Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Committee for
Agriculture and Rural Development

Friday 22 February 2002


Discussions with Minister:

(I) Vision Group Report Outcome
(II) Rural Proofing
(III) BSE Surveillance Testing/Beef Export Ban

Ordered by the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development to be printed 22 February 2002
Minutes of Evidence: 07/01/E

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:

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 Mick Murphy*
Mr Ian Paisley Jnr.  

* Mr Dallat replaced Mr Denis Haughey on the latter's appointment as a Junior Minister.
* Mr Murphy replaced Mr Francie Molloy with effect from Monday 4 February 2002

Friday 22 February 2002

Members present:
Rev Dr Ian Paisley (Chairperson)
Mr Savage (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Armstrong
Mr Bradley
Mr Dallat
Mr Douglas
Mr Ford
Mr Kane
Mr M Murphy
Mr Paisley Jnr

Ms B Rodgers )
Dr S Kennedy ) Department of Agriculture and Mr T Stainer ) Rural Development

The Chairperson: Our minds and hearts are with the Green family in Kilkeel, who are going through a terrible experience. A recent briefing through Westminster states that a naval ship is there, and it will continue to be there for some time. However, the blowing gale may be something of a hindrance, and so far there are no clues. The only thing I know is that there are two vessels in Warrenpoint harbour. Our minds and hearts are with the people of Kilkeel at this time, especially the Green family.

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers): It is a very trying time for the Green family and the community of Kilkeel. I know that the family has been shown much solidarity.

I have spoken to the skippers on the British and Irish Navy vessels, and John Spellar has assured me that I will be consulted if they propose to pull out. They will definitely remain until next Tuesday, after which the situation will be reassessed. We can only hope and pray that they will succeed between now and Tuesday.

The Chairperson: There are three matters before us today: the vision group; rural proofing; beef exports and BSE testing.

Ms Rodgers: Thank you for accommodating me by bringing forward the meeting.

The Chairperson: The Committee is always glad to be of help.

Ms Rodgers: As indicated in my memorandum, the vision group report stimulated much interest and debate. I received 81 written responses and 27 requests for meetings from groups or individuals with interests in agrifood, rural and environmental issues. The conference at Loughry College on 27 November was well attended, and those who have had long experience of these matters said that it was one of the most constructive gatherings of that nature that they can remember.

It was something of a problem that many written responses came in close to the deadline of 31 January, which is normal, and it was a large task for my officials to read and collate all of them. The main points are summarised in the memorandum, and there is no point in my going over them now. Suffice to say that, with very few exceptions, the response was positive. The criticism was constructive, and for the most part was aimed at changing emphasis or amending recommendations rather than rejecting them.

A tabular summary of the responses, listing the main comments by organisation and by theme, is being prepared and will be sent to the Committee shortly. Copies of the responses can be made available, if you wish. I need time to consider the report and the result of the consultation exercise, and to have discussions with my Executive Colleagues and officials in other Departments.

I am aiming to produce an action plan in the summer. However, some recommendations that have widespread support and are affordable within the existing provision may be implemented earlier. I will discuss that with my Executive Colleagues next week. I do not wish to be specific about the recommendations that I will implement because the matter is still under consideration. However, they are in the areas of competence development, information and communications technology, training, animal and plant health, the agrifood supply chain, the environment and representing the interests of Northern Ireland.

A working group is being set up to consider the need for a food body, as recommended in the vision report. I have written to the Committee about that separately. If the working group's conclusions are that there should be a food body, it will advise on its nature, structure, functions and funding.

The Chairperson: The Committee is glad that it is now hearing your views on the vision group's recommendations. The Committee made some of these recommendations in four reports that it produced. Will any of those recommendations be included in your announcement? If so, will they be acknowledged?

Ms Rodgers: The Committee's recommendations will be acknowledged. I cannot say precisely what action I will take, but everything, including the Committee's recommendations, will be considered fully.

The Chairperson: The chairpersons of the subgroups of the vision group have expressed disappointment about the amount budgeted for the implementation of their 208 recommendations, and asked the Committee to make the allocation of proper resources an urgent priority. The Committee tried to do that during the debates on the 2002-03 Budget. Your memorandum refers to submitting bids to the Budget for Executive programme funds. How confident are you of securing those additional resources, given the competing pressures in the Executive, especially for funding for the Health Service and education?

Ms Rodgers: I cannot forecast what I will receive, but I will make a strong bid for the necessary resources. An indicative sum of £10 million has been mentioned. When the action plan has been discussed with the Committee and agreed by the Executive, I will estimate what funding will be necessary to carry it through. I will discuss that with the Committee and I will approach my Executive Colleagues to get their approval for a budget.

I will make a strong case in the Executive, but the Chairperson has rightly pointed out that there will be competing priorities, and health in particular will be a strong candidate for funds. I can only say that I will fight very hard for the necessary funding.

The Chairperson: Will the sum required not be more than £10 million?

Ms Rodgers: I cannot comment at this stage because that will depend on the action plan that we want to put in place.

Mr Savage: Minister, your memorandum has outlined widespread support for new entrants schemes and some support for early retirement schemes, as well as your ongoing review. Do you anticipate that the results of the review will provide absolute evidence either way for those schemes? Will you estimate how long it will take to get such schemes off the ground?

Ms Rodgers: The vision report supports and recommends a new entrants scheme. There is no recommendation for an early retirement scheme, but the facilitation of early retirement is recommended. However, I am aware that the farming community supports an early retirement scheme.

Mr Savage knows that I have commissioned research after an inconclusive desk study was conducted last year and that I will have the results of the research being carried out by University College Dublin and Queen's University Belfast in July. I will then discuss the results with the Committee and with my Executive Colleagues, and I will either make proposals or come to a decision.

If the Department decided on an early retirement scheme, for instance, that would have to be approved at the mid-term review of the rural development programme, because the scheme was not included in the initial programme. I am awaiting the results of the research, and I will take it from there.

Mr Savage: If that scheme were brought in, many of the problems regarding overproduction in Northern Ireland would be alleviated. The two issues must work in tandem, and that matter should be examined seriously. Although I have every respect for research from Queen's University, people across the Province regard the scheme as plain common sense. I was glad to see Dr Fischler's comment that early retirement schemes are a necessity across Europe.

Ms Rodgers: I have not seen that comment. Restructuring in farming is required and the question must be asked as to how that is achieved most effectively. Research is being conducted because we do not have infinite resources and we must ensure that the resources we do have are used effectively for the industry. The research will examine how schemes have worked in other countries and will inform us whether schemes are effective elsewhere, or ineffective, or whether some are effective or not. Once that information has been collated, we will be informed of the conclusions. However, it is important that whatever is done is cost-effective because scarce resources must be used to the best effect for the benefit of the whole industry. That is my aim.

Mr Kane: In your general recommendations, retailer loyalty to Northern Ireland produce is not mentioned. Do you foresee any change in the current circumstances, in which "disloyalty" is the operative word, whereby we can ensure greater use of marketing and have greater sales of generic products?

Ms Rodgers: Mr Kane will be aware that I have taken many opportunities to speak to retailers and to impress on them the need to source products locally. Committee members have done the same thing. I cannot force retailers to source products locally. I discussed that matter with some processors recently. People must be aware of the market demands that exist. If the market demands specific products that are made in a specific way, the retailers will want to source those products. I impress on retailers in Northern Ireland the need to source local products. Many of the multiples have targets for sourcing products locally, and they - particularly Tesco and Sainsbury's- have moved substantially towards those targets. Loyalty applies to the customer as well as to the retailer.

Mr Armstrong: The vision group recommended increased producer involvement in co-operatives in order to capture benefits of scale, for example. The Committee has also made recommendations regarding co-operative action. To date the response to that has been that co-operatives must be led by industry, and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development provides for that. However, do you not accept that, if everyone says that more must be done, the Department must examine how it can provide more, or better, support? There may be support for an early retirement scheme, because farmers want to retire but cannot afford to do so. They see a need for regeneration of the industry, so that their businesses can be carried on profitably by the next generation.

Ms Rodgers: What is the question? I lost track halfway through it.

Mr Armstrong: Do you not accept that, if everyone says that more must be done, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development must look at how it can provide more, and better, support for more profitable regeneration in agriculture? We understand that farmers want to retire, but they cannot afford to do so. Therefore, agricultural regeneration is necessary, so that the next generation can carry on a profitable business.

Ms Rodgers: The purpose of the vision group was to ensure that we had a sustainable, viable industry. All the vision group's recommendations have been well discussed and have been subject to consultation. In a few months' time I will have developed an action plan, which will be aimed precisely at regenerating or refocusing what we do, both as an industry and as a Department, to see how we can make adjustments to meet the challenges ahead. My Department and I stand ready to support the industry in a constructive way, based on the vision group's recommendations and our resources. However, several of the report's recommendations will be for the industry to progress, rather than for the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. There are some recommendations that the Department will have to progress, and it aims to implement most of them in co-operation with the industry.

Mr Paisley Jnr: Several Committee members have mentioned the early retirement and new entrants schemes. There is a view that, if the Department were to give those schemes fair wind, it could rejuvenate the industry considerably.

If the Department were unable to make a proposal on this, would it support the Committee in bringing forward a Bill on new entrants or early retirement schemes?

Ms Rodgers: The Committee has the right to bring forward a Bill on anything it wishes. I presume that the Bill would be costed and that the resources would be available for any Bill that goes through the House - that is important.

Mr Paisley Jnr: I know that the Committee is entitled to bring forward a Bill.

Ms Rodgers: I cannot support in advance a Bill that I have not seen.

Mr Paisley Jnr: Do you support the principle of enacting legislation on these issues as soon as possible?

Mr Stainer: Any legislation would have to be dealt with under the rural development plan, so it would have to be agreed with the European Commission. As the Minister said, that would be part of the mid-term review of the rural development plan. Any action that we take must be agreed at that stage, especially if we intend to use modulation money.

The Chairperson: Commissioner Fischler has spoken about this scheme for all of Europe, so he cannot say that Northern Ireland is not included.

Mr Stainer: No, but the proposed scheme must be agreed.

The Chairperson: I am clear about that, and I am sure that Europe will have a great deal to say on the matter. However, if the principle works for Sweden, Denmark and Germany, it should work for us.

Mr Paisley Jnr: Is it correct to say that you are not hostile to the idea of the Committee bringing legislation forward?

Ms Rodgers: The Committee may consider anything that it wishes, within the constraints that have been outlined.

I am not aware of Commissioner Fischler's remarks on early retirement. Modulation money can be spent in several areas, and early retirement is one of those areas. However, it must be remembered that if all the money is spent on early retirement - which is a matter for me to consult on with the industry and the Committee - there will be no money for anything else. The choices are not easy.

Mr Bradley: It is almost impossible to cater for new entrants without providing an early retirement scheme -the two systems work in tandem. It is like the old song 'Love and Marriage' - you cannot have one without the other.

The vision group made several recommendations in relation to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development developing a more proactive involvement in the beef industry. When the Committee made a similar recommendation, the Department's response was defensive. Do you now accept that if farmers in other parts of the supply chain are to make radical changes to the way in which they operate, so must the Department?

Ms Rodgers: I am not sure what you mean. Could you explain further?

Mr Bradley: The Committee made recommendations regarding a more proactive involvement in the beef industry.

Ms Rodgers: Do you mean that the Department should concern itself more with the quality of beef?

Mr Bradley: The Department should become more involved in the entire industry, including the Livestock and Meat Commission (LMC).

Ms Rodgers: The Department acquired £2 million for the beef quality initiative. We had difficulties getting the initiative off the ground last year because of the foot-and-mouth-disease outbreak. However, that is an example of a proactive action by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. With regard to the beef special premium, the Department will consider the imposition of quality conditions. The Department has been proactive as regards the quality of cattle and beef and the need to improve it. I am not sure which other areas you were referring to.

Mr Bradley: A more proactive approach in general is required. At the beginning of the inquiry with the LMC and the beef industry, it was thought that there was not a great deal of co-operation between the Department and the industry.

Ms Rodgers: Are you referring to complaints from producers about prices?

Mr Bradley: Grading and prices.

Ms Rodgers: The LMC carries out grading. Those who grade are trained to do so, and monitoring exercises are carried out. Short of the Department taking over the entire industry and doing everything itself, I cannot see what more it can do. The Department has great difficulty because on the one hand it is blamed if it spends too much money, and on the other it is accused of not doing enough. The Committee has often accused me of spending far too much on the Department's administrative and running costs. The Department cannot do more unless more people are put into the field. However, I am quite satisfied that the Department is doing as much as possible to advise the farming community on the monitoring of all areas - the LMC, training, carrying out inspections at meat plants, all the things that are necessary to help the industry to operate effectively. If Mr Bradley wishes to draw my attention to specific areas, I would be happy to examine them.

Mr Kane: Does the Department carry out the monitoring?

The Chairperson: We cannot go back to that issue - we do not have the time.

Mr Dallat: Co-ops have played a critical role in the life of people in Ireland as regards agriculture and credit unions and so forth. The producer co-ops still have a critical role to play in the farming industry. The Department insists that that should be industry-led, and that the Department provides support. I do not disagree with that, but is there an argument for being more proactive in developing the co-op principle, rather than relying on the industry to develop the process?

Ms Rodgers: It is difficult for the Department to force co-operation. However, it does all that it can to encourage co-ops, because co-ops are a good thing. Industries have recently come together in co-operatives; for example, the mushroom industry has set up a new Mushroom Industry Association of Northern Ireland (MIANI), where members co-operate across the chain. We have encouraged and facilitated that, and I have pointed out that example to other industries that have talked to me about the difficulties that they face. We would encourage those industries to become involved in co-operatives and would give them all the help that we could, if they choose to go down that road.

Mr Ford: First, Minister, can you give us an idea of the timing of the food body working group and outline its external research into experiences outside Northern Ireland. Secondly, your memorandum refers to the fact that some environmental and rural groups thought that the vision group was too narrowly focused. A reaction has been expressed to me that it is about a sustainable industry, not a sustainable rural society. Without going into detail, do you sympathise with that general view, given that we will shortly be discussing rural proofing?

Ms Rodgers: I hope to have the report from the food body working group by mid-June. To whom the working group talks and the research that it carries out is a matter for the group. I do not want to interfere with its work. What was your second question?

Mr Ford: It concerned the allegation that the vision group's approach is too narrow.

Ms Rodgers: That allegation came from only one group.

Mr Ford: The memorandum states "some" groups.

Ms Rodgers: Yes, some environmental groups.

Mr Ford: Do you sympathise with that viewpoint?

Ms Rodgers: I sympathise with many viewpoints - the problem is that many of them are conflicting. My job is to decide what actions should be taken to encompass, as far as possible, the views of all stakeholders. Environmentalists are in conflict with the farming community in many areas. However, I recognise the need to protect the environment. Many of the schemes that the Department is currently promoting are aimed at countryside management and good farming practice that will ensure that the environment is part of the entire industry and farming communities' operations.

The Chairperson: A vision group recommendation regarding the transfer of grading responsibilities from the LMC to the meat plants was completely contrary to the Committee's findings. Can the Committee assume from your comments about the response to this recommendation that you will not be pursuing this option?

Ms Rodgers: There have been very few responses to this recommendation, and those responses have all been negative. So, I take the point being made.

Friday 22 February 2002

Members present:
Rev Dr Ian Paisley (Chairperson)
Mr Savage (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Armstrong
Mr Bradley
Mr Dallat
Mr Douglas
Mr Ford
Mr Kane
Mr M Murphy
Mr Paisley Jnr

Ms B Rodgers )
Mr N Cornick ) Department of Agriculture and
Mr M McLernon ) Rural Development

The Chairperson: Rural proofing should have been up and running by April 2001. When we met in the middle of October 2001 you apologised that you could not discuss it but hoped to provide the Committee with a paper on it by November. We have placed it on the agenda for the each of the monthly meetings, but these have had to be deferred and delayed. Can you provide the Committee with an update today, or explain why there is still a delay?

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers): First, the reference in the Executive's Programme for Government to rural proofing clearly demonstrates our commitment to the introduction of this process across all policy areas for which the Executive have responsibility. While it is regrettable that formal machinery has not been put in place sooner, the inclusion of the reference to rural proofing in the Programme for Government has already served to raise the profile of rural issues in Departments other than the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD). The involvement of DARD officials in the interdepartmental groups that now exist across the full range of Executive responsibilities has ensured that those issues have been well aired. I have discussed and obtained broad agreement from departmental Ministers for my proposals.

The next stage will be to obtain formal agreement from all Ministers. When that is obtained detailed proposals can be developed to formally implement rural proofing. I cannot comment on the detail of these procedures until they have been finally agreed, but I am more than happy to discuss the general issues and principles involved.

I have already indicated that progress has not been as fast as I would have liked. However, I would like to emphasise that although the formal machinery for rural proofing is not yet in place, rural issues and the legitimate interests and concerns of our rural dwellers have not been ignored or overlooked.

The recent launch of the new rural development programme is an impressive and varied range of measures that will be of enormous potential benefit to people in rural areas. Moreover, the programme was the outcome of an extraordinary, lengthy and comprehensive consultative process involving community groups, district councils, the farming sector and other rural interests. Rural views were not ignored; on the contrary, they were encouraged. They have contributed significantly to the development of the policy through the willing, constructive and enthusiastic participation of many groups and individuals in the consultative process.

The Executive are keen to ensure that Departments keep in close contact across the widest possible range of policy areas. The Executive are building linkages and close relationships between the Departments, especially at official level. There are therefore many interdepartmental steering groups and committees considering a vast range of issues, including the regional transport strategy, New TSN, public health sustainability, urban regeneration, tourism, policy towards victims of the troubles, and so on.

Officials from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development are energetic members of all these groups and committees, and their membership ensures that the interests of the agriculture sector and the wider rural community are properly represented. Therefore the absence of an interdepartmental steering group on rural proofing - soon, in any case, to be rectified - does not mean that we have been doing nothing for Northern Ireland's rural areas and the people who live there.

I welcome the Committee's views or questions on these matters.

The Chairperson: Some 10 months ago an official sat where you are sitting and gave us a working definition of the words "rural proofing". At that time, members expressed concern about this definition - stating that policies would be examined - would not be sufficiently robust to meet expectations and that any inequalities identified in policies would be addressed. Will the policies be thoroughly examined? In what way can the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development put teeth into the carrying out of rural proofing through other Departments?

Ms Rodgers: We have already set up a dedicated unit in DARD to deal with rural proofing. We have a grade 7 at the head of the unit who is on my left-hand side, Mr Michael McLernon. I will also be chairing an interdepartmental ministerial committee, which will meet three to four times a year to get a report from the steering group. The unit in DARD will have the day-to-day responsibility of liasing with other Departments, monitoring what is happening and facilitating other Departments if there are issues that they need clarity or facilitation on. What we cannot do - and would not be allowed to do - is to tell other Departments where to spend their money. All major policies of other Departments or new policies coming in, not the older policies that are already in place, will be scrutinised carefully to assess whether they will have an impact on rural communities, whether there will be a differential impact on rural as opposed to urban communities, and then we will seek to address that.

Mr Savage: With regard to rural proofing, will your Department be working closely with the LEADER+ groups that are about to be set up in the Province? Rural proofing is an opportunity for them to work closely together on many aspects.

Ms Rodgers: It is not quite the same thing. The rural development section of my Department works with LEADER+ groups. However, rural proofing is a wider issue. It will examine Government policies across the Departments to ensure that they are not unfairly disadvantaging rural communities. Therefore it is a different issue.

Mr Savage: Will each Government Department be pulling its weight and not be putting all of this onto DARD?

Ms Rodgers: Rural proofing is part of the Programme for Government. Therefore Departments have to be aware that they need to examine their policies in the same way that they did for targeting social need and equality proofing. Now they will have to rural proof them as well. There will also be the interdepartmental group and the ministerial committee. Departments will treat all of those seriously as being part of the Programme for Government. They will have to monitor for effect on rural communities in the same way they monitor TSN and equality.

Mr Ford: I welcome the fact that we have a dedicated unit within DARD looking at this issue, but will that address rural proofing across the entire range of Executive policies? You have highlighted a number of areas. You mentioned the regional transport strategy, where there appear to be problems for rural areas. You did not mention the issue of acute hospitals, which some Committee members would wish to highlight. You did not mention the Burns Report on post-primary education, and you specifically said that you could not tell other Departments what to do. Will it be possible for DARD to make a difference unless rural proofing is taken on board by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, which seems to be where all power currently lies?

I should say at this point that Mr Cornick is laughing.

Mr Cornick: With respect, I am smiling.

Ms Rodgers: I know what lies behind Mr Ford's question. However, I cannot run everyone else's Department, and I would not want to. Ministers will have their own views. It is for other Departments, in conjunction with the rural proofing unit at the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, which will be monitoring the situation, to decide how their policies might affect rural communities.

It is a matter of Executive policy that there should be rural proofing; it is not solely for the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. There is therefore a duty on the other Departments - and I am not suggesting for one moment that they will not fulfil that duty - to ensure that their policies are rural proofed. We cannot guarantee anything, but we will be monitoring the situation. The steering committee, under my chairmanship, will continue to meet and we will see what progress we are making. I will also continue to consult with the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development.

Mr Ford: The Committee may then have to call you in to ask what advice has been given to other Departments on certain aspects of policy.

Ms Rodgers: That will be the case. The Member is aware, as I am, that there will be resource implications for action taken by any of the Departments. I might want to keep a small rural school open for obvious reasons. However, there is a problem for me if the Department of Education advises that to keep the school open my Department will have to provide the money.

I cannot pretend that the rural aspect of a policy will in every case be the main factor that determines whether that policy is adopted and implemented by the Executive. Financial, social, economic or, indeed, environmental considerations will always come into play. My goal is to introduce and foster a process that ensures that the rural dimension remains firmly in policy-makers' minds and that the legitimate interests of rural people are not ignored. I cannot guarantee that in every instance the rural community's interest alone will be the only criterion. There will be other factors to be considered as Departments make their decisions. Certainly I will want to keep rural interests high.

Mr Dallat: Rural proofing is not just a concept or a cliché. Is it fair to say that it is the rural community's human rights charter for the future? Is it possible that rural proofing will put an end to the discrimination that has afflicted rural communities in the past, imposed by bad policies from different Government Departments?

Ms Rodgers: I hope to see that. The aim is to ensure that rural communities are not ignored or allowed to drop over the edge as they have been in the past in the areas of roads and access to public services. That is the purpose of effective rural proofing. The tendency in the past was for rural communities to be forgotten, and the impact of policies on them was never to the forefront of the policy-makers' minds. The introduction of rural proofing into the Programme for Government will ensure that the impact of all policies on rural areas will now have to be considered carefully.

Mr Bradley: Minister, you advised that there are good levels of support from departmental groups and also at official level. Can you confirm that all Ministers are fully supportive of rural proofing?

Ms Rodgers: I have the full support of the Executive Committee, with all the Ministers signed up to the rural-proofing paper that I have put to the Executive. So they are all fully behind it now.

Mr Paisley Jnr: Minister, can you clarify if Mr McLernon is the rural proofing co-ordinator?

Ms Rodgers: He is the head of the rural proofing unit.

Mr Paisley Jnr: Has the rural proofing co-ordinator been appointed yet?

Ms Rodgers: It is the same thing.

Mr Paisley Jnr: Mr McLernon, you are the head and also the co-ordinator of the rural proofing unit. That comes as news to us. When were you appointed to the post?

Mr McLernon: I took up post at the end of November 2001.
Mr Paisley Jnr: The policy of rural proofing is full of good intentions, but unfortunately it has been a lamentable failure. All Departments currently claim that they already do rural proofing. Therefore, no matter what changes we suggest, we will not see any noticeable improvements. For example, if you check the questions that were asked in the Assembly during the last few months, you will see that I have tabled questions about rural proofing to every Department. Each of them says that it already does it, yet we are still struggling with the definition of rural proofing. If Departments think they already do it, then they are not taking it seriously and treating the concept as a joke. Quite frankly, it is not working. Something must be done to crank this up and make it of significant importance, so that Departments take this matter seriously, whether their Ministers share that view or not. They all have their own definition of rural proofing, so they are working to their own agenda on rural proofing as opposed to a centralised one.

Ms Rodgers: One of the first things that the steering group will do is to define the meaning of rural proofing on an interdepartmental basis, because opinions might differ. If Departments have said that they have been rural proofing, I take it as a compliment to my officials who have met in various interdepartmental groups and have ensured that rural issues are kept to the fore. Rural proofing is a feature of the Programme for Government and intended to raise the profile of the needs of Northern Ireland's extensive rural areas and therefore ensure that those needs are fully taken into account as policies are being developed. I am confident that is already happening.

We cannot quantify exactly what is happening, except to say that there has been a new and raised awareness of the needs of rural communities because of the Programme for Government's rural proofing agenda. That is already happening to a degree, but it will happen more effectively once the whole machinery - which I propose to create - is in place, once the unit is up and running effectively and once the interdepartmental group, under my chairmanship, meets regularly to take reports.

Mr Paisley Jnr: You say that Departments take rural needs into account, but that concept is so woolly. Departments just tick the box that says they have taken rural needs into account and move on. It turns the concept into junk language. The jargon is used, and the Departments move on. There is no real commitment. Members talk about discrimination towards the rural community with regard to hospitals, education and planning. The rural community is getting a raw deal, but at the same time it is being told we have rural proofing. It is not sustainable for ordinary people in the rural community.

Ms Rodgers: Those views have not been expressed to me. I do not accept that "needs" is a woolly concept. Departments carry out needs assessments all the time. Rural communities must be treated fairly. They must have a proper infrastructure, access to public services and the same educational facilities as urban areas within the constraints of budgets and competing demands of other issues. It is not a woolly concept. Rural communities and the agriculture industry appreciate that we have included rural proofing and awareness of the needs of rural communities into the Programme for Government.

I do not accept that rural proofing is a woolly concept. It will not show immediate results. It will take time. It will not improve rural communities overnight. However, I believe that it will be effective in ensuring that rural communities are no longer forgotten.

The Chairperson: This was to be up and running by April 2001. You are now telling us that the interdepartmental committee has yet to define what rural proofing is, because it could be that there are various parts of Government that do not have that defined. There is legitimate criticism from the rural community, which says that although it hears a lot about rural proofing the concept of that has not even been defined, let alone activated in rural districts. The voices of the rural community will become increasingly raised about that. Once the rural schools start to feel pressured, there will be more resistance to the juggernaut that is trying to streamline things away from rural society to urban areas. The rural community will ask "What about rural proofing?"

Ms Rodgers: It was supposed to be up and running in April 2001. However, the Committee will accept that since Northern Ireland was hit by foot-and-mouth disease at the beginning of March the Department has had to put its plans on hold because all of its resources were diverted in order to deal with the crisis. That held things up for several months.

In relation to the definition, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development now has a steering committee in place. However, it alone cannot define rural proofing. That must be done in consultation and co-operation with the other Departments. If DARD tries to impose a definition, it will not work. It must be defined in discussion with officials from the other Departments. That is important in relation to the question asked by Mr Paisley Jnr earlier. There must be a clear definition so that people know exactly what it entails, what it involves and what is expected.

With regard to competing demands, I hope that people will not try to have it both ways if, at some stage, the Executive takes the decision that rates need to be increased in order to pay for the additional costs.

Mr Armstrong: Regarding increased rates, does the Minister agree that rates are not the only ways of bringing money into the country? If Northern Ireland were a good exporting country there would be no need to raise rates because it would generate a lot more profit.

Ms Rodgers: Public money comes from two sources - the Treasury and rates. The only source of revenue that the Assembly has control over in Northern Ireland is rates. It does not control income tax. I referred to that because there was an attempt made last year to raise much needed resources. However, there was huge opposition from people who say that more money must go into health, education, and so on, yet at the same time they say that that money should not be raised from increased rates.

The Chairperson: Should Treasury money not be used to deal with those issues, rather than rates? No matter how high rates are raised they are not going to be able to meet national needs.

Ms Rodgers: They will meet some of those needs. They are the only source available. The Chairman will be aware that the case is being made by the Executive and by the Department of Finance and Personnel to the Treasury for changes to the Barnett formula and for additional funding. That is currently going on. Clearly, the question that will be asked is what are we doing to raise money by ourselves, in order to justify what we are asking from the Treasury. Rates are the only source of revenue that we can raise independently.

The Chairperson: It is strange, when you consider the various areas, that there is such a difference in the rating. Some of those areas with low rates have better facilities for their citizens than those whose rates are high.

Ms Rodgers: That is not a matter I wish to get into today.

The Chairperson: It is a fact of life.

Mr Armstrong: When we give thought to the countryside and rural proofing, it is only lately that farming has been considered as a business. When one takes account of the value of that business and the farmers' assets and contrasts that with the percentage of gain, there is no other business worth as much that gets so little profit. We need to bring agriculture into line with other businesses in the Province and make it as profitable as those in urban areas.

Ms Rodgers: I agree with Mr Armstrong. Farming is a business and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has been working, and will continue to work, with farmers in the various schemes to help them improve their business skills, their profitability and their inputs and outputs, by doing benchmarking. We are aware of the need to improve the business skills of the farming community.

Mr Armstrong: There seems to be a trailing of feet on the issue by the Executive and other areas of Government. Very little is being done about it.

Ms Rodgers: I do not agree with that view. My Department is doing a great deal to help farmers improve their business skills. We have IT training in place for farmers - we have provided computers in various areas round Northern Ireland. We have good farming practice. We have advisers on the ground. We do a lot of work with farmers, and services are available to enable them to improve their skills, their business acumen and their profitability.

Mr Armstrong: I do not agree that your Department is doing enough.

Mr Kane: What about other Departments?

Ms Rodgers: I cannot be responsible for other Departments. It is difficult enough to answer for my own Department without answering for other Departments.

Mr Douglas: I tender my apologies for being late.

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development's paper on rural proofing says

"Rural proofing is in essence a process to ensure that Government policies are examined carefully and objectively to determine whether or not there is a bias against rural dwellers."

As you have said, everyone should be treated fairly. I am not one to push the equality agenda, although I am in agreement with it, but rural dwellers should not have an unfair advantage over those who live in cities and towns. At the same time, Government policy is to protect rural areas and the environment, and therefore we need people in rural areas to do that.

I am aware of a situation where a farmer was refused planning permission to erect an extra dwelling on his farm. He farms 300 acres and was told that unless he had 1,000 sheep and 250 suckler cows he did not meet the criteria. I found that hard to accept. Minister, can I have your assurance that, in relation to rural proofing, planning issues will be looked at so that we can retain people in rural areas to protect the environment?

Ms Rodgers: I do believe in equality, and not just for rural dwellers. I believe in equality for everyone, regardless of class, creed or political persuasion. It is an important principle.

In relation to your question about planning permission, the vision report suggested that that issue needs to be looked at. I have already spoken to the former Minister of the Environment, Mr Foster, about the anomalies that arise when people want to diversify and look for planning permission. I have no responsibility for planning, but I recognise the need for a cross-departmental approach.

Mr Douglas: Planners will pass the buck and say that the Department's recommendation is that it is not viable. That is hard to accept, and I hope that it will be looked at.

Ms Rodgers: The criteria for the number of people needed on a farm to make it viable are laid down. The Department supplies the criteria and makes the information available to the planners, who then make their own decision.

Mr Douglas: Minister, I ask you to look at this again and see that it is amended so that people can be retained in rural areas.

Ms Rodgers: It is being investigated.

The Chairperson: That is necessary. Having been good guardians of the countryside where they have lived and worked, it is difficult for rural people to accept that someone who is about to retire cannot put a retirement building on his or her own family's property because of quirks with stupid planning officers. In my area, I was told that because a man could not swing a gate properly he could not have a house. I asked the officers where in the planning law is the rule that there must be a gate on a farm. Some of us feel frustrated, and we encourage you to help us, Minister. Pressure must be applied for a realistic examination of the issue of people who want to retire in rural districts where they have lived and worked all their days.

Ms Rodgers: I too have a constituency office, and I understand. The problem is in balancing the need to maintain the good condition of the countryside with the needs of people who live there and who wish to remain. It is something that needs to be looked at

The Chairperson: Thank you very much.

Friday 22 February 2002

Members present:
Rev Dr Ian Paisley (Chairperson)
Mr Savage (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Armstrong
Mr Bradley
Mr Dallat
Mr Douglas
Mr Ford
Mr Kane
Mr M Murphy
Mr Paisley Jnr

Ms B Rodgers )
Dr G McIlroy ) Department of Agriculture and
Mr S Johnston ) Rural Development

The Chairperson: Minister, your letter of 22 January led to this item being on the agenda. Since then there has been another worrying BSE case. To ensure that there is no confusion, members have before them a veterinary investigation report into a BSE case as well as a press release about a BSE case in an animal born in 1995.
The investigation report is not on the most recent animal but on another animal recorded as born on 1 June 1997, which was the subject of a press release in January. Is the investigation into the most recent animal complete? Could a copy of the report be forwarded to the Committee?

Paragraph 21 of the veterinary investigation report states that it is impossible to be certain about the purchase of the animal or its origins due to non- compliance with domestic legislation. Has any action been taken against the owner of the animal for non-compliance?

Dr McIlroy: Mr Chairperson, you referred to the first chronologically recorded animal in June 1997. The exact origin of that animal is in doubt. The farmer is quite an old gentleman, but based on his recollections we are uncertain as to whether the animal was born on that farm or bought in.

If it was bought in, that was unrecorded and unpermitted and we are carrying out investigations with regard to that. You are right; that was the non- compliance. If the animal was, as the aged farmer recalls, bought in, it is possible that it originated in the Republic of Ireland, and that too has been part of our investigations. You have the report. Our investigations continue with regard to possible procedures, but we will uncover very little further hard information with regard to the June 1997 animal.

The Chairperson: Is the report on the 1999 animal available?

Dr McIlroy: There is the preliminary report that was forwarded to Brussels, as is expected from us. A detailed epidemiological investigation is being carried out on that. Preliminary results strongly suggest that it is not the result of any deficiencies in our feed ban. That is good news - if there is such a thing in this situation. Any case of BSE is bad news. BSE in an animal so young and only recently born - in 1999 - is obviously a great concern. There is strong evidence that this may be a case of maternal transmission, low levels of which have always been predicted by scientists with regard to BSE. Therefore, this does not deviate from what might be occasionally expected.

The Chairperson: Minister, do you have a statement that you wish to make?

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers): I want to bring you up to date with the current BSE situation. The BSE cattle surveillance testing programme for 2001 has been completed. By the end of 2001, 17,626 samples had been Enfer-tested for BSE, with just 40 being positive on confirmatory tests. Of those 40 positive cases, 37 belonged to the "casualty animal" category and three to the "fallen animal" category. No positive cases were found in animals born between 1 August 1996 and 31 July 1997, otherwise known as the "window animals". Presented at an over-30-months scheme, as part of the random over-30-months sample animals or the under-30-months emergency slaughter arrangements for cattle presented for human consumption, one animal born during this period - but presented as a fallen animal - was found to be positive for BSE.

In addition to the 40 surveillance BSE cases, there have also been 29 notified BSE cases during 2001, bringing the total number of BSE cases in Northern Ireland last year to 69. However, that figure does not include a full year's active surveillance testing results, since that testing only got under way late in the year due to the foot-and-mouth-disease outbreak. If the active testing figure is scaled up to reflect a full year, it produces an estimated 153 cases. That, including the 29 clinical cases, gives an estimated total of 182 cases for 2001.
The current Office International des Epizooties (OIE) low-incidence criteria require fewer than 100 cases per million of BSE in cattle aged over 24 months. That equates to 77 BSE cases in Northern Ireland based on the adult cattle population here. So, we clearly do not yet meet the OIE criteria. From 1 January 2002 to date, there have been eight passive BSE confirmed cases - that is, eight from clinical cases - and 15 surveillance BSE confirmed cases. Of the 15 surveillance cases, three were from the fallen category and 12 from the casualty category. As the Committee is aware, one of this year's cases involved an animal that was only 31 months old. We have just talked about that. Although there are good scientific reasons to expect such cases occasionally, they do not help Northern Ireland's case.

Looking to the future, it is anticipated that we will test approximately 50,000 cattle under the surveillance programme during 2002. I remain committed to achieving a relaxation of the export ban in Northern Ireland. However, I cannot dictate or influence the outcome of the BSE tests. This issue cannot be progressed until we meet the OIE low-incidence criteria. There is some confusion about comparisons with other member states. We will watch with interest the results that emerge from this testing in other countries. Even if BSE incidence in another hitherto low-incidence member state were to increase and ours were to fall to the same level, that would not represent any basis for Northern Ireland to claim to be in the low-incidence category. Depending on what that level is, it might just mean the other member state joining us in a beef cattle export ban rather than us being exempt.

The real problem is that the OIE criterion for low-incidence BSE was set at a time when we relied solely on passive surveillance. We now have an elaborate system for seeking out BSE, even where it is not evident. So it is little wonder that we are finding more cases.

However, the OIE criteria should be adjusted, given the circumstances. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, with other member states, is, therefore, with my support, pressing the OIE to revise the low-incidence figure of 100 cases per million because we no longer rely solely on passive surveillance to detect BSE. It is too early to know the outcome, but I hope that Northern Ireland will be able to meet the agreed new criteria.

Meanwhile, my officials and I are working with the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Commission to secure the relaxation of some date-based export scheme conditions. That would make it more attractive for processors, thus encouraging more beef exports. That achievement will be a welcome step in the right direction, and the value added to beef carcasses will in turn feed back to producers.

The Chairperson: We must now keep in mind our interest in two figures - those of possible tests and new incidents. All the tests could be completed, but if the incidents were to exceed the number permitted we would be in the same sad state of not achieving our objective. That is a difficulty.

There is a case for inspecting the criteria, now that the examination is different and more technical. It is sad to reflect that with those figures our objective is as far away as ever.

Mr M Murphy: Has anything been done to rectify the cases of BSE in offspring in May 1999, April 2000 and August 2001? What is the procedure for that? Will a recurrence be avoided? Would it perhaps be safer to remove all offspring if there is any incidence in a herd?

Ms Rodgers: That is the normal procedure. When BSE is identified the animal's progeny is slaughtered.

Mr M Murphy: Did BSE not recur recently in a herd in County Down?

Ms Rodgers: No.

Mr M Murphy: I will find that information for you.

Mr Ford: Minister, you referred to figures in the other EU member states. When will you have those?

Ms Rodgers: It will probably be the end of the year before the picture is complete. However, other states are in the same boat because of mass screening. The incidence of BSE is higher than was thought. In some cases there was thought be no incidence at all.

Mr Ford: Will the figures for 2001 not be published?

Ms Rodgers: They did not start until June or July.

Mr Ford: Our year was not complete, yet you have given our full figures. Are others less transparent?

Ms Rodgers: They report to the Commission.

Dr McIlroy: The figures are available to the Commission, but they are incomplete. The emerging figures give cause for concern in those countries, but an entire round of testing has not been completed to determine the level of BSE. Those figures will be available towards the end of the year.

Mr Ford: At this stage it would be useful for comparison purposes to see the figures that do exist, given all you said about the inevitability of the increase.

Ms Rodgers: We should have access to those figures through the Commission, but the picture will not be complete.

Mr Ford: Even with that health warning, it would be useful to see them.

Mr Dallat: Consumer confidence is important. How are you ensuring that the consumer is not discouraged from eating red meat?

Ms Rodgers: I am pleased to say that there has been no reduction in red meat consumption.

Mr Dallat: There may be a reduction in response to the press statement.

Ms Rodgers: We are talking about the 1999 animals. We have made it clear that, on age grounds, the animal was over 30 months and would not have been eligible to go into the food chain in any case. However, animals are tested for BSE as part of the transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSE) surveillance programme as in all on-farm emergency slaughter. The carcass would not have been permitted to enter the food chain following the positive result and, therefore, there would have been no BSE risk to consumers. If the animal had been eligible for human consumption - in other words, if it had been under 30 months and passed anti- and post-mortem inspections - all at-risk tissue known as the specified bovine material would have been removed and destroyed. There are many checks and balances along the whole chain, and the Food Standards Agency has been made aware of that. If there is a case we notify the agency immediately. However, it has stated that it is not concerned. It is content that there are sufficient safeguards and controls in place to ensure that no BSE animal will get into the food chain.

Mr Dallat: That is very important.

Mr Savage: I would like to follow on from what Mr Dallat said about consumer confidence. None of the cattle entered the food chain. That message has to go out loud and clear from the Committee. I am concerned about botulism and some people in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development are aware of it. The disease is on the increase and something must be done about it. I received a phone call this morning informing me of another case of botulism in my constituency of Upper Bann. I met Dr Seamus Kennedy and some farmers in Dundonald House and we had long and frank discussions about the disease. A vaccine must be made more available to protect against botulism. I hope you take this on board, and I hope that the vaccine is made more available and accessible to our farming community.

Dr McIlroy: There have been worrying cases of botulism. As you know, there is an association with poultry litter, and some dead poultry carcasses could be the primary source of the botulinum toxin. We have seen that in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. You are right in saying that there seems to have been more cases during the last grazing period. There may be reasons for that but none of them are 100% clear. I have been pushing for an effective vaccine to be made available in the United Kingdom, which practitioners can administer under a special licence, but it is currently available only in Australia.

Mr Savage: It is important that the vaccine is made available here. I know of farmers who have lost up to 16 animals. The animals not only become infected while they are grazing; they are infected while inside because they eat grass from the infected fields. I am meeting a farmer today and I know that that is the problem that he wants to discuss.

The Chairperson: When will the vaccine be available?

Dr McIlroy: The Department hopes to make the vaccine available before the next grazing season. If it is to be effective, the animals must be vaccinated before they are exposed on the pasture.

The Chairperson: When does the next grazing season start?

Dr McIlroy: Depending on the weather, it should start in either March or April. It is difficult to bring vaccines from places as far away as Australia to the European Union, and the Department is pushing hard to overcome that.

The Chairperson: Thank you very much.

28 January / Menu / 22 March 2002