Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 22 January 2001 (continued)
Broadly, I agree with Mr ONeill's sentiments. We are looking for as widespread a consultation as possible. We went out, for example, in the form of a travelling roadshow to consult the general public. We went to Craigavon, Belfast, Omagh, Ballymoney and Londonderry. That was with careful consideration. I am happy to go back and talk to the Department and interested members of the Committee again and to consider, perhaps, the need for visiting one, two, three or four more venues.
Mr K Robinson
asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to outline her plans to eradicate brucellosis from Northern Ireland.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers):
My Department continues to deal with brucellosis in cattle through a biennial blood-testing programme. Where infection is found, an intensified testing regime is applied around the infected premises, through contiguous to the infected herd - the inner-ring herds - being restricted and tested immediately, and subsequently at four-monthly intervals. Herds in an outer ring - that is, herds contiguous to the inner ring - are tested immediately and at four-monthly intervals. That is the basic testing programme.
However, concerns at the level of brucellosis have led us to take a number of additional measures. First, in the more heavily infected areas - Armagh, Newry and Enniskillen - we have increased the frequency of testing from biennial to annual. Secondly, we are about to undertake a blood sampling programme for cows being slaughtered under the over-30-months scheme and intend to extend a pilot bulk milk sampling programme to all areas of Northern Ireland in the near future. These two measures would help to provide an early indication of infection and point up the need for a full herd test in the herd of origin.
Mr K Robinson:
I am delighted to see that, in line with the objective of eradication, the Minister has confirmed that blood tests are currently being taken at the abattoir from culled animals over 30 months old and that spot milk samples are being taken in high-risk areas. Will the Minister confirm whether there is any correlation between high incidence and geographical proximity to the border? Will she assure the House that, should any correlation exist, she will actively pursue this aspect of animal health with her counterparts in the neighbouring state?
I do not have evidence suggesting any such correlation, but I am aware that disease does not recognise borders. I am therefore in consultation with Minister Walsh in the Republic through the North/South Ministerial Council. We have initiated a programme that will lead to joint strategies on animal health on the island of Ireland.
Brucellosis is costing the industry dearly. In 1995-96, we had three outbreaks in Northern Ireland. In 1999-2000, 172 herds had reactors. Those figures are a matter of concern. Does the Minister agree that it would be a good idea to have an all-Ireland disease eradication programme?
The eradication programmes North and South have the same aims. Our approaches to the control of brucellosis are broadly similar. Nevertheless, there is merit in working more closely with our Southern counterparts to our mutual benefit. I am taking this matter forward through the North/South Ministerial Council. While existing co-operation is good, and has been over the years, we have an opportunity through the working group on brucellosis and tuberculosis recently established by the council to put that co-operation on a more formal and structured footing. That will be to the benefit of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Department for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development in the Republic in controlling and eradicating brucellosis. That will further benefit the whole industry on the entire island.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The Minister has pointed out the particularly high incidence of brucellosis in the Newry and Armagh regions in the last three calendar years. Is she aware of the concerns of farmers in those areas about the uncontrolled movement of British Army personnel, both by foot and by helicopter, to and from farms with herds which have had positive brucellosis testing -
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Is this a question or a statement? What has it to do with brucellosis?
I am sorry. I asked if the Minister was aware of the concerns about the movements to which I referred and of the concerns that such movements may contribute to the spread of brucellosis. Has the Minister or her Department considered any recommendations to address those concerns?
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I should rule that question out of order, but the Minister may wish to respond.
I thank the Member for his question. I am aware that those concerns have been raised, but where the disease is present there is always a risk that it can be spread mechanically on footwear. The more important vectors of brucellosis are the movement of infected material, contact between neighbouring herds and the movement of infected materials - aborted foetuses or afterbirth - by birds, dogs, foxes or other wildlife. Nevertheless, Department officials have made the security forces aware of the need to take appropriate precautions when crossing farmland.
Targeting Social Need (Agriculture)
asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to outline the criteria she takes into consideration when targeting social need within agriculture.
While the specific criteria applied to the decision-making process may vary according to the nature of the issue under consideration, I assure the Member that all such decisions are taken in the light of objectively based evidence of such criteria as income levels, geographic location and size of holding. The Member should be in no doubt as to my personal commitment to new targeting social need (TSN). I shall endeavour to ensure that, where I have discretion, all the resources at my disposal are deployed with a view to supporting those in the greatest need throughout Northern Ireland.
Does the Minister accept that the most satisfactory method of accurately identifying social need would be based on household income? Will the Minister agree that full-time farmers are more vulnerable than part-time farmers, who are more likely to have a full-time job outside agriculture?
I am aware that there is need throughout the agriculture industry, and there is an overall need. I am, however, aware that the smaller producers face greater difficulties in this situation. Therefore in targeting social need I have to take into consideration their incomes and their needs.
Can the Minister give some examples of decisions taken recently involving TSN considerations?
There are several recent examples - for instance, the protection for small producers within the beef special premium (BSP). The removal of the 90-head limit on claims for BSP was agreed collectively by the four UK Agriculture Ministers and will apply from the 2001 scheme year. In doing so, there was concern about the possible adverse effects on small producers if the removal of the limit leads to the UK regional ceiling's being exceeded, with consequent scaling back of producers' claims. It was decided to protect the incomes of smaller- scale producers by exempting those claiming on up to 30 animals per year from any scale back if the national ceiling is exceeded.
Also, the beef national envelope decision means that this money is part of the European Union's Agenda 2000 package of direct support for agriculture. For 2001, Northern Ireland received additional funds of £2·6 million, £1·6 million of which I have allocated to suckler cow producers. Using 60% of the funds as a top-up to the suckler cow premium scheme should benefit those farming enterprises that are generally accepted as being among the most disadvantaged.
Minister: Discussions with
Mr Paisley Jnr
asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development when she next plans to meet with the Executive Committee and what issues she wishes to discuss.
I will attend the next meeting of the Executive on 25 January 2001 and I am likely to participate in discussions on a wide range of agenda items. I have not submitted papers to my Executive Colleagues for discussion at that particular meeting.
Mr Ian Paisley Jnr:
I am disappointed that the Minister does not intend to submit papers about the find of contaminated beef in Newry last week. I urge her to bring before the House and the Executive proposals that would turn the discovery of contaminated German beef to the advantage of the Northern Ireland producer. Does she intend to meet the European Union Commissioner for agriculture, her German counterpart, and Nick Brown to ensure that the Northern Ireland beef export ban is lifted? On the previous occasion on which she spoke, the Minister informed the House that her strategy on low BSE status had had to be shelved until a more appropriate time: surely, now is the appropriate time for decisive action to have the ban on our beef exports lifted.
The incident at Newry is not a matter for my Department; it comes within the remit of the Food Standards Agency, which is an agency of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.
I am not convinced that pointing to a breach of the rules by the Germans will be helpful in persuading others that Northern Ireland beef is safe. More relevant will be the evidence of the true incidence of BSE in other member states produced by the tests that they are now compelled to carry out, as well as evidence of the true incidence in Northern Ireland, which will become obvious over the next few months. I assure Members that if those figures are in any way helpful to our case, I will use them to press for a relaxation of the ban.
As I have frequently told the House, I shall make a move to seek a relaxation of the ban when I am certain that the time is right. I shall base my decision on the advice that I receive from the various people in Europe who have just been mentioned, including the relevant Ministers and Commissioner Byrne, whose advice on the matter I have sought in the past. In the meantime, my officials continue to make whatever changes are required to our final proposals to the Commission.
I am totally committed to achieving the relaxation of the ban. It may well be that I can turn the present situation in Europe to our advantage. However, when we do seek to have the ban relaxed, I will be looking for the support of all the other member states. The Member should remember that. Criticising member states that are facing difficulties is not the best way to get their support when we need it.
There is deep concern about what happened in Newry last week. I ask the Minister to confirm that she not only is interested in protecting the beef industry but also has equal concern for the consumer. Can she give us some more details of the protections that she could put place to ensure that both the industry and the consumer are kept safe?
The Department has very strict controls in place to protect the consumer. With regard to this particular incident, the fact that the spinal cord was detected is a clear indication that our controls are working well and that no contaminated food has reached the consumer. The few instances that we have had in Northern Ireland have always proved that our controls work and that the consumer is protected. Consumer protection has to be a priority with all of us. Food safety is certainly a priority with the Executive, and I will be doing everything in my power within my Department to ensure that the controls that we have continue to be in place. I reiterate that, in my view, our controls are as good as any, if not the best, in the whole of Europe. This will be part of our strong argument when we come to make the case for the relaxation of the ban.
The Chairperson of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee (Rev Dr Ian Paisley):
Does the Minister agree that no one in Northern Ireland is in any way responsible for, or has any guilt in relation to, what happened in Newry? Does she agree that this is the sole responsibility of the German authorities who brought this beef in sealed and with a certificate stating - as was given in evidence to my Committee today - that this beef was up to EU standard? When it was opened, it was found that, on three quarters of a beast, the spinal cord had not been dealt with as it ought to have been. Does she not feel that it is her business to take this up with the German Government? If this beef had got into the food chain of Northern Ireland, it could have caused serious difficulty. Does she not realise from reading the English press that the farmers of Northern Ireland have been attacked, the producer has been attacked and the man in charge of the meat has been attacked? Everybody has been attacked, and another black mark has been placed against people in Northern Ireland who are absolutely innocent.
I have some concerns about how this incident has been handled in the media over the past few days. I absolutely agree with the Member that there is no fault whatsoever accruing to anyone in Northern Ireland for what has happened. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has raised this matter with the Germans and with Commissioner Byrne. The Member will be aware that this is a matter for the FSA, not for my Department. The FSA is an agency of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. No-one in Northern Ireland is to blame, and our procedures worked impeccably.
There has been a suggestion that the incident somehow reflects badly on the beef industry. It is not useful to continue to say that. My concern is that if I were to make a statement about it, as I have been called on publicly to do, it would serve only to prolong what has become a very unwelcome debate. I believe that other member states and the commission will be well aware of where the fault lies for this episode, without my needing to make any further comment on it. As I have already said, it is not a matter for my Department but has been raised with the Germans and Commissioner Byrne by the Food Standards Agency.
Fishing Quotas (Scientific Advice)
asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to detail the steps she is taking to seek scientific advice so that local fishermen may obtain the best possible quotas in future years.
The Department's scientists already contribute to the scientific advice on which the European Commission's proposals for total allowable catches and member states' quotas are based. However, I have held a meeting with the scientists, and I pleased to be able to inform the Member that work is under way to explore what scope there may be to alleviate the effects of the cuts imposed on the local fleet at the Fisheries Council meeting in December.
I welcome the Minister's reply. Our local fishermen are extremely angered by the recent cutbacks in quotas and the threat to many jobs in the fishing industry. In view of this, will the Minister assure the House that scientists from her Department will work with local fishermen to seek to satisfy, as early as possible, the requirements of the EU Commission, especially by allowing prawn fishing while protecting cod stocks?
I am very anxious that we should work with the fishing industry. The scientists will work with the local fleet to ensure that all possible technical measures are put in place to allow the prawn fisheries to go ahead without a by-catch of cod. Last Friday morning I had a meeting with the scientists to keep myself up to date, and I assure the Member that the scientists are very anxious to help the industry. They will be meeting with members of the fishing industry and working in conjunction with them.
Can the Minister report on the outcome of the Fisheries Council meeting that took place in December? What can the Minister do to help the industry?
I was pleased with the success in obtaining the Commission's agreement to a 28% increase in the permitted herring catch as well as a 58% increase for haddock and 33% for plaice. It was, however, disappointing that the Commission went against the advice it received and reduced the nephrops catch by 10%. Overall, we can claim some success against our objectives, but I accept that the industry does face a very difficult year, and I will be doing all I can to help it.
We did obtain a formal declaration from the Commission that it would revise the tax of those species caught in association with cod or hake, if information provided by the member states indicated that this was appropriate. I am discussing that with my Department's scientists at the moment, and I hope that this will enable the Commission to restore the 10% cut in nephrops imposed by the Fisheries Council.
As part of the cod recovery plan for 2001, we were successful in obtaining our derogation for the Northern Ireland fleet to enable it, under controlled conditions, to demonstrate a clean haddock fishery.
asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development if she will (a) fully support the Ulster Farmers' Union with its campaign to secure the release of all available agrimonetary compensation and (b) outline how she proposes to progress this issue.
I have always been in favour of paying all available agrimoney compensation to our hard-pressed farmers, and my position on this has not changed. However, decisions on the issue must be taken at a UK level, requiring agreement between the four UK Agriculture Ministers and the Treasury. Agrimoney compensation represents one of the very few ways in which we can channel money directly into the hands of producers without breaching the very strict EU state aid rules. I was instrumental in initiating the moves which led to the securing of an additional £8·5 million compensation for Northern Ireland dairy, beef, sheep and arable farmers last year.
I have already written to the British Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown, about the latest tranches of compensation that have now become available for beef, sheep and dairy producers, urging him to approach the Treasury to obtain its agreement to draw down those additional funds. Indeed, as far back as October last year, I raised the issue of agrimoney compensation at the meeting of the UK's Agriculture Ministers.
In my endeavours, I welcome the support of the Ulster Farmers' Union as well as that of the English and Scottish unions.
I thank the Minister for her comprehensive reply. The only worry for farmers is that this money will indeed be discontinued, as it is due to be, in 2001. Will the Minister comment on that?
As the Member is aware, the agrimonetary compensation runs out after three years. Of course, what happens after that will be a matter for negotiation with the European Commission and between the Commission and the UK Government. In all negotiations between the UK Government and the Commission, the regions of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland contribute. I will be very anxious to ensure that the position of the farmers of Northern Ireland is protected.
What levels of agrimonetary compensation does the Minister anticipate for Northern Ireland producers?
I trust that the question refers to the next tranche. It will be a number of weeks yet before the EU Commission completes its very complex calculations on this matter. It would be wrong for me to speculate now exactly how much may be made available to Northern Ireland producers; we will have to wait until the Commission produces the exact figures.
There will be a modest compulsory element in the overall total, which represents the third and final tranche of the compensation that was triggered on the establishment of the euro on 1 January 1999. This is payable to beef and sheep producers and will be worth approximately £2·6 million for Northern Ireland. I say approximately, because until the calculations have been made, it is not possible to be exact.
Unless there is a very significant strengthening of the euro during the first half of this year, Northern Ireland arable producers will also qualify for approximately £0·2 million.
I think the Minister has just answered my question. I was going to ask how much money is now available to Northern Ireland farmers under the new tranches and whether any of this will be compulsory.
The allocation I have just referred to represents the compulsory element of the compensation. The rest is what we will all be fighting for.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
River Bann (Portadown):
asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what steps she is taking to provide flood defences along the River Bann in Portadown, and to make a statement.
I am very conscious of local concerns about flood risk from the river Bann and its tributaries at Portadown. A previous proposal for a scheme exhibited for public comment in 1992 did not command comprehensive public support and was postponed when severe resource pressures were imposed on the budget of the then watercourse management division. I am pleased to report that in November last the Rivers Agency initiated an independent study to review the previous proposals and to identify and examine options that had not been considered previously.
The commissioning of consulting engineers will be completed by the end of this month. The study will examine options to provide existing property with the currently accepted standard of flood protection. It will take account of technical advances and flood estimation and will consider methods of integrating proposals with the amenity potential afforded by the river. The study is expected to be completed by the end of 2001 and will include an environmental impact assessment and wide public consultation with a number of interest groups, including Craigavon Borough Council.
I thank the Minister for her response and note her remarks about the current survey.
However, does she agree that in the absence of effective flood control measures the natural development of Portadown is obstructed, natural planning of the town is frustrated and natural economic progress is stunted? Does the Minister also agree that a comprehensive strategic study, together with costings for the entire river basin from the Mournes to Banbridge to Portadown to Coleraine and the associated water levels in Lough Neagh, would bring about informed new engineering solutions to the flooding problems and alleviate the flooding of the agricultural land, particularly around the Birches area of Portadown, and will she facilitate such a study?
I would certainly support the idea of a comprehensive study of an integrated approach to the problem in Portadown. I am aware of the problems in the area and attach high priority to implementing schemes within available resources. The Rivers Agency has to execute an extensive programme within its annual capital budget of approximately £8 million, and an objective methodology has been devised so that projects are prioritised. A current study would release land that is blighted for development, and it is also examining the option of providing existing property with an accepted standard of flood protection.
It is departmental policy not to encourage development on flood plains, although the possibility of a scheme that by nature of its design provides an opportunity for development cannot be discounted. It is extremely important that development is not undertaken on flood plains, so that we are not in danger of having here the scenes of flooding that we saw on our televisions last year in England.
Parliament Buildings: Access
asked the Assembly Commission to detail any plans it has to take the lead in providing access to services and facilities for people with disabilities in Parliament Buildings.
Dr O'Hagan (Assembly Commission):
I would like to start by setting out the facilities that the Commission has already put in place.
Arrangements can be made for disabled visitors or staff to be set down, collected or to park in the upper east, or upper west, car parks. Parliament Buildings can be accessed from these car parks through doors specifically designed for use by disabled persons. A lift is reserved for use by disabled persons and can be accessed via ramps from either of these car parks.
There are various facilities in Parliament Buildings. For example, specially equipped toilets for disabled persons are available on each floor of the building. In the Assembly Chamber there is one wheelchair space in the viewing Gallery at either side of the Speaker's Chair. A maximum of two blind visitors with their dogs may sit the public Gallery. There is an induction loop to help visitors who have hearing difficulties, and there are appropriate hearing aids throughout the public Galleries. Advance provision can also be made for interpreters to sit in on Assembly proceedings. Disabled visitors in wheelchairs are catered for along the route for tours. Visitors with hearing difficulties who wish to go along the route can be accompanied by their own interpreter.
The Assembly Commission is aware of its responsibilities to ensure that all users of the Building, whether they are able-bodied or have some form of disability, have access to all parts of Parliament Buildings, and over the past two years it has commissioned access audit reports from Disability Action, Guide Dogs for the Blind and the Royal National Institute for the Deaf. A common theme running through all three reports is the need for staff training. The programme of staff training recommended by Guide Dogs for the Blind has already been implemented, and courses in wheelchair awareness and deaf awareness for front-line Assembly staff are ongoing.
The Assembly Commission has recently received a very detailed report from the Construction Service. It brings together the recommendations of the three earlier reports and has produced a series of cost proposals for improving access to and around Parliament Buildings. As a result, the Commission has appointed a health and safety specialist to take forward the report's recommendations.
I thank the member of the Commission for a detailed report. One of the many issues that concern us is access for people with disabilities. There is only one access area at present - at the east wing - and one lift, which has broken down many times over the last number of months. Thankfully, no one with a disability - in particular, a wheelchair user - has needed to use it. However, it is still important to provide front access to the building for those with disabilities. The Assembly Commission also needs to consider that the gift shop is totally inaccessible for anyone in a wheelchair. The Construction Service's report has been available for a year now. Why has the Commission not yet acted to ensure that its recommendations have been put in place?
The Member has asked a number of questions. First, everyone accepts that many issues could have been acted on earlier. Part of the problem has been the Assembly's stop-start environment. We have had suspensions, the normal summer recess, as well as a shortage of staff. A specialist is in place who will shortly be bringing detailed proposals to the Commission, which came out of the Construction Service's report. For example, the issue of access by the front door was referred to in detail in the report, and it will be dealt with. The Commission is aware of all its responsibilities in that area under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Indeed, we are aware of all the equality legislation. The Commission will ensure that all initiatives are equality proofed. If current arrangements are not sufficient, members of the Commission are open to consideration and suggestions from Assembly Members. We would welcome that.
The Commission will be aware that, despite the House of Commons being even less accessible to disabled people than Parliament Buildings, the authorities at Westminster have succeeded in making it more user-friendly. Given that there are bound to be areas of common interest in legislative buildings, has the Commission considered consulting with the authorities at Westminster on the issue?
Yes. Indeed, the Commission consults on all issues not only with the authorities at Westminster, but also with the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales and with the Administration in the South of Ireland. Therefore the Commission is certainly open to - I suppose this is about not reinventing the wheel - looking at other areas and taking everything on board.
Parliament Buildings: Union Flag
Mr C Murphy
asked the Assembly Commission if it intends to review its policy of flying the Union flag on Parliament Buildings on designated days.
The issue of flags was considered by the Assembly Commission on 20 November 2000, when it was agreed to defer further deliberation until the Commission had received background papers. The Commission intends to return to the flags issue at an early Commission meeting. The members of the Commission realise that the resolution of the flags issue is a very sensitive and complex matter, and while the Commission would prefer to take its direction from the Assembly, it is recognised that the process has failed in that regard. However, the matter is under consideration.
Mr C Murphy:
I thank the Commission member for her answer. I agree that it is a sensitive and, at times, vexed issue. Does she agree that the Commission's initial decision to continue to fly the flags before the institutions went live was an interim decision, that it was not intended to be permanent? And does she agree, given the fact that to date no proposals have come forward from the Commission regarding the flying of flags from Parliament Buildings, that the decision has assumed a degree of permanency that needs to be reviewed in the light of human rights and equality legislation? Can the Member assure me that the Commission will consider the interim decision as a matter of urgency?
First, what is in place at the minute is really custom and practice. That means that the status quo remains until change is agreed by the Assembly or the Commission. As I said, the issue was raised on 20 November 2000. It was agreed to defer it until background papers were provided. It will be raised again at further meetings of the Commission.
I commend Mr Murphy's timing of the question, as today is the 200th anniversary of the first sitting of the new Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
Does the Commission member agree that the policy of adhering to custom and practice at Commission level, as she has described it, has been successful? Should it be felt necessary to revisit this issue? The matter should be resolved on the Floor of the Assembly rather than at Commission level, and if it cannot be, custom and practice should continue.
As I said before, the procedures of custom and practice are in place. The issue is up for discussion by the Commission, and I do not want to pre-empt the Commission's decision. It is an issue that the Commission has considered and will do so again in the future.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
It is quite ironic, on this occasion, that Members of the House have no other option but to question a person of a party that wants to destroy this flag altogether and which has used its might and main to destroy those who intend to keep the Union flag flying in this part of Her Majesty's dominion.
Has this spokesman the authority to tell us that the Commission does not look on this as a permanent decision, but as an interim one, and that it will be going back to seeking to take down the flag?
First, I will point out that I am not a man - I am actually a woman. It would be better if the Member looked more closely at that.
I am here to represent the Assembly Commission, and the answer given is on behalf of the Commission. This is an issue that arises periodically in the Commission for discussion. It came up on 20 November 2000, and it will come up again.
Mr A Maginness:
The Commission member has informed the Assembly that this is an interim decision to fly the Union flag, based on custom and practice; that the decision is likely to be reviewed at some future date by the Commission; and that there is no lawful authority for that, statutory or otherwise. The business of the Commission has usually been characterised by efforts to achieve consensus on all issues. In the light of that approach, does the representative agree that the Commission will continue to seek a decision that will attempt to please the vast majority of people in the Chamber on this very vexed and divisive issue?
The Commission tries to deal with all issues on a consensus basis - even more so when it comes to issues such as flags. All issues will be dealt with in that manner.
The question standing in the name of Mr McGrady has been withdrawn and will receive a written response from the Commission. There are no further questions to the Commission.