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Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 23 April 2001 (continued)

Mr McClarty:

I thank the Minister for her statement. I want to take up the point made by Mr Wells. Since the last plenary session of the Assembly, a very responsible decision has been taken by the organisers of the North West 200 to cancel this year's race on the recommendation of the Executive. As the event attracts over 100,000 people to the Causeway coast area, its cancellation will have a profound detrimental economic effect on those involved in the tourism and hospitality industries. Do the Minister and her colleagues have any plans to alleviate the hardship caused to those businesses by some form of business rates relief, as is the case in other parts of the United Kingdom?

Ms Rodgers:

I thank Mr McClarty for his comments. I will take this opportunity to agree with him about the responsible attitude shown by the North West 200 organisers. I recognise that it was a particularly difficult time for them, and it was a huge sacrifice. The loss is in the region of £5·5 million to the local area. I am totally appreciative, as is the farming community, of the responsible attitude that they have displayed in the situation.

Consequential compensation is being looked at, and the Executive, on advice from the Department of Finance and Personnel, are looking at all possible ways to help people who have suffered loss as a result of the present foot-and-mouth disease situation.

Mr McMenamin:

I compliment the Minister and her officials on their sterling work during this major crisis. This morning she has talked about compensation, but farmers have expressed concerns regarding the compensation being offered for animals about to be culled. Can the Minister indicate whether those concerns have been addressed and have the fears been allayed?

Ms Rodgers:

I thank Mr McMenamin for his remarks. Concerns have been raised at various times by groups of farmers in different areas. My officials have met with farmers on each occasion and have explained and clarified the situation. As far as I understand, concerns have been allayed and farmers have been assured that compensation will remain at full market value.

Mr M Murphy:

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. What effect are the emissions from culling pyres having on the environment? Given the forthcoming elections, has the Electoral Office been in touch with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to give directions on how members of the farming community should register their votes in order to protect themselves and their fellow farmers from spreading the disease? Go raibh maith agat.

Ms Rodgers:

I thank Mr Murphy for his question. The first part of the question concerned emissions from culling - I assume that Mr Murphy was talking about the emissions from the burning of animals. As the Member will be aware, this issue has now been raised, particularly across the water. I will be in consultation with the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Department of the Environment about the issues involved. I will be guided by those Departments in any recommendations that they may wish to make, given that, so far, we have burnt animals on site. We are working as an Executive and working in a cross-departmental manner; these are not issues for my Department but for the Department of the Environment and the Department of Health. I will be taking their advice on those issues.

In relation to voting, I have had so many other things to think about that voting has been the last thing on my mind. Perhaps I should not be saying that, but that is the reality. Clearly it is, and will be, a serious issue. I have had no contact with the Electoral Office on this matter.

Mr Kane:

Is the Minister aware that the majority of decent farmers in Northern Ireland are resentful of the use of the word "rogue" when referring to any of their number? Can the Minister confirm that the rogues are those individuals who, in this instance, used an opportunity to distribute infected sheep brought into the Province under authorisation from her Department? Can she therefore confirm that the roguish activity conducted by these individuals, and its disastrous consequences, is an indictment of the Department - an example of negligence on its part by failing to ensure that sheep imported for slaughter were in fact slaughtered?

Ms Rodgers:

I thank Mr Kane for his comments. The vast majority of farmers in Northern Ireland are ordinary, decent people eking out a living in what is a very difficult way of life. Most people get Saturdays or Sundays off - unless you happen to be the Minister of Agriculture at the moment - but farmers do not get Saturdays or Sundays off. It is a 24 hours a day, 7 days a week job. It is not just their livelihood, but it is part of their whole way of life. They are going through a very difficult experience. The vast majority of them are people of integrity who work very hard. Yes, there are rogues, but there are rogues in every walk of life. I am sure that there are even rogues in politics.

Farmers are as keen to rid themselves of the rogues as the rest of us are, because the rogues are bringing the whole farming community into disrepute. That is extremely serious at the moment for the very many decent farmers, and I regret that it is happening. The last thing that I want to see is a few farmers - a few bad apples, as happens in every case - giving the whole barrel a rotten name. The fact that I have referred to a few rogue farmers is not in any way an indictment of the whole farming community, and I would be appalled if anyone would even consider that.

I take exception to the Member's remarks in relation to the movement of animals and the fact that the whole thing is the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Live imports into Northern Ireland are certified at the ports, and, under EU regulations, spot checks are carried out on their destination. The EU is a free market, and, therefore, it is not possible to do 100% checking. That would be against EU rules.

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The reality is that some people broke the law; they abused the situation, and instead of bringing the legally imported animals to their legal destination in Northern Ireland, they took them to other places. We have been successful in tracing those animals and dealing with the issue. I absolutely refute the idea that is the fault of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development that those animals ended up where they should not have been. It is the fault of those who acted illegally for whatever reason, be it small profit or large profit.

Mr Beggs:

I thank the Minister and her Department for their efforts in trying to control this disease and bring it to an end. I should declare an interest in the subject, as someone who assists on my parental farm on a part-time basis.

Is the Minister satisfied with the current level of fines imposed on the tiny minority of rogue dealers who have made illegal, unauthorised animal movements in Northern Ireland and have put our entire economy at risk? The Public Accounts Committee recently examined evidence that showed that there was a low level of fines for fraudulent agricultural transactions. Has the Minister any proposals to increase the level and severity of the fines? Has her Department been in contact with the courts in order to maximise the fines that are currently available?

Is the Minister aware of any investigation into illegal animal movements into my constituency of East Antrim, bearing in mind the outbreaks that have occurred in the Glens area?

Ms Rogers:

I can assure Mr Beggs that the question of fines is under review. The Member will be aware that in all situations, much depends on the attitude taken by the courts. There might be a very high maximum fine, but it is up to the court to decide what the actual fine will be. I suspect that at this moment, the courts might take a very severe view of anyone who has been guilty of breaking the regulations or acting illegally.

Over the weekend the RUC intercepted illegal movements in six cases, and prosecutions will follow. I cannot say exactly where each of those took place or whether they took place in the Member's constituency.

Mr McGrady:

We all recognise the enormity of the situation. This Assembly and the community also recognise the total commitment of the Minister and her officials to resolving this problem, and it is our job to assist them.

I draw the Minister's attention to the problems in rural mountain areas such as south Down, south Armagh and others, where the grazing of livestock always takes place across a lane or road from where they have been housed for the winter. That is a very important issue, and one which the Minister has already touched upon, but I would like her assurance of total security within this framework.

Additionally, there is the question of the horse-breeding fraternity. This is the time of year when mares must be moved if there is to be an end product at the appropriate time. The mares are now totally restricted and cannot be moved to stud. Can the Minister look at that as a matter of urgency?

There is also the question of horse racing. We know that both Downpatrick and Down Royal racecourses have heeded the advice of the Department. The meetings that have been postponed or cancelled are the total lifeblood of the end product of horse breeding in this country. Can the Minister give help or advice to the horse breeders?

Finally, regarding this statement, I was deeply concerned when the Minister said that any compensation funding would come out of the Northern Ireland block. I find this totally unacceptable when the Exchequer at Westminster has a multi-billion pound surplus. No sector in the Northern Ireland block should be put in this situation in order to pay such compensation. We should get extra funding from the central Exchequer.

Ms Rodgers:

I thank Mr McGrady for his -

Mr Speaker:

Order. Members should be aware that if I hear remarks made from a sedentary position, and I refer to them, they will be put on the record. If they are on the record and are critical of the Chair, then they fall foul of parliamentary procedure. Members need to be aware of that.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker:

I do not normally take points of order during the question time. However, it is coming to a close soon, and I will take the Member's point of order at that time.

Ms Rodgers:

I thank Mr McGrady for his initial remarks. With regard to his comments about the winter house stock going out to grass, if I were in any doubt about the strength of feeling on the severity of this situation, the fact that so many Members have reiterated that point today clearly indicates just how serious the situation is. I am urgently trying to address it - I hope during this week but at the very latest next Monday.

In relation to the horse-breeding fraternity, I am also aware of its difficulties, particularly in getting horses moved to stud. I am addressing that issue at the same time and will be guided by the vets. I hope to be able to make an announcement on this very soon. With regard to horse racing, I will be guided by the veterinary advice on this.

Regarding compensation from the Northern Ireland block, I agree with Mr McGrady. It is my earnest wish that all compensation could and should come from the Treasury, and I will be making that case very strongly - in fact, I have already made it. I still hope that Her Majesty's Treasury may top up the compensation money.

Mr J Wilson:

I congratulate the Minister on the work that she and her Department are doing. I want to draw her attention to that part of her statement that deals with vaccination. She says that vaccination, in contrast, takes several days to take effect and is a less desirable option. It can be a valuable weapon, the Minister says, in certain circumstances but does have serious drawbacks. Is the Minister in a position to elaborate a little on what those circumstances are and also on what the drawbacks are?

Ms Rodgers:

Vaccination, as I understand it, takes a number of days to kick in and would not be an effective way of dealing with the disease at present. The longer you wait, the more chance there is of the disease spreading. The most effective way of dealing with the disease is to cull immediately - thereby killing it off. The serious drawback of vaccination is that it would blight our export trade. In Northern Ireland we depend on our export trade - for example, 80% of our milk product is exported, with 30% of that going to the Republic. We are very dependent on exports, and vaccination would have serious implications for the economy.

It would also mean that we would not be considered disease-free and would be considered as having an endemic problem of foot-and-mouth disease. Those are serious drawbacks, from the point of view of our whole industry.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. At the beginning of the debate you called me to order for the way in which I was putting my questions. Why was that ruling not applied to everyone? I have been listening carefully. For instance, Mr McGrady asked three completely distinct questions. I asked only one question on compensation before moving on to welfare, but I was called to order. Why did that happen? Is there one rule for one Member and another rule for another?

Mr Speaker:

The answer is simple. I was counting the number of questions that you asked, and, when it came to six or seven, I intervened. A Member might say that he had asked one question with six or seven parts or legs to it; that would be a matter for judgement. I counted some six or seven questions before I intervened. The Member then moved on to the question on welfare. Mr McGrady asked three questions - or perhaps four - but not six or seven.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

We will see the six questions in Hansard tomorrow.

Mr Speaker:

I did not quite catch what the Member said. Not all the Member's questions were answered. As I advise the House generally, the greater the number of questions asked of a Minister by one Member, the less likely it is that every question will be answered. It is much more likely that questions will be answered in full if fewer questions are asked. One cannot force Ministers to answer questions, as the Member knows from the House of Commons. One must simply put the questions.

Rev Dr William McCrea:

An hour was set aside for questions this morning, and we did not take up all of that hour.

Mr Speaker:

The Member is incorrect. Standing Orders require that not more than an hour be taken. There will now be a further statement on foot-and-mouth disease to which, I have no doubt, the Member will wish to attend fully, as will the rest of the House.


Agriculture (Foot-and-Mouth Disease):
North/South Ministerial Council Sectoral Meeting

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers):

I should like to report to the Assembly on a special meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in its agriculture sectoral format held in Dublin on Friday 6 April 2001. Mr Sam Foster, Minister of the Environment, and I attended the meeting, and the Irish Government were represented by Mr Joe Walsh TD, Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development. It was the third meeting of the Council in that sector, and it was exclusively devoted to foot-and-mouth disease and the efforts to combat its spread on the island of Ireland.

The Council received an update on the situation and acknowledged with gratitude the part played by so many people - North and South - in guarding against the spread of the disease by following the respective guidelines and acting responsibly. The Council fully understood the difficulties being experienced by agriculture and other sectors of industry and acknowledged the reasons why both Administrations were keeping restriction measures under continual review. It was hoped that, in the light of the determined manner in which the outbreak was being tackled North and South, the scale of the difficulties would be kept to a minimum and that that approach would bring real benefits to everybody in the long run. Ministers reiterated their personal determination, and that of their respective Administrations, to ensure that everything possible would be done to alleviate the difficulties.

Acknowledging that both Administrations attached the highest importance to animal health, the Council again underlined the value of enhanced co-operation on the issue. The Council noted that since the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, collaboration between the two Administrations had intensified, with the primary purpose of containing and eradicating the disease. It emphasised that the events of recent weeks illustrated the importance of an island-wide approach to such issues, and it agreed that sustained co-operation between the two Administrations was essential to reduce the risk of further spread of foot-and-mouth disease.

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The Council therefore agreed that both Administrations should continue to: closely monitor the situation in their respective herds and flocks; exchange all relevant information in respect of animal movements; strongly encourage the public - particularly the farming and agri-business community - to continue to follow the advice being given to prevent any spread of the disease; review the activities that might be resumed and the conditions under which such resumption might be permitted; liaise closely in the prevention of the importation of susceptible animals from Great Britain; maintain co-operation in ensuring that proper disinfection arrangements are applied at all entry points to the island; monitor ongoing developments in respect of cross-border issues; and maintain liaison with the port and other authorities in Britain to ensure that appropriate disinfection procedures are maintained at ports and other exit points from Britain to this island.

The Council decided that officials of the two Agriculture Departments should develop a strategy for the control of animal movements on the island of Ireland, drawing on work done in both jurisdictions. It also decided that in the light of the experience gained from the current foot-and- mouth disease outbreaks, officials should consider the means of prevention, containment and eradication of future epizootic disease outbreaks on the island.

The Council requested that the officials report back to subsequent Council meetings in the agriculture sector. The Council agreed that the next meeting of the agriculture sector would take place in the South in June 2001. Following the meeting a joint communiqué was issued. A copy has been placed in the Assembly Library.

Mr Hussey:

Mr Speaker, I hope you will understand the difficulty that one has in responding to the second statement without making reference to the first. I thank the Minister for her statement. She rightly said that the Administrations are ensuring that everything possible is being done to alleviate the present difficulties. The House has heard of roguish actions having been being carried out, but that is an erroneous term. Deliberate illegal actions or actions of - at the very least - economic terrorism are being carried out.

What is being done on a North/South basis to address that issue? The Minister talked about the lax observation by some and the evidence - not reports or perceptions - to that effect. Will the Minister outline the sort of lax observation being talked about and tell the House who the "some" are?

Ms Rodgers:

The Governments North and South are continuing to share information about their investigations, and some of the lines that we are following with a view to prosecution are as a result of shared information between the two jurisdictions.

Will Mr Hussey repeat the other part of his question?

Mr Hussey:

Mr Speaker, I thank you for your indulgence. I said that it was difficult not to relate the Minister's two statements. The Minister mentioned lax observation by some and said that there was evidence of it. I asked her to reveal to the House the type of lax observation that there is and who the "some" are that there is evidence against.

Ms Rodgers:

I thank Mr Hussey for that clarification.

In my original statement - and I am not sure that I should be responding to it now, but I will indulge the Member - I referred to lax observation of fortress farming by some farmers, and I emphasise the word "some". The people delivering census forms are arriving at avenues and lanes in the country, but how are they to know whether they are at a farm if there is not a foot-and- mouth notice warning people to keep out? Lots of people live in the country but do not farm. Some people are not observing all of the advice that has been given about fortress farming, and that is what I referred to in my statement.

Mr Bradley:

Can the Minister assure the Assembly that no four-footed animals of any kind are being imported from Great Britain or Europe on to the island of Ireland?

Ms Rodgers:

Not all four-footed animals are susceptible. Horses are not susceptible, but there is always the danger that they will carry the disease if they have been in touch with susceptible animals. I can speak only for Northern Ireland; I cannot speak for the Republic of Ireland on the four-footed animals that are allowed on to that part of the island of Ireland. However, I assure Mr Bradley that no four-legged susceptible animals are getting into Northern Ireland.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

What discussions has the Minister had with the Dublin Government about smuggling? Can she confirm if any of the 19 people who are under investigation by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development are also under investigation in the jurisdiction of the Irish Republic? Have any of those people been paid compensation or sought an amnesty from either Government? Has the matter been raised and discussed by Ministers? Has any compensation been paid from departmental money to those who have sought an amnesty or are under investigation? If so, what advice has she received from the Dublin Government?

Ms Rodgers:

The 19 cases that I referred to are being prosecuted by the RUC in Northern Ireland. Three cases are being dealt with by the veterinary investigation unit. I cannot speak for what is happening in the South, because I do not have the information here. However, I assure the Member that any information that we receive is shared with the Republic. I would be very surprised if it is not being followed up, because the Republic is taking a very hard line. It has already changed its legislation, and we are now looking at changing ours.

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has not offered or considered giving amnesty at any stage to people who have acted illegally. The compensation already paid out has been paid in the south Armagh cull area and the Meigh area where there was a precautionary cull of infected animals. No compensation was paid in at least two cases where the people involved were guilty of illegal activity. That is the policy.

Mr C Murphy:

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. What animals are considered susceptible, and what animals continue to be imported from Britain? Will the Minister comment on the continued criticism from the Government and media circles in the South on the disparity between the approach to prevention and eradication by the Department in the North and the Department in the South? Will the Minister assure us that her Department operates on the same philosophy as the Southern Department? The priority is to eradicate the disease rather than take the London line which appears to be damage limitation and give the impression that things are OK. The priority is to eradicate the disease as the Southern Department is doing.

Ms Rodgers:

No susceptible animals or horses from Britain are allowed into Northern Ireland. The susceptible animals are cows, pigs, sheep and goats. Horses are not susceptible. However, if they are in touch with those animals, they can be a danger, and they can carry the disease.

With regard to eradication of this disease, I am pleased to clarify the confusion raised by some recent remarks. At my meeting with Joe Walsh last week I also clarified the fact that our policy on dealing with suspect cases is based on our commitment to eradicate the disease and to err on the side of caution and cull if there is a doubt in our mind about whether the disease is present.

Our policy is exactly the same as that in the Republic. When we come across a suspect case, the vets make a judgement as to whether it is likely to be foot-and- mouth disease or whether there are other circumstances that point to its not being. If there is less concern about it, we restrict the farm until we get the result. If there is more concern, we err on the side of caution and we cull. That is precisely what happens in the South. I am aware that, for instance, last week there was a suspected case in the South, and they restricted the farm but did not cull. In one case in Armagh we decided to cull, then changed our minds on foot of further evidence. As it happened, we were right, because the result was negative. From the beginning, my priority has been to eradicate the disease.

Mr McCarthy:

I thank the Minister for her statement and take this opportunity to reiterate the value of the North/South Ministerial Council. At a time when this whole island is under serious threat from a deadly animal disease, joint action is being taken to halt this plague. That can only be welcomed by every right-thinking person. I also point out that that special meeting was called - and rightly so - to show the determination of both Governments to tackle this serious problem.

How quickly will the strategy for the control of animal movements be agreed and in place? Has the Minister any plans to tighten the regulation on the individual tagging of sheep?

Ms Rodgers:

We will certainly look at the tagging of sheep. A subcommittee of the vision group is already working on the lessons to be learnt from the present situation. That issue is being looked at, and recommendations will be made. I will be very surprised if movement is not made in that direction. I also understand that the view of the Republic is to move towards individual sheep tagging.

Mr McCarthy:

Will there also be control of animal movements?

Ms Rodgers:

I believe that the Member was talking about movements across the border, rather than within Northern Ireland. We will be looking at how we can co-ordinate our efforts and our legislation, initially to minimise the incentive for that type of movement as well as to deal with it.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair)

The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development (Mr Savage):

I thank the Minister for her comments on the North/South meeting. One point was that both Administrations should continue to

"maintain co-operation in ensuring that proper disinfection arrangements are applied at all entry points to the island".

At the Committee meeting last week it was said that automatic demisters were to be installed. Can the Minister tell me when that will happen?

Ms Rodgers:

Automatic sprayers - not demisters - are to be installed, and we have been working on that for some time. I cannot give the Member a definite date, but I imagine that it will be before the end of this week. At the time of my last enquiry, it was a matter of sorting out the contract - the sprayers have to be made to specification to fit the vehicles - but I expect that they will be installed very soon. Automatic sprayers are not an improvement in the controls, but they need very little manpower and will simply allow us to use necessary resources elsewhere.


Mr Gallagher:

In today's statement there is a recognition of the difficulties faced by the Department of Agriculture and other sectors. I want to ask about a sector which has been particularly hard-hit in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Retail outlets in that area rely on customers from the Republic of Ireland for a large proportion of their business. That is true in towns such as Aughnacloy, Augher, Belcoo and Belleek. The traders in those towns purchase milk and dairy produce from suppliers in the Republic of Ireland. However, when customers from the Republic purchase supplies in those areas - and I am sure this happens in other constituencies - under present restrictions they are not allowed to take those supplies into the Republic. This has led to a marked drop in trade for these retailers, and it seems that the local authorities are being far too diligent. Will the Minister raise this matter with the Minister in the South, and will she continue to press for more sensible arrangements to be put in place? Of course, such arrangements would be in line with the necessary precautions to prevent any further outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease.

Ms Rodgers:

I have been made aware of the issue and have raised it with Joe Walsh, who assures me that this is being dealt with. I am also aware of the fact that Easter eggs were removed from people crossing the border; that was over-diligence. A number of issues arose over the Easter weekend, but Joe Walsh has assured me that they have now been dealt with.

Mr Berry:

From the Minister's statement I noticed that the North/South Ministerial Council meeting, which she attended on 6 April, was exclusively devoted to the foot-and-mouth outbreak. Were concerns raised at that meeting about grants, subsidy and inspection staff in Northern Ireland being ordered off a cull site when fraud was being investigated and exposed? Were concerns expressed that it was not a so-called farmer in south Armagh who ordered those staff off the site, but a veterinary officer?

Are the Minister and the people who attended that meeting on 6 April not concerned that there may be members of staff in the Department of Agriculture who are aiding and abetting smuggling in south Armagh?

Ms Rodgers:

The matter was not raised at the North/ South Ministerial Council meeting for the simple reason that it was not an issue. There is no truth in the allegation, and I have to refute the suggestion that grants and subsidy staff were ordered off the cull site. I have thoroughly investigated the allegations made and am satisfied that the implication that staff were somehow involved in collaboration with illegalities is most certainly not the case.

Mr McHugh:

A LeasCheann Comhairle. It is welcome to have these discussions taking place on an all-Ireland basis, particularly with regard to the foot-and-mouth outbreak.

In the Minister's discussions with the Minister in the South, has it been suggested that the controls and traceability systems for livestock and food production should be harmonized on an all-Ireland basis? Given that the disease affects both parts of the island, has an all-Ireland approach to determining, through an inquiry, the cause and impact of the foot-and-mouth outbreak here and in the South been discussed?

Ms Rodgers:

An official working group is examining the matter of tracing to which Mr McHugh referred. I have clearly indicated that we are taking an all-island approach through our use of the North/South Ministerial Council. The Council has already been described by Mr McCarthy as a very useful way of dealing with this outbreak - it has been co-ordinating, where useful, our efforts and exchanging and sharing information. This is helping us, on both sides of the border, to deal with what is an all-Ireland animal health problem. As the Member may be aware, as early as last November the North/South Ministerial Council set in train working groups to look at harmonised animal health strategies on the island of Ireland as a whole. At that stage, of course, there was no indication that we were going to witness this crisis, but we were already recognising that animal ill-health, infections and viruses do not recognise the border.

Mr Kennedy:

On the question of North/South co-operation, it is important that Members compare the compensation paid to farmers affected by foot-and-mouth disease in each of the neighbouring jurisdictions. Will the Minister undertake to publish details of the compensation awards made so that Members can monitor those payments and assess if payments made here are comparable to those made in the Irish Republic?

Ms Rodgers:

Throughout this unfortunate incident, I have operated on an open and accountable basis. I do not think that anyone would expect a Minister to operate in any other way, but, of course, any necessary details will be put in the public domain, and I expect that they will be thoroughly scrutinised. I simply reiterate that compensation has been, and will continue to be, made at full market value. I cannot say if the market value in the Republic is the same, higher or lower than the market value here. However, we will be paying to farmers the full market value for Northern Ireland animals in Northern Ireland.

Mr Byrne:

I welcome the Minister's statement on the North/South co-operation on foot-and-mouth disease. Does she consider that co-operation on the future operation of cattle marts and the movement of animals could be necessary? Has the Minister any view on the opinion that meat plants should conform to the strictest possible monitoring of all animals that are presented for slaughter?

Ms Rodgers:

The sub-committee of the vision group which is looking at the implications of, and the lessons to be learnt from, this whole episode will be examining the operation of the marts, as well as every other aspect of the industry. I am certain that the North/South Ministerial Council will hold discussions to try to share our experiences, learn lessons from each other and, if necessary, co-ordinate our activities.

In Northern Ireland our veterinary inspectors inspect everything that arrives in and goes out of the meat plants. That is very carefully monitored. I cannot speak for the Republic of Ireland and how they operate there. Clearly, every section of the industry needs to ensure that it is operating in an open, transparent and correct way.

Mr Gibson:

What arrangements are being made for my constituents in West Tyrone? Directly or indirectly, they have been distressed financially. As the Social Security Agency's personnel cannot visit due to foot-and- mouth disease and our constituency offices are being used as form-filling centres, that distress is compounded. Can the Minister assure us that some arrangements will be made for the immediate payments of much needed distress funds?

Ms Rodgers:

I understand that there is a great deal of distress as a result of the present situation, and I sympathise with those concerned. The Member will be aware that the payment of social security is not a matter for my Department but for the Department for Social Development. I understand that arrangements have been made to deal with that problem. Clearly I am not in a position to answer that question, but perhaps Mr Gibson could address it to the Minister for Social Development.

Mr McFarland:

I thank the Minister for her report. Did she see a report in the 'Sunday Tribune' at the weekend which states that some 15,000 sheep were imported from Longtown into Northern Ireland in the first seven weeks of the year? It is thought that a number of these have gone south. Indeed, the junior Agriculture Minister, Noel Davern, says that he is expecting a sizeable number of prosecutions. Hundreds of these sheep are unaccounted for.

'Private Eye' magazine has a record for whistle- blowing and being proven correct. Has the Minister seen an article in that publication which states that foot-and-mouth disease was rampant in the national flock in Britain in January? If these articles are correct, we would appear to have a sizeable problem here. What credence does the Minister give to these allegations? When does she expect the missing sheep, in both North and South, to be identified?


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