Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 2 April 2001


Clerk to the Assembly

Foot-and-Mouth Disease

Pig Industry Restructuring (Capital Grant) Scheme

Companies (1986 Order) (Audit Exemption) (Amendment) Regulations

Assembly Commissioner for Standards

Oral Answers to Questions

Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister

Department for Regional Development

Department of the Environment

Executive Programme Funds: First Allocations

Private Notice Question: Road Safety



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

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Clerk to the Assembly


Mr Speaker:

Members will have noted that the new Clerk to the Northern Ireland Assembly has taken up his post today. I am sure that the whole House will join me in wishing Mr Arthur Moir every success in his new position.


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 current position on foot-and- mouth disease and the implications for Northern Ireland.

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

As always, I am grateful for the opportunity to update the Assembly on the situation with the foot-and- mouth disease in Northern Ireland since I last did so on 26 March. As Members will doubtless know and be thankful for, the situation has remained static, and we have had just one confirmed outbreak.

However, my major concern now relates to the Republic, where there has been a very recent outbreak and where the risk of further cases must be correspondingly high. Members will be aware of the suspect case which was reported in County Louth last Thursday. I am glad to say that the preliminary test results for that case were negative.

I am also concerned about the position in Great Britain, where the number of cases continues to rise daily. Both of these situations present the very real risk that we will import the virus again. Although I and my Executive Colleagues will do what we can to counter that threat, I make no apology for stressing again the need for farmers to adopt a fortress mentality as a last line of defence.

With regard to other aspects of the present situation, the major development over the past week was the EU decision to regionalise the foot-and-mouth disease controls on Northern Ireland. That decision represents a very considerable achievement for us and allows most of Northern Ireland to resume something like normal trade in the relevant products with effect from next week.

Although this is an excellent result, it does bring problems with it. As the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee is aware, tomorrow the Newry and Mourne District Council area will become subject to several controls aimed at ensuring that products from there do not get into the rest of Northern Ireland. This is because the European Commission required that we identify a discrete administrative area within which the site of the outbreak was located and where the necessary controls could apply. The smallest such area round south Armagh is this district council area.

I recognise that this will cause problems for farmers and processers in the area, but my officials are working to minimise the impact of these controls as far as possible. Disease permitting, our next move will be to have the controls on the Newry and Mourne District Council area lifted so that the whole of Northern Ireland is removed from the relevant export controls. We will be making that bid once 30 days have elapsed and cleansing and disinfection have been undertaken at the scene of the Meigh outbreak — that is as soon as possible after next Thursday, 5 April. However, that will not be an easy case to win.

In the meantime it is essential that we be able to demonstrate to the Commission that the district has been sealed off in so far as the movement of susceptible animals and their product is concerned. My officials are assessing precisely what needs to be done to achieve that. Where further help is needed from other Departments, I will address that through the interdepartmental group which I chair and which is working very effectively. We will also liaise with the RUC to agree what contribution is necessary from it.

The second major development during the past week was my joint announcement with Joe Walsh of our intention to carry out a precautionary cull of sheep in the area around and between the locations of the two outbreaks, North and South of the border. Our rationale was the creation of a firebreak round both outbreaks to prevent the spread of any further infection in that area. Unfortunately, that idea quickly ran into difficulty due to concerns among the local community over several aspects of our proposals. Initially those concerns revolved around the disposal of the sheep carcasses, but, recognising the urgency, I was able to agree to have the carcasses rendered instead of buried. Subsequently, it became clear that some people had concerns over the financial impact of the cull. That was not helped by the circulation of misleading rumours that the authorities in the Republic were offering higher rates of compensation than normal for sheep to be culled within their jurisdiction. I had those reports investigated with the authorities in the Republic, and they were incorrect.

Last Thursday I was able to reassure the people concerned that they would receive compensation in the normal way, and at the normal rates. The value of the animals will, as always, be assessed by valuers from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, and in the event of any dispute, independent valuers will be brought in to arbitrate.

There have been reports in the press since last Thursday of an amnesty for some of the farmers involved. I will take this opportunity to set the record straight. No amnesty was granted; nor, indeed, would I have considered granting one. This was potentially a very difficult situation, and I would like at this point to pay tribute to the contribution by John Gilliland of the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) and Nigel McLaughlin of the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers’ Association (NIAPA). The fact that the farming unions were seen to be being so supportive of the Department’s attitude was crucial to a resolution of the problem.

At least one MLA has expressed concerns about the fact that we are taking the carcasses out of the area for disposal. However, I am satisfied with the Chief Veterinary Officer’s advice that, with the appropriate disease precautions, of the options available to me this disposal route represents the one with the lowest risk. Members will note that an independent vet has since confirmed that view.

There were several other significant events this week. The Executive were able to agree and announce a relaxation of the restrictions on movements by the general public. That has gone down well, and I hope that it will now provide the springboard for a recovery for tourism. Coupled to that, I announced last Friday some easement in the controls on the movement of animals under licence to take account of general welfare issues that have been raised with the Department. Those come into effect today.

Finally, I shall announce soon the establishment of a group to examine the changes that might be needed to protect us better from animal disease in the future. I need to stress, however, that such a group will have to work within the parameters set by the European Union to protect the free market. Nevertheless, there are various practices that have clearly contributed to the outbreak of the disease and its subsequent spread, and those must be reconsidered.

Although we should not be satisfied with a situation in which we have had a case of foot-and-mouth disease, we can take comfort from the fact that, as each day passes, we can be surer that the outbreak has been controlled. I call on everyone in the community to continue to observe the controls that are still in place, particularly those aimed at preventing further importation of the virus from elsewhere. In particular, I appeal to the people of Newry and Mourne to bear with us, to co-operate with my staff and to observe the controls that will come into effect over the next few days. I will do all that I can to get the controls lifted as soon as possible, but, in the meantime, it is vital that they be complied with — to the letter.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development (Rev Dr Ian Paisley):

I am glad that the Minister made it clear in her statement that the decision on the cull of sheep came from her and Joe Walsh and not from the EC. There seemed to be some idea that the EC had initiated it and said "If you do not do this, you can have what you want."

The Minister stated that she wanted to put the record straight about the negotiations. Conveniently, however, she did not deal with the fact that the question of amnesty was discussed at that meeting. That was entirely out of order, because neither the Minister nor her officials have authority in that matter. There was a long and heated discussion at that meeting about the granting of amnesty.

Why did the Minister not do for the people of north Belfast what she did for the people of south Armagh? Why were the people in Belfast not informed about what was going to happen? Why were they not told about all the supposed safeguards? We were told that the animals were coming in sealed lorries; in many cases, that sealing was done with tarpaulin. Many of the tarpaulins did not fit properly, and the lorries were not fully sealed. That was confirmed by the independent vet. Is the Minister aware that there is no effluent plant at that place? All the fluid there flows into the Belfast sewerage system. Do the people of north Belfast not have the right to an explanation, if their health is being put at risk or if there is a risk that the disease might spread? Those are important questions that the Minister must answer clearly.

Mr Ford:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker:

I cannot take a point of order during questions to the Minister. I will gladly hear it at the end.

Ms Rodgers:

The decision on the cull was not taken by Joe Walsh; it was taken jointly by Joe Walsh and me in the interest of the island of Ireland and of the two areas in which there was infection. Joe Walsh had to organise the cull on his side of the border, and I had to organise the cull on my side. It was done following dialogue, as with everything that we have done on this matter. We have acknowledged that the disease does not recognise the border between Louth and south Armagh — unfortunately.

10.45 am

The EU Commission made it clear to us, and showed the wisdom of our decision that whether the virus was clearly present in that area would be a crucial issue in regionalisation. The fact that we were carrying out a cull would, therefore, be an essential part of that decision. It was a case of great minds thinking alike and coming to the right decision.

I am surprised that Dr Paisley seems to have the idea that he was privy to all the discussions that took place at the meeting with the farmers in south Armagh on Thursday. The long and heated discussion on amnesty is news to me. The important thing about that meeting was the outcome. To my mind, the outcome has been for the benefit of the agriculture industry and the people of Northern Ireland as a whole. The outcome was also important for what we are trying to achieve — to keep foot-and-mouth disease out of Northern Ireland.

I am the Minister of Agriculture, and I am not aware of any sheep in north Belfast. There are no issues of human health with this. Rendering is happening every day in that area — it is not something that started last Thursday or Friday. The same sewerage system has been there for a while; there is nothing different. However, anything of that nature is a matter for the Department of the Environment, not for the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

In relation to my not alerting the people of north Belfast, my view is that if public representatives had been concerned about what was happening, they should have made their concerns known; that would have been very useful. They could have contacted the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, me or my private office, which is open daily, to find out if there really was a human health or a health problem.

Those representatives could then have told the true story, which is that there is no risk to human health; neither is there a problem in spreading the disease. I based everything I did on the advice I received from the Chief Veterinary Officer, who is the expert in these matters.

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

Does the Minister agree that the fact that relaxation measures could be announced this morning is due entirely to the rigorousness with which restrictions have been applied in Northern Ireland? Does she agree that it is at exactly this time, when our guard is slightly relaxed, that there is the real danger?

This virus is of a particularly virulent strain. Japan is an island, and the disease has been kept out of there since 1908, but this virus has still managed to get in. Will the Minister please reinforce the message of continuing vigilance? Does the Minister agree that the Prime Minister was very wise in postponing the elections?

I think that the Minister might have been referring to me while she was speaking. May I remind her that I have been involved in farming all my life. I have sat on the Agriculture Committee over the past few weeks listening to veterinary officials saying that this virus is carried in the noses of human beings for at least five to seven days. If it is carried in human beings’ noses, it must surely be able to be carried in animals’ noses.

Ms Rodgers:

I assure Mr Savage that at no stage in my remarks was I referring to him. I also reassure him that whereas the virus is carried in the noses of living people, it is not carried in the noses of dead animals.

I totally agree with the Member about relaxation and confirm his view that because of the measures that we have taken, we have, so far, been successful in our efforts. That is due in particular to the co-operation that we have received from the community — and the farming community especially. I agree with the Member when he says that because things seem to be going reasonably well, it would be dangerous to relax our guard. The danger is really at the farm gate and at the ports of entry, particularly from Great Britain, where, unfortunately, the disease is still raging.

The farm gate is the real point of defence against the disease, and I urge farmers to maintain the fortress farming approach. I also urge people coming into Northern Ireland from Great Britain and the Republic to take all the necessary precautions.

I do not want to comment on the postponement of the elections — that matter is outside my ken.

Mr McGrady:

I congratulate the Minister and her departmental officials on enabling Northern Ireland to be regarded as a designated area — excluding, unfortunately, the Newry and Mourne area, which is part of my constituency. This is no mean achievement in the context of recent events in the rest of United Kingdom, and the House should congratulate the Minister and her Department on a tremendous achievement.

The people, the farmers and the industries of Newry and Mourne are suffering the pain for the rest of Northern Ireland. It is important that we recognise that. Some of the residents and businesses are 20 to 25 miles away from the main focus of the disease. Will the Minister ensure that relaxation is introduced as soon as possible? I realise that we cannot be complacent, but can she give further details of the relaxations that she hopes to introduce today, and what they will mean?

Ms Rodgers:

I appreciate the Member’s remarks about Newry and Mourne, because it is very hard on the people there who have been affected by the problem for some time. It is especially hard on the people who are not in the Meigh area but who are bound by the restrictions on the Newry and Mourne District Council area. They are not able to get their products out of the area because they are in the smallest discrete administrative area that we could identify for the EU. I sympathise with those people.

I assure Mr McGrady that as soon as we reach the thirtieth day after the Meigh outbreak I will vigorously pursue regionalisation for the whole of Northern Ireland, including Newry and Mourne. I understand that, following the further outbreak in County Louth and the announcement that antibodies have been found in a sheep in the Cooley Mountains, that will not be an easy task. However, I still intend to pursue the matter vigorously with the support of the UK Government and Joe Walsh.

On the question of the relaxation of measures, I was very pleased to be able to announce the relaxation on the movement of animals which comes into place today. There were difficulties for farmers in relation to welfare and animal husbandry issues, such as not being able to move sheep for lambing or to move cattle out to grass. Those activities will now be possible. The details will be publicised, and they are now available in the local veterinary offices. The restrictions had previously been relaxed to allow movement up to 5km and this will be now extended to 10km, which will help many farmers. The details will be available for those who need them.

Mr C Murphy:

A Cheann Comhairle, the Minister said that the case for the removal of the restrictions around Newry and Mourne could be a difficult one for her to win. Will she assure us that if the relaxations are not granted at the end of the 30 days, they will be removed in a matter of days or weeks, and not months, as some people in the locality have suggested? Will she acknowledge the contribution made by the farmers in the south Armagh area in sacrificing their healthy animals to secure the future of the agriculture industry in the rest of the island? Will she continue to press the case for consequential compensation payments? She has had wide- ranging discussions with farmers in that area and the farmers’ unions, and I am sure that there is a huge range of issues that will affect people in the farming community and throughout the island.

Ms Rodgers:

As I have already stated in response to Mr McGrady, I will be moving immediately, and with the same vigour that I pursued the relaxation for the rest of Northern Ireland, to ensure that the Newry and Mourne area will be made exempt as soon as possible. I acknowledge the contribution of the farmers in south Armagh. I would like to take this opportunity, because of some of the denigration that has gone on, to assure the House that the vast majority of farmers in south Armagh are ordinary decent farmers, as are the farmers in the rest of Northern Ireland who have faced the same problems over the last number of years. They have been anxious to co-operate with me in the past week and are now doing so. I want to place that on record.

Mr Conor Murphy referred to the consequences for the farming community; I realise that there will be consequences. They are, of course, getting full market value for their animals. Also there will be consequences for sectors other than farming. There will be consequences for tourism; there will be consequences, I understand, even for photographers who cannot go to events owing to cancellations. The consequences are endless. I have said in the House that, although I sympathise with the plight in which people find themselves, it would be virtually impossible to pay for the infinite amount of consequential payments out of the Northern Ireland block. I made that point at the Cabinet meeting that I attended some weeks ago with the Prime Minister. Consequential payments will be a matter for the Treasury, and if the British Government were to take the view that consequential payments are to be made, I would expect Northern Ireland farmers to get their share.

Mr Ford:

Does the Minister accept, notwithstanding the personal opinions expressed by Dr Paisley, that many of us — both in the Assembly and in the Agriculture Committee — are grateful to her for the efforts that she and her officials put into solving the difficulties regarding the cull in south Armagh last week? We also wish to add our support to what she said in praising Mr Gilliland and Mr McLaughlin for their efforts. We recognise the genuine sacrifice that people with healthy sheep are making in the same way as farmers in Cumbria, for example, are doing.

What action is the Minister taking from this week to deal with the problem of liquid milk production in the Newry and Mourne area? Can she indicate when she expects to present the case for the abolition of all restrictions in the Newry and Mourne area to the Standing Veterinary Committee in Brussels?

Ms Rodgers:

I thank Mr Ford for his comments. I completely accept that the Agriculture Committee, in particular, and, indeed, the whole Assembly are appreciative. Indeed, the Agriculture Committee left me in no doubt about that when I met with it last Friday. It is not just the Assembly and the Agriculture Committee that are appreciative, and the huge volume of letters that I am receiving from both the Unionist and Nationalist communities shows that people across Northern Ireland are appreciative of our efforts. I really appreciate that because it is good to know that we have the support of the whole community in this difficult time.

I cannot go into details about the liquid milk situation. I know that it is a problem; I know precisely what the Member is referring to. My officials are in discussion with people in that area. We are operating under EU Regulations, and my officials are trying to establish how problems can be dealt with in many sectors, such as the processing industry, as well as in the liquid milk sector. Those discussions are ongoing, so I cannot give a definitive answer on how that issue will be resolved — but it is being dealt with. I may be able to give the Member further information if he contacts my private office.

I have discussed the issue of the Standing Veterinary Committee with my Chief Veterinary Officer — who will be at the next Standing Committee meeting — and with my head of policy; we will be preparing a case. I will also be talking to Joe Walsh — I hope — next Friday, and clearly the South will be preparing a case because it will be looking for relaxation in due course. All of that is being put together, and I hope to mount as effective a case as we did in managing to achieve regionalisation thus far.

11.00 am

Mr B Hutchinson:

Before putting my question, I want to respond to something the Minister said about MLAs. As an MLA for North Belfast, I heard about the movement of sheep to north Belfast through the media, not through the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Perhaps the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development could have informed the six MLAs for the area before making the decision public. We might then have been able to influence the decision. That may not be the Minister’s problem; perhaps it highlights the problem that some MLAs find out about what Departments are doing after the event, rather than before it.

With regard to the processing plant in north Belfast, did the Minister take any advice from the Department of the Environment about the environmental implications? I understand, having spoken to Belfast City Council’s environmental officers, that there was a problem with the wall in what is known as the "chemical scrubbing plant", where these animals would have been — for the want of a better term — power-boiled. The emissions from that site were quite high over recent weeks. Did the Minister ask the Department of the Environment whether this wall had been fixed and whether it stopped the public nuisance? On Friday, when I checked the wind direction with the weather station at Belfast International Airport, I was told that there was a south-easterly wind. That means that any stench coming from those sheep would have gone directly over the houses in north Belfast.

Ms Rodgers:

Billy Hutchinson raised a point concerning the Department of the Environment. Drumcrue — I am sorry: that was a slip of the tongue. I nearly said Drumcree. [Laughter] Duncrue is working full-time as a rendering plant. There are no extra environmental impacts in relation to the plant’s handling sheep, nor am I aware of any additional stench coming from sheep. It is the same process that continually takes place in north Belfast — in this case it just happens to involve foot-and-mouth-disease sheep.

I am sorry that Mr Hutchinson feels that perhaps I should have warned him in advance, but this is ongoing every day of the week and every week of the year. Perhaps, with hindsight, it would have been better if I had contacted the North Belfast MLAs to reassure them. However, as this is happening daily, it never occurred to me that such action was necessary.

Mr Berry:

I certainly agree with the Minister that there are many decent farmers in south Armagh. I also remind her — though I am sure that she is aware of this — that some farmers have had their bluff called by the Department in the past few days. Can the Minister confirm that there are so-called farmers in south Armagh who have been claiming subsidies for sheep that have not been physically on the farmyards across the area? They have been called "paper sheep". Can the Minister confirm this, and will she and her Department take action in cases where it is found that there are discrepancies between sheep presented for the cull and the numbers that have been claimed for in recent days?

Ms Rodgers:

I am pleased to note that Mr Berry agrees with me about the farmers in south Armagh, the vast majority of whom are decent — like farmers in the rest of Northern Ireland — and have been going though a very difficult period in recent years.

With regard to his question about "paper sheep", that matter will become evident only when we come to deal with subsidies. I assure the Member that the payment of subsidies will be dealt with this year in exactly the same way as it has been every other year. Incidentally, where "paper sheep" — "paper whatever" — fraud has been found in the past, it has not been confined to south Armagh. There are rogues everywhere — in every profession, in every walk of life, and in every part of Northern Ireland — unfortunately. Fortunately, however, they are a small minority.

Mr Speaker:

I am sure that the Minister was not referring to any hon Members.

Mr Hussey:

I refer to the last section of the Minister’s statement, where she expresses particular concern — and rightly so — about the further importation of this virus. Perhaps I am returning to a question that I placed before the Minister on 12 March. She states that she has concerns about the position in Great Britain. However, she says that her

"major concern now relates to the Republic, where there has been a very recent outbreak and where the risk of further cases must be correspondingly high".

I applaud the Minister for her change in guidelines and for encouraging the tourist industry to return to normality. I know, and the Minister will know, that in the north-west in particular, many tourists will be coming from the Republic of Ireland. Why do we still not have reciprocal arrangements on the land frontiers?

Ms Rodgers:

I appreciate Mr Hussey’s concerns. However, I do not know what he means by "reciprocal". I presume he means the same arrangements as in the Republic. We do not have the same situation in Northern Ireland as we have in the Republic, particularly with respect to the security forces, as Mr Hussey will understand.

With regard to ensuring that no animals or products are brought across the border, the policing on the Southern side of the border is not the same as on this side. I reassure Mr Hussey by saying that since we set up the most recent controls, there have been 163 interceptions of the movement of animals by the RUC. Sixty of those interceptions are now being investigated and processed. The fact that you do not see policing does not mean that it is not happening. [Interruption]

I think I heard someone saying "I do not believe it." Clearly, someone does not believe what the RUC is telling me. That is not my problem.

We have put as many officials as possible on border roads, and the RUC is patrolling the area to try to prevent any further infection coming into the Province. However, if farmers in Northern Ireland do not take personal responsibility for their own farms, nothing in this world will keep the virus out. Neither I nor my Department can check every individual in every vehicle that comes into Northern Ireland, nor would I suggest that such policing can be carried out on the other side of the border.

Farmers must not allow people through the farm gate unnecessrarily. People who have been on other farms or who have been in contact with other animals must follow the disinfectant procedures. I hope that farmers are doing that. If these procedures are followed we will not have another case.

Mr Fee:

I thank the Minister once again for her personal attention in this matter. I cannot recall any Minister in any juridisction in these islands who has repeatedly come back to be questioned from the start of a crisis until the end. Her performance has been first-class. I have no doubt that the people of Newry and Mourne and south Armagh will bear with her and give her absolute support so that this problem can be solved.

When will she publish the type of restrictions that we will be asked to abide by in Newry and Mourne? Can she make the information as widely available as possible, and, if appropriate, can it be put in the various community facilities run by Newry and Mourne District Council?

Ms Rodgers:

I appreciate that Mr Fee is anxious to co-operate with the restrictions in Newry and Mourne. I hope tomorrow morning to have a meeting with the MLAs from the entire Newry and Mourne area — South Down and Newry and Armagh — so that we can have discussions and I can explain the position to the Members. My veterinary officer will also be present to respond to any questions. I think that is the best way of dealing with the situation.

Mr McHugh:

A Cheann Comhairle, Mr Berry’s comments were interesting. Would he prefer that the Minister had the farmers of south Armagh culled, rather than the sheep? The one positive thing about "paper sheep" is that they are easily managed, and they do not contract foot-and-mouth disease. Given that we are likely to have regionalisation in place this week, will the Minister consider the crisis situation building up on farms with regard to day-to-day management?

Mr Speaker:

I am having trouble hearing what the Member is asking.

Mr McHugh:

Will the Minister consider the crisis situation building up on farms in relation to farm management and the inability to move livestock? The farm management problem is becoming extremely serious. Will the Minister consider the possibility of farm-to-farm sales, as marts are no longer open and do not appear likely to be opening in the medium term? Something will have to be done to alleviate the management crisis taking place on farms at present, and the Minister seems to be reluctant to tackle it.

Ms Rodgers:

I hope that Mr McHugh is not condoning "paper sheep".

With regard to the farm management issue, I am not sure whether he is referring to commercial movements, which I presume he may well be, or welfare movements. I have today been able to further relax the restrictions on movement to deal with good health, husbandry and welfare. That will be welcomed by the farming community, as it is a response to the regular discussions that I continue to have with the unions and the industry.

The farm-to-farm movement referred to by Mr McHugh is under review. I regret that Mr McHugh seems to be somewhat critical that I am not responding properly to those concerns, as that is the most dangerous way of spreading the disease. I will do absolutely nothing — repeat: nothing — to take us back to a situation where we might run the risk of bringing foot-and-mouth disease into Northern Ireland. That will be my position at all times. My Chief Veterinary Officer advises me that the adjustments that we are making are meeting the welfare needs that have been put to us by the farming community. Other needs have also been put to us, but the view of my veterinary officials is that that would be a very dangerous move to make now, and I do not intend to move until I feel that it is no longer a risk.

Mr Poots:

Does the Minister accept that her Department has misled the people of Northern Ireland? The Department claimed that these animals were being moved in sealed trailers. In fact they were moved in articulated tipping lorries with tarpaulins pulled over the top. Those are not sealed units. Those vehicles were driving along the A1, through farms. How were farmers along the A1 supposed to "fortress farm" when the Department was moving sheep from an infected area through their farms?

There is no trade effluent plant within the Duncrue complex. Can the Minister give us guarantees that sewage sludge from Belfast will not be spread over agricultural land? Is she aware that lorries using the Duncrue plant were drawing specified risk material from Ballymena, Dungannon and Newtownards meat plants, and returning to those plants, having been in contact with lorries from the infected area? That was a ludicrous idea. The sheep should have been buried and disposed of in the infected area. The Minister told the Agriculture Committee that cost was one of the factors — it was cheaper to render the sheep than to bury them. Can she confirm that?

11.15 am

Ms Rodgers:

I thank Mr Poots for his remarks and questions.

With regard to its being cheaper, that is what I said in response to a question at the Agriculture Committee. I was asked why I was doing this when it would clearly cost more, and I replied simply by saying that actually it is cheaper. I did not for one minute say that we were doing it because it is cheaper. That is slightly twisting what I said.

My officials have assured me that the vehicles carrying sheep carcasses were fluid-proof and safe. I say to Mr Poots that I am somewhat surprised at the number of pseudo- vets in Northern Ireland. I take my advice from the experts, the professional vets, who know what they are about and who are extremely anxious to ensure that this disease does not take hold. They have done an excellent job so far and have worked far beyond the call of duty, particularly in the south Armagh area. I am aware that several vets there, at the early stages of this disease, did not even get home to their beds, so hard were they working. They are the people who know what they are about. When they tell me that it is safe to do something, I take their word for it.

The sheep were in sealed vehicles. They did not move through the farms; they moved along the roads. They did not go through the fields.

Mr Poots:

There were farms along the side of the roads.

Ms Rodgers:

I will explain to Mr Poots, for he does not seem to quite understand. Fortress farming is at the farm gate. As my vets tell me, the real danger arises when somebody goes onto a farm and is in contact with farm animals. Lorries moving along the road, with carcasses sealed inside, are not going near farm animals or farm land. They are going along the road.

With regard to the specified risk material, I have to admit that I am not quite sure what Mr Poots is talking about. I will have a written reply for him in due course.

Mr Taylor:

Foot-and-mouth disease affects all of us in Northern Ireland. It is a major problem, and in no way should any party try to make it a party political issue. I commend the Minister yet again for the way in which she is handling this matter, which is appreciated right across all businesses in Northern Ireland, including the farming industry.

I want to ask the Minister about the antibodies found in sheep in Cooley, County Louth. Does this imply that they had already suffered from foot-and-mouth disease and that the Southern Irish authorities had failed to detect it? I would like to know more about what is behind the emergence of antibodies in sheep in County Louth.

I ask the Minister, although it is not primarily her responsibility, whether, if the good news continues in Northern Ireland and we make progress after Thursday, all Departments, including the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, will be in a position to launch a major publicity campaign to promote Northern Ireland’s agricultural products and its tourist industry?

Ms Rodgers:

I thank Mr Taylor for his remarks, with which I absolutely agree. I thank him for making the point that this is not a time to be making party political points or trying to take cheap party political advantage. It is far too serious a situation.

The answer to his first question is yes. This clearly indicates the importance of finalising the cull in that area to ensure that where there is any chance of the infection being present, or having been present, in sheep - and that is the most difficult to discover - the animals are culled as a precaution.

The Executive are considering a publicity campaign. There will be wider issues than those that relate to the agriculture industry. On matters related to agriculture, I have asked the vision group, which was set up to examine the future of agriculture in Northern Ireland and to work out a long-term strategy, to appoint a subcommittee which would look at the implications of what has happened and make an addendum to its report. As the Member has stated, it is important that we learn lessons from this and look at what we need to do from now on.


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