Northern Ireland Assembly
Tuesday 29 May 2001
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
I have received notice from the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development that she wishes to make a statement on the current position in relation to foot-and-mouth disease.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers):
First, I apologise for the fact that I have only now placed my statement in the Business Office. I plead Standing Order 18, on the basis that there were certain things that I had to bring up to date in relation to serology.
I am pleased to be able to report that the foot-and- mouth disease situation remains essentially unchanged since I last made a statement on the subject on 14 May. It is now more than six weeks since our second outbreak was confirmed, and there are currently no worrying suspects under investigation in Northern Ireland. As our thoughts turn increasingly to our longer-term strategy, it is absolutely vital for the farming community to keep its guard up.
Farmers must not fall into the trap of assuming that foot-and-mouth disease in Northern Ireland has passed into history. It is too early for that sort of assumption, and if the industry is to get back to normal again soon, it is important that the remaining controls on animal movements be observed to the letter. If that does not happen, we could find ourselves back to square one with further foot-and- mouth outbreaks here. Recent events in Great Britain are a sharp reminder that it would be disastrous for farmers to assume that foot-and-mouth disease has already been eradicated. I was delighted to hear that the Republic of Ireland is now recommencing exports following the outbreak. My objective is that we will soon be able to follow suit.
As I announced last week, I reopened the question of regionalisation of Northern Ireland for foot-and-mouth disease purposes at a meeting with the Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, Mr David Byrne, in Brussels on 22 May. He was very supportive of our case. So long as we have no further cases of foot-and- mouth disease, and so long as we have satisfactorily completed the first phase of our serology testing, I am confident that we will be able to secure full regionalisation status for Northern Ireland in early June.
The serology testing, which I explained in my last statement to the Assembly, is proceeding very well. In the surveillance zones, we have now met the EU’s testing requirements and are carrying out the final interpretation of the results. This has involved the blood sampling and testing of over 170,000 sheep from over 3,000 flocks.
Almost all the necessary Pirbright examinations have been carried out, with negative results. I await the results from three flocks to complete the serology, thus allowing me to seek regionalisation for Northern Ireland.
My policy throughout the crisis has been to take no chances on the spread of the disease, but I have tried to ease controls on the movement of livestock as soon as it was safe to do so. Two situations continue to cause serious problems — the continued prohibition on the movement of sheep to common grazing and the continued ban on livestock marts. My chief veterinary officer will reconsider common grazing, and I will make a further announcement in the next few days. It is still too early to countenance reopening of livestock marts, but I hope that the support package announced by the Executive last week, which made specific provision for the marts, will go some way toward helping the mart owners. As with all these measures, I will permit the marts to reopen as soon as veterinary advice suggests that it is safe.
Looking further ahead, we will need a recovery plan for the industry, which has been battered by a succession of crises, not just foot-and-mouth disease. In Northern Ireland, the vision exercise is being revisited and updated to take account of foot-and-mouth disease, and it will give an important local dimension to any recovery strategy. The industry has its own ideas of what needs to be done, and my Department has opened discussions with its representatives. Industry representatives will have an input to the vision exercise before a preliminary report is issued in September. All the interested parties will be able to respond to the formal consultation exercise in the autumn. The outcome will be a package supported by the Executive. It should provide a basis for a more secure future for the industry in Northern Ireland.
The UK is considering national measures to help those who have suffered as a result of foot-and-mouth disease. My officials are fully involved in that work and will ensure that Northern Ireland benefits from that exercise. The foot-and-mouth situation is resolving satisfactorily, and, as long as there are no last-minute setbacks, we are on target to achieve regionalisation and can return to normality over the next few weeks. That is the best outcome we could have expected, but it depends on the farming community’s continued vigilance over the next weeks and months.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development (Mr Savage):
I am glad that there are no more outbreaks of foot-and- mouth disease and that we are heading back to normality. We need a recovery plan, which will be welcomed by the farming community. I hope that everybody remains vigilant and helps to control the outbreak. Is there any possibility of an easement on lambs going to marts? That would be a sensible move. Instead of 30 or 40 trailers, one lorry could collect all the lambs at a collection point. That is vital, because lambs are ready, and they need to be killed or they will become too fat. I hope that the Minister will take that on board.
I am considering the provision of collection points at marts so that farmers will be able to deliver lambs there to go on to the marts.
I am looking at that at the moment, and I hope to be able to move on it soon.
Every time we meet, the problem seems to diminish. Nevertheless, caution is still the key word. Given the fact that outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease are still daily occurrences in Yorkshire, Cumbria, et cetera, and now that the holiday season is just around the corner, will the Minister detail her plans regarding precautions at our ports to deal with the risk of holiday traffic between GB and Northern Ireland?
I can assure Mr Bradley that we will be keeping up our vigilance at the points of entry, which is the main danger zone at the moment — that and complacency. We will continue with the precautions that are in place, and we will continue to be vigilant at the ports. We ask for co-operation from the public and particularly for people travelling over here, if they have been anywhere near farms or farmland, to go through the spraying procedures that are available at the ports for them. We are also looking at marinas and other areas that could be a source of the infection’s entering Northern Ireland.
How extensive are investigations likely to be following the accusation that Linden Foods has altered carcass grades? Will an investigation be conducted in other processing factories to ensure that the practice is not a common one among processors?
Can the Member repeat the first part of his question?
How extensive are investigations likely to be following the accusation that Linden Foods has altered carcass grades?
I assure the Member that that will be investigated.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the fact that we are probably moving towards more flexibility and less risk of further outbreaks, given that there are continuing sporadic outbreaks in England regardless of the precautions that have been taken so far.
Is everything well regarding antibodies in the sheep population at present? If so, can there be more flexibility in the opening of the countryside and the easing of controls? Is anything liable to pop out after, for instance, 7 June?
With regard to the recovery plan, I am concerned that farmers are going to have to take a loss for animals that have passed 30 months in age. It concerns me that that is classed as consequential loss and is for the Public Accounts Committee to look after.
I reiterate a word of caution. I note that Mr McHugh said that we now have less risk. I want to make it clear that I do not believe that we have less risk. There is a danger that the farming community might be a little complacent. There is still a risk, although we have so far managed to contain the spread of the disease.
In relation to the antibodies, there are three cases from the 170,000 animals whose blood tests have been examined at Pirbright. We await those results, but that is only three out of a very large number. We have to continue the serology testing in all the areas outside the surveillance zones, and I will not rest happy until I am totally assured and can assure this House that we have totally eradicated any risk of the disease. I am not yet at that point. For that reason, I am very cautious every time I take a step toward relaxing the controls that we have had.
In fairness, the industry has, so far, appreciated the need to balance the risk of spread with the needs of the farming community. I have managed to make easements that have been welcomed by the farmers, particularly allowing the inter-farm movement that has allowed sales to take place on that basis.
In relation to the recovery plan, which is being dealt with by the vision group, the first step is the opening up of our markets, which, all being well, I hope to achieve at the Standing Veterinary Committee in early June.
With regard to consequential compensation, I think that Mr McHugh is aware that that is being looked at on a UK-wide basis. The Department of Finance and Personnel and the Executive have made an input to that, and we will certainly be ensuring that Northern Ireland gets its fair share of anything that accrues to the industry in the UK. The consequential impact to farmers will be looked at in exactly the same way as that for other people who have suffered because of foot-and-mouth disease. I am very anxious to be able to pay as much consequential compensation as possible, but we have to recognise the limited resources within which we work. I recognise that there is a real problem; the Executive have already moved in relation to rates relief, for the marts in particular, and we are still inputting to the UK consideration.
I too welcome the Minister’s statement. I especially welcome the fact that today she is able to make a relatively upbeat statement. Without wishing to detract from it, I am slightly surprised that she has made no mention of the precautionary cull of a sheep flock in south Antrim about 10 days ago, and I wonder if she will make a statement on that. With regard to her comments on serology testing, is the Minister confident that we can make the case for regionalisation within Northern Ireland merely on the completion of phase one of the serology testing and that no further test results will be needed? Will she also inform the Assembly whether she has any proposals at this stage for the individual tagging of sheep?
In relation to south Antrim, the Member is referring to a farm where I think we culled 64 sheep — I am not terribly sure of the number, but it was a routine cull. I explained some weeks ago that as we proceeded with serology testing there would be situations where we would be carrying out precautionary culls. I did not think it necessary to raise fears by putting everything in the public domain, although people do need to know that there is the possibility of a precautionary cull based on the results of blood tests.
On regionalisation, I have a commitment from Commissioner Byrne that he will support it unless there are further outbreaks of the disease. The Commission will, of course, require serology testing to have been done in the surveillance zones, and the surveillance zones to have been lifted, before that can happen.
There are no proposals, as yet, on tagging, but we will be consulting with the industry, and we will be considering it because clearly there will be a need for many measures to be taken once we examine what has happened in recent months. Tagging will certainly be one of the issues that we will look at.
I too welcome the Minister’s statement this morning. The Minister has stated that she hopes that regionalisation can be achieved by early June. If blood sampling were complete, can the Minister state how long it would take to carry out the laboratory tests? We know that there was some initial difficulty in getting staff to take the samples, and I am led to believe there is now some difficulty in the laboratory. Can she give us a time frame, and can she also clarify how soon the restrictions in the 10-km zone might be lifted or eased?
The Department is up to speed on laboratory testing; we are carrying out 10,000 tests a day. That is a considerable amount. Additional veterinary staff are at work taking all the bloods, and that is also a huge undertaking. I am satisfied that everything possible is being done.
Some of the tests have to be sent to Pirbright, and my Department has no control over the time that that process takes. I presume that Pirbright gives priority to suspect foot-and-mouth disease cases, rather than serology testing, and, therefore, it takes longer for serology test results to be returned.
I shall remove the 10-km surveillance zones as soon as I get the all-clear on the serology tests relating to those areas.
I welcome the Minister’s statement; each statement that she makes brings us closer to easing the restrictions on the movement of stock.
Are the three flocks for which the Minister is awaiting serology test results all from one area, or is there one flock in one area and two in another? If the three flocks are in one area, cannot the other area have its 10-km surveillance zone lifted first?
I hope that the Stewartstown, Ardboe and Coagh area will be the first to have the 10-km zone lifted. That area is full of beef cattle, and farmers have cattle that are going over age and over fat. The relaxation of regulations on Tuesday 15 May meant that 19 cattle got to Dungannon Meats. Does the Minister consider that other farmers whose cattle are over age will be compensated in the same way as the farmers who were able to move cattle to Dungannon Meats? It is unfair that some farmers receive the full price for their cattle and others lose out.
Everyone is worried about the outbreak of foot-and- mouth disease in other areas such as Yorkshire. The Department and associated bodies must ensure that there is no relaxation of the controls on people coming into the Province. The Department must be diligent in its efforts to prevent the spread of infection.
The three flocks to which the Member refers are in one area. The 10-km surveillance zones will be removed simultaneously by the EU Commission, and its decision will be based on the completed test results. I hope that that decision will be announced in the next few days.
The Member spoke about losses on cattle aged over thirty months. That loss is consequential on the situation, rather than a direct loss. It cannot be treated any differently to anyone else’s consequential losses.
The Minister will be aware of the important role played by the Agriculture Committee during the prolonged foot-and-mouth disease crisis. Is the Minister aware that the Chairman, Dr Paisley, left last Friday’s meeting to electioneer in Portadown? Will the Minister renew her — [Interruption].
Order. The Member must ask the Minister questions about her statement. What is being raised is not a question on the statement but is verging on criticism of the Chairperson of the Committee.
It is an important point.
If that is the only question that the Member has to raise, I must say that it is not in respect of the statement.
I was coming to my question, Mr Speaker.
I am content for the Member to put a question which is relevant to the statement, but this is not an opportunity for him to raise matters that are entirely extraneous to the Minister’s statement.
I am guided by what you say at all times, Mr Speaker, but I was simply asking the Minister to encourage Members to continue attending Committee meetings while the crisis lasts.
The Member may wish to do that, but that is not within the Minister’s responsibility, and it is not in the statement.
The entire farming community is breathing more easily, because we have been free from foot-and- mouth disease for six weeks. Are the precautions at the ports and airports being stepped up and kept firmly in place because of the sporadic outbreaks and hot spots in Lancashire over the weekend? Can the Minister be more specific and tell us whether regionalisation will be announced on or before 7 June, and whether the markets can enjoy a similar opening date?
I thank the Member for his questions. We will continue to be as vigilant as ever at the ports and airports. I recently spoke to a journalist from Britain, and she said that she was very impressed with the stringent precautions she experienced when she arrived at the airport here. I hope that that will help to reassure the Member. We will not be relaxing our guard.
I cannot say for certain when we will get regionalisation until I receive the final results of the serology tests. I assure the Member that, as soon as I am in a position to do so, I will move on the issue, because I recognise the importance of regionalisation for the industry.
Mr M Murphy:
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her statement. I am getting a great many phone calls about livestock payments that are long overdue. What is the hold up, given that farmers are currently under a lot of pressure as a result of foot-and-mouth disease?
I was not overly happy with the Minister’s statement about the payment for cattle over 30 months old. The Minister must take into consideration the loss to the farmer who has cattle over 30 months old. He is left in limbo, through no fault of his own. The payment for those cattle at market value is half the normal price. She must take into consideration that that is not the farmer’s fault.
Order. Questions are not an opportunity for Members to make speeches on matters which may be of importance; they are an opportunity to ask questions of the Minister. If the Member has a further question to ask he is free to do so, otherwise I will ask the Minister to respond.
Mr M Murphy:
Go raibh maith agat. That is all.
I presume that the Member is referring to compensation payments. To date we have paid £2·9 million in compensation to farmers, and we have a further £1·3 million processed and ready to issue. The total estimated compensation is roughly £5 million. There are still some outstanding appeals that we are dealing with.
I have, however, allocated additional staff to the payment of compensation, and I expect all payments, subject to queries which have to cleared up, to be with farmers within a few days.
In relation to the problem of farmers not being able to get over-30-months old cattle out, I recognise and sympathise with their position. The Member said that he is not satisfied with my response, but he is aware that resources are a huge issue and that other sectors have suffered severe consequential loss. It would not be right for the Executive to differentiate between one sector and another. However, if resources are to become available, they will have to come from within the block and from other areas, which Members will have to consider. We will be part of the UK discussions about consequential loss, and I will ensure that Northern Ireland gets its fair share of any compensation available.
Mr J Wilson:
I welcome the two component parts of the Minister’s statement — the element of caution and the need for continued good housekeeping in farming and the element of hope that it may be possible to relax the bans.
Will the Minister assure us that her Department is taking all necessary steps to bring about a speedy return to normality? We are approaching summer, and the tourist industry needs all the help it can get.
I can assure Mr Wilson that we are taking all necessary steps, including balancing the need for a return to normality with the need to minimise risk. The last thing I want to do is risk a return to square one, which would have severe consequences, not just for the farming community but also for tourism. We are trying to ensure that, as soon as possible, we can allow a return to normal events, especially for angling, a sport that is dear to Mr Wilson’s heart.
I welcome the Minister’s statement and regard it as a good progress report.
Does the Minister have any plans to meet her counterpart in the Republic, Mr Joe Walsh, the Minister for Agriculture, to raise issues relating to the reopening of export markets there?
I take it that the Member is referring to regionalisation. I have no immediate plans for a meeting with Mr Walsh, although I do speak to him regularly by telephone. My officials are in regular contact as well. I have no reason to suppose that Mr Walsh will not be as supportive as he was during our last efforts towards regionalisation. Commissioner Byrne has given us a commitment, and I am fairly confident that we will be moving to regionalisation shortly, barring any further outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease.
I might be deemed to have an interest in the matter I am about to raise.
I thank the Minister for her statement —
I suggest that the Member declare his interest before he asks his question.
Am I supposed to give details?
If the Member is declaring an interest, he would be best to state it at the start rather than at the end of the question.
I am not sure what the answer to that is, Mr Speaker, because I do not believe that technically I have an interest. However, because I might be deemed to have an interest, I am simply mentioning it before someone else does.
To get to the substance of the matter, I note the continuing progress in the serology testing, which I welcome and trust will continue at the same rate, because it is essential to restore confidence in our livestock.
I am aware that there is a delicate balancing act between the need to keep up precautions against the spread of foot-and-mouth disease and the interests of other rural industries, particularly in my constituency of North Antrim where the Glens of Antrim and the Causeway coast are significant tourist attractions. Tourism is probably the most important part of its economy. Assuming that serology testing continues at the current rate until the end of June with continuing satisfactory results, will the Minister be in a position to declare these areas safe for all visitors? Will she also be able to work in concert with the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Industry, who is bringing forward a package of measures to try to retrieve what remains of the tourist season this summer?
I am aware of the difficulties that have affected that area — and particularly the North West 200. The Member is aware that we have reopened the Giant’s Causeway and moved as far as we can on that. It is impossible for me to say exactly when I can relax all the regulations. The guidelines now state that visitors are welcome to Northern Ireland, and to the part of North Antrim to which the Member referred, as long as they stay away from farm land and farm animals. This allows a fair amount of leeway for people to visit various centres. The Giant’s Causeway is a case in point — the upper path must remain closed, but the lower path is open because it is not near farmland.
I reassure the Member that I am aware of the efforts that Sir Reg Empey is making and of the £1 million that he has allocated for the recovery of the tourist industry. I am anxious to facilitate that in any way providing we take account of the risk assessment.
I note that the Minister has already raised the question of regionalisation with Commissioner Byrne. However, is she satisfied that the British Government support her efforts?
I am satisfied that the British Government support my efforts to gain regionalisation. The Prime Minister gave me his commitment on that some weeks ago, and that still stands.
In common with all Members I welcome the positive statement that we are moving towards normality and the end of this tragedy. Can the Minister reaffirm more positively the question asked by the Deputy Chairperson of the Agriculture Committee about pick-up points for animals being transferred for slaughter? For example, the Strangford-Down Co-operative is based on the concept of a gathering point. It is important, in terms of manpower and cost, to have collection points at marts or other places which can accommodate the farmers in this difficulty. I welcome the prospect of common grazing for sheep being made available in the next few days.
The Speaker may rule me out of order on this, but I also welcome the fact that the racecourse meeting will be held in Downpatrick on 1 and 2 June.
The Member is correct — he is out of order on that.
Mr McGrady has already written to me about the Strangford-Down Co-operative. At that time I was not in a position to give him any consolation, but we have moved on. I appreciate the difficulty in bringing small numbers of lambs to slaughter.
In reviewing that situation, I hope to establish collection points at the marts, which will also include the Strangford-Down Co-operative.
I have received notice from the Minister of Finance and Personnel that he wishes to make a statement on Budget timings.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan):
With permission, Mr Speaker, I want to make a statement, on behalf of the Executive, on the proposed timetable for the Budget 2002-03.
When I presented the 2001-02 Budget to the Assembly on 12 December 2000, I acknowledged the concerns expressed by the Committee for Finance and Personnel about the time constraints of the exercise. I agreed that we should, in future cycles, ensure that the presentation of the draft Budget should take place as soon as possible after the summer recess.
I want to put on record the Executive’s commitment to meeting that target and to set out the proposed timetable for the key planning and financial events between now and December, when the Budget for 2002-03 needs to be agreed.
This statement concerns the Executive’s approach to the planning of public expenditure for the year beginning in April 2002. The process runs from now until December, when we will seek to settle an agreed Budget in line with the Programme for Government, which will form the basis of spending plans for all Departments and other public sector bodies.
Some further steps will be taken on that next month, but they are likely to coincide with the completion of spending allocations for the current financial year, which began on 1 April 2001. The final approval of the Main Estimates and the related Budget (No 2) Bill will complete the process for 2001-02, which began last autumn.
It may also help to remind Members of the cycle of events that lead to decisions on financial allocations. Those processes have their roots in the Good Friday Agreement, which prescribed that an annual budget should form part of, and be guided by the principles and priorities of, a programme for Government, which is an expression of the Executive’s key policies.
For 2001-02, the Assembly’s agreement of the Programme for Government and the Budget that I proposed separately on behalf of the Executive was the culmination of many months of collective effort, involving determined and focused co-operation between the Departments, the Assembly and its Committees.
The production of the 2001-02 Budget was a first major success of our evolving institutions. It provided a visible and tangible demonstration of how positively and constructively devolution can work for the whole community. It was a notable achievement that we must now build on.
Central to that is the establishment of robust procedures to enable the Assembly to discharge its scrutiny role and to exercise its power to modify proposals as required in the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The timetable sets out the steps that we propose to put in place to deliver on that commitment between now and December. They key dates are set out in the table attached to the copies of the statement, which have been distributed to Members.
Delivery of this Budget cycle in the available time, within existing procedures, is demanding. It will need careful management if the expectations of Members and Committees about consultation are to be met and if we are to promote equality of opportunity through those measures in line with the agreement and section 75 of the 1998 Act.
We sometimes face constraints because, as I explained in 1999 and 2000, our decisions must be developed into detailed allocations for many budget holders in the public sector. If that is to be achieved for 1 April 2002, we must have a clear outcome from the process before Christmas.
However, the approach that I am setting out today will secure improvements to ensure that the Assembly has as much time as possible to consider the Budget proposals for the following year, in the context set by the Programme for Government, so that proposals can be improved in December and in the future after an acceptable period of scrutiny.
The vote on the Budget each December should be seen as the main authorisation of spending plans, and it follows that we should provide the best possible procedures for that purpose. The proposals set out in the indicative timetable will provide for the Assembly Committees to be involved at the initial stages, starting before the summer, and before the Executive consider a draft Budget. That process was not possible last year.
In addition, there may be over two extra weeks this autumn, compared to the time available in 2000, for the Assembly to scrutinize the draft Budget. However, the timings are subject to change to suit the circumstances required. To achieve this fuller consideration the process will be triggered early - effectively from today's statement. This will be followed by a statement on the Programme for Government and a pre-Budget statement in June. The statements should be made as soon as possible before the summer so that the Executive's indications of the key issues facing the Administration are understood and can be the subject of debate in the Assembly and between Departments and Assembly Committees.
To inform this process we will provide short position reports in June showing the main issues affecting the spending plans of the Executive and the Departments. It is likely that these statements will coincide with Assembly business on the Main Estimates for 2001-02. They are two distinct processes, and I hope that the timing of the business can be managed in a way which helps that distinction. We will meet to debate and vote on the motion seeking approval of the Main Estimates for 2001-02 and then consider the Budget (No 2) Bill. The key point is that the Estimates concern 2001-02, while the Budget process set out in today's timetable is the beginning of the cycle for 2002-03.
The Finance and Personnel Committee will have an important role in collating and channelling the views of all Committees to me. This will apply, in particular, at the next phase when it can draw together the views and conclusions of each Committee following scrutiny of the report on their Department's financial issues prepared by the Executive. I welcome the Committee's advice and assistance throughout the process and at several key stages especially.
This consultation, which will be part of a wider process, should not be limited to examination of the information presented on Departments' expenditure. It should examine implications for equality and New TSN and be informed by scrutiny of other material available such as departmental plans and the public service agreement targets set out in the Programme for Government.
Committees also need to consider how the priorities set out in the Programme for Government may be refined and developed in the light of experience in the past year and new developments. Many of the policy and organisational issues which Committees have been considering with their respective Departments recently will impinge on the Budget. In this way we can ensure effective examination and identification of changing financial priorities at departmental level and at a wider strategic level through the central role of the Finance and Personnel Committee. The key aim is to ensure that we can meet the Finance and Personnel Committee's request for the draft Budget to be introduced as soon as possible after the summer recess. The timetable before the Assembly today will allow the Committee some time to consult and consider the issues affecting Departments. We want to achieve as much as possible before the recess.
Better information will be available to Committees and to Ministers, and that will contribute to consideration of the issues.