TB Eradication Strategy

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 4th May 2021.

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Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP 2:45 pm, 4th May 2021

3. Mr Clarke asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for an update on his plans to consult on a TB eradication strategy for Northern Ireland. (AQO 1977/17-22)

Photo of Gary Middleton Gary Middleton DUP

7. Mr Middleton asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for an update on the need to address bovine tuberculosis in cattle. (AQO 1981/17-22)

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will group questions 3 and 7.

The eradication of bovine TB (bTB) is one of my top priorities. I recognise the devastating emotional and financial impact that a bTB breakdown can have on farming families across Northern Ireland.

A new bTB eradication strategy for Northern Ireland will aim to reduce, and eventually eradicate, bTB by comprehensively addressing all the recognised key factors in the maintenance and spread of the disease. My officials have completed the business case required to support the implementation of a new strategy, and I have now received final advice on a proposed way forward. That will assist me in deciding on the next steps necessary to tackle bTB in Northern Ireland. It is my intention to launch a consultation on my preferred way forward in the very near future, and I welcome the opportunity that this will provide for stakeholders and the wider public to express their views on how we can best work together to tackle this disease.

Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP

I thank the Minister for his answer. Will the Minister outline when he foresees the consultation being launched, and a way forward agreed, in relation to what is widely known as a costly disease for animal and human health, never mind the cost to the taxpayer?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I thank the Member for the question. Bovine TB cost the Northern Ireland taxpayer some £37 million last year. It has been in and around that ballpark figure for quite a number of years now. I believe that roughly £40 million could be better spent elsewhere than on doing the same thing over and over and not actually dealing with bovine TB.

Work continues apace. The business case for the strategy is complete, and I have received final advice for my consideration. It is my intention to engage with officials, with a view to launching a consultation on the preferred way forward imminently. Once I have considered the responses to that consultation, I will finalise the strategy. I have made it clear that I wish to see the implementation of the new bTB strategy as soon as practicably possible in 2021.

Photo of Gary Middleton Gary Middleton DUP

Does the Minister agree that we need to tackle TB in wildlife and in cattle to deliver a healthier wildlife population?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Absolutely. Wildlife intervention has already happened in England and the Republic of Ireland. I have spent considerable time with veterinary scientists in both jurisdictions, and their advice is very clear: if we are to rid the wildlife population and the bovine population of TB, we have to take action in both. Up to now, we have taken action only in the bovine population, and the logic of continuing to do that, without tackling the issue at the wildlife part, does not exist. The definition of madness is to keep doing the same thing and expect different answers. Some suggest that I do that, but I am afraid I cannot. We really need to get on top of this problem, stop wasting public money and stop putting individuals through immense stress and mental health issues as a consequence of doing nothing about a long-term problem.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

Minister, will you publish the final report on the test and vaccinate or remove (TVR) wildlife intervention study on badgers and bovine TB? Have you secured the additional funding to replace the £5·1 million lost from the TB eradication programme as a result of Brexit?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Our business plan identifies all those issues. That case will be made to the Department of Finance. If we require additional money, it will be on the basis of invest to save, because, ultimately, we will be driving down the cost of TB. However, there is a course of work to be done. TVR was a useful scheme that gave us a lot of scientific evidence of the links between the wildlife and bovine populations. There are a large number of strains of TB, as we learnt that there are of COVID-19, for example. However, a range of strains exists between the wildlife and bovine populations in particular areas. The linkage is irrefutable, and therefore the evidence base for moving forward is clear.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

Minister, has any progress been made on the biosecurity of cattle ear tags, given that, occasionally, although the carcass of an animal in a meat factory is found to be infected with bTB, the DNA does not match that of the mother?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 3:00 pm, 4th May 2021

It can happen, but it is highly unusual.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

The Minister will be aware of the animal health law that recently came into effect. Has his Department carried out an impact assessment of that law's implications for farmers?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Yes. That is a piece of European Parliament law that was brought forward by the European Commission. We had no role in making that legislation, and we will have no role in amending it. That demonstrates the perversity of the situation that we find ourselves in, in that we are expected to implement legislation where there has been no representation. I join the nationalists of many years ago in saying that that is wrong. We cannot have legislation without representation. That is entirely inappropriate. It has an impact on the farming community, in that farmers will be required to test at their own cost before taking their animals to a livestock mart. That will have a significant impact on those farmers.