Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 26 June 2001


Foot-and-Mouth Disease

Social Security Fraud Bill: Second Stage

Department for Employment and Learning Bill:
Further Consideration Stage

Product Liability (Amendment) Bill: Further Consideration Stage

Trustee Bill: Final Stage

Report of the Committee of the Centre – Commissioner for Children

Seed Potatoes (Crop Fees) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2001

Seed Potato Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2001

Lagan Valley Hospital

The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Deputy Speaker [Sir John Gorman] in the Chair).

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Yesterday in the House, the First Minister called my Colleague a "coward". I understand that that word is banned by Erskine May, and I would like you to refer it to the Speaker for his ruling.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Yes, I will certainly refer that to the Speaker.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

Thank you.

Foot-and-Mouth Disease


Mr Deputy Speaker:

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

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

It is now several weeks since I last addressed the Assembly on the subject of foot-and-mouth disease. As Members will doubtless be aware, the position — in Northern Ireland at least — has continued to improve during that time. There have been no further outbreaks of the disease; there are no suspected cases at this time; and the serology testing we have been carrying out on sheep demonstrates that the virus is not, and has not been, generally present in sheep outside the flocks which we detected and dealt with.

In recognition of that, the European Union granted regional foot-and-mouth disease status to Northern Ireland on 5 June. That decision has allowed the immediate resumption of exports of live pigs and certain products from susceptible animals — excluding beef, because of BSE. Sheep will again be eligible for export with effect from 1 July.

I am continuing to look at the remaining controls on the agriculture sector with a view to dismantling, or at least relaxing, them as the disease situation permits. I have particular concerns about the plight of the livestock marts, which remain closed. My intention is to permit the marts to reopen on a phased basis and under a suitable disease control regime as soon as it is safe for them to do so. This process should be able to start in the next few weeks.

Looking beyond the farming sector, the improvement in Northern Ireland’s foot-and-mouth disease situation is such that two weeks ago the Executive was able to issue revised guidelines allowing the reopening of land and property which had, until then, been closed.

It is hoped that we will be able to advance in the next few days by allowing some of the remaining controls and measures to be stepped down, while continuing to protect Northern Ireland against the threat of foot-and- mouth disease.

The disease situation in Northern Ireland stands in stark contrast to that in Great Britain, where foot-and-mouth disease continues to occur. This difference means that the controls that I imposed on the movement of livestock, products and people from Great Britain will have to remain in place until the picture there improves significantly. However, I have agreed that horses can again be imported from Great Britain; this is a change which I know the industry was keen to see.

As the risk decreases, I intend to scale down the effort that the Department has been devoting to control of the disease. I will redirect the resources released by this move to deal with other pressures.

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development was testing about 10,000 sheep blood samples a day at one stage in the serology testing programme that I referred to earlier. Over 300,000 sheep or 10% of the Northern Ireland sheep population have been tested under that programme. That is a huge effort by any standards. The serology testing was carried out in those areas that were judged by the Veterinary Service to pose the greatest risk. The work is labour-intensive, and, bearing in mind resource implications and competing priorities, I am now exploring what further testing may be required for epidemiological purposes.

The dedicated foot-and-mouth disease helpline that I set up at the start of the crisis was no longer fulfilling the purpose for which it was established, so I closed it with effect from Friday 22 June. However, the departmental helpline and the special arrangement that I made for handling queries from Members are still available.

There is no further need for me to make regular statements to the Assembly as I have done since the disease first hit Northern Ireland in February. Therefore this is the last such statement unless the disease situation dictates otherwise.

It is to be hoped that Northern Ireland is now coming towards the end of the foot-and-mouth disease crisis. It is therefore crucial that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development refocus its energy on other important objectives. In the next six months, as the problems associated with foot-and- mouth disease recede, I will concentrate on a recovery plan for the agrifood sector, taking account of both national developments of interest to Northern Ireland and the outcome of the work of the vision group. That group met again yesterday, and its work will continue over the summer. I expect to receive a report from the group in September which will take account of issues arising from foot-and-mouth disease.

Further work will be done during the final phase of foot-and-mouth disease, but the Department’s handling of the outbreak will be scrutinised through external review. This will dovetail with any equivalent review in Great Britain, and the Department will wish to liaise with the authorities in Dublin to ensure that cross-border lessons are also taken into account. I will make a further announcement on that in due course.

I will also turn my attention to achieving low-incidence status for beef exports. The difficulties that Northern Ireland still faces on that front should not be underestimated. Confidence remains low in Europe, and much will depend on the outcome of the Department’s testing regime as it moves again into top gear to reduce the number of tests undertaken for foot-and- mouth disease purposes.

Success in that endeavour will depend on farmers’ cattle identification and herd records being in good order. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development will give whatever help it can, but ultimately Northern Ireland farmers must demonstrate that they have reliable herd records and cattle traceability. I urge farmers to turn their attention to that as soon as possible.

The Programme for Government introduced the concept of rural proofing in Northern Ireland. Over the coming months we need to flesh out that idea so as to appreciate how the concept will work.

My Department will presently roll out the rural development strategy and its proposals for the Peace II programme, which will include consultation. I look forward to seeing the proposals that will emerge from the community.

Together with the North/South Ministerial Council, the Department will be developing issues with a strong North/South dimension. In particular, animal health will be the focus of further work. We also need to work with the authorities in Dublin to agree the most productive approach to the reform of the common agricultural policy (CAP), so that I can integrate it in the development of the United Kingdom negotiating stance.

We have been giving much thought to our forestry policy in recent months. I hope to present our draft proposals to the Committee and the Assembly after the policy review.

I have attempted to set out my main strategic objectives for the months ahead. Additionally, a massive amount of work is daily being undertaken by the Department. As we move out of the foot-and-mouth disease crisis, staff will be returning to normal duties. We will pursue all the objectives in the Department’s business plan with our customary energy. In particular, we must step up our efforts in tuberculosis and brucellosis control, and we must tackle the substantial backlog of BSE testing in cattle.

I assure the House that as well as focusing on relevant agrifood sector matters, I will be paying considerable attention to the problems in the fishing industry. At present, those problems are considerable, and more work must be done before the crucial Fisheries Council meeting in December.

I would like to end on a cautionary note. The fact that we escaped the epidemic that occurred in GB was due to a great deal of hard work and sacrifice by everyone in the industry. It would be disastrous if, having gone through all this, we were to drop our collective guard prematurely and foot-and-mouth disease were to recur here. Although we are relaxing our controls in a proportionate way in response to the improvement in our situation, it is important that we continue to adopt the fortress mentality that has served us so well. The foot-and-mouth virus is still circulating just a few miles away, across the Irish Sea. The controls we have set up at ports, airports and farm gates will continue to be necessary for some time.

I will end by expressing my personal gratitude to the Assembly for its assistance and support during the foot-and-mouth disease crisis. I also want to express my gratitude to the industry and to the public for their co-operation and forbearance over the past four months. The fact that we managed to escape the worst of the outbreak was due to the co-operation of Government, industry and the public. It has been a difficult period for all of us, and the effects of foot-and-mouth disease will be with us for some time. It was gratifying that we were able to work together so effectively in the industry’s best interests.

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

It is certainly gratifying that we do not have this disease to the same extent as they do in the rest of the UK. Does the Minister agree that, given the serious announcements and fresh outbreaks in various parts of the UK, we need to be even more careful in guarding our ports as the summer months approach? As we have been able to stop the disease from getting a grip on Northern Ireland, it would be terrible if, given the summer traffic, there were to be any let-up in the very successful way that the ports have been guarded. Perhaps the Minister would like to comment on that.

Can the Minister tell us how much money has been paid in compensation during this time, and how much remains to be paid? What were the findings as regards fraud in this matter? I understand that the permanent secretary made a report on this matter in which he cited a view among officials that a strong stand had not been taken on this issue.

I would like the Minister to comment on why officials thought that. If everything had been all right then there would have been no need for that statement to have been made. That issue needs to be clarified.

10.45 am

I welcome the fact that the Minister is going to move on the issues mentioned, especially on the fishing industry, which is in a great plight. I am glad that she is going to concentrate her efforts on that matter.

Ms Rodgers:

I thank Dr Paisley for his remarks and questions. I agree with Dr Paisley that we need to maintain precautionary measures and vigilance at the ports, particularly as the holiday season approaches and more visitors come here. We will do that; we will make sure that every precaution is taken at the marinas as well.

We have paid out £7 million so far in direct compensation, and £0·5 million remains to be paid.

Fraud is being investigated in the same way as in other years. The first advance payments of the sheep annual premium (SAP) scheme are, as a rule, paid in early July. Farmers who have submitted subsidy claims which require clarification, further information or which are being queried, will receive letters from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to that effect in mid-July.

Dr Paisley may be aware that information on the culls in Northern Ireland, GB and the Republic has been sought by the European Union. The information will be supplied in the second half of July, when it is complete.

The report by the permanent secretary of the Department, was also mentioned. That report was issued to me on foot of an investigation carried out in response to an allegation made by a Member of the Assembly that a blind eye was being turned to fraud in south Armagh. The permanent secretary had an investigation carried out, and he then made a report to me. The summary at the end of that report states:

"In conclusion, therefore, this review bears out that there never was any question of a blind eye being turned to fraud and that normal procedures will apply in relation to subsidy claims."

That is the position.

Mr Armstrong:

I thank the Minister for her statement and welcome her intention to permit the reopening of livestock markets in the next few weeks. In relation to the live export of sheep from 1 July, some buyers have expressed the concern to me that they will be unable to avail of the opportunity to get sheep away for export. In the light of that, we could do with buyers from the Irish Republic buying sheep at the collection points that we have already set up. Our farmers would therefore be able to avail of the higher price for sheep over 21 kilos. It would be a good idea for the buyers to purchase the sheep at the collection points rather than to go around the various farms. Perhaps the Minister could give that her earliest consideration.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Will the Member please put his question?

Mr Armstrong:

The question is that we want the Minister to consider the proposal that buyers should come to the collection points to buy sheep.

Ms Rodgers:

As usual, Mr Armstrong is trying to push the door a little bit further in. I established collection points at marts to facilitate the farmers who had difficulty, for example, in bringing three or four lambs the whole way from County Down to Derry. Those collection points meant that farmers could bring their fat lambs there, which was convenient.

Mr Armstrong seems to be suggesting that farmers, from the South or elsewhere, should be able to come to these collection points and buy sheep. I received a letter from him on the subject this morning, but I have not had time to study it. I will consider that possibility, but it looks suspiciously like opening the marts for sheep sales. I must inform him that, although I am looking seriously at the question of reopening the marts — because I recognise the problems of the mart owners and farmers — the first step will be to open them for cattle sales. Sheep sales will happen later, because we are still somewhat nervous of the problems with the flock. I will be guided by advice from veterinary experts. I will examine Mr Armstrong’s suggestion, but I am not holding out much hope that it will be possible to implement it.

Mr McGrady:

I thank the Minister for her "state of the agricultural nation" statement. I am delighted that the threat of foot-and-mouth disease is receding. I welcome the announcement that the Department will focus its attention on other problems affecting the industry, not least in fishing and forestry, which are germane to my constituency.

I would like the Minister to explain some points in more detail. We welcome the opening of the livestock marts, but will she tell us which animals will be allowed to be processed through the marts, in what order and when?

In addition, is the Minister aware that there is a charitable fund, called the Addington Fund, which assists farmers in GB? Although it is a private charitable fund, it receives public and private donations. Can she ensure that Northern Ireland farmers have access to it to obtain funding from it?

Ms Rodgers:

I hope to open the marts for cattle and pig sales in the next few weeks. The best guesstimate that I can make for this is mid-July. At that stage, they will not be open for sheep.

The Addington Fund is a private fund for the assistance of farmers. I understand that Northern Irish farmers have already received some assistance from it. Because it is a private fund, it is not a matter for Government. However, I understand that it has been operating through the Ulster Farmers’ Union and the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers’ Association (NIAPA). It is outside the remit of Government, but it has provided some help to farmers who were beleaguered and required financial assistance.

Mr McHugh:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s lengthy statement, which mentioned future plans and the vision group. The possibility of the marts reopening for cattle sales in mid-July will be welcomed in Fermanagh, which exports nearly all its cattle.

What is being done to ensure that we have learned the lessons of foot-and-mouth disease? What action has the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development taken to ensure that the British Government put in place measures to prevent future outbreaks which, as in this case, could be followed by the movement of the disease into Ireland?

What are the restrictions on animals bought in the South to be used for breeding in the North?

Ms Rodgers:

I expect that the British Government will carry out their own review of the episode to find out how it happened and what lessons can be learned from it. There will be a ministerial meeting next Wednesday between the regional Ministers and the new Minister of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Margaret Beckett. I have no doubt that those issues will be discussed.

A subgroup of the vision group is looking at the lessons we can learn from foot-and-mouth disease and will report to me in September. I intend to establish a review of the crisis outside the Department.

Breeding animals that come in from the Republic must have veterinary certification. That matter must be discussed, and my officials are in discussions with officials in the Republic about all matters, including that one.

Mr Ford:

I welcome the Minister’s statement. It appears that if she will not be back here in the autumn answering questions on foot-and-mouth disease, she will be here to talk about animal health, forestry, fisheries and rural proofing. I look forward to hearing some detail on those points, which have been sadly neglected in recent months.

What is the full remit of the external review of the Department’s handling of foot-and-mouth disease? Specifically, what is the earliest date that it will consider? Will it include, in particular, the work of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in inspecting the ports before the diagnosis of foot-and-mouth disease in GB in February? The issue is not just the handling of the disease when it arrived, but the failure to prevent its arrival.

The Minister mentioned the resources for the serology testing and hinted that it was to end soon. What is the present basis — not the historic pattern — on which the serology tests are being carried out? How are farms selected for that testing? What is the level of testing? Has she plans to wind it down soon?

Ms Rodgers:

I have just announced the external review, and I have not looked at it in detail. The details have yet to be decided, but I will obviously want it to take account of all aspects of foot-and-mouth disease. It would be a useless exercise if we looked at only some parts of it. We will look at all the aspects, including the precautions at the ports that Mr Ford mentioned.

We are now in the final stages of the serology testing and strategic targeting of other areas that we want to investigate. We have finished testing in the Sperrins, the Mournes and the Glens of Antrim, which were the areas of greatest concern. We are continuing to test in the lowland areas and will take a significant number of samples there. I cannot go into every detail as I am not a veterinary expert, but we test a significant number of samples. In the areas that I first referred to, we have sampled 10% of sheep. Considering there are three million sheep in Northern Ireland, that is a large number.

11.00 am

We will continue the testing for epidemiological information. I will let Mr Ford have further detail from the experts, should he require it, but that is our general position.

Mr Kane:

I too welcome the Minister’s statement and her response concerning the proposed reopening of our livestock marts. That will be a major step forward for the farming community and the agriculture industry.

Will the Minister undertake to remove the 20-day holding period? That has been an obstacle to the supply of livestock among farmers. Does she accept the impracticality of that period for exporting live cattle from the Province?

Ms Rodgers:

I am aware that the 20-day holding period causes difficulties, but I must also remind the House that the free and frequent movement of sheep in the initial stages of the disease created a huge problem. It was virtually impossible for us to identify where the virus was present, and our reaction to it was delayed.

We will consult the industry and all stakeholders on how we deal with the problem of moving sheep. Sometimes I fear that when we are out of the woods and things begin to look better, people will forget how bad it was and how bad it could have been. We cannot ignore the fact that the very frequent movement of sheep made it difficult for us to establish where they were or where the infection was.

In answer to Mr Kane, I am aware of the problem, and we will look at what can be done. Whatever we do, we must ensure that we are not faced with such a problem again and that the industry is protected. A balance must be found between the need to enable the industry to operate and the need to ensure that we are not threatened by another disease with such negative implications for agriculture.

Mr Leslie:

I am pleased that the Minister feels able to move on from foot-and-mouth disease and return to achieving low-incidence BSE status. That seems to have assumed some of the characteristics of the quest for the Holy Grail.

I am sure the Minister is aware that the new and more rigorous European Union beef labelling regulations come into force in January 2002. I understand that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development does not intend to introduce them into Northern Ireland legislation until at least the end of the first quarter of 2002.

Does the Minister agree that this new regime of labelling should eradicate the possibility of imported beef’s being in any way labelled as Northern Ireland produce? That possibility could compromise the traceability scheme. Can the Minister give the House an undertaking that she will introduce the new and more rigorous regulations as soon as possible after 1 January 2002?

Ms Rodgers:

I assure Mr Leslie that we will implement the beef labelling regime as soon as possible, and I take his point about its importance. However, it will be done in stages.

Mr Bradley:

I welcome the Minister’s statement and share her hope that this will be the last special statement on foot-and-mouth disease. The achievement of the Minister and her team — from Dundonald House through the offices of the veterinary officers to the field — is all the more praiseworthy when the outbreak is still rampant in GB. Announcements of 22 outbreaks in the last seven days say it all.

I welcome the broad content of the statement and look forward to returning the agriculture industry to profit.

How important does the Minister believe North/South co-operation was in tackling foot-and-mouth disease throughout the island?

Ms Rodgers:

I thank Mr Bradley for his comments and his question. North/South co-operation was important during the foot-and-mouth disease epidemic. An example of it is that, after the success of the regionalisation bid, my officials will meet their counterparts next Wednesday to review any issues regarding the resumption of trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The Republic’s co-operation during the epidemic was important, as was its support for our regionalisation bid.

Mr M Murphy:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s statement and recognise the part played by her and her Department in curtailing foot-and-mouth disease. Turning to cattle traceability and identification, the need for records to be in good order and the achievement of low-incidence BSE status, may I suggest that the Minister undertake to change the ear-tagging and identification scheme? The Minister will be aware that Northern Irish beef is tagged as being UK sourced. I propose that when marketing Northern Irish beef in future, the UK tag should be changed to a Northern Irish tag. Does the Minister agree?

Ms Rodgers:

I thank Mr Murphy for his question. We do not have any control over being part of the member state of the United Kingdom. We might wish it to be otherwise; I might wish it to be otherwise, and so might Mr Murphy, but the fact is that the member state is the United Kingdom, and European regulations dictate that ear tags must show that beef is sourced in the United Kingdom. Cattle can be classed as belonging to the Republic of Ireland or to the United Kingdom, and in our case, whether we like it or not — and some of us do not like it but we must accept it until there is consent for change — we are in the United Kingdom. Therefore the ear tags must show that. However, there is nothing to prevent the industry here, when marketing its beef and produce, from agreeing on a marketing label that would be different from the ear tags. The label could suggest something such as the food island initiative or Irish beef, because Irish beef — whether from North or South — is a marketable commodity. There is nothing to prevent private or commercial concerns from identifying beef with their own label for marketing purposes. However, under the EU regulations we do not have a choice about what is on the tags.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

I welcome the Minister’s staunch defence of the Union. The Minister might now be a Member of Parliament as well, had she picked a different constituency. With her popularity in the farming community, that would have gone down very well.

I congratulate the Minister and her Department. I also congratulate the farming community, which can now receive a more upbeat and positive statement from the Minister. The Minister has said that certain measures will remain in place. Can she then tell the House if she is giving the green light to a return to normality for sport and tourism in the Province? Is the Minister content that those measures are adequate to protect Northern Ireland at this time? Has she made any progress towards consequential compensation, and how often does she raise that matter with the Government?

With whom is she raising the matter, and what does she expect the response to be? What consequential compensation does she expect to secure for those who have been drastically affected by the ravages of foot-and- mouth disease?

Ms Rodgers:

I thank Mr Paisley for his questions. First, I would like to make it clear that I was not defending the Union; I was reluctantly accepting the status quo because we recognised the principle of consent in the agreement that we signed. However much I will try to get consent for what I want, I accept the status quo for the moment. I hope that we can continue to work together until we convince people like Mr Paisley that we might be better off in an all-Ireland state, a member state which we often look to with envy in our dealings with Europe.

With regard to a green light for a return to normality in sport, the Executive’s guidelines should be amended shortly to give a qualified green light. We are not over the threat from GB, but we are over the threat in the North. Given that fact, in the next week we will issue further guidelines that will enable people to take a common-sense approach to angling and other sports. If a person has not been in contact with live animals, he will be able to go ahead with the sport. We will be issuing clear guidelines in the next few days.

Consequential compensation is being dealt with by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and the Department of Finance and Personnel. Discussions about that are ongoing with the British Government. We will be meeting the regional Ministers and Mrs Beckett next week. I will be anxious to hear what the position is, and I will be pressing for Northern Ireland to get a fair share of any consequential compensation being considered by the Treasury.

Mr J Wilson:

I hope that the Minister will not mind my saying that we do not expect to hear from her again on this matter for a long time. I share other people’s concerns about the marts. Will the Minister assure me that someone will see the process through to the end if the reopening of the marts is going to be phased and is not going to begin for some weeks? Some mart owners may not be back in business until the autumn. I hope that she shares my concern that the person at the end of the process will be able to reopen the marts, because they have all been closed for a long time.

The angling estate that is managed by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure is open, with the exception of one or two difficult locations. However, will the Minister have regard for the fact that our rivers are still inaccessible? Even if she announced today that the situation were about to change, there would still have to be lengthy consultation between angling clubs and farmers that might go on into the autumn. I hope that it rains during the summer, although others will have a different view, and they will probably get their way.

11.15 am

When the water levels are very low, the slightest import of pollutant can be catastrophic. Anglers are the best policemen of the rivers, and the sooner we get them back out on the rivers where they can watch out for pollutants, the better. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind.

Ms Rodgers:

I thank Mr Wilson for his comments and for telling me that he hopes not to be hearing from me for some time. I hope that he is right.

A phased process for reopening of the marts means that, by necessity, the introduction of sheep sales into the marts will be at the end of the queue rather than at the beginning. I said in response to Mr McGrady’s question — and he is not here at the moment — that the reopening of the marts would take place by mid-July. That might have been a little optimistic. It will probably be closer to the end of July, although it is difficult to be precise. Cattle sales will be the first to be introduced, then pigs and, further down the line, sheep. Members will understand the reason for that.

In relation to rivers not being accessible to anglers, in the Executive’s most recent guidelines I stated that angling could proceed again provided that anglers were not in contact with farm animals. That will clearly have to be discussed with the angling clubs and local farmers. It is a matter of applying common sense, and I will be issuing further guidelines.

In the Strule River area, for instance — which I have come to know fairly well in the last four or five weeks — there are many angling clubs. Only a very small portion of the river crosses farmland. For the most part, access to the river does not involve going through farmland or contact with farm animals. Common sense is required, and I take the point that anglers would be the first to become aware of pollution. It is very important that they can alert people to that.

Mr Dallat:

I too wish to thank the Minister and all her staff for their outstanding performance, and that includes the district councils, amongst others, which co-operated with the Department during the crisis.

My question is closely related to the concerns of other Members. The Minister is only too aware that our fledging rural tourism industry has, in general, been devastated by foot-and-mouth disease. Can the Minister assure the House that she will be doing everything possible to ensure that rural development and rural tourism in particular get the support that they so badly need in the months ahead?

Ms Rodgers:

I agree with Mr Dallat about the co-operation that we received from the local councils and other public bodies.

Under Peace II, my Department will have a rural tourism initiative. I am very anxious that people should plug into that and that local communities, councils and private enterprise come forward with projects that can boost, improve and exploit the natural resources that we have in Northern Ireland for the purposes of tourism.

Mr Dallat may be aware that the Northern Ireland rural cottage holiday initiative launch took place in County Down about two weeks ago. I was present at that. Again, I am very anxious to ensure that rural tourism is supported and that our assets are exploited, and I will do everything in my power to ensure that that happens.

Mr Douglas:

I welcome the Minister’s statement, especially the section on the opening of the livestock markets. She said that, in the short term, this will involve cattle only and that sheep will be at the end of the queue. What is the Department’s position on the sale of rams, as the season for sales is approaching? It takes six to eight weeks for those planning the sales to organise catalogues, and several people have asked me about this. Can the issue be examined, and perhaps dealt with first, if the sale of sheep is to be pushed to the back of the queue?

Will sheep from which blood samples have been taken be able to be sold without further blood tests, or will pedigree sheep require further tests?

Ms Rodgers:

My officials have met representatives of the pedigree clubs to assess protocols to facilitate sales of rams and pedigree sheep. Those protocols will involve a clear blood test of all pedigree flocks involved in a sale. I hope to announce a timetable for pedigree sheep sales shortly, based on the discussions we have had and the protocols that must be put in place. Mr Douglas will agree that it is important to continue to take the necessary precautions.

Mr Gibson:

I welcome the encouraging news we have had this morning. I am reassured that we are still keeping up our guard against the external threat. Having reached this stage, it is very important that we do not now suddenly import the dreaded threat once again.

Tyrone and Fermanagh have less favoured areas in greater acreage and queues of livestock for grazing — and we are well into the grazing season. Under the phased reopening of the marts, I appeal for the marts of Enniskillen, Clogher and Omagh, which are modern marts able to cater for any necessary health regime, to be given first-phase priority.

My second point relates to the traceability, credibility and promotion of our meat. We are now looking at how we can market our product in the future, and one of the greatest lessons we have learnt is about our inability to trace sheep accurately — look at the case of the 60 missing sheep. We now have a regime that is traceability proof, as far as is humanly possible. Farmers should be encouraged to ensure 100% accuracy. By the same token, there should be a penalty on those who thwart accurate traceability. It is very important to encourage farmers to help themselves, but we are asking the Minister to help them with marketing so that we can restore confidence to an industry that has been debilitated for six years.

Ms Rodgers:

The phased opening of the marts will relate to the type of mart, not to location.

In response to Mr Gibson’s other point about effective tracing, I agree that that is important. One of the problems we have had in trying to stay ahead of the disease, particularly in the initial stages, and since, has been the absence of effective tracing mechanisms for sheep, and we will have to establish them. In doing this we will take account of the views of the vision group and our external review and in consultation with the industry. I take the Member’s point.

I also agree that finding effective ways of tracing sheep will be a matter for co-operation between the Department and the farming community. That is how I would like to see our moving ahead. The issue will be discussed, and there will be consultation with the farming unions and the industry. We will take on board the proposals from the vision group and the findings of our review. I agree that we need to look at effective tracing.


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