Agriculture and Rural Development
Friday 7 September 2001
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
Update on Foot-and-Mouth
Disease Related Issues
Membership and Powers
The Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development is a Statutory Departmental Committee established in accordance with paragraphs 8 and 9 of Strand One of the Belfast Agreement and under Assembly Standing Order No 46. The Committee has a scrutiny, policy development and consultation role with respect to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and has a role in the initiation of legislation. The Committee has 11 members including a Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson and a quorum of 5.
The Committee has power:
- to consider and advise on Departmental budgets and Annual Plans in the context of the overall budget allocation;
- to approve relevant secondary legislation and take the Committee Stage of relevant primary legislation;
- to call for persons and papers;
- to initiate enquiries and make reports;
- to consider and advise on matters brought to the Committee by the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development.
The membership of the Committee since its establishment on 29 November 1999 has been as follows:
Dr Ian Paisley (Chairperson)
Mr George Savage (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Billy Armstrong Mr PJ Bradley
Mr John Dallat* Mr Boyd Douglas
Mr David Ford Mr Gardiner Kane
Mr Gerry McHugh Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Ian Paisley Jnr.
* Mr Dallat replaced Mr Denis Haughey on the latter's appointment as a Junior Minister.
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
Friday 7 September 2001
Rev Dr Ian Paisley (Chairperson)
Mr Savage (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Paisley Jnr
Ms B Rodgers ) Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development
Dr B McCracken ) Department of Agriculture and Rural Development
Mr S Johnston )
Mr R Jordan )
The Chairperson: Welcome, Minister. We are grateful to you for giving us the agenda and dates for the rest of the year; the matter has been satisfactorily resolved. With that, I shall hand over to you.
Ms Rodgers: Good morning. I hope you all had a good summer - if we can use the term - or at any rate a good break. I am grateful for this opportunity to update the Committee on foot-and-mouth disease in Northern Ireland.
First, I would like to say a few words about the review of higher education and research and development in agriculture and food science which I announced some time ago and which takes an important step forward later this morning. I shall formally initiate the review immediately after this meeting. I made public my decision to conduct it on 8 February 2001, and in July I announced details of the panel which will carry it out. After this session I shall meet members of the panel to initiate the exercise. A letter, advising the Committee of this, is on its way to you, Mr Chairperson, if it has not already arrived. However, I felt you would wish to be aware of the launch at this stage.
I shall now turn to the subject of foot-and-mouth disease. The last time I appeared before the Committee to discuss the subject was 15 June 2001. I am pleased to say that Northern Ireland has had no further outbreaks of the disease in the intervening months. I would be much happier if Great Britain were in the same position but, as members are aware, that is sadly not the case. The recent flare-up of the disease in Northumberland has been particularly unfortunate, taking the total number of outbreaks above the 2,000 mark.
Needless to say, the situation is particularly troubling for us in Northern Ireland, given the potential for the disease's reimportation. To prevent that occurring, I have retained the legal prohibition on the import of livestock and certain derived products from Great Britain despite continuing pressure from there to scale down such precautions. I have also maintained the physical controls at the ports and airports. It is essential that we keep the matter under constant review, and I shall meet my southern counterpart, Joe Walsh, next week to discuss how best to keep the guard up at all points of entry to the island.
In Northumberland it seems that foot-and-mouth disease lay undetected but ready to spark further outbreaks. The Committee will be glad to hear that, and to help ensure that we do not find ourselves in the same position in Northern Ireland, my Department will continue with, and perhaps expand, its serology-testing programme for Northern Ireland sheep. Testing carried out to date on about 500,000 animals showed no evidence of foot-and-mouth disease in flocks. However, the recent experience of the authorities in Great Britain makes it clear that the disease can flare up again unexpectedly in areas where it was thought to have been contained. Moreover, such testing, encouraging though it is, provides only a snapshot of the position at any given time; it must continue while there remains any threat of disease, and that is why we must pursue the programme. Despite all our efforts, in a situation where foot-and-mouth disease remains in Great Britain, we cannot be absolutely safe from the threat of infection.
While it sounds rather hackneyed to keep saying so, it is absolutely vital for farmers to continue with "fortress farming" and for all of us to keep our guard up. Over the three months since I last appeared before the Committee I have been able to reduce many of the controls I had to put in place during the worst of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak. There is inevitably a degree of risk in doing so, but it must be balanced against the need for agricultural communities to begin functioning normally again. The result is that many of the livestock movement restrictions have now been lifted, and pig and sheep exports have resumed, as have imports from places with a disease status similar to our own.
As I said when announcing the resumption of farm-to-farm collections and commercial sheep sales last month, three important controls remain. The first is that cattle and sheep should not be allowed to mix. The reason is that foot-and-mouth disease is self-limiting in sheep, but if it spreads to cattle or pigs, the results can be disastrous. That is particularly important to us as we approach the autumn, when sheep traditionally move back down from the hills. Farmers must ensure they are kept away from other susceptible species.
The second control relates to the licensing of sheep movements, the purpose being to allow my Department to trace the sheep involved in the event of another outbreak. The last of the three controls is the 20-day movement standstill designed to prevent the rapid dissemination of infection if it should arise again. All those controls are important, but the danger is that the farming community will conclude that, since we have now had no foot-and-mouth disease cases for just over four months, they are unnecessary and may safely be ignored. That is definitely not the case.
Members will recall that I announced I should provide for the individual identification of sheep. My officials are examining what the authorities elsewhere in the UK and Ireland are doing in that regard. I am minded to introduce a relatively unsophisticated system in the first instance. While such a system could quickly give us the sort of control we need in the event of future foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks, in the long run we need the sort of computerised system that we already have for cattle. That must be our ultimate goal. However, I hope to consult the Committee very soon on firm proposals for the initial way ahead.
I will finish by updating the Committee on developments on subsidy fraud since my public statement of 20 July 2001. To assist the Committee I have set out the current position in the table that I forwarded to the Committee earlier this morning.
The key points are as follows: advances on 2001 sheep annual premium claims (SAPS) have now been paid in accordance with the finding of the comparisons of cull data with subsidy claims. Those farmers who have been penalised, or disallowed, have been given the opportunity to provide additional information to enable the decision on their claims to be reviewed, if appropriate. Of the 89 farmers with some sheep, but fewer than claimed, 57 have responded with explanations, and those are now being considered. The remaining 32 have not responded, suggesting that they accept the penalties applied.
In the 17 cases where no sheep were identified, the farmers have been subject to investigation, with a view to prosecution. Nine of those cases have now been referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions for decision on prosecution. Investigations are being completed on the remaining eight. The next investigations will be pursued in relation to those with some sheep, but significantly fewer than claimed, to assess whether there is evidence of fraud. It is likely to require at least a further couple of months to complete the actions currently in hand. As soon as the final position is known, I will provide a further report to the Committee.
I am happy to answer any questions raised.
The Chairperson: The Committee welcomes the fact about education. You did not go as far as we would have liked, but you have gone part of the way, and we wish that well. We are glad that progress has been made.
With regard to fraud, do you have the actual numbers from Armagh and Cushendall that needed to be investigated? The figures that I have are 58 and 48, making a total of 106. That is nowhere near the figures on this paper.
Ms Rodgers: The total number in South Armagh was 93, and in Cushendall it was 106. That is the total number of SAPS claims, both the questioned ones and the unquestioned ones.
The Chairperson: Were there nine questioned in Armagh?
Ms Rodgers: In Armagh there were 16 where no sheep were involved, 26 rejected claims, and 16 penalised claims. In Cushendall there was one with no sheep involved, 11 rejected claims, and 36 penalised claims.
The Chairperson: Are those the final figures?
Ms Rodgers: Yes, but it is ongoing. The picture is not complete until we have dealt with all the responses.
The Chairperson: Could there be additions to this when you bring your next report?
Ms Rodgers: There will not be an addition to that particular table, because those are the figures of the farmers who had no sheep and have had rejected claims and penalised claims. There will be no change in that. Some farmers may be offering explanations that are acceptable, and therefore there may be a reduction in some of those figures. There may be a reduction where people have been asked to explain the discrepancy, because they may come forward with legitimate reasons. This is the worst case scenario.
The Chairperson: Are those the final figures of investigations to be done?
Ms Rodgers: Yes.
The Chairperson: Could they be added to?
Ms Rodgers: No. There will be nothing added, but some may be taken off.
The Chairperson: You said that you took it for granted that where there was no response, people were saying they were guilty.
Ms Rodgers: When people do not respond to our queries, we have to take it that they are accepting the situation.
The Chairperson: So the situation is that if they do not respond you look at that as pleading guilty. Was any compensation paid to any farmer that was later discovered to be a fraudulent claim?
Ms Rodgers: The farmers were compensated for all animals slaughtered, which is a separate issue to the subsidy. As far as I am aware no subsidy was paid until the situation was clear. Everything was in order for the subsidies that have been paid.
The Chairperson: So no money was paid under this scheme to any farmer that was not entitled?
Ms Rodgers: No money was paid to anyone not entitled to it.
The Chairperson: Did anyone get through the net?
Ms Rodgers: No.
The Chairperson: You told us that you are going to come back with a further report.
Ms Rodgers: Yes, as soon as the picture is clear, which will probably take another few months.
The Chairperson: Will we then have the full picture?
Ms Rodgers: Yes.
The Chairperson: How much money was paid to those found guilty?
Ms Rodgers: I do not have the details now, but I can get them for you.
The Chairperson: Perhaps the final report could have that figure in it.
Another matter affecting many people is sheep movement to the South of Ireland. Would you like to comment on that? Members are aware of difficulties ensuing from when the first batch was due to go, and they wish to hear your views on those problems and the restrictions they create.
Ms Rodgers: I am aware that there were difficulties after the free movement of sheep was allowed and there were commercial reasons involved. Initially we had to put protocols in place to satisfy the Republic of Ireland that it was safe, because clearly we had not finished our serology testing. One could understand why people were nervous. Once all that was in place there was then a further complication, which was a commercial issue. At that time, I wrote to Minister Davern about the issue and expressed my concern. Officials from the Department left officials in the Republic of Ireland in no doubt about our concern. Along with meetings that the Ulster Farmers' Union had with the Irish Farmers' Association also, I am pleased to say that the matter was resolved and normal trading has now resumed.
The Chairperson: The vision group was to report on foot-and-mouth disease. When are we likely to see that?
Ms Rodgers: The vision group will be presenting their report on 4 October.
The Chairperson: Is it right that we are left out of the United Kingdom report entirely?
Ms Rodgers: They are carrying out their own investigation into foot-and-mouth disease, and we will be making some input.
Mr Johnston: We will be acting as observers and if anything relevant comes up we will have an opportunity to feed into it. We are taking one step back.
The Chairperson: It would be essential to have an opportunity to have input, especially if there is going to be a continuation of foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks. That is very serious at the moment and farmers from those areas have been in contact with me. They are very worried, especially with the change in weather, and they feel that it might get worse. It is essential that we have our fingers on the pulse there.
Ms Rodgers: I agree with you Mr Paisley. Mr Johnston said that we will observe but from a distance and we will investigate our own situation.
Mr Savage: I am glad to hear that there are no more outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease in this country. I am concerned about the live cattle, especially dairy stock, coming into Northern Ireland via the Republic of Ireland. Do those cattle meet all the health standards of Northern Ireland?
Ms Rodgers: Yes.
Mr Savage: It seems funny that anything at all can come into Northern Ireland but we can take very little out. I am concerned about that.
Ms Rodgers: Those animals must meet a certain standard, and we inspect them on the farm to which they arrive to ensure that everything is in order.
Mr Savage: I saw advertisements in the paper at the weekend. It was not very long ago - and you would know some of the herds in question - that herds were down with TB and brucellosis. I am concerned that people can bring those cattle in, and I hope that somebody will take that point on board.
I would like to draw to your attention a point that I raised in your Department yesterday. As far as I know, little has been done about it. The people who represented Northern Ireland in the World Ploughing Championships in Austria arrived back in Larne yesterday morning. They have documentation to prove that their competition ploughs were washed and so forth in Austria to meet all the standards. The tractors and ploughs are now sitting at Larne harbour. The sickening thing is that those farmers have been told that they must go back onto the boat and go to Scotland to get a certificate so that their machinery can be released into Northern Ireland. That is stupid. Those people are the stalwart representatives of Northern Ireland - they are advertising Northern Ireland and promoting our agriculture industry. It is a big enough job to get them to go on a voluntary basis, and it really is not on to treat them like that when they come home. I ask you, Minister, to intervene personally.
Ms Rodgers: There have been a few recent instances where people, including MLAs, have complained to the private office about similar cases. For instance, two lorries were sent back about two and a half weeks ago to England or Scotland - I cannot remember which - because they had not been cleansed at all. I make no apology for the fact that we are being extra cautious at the ports. I have been criticised in the past for not being cautious enough, and now I am being criticised for the Department's being too cautious. I do not know the details of that case, but I can look at it. If they came through England or Scotland I suspect that the officials were doing their job and being perhaps overly cautious to ensure that the machinery has not in the meantime been in contact with the disease across the water. It is a precaution, and I am happier that my officials are erring on the side of being too cautious rather than of being too lax. I can look at that situation. However, I support my officials in being overcautious, because there is an increase in the disease across the water. I know that it can be inconvenient, but it is in the interests of the farming community that we keep our guard up. I will look at the details of that case, but my officials were doing what I have been stressing that they should do. They require a certificate from GB. The people could have got a certificate in GB before they left.
Mr Savage: They understood that everything was clear and that the documentation was in order. What are computers for, if a lorry has to return from Northern Ireland to the ferry terminal on the other side to get a certificate and come back again? Computers are supposed to cut down on bureaucracy, but this seems to be an example of increased red tape.
Those persons live in a farming area, and in no way would they contravene any measure designed to prevent the disease being brought into Northern Ireland. On arrival, they asked to be disinfected, but officials would not allow the lorry to be moved. We need to remember that the lorries are hired, and the costs are therefore mounting all the time. I simply draw the case to your attention.
Ms Rodgers: There have been cases of lorries arriving with certification, but, on examination, they were found, in the officials' opinion, not to be clean. Those were sent back. We cannot take people's word for it. Some may be perfectly legitimate and others may try to pull the wool over our eyes, but my officials must apply the regulations.
Mr Armstrong: When serology tests are carried out on 60 sheep, it is likely that the most healthy ewes will be brought down from the mountain. Those that might be lame and less agile could be left up the mountain. We must be on our guard about that. Foot-and-mouth disease could rear its head again when all the sheep are brought down from the mountains in November.
Ms Rodgers: My veterinary expert will deal with that very technical matter.
Dr McCracken: The testing of 60 sheep is based on the fact that if infection were present in that flock - be it 100 or 1,000 sheep - we would expect positives in those 60. Testing 60 sheep in each flock gives us considerable hope that the flocks do not have foot-and-mouth disease. Nevertheless, we recognise the danger and believe that there is a potential risk. Furthermore, lame sheep may not be the only ones that do not come down. One or two farmers might believe that they have some dodgy sheep, and those are certainly not going to be presented to us for testing. We know that, and we take on board the comments made today. We are very concerned about sheep coming down from the hills this year. We have only to look at the Northumberland experience. There is every indication that there was residual infection in sheep on Hexham moor. The people there are now having to deal with many outbreaks.
Mr Douglas: I welcome the Minister's update, with special thanks to her for getting the sheep markets open again. We must be conscious that foot-and-mouth disease is still about, but it is important that the markets are open again - perhaps in a limited way - to those farmers. Their harvest is to be able to sell their breeding stock and lambs. I hope that they will abide by all the regulations. It is important that the market is there and that there is some competition for the meat plants. It has been a great relief to the farming community, and I thank the Minister.
Ms Rodgers: Thank you for your comments.
Mr Paisley Jnr: Minister, I am sure that you agree that it is right and proper to clamp down firmly where fraud exists. I am also sure that you will agree that it is right and proper that adequate compensation be paid to those who have lost a great deal as a result of foot-and-mouth disease.
I understand that article 18 of the Foot-and-Mouth Disease Order (Northern Ireland) 1962 states
"(a) In the first instance the value of any animal so slaughtered shall be assessed by an inspector;
(b) if the owner signs an agreement to the effect that he is willing to accept the assessment made by the inspector, compensation shall be paid on the basis of the aforesaid assessment ."
There is no right to an appeal.
Do you accept that under the very trying and traumatic circumstances that the country experienced during the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, there are farmers who signed up to such agreements under duress? They feel that when the inspectors came to their land and assessed their stock, they were in a daze - yet they had to sign away their lives. It is only on reflection, weeks, or a few months, later, that they discover that the compensation that they received is not as adequate or proper as they believe it ought to be.
Is there any way in which you could consider bringing forward another Order, or an amendment to change article 18, so that a right to appeal could be established whereby people who signed away their livelihoods in such trying circumstances could have their cases heard again?
Ms Rodgers: First of all, farmers were all made aware that when their flocks were being assessed - and I accept that it was a very traumatic time all round - they had the right, if they were not happy with the assessment by the inspector, to have an independent assessment. Some farmers did take advantage of that. They had that option.
It would be difficult to reopen cases. I would not be happy with that at all. If you have an individual case that you want to write to me about, I will certainly respond to you. A lot of people in the farming community, and others, have suffered losses because of the disease. The assessments that were made at the time, and signed up to by farmers, with the right to an independent valuation -
Mr Paisley Jnr: Minister, if I do write to you, the law does not allow you to look at that case, so, with respect, writing to you cannot actually change things.
Ms Rodgers: I understand that.
Mr Paisley Jnr: I am asking whether you would consider bringing forward an amendment that would allow you to look at the issue effectively.
Ms Rodgers: I have no intention at this stage of considering an amendment to the law. The reason for stating that you might wish to raise a case with me is I am prepared to look at whether a breach of the procedures was involved. However, I would not be happy to change the law after the event.
Mr Kane: How are imports of livestock from other countries in keeping with "fortress farming"? I feel that this activity makes nonsense of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development's anti-foot-and- mouth disease measures. I am aware that 500 German cattle were imported into the Province on Tuesday last. Has Germany got BSE-free status?
Ms Rodgers: It has.
Mr Kane: I was unaware of that.
Ms Rodgers: Sorry, Germany has low incidence status for BSE. In the European Union, we cannot prevent trade from countries that have low incidence BSE status. As far as I know, the countries that do not currently have it are the United Kingdom and Portugal.
Mr Kane: But Germany does not have BSE-free status as such.
Ms Rodgers: I am not aware that there is such a thing as BSE-free status. There is low incidence status. No member state has BSE-free status, but there is a low incidence status, which Germany has, as well as the Republic of Ireland, France and other countries. The UK is considered as having high incidence, although you will be aware that I have been fighting the case for Northern Ireland on the basis that we have a much lower incidence than the UK as a whole.
There were problems with that due to the panic over BSE five months ago. However, it is hoped that the issue will be looked at again by the end of the year when the picture will be clearer as a result of the surveillance testing and screening that is taking place.
Mr Dallat: Minister, I am sure that, as a former teacher, you are aware of the recent international survey that indicated the serious problem of adult literacy and numeracy in Northern Ireland, with 260,000 adults affected. The Department's business strategy places a great deal of emphasis on education and training in the agriculture industry, and I welcome your emphasis on vocational training and lifelong learning.
You plan to establish a ministerial-led group to proof all Government policies for their rural impact. Will that group be able to identify cross-cutting themes to ensure that other Government Departments play their part in ensuring that farmers' needs are identified and addressed - not only in relation to literacy, numeracy, education and training but also rural tourism and economic and social revitalisation in disadvantaged areas.
Ms Rodgers: Yes. Due to the foot-and-mouth disease situation and the resultant diversion of resources I have not been able to move forward with the rural proofing plan as quickly as I would have liked. However, we are moving on it now, and it is hoped that an officer in charge of rural proofing will be in place in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development very soon. Under rural proofing we will be looking at all Departments and areas that relate to the rural community and the farming community.
Mr Bradley: Minister, when you next visit the Committee in October can we expect a complete update on the co-operation you have had from the other Departments and their commitment to rural proofing?
Given that there were 40 outbreaks of foot-and- mouth disease in Northumberland and Cumbria in the last fortnight, and given the comments that the Deputy Chairperson made about machinery, are there any DARD officials at the ports at Stranraer or Cairnryan telling lorry men and drivers what to expect when they get to Northern Ireland, or are we depending on the Scottish operators to tell them what is required.
What is the situation regarding sheep and cattle that are taken to marts but are not sold, for instance, because of the price? What is the procedure, or what is required, before those animals can be taken home again?
Ms Rodgers: Rural proofing is not part of my report today but, since I responded to Mr Dallat's question, I will respond to Mr Bradley's question. There was a delay because of the foot-and-mouth disease crisis and a number of issues had to be put on the back-burner. However, I hope to be able to put proposals to Executive Colleagues soon, and I will be happy to share those with the Committee. In the meantime, arrangements are in hand to recruit a head for the rural proofing unit that is to be established in the Department. I am confident that someone will be in post shortly and I will be reporting to my Executive Colleagues, putting proposals to them, and reporting to the Committee.
There are Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) staff at the ports across the water. As far as I am aware, there are notices in place. My Department received a complaint, in the early days of the procedure, that people were not alerted before they left the other side of the "pond", so we had notices displayed to alert people that they had to go through certain protocols before they left to come over. I would be surprised if people involved in the farming industry of Northern Ireland were not aware of what measures are required, because many of them - more than anyone else - have been critical of me for not having sufficient protocols at the ports. Therefore I would be surprised if people were not aware of the need to have everything correct before embarking on the other side.
Dr McCracken: You asked about what happens to animals that were not sold at market. They can go back to the farm of origin, but, because they could have come into contact with disease, the 20-day standstill will apply.
Mr McHugh: Pressure has been brought to bear by members of this Committee, and by the Chairperson, on particular areas with regard to fraud, and that has damaged the public's overall perception of farmers. I believe that the Department has its own way of trying to eradicate fraud, so that people are only paid for the livestock that they own. How good is the current system in relation to North/South traceability? Can livestock, including animals that disappear or die, be traced in both directions by both Departments? Also, some farmers have over-30-months (OTMS) cattle because their farms were in closed areas and the farmers could do nothing. Under which Order - I was led to believe that it might be the Foot-and-Mouth (Northern Ireland) Order 1962 - are compensation payments being based? If it is the 1962 Order, there was no such thing as OTMS cattle then. Has that implications for farmers? They are being told that they cannot get compensation. They are getting only half the price for their animals.
Ms Rodgers: I am not sure what you were saying in your initial remarks regarding fraud, but I think you were saying that the emphasis on fraud was unfortunate.
Mr McHugh: An emphasis on particular areas.
Ms Rodgers: The emphasis was clearly on the areas where culls took place and for that reason only. I was simply carrying out my responsibilities by dealing with the issue and being open and honest in informing the Assembly and this Committee and in responding to questions. That has been my way of dealing with matters from the beginning. Issues should be dealt with openly and honestly, and people should know exactly what is happening. It is unfortunate for the many decent farmers in Northern Ireland, including those in the affected areas, that some farmers have, unfortunately, brought them into disrepute. Unfortunately people tend to tar everyone with the same brush, but that is not of my doing.
We are working very closely with the Republic of Ireland to detect fraud, and we are setting up an anti-fraud squad.
Mr Johnston: Under the North/South Ministerial Council, a subgroup is being established to look at North/ South fraud issues.
Ms Rodgers: There clearly is a need for that.
On OTMS cattle, farmers who could not dispose of such cattle suffered a consequential loss. Consequential compensation, as you will be aware, applies to farmers and to other people across the North. While I would be sympathetic to paying consequential compensation, we have looked at the issue and, unfortunately, it is just not possible within the available resources. To pay consequential compensation at all would open a huge area of, perhaps endless, compensation payments.
Mr McHugh: I am trying to get you to focus on the legislation under which the compensation payments are made. Are payments based on recent legislation or legislation drawn up when there were no over-30-months cattle?
Ms Rodgers: They are based on legislation that existed before the advent of OTMS cattle. They are also based on animal health legislation.
The Chairperson: I have no apology to make in relation to the Chairperson's or members of the Committee's looking into matters that were exposed and brought to the Committee's attention by you, Minister. I make no apology for highlighting the fact that people have claimed for sheep that they do not possess. Fraud must be dealt with, whether people like it or not.
Mr Ford: The Minister spoke of having observers at the inquiries in Great Britain. Can she inform us what exactly is planned for inquiries in Northern Ireland? What is being done to ensure that the openness and accountability that are lacking in DEFRA's inquiries in Great Britain apply here?
Ms Rodgers: I have announced that I will be carrying out an investigation into foot-and-mouth disease in Northern Ireland. I have not yet decided precisely how best to do that; timing is, of course, very important. I will be considering it further over the coming weeks, and I will let the Committee know what I intend to do as soon as I have reached a decision.
Mr Ford: I appreciate that. However, Chairman, we should impress upon the Minister the importance of a fully open and accountable inquiry, unlike the three inquiries across the water, which are regarded as cover-ups. It is essential that the openness that she has shown in coming to the Committee be carried forward into the inquiry.
The Chairperson: That is a matter that, no doubt, the Committee will wish to discuss with the Minister. Thank you, Minister.