Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 27 November 2000
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Mr J Kelly:
On a point of order, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I want to refer to an interview given by Assemblyman McCrea to the ‘Mid-Ulster Mail’, which was carried in that paper last Thursday. In the interview the Member alleged that shadowy figures linked to IRA/Sinn Féin were responsible for acts of violence against schoolchildren in Maghera. The next day a school in Greenlough was burnt in a Loyalist arson attack.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Mr Kelly, this is not a point of order. I am going to move to the next item of business.
Mr J Kelly:
Further to the point of order, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Is there any way in which Members can raise issues that are, in many ways, life-threatening to members of the Nationalist community?
Mr Deputy Speaker:
That is a matter for the Standards and Privileges Committee. If you feel strongly about it you should write to the Clerk of that Committee.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan):
I wish to report to the Assembly on the meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in the special European Union programmes sector, held in Omagh on Wednesday 15 November 2000. Mr Dermot Nesbitt and I attended the meeting. The Irish Government were represented by Mr Charlie McCreevy TD, Minister for Finance. My statement has been approved by Mr Nesbitt and is also made on his behalf.
The Council agreed that the various programmes in the remit of the Special European Union Programmes Body (SEUPB) had a major role to play in the development of peace and reconciliation and in economic and social progress on the island as a whole, particularly in the border areas. The Council looks forward to working closely with the SEUPB in implementing those important tasks.
The Council received a report on progress made towards recruiting a permanent chief executive. The post has been advertised and interviews are now being held. The Council noted the progress made and hoped that the permanent chief executive would be appointed as soon as possible to drive forward the important work of the body.
The Council received a report on actions taken to further the development of the SEUPB and was pleased to note that a second regional office of the body had opened temporary premises in Omagh and that permanent premises have been identified. The Omagh office will have lead responsibility for monitoring and promoting the implementation of the common chapter and particular responsibility for the cross-border priority of Peace II.
The Council highlighted the need for clarity on the roles and responsibilities of the body as it takes forward its developing work programme. The Council noted and endorsed the pace and nature of the developments of the SEUPB’s internal structures and mechanisms and its range of developing partnerships.
The Council noted that the negotiations on the Peace II operational programme were nearing conclusion and that the SEUPB had begun work on the programme complement. The Council attaches urgency to the completion of that work and hopes that negotiations with the European Commission on the operational programmes will be finalised as soon as possible.
The membership of the Peace II monitoring committee was announced at the meeting. The committee will be established in shadow format, pending the formal adoption of the Peace II programme by the European Commission. The Council expressed a desire for an early meeting of the committee to enable it to have an input to the development of the Peace II programme complement.
The Council approved the community initiative proposals for INTERREG III, Leader+ and EQUAL in Northern Ireland and Ireland, and the proposals for the URBAN II programme in Ireland for submission to the European Commission as a basis for negotiation.
The Council recalled the important responsibilities of the SEUPB for grant making and other managerial functions in respect of the North/South elements of all the community initiatives in Northern Ireland and Ireland. It also recalled the ongoing role that the SEUPB will have in implementing and monitoring community initiatives throughout their lifetimes.
The Council stressed the immediate need for the body to be directly involved in the forthcoming negotiations with the European Commission on the community initiative programme proposals provided for in the North/South Co-operation (Implementation Bodies) (Northern Ireland) Order 1999. The Council requested that it be kept informed of progress on those negotiations.
The Council noted the progress made by the SEUPB in developing its responsibilities for monitoring and promoting implementation of the common chapter on cross- border co-operation contained in both Northern Ireland’s structural funds plan and Ireland’s national development plan. The Council agreed that delivery of the common chapter requires a consistent, coherent, co-ordinated approach to identification and implementation of cross- border co-operation on a North/South and east-west basis. The Council looks forward to a further progress report at the next sectoral meeting on EU programmes.
The Council approved the SEUPB’s draft corporate plan for 2000-03 and the draft business plan for 2000. A new corporate plan will be presented to the council early in the new year. The Council approved and welcomed the code of conduct for the staff of the body and is confident that staff will apply all aspects of the code in discharging its duties.
The Council considered a paper outlining the progress of spending on the Peace I programme and the INTERREG II programme. The Council noted the position on commitments of funds under both programmes and that overall expenditure at 30 June 2000 stood at 66% of the Peace I allocation and 79% of the INTERREG II allocation. The Council agreed that this was an important area of work and that further sustained effort will be required to ensure that full expenditure is achieved by 31 December 2001. The Council also noted that the body will provide a further progress report on the implementation of both programmes at the next sectoral meeting on the special EU programmes. The Council agreed the text of a joint communiqué, which was issued following the meeting. A copy of the communiqué has been placed in the Assembly Library.
I would also like to cover two items that fall within my responsibilities and which were dealt with at the North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting on 17 November. Ms Rodgers will be making a full statement on that meeting in due course. Following approval by the Executive Committee, the Council agreed final recommendations on the budgets for the six North/South implementation bodies. Details are set out in the table attached to my statement. The contributions from the North and South will go forward for approval by the Assembly and the Dáil respectively, as part of the Budgets and Estimates, North and South. Thus, the Executive have agreed the Northern contributions that will be recommended to the Assembly as part of the revised Budget that I will introduce next month.
The second item is the URBAN II community initiative. The Executive Committee agreed on 16 November that the URBAN II programme proposals for Northern Ireland be submitted to the North/South Ministerial Council. This happened at the sectoral meeting on 17 November, and the Council agreed to those proposals being submitted to the European Commission as a basis for negotiation over the next five months.
The Chairperson of the Finance and Personnel Committee (Mr Molloy):
A LeasCheann Comhairle, go raibh maith agat. I welcome the Minister’s statement on European funding. It is an important stepping stone, and we hope to make continued progress on it. Can the Minister tell us when Peace II money will be available, so that groups with a gap in funding will be able to ensure the continuity of their projects? What problems are being encountered? Do they relate to match funding from other Departments and organisations to allow some of these groups to draw down the extra money for the completion of payments in those schemes?
I thank the Chairperson of the Finance and Personnel Committee for his Committee’s interest in these areas.
First, we had hoped to be further forward with the proposals for the Peace II programme. There has been some delay in finalising the community support framework. Although it is the Commission’s document, the Administration has been working with the Commission on the operational programmes. That is the next stage. When operational programmes for Peace II and transitional Objective 1 are agreed, we will bring forward the more detailed proposals, within a few months, at the programme complement stage.
We are working on the operational programmes and the programme complements, but under EU regulations the monitoring committees have to be able to make an input to those. Our work would be assisted if we had everything we needed from all the Northern Ireland Government Departments. We are still awaiting some contributions on the operational programme. We are determined to try to proceed as quickly as possible because we recognise the expectations, the needs and the gaps. However, in all likelihood we will not be in a position to call for applications for Peace II until the new year.
In relation to Peace I, the most up to date figure that I have is for the end of September. It shows that 70% of Peace I funds have now been drawn down. We have only until 31 December 2001 to complete that work. There are a range of issues and problems involved, and we are trying to identify the problems of particular sectors and groups to see whether we can come up with specific solutions.
I welcome the Minister’s statement, which shows that considerable advance in this area has been made. Can he tell us about the role of local government in the administration of INTERREG III funding? It has been envisaged for some time that it would be done through the three cross-border committees that exist in Northern Ireland?
In reply to an earlier question of mine, the Minister indicated some favour towards the idea of an Assembly oversight committee for the administration of the EU programmes. Does he still see merit in such a suggestion and, if so, how could it be done?
First, in respect of INTERREG III, further details will have to be worked on. Proposals for the basis of negotiation, approved by the Executive and the North/South Ministerial Council, have been submitted. We will give further consideration to precisely how local delivery, and area-based, mechanisms can facilitate that programme.
Mr ONeill mentioned cross-border networks. I have previously recognised how they have contributed to our understanding in this area. It would be wrong for me to say that those groups will be directly engaged as delivery mechanisms for INTERREG III. It would simply be inappropriate to make any promise at this stage, but clearly the cross-border network groups are particularly well placed to make proposals regarding INTERREG III. Obviously, they have submitted some critical comments about the present proposals, and they are well placed to make a further contribution to our thinking and to the life of the programme itself.
I am open to dealing with any Committee of the Assembly. I seem to be picking up Assembly Committees to work with; it is certainly a growth sector in my area of activity, and we can take another one if that is needed.
The issue is whether the Finance and Personnel Committee believes that there is a further, distinct role to be discharged regarding the Assembly’s interest in the community support framework and the various EU programmes, and whether it believes that anything distinctive could be done by another Committee. I recognise that other Members also have an interest in the question.
Does the Minister acknowledge that the £1·2 million being allocated from the Executive’s Budget would be better spent in actual programmes within Northern Ireland? Does he recognise that the cross-border element reduces the ability of areas not along the border to tap into that money? Is there not, therefore, an element of discrimination against areas such as Lagan Valley?
I repeat the point that the allocations being made to the six implementation bodies are not huge allocations when taken against the budget as a whole.
They are significant, but they go towards supporting some significant services and work by the bodies. Some of the work was already being undertaken in other forms and, as it has to continue, we feel that it will be performed and discharged better in the particular context of the North/South implementation bodies. There can be economies of scale and performance efficiencies through co-operating in that regard.
I refute any suggestion of discrimination against any part of Northern Ireland regarding EU programmes. Obviously, some EU programmes apply to specific areas, rather than to Northern Ireland as a whole. For example, URBAN II proposals apply particularly to north Belfast, but that does not mean that the rest of Northern Ireland is discriminated against because it is not benefiting directly from URBAN II. Mr Poots may not have noticed that the whole of Northern Ireland will be eligible under INTERREG III as opposed to previous INTERREG programmes. I am at a loss to understand why there should be any suggestion of discrimination against any part of Northern Ireland.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s statement. However, I have a specific concern about the presence of Mr Dermot Nesbitt, given his recent comments in the press, where he claimed to be quoting from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) report. Subsequently we were told that it is not a report but simply a briefing for the various Ministers.
Given that Mr Nesbitt has responsibility, in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, for matters including equality, his remarks, which were quoted in the local press, are of great concern to all of us. He suggested that NISRA said — I do not know whether they are saying it, because I have not seen the briefing — that there was no discrimination between the communities. What input did Mr Nesbitt have at the sectoral meeting, given the major role that EU programmes have in ending discrimination and given that Mr Nesbitt is on public record as saying that it did not exist?
Mr Nesbitt was one of two Ministers from the Northern side who were present at the meeting. I was the other Minister. I am making the report because these matters are within the responsibility of my Department. We participated in the meeting on the basis of the papers and positions approved by the Executive Committee, which is the proper way to do business at the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC).
I note Mr Maskey’s concerns about the comments made by Mr Nesbitt on a previous occasion about another issue, but I hope that Mr Maskey is not suggesting that more parties should engage in vetting tactics as far as other Ministers’ participation in the NSMC is concerned. I am happy to participate with any Minster from any other party in NSMC business on behalf of the Executive on proper, approved and agreed terms. I hope that everybody else would do the same. I do not think that anything would be gained by saying that we will not go to certain meetings with certain Ministers because of other issues that may arise.
I welcome the details of what is happening in the European structural fund programmes. However, I would be grateful for further clarification on a number of points. I would like to focus on the funding mechanisms under Peace I and Peace II. First, is it the definition of funding bodies that is holding up the negotiations on Peace II? Secondly, will the Minister make it clear that the intermediary funding bodies that existed under Peace I and the district councils will have a role to play under Peace II. What role will that be?
Finally, will the six North/South implementation bodies carry out a funding function similar to that of the intermediary funding bodies, and will their funding come from European programmes, particularly Peace?
First, the negotiations on Peace II are ongoing. As I said, the community support framework — the Commission’s paper, which we had expected would be formalised in the summer — has taken longer than expected. Nevertheless, negotiations are proceeding in respect of the operational programme and the programme complements. There are a number of issues that need to be explored by ourselves and the European Commission. It would help our officials if we had the necessary material from all the Northern Ireland Government Departments.
The intermediary funding bodies have made a useful, distinctive and helpful contribution to Peace I. We see the importance of such a role continuing with Peace II, but we must put that work out to tender. That would be consistent with the European Commission’s own requirements. The European Court of Auditors’ report was somewhat critical of the fact that it had not happened in Peace I. It would also be appropriate with regard to public procurement policy.
We are continuing to engage with a range of interests — local partnerships and local government, as well as staying in touch with others such as the intermediary funding bodies on how best to develop local delivery mechanisms and local funding arrangements during the Peace II programme. A working group involving representatives from district partnerships, local government and intermediary funding bodies will shortly be making proposals to me in that regard.
I welcome the Minister’s progress report on the workings of the special EU programmes body. I am delighted that the Omagh office is now open and that it will monitor and promote the implementation of the common chapter and have responsibility for the cross- border priority of Peace II.
How will the North/South Ministerial Council endeavour to make the common chapter a more meaningful, practical and relevant exercise in the next round of structural funds? Unfortunately, in the 1994-99 round, the common chapter became an illusion rather than a meaningful exercise. That was particularly disappointing for those of us who live in the border zone. There is a need for real North/South co-operation on transport infrastructure.
Mr Charlie McCreevy, Mr Dermot Nesbitt and I were glad to have the meeting — the first Northern meeting in sectoral format — in Omagh, not least to mark the fact that there will be an office of the special EU programmes body in the town. As Mr Byrne said, that office will have a particular focus on the cross- border activities of Peace I and on the implementation of the common chapter.
He is also right in pointing out that it is not the first time that there has been a common chapter. I have said elsewhere that the previous common chapter was a great book but the movie never got made. This time we at least have a production system for the special EU programmes body and a North/South Ministerial Council with a dedicated sectoral format that can consider those issues. I welcome particularly the commitment of Mr McCreevy and his colleagues in the Irish Government to pursue the common chapter actively and effectively. We need to make sure that we are not just making commitments that are notionally on a cross-border basis but that do not mesh on a North/South basis. It is not just the quantity of cross-border activity that counts, it is the quality, and the body and the North/South Ministerial Council both wish to see it developed effectively.
How do the budget figures for the implementation bodies set out in the annex to the Minister’s statement compare with the figures in his recent Budget statement? On what basis was it calculated that the projected budget provisions for 2002 would increase by 9·6%, compared to this year’s figure, and for 2003 by 16·13%, compared to this year’s figure? Can the Minister explain in detail how he arrived at those figures?
The figures for 2001 and 2002 in the draft Northern Ireland Budget were based on financial years. Those figures do not, therefore, correspond precisely with the budgets for the bodies, which are expressed on the basis of calendar years. This is not the first time that I have made that point.
Any further revisions are subject to confirmation by the relevant sector of the North/South Ministerial Council. Some adjustments will be made in respect of the trade body. There will probably be a reduction of £200,000 in the amount proposed in the draft Budget. That will ensure consistency with the decisions taken at NSMC level. Similarly, there will be an increase of probably £400,000 in the allocation to the languages body to reflect that body’s activities.
The future projections are based on the plans brought forward by the bodies and approved by the North/South Ministerial Council, both in its relevant sectoral format and in plenary session. The plans were discussed in plenary forum at Dublin Castle in September and again in the various sectoral formats, and have been approved by the Northern Ireland Executive on that basis.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers):
The third meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council for the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights sector took place on 10 November in Newcastle, County Down. Following nomination by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, Mr Dermot Nesbitt and I represented Northern Ireland. Mr Frank Fahey TD, Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources, represented the Irish Government.
The Executive Committee noted the papers for the NSMC on 9 November 2000. The meeting opened with useful updates from the chairman of the board of the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission, Mr Peter Savage, and the chief executive, Mr Derick Anderson. The chairman outlined the Loughs Agency’s progress in establishing subcommittees on shell fisheries, marine tourism and finance and audit.
The shell fisheries subcommittee proposes to undertake a programme of visits to other shell fisheries on the island of Ireland to see the co-ordinated local agricultural management systems in operation. It is hoped that the system will provide a model on which to base shell fisheries management in Lough Foyle and Carlingford Lough. The marine tourism subcommittee attended a seminar organised by the Marine Institute and the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources on grant-aid proposals. The finance and audit subcommittee approved the re-prioritisation of in-year expenditure and considered the estimated needs for 2001.
Board members have also undertaken familiarisation visits to see drift and draft netting, fish population counting and fish counters, electro-fishing and oyster farming. The chief executive updated the meeting on staffing matters in both areas, particularly on progress on recruitment in the Carlingford area. He also advised that the agency had secured accommodation in Carlingford, which it hopes to occupy from 1 December. The chief executive also updated the meeting on population, catch and production data for salmon and shellfish in both areas, on the extent of seizures of illegal nets and, most worryingly, on the level of aggression with which river watchers have to contend in carrying out their duties.
The Council then considered and approved a number of papers. These were: proposals on consultation with fisheries interests in the Carlingford Lough and Foyle areas; preparation by the agency of four sets of Regulations on salmon carcass tagging to extend protection to migratory salmonids on a stretch of the River Mourne, to lift a ban on angling on a stretch of the River Foyle, to extend close seasons in both the Carlingford and Foyle areas, and to provide for a coarse angling licence in the Carlingford area; and a paper bringing forward costed proposals regarding grant-aid in the year 2001 for aquaculture, fisheries development, marine tourism, marketing, training and education, and the use of consultancies.
In addition, the Council was updated on the making of the legislation to enhance the functions of the Loughs Agency of the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission in line with the North/South Co-operation (Implementation Bodies) (Northern Ireland) Order 1999, and on the transfer of the functions of the Commissioners of Irish Lights to the body.
At the request of Waterways Ireland, the Council approved a compulsory purchase order on land in County Longford to allow for the construction of a single-span bridge, thereby facilitating the completion of the restoration of the Royal Canal.
Finally, the Council agreed to meet again in February or March 2001, and approved the issue of a joint communiqué, a copy of which has been placed in the Library. I make this report on behalf of Mr Nesbitt and myself.
Mr J Wilson:
I welcome the Minister’s statement. I note that board members have undertaken familiarisation visits to see drift and draft netting, fish population counting with fish counters, and electro-fishing. When will the Minister, through the Council, begin to pursue a policy of banning all forms of netting? Is she considering the allocation of funds to begin the process of buying out netting enterprises?
Will the Minister further confirm whether the aggression experienced by the river watchers in the execution of their duties occurred on the northern or southern shore of the lough?
Finally, will the Minister also give details of the extent of the problem posed by illegal nets? Can the problem be quantified in terms of salmon lost and income lost?
I am not sure that the first part of the question relates to my report. The aggression experienced by the river watchers was in the Foyle area. Two of the agency’s river watchers were attacked by a group of men while carrying out their duties in the Sion Mills area. The Loughs Agency fully supported the officers and asked the police to investigate. I know that a private river watcher suffered intimidation in the Omagh area and, despite this, subsequently gave evidence at a court case in which a prosecution was obtained. I commend those people; they do a difficult job, and it was very courageous of that river watcher to go ahead with the prosecution despite the fact that he had been threatened.
I am not aware of any plans to ban netting at this stage. In answer to the last part of the question, I repeat that the aggression occurred on the northern side.
When will the Loughs Agency be in a position to provide services and consultation, particularly in the Carlingford Lough area? The Minister may be aware that the Carlingford Lough Owners Association was promised consultation with respect to new developments and matters affecting it. Is she aware that a planning application is being made for yet another shellfish processing plant, that the association was not consulted and only read about it in the newspapers? Will the Minister undertake to investigate the matter and see that the proper and appropriate consultation will be carried out, even if the Loughs Agency is not yet in a position to do that?
In the Carlingford area, the Loughs Agency premises will be occupied on 1 December. Staff recruitment is proceeding and we hope to have the premises fully operational at the beginning of next year. In the meantime, the offices will be used for meetings and consultation.
The SDLP is fully committed to consultation. I am not aware of the specific issue that the Member raised. I am surprised to hear about the difficulties and that no consultation has taken place on the specific area that he speaks of. I will have the matter investigated, and I will report back to the Member.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
Can the Minister give the House any idea of the extent of damage to salmon and shellfish population in both areas as a result of poaching? How many arrests and prosecutions have been made, how many prosecutions are pending, and what penalty can we expect to see imposed upon those who are convicted?
The Foyle Commission has a good record of policing poaching in the area. I cannot give specific numbers at this stage, but I will come back to the Member with the numbers.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Does the Minister believe that the four sets of proposals for salmon protection on the Foyle and the Mourne will be sufficient to protect future tourism and the other gains that that would bring to the area?
There are important issues here that are strongly dependent on the North/South Ministerial Council working properly and the First Minister allowing these issues to be progressed.
The Member asks whether I am happy with the measures being taken for the protection of salmon in the area. The answer is yes. We are preparing legislation on salmon tagging, and I am satisfied that those measures will be successful and that preservation of stocks, which is of key importance, will be satisfactory.
The other part of the question was about the working of the North/South Ministerial Council. It is working extremely effectively, as my report will show. The work is done on an all-island basis. For example, we will have the same policy and manner of salmon tagging throughout the whole island, and that is important. I am satisfied that the North/South aspect is working effectively.
Will the Minister expand on the Loughs Agency’s proposal to provide grant-aid in 2001?
The North/South Ministerial Council has authorised the preparation of proposals for grant-aid schemes by the Loughs Agency in agriculture, commercial wild fisheries and marine tourism, including marketing, training and education, and consultancies. The legislation to provide for grant-aid schemes is being drafted, and it is expected that Regulations will be in place to allow for the consideration of applications for grant-aid in the latter part of 2001.
Can the Minister tell the House the cost of the latest meeting and what proportion of that cost was paid by her Department? Does she believe that that is the best use of her Department’s scarce resources?
The costs were paid by the joint secretariat. I cannot specify the exact cost, but I do not expect that it was very great. The benefit, as I have explained, will outweigh the cost of the meeting.
Mr Bradley asked about grant-aid and tourist development. Will the Minister place the paper under consideration in the Assembly Library in the near future for the benefit of Members, given the importance of this field in developing our tourism infrastructure?
Secondly, I questioned the Minister on the issue of consultation bodies — or even a single consultation body — relating to the function of the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission. Are there any further proposals to have consultation, so that the range of operations may be developed?
The answer to the first part of the Member’s question is yes.
With regard to the second part of his question, I can tell him that the agency is aware of the need for consultation. There are many interests to be taken into consideration. Many people want to be consulted and to have input into the making of the legislation. The Loughs Agency is developing a formal procedure for consulting its customers and other parties in the Foyle and Carlingford areas who have an interest in its work. As part of the process, the agency recently invited interested parties to make suggestions on how the agency should establish consultation arrangements in order to ensure that interested parties are given the opportunity to have an input into the agency’s decision-making process.
The outcome of the exercise is that the agency plans to establish an advisory forum and focus groups on which local fishing interests will be represented. The Member will be interested to learn that a consultant has been retained by the agency to recruit members independently to the forum and the focus groups to ensure that all interests are represented and that the representatives are truly independent.
I join other Members in welcoming the Minister’s statement and the advances that are being made in this important work, considering that neither game nor coarse fish know where the border lies. We must do what we can to make sure that everything goes well. Can the Minister tell us what the Loughs Agency’s proposals are? What promotion will be necessary for the development of coarse angling in the Carlingford area in general? She might also care to comment on the Loughs Agency’s powers to license agricultural operations in the same area.
The agency proposes to carry out an initial survey of potential coarse angling in the Carlingford area and, in particular, in Newry canal.
The agency is liaising with scientific staff to design and initiate those surveys. It also proposes to draw up and implement a coarse angling development programme in partnership with local angling clubs and district councils.
Legislation is being prepared to regulate aquaculture in both loughs, and I hope to be able to bring it forward in the new year. There has been wide consultation with interested bodies in the preparation of the legislation.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I have received notice from the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development that she wishes to make a statement on BSE.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers):
Last Monday, at the European Agriculture Council meeting in Brussels, I had discussions with British Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown, the other UK Agriculture Ministers and the Republic’s Agriculture Minister, Joe Walsh. I also had a meeting with the Health Commissioner, David Byrne. Members will be aware of the increased level of awareness of BSE and heightened public concerns arising from recent development in France and other member states.
In the light of those discussions and, in particular, of the increase in the incidence of BSE in Northern Ireland this year, as well as the current climate with regard to BSE in other member states, I have reviewed my position on a formal submission to the Commission to call for a relaxation of the export ban. I have also taken into account concerns expressed by other member states about a call from Northern Ireland for a relaxation of the ban at this time.
I have decided, therefore, that it would be inappropriate and possibly counterproductive for me to proceed with the case at the moment. I am still fully committed to obtaining a relaxation of the export ban for Northern Ireland. In the meantime, my Department will finalise its proposals in light of the consultation exercise and the findings of the recent inspection carried out in Northern Ireland by the EU Food and Veterinary Office. It will also continue to hold informal discussions with the Commission at official level. I will consider the action that should be taken in Northern Ireland to ensure that we comply with the European Agriculture Council’s conclusions and the resultant decision of the Standing Veterinary Committee.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee (Mr Savage):
The Minister should not be intimidated by the re-emergence of the BSE problem in France and now in Germany. She should cash in at this time by highlighting the benefits of traceability, rather than doing nothing, as she, in effect, proposes. Now is the time to put traceability to the test. In the wake of the earlier BSE crisis, Northern Ireland put in place the most sophisticated and rigorous tracing system for beef cattle in Europe. As a result, Northern Ireland and British beef is now the safest in Europe.
We should be vigorously promoting the real, comparative safety of Northern Ireland beef. Does the Minister agree that, by doing that, we could recapture lost markets and alleviate the real distress felt by farmers?
First, I am not abandoning the objective of relaxing the ban. Neither I nor my Department have stopped work on this issue. Work will continue on dealing with the proposals which we are adjusting in the light of the consultation and the need to ensure that they are accepted. I understand the frustration of the Member and the farmers because I share these feelings, but I have decided that the most important consideration is that we achieve the right result.
Going now would not get the right result. I was in Brussels last Monday and saw the atmosphere of panic resulting from the new BSE scare in France and other countries. I took advice, and I spoke to a number of other Agriculture Ministers — Joe Walsh, Nick Brown and others. I also had a lengthy meeting with the Commissioner. The advice that I got from all quarters, and which I feel instinctively is the right advice, was that this is not a good time or a good context within which to try to convince the other member states that we should have a relaxation of the ban. I agree with the Member that we have an excellent traceability system. All those issues will come into play when the time is right, but we must remember that we will get one shot at this and that we must take that shot only when the time is right and when we are going to get what we want.
The Minister referred to the increase in BSE in France and Germany and also Northern Ireland. What is the increase in BSE incidence in Northern Ireland? What is responsible for it, and what action is she taking to deal with it?
I shall put the cases of BSE in perspective. In 1992, we had almost 500 cases here. That gradually decreased until 1998, when we had 18 cases. Last year, we had only six cases, but, unfortunately, this year we have had 20. That is not a cause for concern, but, at present, people in Europe are unable to look at it logically. The epidemiology suggests that when it falls to the low numbers, there will no longer be a regular downward decline; there will be a bump — an irregularity — at the bottom. One will have good years, when the numbers are low, and bad years. That is the position.
We will continue with the strict controls that are already in place. We have the strictest and toughest controls in Europe, and I do not intend to have any further controls, as they are not necessary. As Mr Savage said, we have an excellent traceability system.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
Given the Minister’s failure to achieve low-incidence BSE status, and given her comment in the House today that it is not the right time to get it, can she tell us, instead of prevaricating, when the right time will come to achieve low-incidence BSE status? Has the Minister made any representations to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), to the UK representative or to any of her European competitors that French beef ought now to be banned from import to Northern Ireland in order to protect consumers’ rights and the rights of local producers? When did she make such representations? To whom did she make them? Does the Minister accept that now is the time for us to be seeking the alternative, which we called for in September 2000 and before the summer recess, to the current strategy that her Department is pursuing?
In the first place, I do not accept that I have failed in not getting low-incidence BSE status. The Member will appreciate that I started to seek low-incidence BSE status as one of my main priorities almost a year ago. He will also know that, for reasons beyond my control — and reasons that I did not agree with — there was a three-month hiccup that year, during which I was unable to do anything because of the suspension, which the Member fully supported. I have not been prevaricating; I have been absolutely open and honest in saying that the time is not now right. As a Minister, I bear responsibility for ensuring that we put our case at the time when its strength will be viewed reasonably, and not in the present context of panic.
Secondly, I have made representations to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) in my search for a relaxation of the ban. The Member, who is on the Food Safety Agency, raised the issue of the safety of French beef. I want to assure the Member that I have taken every opportunity to engage in discussions with the other member states, and in particular with France. I have had meetings with French officials twice in the past number of months to ensure that when we come to put our case we will get their full support, which will be extremely important.
As we seek to gain the support of other member states for the relaxation of the ban, it will be more useful to dwell on positive points than on negative ones.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. By moving into a fallback position, is there not a danger that we could give out the wrong message? The consumer could infer that we are guilty by association of not making our case at a time when Europe is looking for disease-free beef, which we have had for some time. Does the Minister see that as a danger? If our case was right the week before this happened in Europe, it must still be right. Will the Government consider doing something for local farmers, who now face a serious drop in prices because of the fallout from Europe?
We will not give out the wrong message. As I have explained, the decision that I have taken is the correct decision. The current situation in Europe is that member states are not prepared to listen to rational argument and to our strong case. Therefore, it would be foolish in the extreme for me to fire ahead on the basis that we can put a good case and say, "To hell with the circumstances." I agree with the Member that we have a good case on the basis of our numbers and our extremely strict controls. However, I will not put a good case at a bad time. Our message is strong, and people will hear it when they are in a position to listen.
The proposal to relax the export ban has been deferred only because of the current climate. I still intend to submit the proposal to the Commission when the time is right. Producers can feel heartened that the proposal will go to the Commission, but in the meantime the status quo will be maintained. I received £2 million in the Budget for the beef quality initiative. I was also allocated £300,000 in the monitoring round to kick-start the beef quality initiative, which in due course should help beef prices.
I am not sure that I welcome the Minister’s statement, but I welcome the fact that she has come to tell the Assembly about the rather bad situation that we are in. I can assure her that from this corner of the House she will hear no knee-jerk anti-Europeanism of the sort that she has heard elsewhere.
The Minister mentioned the support that has been received in the past from Nick Brown and other UK Ministers, and from Joe Walsh. Do they still support her decision to apply for special status when she sees the time as right? Notwithstanding the current problems with France and Germany and the difficulty in getting a rational decision, has the Minister had meetings with other Governments in order to build up support, so that when the time is right we will not have to start looking for supporters of our case?
I am happy that I still have the full support of Nick Brown and the Scottish and Welsh Ministers over the relaxation of the ban for Northern Ireland, in spite of the adverse implications for them. I also have and have always had the full support of Joe Walsh in the Republic. I have not yet come to the stage of doing the rounds of the other European states to look for support for my proposals. I am waiting until we are ready to put the proposal formally — that is the best time to move on it.
I have had discussions with the French in the margins of other conferences on two occasions. I have not had discussions with other countries so far, but when the time is right and we are beginning to move towards the formal proposals, I intend to go to the various European countries to speak to them. Indeed, the agriculture attachés from the different embassies in London are coming to Northern Ireland soon. In preparation for putting the case, I am also going over to inform them of exactly how good our controls are and how low the incidence is of BSE.
I agree with the Minister that the Assembly should be sending out a positive message. On that basis, can she assure us that the controls imposed on farmers by the Department will strengthen our case when it is presented? Secondly — perhaps this sounds repetitive — does the Minister think that there will ever be a right time to proceed, given the work that she has already carried out in this field?
Will the time ever be right? That is a good question. I had hoped that the time was right six months ago. The fact that circumstances are not right at the moment is beyond my control. However, I am sure that the right time will come. The time will come when the panic is over, when our case will be even stronger. As people look around Europe and see our level of incidence and our controls, compared with those of other countries, they will be easier to convince and, in a calmer situation, the strength of our case will be noted.
I am under no illusion that we can get away with poor record keeping. If we are to get out of this mess and get the ban lifted, we must be sure that we can compete with the best, and maintaining proper herd records is essential for that reason. Traceability, both pre- and post-slaughter, will become even more essential as a result of the latest BSE developments in Europe. We are well placed, and that can be seen when compared with the records of our rivals. We also have a serious problem with bovine TB and brucellosis. Therefore it is important for us to keep accurate accounts. Nonetheless, I am satisfied that our controls are extremely good.
Does the Minister share the opinion of many of those in the industry that the United Kingdom Government should unilaterally ban French beef imports, thereby ensuring that markets for our own highly regulated product avoid being saturated with cheap, unsafe and origin-unknown French beef? I am disappointed that the Minister has failed to call for a ban on French beef.
As I have already said, the question of banning French beef is one for the Food Safety Agency, which is looking at the issue. If the Food Safety Agency concludes that French beef is not safe, it will be a matter for the UK Government, and I expect that they will take action because public health is and must remain a priority.
How does the incidence of BSE in Northern Ireland compare with that in other member states? Is it lower than in France? What are the public health implications of this year’s increase?
There were 20 cases in Northern Ireland this year, an unfortunate increase from last year’s six. In Office International des Epizooties (OIE) low incidence terms, that is equivalent to 25 per million. Incidence in the Republic is 101 this year, which is equivalent to 27 per million under the OIE criteria. In France, the incidence in the nine years prior to 2000 was 80. This year alone it is 86, which is a huge increase, but still only equivalent to six per million. Our incidence this year is three times that of France. Of course, we had an incidence of almost 500 in 1992, whereas we now have 20, so we can make a good case.
In Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the UK, animals of over 30 months — which is when they become more suspect — are not allowed into the food chain. Only animals of under 30 months are allowed into the food chain in Northern Ireland. Even those animals have all specified risk material removed before they go into the food chain. Therefore all our precautions and controls are extremely tough and strict, and there are no health implications.
Does the Minister recognise that it was she who set a date of October 2000 to have the beef ban lifted, thereby misleading the agricultural community? When will the ban be lifted? She told the Assembly that it would be March 2001. Is it going to be October 2001, October 2002, or October 2003? Is she implying that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development did nothing during the Assembly’s suspension from February until April 2000? Given her performance, the Minister should be renamed Minister for Prevarication and Rural Desolation.
How many cases of BSE in cattle under the age of 36 months have there been in Northern Ireland? Do the new tests that will apply to all cattle over the age of 36 months not represent an opportunity to further our campaign to get the beef ban lifted? All animals will then be tested and will not, therefore, have BSE.
I hope that I will remember all those questions. If not, the Member will probably remind me.
First, I did not set a date. In response to questions in the House as to when I thought we would be able to move, I said that I hoped to move on specific dates in October. Recently, I said that I hoped to achieve a relaxation of the ban in March or April 2000. I do not have a crystal ball, and, unlike some Members, I do not have a direct line to the Almighty. Therefore, I could not here forecast this current crisis in Europe, for instance.
I do not take any responsibility for things that are beyond my control. I take responsibility only for things that I can influence. To that end, I have worked extremely hard to get the ban relaxed. There is no implication that my staff did nothing for the three months that I was out of office. I am being attacked for not doing anything, not my staff. I cannot influence French officials, French Ministers or Irish Ministers when I am not in office.
The Member said that new tests will be carried out on all cattle over 30 months. That is not the situation as I understand it. It is not yet clear what the Standing Veterinary Committee (SVC) is saying. We are still interpreting it.
The European Union has insisted that 2,500 cattle be tested over the next year, beginning on 1 January 2001. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has begun that task ahead of schedule - we are ahead of the game. All cattle of over 30 months going into the food chain may have to be tested, but as none over 30 months goes into the food chain in Northern Ireland, it may not be necessary to test them all. Mr Poots may, of course, have some source of inspiration or knowledge denied to me.
Rev Dr William McCrea:
I do not claim to have a direct line to heaven on this serious matter. It is not a game, although certain Members sitting behind the hon Lady seem to treat it as such. I know that the Minister takes it seriously.
Two cases of BSE have been reported in Germany, while in France, where the situation is grave, 107 cases have been reported. However, there are 101 cases in the Irish Republic, but there is no stir or sense of urgency about them. Are people in Northern Ireland and Great Britain protected against potentially infected meat from BSE animals from the Irish Republic? How will the Minister ensure that Europe deals effectively with the problem there?
The incidence of BSE in Northern Ireland is currently 25 per million, while in the Irish Republic it is 27 per million. Clearly the rate in Northern Ireland is lower. It is illegal for any country to sell cattle of over 30 months of age to Northern Ireland and introduce them into the food chain here. The problem exists across the United Kingdom, and we are examining how it might be resolved. The Food Safety Agency is immediately undertaking a risk assessment of French beef. The over-30-month regulations are being rigorously enforced at meat processing plants and by retailers, and all beef for the domestic market has to be certified as coming from animals of under 30 months. The Commission is being pressed to ensure that the compulsory labelling of meat and processed products clearly states the country of origin.
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Ms de Brún):
A Cheann Comhairle. Is mian liom tuairisciú don Tionól gur aithbhreithnigh an Coiste Feidhmiúcháin a chinneadh gur chóir don Údarás Dóiteáin bonn a bhualadh le bronnadh ar throdaithe dóiteáin agus a bpearsanra cúnta ar son na seirbhíse suntasaí a sholáthair an tSeirbhís Dóiteáin le tríocha bliain agus shocraigh sé gurbh fhóirsteanaí Duais Chorporáideach.
Bhí an Coiste den bharúil fosta gur chóir d'Oifig an Chéad-Aire agus an LeasChéad-Aire fiosrú an mbeadh Duais Stáit ionghnóthachana nó fóirsteanach.
Beidh a fhios ag Teachtaí gur cuireadh fáilte roimh chinneadh an Choiste Feidhmiúcháin i Meitheamh maidir le bronnadh meadáillí ag an Údarás Dóiteáin ar dtús, ach mhéadaigh ar an imní a léirigh ionadaithe na dtrodaithe dóiteáin nach raibh a leithéid de dhuais fóirsteanach. Ar aon dul leis an Choiste Feidhmiúcháin, phléigh mé na hábhair chúraim seo le hionadaithe Cheardchumann na mBriogáidí Dóiteáin, a mhol roinnt roghanna. Chuir mé na barúlacha seo in iúl don Choiste Feidhmiúcháin ag a chruinniú deireanach agus chinn an Coiste Feidhmiúcháin glacadh leis na moltaí aithbhreithnithe atá mé i ndiaidh a fhógairt.
Mar a dúirt mé leis an Tionól i Meitheamh, murach misneach agus oilteacht ár dtrodaithe dóiteáin agus ról tábhachtach fhoireann cúnta na mbriogáidí bheadh na mílte marbh atá beo inniu. Is mian liomsa agus le mo Chomhghleacaithe sa Choiste Feidhmiúcháin aitheantas a thabhairt don tseirbhís shuntasach seo ar dhóigh fhóirsteanach inghlactha.
I wish to report to the Assembly that the Executive have reviewed their decision that the Fire Authority should strike a medallion to be awarded to firefighters and support personnel in recognition of the outstanding service that they have provided over the past 30 years, deciding instead that a corporate award by the Assembly would be more appropriate. The Executive also agreed that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister should investigate whether a state award would also be achievable or appropriate.
Members will be aware that, while the Executive's June decision regarding the awarding of medallions by the Fire Authority was initially welcomed, firefighters' representatives subsequently expressed growing concern that such an award was not appropriate. With the agreement of the Executive, I discussed those concerns with representatives of the Fire Brigades Union, who suggested a number of options. I informed the Executive of those views at our last meeting, and we decided to adopt the revised proposals that I have just announced.
As I said to the Assembly in June, many people owe their lives to the courage and skill of our firefighters and the important contribution of brigade support staff. My Executive colleagues and I wish to recognise that outstanding service in an appropriate and acceptable way.
The Chairperson of the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee (Dr Hendron):
I welcome the Minister's statement. Members will be in total agreement that the outstanding service of those in the Fire Brigade who have so gallantly provided a service to the entire community over the past 30 years should be recognised in an appropriate and acceptable way. We should also take into account the views of the families of those firefighters who gave their lives - something I myself have seen in West Belfast. I note that the Executive, in reaching their decision on the type of award, have taken on board the views of representatives of the Fire Brigades Union.
A corporate award from the Assembly is, of course, appropriate. However, does the Minister agree that other organisations and individuals, with the possible inclusion of the Secretary of State himself, may wish to honour the Fire Service? It is, of course, a matter for those people.
Ms de Brún:
I join with the Member in paying tribute to the work of the Fire Service over the period in question. It is important that we pay tribute to it, and that is why the Executive Committee took the decision to ensure that the most appropriate award be made. There will be further discussion of the issue in this afternoon's debate. There may well be others who wish to honour the Fire Service, but we must consider what the Executive feel. The Assembly will also wish to take this forward in accordance with its own wishes.
Is the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety once again being political, brushing such a serious decision off onto the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister? I remind the Minister that her remit covers the Fire Service. The Department should recommend that a state medal be awarded to the Fire Service, whose members have served this community with great distinction.