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TB Strategic Partnership Group

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 7th November 2016.

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Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP 2:45 pm, 7th November 2016

3. Mr Frew asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for an update on the work carried out by the TB strategic partnership group. (AQO 583/16-21)

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

The TB strategic partnership group was established in 2014 to develop a comprehensive and practical long-term bovine TB eradication strategy and implementation action plan, to progressively reduce TB levels in the Northern Ireland cattle herd and, ultimately, to eradicate the disease here. TB is an extremely complex disease. There are many different factors that contribute to its spread, and new research and evidence about these factors is emerging all the time. The group has been tasked with developing a long-term strategy, which will set out how we should tackle bovine TB over the coming decades. It is therefore imperative that the group is afforded the opportunity to get this right to ensure that its recommendations are sound, evidence-based and sustainable in the long term. In order to do that, the group engaged with a wide range of stakeholders: scientific and veterinary experts, representative organisations and interested parties. It spoke to international experts dealing with bovine TB in other countries and consulted on the emerging recommendations in its interim report in 2015. Having considered the responses to the consultation, the group further developed its thinking and has now engaged independent consultants to evaluate its recommendations. Minister McIlveen has already held an introductory meeting with the group, and it has recently written to the Minister to outline its plans to formally present her with its strategy and associated implementation plan in December. The group is also liaising with the AERA Committee to arrange a briefing on its final strategy.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP 3:00 pm, 7th November 2016

Can the Minister update the House in any way on the test and vaccinate or remove project, which is currently going through DAERA and is something that I pushed very hard when I was Chairperson of the ARD Committee?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I recall the Member being Chair of the ARD Committee and this being an issue that he took an interest in at that time. It is an issue that has such a devastating impact on many farmers. Obviously, it also has a significant impact on the public purse because of the compensation scheme.

The five-year wildlife intervention research programme was designed to consider the effects of a test and vaccinate or remove approach on badgers in areas, first, of high confirmed levels of TB, secondly, where there is a high cattle herd density and, finally, where there is a high badger density. In year 1, there were 630 badger captures, 280 of which were unique. At that time, there were no badgers removed, as the Member will be aware. However, all were sampled, microchipped, vaccinated and then released, and that gave baseline data for the rest of the project. In year 2, there were 692 captures, 341 of which were unique. The reports from years 1 and 2 have now been published on the DAERA website. In year 3, the project ran from 16 June until the middle of October this year. There have been some issues with a shortage of vaccine, and the Welsh Government kindly stepped in and helped out the Northern Ireland Department with a supply of vaccine. The Minister is considering options for year 4 to ensure that there is sufficient vaccine in place.

Photo of Harold McKee Harold McKee UUP

Does the Minister accept that eradication of TB and not just reduction must be the Executive's goal? Will the Minister commit to making that a target in the next Programme for Government?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

As I have said already, the Minister wants to have the ultimate aim of eradicating the disease. She knows, now as Minister but also as a constituency member, the devastating impact that diagnosis of bovine TB can have on a farm and a farming business as well as the cost that it has to the public purse, not least to her Department. Ultimately, eradication is the Minister's aim.

As I have outlined, she will wait for the group to come forward with its final report and, most importantly, the implementation plan, which will lead to not just reduction but hopefully eradication. The Member will know from his background that this is deeply challenging. It is something that many jurisdictions are dealing with and struggle to deal with; that is the important point. England has taken one approach, and Wales is taking a different approach. Northern Ireland will have to take an approach that is tailored to our circumstances. However, be in no doubt that, notwithstanding all the difficulties and challenges that will be inherent in it, the ultimate aim is eradication of the disease from Northern Ireland.

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

I congratulate the Minister on the way he has performed so far. Can he outline the cost of TB to the Department and whether he plans to review the current compensation measures?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I do not have the exact figures here, but I will make sure that they are provided to the Member and the House. The approximate annual cost is £30 million and has been fluctuating around that figure over the last number of years, so, when I say that it is a huge cost to the public purse, those figures bear that out.

My understanding is that the Department has some baseline funding for compensation for TB but always exceeds that on a year-to-year basis. The former ARD Minister sitting in front of the Member will recall having to make bids on a pretty regular basis, and I remember, as Finance Minister, having to meet those bids from monitoring rounds for compensation over and above what was already in the Department's baseline.

It has been costly. It has fluctuated over the years, but it has been between the high 20 millions and the low 30 millions a year. That is unsustainable in the long term. It is important that the plan that has been put in place is evaluated and that the Minister looks at the strategy group's report and, more importantly, implementation plan and takes that plan forward with the aim of reducing bovine TB, and thereby reducing the bill, over time and ultimately eradicating it so that there is no bill for the Northern Ireland Executive.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Deputy Speaker

What recent discussions has the Minister or the Department had on the availability of the bacillus Calmette-Guérin vaccine to prevent the spread of TB in the badger population? I appreciate that you may not have the answer at your fingertips, Minister.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I suspect that I know as much about that as the Member.

[Laughter.]

He is absolutely right: I do not have that information, either in my head or in front of me, but I will make sure that the Minister writes to the Member in good time and provides him with that information.