Brexit: Veterinary Officers and Portal Inspectors

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 17th November 2020.

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Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:45 pm, 17th November 2020

2. Mrs D Kelly asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs how many additional veterinary officers and portal inspectors does his Department plan to employ before the end of the transition period. (AQO 1127/17-22)

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

DAERA is planning to employ an additional nine veterinary officers and 14 portal inspectors in its portal branch at the points of entry into Northern Ireland, which are primarily at Larne and Belfast, from the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020. Those additional posts are being filled through external recruitment competitions and the internal transfer of staff.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

Given the Minister's response, he seems to be fairly confident that the posts will be filled. I do not know whether contingency plans are in place should they not be. Has the Minister had any discussions with his colleague in the Department for the Economy about higher education providing places for veterinary students here in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

There are two issues there. With Northern Ireland receiving official brucellosis-free status, there is capacity in the Department, which is very beneficial, to fill the positions. The second issue is the veterinary school. I would be hugely supportive of a veterinary school. My chief veterinarian is supportive of there being a veterinary school. I believe that the Minister for the Economy is supportive of there being a veterinary school. I encourage the universities to continue to carry out their work on investigating the opportunities for a veterinary school.

One issue is that many young people are travelling not just to Ireland, Scotland and England but to Europe in order to study to be a veterinarian, and, sadly, many of them get a job elsewhere and do not return to Northern Ireland. We then lose that skill; therefore, a locally based veterinary school would help us to keep that skill base in Northern Ireland, where it is very much needed.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

The Minister referred to the possibility of reassigning some staff from his Department. Does he have any assessment of the impact that that could have on other programmes? He will be more aware than we all are of the challenges that the Department faces in the various strategies and programmes that he is bringing forward.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

As I indicated, because of the brucellosis-free status that we have achieved, staff have been freed up, and organisation can take place in the veterinary division in order to ensure that we will reduce the number of people who need to be recruited as a consequence.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

Has the Minister had any communications with University College Dublin (UCD) about increasing its intake of students over the next year or two while you, hopefully, get your veterinary school up and running in Northern Ireland and keep those people here?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I have not, and, traditionally, there has been a slight problem with the recognition of our qualifications at A level, which has maybe made it a little more difficult for top-class students to get opportunities in some of the top universities in Ireland. Consequently, that has led to quite a number of them heading to Scotland and England, where our qualifications are recognised in the same way.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

In relation to inspections at ports, has any progress been made on the provision of a common veterinary area and the medium- to long-term prospects for that?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The development of the facilities under the programme that is being paid for by the UK Government will not be completed until the middle of next year. They have given some money for the development of temporary facilities, which will be available from the middle of December. Consequently, facilities will be available for the veterinarians who are in place at the various ports.