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Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 5 March 2001


Foot-and-Mouth Disease


Budget Bill: Further Consideration Stage

Government Resources and Accounts Bill: Final Stage

Street Trading Bill: Final Stage

Oral Answers to Questions

Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister

Department for Regional Development

Department of the Environment

Programme for Government

The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Foot-and-Mouth Disease

Mr Speaker:

I have received notice from the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development that she wishes to make a statement on the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

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

I am grateful for this opportunity to make a statement to the Assembly about the present foot-and-mouth disease situation.

Before doing so, I want to express my sympathy to the agriculture industry here, especially to farmers, for the fact that they are once again the victims of circumstances outside their control. Once more they face disruption, cost and uncertainty arising out of an animal disease that, although it originated elsewhere, impacts on their livelihoods. I want to reassure farmers that my staff and I are doing everything humanly possible to limit the problems that this latest disaster will cause for them.

I also express my regret to the Assembly for my absence last Tuesday, 27 February, when I was due to respond to a private notice question from Mr George Savage, Member for Upper Bann. I had to attend a meeting with the Prime Minister in Downing Street at very short notice on my way back from the Council of Agriculture Ministers in Brussels. At that stage, foot- and-mouth disease had not been confirmed in Northern Ireland, and it was vital that I attend that meeting in the interests of pressing Northern Ireland’s case for regionalisation. Sadly, that case has been weakened and delayed due to the confirmation that foot-and-mouth disease is present in Northern Ireland.

I first became aware of the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Britain on 20 February, when Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food officials advised that there was a suspected case of swine vesicular disease in a pig in an abattoir in Essex.

That disease is clinically very similar to foot-and- mouth disease and laboratory testing is required to distinguish between the two. By the following morning — Wednesday 21 February — the disease had been confirmed to be foot-and-mouth disease.

Since then, it has become clear that the disease originated in Tyne and Wear some weeks before coming to light in Essex and that it has spread considerably throughout Great Britain. Unfortunately, it is now clear that the irresponsible actions of a few individuals in the illegal trade of sheep from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have introduced the disease and placed the agriculture industry across the island of Ireland in serious jeopardy. Equally importantly, the lack of co-operation from those involved caused unnecessary delay in ensuring rapid and effective action against such a contagious disease as foot-and-mouth disease.

There has been some ill-informed and, I dare say, politically-motivated criticism of my Department’s response to this crisis. I resent the fact that some people choose to make mischief at a time when we should all devote our efforts to dealing with this most serious situation. However, I want to set the record absolutely straight about exactly what my Department and I have been doing.

On being advised by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in Great Britain on 21 February that we were dealing with foot-and-mouth disease, I immediately banned the import from, or export to, Great Britain of live cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and other susceptible animals. I also banned the import of associated products from Great Britain. That was done by staff from my Department, in person, at the ports and airports. On that very night cargo which was already on the high seas was, turned back to Great Britain. Those measures attracted considerable criticism from Great Britain because of the trade implications, but I believed that they were the correct steps to take to protect our animal health position and to put Northern Ireland in the best possible position to make its case to be allowed to resume exports as soon as possible. Those decisions would not have been possible had we not had a devolved administration in Northern Ireland.

It is impossible to put arrangements of this complexity in place instantaneously, but my Department’s approach has been risk-based. We dealt first, with the greatest threat — live animal imports — and then moved to deal with the lesser, but important, risks, such as dealing with passengers returning on flights and ferries.

It has since emerged that those steps were too late, since infected sheep had already been brought into Northern Ireland and illegally traded on 19 February — before MAFF had discovered the Essex case.

We have since had one outbreak of the disease confirmed in County Armagh and several other reports are being investigated. However, at this time, none of these is a major cause for concern.

Three-kilometre and 10-kilometre zones have been established around the farm in south Armagh. In the three-kilometre zone there is a virtual standstill on the movement of animals, except for emergency slaughter. Every road into, or out of, that zone has been sealed off. In the 10-kilometre zone very tight controls are also in place. Animals may move under authorisation in, but not outside, the 10-kilometre zone.

There have been various reports about these controls being ignored by local farmers and members of the public. My staff are doing all they can in the circumstances as regards the closure of roads, the posting of notices, provision of disinfectant and giving of advice. I have appealed to the public to stay away from these areas and to act responsibly in helping us to eradicate this disease. In the final analysis, we have to rely on their doing so.

There have also been suggestions that there should be a heavier army and RUC involvement on the border to match the activity of the Irish army and gardaí and to prevent illegal movements. My Department is in daily contact with the RUC and the Army and will call on them further if necessary.

Returning to the outbreak itself, all of the animals on the affected farm, together with those on adjacent or in-contact farms, have been slaughtered as a precautionary measure. It may also be necessary to slaughter further animals connected with this outbreak.

Members will also be aware that various lines of investigation are being pursued in relation to the sheep believed to be at the centre of the outbreak in south Armagh, and that a man was arrested recently for questioning. Several other individuals are involved in this investigation, but I am not prepared to elaborate on that at this stage, as I wish to avoid prejudicing the outcome.

So far as the smuggled sheep are concerned, we know that the vast majority of the animals in the original consignment, which was illegally traded from Scotland, where it had been in contact with infected animals at a market in Carlisle, have gone to the Irish Republic and were slaughtered in County Roscommon inside six hours. We also know now that some of the remainder of the consignment was deposited on another holding in south Armagh before being taken to the Republic of Ireland. The authorities in the Republic of Ireland have been advised.

We are also investigating reports that other illegally-traded consignments of sheep from Scotland may have been dispersed in the south Derry area. Information is incomplete, but there is evidence that some sheep from these consignments may have been sold in Swatragh market on 10 February. Veterinary staff are following this up.

All the animals that were properly certified into Northern Ireland over the relevant period and which arrived at the destination indicated on the certificate, and where the co-operation of people was given, have been traced and are being checked daily for clinical signs of disease.

I want to make clear again to the Assembly my disgust at the irresponsible way in which a very small number of people have behaved. As a result of this behaviour, the farming industry in Northern Ireland, and indeed in Ireland as a whole, has now been imperilled.

There have been criticisms of the follow-up action that we have taken. Where people have co-operated with us and obeyed the rules, we have acted swiftly and decisively. It is more difficult, however, to take action where the presence of animals is not known or where misleading information has been given as to their whereabouts. In due course, those responsible will be subject to the full process of law.

In the meantime, we have a major job to do to stamp out this disease. I have taken several measures — apart from those referred to earlier — to help in that respect. The movement of all susceptible animals in Northern Ireland has been banned except for those going to direct slaughter; all livestock auctions and markets have been banned; and the movement of horses to, from, and within, Northern Ireland has been banned for at least three weeks. I have closed the Department’s colleges until further notice. All of the Department’s forest parks are also closed.

The presence on farms of Department of Agriculture staff has been reduced to the absolute minimum, and then only where absolutely essential. I have tightened the controls on the use of pigswill. I have advised the organisers of sporting events to consider whether these are really necessary, and I have also advised against gatherings of farmers or of people on farms. I am promoting the concept of fortress farms, and I have advised members of the public not to visit the countryside unnecessarily.

I have also taken steps to ensure that, in spite of livestock inspections having been postponed, farmers will still be able to receive their livestock subsidy payments. All public utilities and local authorities have been contacted, and advice has been given in relation to their work in the countryside.

I realise that many of these measures will cause great inconvenience to the farming community and to the general public. However, I know that the vast majority of people are anxious to help and will act responsibly.

I fully appreciate the impact that all of these measures will have on everyone in Northern Ireland — from the farmers, who, as I have already said, are now subject to yet another crisis not of their own making, to the shoppers, who may find that some of the product lines that they expect to find on supermarket shelves are no longer available. However, anyone who has watched the dreadful scenes on television of hundreds of animals being slaughtered and incinerated will appreciate how important it is for the disease to be quickly controlled in Northern Ireland. I was moved by a report in one of the Sunday papers describing the distress felt by one farmer who could not bear to look at his animals knowing that they were about to be slaughtered.

10.45 am

My priority is to ensure that all suspected cases of foot-and-mouth disease are identified and that the disease does not spread beyond the area where it has already been confirmed. Department of Agriculture and Rural Development staff are doing everything possible to achieve that. As soon as the Department is sure that foot-and-mouth disease is eradicated here, I shall make the case to the European Commission for Northern Ireland to be freed from the export controls to which it is currently subject. I shall begin to ease the controls that I have put in place as soon as it is safe to do so.

The disease situation in Great Britain is likely to impact on the supplies of certain food lines available in the shops for some time, irrespective of what happens here.

Again, I pay tribute to the Northern Ireland agricultural industry that has responded so positively to its latest challenge and to the public for their understanding and co-operation. I also appreciate the important role that the media played in helping deliver the messages of how to prevent the spread of the disease. It is hoped that together we will be able to ensure that the potentially disastrous impact which foot-and-mouth disease can have on one of our most important industries will be minimised.

Mr Speaker:

The House will be aware that the maximum time allowed for questions to the Minister is one hour. A substantial number of Members wish to ask questions. I ask them to be as concise as possible so that as many as possible may be accommodated in the time available.

The Chairperson of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee (Rev Dr Ian Paisley): Northern Ireland is in the midst of a catastrophe and a crisis. Every effort must be made to bring about a return to the usual situation in the farming industry. However, I appreciate what the Minister said about those people who have resisted measures put in place to try and rectify what has happened.

I was disgusted by the criticisms from her friends in the South of Ireland and from the Government of the South of Ireland. They said that they were doing everything possible to prevent the spread of the disease and that the North was doing very little. The Minister should be robust in telling her friends in the South of Ireland what she has told the House today. It is wrong to say that nothing was done. There are those who criticise the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, not because they are trying to make a political point, but because there are matters that the Minister needs to explain to the House.

Mr Speaker:

May I ask the Chairperson to draw towards his question?

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

At Friday’s Agriculture Committee meeting I asked the Minister to tell us the number of animals that come into this country each week to be slaughtered, but which are not. Many of those animals are still not slaughtered in Northern Ireland. I was surprised by the Minister’s reply, that due to European Union regulations, she was unable to stop those animals at the ports. They can be examined only at the place where they are to be slaughtered. If that is so, the European Union rules are responsible for those animals getting into the country. Surely she should take this matter up immediately. I have been in touch with the President of the European Commission, Mr Prodi, to understand the rule on this matter. If the Minister does not have the power to stop such animals coming into the country then everything else she may do is abortive.

Ms Rodgers:

With regard to the EU regulations, we are in a free trade area in Europe and that will continue. However, it is not the rules that are the problem; it is the flouting of the rules. Last year, due to the vigilance of my Department, we became aware that some certified animals coming in were not reaching the destination they were purported to reach. We began to investigate the matter and, by January 2001, we had succeeded in stopping the majority of that. If we had not done so, we would be in a much more serious situation today, as we would have had a much greater influx of animals being illegally traded. As it happens, only a very few people were responsible for the influx of illgally-traded animals.

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

I understand the Minister’s comments that farmers could not watch their animals being burned — animals that they had been breeding for a lifetime. When were cattle and sheep last imported into Northern Ireland? Where did the animals come from, and what is their destination? Have they all been inspected by officials?

Last Monday, the livestock marts were open. The situation is very different today. Have adequate steps been taken to compensate these people? I know that this is not a day for asking about compensation, but will these people be compensated or reimbursed, as this is a situation not of their making? Manual workers and office staff are involved in the livestock marts. People are coming to Parliament Buildings today to find out about the situation. I would like some guidance on that. We will do everything we possibly can to assist the Department. Everything that can be done will be done. We cannot allow the industry to disintegrate.

Ms Rodgers:

I thank Mr Savage for his remarks and support. I cannot now give him the numbers that he has asked for, however, if possible, I will provide them in writing. The last imports from Great Britain were on 20 February. We stopped all imports on 21 February 2001 and, as I have already stated, we turned them back at the port that evening.

With regard to reimbursement, the industry has already raised the question of redundancies in livestock marts and the matter will be pursued. On Saturday morning 3 March the issue was also raised at a meeting I held with officials across the Departments, and the Department responsible for that matter will look into it. A cross-departmental committee of officials was set up as a result of an emergency Executive meeting on Friday 2 March.

It is working, and there are areas which will be dealt with. I take this opportunity to thank my Colleagues in the Executive, as many of them have been taking action in relation to this in their own Departments. Consequential loss was referred to. The only compensation that is provided at the moment is 100% compensation market value for those animals that are slaughtered. However, I noted the Prime Minister’s remarks last week when he referred to consequential loss, and he said that any compensation in that area would be a matter to be looked at on a national level.

Mr Fee:

I thank the Minister for her very comprehensive statement this morning. I, of all people, understand the difficulties and pressures that she, her Department and her officials have had to face in the last week. I also know full well the terrible anxiety and worry across the entire agricultural community, particularly in places like south Armagh.

Will the Minister confirm that there has been a huge response from the people of that district and that there is a massive amount of co-operation and support for her efforts on the ground? Will she also confirm that there is great anger at the small number of individuals who tried to flout the rules in the early part of last week? Will she confirm that she will be resolute — as will all of us — to ensure that the interests of the wider community come first and that anybody who tries to breach the rules of this quarantine will be pursued and stopped?

Ms Rodgers:

I assure Mr Fee that I share his disgust at the small number of irresponsible people who have put the whole future of the industry in jeopardy by their actions. I agree that there has been co-operation right across the country, particularly in the south Armagh area, from the people on the ground, who are extremely anxious. I have already referred to one farmer who was almost reduced to tears at the idea that his cattle herd was to be slaughtered. I fully agree, and I am pleased to say that there is co-operation. I hope that due process will take care of those who have acted irresponsibly, that they will be made amenable to law and that prosecutions will follow. As the House will know, investigations are currently proceeding with the RUC in co-operation with the Garda Síochána and the police across the water.

Mr C Murphy:

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her statement this morning. I welcome the strict measures outlined in it, and I assure her that the people of the area that I live in and represent also welcome them. She may have confused genuine and reasoned criticism of some elements of her Department’s response to the crisis with personal or political criticism of herself. I assure her that that is certainly not the case.

Will she ensure that maximum information is given out by her Department to the people on the ground? This is the single most vocal criticism I have heard of the Department. It is not the fault of departmental officials, as often they do not have the information about which animals are to be culled and how this process is to take place. Will she ensure that the animals culled are destroyed quickly? This does not seem to be the case at the moment. Can she confirm that no complaints have been received by her Department that any officials were obstructed, harassed or intimidated in any way during this operation in south Armagh? Will she repudiate attempts by her Colleague Mr Fee — I welcome his about-turn this morning — to introduce electoral politics into this issue? That affects all of us in this Chamber.

Ms Rodgers:

First, in relation to maximum information, that is precisely what we are doing, and my officials have leafleted the areas in question. Clearly there is difficulty, but I shall not ask my officials to go around every farm, as was suggested earlier, for that would obviously be in total contravention of what we ask people to do.

11.00 am

I hope that the public will not be confused by the suggestion that officials should visit every farmer to tell him what to do. We are trying to minimise access to farms by officials and other people. However, I take the point about information, and I accept that it is important. We are doing everything in our power — via the media or by leafleting — to ensure that farmers are fully informed.

The Member referred to the incineration of animals. The most important thing is to cull animals that are a threat. A dead animal is not a threat, because it is does not exude the virus. In some cases, in which small numbers of animals have been destroyed, there has been a slight delay in their incineration. There is not much point in incinerating six animals here and six animals there, so we try to have them incinerated together. The slight delay is probably a concern only because people do not understand that dead animals are no longer a threat. Incineration will take place as soon as possible; however, if there is any threat, my main concern is to make sure that the animals are dead.

I have been approached by several public representatives about intimidation and fears of intimidation in the area. I shall take intimidation seriously. I have asked my officials to investigate the situation to reassure me that that is not the case, but I have received complaints.

Mr Ford:

I too thank the Minister for making such a full statement to the House this morning. It is a pity that no other Minister was available during her justifiable absence last week to address the Chamber on the matter.

Will the Minister take back to her private office staff, to those who have manned the helplines and, especially, to Dr McCracken and his staff, our thanks for the hard work that they have done to prevent the spread of the disease?

Does she agree that some other public agencies did not move as quickly as they might have done? Is it not anomalous that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) closed its Belfast harbour nature reserve before the Department of Environment closed its countryside parks? There was also a problem in her own Department with the Forest Service, which took until Friday afternoon to get notices printed asking people to stay out of all its forests, and left it until Saturday morning before putting some of those notices up. Can the Minister assure us that everything possible is being done by all public authorities to avoid the further spread of foot-and-mouth disease in Northern Ireland?

Ms Rodgers:

I have explained to Mr Savage why I was not in the House last week. I felt that it was more important to go to the Prime Minister’s meeting to present Northern Ireland’s case for exemption, should we have remained free of the disease. No-one in Northern Ireland would disagree with what I did. I did not act out of a lack of respect for the House but to ensure that Northern Ireland could be exempt if appropriate.

I have already stated that the most important thing was to stop the movement of live animals and the import of animals and their products from Great Britain into Northern Ireland; that is where the highest risk lay. I say again that the other Departments did take quick action in an emergency situation, in which it was difficult for people to know exactly what to do. Today, I shall have a meeting with an interdepartmental group of officials that was set up following the Executive meeting last week.

We hope to draw up a set of guidelines for Departments, all public agencies and people which will clearly indicate what is high risk, medium risk or low risk. When we have done that, everyone in Northern Ireland will understand what must be done and will be able to do it. The public agencies, insofar as they were able, did move in what was an extremely difficult emergency situation.

Ms Morrice:

I should be grateful if the Minister will clear up a great deal of confusion among the public at large, and I look at this from both a consumer and a public health point of view. Can the Minster confirm that there is absolutely no risk to people from this disease? Secondly, what would happen to someone who ate a diseased animal? Can the Minister explain the reasons for wholesale slaughter if these animals are of no risk when they are dead? Can they be eaten? I ask these questions because people do not properly understand the implications of what is happening.

Ms Rodgers:

There is much concern out there. However, there is no threat to public health. It is rare for humans to contract the disease. There has been only one recorded case of foot-and-mouth disease in a human being in the UK in the last 35 years, and in that case the general effects of the disease were similar to influenza, with some blisters. It is a mild, short-lived and self-limiting disease. However, there is a human condition called hand, foot and mouth disease, which is unrelated and does not affect animals. Anyone who is concerned should contact their GP. The dead animals are of a low risk, because there is no danger of the disease being spread and, therefore, there is no risk whatsoever from eating the meat from these animals.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

I too thank the Minister for her statement. In her statement, she says that a few individuals are responsible for these terrible actions. Will she take the opportunity to tell this House who those individuals are? Is she able to substantiate the claims made recently by her Colleague Mr Fee that Republicans were behind much of this smuggling trade? Can she go further and confirm the comments in a Sunday paper, which named one leading Republican in the south Armagh area as being the chief instigator of this terrible and dastardly smuggling activity? Furthermore, can she tell us what actions she will put in place to ensure that these rogues never get their hands near Northern Ireland’s agriculture industry again? Finally, will she confirm to the House the level of agrimonetary compensation? Will this be made available for the entire industry? If so, when will it kick in?

The industry requires compensation at this time if it is to get over the terrible problems that have been inflicted upon it by those ruthless and rogue individuals that she has mentioned. She must be aware of the comments made by Lord Dunleath, who wrote to her at the weekend saying that he is not satisfied by certain measures that have been put in place — particularly in respect of people flying into the Province. Can the Minister go some way to assuring us that the proposals that Lord Dunleath outlined in his letter will be put in place?

Ms Rodgers:

All the matters surrounding individuals who have acted irresponsibly are the subject of investigation. I hope that all will come out in due course; however it would be improper for me to begin naming names where investigations are proceeding. I do not want to do anything that may prejudice the outcome.

Secondly, I dealt with the question of monetary compensation in a previous reply. Full agrimoney compensation is being drawn down as a matter of urgency for the beef, sheep and dairy sectors. I understand that the Commission has been very sympathetic and has agreed to expedite that. Also, the Member will be aware that the pig industry restructuring scheme will be extended because of the present situation.

I can assure the Member that all the necessary measures are in place at ports and airports. I came through the airport last week; it was announced on the plane that anyone who had been in contact with animals or farms should go immediately on arrival to the agriculture unit in the airport, and that announcement was also made in the arrivals area. I made a point of visiting officials at the airport. They had prepared all the spraying equipment, and they assured me that quite a number of people had already been in and had taken the necessary precautions.

Mr Taylor:

There is a serious threat to our agriculture industry and to the general economy of Northern Ireland. I appreciate the Minister’s decision to make her statement first thing this morning. We fully support the measures that she has taken to contain this terrible disease. The problem seems to have arisen because some people in south Armagh want to extend cross-border trade beyond that which is acceptable.

The public is still confused about what it is required to do; there are inconsistencies. For example, 40,000 people in Britain are allowed to see Arsenal playing football, but a few hundred cannot attend a football match in Belfast. Roman Catholics cannot go to Mass in south Armagh, but Protestants can go to their churches to pray for the farmers. We need greater clarity and guidance from the Minister. I ask her for clear guidance on the question of groups of 1,000 or more people — many of whom come from farming areas near to where the disease started — meeting in south Armagh every day. There is no control over thousands of pupils going to schools in Newry, Bessbrook and other areas of south Armagh, yet the Minister condemns city dwellers who go to ice hockey matches in Belfast.

Ms Rodgers:

I am not certain what the Member means when he talks of thousands of people meeting in south Armagh. However, I take the point that the public is confused. It is a confusing situation, which is precisely the reason the Executive met last Tuesday. We shall co-ordinate our efforts, and I advise the Member that, shortly after I leave the House, I shall chair a meeting of the interdepartmental group that has been set up. Our first task is to agree a set of guidelines, and the public will be made aware of those as soon as the Executive have agreed them at their meeting tomorrow morning.

It is impossible for the Department or for anyone to give guidance in relation to any particular event, but we can identify high-risk, medium-risk and low-risk areas. For instance, a soccer match in a city centre attended by city people will not represent a high risk. However, an inter-county GAA match taking place somewhere in Northern Ireland and attended by people from rural areas in different counties will represent a high risk. We will give guidelines, so that people can make up their own mind. However, there was a high risk associated with people coming from Wales to the Belfast Giants ice hockey match. Many of those people were from an area in which there have been many outbreaks of the disease. It was not wise, and my Department made that clear; we did not give that advice lightly.

Mr Bradley:

Like every other responsible Member, I pay tribute to the Minister for her statement and her efforts to meet this latest challenge.

11.15 am

I also pay tribute to the Minister’s Newry-based staff, who have worked round the clock since the discovery of foot-and-mouth disease in imported animals. I call on farmers who have recently bought in stock and who are uncertain of its origin to contact the local veterinary office. That may also be helpful.

What arrangements are in place to resolve the conflict that could arise in quarantined herds if beef animals cross the 30-month age limitation during the closure period?

Ms Rodgers:

I thank the Member for his comments, especially those about the staff in the Newry office. I am aware that some of them have been working on a 24-hour basis. At least one of my vets has not even got home and has had to sleep in the office. The Newry office staff have been working round the clock because of the outbreak of the disease in that area, and I appreciate that.

In relation to quarantined herds, cattle that pass the 30-month age point while under restriction due to foot-and-mouth disease will be eligible for disposal in the over-30-month scheme. Any loss in value that results from that will be classed as consequential; in other words, the cattle will be eligible for cull only if they pass the 30-month stage. Under the present policy there will be no compensation for that loss, but I noted the Prime Minister’s remarks. If there is to be any compensation in that area, it will have to be on a national basis.

Mr McHugh:

A Cheann Comhairle, will the Minister dissociate herself and her party from the sweeping remarks made by the DUP against Republicans in south Armagh? Does the Banbridge Loyalist arrested for smuggling have any connections with the DUP? I have not made remarks on a basis of point-scoring. I brought real concerns to your attention this morning.

We asked many questions at the Assembly Committee meeting on Friday 23 February. It was confirmed on 21 February that foot-and-mouth disease was present in England. On Friday we had only half an hour to ask questions. Given that situation, we must examine the measures taken by the Department to ensure that farmers have had the proper communication about what they should do next to ensure that their farms become fortresses and are protected. Given the gaps in that communication, had the disease taken hold in Armagh, it would have been right across the country by this stage. Not enough has been done in that regard. What measures have been taken and how many farmers have been contacted in relation to advice?

Ms Rodgers:

I am not going to make any comment on remarks about Republicans or anyone else. I will not get into political point-scoring on either side of the community.

I refer Mr McHugh to my statement, in which I outlined in detail all the measures taken by my Department and myself in the present situation. In particular, I refer him to the very first measure we took, which I think Mr McHugh has either deliberately misunderstood or misrepresented, or perhaps is confused about. I want to make clear that because we are in a devolved situation I was in a position to stop imports and that I did. I immediately stopped imports of both live animals and products when I knew that we were under threat from foot-and-mouth disease.

I have advised people through the public media, press notices and leaflets to the farms in question. Moreover, I have had the support of the unions, particularly the very strong support of the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU), which has helped to get the message to its members and has offered non-members posters that they can put up on their farms. The UFU has continuously emphasised the concept of fortress farms. I cannot think of any other measure. If I should have taken other measures, perhaps Mr McHugh will let me know privately what they are. I outlined the list of measures very clearly in my statement.

Mr Speaker:

I note that in their concern about this very serious matter, Members are letting procedure slip slightly. They should recall that when they say "you" they are taken as referring to the Chair. I am sure that it is not the Chair to whom they wish to refer.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

It is the wrong kind of chair.

Mr Speaker:

I appreciate that I am the wrong kind of doctor, as the doctor says.

Mr Douglas:

First, I congratulate the Department on the measures it has put in place. However, I have been assured that, at least up until last night, cars were able to drive on to the ferry at Stranraer without drivers’ being asked any questions about where they had been. Disinfectant was not being used. Bearing in mind that foot-and-mouth disease has been detected in Scotland and appears to be spreading, will the Minister assure the Assembly that every effort will be made to prevent the disease from spreading further in Northern Ireland?

Ms Rodgers:

Was Mr Douglas referring to lorries coming from Stranraer?

Mr Douglas:

I was referring to all vehicles not being checked.

Ms Rodgers:

I will have that investigated. I would be very surprised if that is the case as my officials are at the ports and are taking measures to ensure that vehicles go over the disinfected area and that there are no prohibited imports into Northern Ireland. If the Member can give me any details of a specific incident where he feels that we have been lax, I will be very keen to follow it up. To the best of my knowledge, my officials are at the ports and are ensuring that people are abiding by the ban.


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