Agriculture and Rural Development
Friday 9 March 2001
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
Rev Dr Ian Paisley (Chairperson)
Mr Savage (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Paisley Jnr
Ms Rodgers)The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development
Mr B McCracken)Department of Agriculture
Mr P Small)and Rural Development
1. The Chairperson: Last week's was recorded and you should have received a copy of what was said. It was recorded by Hansard and we apologise that you did not get a copy; you will receive one. The Committee resolved this morning that while you are with us it will be on the record and you will get a copy to make your own corrections. We are sorry that did not happen last week but it was recorded unofficially last week. I wanted to make that clear.
2. The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers): I am grateful for the opportunity to update the Committee on the current foot-and-mouth disease situation. I will be making a full statement on Monday so, rather than spending too much time on a detailed statement, I will be brief so as to allow sufficient time for questions from Committee members. As the Committee will know, we have still only had one confirmed outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. The animals involved, and those that have been in contact with them, have been slaughtered and incinerated - about 2,500 animals in total. My Department has completed its investigations into those responsible for the illegal trading of infected animals which was at the foot of the outbreak. The papers have been passed on to the RUC to pursue the matter further.
3. We have traced all the relevant animals and have tested or destroyed them. I hope that the Meigh outbreak will prove to have been the only one but it is too soon to be confident of that. Farmers and the agri-food industry still have to remain on their guard to be absolutely sure that we have stopped the outbreak in its tracks.
4. Furthermore, earlier this week I met delegations from the banks, the grain trade, the retail sector, auctioneers and the processing sector to discuss the impact that the outbreak is having on them.
5. The banks are fully aware of the cash flow problems created by the present situation. The statement that they issued subsequent to the meeting showed that they were prepared to be flexible and understanding of the difficulties. Similarly, the grain trade, which has already been through the experience with the pig sector, was understanding about the short-term problems that would arise and is prepared to be flexible. I will be meeting the General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland (GCCNI), which also has encountered problems caused by the situation.
6. In Great Britain the disease situation is much more serious, with no sign yet that it has been controlled. That means that we must maintain the present controls on British livestock and products. Those controls are causing concern in both the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) and in the industry. I am convinced that the only reason that Northern Ireland does not have a much worse foot-and-mouth outbreak is that I imposed controls as soon as I knew that Great Britain had a problem. To dismantle them now would be completely wrong. My Department's powers to impose those controls are increasingly being called into question. I am confident that we are acting within our rights.
7. I met with the Republic of Ireland's Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, Joe Walsh, last Wednesday. He was able to tell me that all of their suspect animals have tested negative for foot-and-mouth disease, but a larger number of their herds remain under restriction on a precautionary basis.
8. As we move out of the emergency disease control phase, people's minds are turning to the financial implications. We will shortly be able to start paying compensation to those whose livestock has been slaughtered. We are also looking at how to cope with some subsidy aspects of those cases to make sure that the farmers in question do not lose out. I want to assure the Committee, however, that we will be taking a long, hard look at all compensation claimants to ensure that we are not paying money to anyone who was in any way wittingly responsible for the outbreak. I have asked my officials to ensure that the newly announced agri-monetary compensation is paid out as quickly as possible.
9. We are also working closely with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on the OUTgoer section of the Pig Industry Restructuring Scheme (PIRS), which closed to bids a few days ago. About 800 bids were received in respect of Northern Ireland, which is hugely in excess of the numbers from either Scotland or Wales and close to the number received from England. I have no information yet on how competitive our bids may have been.
10. It is my objective, assuming that no more foot- and-mouth cases emerge in Northern Ireland, that we complete our post-disease isolation period and then seek an early exit from the export controls imposed on us as part of the UK. As I explained earlier, the controls on livestock and products from Great Britain are likely to take longer to remove.
11. That is all I propose to say for now, but I am happy to take questions from the Committee. This morning we have received the final result from the flock of sheep in Ballynure and it is, as we expected, negative.
12. The Chairperson: Thank you very much for that statement. I intend to call members who were not called on the last occasion in order of strength on the Committee. One member from my party will ask a question, one from the SDLP, one from Sinn Féin and, if we have time, we will bring in the other parties. It is only fair that those who did not get to speak last time should speak today.
13. I would like to put two matters to you. First, there was an alarming report in 'the Irish News' last Wednesday, suggesting that 8,000 sheep may have been smuggled in to the state and that these came in on a permit to kill, but have not been slaughtered. Can you give us any information about that?
14. Ms Rodgers: As I have already said, I had a meeting with Joe Walsh on Wednesday. He assured me that the Republic has put restrictions on quite a large number of herds as a precaution. They have also slaughtered a number of animals, but have had no positive results. So far, all their tests have proved negative, but they are keeping a close eye on the situation.
15. The Chairperson: At the last meeting, I asked you about the number of animals that had come in during the past weeks to be slaughtered. You told us that you were unable to provide the exact number. Can you tell us that number today?
16. Ms Rodgers: My officials are checking that, even though it is not an easy thing to check. The officials in the Department have been under immense pressure because of the various things that have been happening in the emergency. I assure you that it is being dealt with and you will have the figures as soon as we have them.
17. The Chairperson: I wanted to speak to you about a matter that we spoke about at the end of a television programme about protests from the meat processors because they were unable to import meat from other parts of the UK, that was processed for them. They wanted to import it, finish the processing, and put it into the meat chain.
18. Ms Rodgers: I am aware that many problems are arising from the ban on importing products, but I have been guided, at all stages, by advice from my Chief Veterinary Officer and European Union (EU) regulations on importing products. Some products can be imported under certain conditions and heat treatments, but I will continue to be guided by the Chief Veterinary Officer's advice.
19. My clear objective is to ensure that foot-and-mouth disease is primarily contained to where it currently exists and then kept out of Northern Ireland altogether. To help achieve that objective, I will abide by the advice given to me by the Chief Veterinary Officer.
20. The Chairperson: Is there a chance that that meat will get in?
21. Ms Rodgers: You are referring to a specific issue with a company that has a problem. We are in dialogue with that company. They have put proposals to us, which we are currently studying from a scientific and practical perspective, but I repeat that my primary concern will be to ensure that we keep the disease out.
22. Moreover as the EU has laid down regulations, I will be looking for regionalisation as soon as possible. We will also need to conform to all the EU regulations to enhance our chances of regionalisation, whenever that time comes.
23. The Chairperson: My last question is on the issue of compensation. Is the Ministry going to deal solely with direct compensation, that is for those who have lost animals? Are the Government not going to consider compensation for those whose livelihoods have been taken away because of the situation and who are suffering severely?
24. Ms Rodgers: I understand the question and that there has been a lot of consequential loss. Nevertheless, the position on compensation is that we are moving to expedite the direct payments to farmers who have had animals slaughtered. That will be done as quickly as possible.
25. As you are aware, the agri-monetary compensation has been made available and is being drawn down. I have asked my officials to expedite that. I am hoping that the Less Favoured Areas (LFA) payments will be announced on Monday, and that 90% of those will be finished by the end of the month. I hope that the first tranche of sheep agri-monetary compensation will also be paid by the end of the month.
26. In other words, I am doing everything possible to get money into the pockets of those suffering as fast as I can. The consequential issues will have to be dealt with at a national level. Any money for consequential compensation will have to come from the Treasury. There will be a meeting next Wednesday of the regional Ministers and I have no doubt that that issue will be discussed.
27. The Chairperson: Minister, that completes our questions.
28. As a Government, we need to look again at those people who have been equally hurt by this as those who have lost cattle. Rates and those payments to hold staff together will cost a colossal amount of money. The Government need to look seriously at that. The Prime Minister has already stated that he will look into that.
29. Ms Rodgers: The issue of rates was raised at one of the bilateral meetings that I had with the industry. It has also been discussed at the cross-departmental officials' meetings of which I am Chairperson. It is under consideration to see if there is any way that we can deal with it.
30. Mr Savage: Minister, I am glad to hear that there are firm restrictions on imports. The main priority is to ensure that there are no more outbreaks in Northern Ireland. That is the most important thing as far as I am concerned, and as far as the farming industry is concerned. If we can restrict Northern Ireland to one case, there is a big opportunity for loosening up restrictions in a few weeks' time. I congratulate the Minister and all the officials in the Department. I do not wish to ask any questions. Everything that needs to be asked has been asked.
31. Ms Rodgers: Both my officials and myself appreciate those comments.
32. Mr Paisley Jnr: Apparently, of the original sheep that were brought in, the lion's share went to the Irish Republic, were slaughtered, then sold to France as Irish lamb. EU regulations are in some way contravened if Northern Irish lamb is sold and marketed as Irish lamb. That damages the whole product on this island. Have you asked the Republic of Ireland to investigate the matter? Moreover, have you informed the European Community? Moving on to a more operational issue, since declaring an emergency, have you personally made contact with the Chief Constable of the RUC regarding operational matters and the level of assistance being provided? I ask that in light of recent criticism made by Mr Fee and the Republic of Ireland's Government about a lack of support from the RUC on the ground and also from the officer commanding the British troops on the ground. What has been said to the RUC and to the Officer Commanding and what was their response?
33. Ms Rodgers: Any lamb or sheep slaughtered in the Republic of Ireland is a matter for the Republic of Ireland. I cannot comment on that. Insofar as there has been any occurrence of illegal trading, that has been followed up and passed on to the RUC.
34. Mr Paisley Jnr: Do you accept that if there is illegal trading through the marketing of non-Irish lamb as Irish lamb that damages the entire product? As a European partner, surely you have something to say to them about that?
35. Ms Rodgers: The gardaí have been investigating illegal trading. However, it is inappropriate for me to comment on the Republic of Ireland's methods of dealing with issues, except to say that there has been total co-operation between the two jurisdictions at all times since the problem arose. The gardaí and the RUC have stated that they are co-operating. A number of lines of investigation are being followed and a number of people have been questioned. I have had a conversation with the Chief Constable of the RUC. I have spoken with the Secretary of State who also has a responsibility, as security is a reserved matter. There is ongoing liaising between my senior officials and the RUC. The RUC group dealing with the issue is led by an Asssistant Chief Constable.
36. Contrary to indications on a recent television programme, the RUC had confirmed that assistance had been requested by the Department and that the RUC had said that it would be available as necessary. That confirmation, I am now aware, was given to the television programme mid-afternoon on the day of broadcast. That is the RUC's position. Operational issues are its concern.
37. Mr Dallat: I will not attempt to make political capital out of a crisis. I have two basic questions. Many sheep farmers will shortly need to move their ewes for lambing and feeding reasons. They would appreciate any advice from the Minister. The second question is not directly related to farming. Last night I met with hoteliers in Coleraine who are badly affected by the present restrictions, which of course they support. They would like an indication - although I am sure that that is impossible - of when they might expect their business to resume normality. They are worried about the North West 200 and a number of major events that are the lifeblood of the hotel industry in that area.
38. Ms Rodgers: I am very much aware of the problem of the lambing ewes which cannot be moved. I was in the Newry office yesterday and spent some time talking to all of the workers there. I want to pay tribute to them because the work that they have been doing is phenomenal. They have assured me of the huge co-operation that they are getting from farmers in that area. On arrival I met a farmer who had the very problem that you referred to. I understand that it is a great difficulty for them. My Chief Veterinary Officer has made it clear to me that bringing them down for lambing would constitute an unacceptable risk. It is possible for them to lamb where they are. It is inconvenient but it can be done. For the moment, that remains the case, despite the inconvenience and difficulties.
39. I understand the hoteliers' anxiety to know. It is impossible for me to say exactly when restrictions will be eased or lifted. We are keeping it under review. For the moment, there will be no easing of the restrictions whatsoever. We will have to wait until 30 days after disinfection on the farm at Meigh before it can be declared that we are out of the woods. Those 30 days are counting down, therefore, if we have no other cases it will be the end of the first week in April before we can say that we are clear. There will be restrictions on products coming in from Great Britain for some considerable time until we can be certain that there is no danger of the disease coming in.
40. Mr Molloy: First, I welcome your statement that there will not be any let-up in the restrictions on meat and animals coming in from England, Scotland and Wales. That is important. There was an article in 'the Irish News' yesterday about the source of the outbreak. There are indications that it might have come from pigswill that has not been treated correctly and from other meats that have been reprocessed into pigswill and feed. Are there any indications at present of the source of the outbreak?
41. Ms Rodgers: Nobody knows yet. There will investigations and a post-mortem. However, at the moment nobody can put their hand on their heart and say how it originated, although we know where in England it originated. We have considerably tightened the licensing on pigswill. Only 10 people here are licensed for pigswill. It is an issue that has been raised and will be looked at. In the aftermath of the situation, we will be looking at least once a week at all of the issues raised.
42. Mr Ford: Concerning Mr Dallat's point on the welfare movement of lambing ewes, my understanding of your press statement this week suggested there would be individual case-by-case consideration of any applications for movement. What you have said implies that you would be unlikely to give that approval. As well as lambing ewes, there are people who have ten or a dozen heifers due to calve on a farm somewhere else. If those two farms are fairly close together somewhere in County Antrim, farmers have told me that they do not perceive that as a significant risk. However, you seem to be ruling it out at the moment.
43. Ms Rodgers: I understand that there will be problems in some areas. In relation to sheep and lambs, the position is as I have stated. In some cases where there may be welfare problems, the vets will look at them.
44. Dr McCracken: Our position must be to have as few animals on the road as possible at present, and we are aiming for that. My contention is that, unless there are overriding reasons, ewes should be able to lamb where they are at the moment. If they are on a mountainside, lambing facilities can be provided - be it straw beds or whatever. Our staff are there to give advice. If it is totally impossible, we will look at movement.
45. In the case of cows, we recognise that there will be welfare problems with outlying dairy heifers with excess milk. We will look sympathetically at moving such animals back, but in the case of other cows we believe that we should sit tight.
46. The other problem is moving weaned pigs to fattening quarters, where they are now building up in large numbers. We regard that as a serious risk, because pigs excrete so much virus. Nevertheless, welfare conditions may dictate that they have to move. If we permit their movement, not only will they have to be licensed but our staff will have to accompany those pigs from A to B.
47. In the case of horses, we did not meet with the industry yesterday. We recognise the problem of mares in foal, and that of a horse requiring treatment at a veterinary surgery. We are making arrangements to accommodate them.
48. The bottom line is that no movement will occur unless we have overriding reasons to justify it.
49. The Chairperson: I welcome that, especially in respect of pigs, because the greatest weakness is there. If there is any infection and the pigs get it, it is curtains for us all.
50. Ms Rodgers: We are lucky at the moment that the prevailing wind is in the other direction.
51. The Chairperson: That is very important.
52. Mr Douglas: Further to the last question, many people are concerned about the movement of stock. We must be responsible to control the disease. At the same time, we need to be reasonable to those people who have difficulties.
53. Is it left to the local vet to make the overall decision or only in some cases? There is a lot of concern, and we have had many phone calls in that regard. Can the local movement of stock be looked at by the local vet, or is a firm ruling being made by the Divisional Veterinary Office (DVO)?
54. Ms Rodgers: We are anxious that there should be no loopholes.
55. Dr McCracken: It is far too important to delegate very far. With the Minister's advice it may change next week, but as of now any movement will only occur when one of my two Deputy Chief Veterinary Officers (DCVOs) agree to it. We consider it sufficiently serious to ensure that that happens. No Divisional Veterinary Officer (DVO) in any of the ten offices will make the decision. It will be made by a DCVO, or it will not be made at all. That is the appropriate step to take at the moment.
56. Mr Small: It is not only appropriate from the veterinary point of view, but to be consistent. If it is delegated too far down different judgements might be made in different locations. That could be a problem. The farmers and the public need consistency, and Mr McCracken's approach achieves that.
57. The Chairperson: Minister, thank you for being with us today. We wish you well with this matter, and would like you to convey to officials and everyone involved that we appreciate the strain that they and the whole farming community are under.
58. Give careful thought to the real compensation problem that exists. I know that every member of the Committee has been lobbied heavily, because farmers can see nothing but dark clouds in front of them. I leave that little word of exhortation with you, and I look forward to seeing you next week.
59. Ms Rodgers: Thank you, Chairman. I thank the Committee for its concern, interest and co-operation. It has been an exercise in which everyone has pulled together. The Ulster Farmers' Union has also played its part, and the public has generally been extremely responsible. I hope that the short-term pain will be worth it in the long run.
60. The Chairperson: Thank you