Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 12 March 2001 (continued)

Ms Rodgers:

I thank Mr Poots for his five or six questions. In relation to his first few questions, I find it rather strange to be asked if I will encourage the RUC to arrest those responsible. My officials have been meeting - and, indeed, are meeting today - with the RUC and the Department's fraud unit and veterinary investigation units. They are taking the investigation forward, and I imagine that they are taking it forward for no other reason than to seek the arrest and conviction of those responsible. I sincerely hope that they succeed.

Mr Poots talked about clamping down on illegal smuggling and acting against cattle dealers. These are matters that arise from the present situation, and clearly they will be looked at in the post-mortem of the foot- and-mouth disease outbreak. My concentration and my whole focus is to ensure that the policy objective of keeping Northern Ireland free of foot-and-mouth disease, with the exception of the one case that we have, is achieved.

With regard to the numbers of missing cattle, the figure could be up to 60, but, given the lack of co-operation, I am not certain. Further questioning is under way on that issue.

Mr Poots raised another question to do with compensation or rates; I am not sure which.

Mr Poots:

My question related to compensation for livestock marts.

Ms Rodgers:

This is an issue of consequential compensation, and, as I have already stated, this has been put on the agenda for the ministerial meeting next week. I am aware of the problem, but it will be dealt with at national level.

When I met with the auctioneers last week, the issue of rates being paid by the marts was mentioned to me, and I raised this at the interdepartmental meeting of officials, which I chair. Following that meeting the matter has been passed on to the Department of Finance and Personnel, and I expect it to be discussed at today's Executive meeting.

Mr C Murphy:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister's statement and particularly the fact that the door has not been completely closed on compensation for consequential losses. An obvious example of this is a case where a dairy herd may be slaughtered, and the farmer will receive compensation for the livestock but not for the loss of milk products for a number of months. Rural tourism projects in the restricted zone in South Armagh area have been hit very hard due to events having been cancelled, and this has resulted in financial loss. If the Minister does not receive sufficient flexibility in order to make available compensation for consequential losses, can she at least ensure that next year, when her Department is considering grant aid to these projects, that situation will be borne in mind?

Ms Rodgers:

At this point I am not prepared to make any commitment about what might happen next year. I understand the difficulties that people are facing, and I sympathise with them. I am aware of the cash-flow situation in the farming community, and I would like to inform Mr Murphy that I have taken all necessary steps to alleviate it. Payments of the less favoured area allowances are starting to go out today - and 90% will be paid by the end of March. I have asked my officials to prioritise that so that money is getting into the farmers' pockets as soon as possible. The balance of the sheep annual premium is being paid in March - this may extend into April - but it is being expedited. The first tranche of the sheep agri-money payment will be made before the end of March, and the balance of the sheep special premium will start to be paid at the beginning of April.

I have tried to do everything possible to ensure that subsidies will flow quickly. I cannot, at this point, make any commitments about what will happen in the future. Clearly, there will be sympathy in the Assembly and in the Executive for the industry's plight. There will, I hope, be some flexibility when I come to the Minister of Finance and Personnel to look for additional money.

Mr Beggs:

I thank the Minister for highlighting the need for vigilance against foot-and-mouth disease by demonstrating the use of a disinfectant at the port of Larne, in my own constituency. Can she assure me that all vehicles and foot passengers are required to pass over disinfected mats?

The Minister referred to illegally traded animals. Does she agree that the absence of individual sheep tagging in the Republic of Ireland has enabled this smuggling to occur with relative ease? Has she raised her concern about this lack of tagging in the Republic of Ireland with her counterpart there? Does she agree that the proof that sheep movements into the Republic of Ireland are associated with this foot-and-mouth outbreak demonstrates the clear need for the Republic of Ireland to introduce sheep tagging - in the same way as in the United Kingdom - to protect animal health in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland?

Ms Rodgers:

My response to the Member's first question is yes. All vehicles are disinfected, as are all foot passengers who disembark. The problem of sheep tagging in the Republic of Ireland no longer exists because the Republic's Agriculture Minster has announced that, from now on, tagging is to take place.

Will Mr Beggs please repeat his third question?

Mr Beggs:

Does the Minister agree that this illegal movement and the fact that there was not proper sheep tagging have jeopardised animal health in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland? She will also be aware that the implementation of sheep tagging on all farms in the Republic of Ireland will take some time.

Ms Rodgers:

Of course, the illegal movement of sheep and the lack of co-operation have created a huge problem for animal health and, particularly, as we have seen, the spread of foot-and-mouth disease. I discussed all of these matters last week with Minister Walsh, and they will be discussed at the North/South Ministerial Council when we meet again.

Animal health is already on the North/South Ministerial Council's agenda. Officials in both Departments are proposing joint strategies for animal health on the whole island. Mr Beggs's question was well put, and I appreciate its importance.

Mr Bradley:

I join the other Members in paying tribute to the Minister on behalf of the farming community for her ongoing efforts. I share other Members' anxiety about the addition to this morning's statement. The Minister stated that up to 60 animals from the controversial consignment may have - and I appreciate that she emphasised the word "may" - slipped through the net. How can the farming community help her to investigate and, if necessary, trace these animals?

Ms Rodgers:

Mr Bradley has made a good point, but we are not certain that these "additional" animals exist. However, I say to the farming community that it is essential that we get to the bottom of this matter. The entire industry will be aware of the implications of the possible existence of irregularly or illegally traded animals, particularly sheep, with which the infection seems to have started. I appeal to anyone in the farming community, the rural community or anywhere else in Northern Ireland to pass on any scrap of information which might help the investigations to me, to my Department or to the police.

Mr Shannon:

Will the Minister consider applying the provisions and recommendations on disinfectant precautions to roads on, for example, the Ards Peninsula? Some of the farmers in that area have told me that they would be happy if very strict restrictions were imposed to control any possible outbreak of the disease. At the moment, we are fortunate not to be affected.

11.30 am

What is the Minister's advice to those farmers who are bringing their cattle and sheep off the hills for winter grazing or moving them close to their farms? What is the correct method of bringing livestock closer to home?

Ms Rodgers:

With regard to Mr Shannon's queries about restrictions on the roads, it would simply not be possible for my officials to do this. They are already over-stretched. I visited the Newry office last week, and I was very impressed by the enormous burden of work that those people have been doing since this thing broke out two weeks ago. Some of them have been working around the clock to try to deal with one outbreak. It would be simply impossible to put restrictions on roads just as a precaution.

I must reiterate the need for a fortress farm approach. All farmers, in the Ards Peninsula and elsewhere, need to be aware that they are the first front line of defence. They need to guard their farms and take all necessary precautions. The Ulster Farmers' Union has emphasised that this is the best way of ensuring that they remain free of the disease.

In answer to the question about sheep, I am aware that there are problems - particularly with bringing ewes down for lambing, and it is the lambing season. Indeed, I met one farmer last week going into the Newry office who had a real problem getting his sheep down for lambing. I am keeping this under review, and I will be guided by the advice of the Chief Veterinary Officer at all times.

Movement of sheep would be very risky at this time. I am not yet in a position to say whether it will become possible to make some adjustment under very strict supervision. I am examining all options and if there is a possibility of any easement on the advice of the Chief Veterinary Officer, I will be prepared to move. However, given the information I have put before the House today, I am extremely reluctant to do anything that might endanger the industry. I know that ewes can lamb on a hill when bedding and straw are put down. It is more difficult, and there is a slight risk of losing the lambs, but I have to balance those risks. Which is the greater - the risk of spreading foot-and-mouth disease or the risk of losing one or two lambs? I am aware of the huge inconvenience.

Mr Hussey:

I would like to thank the Minister for the work she and her officials have done and for her report to the House today.

The additional information supplied today deepens my concern on one count. The Minister has referred to the fortress farm approach to help to restrict the possible spread of foot-and-mouth disease. The Minister has also referred to the safeguards put in place at the ports. In the interests of the fortress Ulster approach, I urge her to be aware of the back door.

We do not know where these 60 animals have disappeared to. The Minister will also be aware of the theory - perhaps anecdotal, perhaps factual - that BSE in the Republic may have been curtailed by the JCB. If that continues to be the case in the Republic, and if there is foot-and-mouth disease there which we are not aware of, would the Minister not consider it circumspect for us to check the borders in the same way that the Irish Republic is checking the border?

Ms Rodgers:

With thanks, I hope that Mr Hussey is not playing politics with this. Maybe he is not. He may be genuinely concerned.

As I have already said, there is no sign of foot-and- mouth disease in the Republic and the resource implications of closing the border would be enormous at a time when our resources are focused on the essential task of keeping foot-and-mouth disease out of the North. The most important area to patrol is the point of entry from GB, where the disease is spreading at an alarming rate.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

I remind Members that there are some seven and a half minutes left and a number of Members wish to put questions. I ask Members and the Minister to be brief.

Mr Fee:

I would like to add my thanks and deep gratitude to the Minister and her Department. The past couple of weeks have been particularly tough in County Armagh, and when the going gets tough, the tough get going, and we very much appreciate the tough way in which the Minister has approached this problem. We also appreciate how well she understands the problems of the farming community in south Armagh that are over and above the problems of the farming community throughout Northern Ireland. When we get through this crisis, will the Minister look at those farms in County Armagh in particular, taking measures to ensure that depleted flocks and herds are replenished, and will she also consider how lost markets can be restored? Will she put in place financial counselling to rebuild lost farm businesses and take such measures as are needed to alleviate the emerging problems in relation to collateral and credit with financial institutions?

Ms Rodgers:

I thank Mr Fee for his remarks and for his questions. I empathise with what he has said about how the farmers in south Armagh are suffering. I have spoken to some farmers who have lost their herds, and I know the trauma they are suffering. I fully understand that many people will need counselling, and I am considering ways in which farm families can be supported.

I will look sympathetically at all the consequences, and there will be immediate compensation for the loss of animals. Any consequentials will have to be looked at at a national level, and I will raise this issue at the ministerial meeting in London next Wednesday. I cannot go further at this stage, except to say that I sympathise with the farmers. However, my current focus is on eradicating and eliminating the disease.

Mr Gibson:

First, in view of the 60 untraced animals and the fact that an RUC agriculture fraud squad is virtually having to be established, does the Minister not accept that this calls into question the traceability which was much hailed in recent months?

Secondly, I thank the Minister for arranging compensation payments because a west Tyrone lobby has come to me saying that cash-flow problems are strangling the agriculture industry. Will the Minister move quickly, because farmers are in a desperate situation?

Thirdly, on behalf of the consumer as well as the distressed farmer, why has the cost to the farmer gone up by only three pence per kilo over the past month. From an original high of 172p he is now facing a reduction, whereas, I am told, butchers have faced an increase of 12p? Is there evidence of a meat cartel using foot-and-mouth disease to increase its profits?

Ms Rodgers:

The problem with untraced animals is not the traceability system; rather, it is that some people have been trading illegally. We will have to look at that and tighten it up. Some people have been acting outside the law, trading illegally and flouting the law.

I thank the Member for recognising the measures that I have taken to deal with cash-flow problems. Last week I also had meetings with the grain trade and the banks. I had a very sympathetic hearing and was assured that they are aware of the cash-flow problems that the agri- food industry and farmers in particular are experiencing. They are prepared to be flexible and will not come down hard on people with real cash-flow problems at present.

In relation to the consumer and the prices being charged, I have no evidence of a cartel, and if there were one I would be very concerned about it. That would be a matter for the Office of Fair Trading. I have met with the General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland this week to hear its concerns. I would be extremely concerned if the price of meat was rising at a time when the price of animals was falling. That is a commercial issue that I could not get involved with, but it would be an indication of what could be called an unfair exploitation of farmers at a time when they are in real difficulty.

Mr McElduff:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. In relation to Mr Hussey's comments about fortress Ulster, is that two thirds of the nine counties of Ulster?

Is the Minister satisfied with the measures put in place by the Post Office, given its central role in the matter? I have been informed that farmers from the restricted area of County Armagh have to travel to Newry to collect their post, and in some cases disinfectant matting is not in place. Can the Minister assure me that there is close liaison with Post Offices to ensure that appropriate measures are taken?

Ms Rodgers:

I consider this particular crisis to be an all-Ireland crisis. It crosses the border, so the term "fortress Ulster" refers to the nine counties. Indeed, it is fortress Ireland at the moment, so I do not have a problem with the term used. It is not a time for making political points.

The Post Office is aware of the guidelines that we have set out. I will look at the matter, but I cannot give an exact response as it has just been brought to my attention.

Mr Leslie:

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. My point of order is further to a point of order on this subject which I raised in September. It is to do with the taking of points of order during questions on ministerial statements. We seem to have at last achieved consistency, and questions are not taken during questions to Ministers. However, I understood that the Speaker ruled in September that points of order would not be taken during the hour allocated for questions to a Minister on a statement, but would be taken at the end of the period. There seems to have been serial recidivism on the matter since. I ask you to confer with the Speaker's Office so that a clear, unequivocal and consistent line will be taken on the matter.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

I thank the Member for bringing up that point about procedure. The matter will be looked into.

Mr A Maginness:

Madam Deputy Speaker, I accept your earlier ruling about the use of the term "papist bigot". The Member who was alleged to have made the comment from a sedentary position has not denied it. Such language is not of a political nature but, rather, of a religious nature that is deeply offensive to the House. I think that all Members will share that deep offence.

11.45 am

Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like you to reflect on your ruling and perhaps give further advice to the House with regard to such deeply offensive religious abuse. Perhaps you could tell the House what further action might be taken in such circumstances and advise the Member concerned to avoid such offensive religious remarks.

Mr Kennedy:

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. You, rightly, gave a ruling on this matter. It is my understanding that, under Standing Orders, this matter cannot be re-examined. It is therefore an abuse by the Member for North Belfast to attempt to re-examine it in these terms. It is unhelpful to the House, and it is a clear abuse of his responsibility as a Member.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

I have listened to both points of order, and I am grateful for the advice from both sides of the House. I ruled on the issue, and I repeat that the dignity of the House or any of its Members must never be compromised. However, this matter will be taken up with the Speaker for further advice.


(The Environment: North/South Ministerial
Council Sectoral Meeting)

The Minister of the Environment (Mr Foster):

I will make a statement on the third environment sectoral meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council, which was held at Belle Isle, County Fermanagh, on Friday 23 February 2001.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Sir John Gorman] in the Chair)

Following nomination by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, Mr Mark Durkan and I attended the meeting, which I chaired. The Irish Government were represented by Mr Noel Dempsey, the Minister for the Environment and Local Government. This statement has been agreed by Mr Durkan and is also made on his behalf.

The meeting began by reviewing progress on the current environmental work programme. The Council noted progress by the Environment and Heritage Service and the Environmental Protection Agency in developing a joint register of environmental research projects. The agencies are in the process of tendering for a joint contract to develop a web site of current environmental research. Access to this information will help researchers to avoid duplication of effort and to identify topics for research and possible funding sources.

The working group on water quality reported on the two areas that it was tasked to take forward - namely, water quality strategies for the Erne and Foyle catchment areas and the implementation of the EU Water Framework Directive.

Dr Alan Barr of Kirk McClure Morton made a short presentation on the main findings and recommendations of the review of the Erne and Foyle catchment management strategies. Copies of the report have been placed in the Assembly Library.

The Council also approved the publication of a report - 'New Technologies for Monitoring' - which was prepared jointly by the two environmental agencies. This report has been placed on the agencies' web sites, and copies have been deposited in the Assembly Library.

At the second environment sectoral meeting the Council agreed that co-operation on new technologies for monitoring should concentrate initially on water quality monitoring. In view of the importance of water quality monitoring for the implementation of the EU Water Framework Directive, the Council decided at the Belle Isle meeting that this work should be taken forward by the working group on water quality as part of its work on the implementation of the Directive.

The Council noted the progress being made by the two environmental agencies in developing databases of environmental information. Ministers agreed that initial work should concentrate on cataloguing the information held by both jurisdictions. Decisions will then be taken on how best to provide Internet access to the data.

The Council agreed that the two Environment Departments should conduct a joint study into a number of the most significant impacts of agriculture on the environment. The terms of reference of the study include: assessment of the use of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilisers; consideration of good farming practices and relevant controls both North and South; and assessment of the cross-border movement of slurries and spent mushroom compost. A steering group including representatives of the relevant Agriculture Departments will take the work forward.

The Council then turned its attention to cross-border waste management. Ministers agreed that officials should begin work on identifying options to encourage the expansion of waste recycling in Ireland. In particular, it was agreed that a joint approach to developing uses and markets for secondary materials and recyclates would be of mutual benefit.

Ministers also noted the arrangements for taking forward the issues raised by Assembly Members, following my first report to the Assembly on 11 September 2000. Pollution of the Erne system and the spread of zebra mussels will be studied by the water quality working group in the context of its work on the implementation of the Water Framework Directive.

Investigating problems of disposing spent mushroom compost will form part of the study on the environmental impacts of agriculture. Primary responsibility for transposing the Major Accident Hazards Directive in the South rests with the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment rather than with Minister Dempsey's Department. It is not, therefore, a matter for the environment sectoral group.

Finally, the Council considered and agreed the text of a joint communiqué that was issued after the meeting. A copy of that communiqué has been placed in the Assembly Library. The Council agreed that the next sectoral meeting on the environment will take place in June in the South.

Ms Hanna:

I welcome the Minister's statement, in particular the announcement on co-operation on new technologies for water quality monitoring. Does the Minister believe that there are adequate measures in place to protect our waterways, and that there are sufficient fines to deter polluters?

Is he considering raising the 10% target reduction of medium to severe water pollution incidents to a more challenging level and, indeed, perhaps raising the fines?

Mr Foster:

New monitoring technologies are extremely complex and must be thoroughly considered. Copies of the joint report on new technologies for monitoring have been placed in the Assembly Library. The report is also available on the websites of the two environmental agencies.

The report concluded that there are well-established methodologies for monitoring emissions to air and water and for measuring air quality. The report stated that co-operation should initially concentrate on monitoring water quality. The initial work in that area will focus on three main issues; the chemical and biological monitoring of surface waters, and the assessment of fish stocks.

Our interest in fish stocks is purely as an indicator of environment quality - any work will be undertaken in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure as appropriate. Where there are other issues, these will be followed up.

Mrs Carson:

I welcome the Minister's statement that the working group on water quality has reported on the water quality strategies for the Erne and Foyle catchments and the implementation of the EU Water Framework Directive, and also that the working group will be studying the pollution of the Erne system and the spread of zebra mussels as part of the Directive.

What progress has the working group made in the water quality strategies? What advice would the Minister give to boat owners and anglers in the Lough Erne area?

Can he give an assurance that positive action will be pursued on the zebra mussel problem in Lough Erne? That was not our problem - it was one that we could have used the policy of "fortress Ulster" on - but unfortunately it is with us. Will the Minster update the Assembly on progress, if any, that we can make?

Mr Foster:

The Water Framework Directive requires member states to identify cross-border waterways as international river basin districts and member states are required to co-operate on the management of water quality throughout such a district on both sides of the border.

Northern Ireland's three main waterways are the Erne, the Foyle and the Lough Neagh systems. They form part of catchments with the South. The group has made good progress in two areas: the Erne and the Foyle water quality strategies. Kirk McClure Morton, consulting engineers, were commissioned to review the Erne and Foyle catchment management strategies. They presented the main findings of the report at the meeting at Belle Isle.

Significant water quality management advances have been made since the original strategies for Lough Erne and Lough Foyle were completed in 1997?. However, there are important new areas of work to be done to meet the water framework directive requirements.

The working group has begun to plan for the long-term implementation of the EU Water Framework Directive. Relevant officials from both jurisdictions and their counterparts in Great Britain will have to liaise on technical matters.

The occurrence of zebra mussels outside their natural habitat is a problem in many parts of Europe and north America. They first appeared in the Erne system in 1996. They probably spread to Ireland on the hulls of boats that entered the River Shannon and then to the Erne system by the pleasure craft.

The main thrust of my Department's spring publicity campaign will be to educate the public abaout the mussel problem. It will be aimed particularly at boat owners, anglers and those who engage in watersports. We need their help to stop the spread of the mussels to waters that are not yet affected. The campaign will alert those groups to the danger of transporting zebra mussels to unaffected waters and will explain how their boats and equipment can be cleansed by steam-cleaning -[Interruption]

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Order. There is someone in the Chamber who has a mobile phone. Will he or she please remove himself or herself and the phone.

Mr Foster:

The campaign will explain how boats and equipment can be cleansed by steam cleaning hulls, and so on.

Mr Poots:

In October 2000 the environment sectoral meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council agreed to proposals for the development of the database of environmental information. It was agreed that the emphasis should be placed on a few specific matters such as the options for completing the CORINE Land Cover Project 2000 and the development and integration of several key databases on matters such as river and air quality. Today, the Minister told us that the sectoral meeting of the Council noted the progress on those issues. What exactly has that progress been?

Mr Foster:

The land cover map records in detail the extent and type of land use - for example, forest, wetland, farmland and coastal areas. The information is valuable to environmental planners, regulators, agriculturalists and conservationists. The main difference between the UK land cover map and the CORINE map is the level of detail in each. The CORINE map records information to a minimum of five hectares. The UK land cover map is more detailed and records information every one hectare. Northern Ireland is included in the more detailed UK land cover 2000 map.

It is a European requirement that Northern Ireland also be part of the CORINE land cover map. There should be no additional costs to Northern Ireland. The cost of converting the UK land cover map to CORINE will be shared by the UK and European Environmental Agency. The obvious benefit of a joint land cover map is that land types will be classified in the same way in the North and in the South. It will be essential to have similar information in the North and the South when characterising shared river basin districts for the water framework directive.

We are working on other databases, and the first step in the integration of key environmental databases will be to catalogue the information held by both jurisdictions. Full integration of data may not be necessary - the catalogue itself may be sufficient.

People will have Internet access to the information in both jursidictions. It is too soon to estimate the cost of developing a catalogue of environmental information. However, both environmental agencies had already begun the process for their own purposes.

Progress is slowly being made towards integration, which is not expected significantly to increase the costs.

Mr M Murphy:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

The Minister had a meeting on 23 February, and foot- and-mouth disease was confirmed around that time.

What controls has the Minister considered placing on environmental issues? Was that discussed at the cross- border meeting? What advice has the Minister given to people travelling either North to South or South to North - for example, hill walkers?


Mr Foster:

There were no confirmed cases of foot- and-mouth disease when the environment sectoral meeting was held. We have assisted the Department of Agriculture by taking the necessary measures and precautions over the movement of people. We have eased the enforcement of the tachograph rules. We have worked in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture, and we will continue to do so. We work with that Department - it is mainly a Department of Agriculture issue - under the guidance of the Executive Committee.

Mr McClarty:

I am interested in the fact that the Council has noted the progress made by the Environment and Heritage Service and the Environmental Protection Agency in developing a joint register of environmental research projects. The Minister mentioned that the progress of the two environmental agencies in developing databases of environmental information was also noted. What progress has been made so far in developing the joint register of environmental research projects? Can the Minister briefly outline the benefits that will arise from the involvement of the two agencies in developing the databases of environmental information?

Mr Foster:

An advertisement calling for tenders for a contract to develop a web site for the joint environmental research register was placed in newspapers both North and South on 22 February 2001. Access to the register will be through the web sites of the two agencies or through the sites of partner organisations that have contributed information about their research to the register.

The register currently contains information about environmental protection research carried out by the Environment and Heritage Service and the Environmental Protection Agency. Research about nature conservation will be added next. Thereafter it is planned to add information from academic institutions and the private and commercial sectors where available. The register will be of great benefit to anyone who is involved in environmental research or anyone - such as universities and colleges, environmental groups, industry, environmental consultants and agriculturists - who wants to know about the current and past studies. Sharing the information will help researchers and sponsors to avoid duplication of effort and cost, identify new areas for research, find partners for collaboration and identify potential sources of funding.

Information about the new monitoring technologies is in the Assembly Library; it is also available on the web sites of the two environmental agencies. The report concluded that there are well-established methodologies for monitoring emissions to air and water and for measuring air quality and that co-operation should concentrate initially on monitoring water quality. Initial work in this area will focus on three main issues - chemical and biological monitoring of surface waters and the assessment of fixed fish stocks.

Mr McGrady:

I thank the Minister for the comprehensive report on the joint work by the two environmental agencies. Can he confirm that the Environment and Heritage Service is an agency of the Department of the Environment, whereas the Environmental Protection Agency is independent of the Republic of Ireland's Department of the Environment and Local Government? Northern Ireland is the only part of these islands that does not have an environmental protection agency which is independent of the worst polluter - namely, the Department of the Environment itself.

Is the Minister aware of the inland fishermen who complained bitterly for over two decades that they could not get the Department to act on proven pollution? Is it not time for Northern Ireland to have an independent environmental protection agency that would act unilaterally to guard the environment on all the issues that the Minister so clearly listed in his report this morning?

Mr Foster:

This question is very important and the issue is one that has been referred to many times. The Member is referring to pollution incidents where there has been Crown immunity. If we were to introduce an independent agency, we would be creating another quango - and I am not sure that that is what is wanted.

There are advantages and disadvantages. I assure the Member that any Government agency that pollutes the water will certainly be exposed. We do that rather pedantically. Sewage treatment is the responsibility of the Department for Regional Development; it is not within my remit. Regarding pollution, we will certainly go after the polluter, whoever he may be, and we will enforce the issues when they come before us and where it is possible to do so.

Mr Berry:

At the October 2000 meeting the Minister raised the issue of the Major Accident Hazards Directive, which had not been implemented by the Republic of Ireland. Today, he has told us that it is not appropriate to the environment sectoral group but to the South's Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. Has the Minister passed our deep concerns about this Directive to the relevant Minister, to have something done about the issue?

Mr Foster:

The Major Accident Hazards Directive is not within the remit of Mr Dempsey's Department and, therefore, did not come under this sectoral meeting. I assure the Member that where the issue impinges on us, we will be pursuing the matter vehemently with the Republic of Ireland's Government. This would be a national issue, and the UK Government would be involved.

Mr McLaughlin:

Go raibh maith agat, a leasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement and particularly welcome the presentation of the two reports - the working group on water quality and new technologies for monitoring. I look forward to examining these reports, particularly given the recent evidence presented to the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee that the Department of the Environment is one of the major polluters. I would like to see the actions, proposals and recommendations that those reports contain taken forward.

My question to the Minister is on the part of his report that deals with waste management. While I welcome the announcement about the cross-border waste study, it is somewhat vague and general. The study is very important, and I want to know when it will begin. How urgently is this matter being addressed, and how long will it take? Will the Minister undertake to review the current waste management strategy in the light of this important research?

Mr Foster:

I am pleased with the progress that has been made on implementing the waste management strategy since its publication in March 2000. My Department will make £3·5 million available to help councils implement the strategy, which requires district councils to submit their waste management plans to my Department by June 2001. District councils have formed three waste management planning groups to meet this requirement.

Further planned work includes: establishing a new advisory board, which will comprise 15 members, including a chairman, to assist my Department implement the strategy; the issue of planning policy guidance on planning and waste management; the introduction of regulations to place a duty of care on anyone handling controlled waste to ensure that it is managed properly and recovered or disposed of safely; and the introduction of a waste management licensing scheme to control the operation of waste disposal sites. The progress may be slow but we are working on it and movement has been made.

A study is beginning straight away, and I will also inform the Member when the first review of the waste management strategy comes around.


<< Prev / Next >>