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Public Accounts Committee Reports

Part of Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:00 pm on 29th September 2009.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP 4:00 pm, 29th September 2009

I am not sure whether I am a veteran, but I have been a member of the Public Accounts Committee for almost a year.

The Public Accounts Committee has had a varied and busy year of business. I will focus on two reports; one on bovine TB and the other on the sea fisheries scheme for the modernisation and tie-up of vessels. Both of those issues have significant public-expenditure impacts; they impact aggressively on farming and fishing communities in Northern Ireland.

I will initially make my remarks as a member of the PAC. However, I will also speak in my capacity as an elected representative, because, coming from a farming and fishing constituency, I can bring my knowledge of that to the debate.

A quarter ir mair o’ aa the herds o’ kine I Norlin Airlan hae bovine TB an’ the Committee richtly allooed at thon hannlin shud bae leuked intae. Thair wus a bag ris’ i caases this las’ wheen o’ years peakin’ i 1997 aa 13% at bes the heighest level i Europe. I the las’ 10 yeirs the Depairtment hes spent sum 10 million pun oan hit’s programme tae dae awa’ wi’ bovine TB. The airt wurst hit bae bovine TB bes Strangford an’ mid-Down

At least a quarter of all cattle herds in Northern Ireland have had bovine TB, and the Committee correctly concluded that that grave problem merited investigation. Just today, at a meeting of the Agriculture Committee, that matter was raised with departmental officials. There has been a significant increase in cases of bovine TB in recent years; in 1997, it peaked at 13%, which was the highest level in Europe. Over the past 10 years, the Department has spent some £200 million on its bovine TB control programme. The area with the highest incidence in the whole of Northern Ireland is Strangford and mid-Down.

Despite the Department’s investment in controlling the disease, bovine TB can cause considerable economic losses through livestock deaths, chronic disease and trade restrictions.

It is certainly in the taxpayers’ interest to eradicate it, and it has been eradicated in many countries. The Committee was, therefore, staggered to hear the Department concede that its current bovine TB strategy will not lead to eradication. That the Department should spend so much to achieve mere containment is unacceptable.

I am not sure whether anyone from the Department is in the Public Gallery. I encouraged them this morning to come along to the debate, but perhaps the thought of being lambasted by the Public Accounts Committee has made them stay away. However, if they are here somewhere, I congratulate them.

The Department formally reviewed its bovine TB eradication policy between 1999 and 2002. However, we are still no further along. Progress has been slow, and not all the recommendations of that review have been implemented. Similarly, in a review of testing arrange­ments, a range of improvements were recommended by consultants in 2006, and those have still not been acted upon. The officials told us that they will have a wee talk about it for five years. However, the Public Accounts Committee wants action. Such delays are indefensible.

The Committee was also surprised that the Department was not fully compliant with the EU directive on combating bovine TB, and had not, therefore, availed itself of EU funding that is aimed at eradicating the disease. Again, there seems to be a delay in the Depart­ment. At long last, the Department has accepted the Committee’s recommendation to bring itself into line with the directive, which is a welcome step. However, we will wait to see whether the words are turned into actions.

The Committee further recommended that the Department introduces the pre-movement testing of animals to address the risk of purchasing infected animals; that it reaches an objective, evidence-based conclusion and strategy on the impact of wildlife, particularly badgers, on bovine TB; and that herd owners on infected farms are given biosecurity training. Let us see action following the words.

We cannot be complacent about the continuing grip of bovine TB, nor about expenditure of, on average, £20 million a year to contain it. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development must move urgently, focus on concrete measures, and use good practice from successful eradication policies to end bovine TB in Northern Ireland.

I have often asked questions about the undoubted link between badgers and bovine TB, yet the Department refuses to take the views of farmers and vets seriously. I advocate the eradication of badgers, and I ask the Department to do likewise. I know that the green Member to my right —