Veterinary Medicines

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:00 pm on 21 May 2024.

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Debate resumed on amendment to motion:

That this Assembly notes the House of Lords Windsor Framework Sub-Committee’s inquiry into veterinary medicines and the Windsor framework; acknowledges the deep concern of the agri-food industry that the number of veterinary products estimated to be at risk in Northern Ireland could be up to 51%; further notes that the absence of adequate access to veterinary medicines risks competitiveness and could lead to increased vulnerability to disease outbreaks, reduced capacity to treat and prevent illnesses and compromise animal welfare standards; recognises that this not only poses a threat to individual animals but has broader implications for public health; and calls on the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to bring forward proposals to the UK Government and European Union authorities that would positively resolve this matter. — [Mr Elliott.]

Which amendment was:

Leave out all after "health" and insert: "welcomes the establishment of a veterinary medicines working group to urgently advise the UK Government on proposals that would positively resolve this issue for farmers, industry and animal owners; and calls on the UK Government to ensure continued supply of veterinary medicines in Northern Ireland beyond 2025 by pursuing an agreement with the EU on a long-term basis and, if necessary, by introducing legislation to prevent regulatory divergence between Great Britain and Northern Ireland." — [Mr Irwin.]

Photo of Áine Murphy Áine Murphy Sinn Féin

It is vital that negotiations between the British Government and the EU continue at pace to resolve the matter of the restriction of veterinary medicines to the North. I welcome the work already done to reduce the risk of some veterinary medicines being discontinued. However, there remains real concern about the ability to import certain vaccines that are fundamental to controlling disease in the North.

We note the comments of the chief executive of the NI Pork and Bacon Forum, Deirdre McIvor, on how the pig sector has reduced the use of antibiotics by over 75% in the last eight years and how limiting access to veterinary medicine flies in the face of responsible use of antibiotics and the "One Health" approach that the sector has successfully adopted. The grace period is due to end in December 2025, and Sinn Féin wants to see a prompt solution found by the EU-UK Joint Committee to ensure continued access to a full range of veterinary medicines.

Disease protection is vital to our food chain. The agri-food sector in the North is a major source of economic prosperity and is recognised for its quality, safety, knowledge-driven approach and transparency in its supply chain. The AERA Minister must also work with the Economy Minister to increase the opportunities for farmers and, indeed, food producers to maximise dual market access, particularly given the all-island protected geographical indication (PGI) status for grass-fed cattle.

As we are aware, the greenhouse gas emissions from grass-fed systems are lower than those from indoor systems due to minimal inputs, so it is important that we make the best of the opportunities. Thriving rural communities with a growing population, jobs and housing are an essential part of the social fabric of the North. Agricultural businesses are most pronounced in those rural areas. Almost half of businesses in rural areas are engaged in agriculture, forestry and fishing. Agriculture plays a huge role in employment in those areas. Anything that impacts on the economic viability of our agri-food sector could have serious social and economic consequences. The crucial issue of veterinary medicines must be resolved between the British Government and the EU as soon as possible.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I thank Tom Elliott for tabling the motion. Often, we reflect in this place on how pressing and important private Members' motions can be, although I do not believe anybody in the House today can escape the crucial nature of this motion and the time bomb that is about to explode. It is my earnest hope that the House can cast aside party political points and Remain and Leave arguments. The debate is about not only the security of the supply of animal medicines but, perhaps more importantly, sending a united message to London and Brussels that the issue must be addressed for the long term.

Make no mistake: as we speak in the Chamber today, pharmaceutical companies are forward planning. If things are not resolved, we know for a fact that Northern Ireland could see a complete withdrawal of 50% of vital animal medicines. It is as serious as that, and, if not addressed, it will have devastating impacts on our agri-food industry, veterinary practices and animal welfare in Northern Ireland.

The recent inquiry by the House of Lords Windsor Framework Sub-Committee into veterinary medicines and the Windsor framework has highlighted an existential crisis that could severely impact the supply of veterinary medicines to Northern Ireland due to the Northern Ireland protocol. About 85% of veterinary medicine products authorised in Northern Ireland are registered to a GB address. EU regulation 2019/6 on veterinary medicinal products, coupled with the additional requirement for products moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland to undergo batch testing, imposes an unnecessary cost and burden on manufacturers. As a result, we could, as I said, face the alarming prospect of losing access to more than 51% of our veterinary medicines. That potential reduction in the range of veterinary medicines — up to 35% of the current supply — poses significant risks. That will not only affect the availability of different pack sizes but jeopardise the importation of specific products such as vaccines.

The economic consequences for our agri-food industry are severe, as the inability to sell agri-food products to GB due to reputational risk can damage consumer confidence. Moreover, the issue extends beyond economic ramifications. The absence of adequate access to veterinary medicines could lead to increased vulnerability to disease outbreaks, reduce capacity to treat and prevent illnesses and compromise animal welfare standards. That scenario threatens not only individual animals but public health at large.

Our concern is not limited to farm animals. Show animals, such as horses, and companion animals — pets — are also likely to be at risk. The loss of vaccines against many equine diseases and of essential pain management products could be devastating. The British Veterinary Association (BVA) has warned that the loss of the sole vaccine for poultry against salmonella could lead to serious public health emergencies.

I welcome the establishment of the veterinary medicine working group, and it would be churlish of the House not to recognise its composition and far-reaching expertise. The group will urgently advise the UK Government on proposals to resolve the issues for farmers, industry and animal owners.

Our goal should be to find a pragmatic agreement with the EU that respects Northern Ireland's place in the UK internal market for veterinary medicines while maintaining our valuable trade routes. Let us collectively call on the European Union to engage productively with the UK Government. By doing so, we can ensure the continued supply of veterinary medicines, protect our animals' health and welfare and sustain the economic viability of our agri-food industry.

Photo of Connie Egan Connie Egan Alliance

I rise to address this crucial issue, which should have been resolved a long time ago. Alliance welcomes the motion and the opportunity for a discussion that focuses on animal welfare, farming and food security. As we approach the midpoint of 2024, it is seriously concerning that we are no clearer on what will happen at the end of 2025, with no tangible movement or actions evident on the issue. There will inevitably be too little time to make any of the necessary changes before we hit the end of the grace period. Whilst the extension of the grace period was welcome, we must now establish a long-term solution through a veterinary medicine agreement. Such an agreement is necessary to provide much-needed certainty and stability for our industries, ensuring the smooth functioning of our operations and trade activities.

Our farming communities are vital to Northern Ireland's societal framework and economic sustainability. Farmers, veterinarians and industry representatives have repeatedly raised the issue of veterinary medicines and expressed concern about the potential impact of this. A significant number of veterinary medicines are at risk — we know that — and we undoubtedly face a potentially devastating situation that will seriously affect animal welfare. Given that Northern Ireland supplies meat and dairy products around the world, the discontinuation of veterinary medicines will significantly impact on our food supply chain. A vital element of the food supply chain is protecting our animals from diseases. Diseases such as botulism and pneumonia, for instance, are emerging and increasing in number but require vaccines from outside the UK. Inability to protect our animals from those diseases will not only affect our economy but have implications for human health as well as for the health of the animals.

A point that is not emphasised as often as it should be is that this will affect veterinary medicines for not only farm animals but domestic animals such as pet dogs and cats. People in Northern Ireland cherish their pets as integral members of their family, and this should be deeply concerning for many across our community.

The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, Andrew Muir, has been diligently addressing the issue since he took office and will persist in advocating for our agri-food sector and the health and well-being of all animals.

Establishing a long-term, sustainable solution to support the supply of veterinary medicines between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is crucial and must not be delayed any longer.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice 3:15, 21 May 2024

Given the undeniable seriousness of the issue and the potentially devastating consequences for our entire agri-food industry and more, it is a huge disappointment to me that, when the DUP had the leverage, it squandered it and instead returned to the House without the issue having been resolved. Mr Buckley referred to it as a "time bomb". The opportunity to insist on the defusing of that time bomb was before you gave up your leverage, and it is a disappointment that other things mattered more than our farming community. Those who present themselves as the friends of farmers let down the farmers when sacrificing that issue. What did they get? They got what may turn out to be a talking shop — who knows? — and the promise of legislation on the never-never. For that, we continue to live under the cloud and the threat of devastation arising from the withdrawal of veterinary medicines.

As far as the EU side is concerned, it is a nonsense, because, throughout the grace periods since we left the EU, has a single threat been posed by the veterinary medicines that we are using to the EU's single market or to animal health? No, yet the EU says that we cannot continue to use the very medicines that are not causing a problem. That is a typical EU triumph of dogma over reality, with a punitive tinge that is often there when it comes to how the EU deals with matters. It knows, as we know, that pharmaceutical companies are now forward-planning and deciding what they will and will not produce for where, yet the EU hangs back and has refused to arrive at an arrangement to solve a problem that is not a problem for the EU but that is a mammoth problem for Northern Ireland and its agri-food industry. Within that, I find echoes of the most punitive and belligerent of responses. That does not surprise me, because we have had them before from the EU.

So here we are. Our traditional path for accessing medicines is from GB — 85% come from there — and not one of them has inflicted any damage or hurt anywhere in the EU on animals or on health, yet, despite that proven track record of non-damage, the EU belligerently refuses to do the decent thing. It could have done it when it made concessions on human medicines, but it held out and refused, quite deliberately, to deal with the issue. That speaks not to the EU's goodwill or benevolence but to the belligerence in its attitude to Northern Ireland. All the more shame why. That, of course, is the root of the problem. All the more shame that Northern Ireland was betrayed under the protocol and left subject to EU law, the veterinary medicines division of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and all the rest of it. We are now paying the price: a price that is there only to extract pain and discomfort and to serve no animal health purpose at all. That is the approach of the EU. Shame on the EU, although it is no surprise.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I call the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to respond. The Minister will have up to 15 minutes.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank Mr Elliott for starting the debate and for his constructive comments. I am very aware of the concerns about this area, which are raised regularly with me and are very much on my agenda and on the agenda of many people here in Northern Ireland.

I commend the work that was done in the absence of the Assembly by many groups that kept the issue of veterinary medicines supply to Northern Ireland on the agenda. They were key in ensuring a further three-year grace period until 31 December 2025.

I will set out a bit of context to highlight where we are and outline the complications of the situation for Northern Ireland. Up to the point of the UK leaving the EU, the UK veterinary medicines regulations were aligned with the European Union veterinary medicines legislation. However, new EU legislation was introduced, Regulation (EU) 2019/6 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 December 2018 on veterinary medicinal products, which has applied in the EU since 28 January 2022. That repealed directive 2001/82/EC, which applied to the UK. That made an almost immediate divergence between the UK and the EU on the issue and between Northern Ireland and Great Britain as it repealed and replaced directive 2001/82/EC, which was listed in annex 2 of the Windsor framework. Northern Ireland is required to comply with the European veterinary medicines regulation 2019/6, which has many areas that could be potential risks to the continued full and comprehensive supply of veterinary medicines to Northern Ireland.

Members mentioned the various issues that may occur with veterinary medicines supply and have raised that veterinary medicines to Northern Ireland could potentially be impacted in some way through changes in pack size, frequency of supply or, indeed, removal from the market. Many of the products that are supplied could face some degree of reduced availability and frequency of supply, fewer variations of products and increased costs through the supply chain. However, as ever, as Minister, I am solutions focused.

Although I am Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, I currently have no control over this area, as the movement of veterinary medicines between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is now subject to the direction and control of the Secretary of State, as provided for in regulation 3 of the Windsor Framework (Implementation) Regulations 2024. I have met groups and developed an understanding of the issues threatening our supply of veterinary medicines. I understand the issues and recognise the many concerns. Those same concerns have been raised by fellow Members today. We are all in agreement in the House that solutions need to be found. I consider it important that we focus on resolutions, and a mutually agreed solution is what I am focused on. I am not losing sight of the potential problems, but we really need to talk about and understand how we can mitigate this and come to a real-world, actual, durable solution.

In an increasingly interconnected and competitive marketplace, where consumers demand transparency and accountability, our ability to uphold the highest standards of animal welfare is not merely a moral imperative but a strategic imperative. I believe that it is a sign for us all to work together to find a solution. I will take every opportunity to put forward my preferred solution.

In that vein, I volunteered to take part in the UK Government's Windsor framework working group on veterinary medicines, which was established as part of the Command Paper 'Safeguarding the Union' and is chaired by Minister Baker, Minister with responsibility for the Windsor framework in the Cabinet Office, and Lord Douglas-Miller, Minister for Biosecurity, Animal Health and Welfare in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I was due to meet Minister Baker at 3.00 pm in my office, and I cancelled that meeting to come here to respond to the motion. I think that it is important to respond to the motion, but I will seek to reschedule the meeting with Minister Baker so that I can continue that engagement because that is important.

As a member of the Windsor framework veterinary medicines working group, I have actively participated in meetings, discussions and consultations, sharing insights, contributing expertise and working collaboratively to develop solutions to promote the continued supply of veterinary medicines to Northern Ireland. So far, the veterinary medicines working group has met twice, with a third meeting scheduled for 5 June 2024.

Decisions are, ultimately, for the UK Government and European Commission to agree on. The solution to this situation must respect the international treaties that have been agreed between the UK and EU, and unilateral actions should not be an option. The recommendation to introduce legislation to prevent regulatory divergence between Great Britain and Northern Ireland would leave Northern Ireland outside the EU regulatory regime. The impact would be upon the movement of animals and animal products, risking many more issues than it would solve. I would not support breaching an international agreement.

I want to reiterate that Northern Ireland faces a potential problem in access to veterinary medicines, with the possibility that many veterinary products that are supplied to Northern Ireland could be affected in some way, whether it be with regard to pack size, frequency of supply, or, indeed, removal of supply.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

I thank the Minister for giving way. I appreciate that he has missed his meeting with Minister Baker, which is obviously important as well. I am trying to get a handle, if he can give us any idea, on what stage the negotiations are at between the UK Government and European Union on the veterinary medicines issue. Does the Minister have any insight?

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

Participation in the veterinary medicines working group requires the signing of a non-disclosure agreement, because some of the matters that are discussed are commercial and legal and are, therefore, confidential, as the Member probably understands. We have discussed some of the flexibilities that are available in current law. As regards engagement with the EU, I cannot speak on behalf of the UK Government, but my understanding is that it has not been significant on that issue. I hope that it can be stepped up. I could have provided Members with a greater update from a meeting with Steve Baker. I will raise the issue when I meet him. I will seek an update from him and write to the Member and the Committee on the issue, if that is helpful.

I want us all to work together to find a solution on practical, implemental actions to address the issue. It is absolutely key that we address it. I am committed to doing everything in my control to ensure that we provide as much certainty and stability as possible. The interconnectedness of animal health, environmental health and human health cannot be overstated; a reality that underscores the urgency of finding a solution to the issue.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I thank the Minister for giving way and for the recognition that he places on the huge vulnerability that Northern Ireland faces from the lack of veterinary medicines. Is it his assessment that the working group that has been established has the capacity and capability to progress the debate towards a solution?

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I will happily engage with the working group, but the fundamental reality is this: in order to get a solution to the issue, it needs to be commonly and mutually agreed between the UK and EU. Within the current flexibilities, I do not have the confidence that we could get a solution without actually getting an agreement between the UK and EU. That is what fundamentally underpins the way forward. It is about engagement and trust. Any discussion about unilateral action will massively undermine that. We need to engage the UK Government and EU around that. I engage in the working group because I am focused on solutions, and other people are part of that as well. We need to get a solution. It may be that, as part of that, because of the timescales around it, we need to argue for an extension of the grace period.

I will be honest with you all: I think that I am looking towards a change of Government in the UK to be able to get solutions on that, because the response that I have received from the current Government and their attitude towards alignment between the UK and EU have not been positive. One of the key solutions to this is alignment between the UK and EU. I will do all that I can to get a solution on it. Whilst it does not sit within my power and responsibilities, I recognise that it is a concern, and I will engage with any Government who will speak to me to be able to get a solution.

I will also say, on engagement with the EU, that the current protocol from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office massively inhibits my engagement directly with the European Union. I encourage the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to reflect on that. Currently, my engagement with the EU is through the UK Government. It would be much more beneficial to have direct engagement with the EU so that we can engage and find solutions on the issue. I understand that we must adopt a multifaceted approach; one that encompasses short-term mitigation strategies and long-term solutions. We must seize this moment as an opportunity, a chance to re-evaluate existing frameworks, chart a course towards a more resilient, sustainable future and strengthen collaboration across borders.

3.30 pm

Crucially, I will support the response that is underpinned by the principles of inclusivity, stakeholder engagement and respect for the law and by the voices of our farmers, vets and industry experts. Only by working together in partnership and solidarity can we hope to overcome the challenges that lie ahead. The negotiations on any agreements should seek to build trust and partnerships and maintain trust in relationships so that Northern Ireland is able to ensure the health and welfare of its animals and the health of the public. Doing nothing is not an option. Waiting until the last minute for a negotiated outcome would be just as bad, as many decisions are being made now by manufacturers, suppliers and wholesalers.

The House of Lords Windsor Framework Sub-Committee inquiry recommends a sanitary and phytosanitary agreement, otherwise known as SPS — we are very good at acronyms. An SPS agreement between the UK and the EU would not offer a complete solution to the issue, but it would set out measures to ensure food safety and protect the health of animals. It would also reduce a lot of the friction experienced to date. My ministerial policy and preference is to have an SPS agreement between the UK and the EU. I support that approach, because it would simplify so many of the issues that we face. It would reduce friction and aid trade between the UK and across the EU and lay the groundwork for alignment and mutual recognition of the veterinary medicine regimes in the UK and the EU.

I have said this before, and I will say it again: my personal preference is to have a negotiated veterinary medicine agreement between the UK and the EU. That would be a direct, long-term solution to the issue. As Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, I am committed to advocating for the interests of Northern Ireland in the development of such an agreement, working collaboratively with the UK Government and the EU on ensuring that the health and welfare of our animals are protected.

In closing, I reiterate that, at our next meeting with the UK Government — I meet Steve Baker once a month; it is important that we have that established relationship — I will reflect some of the comments that have been made here. If the motion is agreed to, I will write to the UK Government to outline my proposals and share a copy of that letter with the Committee. If Members can unite around the position that I have outlined — a mutually agreed veterinary medicines agreement between the UK and the EU — it will allow the House to speak with one voice and be united on the issue. Hopefully, Members can look to that as the direction in which to go forward.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

Mr Buchanan, you have up to five minutes in which to wind up on the amendment.

Photo of Thomas Buchanan Thomas Buchanan DUP

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank the Member for bringing the motion to the House. The recent inquiry by the Windsor Framework Sub-Committee not only shone a light on the crisis facing the supply of veterinary medicines to Northern Ireland but demonstrated the significant distance that still has to be travelled if a permanent and durable solution is to be found. Losing access to key veterinary medicines from Great Britain would decimate our agri-food industry and result in dire consequences for animal health and welfare and the control of disease right across Northern Ireland.

There has been collective concern in the House today about the future availability of veterinary medicines. We know that many companies store products in GB for onward supply to veterinary practices and wholesalers in Northern Ireland. Current supply chains, which have been built up over many years, would be uprooted if the import requirements levied by the EU were applied to movements from the rest of the United Kingdom.

The grace period has been mentioned by many contributors today. While the extension of the grace period to 31 December 2025 is welcome, it is not enough to simply kick the can down the road. Regulation of medicines is complex, and adapting to a new process requires a long lead-in time. Therefore, it is completely understandable that pharmaceutical companies are looking to make decisions now, rather than waiting for the cliff edge. That makes the need to find a permanent and lasting solution even more pressing. Therefore, a pragmatic agreement with the EU that respects Northern Ireland's place in the UK internal market for veterinary medicines and prevents trade diversion and added costs for businesses and customers must be found. That is essential.

We must be clear that the current derogation must not be viewed as a staging post to the unacceptable foisting of the full rigours of EU regulation 2019/6 on our rural and business communities. Any conditionality that was explicit or implicit in the latest grace period around agreeing to an action plan towards full implementation of the EU's demands should be severed by the Government.

We have had quite a bit of support in the Chamber, and I want to touch on some of those comments. The proposer of the motion mentioned that the UK Government regulations that were introduced in 2021 for human medicines left doctors with no need to do anything different. Therefore, a similar resolution could and should be found for veterinary medicines. I am sure that it would be quite simple to find a similar resolution for veterinary medicines.

William Irwin said that the Government must make swift progress on a durable solution. That is what we need : we need a durable solution, and it must be achieved swiftly by the Government. Declan McAleer spoke about small rural farms in Northern Ireland and the mental health issues that are associated with running some small farms. It is vital that, in future, no more pressure is put on small farm holdings when it comes to accessing veterinary medicines. We know about the pressures that are being faced by small farmers. His colleague spoke about the agriculture industry being the social fabric of Northern Ireland and said that it needs to be protected. The agriculture industry is, of course, the social fabric of Northern Ireland.

Patsy McGlone said that there was still time for the issues to be resolved. He mentioned, however, two caveats: the danger of a carve-up between the UK and the EU; and the risk to animal and human health. Jonny Buckley said that we should send a united message to London and Brussels that the issue must be resolved. We must send a united message from the House.

Mr Allister said that although no medicines had ever caused any problems —

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I ask the Member to draw his remarks to a close.

Photo of Thomas Buchanan Thomas Buchanan DUP

— the EU insisted on blocking them from coming into Northern Ireland.

Photo of Thomas Buchanan Thomas Buchanan DUP

I commend the amendment to the House.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

Thank you. I call Robbie Butler to conclude and make his winding-up speech on the debate. Mr Butler, you have up to 10 minutes.

[Interruption.]

[Laughter.]

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

I hope that you will not take those five seconds off my time, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am lucky that it was not my phone. I will just make sure that mine is on silent.

Before I begin, I want to recognise something that happened in the Chamber in relation to the motion. We saw a rare moment of genuine cross-party cooperation between the Members for Upper Bann. I know that I am a nice, touchy-feely sort of politician who loves to see a genuine reaching across, but I enjoyed that exchange between Eóin Tennyson and Jonny Buckley. They not only agreed on the matter but smiled at each other. It was a remarkable moment, and I wanted to recognise that.

Photo of Eóin Tennyson Eóin Tennyson Alliance

Savour it.

[Laughter.]

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

I will savour it, because I am sure that, over the next couple of years, we will lock horns on many issues. That is the truth: we will lock horns on many issues, but it is really good to have a moment in the Chamber where, during the response from the Minister, we saw great crossovers and a recognition of the pressures that are being faced by veterinary practitioners, medicine providers, farmers and the agri-food industry. There seems to have been a cross-party realisation of the moment that we find ourselves in. We can smile about it and have a bit of fun, but this is a critical issue. To neglect the seriousness of the motion would be to fail to recognise that the very foundations of our agri-food industry could be seriously affected and, possibly, crumble.

I am not declaring an interest per se, but I have a huge interest in the issue from a busman's perspective. For many years, I was a butcher in a number of shops in Lisburn. One of the things that I enjoyed about that job, apart from serving the fine customers of Lagan Valley and further afield, was the fact that I knew that the produce that I was working with, whether it was beef, lamb, pork or poultry, was world class and top quality. That does not happen by accident but through decades of hard work by our farm workers and producers, who ensure the integrity of the products that Northern Ireland is famous for. That is why the motion is about slightly more than just what is happening in the political moment.

As a number of Members have pointed, up to 51% of our veterinary products in Northern Ireland are at risk. That is a staggering figure, and it poses a significant threat to our agriculture sector, which is the lifeblood of our economy. The Minister has recognised that and, to his credit, given firm commitments. I know that many in the agriculture sector are grateful for that.

Veterinary medicines are not merely products that sit on a shelf but essential tools that ensure the health and productivity of our livestock. They support our farmers and safeguard our food supply chain. The absence of adequate access to those medicines jeopardises our competitiveness on a number of levels. Northern Ireland's produce is not like that of anywhere else in the world. Without the necessary veterinary products, our ability to prevent and treat illnesses in animals is severely compromised. That vulnerability can lead to devastating disease outbreaks, causing immense economic losses and undermining the tireless efforts of our farming community. Mr Buchanan mentioned the mental health and welfare of our farmers, and they have been under pressure for many years. The Minister and I spoke about that last week, and I know that it is a priority. That is impacted when there is pressure on veterinary medicines.

The Sub-Committee that we are talking about has highlighted the fact that the current situation creates an environment in which Northern Ireland is at a competitive disadvantage compared with other regions. That disparity could result in increased costs and operational challenges for our farmers, who are already working under challenging conditions. The Sub-Committee also emphasised the critical role of veterinary medicines in maintaining high animal welfare standards. That is critical for Northern Ireland's position in regard to its offering.

Without those essential products, our farmers are unable to manage and treat diseases effectively. That leads to unnecessary suffering by our animals. We are an animal welfare-facing Assembly, and we are animal welfare-facing people here in Northern Ireland. It is not just an ethical issue but one that affects our global reputation and our marketability. Moreover, its implications extend beyond individual farms and animals. Public health, which a number of Members spoke about, is intrinsically linked to animal health. When we fail to control diseases in animals, we potentially open the door to zoonotic diseases, which can have catastrophic consequences for human health. I was a butcher at the time of CJD and mad cow disease, and I remember the fear that that instilled not just across businesses but in our public. The interconnectedness of animal health, food safety and public health underscores the critical need for reliable access to veterinary medicines.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. His comment leads on to an important point. Does the Member agree that this is a time-critical issue? Just as the public understood the debate on human vaccines in relation to the protocol and how that impacted on Northern Ireland, they equally understand and are concerned about veterinary medicines. Does he agree that it would be a dereliction of duty by the UK Government and the European Union to not come forward with a solution quickly?

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

I thank the Member for his intervention. I agree with that, because it speaks to the very interconnectedness that I referenced. I will go slightly further and perhaps, through the Chair, speak directly to the Minister on this point: we have had a democratic deficit due to the outcomes of Brexit, which has meant that we have not had a voice. The mess that we are in is probably because we have not had that voice, through the Conservative Government, at the EU. This issue offers us a chance, however, and the Minister, to his credit, has said that he will offer solutions. I agree with the Member that it is time-critical and that we need to address it with haste.

The Sub-Committee further noted that the current regulatory framework under the Windsor framework does not adequately address the issues. There is a clear need for more tailored and region-specific solutions that recognise the unique challenges faced by Northern Ireland. On that point, I will reminisce again about my days as a butcher and take Members back to another moment that I remember: the first introduction and influx of Brazilian beef. The difference between what the offering is here and what we have accepted from other regions is marked. We really do need to face into protecting the quality product that we have, which is underpinned by access to the best medications that are recognised by both jurisdictions.

The Sub-Committee's inquiry underscores the necessity for proactive measures to ensure the continuous supply of veterinary medicines that mitigate the risk of disease outbreaks and safeguard public health. In light of these concerns, the motion calls on the Minister of Agriculture to give voice and advocacy, and I give credit to Minister Muir in that he is already committed to doing so. That message must be taken to the European Union and, indeed, the Government in London. I hazard that we should not delay to wait on a Labour Government. Whilst that may be the outworking, we do not want to waste any time, and I know that the Minister will not do that. Therefore, it is imperative that we secure a positive resolution to ensure the continuous supply of veterinary medicines to Northern Ireland. Our farmers and our agri-industry deserve the tools that they need to maintain the highest standards of animal welfare and public health. Our agri-food industry, a pillar of our economy, must not be hampered by bureaucratic hurdles that can be overcome with clear, proactive negotiation and cooperation.

I turn very briefly to Members' comments, and please do not be annoyed if I do not give you a wee shout-out, guys. I credit my party colleague Tom Elliott, who put the motion together. Tom really should have declared his interest as a farmer, so I will do that for him, if that is OK. He set up a good motion today, and it is good to see the cross-party support for it. William Irwin declared his own interest and spoke to the amendment and the need to put meat on the bones. Clarification has been given on the amendment, and we will support it. There was concern that we would put ourselves in a position that would work against the industry, and that has been clarified. Declan McAleer talked about extension of the grace period, potentially, if needed, beyond 2025, but he reiterated that the EU needs to be informed and brought along with that. He talked about food security.

Eóin Tennyson, apart from being in agreement with Jonny Buckley, referenced the outworkings of Brexit. He welcomed the motion, which is great, but he highlighted the challenging time frames and spoke of the potential need for an extension to the grace periods. I think that we will all agree that that should be done only if it is required. We really want to get to the point where we get the certainty and our farmers and agri-food industry know exactly what way they will be facing. To be caught in this vacuum is not useful for anybody. Patsy McGlone reiterated the problems that are a result of the failure of the EU and the Conservative Government, and he referenced what we did with human medicines as a potential solution. He also reiterated that there are other viable alternatives. Jonny Buckley spoke about the time bomb and the time constraints, and it was nice to get a little reminder of that. Jim Allister recognised the scale of the matter and the import of the issue —

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance 3:45, 21 May 2024

Will the Member bring his remarks to a close?

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

— and queried the reliance of the DUP on the promised UK legislation. That is a fair point. We then had a fine wrap-up from the Minister. I commend the motion and the amendment to the House.

Question put, That the amendment be made. The Assembly divided:

<SPAN STYLE="font-style:italic;"> Ayes 27; Noes 41

AYES

Mr Allen, Mr Allister, Mr Beattie, Mr Brooks, Ms Brownlee, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Ms Bunting, Mr Butler, Mrs Cameron, Mr Chambers, Mr Clarke, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mr Elliott, Mrs Erskine, Ms Forsythe, Mr Harvey, Mr Irwin, Mr Kingston, Mr Lyons, Mr Middleton, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Robinson, Mr Stewart, Mr Swann

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Harvey, Mr Irwin

NOES

Mr Boylan, Ms Bradshaw, Miss Brogan, Mr Delargy, Mr Dickson, Mr Donnelly, Mr Durkan, Ms Eastwood, Ms Egan, Ms Ennis, Ms Flynn, Mr Gildernew, Miss Hargey, Mr Honeyford, Ms Hunter, Mr Kearney, Ms Kimmins, Mrs Long, Mr McAleer, Miss McAllister, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McMurray, Mr McNulty, Mr McReynolds, Mrs Mason, Mr Mathison, Mr Muir, Ms Mulholland, Ms Á Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Ms Nicholl, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr O'Toole, Ms Sheerin, Mr Tennyson

Tellers for the Noes: Mr McGlone, Mr McReynolds

Question accordingly negatived.

Main Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly notes the House of Lords Windsor Framework Sub-Committee’s inquiry into veterinary medicines and the Windsor framework; acknowledges the deep concern of the agri-food industry that the number of veterinary products estimated to be at risk in Northern Ireland could be up to 51%; further notes that the absence of adequate access to veterinary medicines risks competitiveness and could lead to increased vulnerability to disease outbreaks, reduced capacity to treat and prevent illnesses and compromise animal welfare standards; recognises that this not only poses a threat to individual animals but has broader implications for public health; and calls on the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to bring forward proposals to the UK Government and European Union authorities that would positively resolve this matter.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I ask Members to take their ease while we change the top Table.

(Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Ní Chuilín] in the Chair)