Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Committee for
Agriculture and Rural Development

Friday 15 June 2001


Update on Foot-and-Mouth
Disease Outbreak

Members present:

Rev Dr Ian Paisley (Chairperson)
Mr Armstrong
Mr Bradley
Mr Douglas
Mr Ford
Mr Kane
Mr McHugh
Mr Paisley Jnr


Ms B Rodgers Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development
Dr B McCrackenDepartment of Agriculture and
Mr P ToalRural Development

1. The Chairperson: You are welcome to the Committee session.

2. Ms Rodgers: It is four weeks since I addressed the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development on foot-and-mouth disease. The position in Northern Ireland has continued to improve over that period. There have been no further outbreaks of the disease and the serology testing that the Department has been carrying out on sheep demonstrates that the virus is not, and has not been, present in sheep outside the flocks which were detected and dealt with.

3. In recognition of that, and as foreseen at my last session with the Committee on this subject, the European Union granted regional foot-and-mouth disease status to Northern Ireland on 5 June. That decision has allowed the immediate resumption of exports of live pigs and certain products from susceptible animals, excluding beef because of BSE. Sheep will again be eligible for export with effect from 1 July.

4. Departmental officials are continuing to look at the remaining controls with a view to dismantling or at least relaxing them as the disease permits. I have particular concerns about the plight of the livestock marts, which, as the Committee will be well aware, remain closed. My intention is to permit the marts to reopen under a suitable disease control regime as soon as it is safe for them to do so. I think that will be within two months.

5. The improvement in Northern Ireland's foot-and-mouth disease situation is now such that the Executive will issue revised guidelines later today which will allow the reopening of land and property which has until now had to remain closed. Northern Ireland's situation stands in stark contrast to that in Great Britain where foot-and-mouth disease appears to have flared up again just when it seemed to be on the wane.

6. The differences in our respective disease situations mean that the controls I imposed on the movement of livestock products and people from Great Britain will have to remain in place until the picture in Great Britain improves significantly. However, I have agreed that horses will be able to be imported from Great Britain.

7. Departmental officials have been preoccupied with dealing with the foot-and-mouth disease crisis over the past four months or so, but other issues and animal diseases have not gone away in the meantime. The time is now right to switch some of the Department's efforts away from foot-and-mouth disease to those other issues. For example, there is a backlog of work which needs to be done in relation to tuberculosis (TB) and brucellosis control.

8. Also, if we are to avoid criticism by the European Union, and if we are to have any chance of achieving early regional treatment on BSE, which will allow the resumption of cattle and beef exports, a substantial backlog of BSE testing needs to be done. We are also facing revised European Union rules requiring more BSE testing of cattle. For those reasons, I intend to scale down the amount of effort that the Department has been devoting to foot-and-mouth disease control, and to redirect the resources released to deal with other pressures.

9. As the Committee members know, the Department has been testing about 10,000 sheep blood samples per day in the serology testing programme that I referred to earlier. That has involved tests on about 300,000 sheep or 10% of the Northern Ireland sheep population - a huge effort by any standards. It was carried out in the areas judged by the veterinary service to pose the greatest risk.

10. The work is extremely labour intensive, and I am considering what further testing may be required for epidemiological purposes, bearing in mind the resource implications and the competing priorities.

11. The dedicated foot-and-mouth disease helpline, established at the start of the crisis, no longer fulfils its purpose, so I intend to close it with effect from Friday 22 June. The departmental helpline will continue to be available, as will be the special Private Office arrangements that I made for handling queries from MLAs.

12. That is all that I have to say on foot-and-mouth disease. I think that we have reached the point where there is no further need for me to provide the Committee with these routine updates as a matter of course. I would therefore like to make this the last such appearance, unless of course the disease situation dictates otherwise. I will, however, be happy to attend the Committee on request to discuss foot-and-mouth disease or any other subject. I am grateful to the Committee for its assistance and support during the foot-and-mouth disease crisis. I also want to express my gratitude to the industry and the general public for their co-operation and forbearance in the past four months. It was a difficult period for all of us, and the effects of foot and mouth will be with us for some time. However, it was gratifying that we were able to work together so effectively in the industry's best interests.

13. The Chairperson: Thank you, Minister. I am sure that my Colleagues will have some questions. Can you clarify something, please? Will the ban on the import of horses be lifted?

14. Ms Rodgers: Yes, from Great Britain.

15. The Chairperson: Does that also mean that horses from here can be exported?

16. Ms Rodgers: Yes.

17. The Chairperson: So it is a two-way process.

18. Ms Rodgers: Yes. The horses coming in will have to abide by all the protocols and be subject to disinfection.

19. The Chairperson: The reopening of the marts is important because there can be no proper price competition until that happens. Is there anything still in the way that means that that has to be delayed for two months?

20. Ms Rodgers: I am guided by veterinary advice. Marts have been reopened as collection points for fat lambs going to slaughter, and we hope to open them soon as collection points for over-30-months animals going to slaughter - only to slaughter, not back to the farm. That is under review. We do not yet have the all-clear, and, with further outbreaks of the disease occurring in Great Britain, we still have to keep up our guard. I hope to be able to reopen the marts for cattle - but not for sheep in the initial stages - as soon as the risk, according to veterinary advice, is minimal. However, I cannot give an exact date, but I am aware of the difficulties, and I am anxious to proceed as soon as possible.

21. The Chairperson: In your letter to me you mention the 20-day standstill period. Can you tell us something about that, please?

22. Ms Rodgers: The European Commission has issued that Directive and that remains the situation for the time being.

23. The Chairperson: You say

"It is my intention to extend the controls beyond the current foot-and-mouth disease crisis to help thwart any future disease outbreaks. By implementing this delay, any disease symptoms could be clearly visible long before any animal is subsequently moved off a holding, thereby reducing the risk of unintentional disease spreading."

24. Ms Rodgers: We have to minimise the risk of any further outbreaks of disease. As the frequent movement of animals played a large part in the spread of the disease in the first place, we have to be very careful about it. We will consult with the industry, and the subgroup of the Vision Group will look at the lessons to be learned. All of those things will be taken into consideration.

25. The Chairperson: You also mention the tagging of sheep in the letter.

26. Ms Rodgers: We are still looking at that. It is quite a big issue, and we will be consulting the industry about it. My view is that the absence of sheep tagging led to difficulties in tracing animals and getting ahead of the disease.

27. The Chairperson: You say in the letter

"I am therefore proposing to introduce some form of identification - "

28. Ms Rodgers: Yes.

29.The Chairperson:

" - either electronic or ear tags, and this may or may not be accompanied by the need to introduce movement permits."

30. Ms Rodgers: Yes. As I said, it may or may not be. We have to consult with the industry, but it is my clear view that some form of tagging will have to be introduced.

31. The Chairperson: You also mentioned the payment of extensification premium, and you hoped that all these people would have received their payments by mid-June. Have they received them?

32. Ms Rodgers: Yes. They have been paid.

33. The Chairperson: I have had representations about compensation payments. What is the state of payments?

34. Ms Rodgers: At this point we have paid £8·5 million in direct compensation. Valid claims amounting to £51,000 are being processed and will be paid in the next 10 days.

35. Mr Armstrong: I am sorry that I missed the first part of your statement.

36. Some of my constituents will be asking about the reopening of rivers. I know that the lakes are open again for fishing. There may be a problem with stock along the edges of rivers, but a fair bit of the edging is arable and fishermen can come in only at certain points.

37. Ms Rodgers: I am aware of the problem for the angling fraternity. I hope today to have final Executive approval for new guidelines on the further controlled relaxation of movement. There is no longer any reason why people should not resume normal countryside pursuits, and angling is one of those. I will be issuing a press release stating that there can be controlled access for anglers. They can again fish those rivers and lakes which can be reached without risk of encountering farm animals. We are keen to encourage controlled access, and I will ask the organisations which represent anglers and other countryside enthusiasts to make contact, where appropriate, with local farmers or landowners to make sure that appropriate precautions can be put in place to allow that. Anglers, and others, need to ensure that there will be no contact with any animals.

38. Mr Douglas: I am pleased that things have gone well since the last time you were here. Regional status makes matters better for everyone, and we welcome it. You mentioned that you hope for a further easement of restrictions later today. We have been under pressure from some councils to open some of the country parks and walkways. Will the easement apply to the whole country or will restrictions continue in some areas?

39. Ms Rodgers: It will apply throughout the North to all countryside areas, but people need to be careful not to be in contact with farm animals. There will be consultation with councils and the various relevant bodies to ensure that that happens, but there will be a relaxation.

40. Mr Douglas: Can anything stop the export of live sheep from 1 July? Could there be a problem?

41. Ms Rodgers: All that could stop it would be if the markets do not want them, but I hope that our traditional markets - for example, in France - will be open to us and that they will accept them. The Commission's decision is that live sheep exports will begin on 1 July.

42. Mr Kane: I also welcome the movement of horses that the Minister has told us about this morning. I stress again what Dr Paisley has said - it is essential that cattle marts be reopened as soon as possible. I will welcome that when it comes about. I have three points to put to you.

43. First, is the Minister as surprised as the farming community at the small number of positive outbreaks to date in the Province? What does her Department believe accounts for this, given the enormity of the foot-and-mouth crisis on the mainland?

44. Ms Rodgers: The obvious answer is that we closed the ports as soon as we were aware that there was foot-and-mouth disease in Great Britain. That saved us from a very large number of affected sheep running around the North, and perhaps even the Republic. That is one element that contributed very much to saving us. The other element was the very strict controls that we introduced, and the welcome co-operation that we got from the industry, from the farmers in particular, and from the general public. That contributed greatly to our successful containment of the disease in Northern Ireland. There was huge co-operation right across the North from the whole public, including the urban communities.

45. Mr Kane: Secondly, what is the level of completion of the blood sampling of sheep flocks in the Province? Can you estimate how long it will be until the completion of sampling in all of the Province's flocks?

46. Ms Rodgers: We have completed 300,000 samples, which is a very significant sampling. It is 10% of our whole sheep flock. We hope to complete the blood serology testing of sheep by the end of July. I want to pay tribute to the veterinary division and the laboratory for the work that they have done, because at one stage I did not think it would be possible to get it all done before the end of August. They have worked extremely hard and efficiently in getting it all done so quickly.

47. Mr Kane: I concur with those sentiments. What estimated level of expenditure has there been to date for additional staffing during the foot-and-mouth crisis?

48. Ms Rodgers: I do not have that figure to hand, but I can let you know.

49. Mr Paisley Jnr: I welcome the steady progress that has been made. We echo the congratulations to everyone in the industry who has played their part in tackling this terrible disease. I want to draw your attention to your comment that this could be your last day before the Committee to address it specifically on the subject of foot-and-mouth controls. I hope that you are able to hold to your letter of 11 June, where you indicate that you would come back to us on 22 June and 6 July, and that you would make a statement in the House on 26 June. The impact of, and fallout from, the disease will require us to continue to probe the Department.

50. I also want to raise the issue of the livestock marts. You indicated in your statement that you hoped to put in place a disease control regime. Can you explain to us what the industry can expect from such a regime? Can you spell out the sort of measures that may be put in place on a permanent rather than temporary basis? Can you provide any evidence of the success or otherwise of the video marts which have been taking place? Has the Department had the opportunity to carry out an assessment of those? As we move to the endgame of this disease, are you considering any inquiry into the entire episode, so that we can learn from the lessons of the past? What long-term controls can the industry expect?

51. Ms Rodgers: I have been making reports on the disease situation in Northern Ireland, which I hope I will not be required to do again. I will, as always, be available to the Committee if it wants to talk to me about any issue, should it be the fallout from foot-and-mouth disease or anything else. That goes without saying. In other words, I am not saying that I am never going to answer another question on foot-and-mouth disease or anything related to it.

52. The measures we will be taking include looking at the retention periods, the restriction on movement periods, and the tagging of sheep. We will be looking at all of those issues in consultation with the industry. I am unable to comment on the video marts as that is a commercial issue. I cannot say how successful it has been.

53. As for an inquiry into the episode, I will be looking at the lessons to be learned from the outbreak, as will a subgroup of the Vision Group, which will be reporting to me. We have to put measures in place to ensure that it does not arise again, or, if it does, that we will be able to deal with it quickly.

54. Mr Paisley Jnr: I want to come back on what you said about the video marts. I understand that you do not want to comment on the commercial side of the business. However, the reality is that this business is worth millions of pounds to the Northern Ireland economy, and your Department has a major input into that part of the economy. Is the Department assessing the impact that the video marts are having on trade? That will help the business sector come to a conclusion about the best way forward in the future.

55. Ms Rodgers: I have not been assessing the commercial impact of foot-and-mouth disease. The video marts were able to take place because they provided a way of buying and selling cattle at a time when it would have been highly dangerous to have cattle going through the marts. I am glad that we were able to do that.

56. Although it is an important part of the economy of Northern Ireland, I have been devoting all of my energy to ensuring that we were able to contain the disease and prevent it from spreading. That has been a major effort on my part and particularly on the part of my officials. To divert resources into examining the commercial impact of the videos was not a priority for me.

57. The Chairperson: The issue of your attending Committee meetings was raised. The Members all have a letter dated 11 June in which you agree to meet the Committee again on Friday 29 June for a regular monthly meeting at which you will provide an update on the foot-and-mouth disease situation. You also gave consent for officials to join the Committee on 22 June and on 6 July to provide an update. I do not know the mind of the Committee, but we are happy with that arrangement. The meeting on 29 June is the last time we would be able to talk to you before recess. I do not have the time to canvass all the Members of the Committee, but they may want you to talk to us on that date.

58. Ms Rodgers: I have no objection to talking to the Committee, but I hope to have nothing new to report. I do not want to waste the Committee's time or mine. If the Committee feels that there is a need, I will make further reports on foot-and-mouth, but I am giving my personal view that it may not be necessary.

59. The Chairperson: There may be other things that we want to discuss.

60. Ms Rodgers: That is fair enough.

61. Mr Ford: If this should turn out to be the last of the regular meetings you have had with this, I would like to thank you and your officials for coming so regularly and responding to our concerns so promptly.

62. I would like to follow up an issue that has been touched on to some extent by Dr Paisley. Where do we go from here? You referred to the work being carried out by the Vision subgroup, and to the possibility of looking at some of the regulations, such as the movement restrictions. It seems to me that there is a need to get a package of proposals for the future, and not dribble out two, three or four separate things. I presume that that will all be included in the Vision Group's report to you. I hope that you will then be able to discuss the proposals with the Committee, as part of the consultation exercise on a complete package of future controls, and not just let them leak out intermittently. A lot still needs to be done in Northern Ireland.

63. Secondly, is the Vision Group looking at how the problem of movement controls from GB arose in Northern Ireland? Will the Department undertake a detailed investigation, or are you relying solely on the Vision Group to look at how the problem arose?

64. Ms Rodgers: I hope to announce an investigation into how it all happened. The Vision Group will look at the whole picture and will present proposals to me that will not be piecemeal. I will also talk to Minister Walsh at the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC), because the issue is not just about Northern Ireland and GB - it has North/South ramifications. We will take all that into consideration when we look at why and how it happened and how it could be avoided in the future. I will, of course, consult the Committee when I have proposals put before me to come to conclusions on.

65. Mr Bradley: I compliment you, Minister, and your senior officials on keeping the Committee advised. Everything was very satisfactory. Can you pass on to your staff and advisers in Dundonald House our thanks for their invaluable and prompt assistance? It was definitely appreciated. They got the likes of myself out of many a sticky situation with their helpful advice.

66. My question relates to TB and the ongoing need for all-clear tests. I am aware of farms that had a breakdown in the TB situation prior to the foot-and-mouth outbreak, during which TB testers were unable to visit farms. Those farms have not even been able to have one clear test, and they are now suffering because they must wait for a second clear test.

67. I could understand it if the first test showed that TB was still in the herd, or had even spread within the herd. Then it would be inevitable that there must be closure. However, as six months have passed and the TB has not spread within the herd, there should surely be some leeway to allow those farms to get moving again without the second clear test. You could make a special case, due to the time factor, if the TB has not spread.

68. Ms Rodgers: I thank Mr Bradley for his remarks, and I will pass them on to both my departmental and Private Office staff, who worked extremely hard during the whole episode.

69. As regards the TB situation, we are giving priority to herds that were restricted before the foot-and-mouth outbreak. Those herds are being tested now as a matter of priority. We do not know whether it has spread within the herds - we cannot say until we do further testing. We are, of course, bound by European Union law to do that testing. The only consolation is that we are giving priority to those herds that were restricted.

70. Mr Bradley: Given the time factor, one clear test should be sufficient.

71. Ms Rodgers: I must ask my vet for scientific evidence on that.

72. Dr McCracken: As the Minister said, TB is a difficult disease to detect - we do not know if it has spread within a herd that previously broke down. It could be in 100% of cattle, but one would have no idea from looking at the animals clinically.

73. Secondly, we have to abide by European law, which requires that the herd be restricted and subject to two clear tests before the restriction can be lifted and trading begin. We have no option but to abide by those rules. As the Minister said, we are trying to ensure that such herds get top priority. On Monday, we began to focus on those herds to try and ensure that they pass the second test so that we can lift all restrictions.

74. Mr McHugh: The problem for farmers is that they cannot sell until their test results come back clear. There may be a communication problem, because in some cases the tests have been carried out, samples have been sent to be cultured and six weeks later the Department has not told the farmer the results. Logically, at that point you should be able to tell the farmers what the story is and allow them to make decisions.

75. My experience of video marts in Enniskillen is that they are not particularly beneficial to farmers in some of their workings. Some people will buy a number of animals at a video mart and then not take them when they go to the farm to collect them. Therefore, the video marts are not fulfilling the role of the actual mart. The South has announced a date for opening their marts - I think that it is 18 June. We do not want their marts to be open while ours are closed.

76. As the Minister does not intend to continue her meetings with us, does she consider that other representation will be important? Is she now prepared to recognise Sean Clarke of the newly elected Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers' Association (NIAPA) council as a representative of farmers on family farms, and does she recognise the need for the organisation to represent farmers' interests if we cannot get answers here?

77. Ms Rodgers: With regard to testing for TB, people know the results on the day.

78. Dr McCracken: If the test is clear, they know on the day.

79. Ms Rodgers: I have no responsibility for video sales. The decision to use video sales was a commercial one taken by the mart owners themselves to try and find some way of buying and selling as the marts could not open in the normal way. It is an issue that I do not want to comment on. I am anxious to keep it under review so that we can open the marts as soon as it is possible without risk. I know that nobody on the Committee would want me to take any risks, because the last thing we want is to find ourselves back to square one.

80. With regard to the marts opening in the Republic of Ireland on 18 June, you must bear in mind that they had their last case a month before we had. Therefore, we will be behind them in reopening the marts.

81. I have had no communication from NIAPA and no requests for a meeting, and I have no way of knowing what the situation is. The sooner the situation is clarified and farmers can be represented, the better. The terms of the letter that I wrote to both sections of NIAPA set out clearly that I was anxious that the matter should be resolved satisfactorily so that I would be in a position to know with whom I would deal in the future.

82. Mr McHugh: It is important to recognise the democratic mandate of the people, the farmers themselves, regardless of what might be in your letter regarding solicitors.

83. Ms Rodgers: I have no problem in recognising democratic mandates, so long as somebody makes me aware of what the position is.

84. Mr Douglas: There is no doubt that the entire community has suffered in some way throughout the foot-and-mouth episode; those who work in markets have been highlighted as one of the main groups of people who have suffered, but there are others.

85. I am thinking particularly of people employed, for example, with contracts to cut trees for the electricity supplier. I know of one company that had twenty employees, but had to pay twelve of them off. Now that the work has started again, they find that they cannot employ people. Is there anything that you can do, as Minister, to help these companies to get back on their feet? This company has been severely hurt. I know people who worked for it and who have gone to other places. The company is in a difficult position and will lose its contract if it cannot get employees who are trained in health and safety. Can anything be done through the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, or by you, to help them?

86. Ms Rodgers: Consequential loss is not a matter for my Department. The Executive has discussed it; the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and the Department of Finance and Personnel have taken it on board. Some efforts have been made to deal with the position of the marts by deferring rates, and that applies to bed-and-breakfast establishments and small businesses. It is a difficult area and it is being looked at on a national level. We have made it clear at national level that Northern Ireland should have its fair share of any consequential compensation that is being considered or given.

87. Mr Douglas: Is there hope?

88. Ms Rodgers: This is a matter for the Treasury, which is not always the most generous when it comes to handing out money. I must be realistic, but the case has been made.

89. The Chairperson: We know that our time is almost up. You have heard from my Colleagues around the table, and, as Chairperson of the Committee, I would like to thank you personally for keeping me fully informed. It was appreciated.

90. We must not cease the strict scrutiny at the ports. That is the secret of this, because if the disease appears here it will be because it has been imported. As we have said, unfortunately they have not yet conquered this disease across the water. Therefore, it would be serious if it was transported to us. Everyone in the Department who has worked so hard deserves the thanks of the people, and the farmers also deserve thanks for their fortress farming. They took that to heart and cut themselves off and made a lot of sacrifices. The matter of compensation is something that we need to discuss on another day. Thank you for coming.

91. Ms Rodgers: Thank you, Chairperson. I agree with your remarks about the ports. We have to keep our guard up, as do the people coming in. In particular, the farmers must maintain fortress farming. That is important since the disease is so near - just across the water. I thank the Committee and the whole community for their co-operation

11 May 2001 / Menu / 7 September 2001