Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 23 April 2001
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
I wish to inform Members that Royal Assent has been signified to the Street Trading Act (Northern Ireland) 2001 and the Electronic Communications Act (Northern Ireland) 2001. These Acts became law on 5 April 2001.
I have received notice from the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development that she wishes to make a statement on the current position in relation to foot-and-mouth disease.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers):
The position in relation to foot-and-mouth disease has changed greatly since I last made a statement to the Assembly, and I would like to bring Members up to date on it and on my response to it.
Members will recall that I reported that we had received regionalised status for Northern Ireland. With some difficulty, we mounted a substantial exercise to seal off the Newry and Mourne District Council area against exports of relevant animals and products, and we seemed to be on course for full regionalisation on 19 April. Much to my dismay, we almost immediately became aware of a possible second outbreak at Ardboe, County Tyrone. There were some puzzling aspects to the symptoms, which made it possible that something other than foot- and-mouth disease was at work. As always, we imposed restrictions and carried out tests. On 12 April 2001 we received the results of the preliminary tests from Pirbright, which indicated that it was not foot-and-mouth disease. Members will recall that there was great public interest, and — as we have always done, and in line with my policy of openness — we announced that result, albeit with the reminder that it was subject to confirmation following other tests.
To my great surprise the results of those further tests, when received on Good Friday night, were positive, thus giving Northern Ireland a second foot-and-mouth disease case. As the Assembly will be aware, that was followed on Saturday 14 April by the discovery of a third case in Cushendall. Since then there have been other suspects, both hot and cold, but the situation on Friday last was that we had only the three confirmed outbreaks I have mentioned and three hot suspects. One was close to the Ardboe outbreak, one was adjacent to the Cushendall outbreak and the other at Ballintoy, County Antrim, was linked to the Cushendall case. The animals concerned have all been slaughtered.
As Members will be aware, the test results for the Ardboe suspect have now been received and have confirmed foot-and-mouth disease at a second farm in the area. This is now Northern Ireland’s fourth case. I still await the results relating to the Ballintoy suspect and the suspect case adjacent to the Cushendall outbreak. Late yesterday afternoon I received negative test results on other suspects at Limavady, Martinstown, County Antrim and Armagh.
As far as the confirmed outbreaks are concerned, the usual three and 10-kilometre zones are in place around all of these areas, apart from Meigh where the zones were lifted at the end of last week. All the in-contact animals are being slaughtered and incinerated, as are some other animals on a precautionary basis.
One encouraging aspect of this situation is that the testing of sheep flocks around the Meigh outbreak has indicated no evidence of residual infection in the remaining sheep. There is evidence that the present situation is a consequence of the virus circulating in sheep where the symptoms are not apparent. Consequently, I placed a complete ban on the movement of all susceptible livestock to allow us to carry out the necessary tracing of animals and to prevent further disease spread. I have now been able to relax that ban a little to allow movement direct to slaughter, and I hope to be able to ease it further very soon so as to allow some welfare-related movements.
I fully appreciate the impact that these restrictions are having on farmers, but I implore them to ensure that no unauthorised movements take place, however inconvenient or even painful that may be. Such movements have been responsible for introducing foot-and-mouth disease to Northern Ireland in the first place and have been instrumental in allowing its spread since then. The unauthorised movement of susceptible livestock is a criminal act which endangers the whole future of our industry, and it must stop. Sheep represent a dangerous threat, and it is essential that no movements of sheep occur in order to eradicate foot-and-mouth disease.
My priority now is to find out the extent of the unauthorised movements that have already occurred. To that end I have made several well-publicised appeals for information and have written to every sheep farmer with a personal plea for information relating to purchases of sheep before the Meigh outbreak.
To deal with this situation I have established a contingency plan for my Department to ensure that it can cope should there be widespread further outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease. We have acquired additional veterinary manpower by contracting private veterinary practitioners to carry out work for the Department.
Agri-food representatives have been fully briefed on the situation. The inter-departmental group of officials has identified additional Northern Ireland public sector manpower which can be mobilised if the need arises.
I have continued to have essential support from the RUC and the Army, and, as a result, the Army has been assisting with the disposal operation under Department of Agriculture direction. The police continue to assist with the checking of movements of animals, road closures, and so on. Representatives from those organisations are now based in Dundonald House.
I have extended serological testing to all sheep within the 10-kilometre zones around the outbreaks in order to determine the extent of the virus in those areas. I will be widening that exercise in due course.
Following what appeared to be a complete closure of the border to exports of all Northern Ireland produce on 14 April, my representations to the Dublin Department led to the resumption of permitted exports, although there were problems over the Easter holiday, and I subsequently discussed these with Joe Walsh last week. Against the background of evidence that lax observation of fortress farming principles by some has been partly to blame for these outbreaks, I have been trying to drive home the message that responsibility for disease control rests primarily with farmers. The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) and the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers’ Association (NIAPA) have been helpful in getting the message across. In fact, I have already initiated a four- week publicity campaign to emphasise that very point. We have been providing technical and moral support to farmers and rural communities by means of a helpline, counselling telephone numbers and local liaison channels.
I would like to say something about my Department’s slaughter policy, because there has been some public confusion about this. While no two cases are the same, the normal sequence of events is that all infected animals are slaughtered and incinerated on the farm. Animals on any outfarms of the infected premises are also slaughtered and incinerated on site. Next, pigs in the surrounding three-kilometre zone are slaughtered, followed by sheep in the surrounding three-kilometre zone and cattle in the surrounding one-kilometre zone, working inwards from the outer limits of the zone. Subsequent to this, any animals that are suspected of being at risk are also slaughtered. That means that when new outbreaks occur, the focus may shift from low-risk slaughter in one area to high- risk slaughter in another.
As far as disposal is concerned, infected animals must be incinerated on site, but other carcasses may be incinerated, buried or rendered, depending on the circumstances. There has been much discussion about vaccination, and some seem to think that it represents a quick and easy cure for the disease in individual animals — it is not. Current veterinary advice is that the immediate slaughter of animals around the location of an outbreak provides the best protection against spread of the disease. By contrast, vaccination takes several days to take effect, and it is a less desirable option. While it can, in certain circumstances, be a valuable weapon against foot-and- mouth disease, it has serious drawbacks. We must be prepared for further outbreaks of the disease in Northern Ireland, and the number will dictate the scale of the resource problems we will face when dealing with them. If there is a significant number of widely scattered outbreaks, the problems will be greater than if they were geographically grouped.
I have already outlined how I propose to deal with the manpower implications of any such spread, but as far as physical resources are concerned, there may be pressure on slaughtering capacity. I am in dialogue with the meat plants, which have offered to help establish options for a solution. There will be pressure on disposal capacity, and my officials are working with the Department of the Environment and the Department for Regional Development to identify a possible site or sites for mass burial, should they be needed. The Executive Committee has declared its support, and I have been assured that any resources needed to deal with the problem will be made available. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Social Security Agency have been asked to examine any additional counselling and cash needs that they could help to meet.
In conclusion, the situation remains serious, and the farming community needs to take responsibility for its salvation. All my efforts and those of the Executive will come to naught unless all farmers take every step possible to protect themselves and their fellow farmers from this disease. Dealing with the disease will be a joint effort. As I have said, I will be carrying out serological testing, and I am acting to trace all relevant sheep movements. For their part, farmers must ensure that the virus is locked up by observing the movement restrictions that I have had to put in place. I again appeal to them to inform my Department, any public representative, the UFU or NIAPA of details of any irregular movements of livestock which they know about.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development (Rev Dr Ian Paisley):
I thank the Minister for her statement today. I want to ask her some questions about compensation.
What amount of money is set aside for the future? Where will the resources come from to pay compensation, and will the level of compensation remain stable throughout this crisis? Is the Minister satisfied that payments made to farmers in Meigh in respect of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak there have been based on genuine claims? What checks and balances, if any, are in place to guard against claims that could be made by those unscrupulous persons who have done real damage to the farming industry? Is the Minister aware of the serious difficulties on farms with welfare and putting cattle out on to grass, and does she realise that it is not enough —
Order. One must restrict questions to a reasonable number. If Members ask a series of questions, the Minister is under no obligation to reply to them all. It would be better if some opportunity to ask questions were left to other Members as well.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
I accept that, but these questions are linked, and it is impossible to ask one without following up with another. This is a very serious crisis in the farming industry, and time must be allowed to let the Minister answer these questions.
Order. There is adequate time, but it must be available to all Members, not just to some.
Mr Speaker, I am afraid I did not get all the questions, because they were asked in quite rapid succession, but I will deal with those that I did get.
To date, £1·3 million has been paid out. That amount relates to the Meigh outbreak and the cull in south Armagh. The money will come from the Northern Ireland block. It is impossible for me to say how much will be required. Clearly, that is a matter for the Department of Finance and Personnel. The Department is abreast of the situation and will be taking account of the fact that more money will be required.
I missed some of the other questions. There was one about something genuine in Meigh, but I did not quite get the last bit of the sentence, so I cannot deal with it.
I am very much aware of the difficulties being encountered by farmers because they cannot get their animals out to grass. I am extremely anxious about that and am dealing with it urgently. In fact, my officials have been working on it over the weekend.
I hope to be in a position to allow movement across roads on to grassland by April 30, which is this day week. I want to be sure that when that happens, it will be under strict veterinary supervision and that there will be no possibility of abuse, of cattle coming in contact with land which has had sheep grazing on it in the last 14 days and of spreading the disease. For that reason my officials are working to put in place the necessary measures which will ensure that when it does happen, it happens in a restricted and very controlled manner. However, I am very much aware of the pain and difficulties being experienced because of this, and I ask those farmers affected to bear with me. If at all possible, I will allow that movement earlier — perhaps on Wednesday or Thursday of this week — but at the very latest by April 30.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development (Mr Savage):
I too welcome the statement from the Minister this morning and thank her and her staff for all the work they have been doing over the weekend. I have to come back to the matter of the movement of cattle across roads.
Stock has now been housed for seven months. Farmers have to keep to a tight schedule; they have to plan, and there are now only 25 weeks before livestock are brought back in again. I am speaking of three farms in particular. The Minister knows them very well, and they have to get their cattle out. I know she is aiming for 30 April, but I hope that the problem can be solved in two or three days’ time. I also welcome the involvement of local vets, because they have sound local knowledge. I urge the Minister to try as quickly as possible —
Order. I must ask the Member to put his question to the Minister. This is an opportunity for questions not speeches.
The welfare of cows that cannot cross a road and horses that cannot be taken to vets’ surgeries is the problem that I am asking the Minister to take seriously here.
I thank Mr Savage for his initial remarks about myself and my staff, who have now been working overtime for a number of weeks. I appreciate the Member’s point about the need for planning. Some farmers have already run out of fodder, and if we knew how long this situation was going to last, farmers who have food would help others who have none. My officials worked over the weekend because of the urgency. At the very latest I hope that movement can be resumed by 30 April, and earlier if at all possible.
I understand the problems that people are encountering with horses. However, the whole community is encountering problems — and that is not to downgrade the problems of the farmers. For instance, there are problems in the tourism industry. My priority is to stop the spread of foot-and-mouth disease. This requires sacrifices, and I ask everyone to recognise that and bear with me. I am doing my best to get the balance right between risking a further spread of the disease and allowing for the alleviation of a serious welfare problem.
I too would like to pay tribute to the Minister and her officials for the way in which they are managing this situation. Can the Minister tell the House if there are any investigations into the illegal movement of animals? Most decent farmers are disgusted that the spread of foot-and-mouth disease has resulted from illegal movement of animals.
I thank Mr Byrne for his remarks and for his question. Several investigations are ongoing, as are follow-up investigations and interceptions. Nineteen cases of illegal importation are being followed up and investigated, most of them by the RUC, but in three cases by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s own investigation unit. The vast majority of farmers are becoming increasingly angry with the very small minority who are putting them all at risk.
A Cheann Comhairle, I have stressed the need for an extension of the IACS (Integrated Administration and Control System) by going to Europe and asking for it, as has been done in the South. At the moment people who have leasing arrangements to make do not know if they can take land. People cannot get onto land to fill out forms. The Minister knows the difficulties that farmers will face if we find ourselves using the penalty system. This must be done immediately.
Members have already mentioned livestock movement, and 30 April seems a long way off if you have already run out of feed for cattle. Which is the greater evil — farmers bringing feed from 20 different sources or farmers bringing cattle across a road to be beside their farms?
Farmers will be asking those questions — they are critical. They are ringing the stress line now in a panic over the movement of animals. That has to be dealt with.
The IACS situation, of which I am very much aware, has been raised by the unions and many farmers. The cut-off date for IACS remains 15 May. However, negotiations with the Commission are afoot for a 30-day window to allow changes without penalty. Normally there is a 15-day window for changes with penalty. Given the present circumstances, we are now negotiating for a 30-day window to allow for changes without penalty after 15 May.
Mr McHugh also referred to the problem of feeding, which has been raised already. There are many evils in this situation, but the greatest evil would be the further spread of the disease throughout Northern Ireland. That is what I am trying to avoid. I am very much aware of the problem, and, as I have already said, I am trying to allow alleviation earlier than this day week if possible. I hope that it will be, but I cannot guarantee it — I am doing my best.
I too thank the Minister for the efforts that she and her staff have put into controlling foot-and-mouth disease over the holiday period. However, can she clear up a degree of confusion over the slaughter policy? I am glad she explained the way in which slaughter is carried out when there is an actual case. What is her Department’s slaughter policy where there is a suspected case? I know of at least one example where people were told that animals were to be slaughtered on their farms before being told they were not to be because of a suspected, as opposed to a confirmed, case on an adjacent farm.
Does the Minister believe that there is a case for further checks on roads, especially on the border with the Republic? Many people have commented on an anomaly in the full check applied when goods travel south, including bizarre examples of tins of food and unopened packets being confiscated by the guards. Given that there is a degree of concern over where foot-and-mouth disease may exist on this island, is there not a greater case for also checking northbound vehicles?
The slaughter policy in the instance of a suspected case is clear. Each suspect is looked at in view of the clinical evidence and the circumstances surrounding the case. In some cases the veterinary advice is that while animals may be showing clinical signs, they may not necessarily be signs of foot-and-mouth disease. Other circumstances, as happened in the Donnelly case, place a big question mark over whether an animal has foot-and-mouth disease. In such a situation, the veterinary advice is to place the farm under restriction until test results have been obtained. That is what we have done in all cases, and in some cases we have moved into slaughter immediately. We did that near the Donnelly farm in the Ardboe area where we slaughtered on a farm about three kilometres away because the animals were showing clinical signs. Moreover, it was in the vicinity of the outbreak already in Ardboe. Because of that it was a highly suspect case, so we slaughtered. As it turned out the test result, five or six days later, was negative. However, some you win and some you lose. There was a suspect case near Armagh city, and the vets, on the night that they did the clinical examination, advised me that we should move to slaughter the next morning. I agreed. When they examined the animals the next morning they discovered that they were responding to antibiotics, which indicated that it might not be foot-and-mouth disease, so we halted the slaughter. The Armagh case has now proved negative.
We look at all the circumstances. We look at the clinical assessment made by the vet, and we make a decision. The situation is such that sometimes we will get it right, and sometimes we will get it wrong. We will continue to err on the side of caution as we have done previously.
On the question of border checks, the Member will be aware that there are export controls on products exported from Northern Ireland — which is no longer foot-and- mouth-free — to the Republic. Therefore the strict controls are to ensure that no prohibited products get into the Republic. We do not allow meat products to be exported from here to the Republic. That is why people are having their cars stopped and are being asked whether they have food with them. It is because the Republic has been declared to be disease-free while we are not.
With regard to our own checks, we are targeting our resources where we feel they will be most effective. That is at the farmgate and in raising the awareness of people — particularly the farmers — to what needs to be done. We also must make the public aware of areas that they must avoid going to — for example, the advertisements that we have put in the papers today tell people what they need to do if they are organising public events and other such things. The recent outbreaks had nothing to do with border controls, rather they were to do with the unauthorised movement of animals.
I am sure the Minister will agree that over the last few weeks I have been fairly supportive of her and of the Department. I will continue to be supportive, because, as she said, we are all in this together. However, it seems that it is only now that we have good precautions in place at the ports and are taking blood samples from wider areas throughout the country. My criticism is that it has taken too long to get to this stage. The entire farming community has been held to ransom by a few, and we have many difficult problems with welfare in the country at present. Will the Minister promise to put in place whatever is necessary to ensure that in future we will be able to trace stock coming from across the water and from local areas much more quickly?
I am not so concerned about stock movement at this time but rather about the people who brought stock in over the previous months. It has taken weeks and weeks to get on top of this, and we need some structure in place to allow us to tie this up in a matter of days. We have it for cattle, and we need something similar for sheep. I hope that the Minister will promise to do her best to ensure something is done about this.
I thank Mr Douglas for his remarks and his support over the previous weeks and months. The precautions that we put in place at the ports were not put there just recently. Mr Douglas will be aware that the first step I took when foot-and-mouth disease was discovered in Great Britain was to close down the ports. That was an extremely important step at the time. We have had precautions in place at the ports. We have people handing out leaflets, and passengers are informed about what needs to be done. We have arranged for mats to be put on the boats, which people cross when picking up their vehicles or when boarding. I understand that the Chairperson of the Agriculture Committee visited a port about a week ago and expressed himself satisfied with the precautions there.
We are now taking blood samples from sheep, because our vets have said that the recent outbreak has shown that the infection is present in sheep, which we were not aware of. It is very difficult to diagnose the disease in sheep. They can have the disease and recover from it without its being seen. However, they can continue to infect others. As I have stated, we carried out blood sampling in the south Armagh area, and that has been satisfactorily completed.
The other blood sampling is currently the most important part of my strategy in trying to get ahead of the disease. While the investigations that are being carried out and the information that is being sought are, in a sense, trying to catch up with where the infection may have gone, the blood sampling is a clear example of trying to get ahead of the disease before it gets any further and to establish where it is and where we can deal with it.
I take the point that the tracing of animals, particularly sheep, has now been identified as a serious issue. Although sheep flocks in Northern Ireland were tagged, sheep were not tagged at all in Great Britain or in the Irish Republic. We just tagged the flocks, not the individual sheep. The vision sub-group that I have asked to look at all the lessons to be learnt from this recent outbreak is urgently examining all the issues, including the tracing of animals, and will be reporting to me and making recommendations.
Contributions — whether they are questions or contributions to debate — ought to be made through the Chair. What that means, if Members are unclear about it, is that they should be couched in the third person, not in the second person. There are very good reasons for that, as I am sure Members are aware. Some Members are very attentive to this, but others have become a little loose in their application.
Mr B Hutchinson:
On 2 April, the First Minister assured us that there would be cross-border co-operation on the illegal movement of animals. Can the Minister tell us whether any resources have been committed to stopping the illegal movement of animals on both sides of the border and across it?
The attempt to stop the illegal movement of animals is being dealt with mainly by the RUC, which is assisting us through both static and mobile patrols. Over the weekend there have been six interceptions of illegal animal movements by the RUC, and prosecutions are being followed up.
Rev Dr William McCrea:
The Minister said in a previous answer that she believed that all the missing sheep that were roaming Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic had been identified. Does the Minister still believe that? Where did the flock that brought the infection to mid-Ulster, specifically to Ardboe, come from?
The Minister will also be aware that, because of a second confirmed outbreak in mid-Ulster, the area of Ardboe is gripped with fear. That fear is heightened by reports that animals have been buried in an area that is not on the affected farm. Surely the only way that the Minister and the Department of Agriculture can allay those fears, or bury the rumours, is to excavate that clearly identified site in the interests of the particular farmer and of the surrounding community.
I did say on a previous occasion that all the sheep that had come in to Northern Ireland since 1 February had been identified. That is the situation. We traced all those sheep and found that, as Members are aware, one consignment did not go to Lurgan Chilling as it was supposed to. That consignment ended up in Meigh and subsequently in the Republic. All those sheep have been accounted for and have been monitored.
We have now traced back to 11 to 19 January. We are going back beyond 1 February, which we believed was the first date when infection could be possible. To be sure, we are going further back to 1 January. Two thousand two hundred sheep were brought into Northern Ireland legally between 11 January and 19 January but were illegally traded. We are investigating that matter at the moment, and we will go back to 1 January eventually.
We have not identified the source of the infection in Ardboe, but we are investigating that urgently. It is not easy to identify the source of the infection. However, the sooner we find it the better. The second outbreak was on a farm adjacent to the Donnelly farm. It was disappointing but hardly unexpected given its proximity to the farm with the outbreak. Several allegations have been made; I have read them in the paper, and allegations have been made to my Department and to my officials. I assure Mr McCrea that all of the allegations are being investigated. Some of them have been found to be spurious, but we are following up and are thoroughly investigating every allegation that is made.
I thank the Minister for her statement. It is obvious that farmers appreciate having their own Minister of Agriculture, and we can see the benefits of that during this crisis.
Livestock farmers have reached the time of the year when livestock should be put out to grass. That cannot happen due to the ban on stock movement, and it creates problems for the breeders and finishers of cattle. We do not want to put others at risk. Can the Minister advise farmers how long they might have to keep their stock confined? Uncertainty causes concern. We know what the welfare problem is now: the problem of moving stock across roads — an everyday occurrence in the dairy cow situation — and the movement of store cattle to permanent grazing for the next three or four months. We do not want to see farmers moving stock unnecessarily and without control.
Beef farmers supply stock to abattoirs. However, abattoirs have been out of stock for six weeks. Could the Minister relax the rules in areas where there are no sheep so that beef farmers can avail of store cattle to keep the food chain going? Breeders’ farms are overstocked, and finishing farmers have no stock.
From today, I have allowed the movement of animals to abattoirs for slaughter. I have responded to Mr Savage and to other questioners about cattle moving to grass and across roads. I hope to be able to make an announcement next Monday at the very latest. I hope that it will be sooner, if I can get everything into place.
My advisors in the local veterinary offices are working with farmers on the problems of animal feed. Farmers are being advised individually as to where they can access animal feed.
I welcome the Minister’s statement. I look forward to the day when the Minister will not be compelled to attend crisis meetings of the Assembly. Can the Minister advise the Assembly on the level of harmony that exists between Government valuers and the owners of culled livestock? Has any conflict arisen during the valuation process?
There have been problems inasmuch as farmers have expressed, as Mr Bradley will be aware, not so much dissatisfaction but confusion. They have sought clarification on what the compensation method would be.
In each of those instances I have been able to assure those concerned that my Department’s policy is that animals will be valued at what is considered to be full market value. That is precisely what happens in Great Britain and in the Irish Republic. Compensation will be paid. If a farmer has a concern about that, he has the option of asking for an independent valuation from one of three named valuers. In very few cases in recent times, if any — perhaps one or two — farmers have taken that option. That leads me to believe that there is no dissatisfaction with the present situation.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for keeping Members up to date with the foot-and-mouth crisis.
There have been reports that the amount of compensation being paid to farmers will be reduced. Can the Minister reassure farmers in the Ardboe and Antrim areas that they will not suffer any further loss, that they will be paid at a similar rate to those who have already been compensated, and that as the crisis continues, there will be no such reduction?
Will the Minister also take into account the situation that farmers are in? Normally, if a farmer sells animals at a mart, he or she can buy stock again and go back into farming. However, in this situation, farmers are receiving compensation for stock but cannot go back to farming and are not clear when they will be able to do so. Account needs to be taken of the fact that farmers will not be able to get an income from that.
Does the Minister consider the movement of animals across roads to be an illegal act? Can she clarify how one of our Committee members, Mr Gardiner Kane, was able to say at the Committee meeting this week that he had had to move his own cattle across the road and that the Minister would simply have to abide by that? Do some people have a special licence to move animals across the road while, for everyone else, such movement is restricted?
There is no question of the compensation policy being changed. It remains the same and will remain the same — that is, compensation at the full market value of the animal, as assessed by the valuer, with recourse to independent valuation if the farmer is not happy with the initial valuation.
I agree that the fact that farmers cannot immediately go back to farming is a huge disadvantage. Farmers will be in a difficult position, but it is an issue of consequential, rather than direct, compensation. It is not an issue for me to deal with, as I try to cope with the problems of eradicating this disease. I fully sympathise with the farmers in that position and the advisors on the rural stress hotline and in the Department — and I understand that the Department for Social Development is working at this also and has announced that it is setting up networks to help people in difficult situations. It is working to try to alleviate the very difficult situation that these people, who now have no income, are in.
I repeat that unauthorised movement of animals is illegal. This weekend there were six interceptions by the police, and prosecutions will follow.
The Minister has concentrated entirely this morning on the effects of foot-and-mouth disease on the farming community. However, she will be aware that many businesses throughout the Province have suffered greatly as a result of this crisis. Has any further progress been made on the issue of payment for consequential loss? Has any form of assistance been given to, for instance, hoteliers, riding schools and feed companies, which are incurring enormous losses as a result of this crisis? Has she had any discussions with her counterparts in the rest of the United Kingdom? Has there been any progress on this important issue?
I thank Mr Wells for his question. He will understand that my responsibility as Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development is solely to the farming community. However, I am aware that other sectors are suffering as a result of the present situation. I assure Mr Wells that the Executive have discussed the matter on at least two occasions.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel, Mr Durkan, is looking at how some measure of relief might be given to people who are suffering consequential loss. It is a very difficult area, because the payment of direct consequential compensation could be infinite. The Department of Finance and Personnel is looking at issues such as the deferment of rates. I hope that we will be bringing a paper on the matter to the next meeting of the Executive. I am aware of the problem, and the Executive are looking at it.
I had raised the issue at a meeting with the Prime Minister some time back when consequential loss was raised. I have made it very clear that in the area of consequential compensation — if it is agreed by the Treasury — Northern Ireland people should not be treated any less generously than those across the water.