfied that the implication that staff were somehow involved in collaboration with illegalities is most certainly not the case.

Photo of Gerry McHugh Gerry McHugh Sinn Féin

A LeasCheann Comhairle. It is welcome to have these discussions taking place on an all-Ireland basis, particularly with regard to the foot-and-mouth outbreak.

In the Minister’s discussions with the Minister in the South, has it been suggested that the controls and traceability systems for livestock and food production should be harmonized on an all-Ireland basis? Given that the disease affects both parts of the island, has an all-Ireland approach to determining, through an inquiry, the cause and impact of the foot-and-mouth outbreak here and in the South been discussed?

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

An official working group is examining the matter of tracing to which Mr McHugh referred. I have clearly indicated that we are taking an all-island approach through our use of the North/South Ministerial Council. The Council has already been described by Mr McCarthy as a very useful way of dealing with this outbreak — it has been co-ordinating, where useful, our efforts and exchanging and sharing information. This is helping us, on both sides of the border, to deal with what is an all-Ireland animal health problem. As the Member may be aware, as early as last November the North/South Ministerial Council set in train working groups to look at harmonised animal health strategies on the island of Ireland as a whole. At that stage, of course, there was no indication that we were going to witness this crisis, but we were already recognising that animal ill-health, infections and viruses do not recognise the border.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

On the question of North/South co-operation, it is important that Members compare the compensation paid to farmers affected by foot-and-mouth disease in each of the neighbouring jurisdictions. Will the Minister undertake to publish details of the compensation awards made so that Members can monitor those payments and assess if payments made here are comparable to those made in the Irish Republic?

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

Throughout this unfortunate incident, I have operated on an open and accountable basis. I do not think that anyone would expect a Minister to operate in any other way, but, of course, any necessary details will be put in the public domain, and I expect that they will be thoroughly scrutinised. I simply reiterate that compensation has been, and will continue to be, made at full market value. I cannot say if the market value in the Republic is the same, higher or lower than the market value here. However, we will be paying to farmers the full market value for Northern Ireland animals in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Joe Byrne Joe Byrne Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the Minister’s statement on the North/South co-operation on foot-and-mouth disease. Does she consider that co-operation on the future operation of cattle marts and the movement of animals could be necessary? Has the Minister any view on the opinion that meat plants should conform to the strictest possible monitoring of all animals that are presented for slaughter?

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

The sub-committee of the vision group which is looking at the implications of, and the lessons to be learnt from, this whole episode will be examining the operation of the marts, as well as every other aspect of the industry. I am certain that the North/South Ministerial Council will hold discussions to try to share our experiences, learn lessons from each other and, if necessary, co-ordinate our activities.

In Northern Ireland our veterinary inspectors inspect everything that arrives in and goes out of the meat plants. That is very carefully monitored. I cannot speak for the Republic of Ireland and how they operate there. Clearly, every section of the industry needs to ensure that it is operating in an open, transparent and correct way.

Photo of Mr Oliver Gibson Mr Oliver Gibson DUP

What arrangements are being made for my constituents in West Tyrone? Directly or indirectly, they have been distressed financially. As the Social Security Agency’s personnel cannot visit due to foot-and- mouth disease and our constituency offices are being used as form-filling centres, that distress is compounded. Can the Minister assure us that some arrangements will be made for the immediate payments of much needed distress funds?

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

I understand that there is a great deal of distress as a result of the present situation, and I sympathise with those concerned. The Member will be aware that the payment of social security is not a matter for my Department but for the Department for Social Development. I understand that arrangements have been made to deal with that problem. Clearly I am not in a position to answer that question, but perhaps Mr Gibson could address it to the Minister for Social Development.

Photo of Alan McFarland Alan McFarland UUP

I thank the Minister for her report. Did she see a report in the ‘Sunday Tribune’ at the weekend which states that some 15,000 sheep were imported from Longtown into Northern Ireland in the first seven weeks of the year? It is thought that a number of these have gone south. Indeed, the junior Agriculture Minister, Noel Davern, says that he is expecting a sizeable number of prosecutions. Hundreds of these sheep are unaccounted for.

Private Eye’ magazine has a record for whistle- blowing and being proven correct. Has the Minister seen an article in that publication which states that foot-and-mouth disease was rampant in the national flock in Britain in January? If these articles are correct, we would appear to have a sizeable problem here. What credence does the Minister give to these allegations? When does she expect the missing sheep, in both North and South, to be identified?

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

I suspect that we are moving into the business of the last session rather than continuing with the business of the present one. This session concerns my statement on the North/South Ministerial Council. I am quite happy to respond to those questions if they come to me during the debate, or even by way of a written reply. I have no difficulty in answering them, but we should stick to the rules.

Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party

I have been quite lax with Mr McFarland. If he wants to write to you, I am sure he will receive a response.

Photo of Billy Armstrong Billy Armstrong UUP

Can the Minister assure the House that the importance of animal health is acknowledged by both Administrations? There may be product coming from another country through the Republic into Northern Ireland and placing the Province’s farming community in jeopardy.

We know nothing about unaccounted sheep that could have slipped into the Irish Republic before 1 February. There could be foot-and-mouth disease or some other problem down there, and it could slip into Northern Ireland. I would like an assurance that everything is being done along the border to ensure that nothing is happening that will jeopardise our farming community.

Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party 12:15 pm, 23rd April 2001

May I again remind Members not to repeat questions that may previously have been answered, partially or totally.

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

Animal imports from the Republic of Ireland are not the problem. We have four outbreaks in Northern Ireland, so the problem is vice versa. However, we are enforcing the controls, and the hypotheses about unaccounted sheep are endless. We will continue to monitor and scrutinise every situation where there may be a possibility of the disease’s either being brought in or spreading further in Northern Ireland, or on the island of Ireland for that matter. Our priority is to contain the disease and then eradicate it.

Photo of Mr Eamonn ONeill Mr Eamonn ONeill Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the Minister’s statement and congratulate her and her officials on all their recent hard work.

I am particularly pleased to see a strategic approach to animal movement and the prevention and containment of disease. Does the Minister agree that this not only underlines the need for cross-border co-operation but points to the need for even more serious steps for agriculture in general?

I am at something of a loss. Before the Speaker left the Chair he indicated that although six minutes were left, he would not take my question then but would allow me to ask it later on the back of this statement. I suppose I could dress it up by asking the Minister if, given her relationship with her counterpart in the South, she has been offered any assistance with the problem of sheep movement. Is she aware of the growing welfare problem in my constituency — malnutrition and death among lambs because of the shortage of green grass grazing? There is virtually no substitute for fresh green grass to provide the quality of nursing milk that lambs need. The Minister has already indicated that sheep movement does present a particular problem. Can we make progress on this as quickly as possible?

Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will leave it to the discretion of the Minister whether she answers the Member’s question.

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

I thank Mr ONeill for his initial comments and his remarks about the need for a more strategic common approach to agriculture on the island of Ireland. Agriculture is the one area with the clearest commonality of interest, North and South and within the North/South Ministerial Council. In conjunction with Joe Walsh, I have been moving to strengthen the co-ordinated approach on the island to animal health and other related agricultural areas.

I have dealt with the welfare problem on a number of occasions, and I refer Mr ONeill to my previous responses.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Bearing in mind that the discussion was solely on foot-and-mouth disease and that the disease was brought in through smuggling, was that issue discussed at the North/South meeting? Were the issues of herds with alarmingly large numbers of twin births in the Irish Republic and of dealers who buy large amounts of calves and cattle into their herds, which subsequently disappear, discussed? Was the Republic of Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development aware that farmers who were involved in the sheep smuggling that brought foot-and-mouth disease in had requested an amnesty? Was it also aware that some of those people were subsequently paid large sums of money for hauling livestock to the cull in Newry?

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

I thank Mr Poots for his question. I am afraid that I did not hear the last part. Regarding the issues specifically raised at the meeting, we agreed to continue to share information on all illegal activities, which involves smuggling. We have been doing that from the beginning, and we will continue to do so. It is perhaps as a result of that that some of the investigations in the South have proved so fruitful.

I could not possibly comment on an amnesty in the Republic of Ireland. I know nothing about it. You would not expect that to be discussed at our meeting, because whatever they do in the Republic is a matter for them.