Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 12 February 2001
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
During a debate on a motion moved by Mr Danny Kennedy on 30 January, a point of order was raised by Mr Ian Paisley Jnr concerning the conduct of debate as regards matters that are sub judice. Mr Paisley suggested that Madam Deputy Speaker's ruling prevented Members from citing cases that were under discussion in another jurisdiction. Madam Deputy Speaker undertook to clarify the situation and to make a ruling on the matter.
I wish to make some general points on the conduct of debate. Quite apart from the sub judice rule in Standing Order 68, it is open to the Speaker, or a Deputy Speaker, in controlling a debate, to remind Members of the need for caution in making reference to specific individuals whose personal safety may be placed at risk. It is also the responsibility of the Chair to try to ensure that even where strongly held views are put forward in robust debate, it is done in a manner which maintains a measure of dignity.
As regards Mr Paisley's specific point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker said that she made her ruling on 30 January in the interests of caution, and that she would judge each point as it arose. However, I wish to rule with some further clarity on Standing Order 68.
The sub judice rule provides that certain matters should not be referred to in a motion, debate or question. The scope of the Standing Order itself is fairly narrow. In particular, it does not apply to contemplated or hypothetical proceedings, nor does it apply to investigations. In criminal matters, the sub judice rule applies from the moment a person is charged until the verdict and sentence have been announced. The rule resumes when notice of appeal is given, and applies until the appeal has been decided. In civil matters, the sub judice rule applies from the time the case has been set down for trial, or otherwise brought before the court, until judgement is given.
The basis of the rule is the prevention of prejudice to the outcome of actual, as distinct from possible, criminal or civil proceedings. References to specific individuals who have not been charged, or who have already been sentenced, fall outside the scope of Standing Order 68. I consider that the sub judice rule applies to proceedings before the courts of Northern Ireland. In regard to criminal cases originating in Northern Ireland, appeal may be made to the House of Lords and beyond. Therefore, if a Northern Ireland criminal matter has been appealed to the House of Lords or to an international court, Standing Order 68 applies from the time notice of that appeal is given until the appeal has been decided.
I hope this clarifies the matter for the House.
The First Minister (Mr Trimble):
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I refer to the debate last Tuesday on a motion making arrangements for consulting the Civic Forum. In the course of that debate, Mr Peter Robinson made a number of allegations with regard to comments I had made on the procedures whereby we consulted the Civic Forum with regard to the motion put forward. In those comments, Mr Robinson referred to documents that he had on the matter, and I believe that you, Mr Speaker, asked him to forward those documents to you. I would like to ask if you have received any such documents. I also want to draw your attention to two documents that I have relating to this matter. The first is on Civic Forum paper, copies of which were sent to all members of the Civic Forum prior to its discussion on 20 December. It sets out the motion for arrangements with the Civic Forum, proposed by the Deputy First Minister and myself. The document concludes:
"If issues need to be addressed they can be discussed at the meeting of the Forum on 20 December."
The issues were discussed at the morning meeting of the Civic Forum on 20 December, which was attended by 20 members of the Forum. The issues were discussed further by the management committee of the Civic Forum on the afternoon of 20 December, and I have the minutes of that meeting. The relevant minute reads:
"The motion as it currently stands was discussed at a recent meeting."
- that was the morning's meeting -
".and some changes were proposed . It was agreed that the motion as developed at the previous meeting should go forward to the Assembly."
The minutes set out the text of the motion, which is exactly the text considered by the Assembly last Tuesday. These documents show that I did not mislead the House and, furthermore, show that Mr Robinson was quite wrong in his allegations.
It would be helpful, and in order - although the two are not always the same - if the First Minister were to supply those papers to me. I have not been in a position to make any ruling in regard to the matter until now. I will study any papers provided and respond appropriately.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
My comments relate to your earlier ruling relating to the overly cautious ruling made by Madam Deputy Speaker during the debate on the motion tabled by Mr Danny Kennedy. In my view, Madam Deputy Speaker's ruling stymied part of that debate. If a similar motion were to be tabled by a Member, can we assume that it would be listed for an early hearing and debate so the matters which ought to have been heard during the course of the debate can be fully and properly explored and debated by the House.
At times, the tendency of the Members is to be less than cautious, and the tendency of the Speaker is to be a little more than cautious. These are understandable failings on both sides. Whether a motion would actually be taken is a matter for the Business Committee, but I shall look at the question as to whether a motion may be tabled, and I will correspond with the Member on that matter.
Mr P Robinson:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Will you confirm that a view expressed by an Assembly Committee could not be regarded as being the corporate view of the Assembly any more than a view expressed by a mere management committee of the Civic Forum could be considered as the view and decision of the whole Forum? This is what was alleged last Tuesday.
I have already undertaken to consider all the papers that are provided to me in relation to this question. I will subsequently make a ruling.
The First Minister (Mr Trimble):
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Mr Peter Robinson is quite wrong. He did not listen to what was said, either on Tuesday or today. The allegations that he made are completely wrong. I will leave him to read the minutes and the papers to see that. He can then come and apologise -
Order. It would be quite wrong for this to become a matter of debate, rather than several points of order. There may also be a subsequent question which I shall wish to address, which is the availability to Members of the Assembly of relevant papers from the Civic Forum. That is a matter that I think would be proper for me to examine, aside from ruling on this particular point of order.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development has indicated that she wishes to make a statement in respect of results of BSE tests carried out by her Department.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair)
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers):
Members will be aware that last Friday I released details of BSE tests that my Department recently carried out. My officials briefed the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee on Friday. It is appropriate for me to provide the Assembly with the details, which I am happy to do.
Members will be aware that, with the full support of the agriculture industry in Northern Ireland, I and my officials have been attempting to have the present ban on the export of Northern Ireland cattle and beef products relaxed. It became very clear to us that the European Commission and other member states would expect us to be able to demonstrate that we knew, as far as is humanly possible, the full extent of the incidence of BSE in Northern Ireland. That required us to carry out active surveillance for BSE, rather than relying on the disease being diagnosed and reported. My Department has only recently been in a position to do this, with the availability of a rapid mass screening test for BSE.
We therefore embarked on a round of testing aimed at high-risk cattle entering the over-30-months casualty cull in Northern Ireland. There are some 20,000 such casualty animals a year. I want to stress that as over-30-months animals, they do not enter the food chain. These animals are put down humanely on the farm. They are rendered and eventually incinerated. We took samples from 2,500 of these casualty animals during 2000, and the samples were tested as soon as my Department was in position to do the work. That was in the last few weeks.
As Members will now be aware, 54 of those tests for BSE proved positive, and, moreover, one animal appears to have been born after 1 August 1996, when the feed ban became fully effective. My officials are presently investigating that case further, although it has always been expected that there would be a few such cases. There has been one in GB. That means that BSE is more prevalent in older cattle than we had previously believed. It also means that the same may be true in other member states.
I hope that Members will forgive me if I stress several important points again, because it is vital that people do not misinterpret this. First, the cattle that were tested were from the category most at risk of BSE - older, sick or injured cattle. Secondly, as they were aged over 30 months, there was no question of their entering the food chain. All such cattle have been banned from the UK food chain since 1 August 1996. Thirdly, even though about one third of the animals tested were aged under four years at slaughter, none of them proved to be harbouring BSE. That vindicates the independent scientific advice from the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) that the over-30-months scheme is an effective public health measure.
Where does this leave our bid to restore beef exports? Although it must still be our goal to get beef and cattle exports moving again, it must be recognised that until other member states report their cattle test results, we have no figures with which we can compare ours. It is such a comparison with the results of other member states that will form the basis for any case for the resumption of beef exports from Northern Ireland. However, other member states will not have reported all their results until later this year.
In conclusion, these figures are the result of a new mass screening test carried out on older, sick animals, which are in a very high-risk category and most likely to be harbouring BSE. There was absolutely no possibility of any of these animals getting into the food chain. No animal over two and a half years has gone into the food chain in Northern Ireland or Great Britain since 1996. We have the strictest controls in Europe. One third of those tested were under four years of age, and not one of those animals tested positive. This is further evidence to support the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee recommendations on the effectiveness of the over-30-months scheme as a measure to protect public health.
No comparison can be made with any other region or member state, as there are no comparable results of mass screening of this high-risk category. I hope that consumers and other member states will recognise that this exercise has given us a much better idea of the level of BSE in Northern Ireland cattle. It also demonstrates that it is present only in older cattle which are well beyond the 30-month age limit. Possession of this information can only help us to achieve our ultimate goal of eradicating BSE.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development (Mr Savage):
I welcome the Minister's important statement. It is vital that the public understand that those cattle which showed traces of BSE were four and a half years old: they were not in the food chain, and they could not have got into the food chain. The upper age limit for inclusion in the food chain is two and a half years. Therefore it was impossible for that beef to have entered the food chain.
I want the Minister to reinforce this message to the media, because over the last few days, the situation has been misinterpreted. I fear that, in many cases, the key point is being missed. It is important that there be no scaremongering about BSE. We must approach this issue with a cool head and common sense. It remains the case that Northern Ireland beef is still the safest in Europe. The traceability scheme -
Mr Deputy Speaker:
This is not the opportunity to make a statement, but to ask the Minister a question. Please come to a question soon.
I hope that the Minister will emphasise as much as possible that the safety of our beef industry is at stake. Over the weekend, the wrong message was given out by the media through a report that claimed that the youngest of these cattle was four and a half years old, and the oldest was 18.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Mr Savage, please come to your question.
This is a very important point, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I ask the Minister to reinforce that message.
I am somewhat surprised that the Member is saying that the correct message has not gone out. Having carefully monitored all the media coverage, I know that there was just one unfortunate exception, and we are dealing with it. It was a misrepresentation of animals which were non-BSE. Aside from that one unfortunate exception, all the media coverage has interpreted the position as it is. I took great care to inform the media of the position, and I am pleased to say that the message has gone out that we have been responsible and open and that the precautions we have been taking have been seen to be working.
I also have to place on record my appreciation of the responsible manner in which the industry has acted. It has accepted that these tests are in the industry's interests, as they will ensure that we eradicate this disease. With one unfortunate exception, media coverage of the issue has been extremely positive.
Does the Minister agree that while the figures cause worry, they do not constitute any threat to public health and that the campaign to achieve low incidence will continue to emphasise the advanced testing procedures which make us the safest region in the European Union?
I totally agree that these figures have no implication whatsoever for public health. None of the animals which were found BSE positive in the rapid screening tests could have entered the food chain. Independent scientific advisers have assured us that animals under two and a half years of age are not a threat to public health once the specified risk material has been removed. That position has been reviewed and reiterated by the Food Standards Agency and by SEAC. Indeed, last week the European Commission repeated that animals under two and a half years of age are not a threat to public safety.
Although it was important that the Minister fully informed the Assembly, it is nevertheless disappointing that the export of livestock has had a further setback. In response to widespread concerns, can the Minister confirm categorically that she made the appropriate representations to the Government of the Irish Republic? Has the Minister received assurances that no infected BSE livestock have been imported into Northern Ireland? If the Minister is not in a position to acquire low-incidence BSE, what is her alternative?
The implication of the question about the Republic of Ireland is unclear. The UK Government and I have informed the Commission of the results of our survey. Indeed, as a matter of courtesy, I have also informed the Government of the Republic of Ireland of those results. I am not sure what point Mr Kane was making. However, I can assure him that it is illegal for meat from any animal over two and a half years of age to enter the food chain in Northern Ireland. That remains the case for beef coming from any other part of Europe as well as from within Northern Ireland.
The second part of his question related to what I am going to do now. I am not going to lose my head. I am not going to be rushed into making any foolhardy decisions. I will be speaking to the Commission, to other European Ministers responsible for agriculture and to Nick Brown. I await the results of the testing which will be carried out across Europe this year, and I will assess the situation to gauge the best time for me to resume my proposals for low-incidence status. I have no intention of abandoning my campaign for low-incidence status.
In the meantime, we will proceed with the many other things which need to be done. For instance, improving the quality of our beef is crucial so that when the markets open up again, we will be in a position to move immediately and capitalise on that.
Therefore the beef quality initiative that was announced in the Budget, and for which I obtained £2 million, is going ahead, and I will do everything possible to ensure that the quality of our beef is improved and can compete with the best.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Several Members have indicated that they wish to ask questions. I ask Members and the Minister to keep their comments as brief as possible.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am sure that the Minister will agree that the efforts to have the ban lifted were made on a voluntary basis. Other countries are not required to fulfil the same criteria for animals of over 30 months until the end of 2001, which means that Northern Ireland will stand alone for some 10 months. Does this extinguish our efforts to have the ban lifted?
The Minister's statement made reference to the incineration of animals, and the general public are concerned about where they are to be incinerated. I would like to know the Minister's opinion on our hopes of having the ban lifted.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Minister, I am sure there was a question in there somewhere.
I think there were a few questions, Mr Deputy Speaker.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I am not taking points of order at this stage, Mr Maskey.
Mr McHugh made reference to voluntary efforts. He seems to misunderstand the procedures for the rest of Europe. In 2000 a decision was taken in Europe that sample testing of casualty animals would begin on 1 January 2001. We made immediate preparations to bring in the casualty animals. Given that this testing was compulsory from 1 January, it was highly unlikely that, had we proceeded with proposals for the relaxation of the ban, the European Commission would have come to any conclusion until the results of our initial testing were available. Therefore we decided to proceed in order to be in a position to supply the results.
In December 2000, because of the BSE situation in Europe, the Commission decided that testing would start in Great Britain on 1 April 2001 and on 1 July in the rest of Europe. It is not true to say that we went ahead too early. The Agriculture and Rural Development Committee agreed that we were right to proceed when we did. When the other results come in we will be in a better position to assess the true picture across Europe.
I ask Mr McHugh and Members of the Assembly to consider the position we would be in now if we had proceeded with proposals for the removal of the ban before the results came in. We will get only one shot at this, and I want to make sure that we get it right.
I would like to thank the Minister and her administrative and professional officials for the way in which they have handled this issue since last week. Their openness contrasts well with the actions of the 1996 United Kingdom Government, which were so roundly criticised by the Phillips Report.
Can the Minister assure the Assembly that she will continue to emphasise the safety of Northern Ireland beef that is under 30 months and the fact that there is no danger whatsoever to public health? Last week's information did not give that sort of assurance - quite the opposite. Will she also ensure that the new tests are conducted properly by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and that the results are publicised in the same open way?
Will she also use her influence to ensure that other member states do the same? And will she ensure that her officials remain vigilant when checking further beef imports, such as those discovered in Newry a couple of weeks ago?
I will try to remember all of the questions that Mr Ford asked. If I omit some, perhaps he will remind me.
First, I thank the Member for his remarks, which I appreciate, about the manner in which this has been dealt with. He asked about the new tests to be carried out. In the coming year we will now have to test all casualty and fallen animals. Moreover, all animals born between 1 August 1996 and 1 August 1997, not just casualty and fallen animals, that are entering the over-30-months scheme will have to be tested. The purpose of those tests is to see how effective the introduction of the ban on the meat and bonemeal has been, because the ban was introduced from that date. If that year-long period is tested, that will indicate whether the ban has been effective. Those tests will all have to be carried out during this year.
I assure Mr Ford that I will be as open and as transparent when those results come through as I have been with the recent ones. I will continue to make a point of assuring the public that the results of those tests have no public health implication because - and I have repeated this, as have other Members - none of those animals would have entered the food chain.
All information is useful, and we thank the Minister for the information she has given and, especially, for her response to it. First, will the Minister confirm, once again, that meat from animals under 30 months old in Northern Ireland is among the safest in Europe? Secondly, can she tell us when she expects Scotland, England and the Republic of Ireland to carry out tests similar to those described to us today? Thirdly, how confident is she that other European Union countries will carry out similar tests, since BSE has been somewhat hidden from the public in those countries?
In relation to Northern Ireland beef being the safest, I can only repeat the Food Standards Agency's view and that of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC), an independent scientific advisory commission. The SEAC states, and has recently repeated its view, that animals under two and a half years - the only ones going into the food chain in Northern Ireland - are not a threat to public health, and, moreover, that the specified risk material is removed. That has been the case in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK since 1996. Some of those controls are only now being introduced in other European countries. Therefore in that sense we have been ahead with our strict controls.
In relation to the tests being carried out throughout the rest of Europe, and whether the rest of Europe will comply, this is something that we wish to see happen. That will be a matter for the Commission and for the food standards agencies. I would like to think that all other countries will be as open and transparent as we have been. In the end, the fact that we have been open and transparent will stand to us.
I too welcome the statement and the openness of its content. Last Friday at the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee meeting we heard from the Minister's officials that some very old animals had been tested. Can the Minister confirm the age of the oldest animals that tested positive, and can she give us the age profile of the remainder?
The oldest animal to test positive in the recent survey was 14 years old, which is pretty old for a cow.
All the others, with one exception, were over four years of age. Many were in the five years to seven years of age category - far beyond the age when they would have entered the food chain. We are checking on one animal, born just after the introduction of the meat and bonemeal ban. None of the animals was under four years old.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
To help us to make sense of the statement and be clear about its content, can the Minister inform the House how many of the beasts tested were from the beef sector, and how many were from the dairy sector? In the cold light of day, no matter what spin she cares to put on this statement, this is a blow to the policy of achieving a reduction in BSE status, or having low-incidence BSE status introduced and having the beef export ban lifted. Can she now, on the fourth time of asking, confirm that she has an alternative way forward, one in which the beef sector can place confidence, so that we can proceed in a united way to get the agriculture sector out of the mess it is in?
As regards the profile of the animals tested, 70% were from the dairy sector, and the remainder were from the beef sector; I will write to the Member with the exact figure.
I do not like the use of the word "spin". I have not been spinning, and I am sorry that the Member has used that word. A dangerous message would be going out of the House if there were any attempt by the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development in Northern Ireland to spin the figures. If I were spinning the figures, I would not have given out those that I did last week.
I understand that this is disappointing news for the industry - and for us all. I thank most of the Members for the responsible way in which they have spoken today. Nevertheless, it is only a temporary setback. I intend to continue with my efforts, and those of my Department, to improve the quality of beef to ensure that when the markets are reopened, we are in a strong position to exploit them. I will continue to talk to my counterparts in the rest of Europe, including Nick Brown. I will have discussions with the European Commission and officials in Europe, and I will assess when the time is right for us to go forward with our attempt to get low-incidence status for Northern Ireland.
There may have been some implication in what Mr Paisley Jnr said that there has been an increase in BSE in Northern Ireland. There is no increase. We are now seeing the real picture as regards the older animals. We cannot compare this type of testing with that carried out before. This is a mass screening exercise. We do not now have more BSE than before. We have a clearer picture of the real incidence in the older animals. When the picture emerges across Europe, we will then be able to make the comparisons.
The farming community has had to endure many setbacks as regards BSE. How do the Minister and her officials think that our current BSE status relates to the other member states, given that we are the first to carry out a mass screening test?
Last year 22 animals that were showing clinical signs of BSE were tested, and that compared very favourably with the rest of Europe.
In relation to the new mass screening test, it is not possible to make a comparison for the simple reason that the rest of Europe has not yet carried out - or certainly has not come forward with the results - of that type of new targeted mass screening.
First, I want to say that I totally support local beef products and welcome the endorsement and the assurances of the safety of the product. I concur with Mr Paisley Jnr when he talked about the relevancy of distinguishing between the beef herd and the dairy herd. Can the Minister outline how that will be progressed?
The Minister said that she would not be rushed into making any decision and I read from her statement
"until other member states report the results from their cattle test results, we have no figures with which we can compare ours . other member states will not have reported all their results until later this year."
It was the way in which this announcement was made that produced the disappointing news for the industry. How much better it would have been if the results of our testing had come out together with those of the other member states. A true comparison could then have been given to the public, which would have been a good news story for our industry. Why was it not handled that way?
As I have already explained, it was quite clear to me that given the fact that these tests had to be done, the Commission was not going to come to any conclusions on any proposals for low incidence in Northern Ireland until they had seen the results of the new mass screening test, and that is why we went ahead with the testing. Indeed, many Members would have advised me to go ahead even earlier. Having gone slightly ahead of the rest of Europe and having discovered these figures - which we were not in a position to know - it was right to put them in the public domain immediately. It would have been totally wrong to withhold them. I could not have stood over that. It is important that all of these figures be made available to the public and to the Commission as soon as they become known.
I have explained the reason why we went ahead and why we went public with this, and it will now be a case of waiting until the other figures from Europe begin to emerge, which will be some time after 1 July this year.
Given that this is a relatively new test, how confident can the Minister be of its accuracy? Can the Minister indicate how many cattle were slaughtered in Northern Ireland for human consumption in 2000? Perhaps we can take the positive elements from this matter. The Minister mentioned that 2,500 animals were tested, and of those, 54 were positive. None of those animals was under four years old. Given the fact that there is now evidence that cattle are not contracting BSE under the age of four, should the Minister not consider upping the age of slaughter of cattle for human consumption to at least 36 months, rather than 30 months as it is now?
The number of cattle slaughtered in Northern Ireland for human consumption was 350,000. This new test has been approved by the European Commission. I understand that it is an accurate test, and we have to be guided by that.