Tuesday, 1 July 1986
Dáil Eireann Debate
An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Walsh has been given permission to raise on the Adjournment of the House the unsatisfactory situation regarding bovine TB. He has 12 minutes and the Minister has six minutes.
Mr. J. Walsh: I intend to share my time with Deputy Noonan. I thank the Chair for allowing me to raise this very important matter at this late hour and I thank the Minister of State for coming here to listen to what I have to say. A couple of years ago the programme for the eradication of bovine TB was described in the Seanad by Dr. Whitaker, former Secretary of the Department of Finance and former Governor of the Central Bank, as the greatest financial disaster since the foundation of the State. About £1 billion has been spent in disease eradication in our herds during the past 30 years but by any standards the present level of TB in the national herd is a scandal. The Irish people, particularly the farmers, were pleased with the publication in Building on Reality of a specific commitment. I quote:
The Government have also decided to make a fresh onslaught on bovine disease, particularly tuberculosis, Substantially increased funds will be made available for disease eradication, including an additional provision for stock replacement, subject to a number of radical changes in existing practices.
At the time the Minister for Agriculture, Deputy Deasy, wrote to the veterinary profession outlining the changes he wanted and stating that increased funding  would be available over a three year period, totalling £85 million. Last year £29 million was spent on the eradication programme, but this year £4.5 million was cut from the allocation. We are now back to the same old stop-go attitude towards bovine TB eradication. That is very unfortunate. Either we will go about eradicating the disease totally or we are not serious about it.
It is no use saying it cannot be done because we can see that other countries throughout the world, particularly in Europe, have succeeded in eliminating the disease. Even in Northern Ireland, which had a problem similar to ours, the incidence is five times lower than here. We continue to make excuses that things are different elsewhere. They are not. We are disgraced: we are the laughing stock of the world. We have spent 30 years tinkering around trying to get rid of this scourge. The farmers contributed £14 million in levies last years. Our position is damaging to our international image as a producer of good clean uncontaminated food.
In the circumstances the Department of Agriculture and the Government stand indicted because they have not lived up to their commitment to make certain allocations of money, to carry out full rounds of testing so that once and for all we can eradicate this disease. I call on the Minister of State to give us an assurance that at last the Government will take the matter seriously and allocate sufficient funds to ensure a full round of testing.
Mr. Noonan: (Limerick West): I am glad of this opportunity to speak on this important issue. We are sorry to have brought the Minister of State here at this early hour of the morning, but the situation is so serious that it needs to be clarified. As Deputy Walsh has stated, the Government gave a commitment that a certain amount of money would be spent each year on this programme for eradication. They have reneged on that. Farmers and the livestock industry are contributing more than 50 per cent of the total cost of disease eradication. Not alone  are the Government throwing good money after bad, taxpayers' money, but they are throwing the farmers' money away because the money spent last year might as well not have been spent: we did not have a full round of testing this year.
Time is against us. We are an exporting nation and I wonder how long will the EC Commission and our colleagues in Europe continue to accept that we have not got disease free status. The indecision by Government is something they will live to regret. They have had a stop-up programme in this respect. That has been the policy in the past number of years. It is a waste of resources. Only a concerted effort over three or four years will give the required results.
Last year Fianna Fáil published a tenpoint plan for disease eradication. If that plan were carried through forcefully over a three year period the disease would be reduced to manageable levels. The kernel of Fianna Fáil's plan is to give more discretion to the technical people in the field as against the current regime of bureaucratic tinkering and red tape. It is imperative that those who know the job would be allowed to get on with it without interference from the Department, particularly the administrative section. We have highly qualified people in the field. The veterinary staffs throughout the country know what the situation is. However, the bureaucracy in the Department is interfering with the technical efforts to get on with the job and the people in the field see fit. I appreciate that guidelines must be established and adhered to, but an obsession with keeping the files right will never succeed in eradicating bovine TB. Vast sums of money have been spent on the programme over a number of years. Some good work has been done. Eighteen months ago we suggested to the Minister how the job should be done. That is why this party over 18 months ago gave the Minister the opportunity of doing a job but we never thought the Government would pull the plug and renege on their commitment in the document, Building on Reality. I presume all the other promises will go the same way as  the commitment on disease eradication.
A lot of work has been done over the years but more and more has to be done. The only way we can eradicate this disease is through concerted effort. The stakes are high and the rewards are great. Bovine TB must be eradicated sooner rather than later. It would be worth investing greater resources in the short term to overcome the problem once and for all rather than to attack it piecemeal which has been the case over the years. It also seems to be the situation under the Government. It is important to appreciate the role the cattle industry plays in our economy. We must seek to increase exports and we can do that. To achieve this growth we must have disease-free status for herds. The challenge is there to be met and it needs the co-operation of farmers, veterinary officers, departmental officers as well as all of us if we are to succeed in this great task.
I want to appeal to the Minister as my colleague, Deputy Walsh, has done, to give a commitment, coming up to 12.30 a.m., to restore the moneys which were taken by the Minister for Finance and which were committed in the document, Building on Reality. Those moneys should be restored forthwith so that there will be one full round of testing in each herd this year.
Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture (Mr. Hegarty): In the first instance I would have to repudiate the suggestion that the situation regarding the bovine TB eradication scheme is unsatisfactory. We have not reneged on the document, Building on Reality. The national herd has been tested one and a half times in the recent round. Our selective testing programme based on area disease incidence is designed to continue the effective process of eradication. I have spoken on a number of occasions, including during a recent Question Time, about the many unfair comments emanating from various quarters about the approach to the scheme this year. I want  to state again that there is no question of affording a lower priority to TB eradication or any slackening in our determination to make progress against the disease.
To put the matter in perspective I would like, first of all, to comment on the 1985-86 round of testing which was a considerable success. This round of testing, from 1 June 1985 to 6 April 1986 was the most intensive in the history of the eradication scheme. During that ten month period 261,827 herd tests, covering over nine million individual animal tests, were carried out. As well as the full monitor of all herds, the round involved extensive additional check testing and special area programmes. These special programmes, focusing on herds considered to have been at greatest risk, were carried out in all counties in conjunction with the full monitor. The strict procedures introduced by Government in 1985 led to a situation where, to an unprecedented extent, testing was carried out by private veterinary practitioners on schedule, herdowners co-operated fully in having tests carried out promptly and reactors were removed for slaughter with minimum delay.
The main elements in these new procedures were as follows: farmer nomination of the veterinary surgeon to test his herd was replaced by direct Department of Agriculture nomination of veterinary surgeons to carry out testing; testing and blood sampling fees were paid direct by the Department to the veterinary surgeon who carried out the operations and who was, therefore, personally responsible for their proper execution; payment of reactor grants to farmers was conditional on removal of reactor animals from farms direct for slaughter within a maximum of ten days from the date the herdowner was notified to remove the animal; tight official supervision of all trading at marts, including control of trading hours; strict enforcement of all procedures and prosecution in all cases of detected breaches of the law and regulations relating to disease eradication; establishment of a central epidemiology unit in the Department of Agriculture to co-ordinate  and assist in the analysis of disease outbreaks, prevention of disease spread and so on.
Apart from the record number of tests, it is worthy of note that 4,629 herds were restricted at the end of the round, i.e. on 6 April, 1986 and 7,849 herds became restricted due to the discovery of reactors in the course of the monitor and special programmes. The disease prevalence recorded at the end of the round, 2.42 per cent, is a significant improvement on the situation at 31 October 1985 when the highest level of prevalence during the round was recorded, i.e. 3.73 per cent, equivalent to 7,128 herds restricted. It is also an encouraging feature that from October 1985 to the end of the round in April 1986 prevalence levels fell consistently throughout the country. Some 34,000 reactors were slaughtered during the round.
The 1985-86 round of testing was highly successful. Based on the disciplined procedures which I have mentioned we were able to carry out a full monitor round of testing on the entire national herd in record time as well as carrying out a special testing programme in the highrisk herds. The net result was that the national herd was, on average, TB tested almost one and a half times, and twice or more in the worst-affected areas. This was the most comprehensive testing campaign carried out since the scheme began, and significant progress was achieved. Our predictions of the trend in disease outbreaks were fully borne out. The prevalence of disease increased during the early months of the programme, reaching a peak at the end of October, when 7,128 herds were restricted, representing a herd prevalence of 3.73 per cent.
Since then the situation has steadily improved and at the end of the round on 6 April, the prevalence figure had fallen to 2.42 per cent with 4,629 herds restricted. Such progress would not have been achieved without the whole-hearted support and commitment of all concerned including the farmers, veterinary practitioners and officials. As the Minister for  Agriculture said recently: “The discipline and sense of purpose which they displayed indicates what can be achieved through co-operation and determination”. There is, however, no room for complacency. The number of herds restricted shows progress but in view of the number of clear herds at risk from diseased herds it is clear that an enormous task remains to be carried out, especially in some counties where the levels of disease are worrying.
This is why, faced with a difficult budgetary situation, we have embarked upon a selective approach concentrating on badly infected areas. Testing is being concentrated in areas considered most likely to yield the best returns in terms of identifying reactors and controlling the spread of disease. The current programme will therefore match testing activity to disease prevalence, with special regard to a certain minimum level of activity in all counties.
Notwithstanding the unavoidable cut-back in resources there will still be very considerable expenditure on TB eradication this year. The selective programme coupled with special campaigns in south west Cork and the north midlands — two particularly bad regions — together with the normal backup service which will continue to be provided in the case of locked up herds, will contribute greatly to the fight against TB. Furthermore, we shall continue to seek ways of improving the scheme. I hope to see shortly the introduction of a reactor collection service with State assistance in the region covering Cork, Kerry and Limerick. We have increased the ceiling payments from the depopulation fund from £6,000 to £10,000 with corresponding increases in the stock replacement scheme and we have introduced a special incentive for the disposal of latent carriers of disease, that is, animals which do not react to the test but which in the opinion of the Department's veterinary officers could be the source of disease.
The success in the campaign against brucellosis, marked by the achievement  of officially brucellosis free status earlier this year, is an excellent example of what can be achieved with co-operation, discipline and proper procedures. I am confident that with this same mix of co-operation,  discipline and procedures we will also succeed in getting rid of bovine TB from the national herd.
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