Thursday, 23 November 1995
Dáil Éireann Debate
I have vivid and sad memories when I was five years old of seeing our entire dairy herd being loaded up in trucks and taken to the factory. I recall the sadness of my father whose life's work was taken away on the trucks. The people on a number of farms in our community suffered that trauma. This is not an experience that happens once only; it can happen two and three times. Blame must rest at the door of the Department which allowed the scheme to rattle on without putting sufficient money into research or into investigations or taking brave decisions in an effort to change the scheme in such a way that it would bring about the eradication of TB.
My heart goes out to any farmer and their families when they tell me their entire herd is gone because of TB. Very often they know the cause. Sometimes they say it was due to wildlife acting as a carrier or an outbreak of the disease in a neighbouring farm. We are dealing with a disease that can spread very quickly over a parish and, indeed, the entire countryside.
This brings me to an important point, that is the compensation paid to farmers in such cases. It must be accepted by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry and by Brussels that farmers suffer, irrespective of the compensation, a severe loss of income where there is an outbreak of TB. The Department pays compensation by way of reactor grant but that grant does not take into consideration the loss suffered by the farmer. The losses to which I refer included the loss of the sale value of the animal, cows sold after calving are worth very little; loss due to a lower milk supply when an animal has been removed from the herd and, most important, the extra fodder expense when farmers cannot sell their animals. If they cannot sell during a period when extra fodder is needed those circumstances should be taken into account. In  some years fodder is much more expensive than in others. Regardless of the fodder expense, the farmer cannot afford to allow his animals to die. He has to take on the burden of cost, irrespective of the circumstances. Those factors are not taken into account in determining the level of compensation. This is a serious matter that needs further investigation by the Department.
Those of us who represent rural constituents know farmers who never fully recover from the financial loss; in some cases it takes up to four or five years for a farmer to recover from the financial losss incurred as a result of an outbreak of TB.
I ask the Minister to undertake a study in co-operation with the banks and the ACC Bank to establish the true nature of the loss incurred following TB outbreaks. Such a study would require the consent of farmers and would involve taking into account private and confidential financial matters. Nevertheless such a study should be undertaken by the Department. I can say without fear of contradiction that farmers are not adequately compensated in cases of TB outbreaks. In some cases they have to sell land to meet their borrowing requirements or their interest payments and they have to bear the enormous cost of providing fodder for stock which should have been sold.
I hope the Minister will take up my proposal. Such a study, if undertaken, should be comprehensive and should examine the entire financial position prior to the problem occurring and the financial deterioration following the outbreak of the disease, the loss of income, the cost of replacing stock and, more importantly, the mental hardship endured by those on family farms. I hope progress will be made in this area. Where farmers cannot sell their stock due to an outbreak of TB we must ensure they are adequately compensated and that the family farm remains viable.
The issue of ear tags is an ongoing  problem. Everyone is aware there is an ongoing problem with correct reading of ear tags with consequential delays in payments of beef premiums and suckler grants to farmers. Farmers are not at fault in this regard but in adhering rigidly to departmental regulations they can find themselves suffering loss of income because they cannot read the ear tags.
It is easy for a farmer to make an error reading an ear tag when it is worn. In this age of technology development I do not understand why we cannot manufacture ear tags which cannot be removed and which could be read electronically. I speak on this issue at an opportune time because the Department is currently deciding whether the new ear tags will be plastic or metal. That decision will have a major impact on farmers and I hope the Department makes the correct decision. I favour plastic ear tags but further research should be carried out on how to make the ear tags easier to be read. That would eliminate the possibility of error when completing grant applications. That has the effect not only of wasting money and delaying payments to farmers but it costs a great deal in terms of administration.
Farmers have long singled out the badger as the cause of the spread of TB. In a former constituency of mine, Hollyford, County Tipperary, farmers held a public meeting to highlight the fact that their herds had been frequently locked up as a result of TB outbreaks. Hollyford is located in a wooded area in which there is a large number of badgers. Despite all the efforts of farmers to get their message across, the Department did not accept it. I am delighted that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry, Deputy Yates, has promised further research into this area.
When speaking about the farming community it is important to say that the majority of farmers are honest and conscientious. Their prime objective is to comply with scheme regulations but they suffer because of a few careless individuals who break the law. It is soul  destroying to see honest farmers being subjected to unnecessary, rigorous testing because of some individuals who are not making any effort to comply with the regulations.
I welcome the Minister's decision announced yesterday on the new approach to disease eradication. This was described earlier in the debate as a war but I do not look upon it in that light. It is an issue on which many differing views are held by the IVU, the farming organisations and the Minister. Nevertheless the Minister has come up with a worthwhile solution which I hope will ultimately solve the TB eradication problem.
I congratulate the IFA on its responsible approach to the new regulations on testing. It gave priority to the implementation of a more successful TB eradication scheme because it realised the expenditure being put into TB eradication was not achieving the required results. Under the new arrangements, taxpayers will not be saddled with the expense of paying for the herd test; the initial test will be paid for by the farmer. This arrangement is welcome because it will bring about a reduction of 65 per cent in farm levies. The annual contribution, therefore, will reduce from £28 to £10 million.
I welcome the abolition of the compulsory pre-movement test which cost the Exchequer £3.5 million. Farmers must now decide whether they wish to continue with pre-movement tests. If they are determined to eliminate TB from their herds, they should continue pre-movement or post-buying testing which restricts the spread of TB.
We have a poor record in eradicating bovine TB. Everyone welcomed the establishment of the ERAD programme which we hoped would provide the answer to this problem. Unfortunately, it was not successful. In addition to looking to the future for our solutions we should consider what has been lost in our approach to TB eradication. We failed to collect new funding of £10 million over three years agreed in 1991 in addition to funding of £20 million per  year since 1993. That is an enormous financial loss to this country and to the scheme.
We have nothing to be proud of when we consider the signals we sent to the EU in not complying with its regulations. In failing to do that we not only lost a great deal of funding but we sent a signal to Europe that we were unwilling to implement an agreed programme aimed at combating TB. We failed also to relieve the burden on farmers and taxpayers who would not have been obliged to contribute the same amount if we had provided a satisfactory scheme under the regulations laid down by the EU. We should be ashamed of ourselves for allowing that to happen.
The new scheme proposed by the Minister will not be successful unless we have the agreement of farmers and veterinary surgeons. I am glad the IVU did not rush the issue by making a statement on the proposal and, hopefully, it will delay making any comment until such time as it has a meeting on the issue. The fact that the farming organisations welcome the Minister's proposal is a step forward because, up to now, the cost of eradicating TB was not borne equitably by all farmers. In fact, it was borne mainly by milk suppliers, those who produce finished cattle and producers of cattle for the live export trade. I am happy that under the new regime all farmers will pay a more equitable share of the cost.
Irrespective of our lack of success with this scheme it must be pursued to a satisfactory outcome. Not only does the livelihood of farmers depend on its success but the importance of the export of livestock and livestock products to our economy and employment prospects overall cannot be under-estimated. We shall be unable to maintain our present levels of livestock exports unless we can guarantee good animal health.
Mr. M. Ahern: All Members representing agricultural constituencies and communities understand the enormous problems experienced by farmers and others in the agricultural industry occasioned by the incidence of TB in herds over many years. Since the 1950s when the first TB eradication scheme was initiated, there have been numerous attemps to bring the disease under control but, as many others have said, they were unsuccessful.
The reasons for its lack of success are many and varied and one must be careful in attempting to apportion blame. First, there is the threat from other animals, from wildlife. Others tend to blame cattle dealers who have been shifting cattle around the country as though they were engaging in a game of tiddleywinks. Another factor has been insufficient controls on the movement of diseased cattle. There have been suggestions that the veterinary profession has been abusing its position for financial gain, yet nobody has been able to pinpoint which factor has been most responsible for its lack of success.
The Government and Department must ensure that a system is devised to eradicate TB once and for all. We know that at one stage the incidence of the disease in Northern Ireland had been considerably reduced whereas in the South it remained higher, despite farmers being divided by an imaginary line only. I have had experience in my family and farming friends of the trauma and financial loss wrought on families consequent on an outbreak of TB in their herds, sometimes having to cope with the emotional problem of having their whole herd wiped out in addition to not receiving compensation for that loss, whereas those same farmers would be fully compensated for an animal with mad cow disease.
Reading reports of mad cow disease in different parts of the country I often wonder whether some farmers are not introducing animals with mad cow disease into their herds as a guarantee of compensation in the event of their herds  being wiped out as a result of an outbreak of TB or brucellosis. If that is a fact it would need to be thoroughly investigated, always remembering that ultimately it is the taxpayer who must foot the bill. We should not tolerate any such sleight of hand or covert practice.
Since the Minister assumed office there has been a continuous battle between him and the veterinary profession, with an implication of collusion between vets and farmers, to the effect that vets had not been complying with the requisite standards of professional conduct, not certifying individual doubtful animals but giving them a clean bill of health. While I have had many contacts with farmers and vets over many years. I have never seen any evidence of such malpractice.
I notice the Minister has had to roll back somewhat from his former strong stance, which is to be welcomed, because confrontation is not the best approach to solving that problem. Rather it must be approached in a cooperative manner on the part of all concerned, the farmer organisations, the Irish Veterinary Union, the Department, politicians and others all working together. We have had examples of many other recent problems in this country having been resolved through a partnership approach, initiated in 1987, which should be applied in this area also.
The funds expended on the eradication of TB have been raised continuously in reports of the Committee of Public Accounts which, compared with that expended by other countries, appear outrageous, to the extent that in future my hope would be we shall have less need to allocate such amounts to this scheme. It is crucial that TB be controlled, reduced and, if possible, eliminated to which purpose it is incumbent on the Government, Department and Minister to approach the problem in a more conciliatory manner in order to reach a successful conclusion.
Mr. Browne: (Carlow-Kilkenny): I welcome the changes in the programme  of TB eradication. Although the Bill does not deal specifically with this plan, we all want to discuss it. Over £1 billion has been spent on TB eradication in the past 40 years but many people believe we have made no progress. The question is how we are to measure progress. Should we have got rid of TB by now and is that possible? Some people say we are not trying to eliminate TB but to contain it. I wonder what degree of success we have achieved. The waste of taxpayers' money while making no headway is talked about at all levels.
A quotation from a history book I had in primary school runs “The farmers of Ireland began to feel courage and hope when Michael Davitt founded the Land League”. I am sure the farmers of Ireland will feel courage and hope now that the Minister, Deputy Yates, has reduced the fees by 65 per cent. It will be a major break for farmers to get that kind of reduction in the amount they have to pay; it will also encourage them to pay.
I am not a farmer but I grew up on a farm and meet farmers regularly, so I have a fair idea of what they worry about. Locked up herds have become a problem for farmers. It is a major disaster if cattle are locked up in the autumn when they are due to be sold and there is not much feeding stock left for the winter. The cost of providing feed when they have to buy it is clearly a problem with which most farmers cannot deal. One farmer got abuse from his bank manager because the latter felt he could not afford the repayments to pay for the extra feed, although he would be able to sell the cattle after the winter when they were cleared. Locking up herds causes untold hardship. It deprives farmers of their money and results in extra hardship depending on the time of year. If the herd is locked up in spring the farmer does not have to worry about extra feed, but with winter approaching it is a heavy burden. I am glad that under this scheme the restrictions will be eased in cases where no lesions are found in a single reactor that is killed at the factory.
 The benefit of locking up herds is doubtful if, having been held over for a number of months for two tests, the cattle are cleared. What is gained? One farmer told me it was crazy that his cattle had to be locked up and he had to suffer all the trauma and expense of looking after the herd even when, on testing, it was discovered to be free of TB. Herds cannot be sold if they are carrying TB but is the overall advantage in locking up herds worth the cost, and what does it prevent in the long run?
The question of compensation arose in the context of the Minister's plans. Farmers who will benefit from the elimination of the 60-day pre-movement test will be encouraged to have their own tests carried out because there will be extra compensation. Nothing would be of greater help in getting rid of TB than the elimination of animals with TB, and farmers should get full compensation — by that I mean the market rate — for an animal that goes down with TB except, perhaps, in the case of a cow where milk production would be lost. We should not expect farmers to send animals away at a loss to themselves. If they did not incur loss they would be less worried about an animal failing the test. I can never understand why the farmers' organisations did not make more of a fuss about the lack of full compensation. It would have eased the burden on farmers and encouraged vets not to give the benefit of the doubt.
There are to be further studies on the influence of wildlife. In this context this means an extension of the study being done in east Offaly. It is time we had some scientific information on the role of the badger. Some studies point to the fact that the badger carries the TB germ. Others argue vehemently that this does not happen. We have made sufficient advances in science and have enough qualified people to do research and find out once and for all if badgers are as serious a threat to livestock as we think. If it is found that badgers are guilty in one part of the country but innocent in another, the innocent must be allowed to survive. However, if we  are spending a fortune trying to get rid of TB in cattle and the badger can be shown to be one of the main causes, we must take action. That will lead to objections, but we cannot put down cattle and at the same time not put down another animal that may have caused the disease and, in fairness to the badger, we should put him to bed or put him to sleep.
A farmer I spoke to today told me that the elimination of the 60-day pre-movement test would be of great benefit to farmers, even if nothing else were done. Farmers who want to sell cattle are now free to do so without the restriction of the 60-day test. This will have to be monitored, however. It would never do if cattle were moving so fast that they were never tested. The farmer to whom I spoke today was overjoyed at being a free agent once more; it is not easy for a farmer who knows his business, who know his grass production, his fodder, to be told by somebody else that he cannot sell his cattle at a particular time. It is important for the farmer to sell when he wants to sell, and encouragement is more important than penalties. The promise of increased compensation will encourage farmers to have pre and post-movement tests carried out. This is very important as the vast majority of farmers want to co-operate and ensure that TB is eradicated; it is in their own interests to ensure that their herds are TB free. I believe farmers will welcome the elimination of the 60 day pre-movement test. However, it is important to ensure that cattle are tested annually.
It is stated in one of the documents that the scheme will be more focused and targeted with a higher level of testing by departmental and contract vets in problem areas. In addition, a more scientific approach will be adopted in trying to identify infection and greater efforts will be made to identify its sources. It is important in the era of advanced technology that every effort is made to pinpoint the source of the infection and to ascertain why TB is still  a problem in spite of all the measures taken.
It is proposed to establish a quality control unit to oversee the effectiveness of the scheme. As in any production line, it is important to establish a co-ordinating body which will assure people that the scheme is working and study the reasons for the high level of TB in certain areas and a low level in others. The improvement in the feedback given to farmers is important. It is difficult for farmers to watch testing being carried out and then have to wait for the results. This pressure cannot be eliminated regardless of what scheme is introduced but farmers would have a greater guarantee that the test will be negative if more research is carried out on the causes. It is obvious that not enough research has been carried out in this area. Spending money is one way of dealing with the problem but spending it wisely is another. I have attended meetings at which experts give advice to people who are worried that the wrong injection may be given, etc. It should be possible at this stage to ensure that only the right type of injection is given.
When I met vets in the past few months they were not happy with the scheme. However, they were serious about the eradication of TB and I am glad they have decided to await a further study on the issue. Under the previous scheme they were offered an increase of 23 per cent but turned it down because of the problems about rotation. I hope they will agree to the new scheme. If the Department, the Minister, the vets and farmers are happy with the scheme then it will work. Given our membership of the EU, it is important to eradicate TB. This is particularly important from the point of view of farmers as the more difficulties they have the more expense they incur.
I hope the scheme will prove successful. I congratulate the Minister on trying to deal with this problem, it is time there was an effort to break the ongoing cycle of TB and I hope the new scheme will enable us to achieve this.
Mr. N. Treacy: Tá mé lán sásta an deis seo a bheith agam le chúpla focal a rá faoin mBille. Táim ag súil go gcuirfidh an chlár nua atá leagtha amach ag an Aire snas ar an scéim uafásach seo a raibh an-chostasach ar feadh na blianta.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I listened with great interest to the Minister's contribution and I compliment my colleagues who spoke so eloquently about the problem. As a lay person, I am baffled at how it was possible to eradicate TB in humans during the 1950s when times were difficult but it has not been possible to eradicate it in animals after 41 years. This shows there is something wrong somewhere, that there is a lack of co-ordination and co-operation. As Deputy Michael Ahern said, there must be full co-operation if the programme is to be successful and if we are to be in a position to assure the international markets, which are so vital to the export industry, that we have a disease free national livestock herd.
I do not accept that the real cost of the scheme is in excess of £1 billion. I know from my 13 years in public life and my 13 years as a livestock auctioneer — I worked for ten marts in counties Galway, Mayo and Clare during that time — that the Department not only includes the costs of the scheme to the Exchequer but also the salaries of the officials who work on a permanent and part-time basis in its administration. Given that these full time civil servants who have permanent and pensionable posts can be promoted or transferred to other divisions or Departments, their salaries should not be included in the total cost of this scheme to the Exchequer. There are problems with the scheme. I welcome the reduction in levies announced by the Minister but there has been a serious reduction in export refunds at the same time. The Minister's timing is shrewd, he was fully aware of the decisions by the European Commission to reduce the export refunds and now he has reduced the levies. It is a balancing act of the political connotations of these decisions.
 The Minister proposes in his new programme the continuation of orderly annual testing of the national herds and other testing designed to meet our obligations under European Union rules to maintain our trading status. To eliminate bovine TB a single annual test with a uniform tuberculin is needed for every herd, carried out townland by townland, so that we can have the same responses to the same standard serum which is being injected into the livestock animals. Until there is standardisation I do not think we will have a resolution of the problem. Different tuberculins are used and a great deal of money has been spent in the past but animals will react in different ways to different tuberculins and we cannot be sure what the reaction, is until such time as there is standardisation.
The veterinary pharmaceutical industry has potential for massive job creation. The Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry has not made a major input in ensuring that jobs in that industry come on stream. We have been importing millions of pounds worth of veterinary pharmaceuticals every year and it has taken the ingenuity of brilliant vets to research and produce veterinary pharmaceuticals that are successfully sold in 60 countries. If they were part of a consultation team it would help to ensure we have a standardised tuberculin suitable for the atmospheric conditions and livestock in this country. With proper co-ordinated research there would be conclusive evidence of the reasons for the residue of bovine TB and we could then find out whether it would be possible to eliminate it. If 99.9 per cent of the national herd is disease free there is only 0.1 per cent residue. When account is taken of the huge increase in livestock numbers vis-à-vis the value of the livestock industry to this country and the money the Exchequer has spent on the eradication of bovine TB, people would have to agree we have got reasonably good value for money. It is worthwhile, it is vital for the protection of both human  and animal life and to maintain our position in vital markets.
There is no reason that we as an island nation cannot isolate the factors of bovine TB that baffle the Department, confuse the farmers and curtail the mobility of livestock in the country. I welcome the Minister's decision to abolish the pre-movement test.
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