Thursday, 26 October 1995
Dáil Éireann Debate
Mr. Dempsey: asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry the plans the Government has to pay £1 million to farmers in the Limerick area; the basis on which these payments will be made; the reason the money is being paid before the necessary investigations are completed and if he will make a statement on the matter.
Miss Quill: asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry the basis on which a financial settlement appears to have been arrived at in respect of farmers in the Askeaton area of County Limerick; the reason a settlement was considered by Government in advance of the publication of the report of the Environmental Protection Agency and if the Minister will make a statement on the matter.
Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry (Mr. Yates): I propose to take both questions together and am delighted to have this opportunity to  correct what I consider to be a most outrageous, unfair and erroneous report in The Cork Examiner today. It is a total misrepresentation of the good work I, my Department and the Government have been doing in trying to resolve a very difficult problem.
The background is that the Environmental Protection Agency was asked to carry out a detailed study of the animal health and other related problems in the Askeaton area of County Limerick. It published an information booklet in June 1995 in which it states specifically that my Department is committed to undertaking a comprehensive animal health study on two farms in the Askeaton area. Negotiations to settle the terms to secure the participation of the two farmers involved were protracted but have now been completed. One of the farms is being leased while the other is being purchased directly by my Department with a view to relocating the family farm.
These were the only arrangements that would ensure the animal health study could proceed. Without that study the integrity and effectiveness of the overall investigation would be seriously undermined. The intention is that these farms will be used for the conduct of an animal health study as part of the comprehensive investigations into animal deaths and illness being co-ordinated by the Environmental Protection Agency. Contrary to some recent reports the arrangements which enabled the studies to proceed on these two farms were indispensable.
There is an amount of expert opinion from toxicologists and others which states that if we did not involve the farms in the study it would be virtually worthless because it would not deal with the greatest focus of criticism. For the study to be effective the two farms must be included in it. All those professionally involved in the investigation and, I understand, local farming and other interests are agreed on that.
I met the Askeaton animal health group which represents a large number of local farmers and they, the media and  others in the area were under pressure to get me to pressurise everyone to become involved in the study. I am delighted to say that after eight months of working on this I have brought the matter to a satisfactory conclusion. The financial amounts involved are being expended for the sole purpose of facilitating the most effective possible study.
Apart from the financial terms agreed for the lease and purchase, no payments are being made to other farmers in the area. No compensation is payable. What is involved is access to the land and stock. The idea is to have a scientific study where some animals will be left in situ, others will be removed and put into laboratory conditions and clean animals from an outside area will be put side by side with animals already there. The most exhaustive study will be carried out.
The report of the Environmental Protection Agency to which Deputies referred is an interim one. The report which is due in a few weeks will not shed any light on the comprehensive veterinary study which is getting under way now and which would not have done so but for my action. The interim report will cover the investigations to date by the Environmental Protection Agency and others, particularly Teagasc and the Department's veterinary laboratory.
The work of these agencies is ongoing and will probably not be finalised before 1997. The overall investigation cannot be finalised unless the onfarm animal health study can be undertaken. The work on the two farms referred to is essential.
My action and that of the Government contrasts starkly with the inaction of my predecessors. This problem has been known to exist since 1989. It was left to fester and get worse. Any allegation that I have been involved in a cover-up when I have held several press conferences and public interviews trying to urge the farmers to co-operate is outrageous. I have acted in a totally transparent fashion in trying to include these  two farms. We secured the farmers' agreement to participate in the study. Let the scientists take over from here. I do not know the cause of the problem or the extent of it. It is in the interests of local employment, agriculture and the community that the truth comes out. That is all I am interested in.
Mr. Dempsey: I am reminded of the saying “the lady doth protest too much”. After his initial remarks, the Minister's response indicated he is worried or excited about something. Perhaps the Minister will point out where in my or Deputy Quill's question there is mention of a cover-up. I did not make any allegations against the Minister. The least he should do is withdraw the insinuation that I might be accusing him of a cover-up. On what legal basis are these payments being made? What Act allows the Minister to make these payments? Would the Minister also confirm that the amounts being paid are in the region of £1 million as indicated in the The Cork Examiner today?
Mr. Yates: I can allay Deputy Dempsey's fears. I was referring to quotes in this morning's edition of The Cork Examiner in which Deputy Joe Walsh was reported as accusing me of “playing with dynamite”, Deputy Ned O'Keeffe as having “expressed grave concern at the Government action” and the leading article suggested that the Government is engaged in “some kind of cover up”. It was not the questions that caused me difficulty, rather the presentation of the case.
Some of the firms referred to, including a food processing firm, are absolutely in support of what I have done and were exerting maximum pressure to get this study under way so that the information to establish what is causing the problem there could be ascertained.
Deputy Dempsey asked the legal basis on which these payments were being made. This matter has been under scrutiny by my Department, but the Department of the Environment has  ultimate responsibility for the Environmental Protection Agency study if and when follow-up action is required. This has nothing whatever to do with my Department. My sole role is to secure the veterinary aspects of the study.
In the case of the farm being acquired, its acquisition cost is based on market values. When the studies are completed, it is the intention to re-sell the farm, thus causing no great loss to the taxpayer.
Miss Quill: Would the Minister accept that any misrepresentations of the Government proposals could be ascribed directly to his failure to communicate fully and at all times the welcome steps he has outlined this afternoon? My understanding is that there are two key farms at issue here, that one of the two farmers has co-operated with the Minister in the manner he has outlined but the other has not, and that there are a number of other farmers in the area who, at this point, are not prepared to co-operate in any way. How does the Minister propose to proceed in the case of the second key farmer who, if my information is correct, wants to keep all his options open until the report of the Environmental Protection Agency is made available? How does he propose to deal with the other farmers who are not prepared to be publicly associated in any way with his proposals?
Mr. Yates: In relation to the other farmers, the advice on which I have acted at all times was that of toxicologists and best experts who said that a study of the effects of air emissions on human health and all other aspects, would not be credible unless these two farms were involved. Both farms have received extensive publicity dating back to 1989 in regard to losses and illnesses  of livestock and so on. It was never pointed out to me that other farms were vital to the credibility of the study. It is not anticipated that we will deal with other farms. I want to make it quite clear that, in relation to carrying out herbiage studies on grass land, post mortems on animals or other veterinary studies, all the analytical services of my Department, including those of Teagasc and others, will be made available to all farmers in the Askeaton area but the direct “hands on” role of gaining entry to farms will apply to these two only.
Mr. J. Walsh: Is it not the case that a scientific study is taking place and that it will be a matter of weeks before we know its outcome? Would it not be prudent to await the outcome of that study, with the involvement of Teagasc and the Environmental Protection Agency, so that the Minister's decision could be based on scientific evidence?
Mr. Yates: Deputy Joe Walsh's misunderstanding is manifest in his first question, in that the interim study, the details of which I have not seen, will state that any study would be incomplete without a veterinary study on these two farms.
Mr. Yates: This was the advice of those same toxicologists and the Environmental Protection Agency who said to me that the full value of a study would not be credible unless those two farms were involved and I was proceeding on the basis of their advice. What will be published by the Environmental Protection Agency will be an interim study which will not include the Ryan or  Somers farms, but that will be possible in the final study because of the steps I have taken.
Mr. Yates: Deputy Joe Walsh's second question, which Deputy Quill also raised, was the position about the Ryan farm. The precise position is that verbal agreement has been reached in principle. Nothing has been signed and I understand a meeting between legal people and officials of my Department has been convened for tomorrow to endeavour to bring that matter to finality. I do not want to pre-empt its outcome. The matter is still under negotiation. Nonetheless, bearing in mind the position in which I found myself three months ago, when requests were being made for a price, I stated publicly that the price being sought was totally unsustainable by the taxpayer. I am satisfied the final price will represent a fair market value for the land and stock involved.
Mr. Dempsey: The Minister has told us the Government has taken a decision to lease these lands and I remain unsure about the legal basis on which it decided that could be done. For example, would it not have been possible, under compulsory purchase powers to have purchased the land in question since public health and safety are involved? It is also my understanding that such legislative  measures could have been invoked in this case in the event of the relevant farmers proving obstinate about selling their land. Would the Minister comment?
Mr. Yates: I can comment fully on that because at one stage I actually contemplated that option. I sought the advice of the Attorney General and was advised there was no legal basis on which such a compulsory purchase order could be implemented, that it would entail enormous practical problems, involving the Garda and scientists. Realising that no study would be complete without the involvement of the two farmers in question, my only option was to negotiate a satisfactory outcome. I am satisfied that we will attain a solution reasonable to the taxpayer. It should be remembered that, within the context of what is at stake in the area — such as the threat to employment, food safety factors and the like — many people were caught in a very difficult position. If the Deputy cares to inquire into it, he will fully realise that it is very difficult for everybody involved. I did not want anything to get out of hand which would lead to circumstances in which allegations could be made which would be damaging to our food industry — there are many celebrated cases — and for which there would be no justifiable basis.
The best option to pursue is an independent, impartial study. My mind is completely open as to what the findings of that study will be and as to what is the cause of this problem. Let us get to the truth in a scientific manner. However, it would not be possible to do so without the co-operation of the two farmers. We have reached the point — between a carrot and stick approach — where the most exhaustive animal health study ever attempted in Ireland will be carried out on these two farms. This will ultimately lead to an Environmental Protection Agency report which will hopefully resolve the problem.
Miss Quill: I believe I understand  what the Minister is doing and what he has achieved to date. He has clearly been successful in respect of one of the key farms. However, I am informed that, in respect of the second farm, the owner of it is not prepared to co-operate. In reply to Deputy Dempsey the Minister stated that it is not open to him to apply a compulsory purchase order. In the event of the Minister hitting a stone wall in respect of the second farm — which is essential to enable the completion of the study — what options are open to him? Will the Minister say how he proposes to proceed in the event of that emerging in relation to the Ryan's farm?
Mr. Yates: I can clarify that we have already reached a full agreement with the Summers and the tests are under way. In relation to the Ryan farm the situation is that I met both families some months ago. I explained the importance of securing their co-operation. Since then my officials have been involved in moving towards a market price. I am advised by my officials, who are directly involved in these negotiations, that a verbal agreement has been reached with Mr. Ryan. This will obviously be subject to legal ratification. However, there is no basis for me to suppose that any stone wall exists. I would rather work on the assumption that my officials' assessment of the situation is correct and that we can proceed. In fairness to all concerned, there was a time when there was a complete stand-off. However, good sense has prevailed. The farmers in the area realise that they have most to gain by a comprehensive study.
As in previous cases regarding other pharmaceutical companies, the State is paying for the entire study. When I became Minister there was a great problem in that no one was prepared to take responsibility for the study, because of the interdepartmental aspects, or for the cost of it. Following criticism that this was damaging the food industry and employment, the Government decided,  in the overall interests of employment and agricultural and community health, to deal with this issue. That is why we took the exceptional step to have a public inquiry of this kind. I imagine that all the figures of what is paid to an individual farmer will be made available in the future. I will have no difficulty making such information known to the public.
Mr. Cowen: Is there an admission of culpability by the State or the Department in proceeding as they have without waiting for the full scientific evidence? Is the Minister informing the House that there is no legislation which would have permitted him conduct the survey and inquiry he is now embarking upon without expending such a huge sum of money?
Mr. Yates: Whatever is the cause of the problem, be it air emissions, management practices or deficiencies in the soil, there is no way that the State is to blame and no one has alleged that the State is culpable. There is no question of a precedent, culpability or compensation in anything we have done. The State's role is purely to carry out the study. If the study provides prima facie evidence of any source of the cause, it is open to anyone to take civil action. However, there is no question that the taxpayer caused the problem. The taxpayer and the State are completely innocent in every respect.
In relation to legislation, I am advised that potential constitutional problems exist with regard to the right to private property. The Deputy will appreciate that I did not wish to create, in what was a micro problem, a macro one where the rights of landowners would be called into question because from time to time — Members will be aware of the celebrated case in County Tipperary — different actions have been taken. There would be substantial resistance from farmers because it might be alleged that the study was a whitewash. They would be very reluctant and might carry out their own study which could be used as legal evidence in any case they might  take to court. There are many factors to be considered in legislation. On balance, the best and neatest option was to secure the agreement of the farmers at a minimum cost, let the study take its course and allow the public and the scientists judge what needs to be done to ensure there are no further animal health problems in the area.
Mr. Cowen: The Minister mentioned minimum costs in regard to the survey. What efforts did he make to ensure that the survey might be carried out while leaving the farmers in situ? What arrangements might have been made to pay adequate compensation to those involved while the survey was being carried out rather than seeking to buy them out in the first place?
Mr. Yates: One farmer stated a preference to remain in the area and to have the problem resolved. That is why, for the two year period of the study, we bought the stock and agreed to replace it in due course. The second farmer was adamant that he was so distressed by the extent of the losses, and other factors involved, that he wanted to move his family out of the area. He did not want to enter into negotiations with regard to a temporary arrangement.
The farm which my Department purchased is adjacent to an industrial park where other State agencies are involved in industrial promotion. As we intend to resell the land, and resolve the problems that occurred there, we are confident that the money we paid for it can be recovered. The intention is that this will not result in a net loss to the Exchequer.
Mr. Dempsey: Will the Minister confirm that there is no provision in the Environmental Protection Act, 1992 by which this survey might have been conducted without incurring the expense that he is proposing?
Mr. Yates: I am not the Minister responsible for the Environmental Protection Agency. I am not aware of any such legislation. To my knowledge, it  does not exist. I brought this to the Government's attention by aide memoire and the Attorney General's advice was that he was not aware of any such powers. To my knowledge, the answer is no. If the Deputy can supply superior knowledge I would welcome it.
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