Bovine Diseases (Levies) Regulations, 1987: Motion.

Friday, 3 April 1987

Seanad Eireann Debate
Vol. 115 No. 15

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Mr. Lanigan: Information on Mick Lanigan  Zoom on Mick Lanigan  I move:

That Seanad Éireann approves the following Regulations in draft:

Bovine Diseases (Levies) Regulations, 1987

copies of which were laid in draft before the Seanad on 1 April 1987.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Patrick J. Reynolds  Zoom on Patrick J. Reynolds  I welcome the Minister of State on his first visit to the Seanad. I congratulate him on his appointment and wish him the best of luck.

Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food (Mr. Kirk): Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  The proposed regulations are being made under the Bovine Diseases (Levies) Act, 1979, which is designed to secure a financial contribution from the farming sector towards the cost of the bovine TB and brucellosis eradication schemes. The need to adjust the rates arises from the Government's decision to increase the funding for the schemes to £30 million in 1987 and to require farmers to contribute more fully to the cost of the schemes.

The Government's approach to disease eradication in 1987 is to restore the impetus to the bovine TB eradication scheme which was lost following cutbacks in funding in 1986 and to continue the drive towards final eradication of brucellosis. Arrangements have been made to begin a new testing programme on 21 April which will consist of a monitor of the national herd coupled with special testing programmes in badly affected areas.

The new rates from 20 April will be 1.1 pence per gallon of milk processed and £6.50 per bovine animal slaughtered or exported live. The expected yield from [2213] the levies this year is £19.4 million, i.e., the same as provided for by the previous Government. The unavoidable delay in introducing the new rates of levy means that somewhat higher rates than originally envisaged will have to apply.

On the question of how the levies are used, I want to make it clear that the levies go to finance the running costs of the schemes, the two biggest items being the fees paid to the veterinary practitioners for testing, and reactor and depopulation grants to farmers. Expenditure on these two items alone is expected to come to about £24 million in 1987, a figure well in excess of the anticipated revenue of £19.4 million from the levies. Taking into account other running costs for supplies, equipment, travelling etc., the Exchequer's contribution to the schemes in 1987, apart from administration, comes to £10.6 million. This is a significant amount especially in the current difficult budgetary situation.

As regards expenditure on administration, it should be understood that the published figures represent the cost of the entire range of veterinary activities of the Department of Agriculture which, in addition to TB and brucellosis, covers controls at ports, implementation of legislation on growth promoters, the service provided by the veterinary research laboratories, animal welfare, and regulating other diseases such as sheep scab, leptospirosis, warble fly, etc. There is, of course, no question of disease levies being increased to cover any extra cost of administration. When all relevant costs are taken into account, it is estimated that the projected income from the levies covers about 50 per cent of overall expenditure. Having regard to the severe financial constraints facing the Government, and the benefits of the schemes to farmers, I do not believe that the contribution being asked of the farming community is excessive.

Mr. Ferris: Information on Michael Ferris  Zoom on Michael Ferris  I welcome the new Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and I wish him well in his new assignment. I have no doubt that with the reputation he has brought with him to the [2214] House he will apply himself to this area with dedication. I hope he will be successful.

I have had an interest in this scheme from the very first day a pilot scheme for the eradication of bovine tuberculosis and later brucellosis was initiated in my native village of Bansha by Fr. Hayes under the old voluntary eradication scheme. So, since 1954 I have had an interest in the efficient operation of this scheme. I served for many years on the Animal Health Council who advised the Minister and previous Ministers in four different Governments on how to apply themselves to these major scourges, tuberculosis and brucellosis, both of which are compulsory eradication diseases on which the State has invested a considerable amount of money in the past. Thankfully, through the dedication of the staff in the Department and the veterinary profession and the facilities at the laboratories for testing blood we have come to grips with brucellosis. We have achieved the status of OBF which we have been trying to achieve for years.

That is a welcome development and shows that the investment of the State in the past has been justified. Even if the animals belong to the farmers, there is no doubt in my mind that the State has a responsibility to protect and certify the disease status of our national herd. Under EC regulations only the Department of Agriculture have the responsibility of certifying the national herd as brucellosis or tuberculosis free. That must be done if we are to achieve free access to the markets both inside and outside the Community for our cattle when we export them. For that reason and as a member of the outgoing Animal Health Council representing the general Council of Agricultural Committees I welcome any move that can be made to step up the programme of testing.

I want to assure the Minister that I consider additional funding necessary. Unfortunately, a three year programme designed by the council to test the national herd — owing to the economic climate which curtailed the input of the [2215] previous Government — had to be curtailed in the year just completed and as a result some damage has been done to the programme. The value of our documentation and our research into the progress or otherwise we had been making has been disturbed in such a way that it could take us two further years with additional funding to return to where we were before the restrictions on financing came in. In the last budgeting year I was involved in, in applying funds to the scheme we were short about £4.5 million of national input to bring the total cost of programme testing to about £32 million. Therefore the sum outlined by the Minister for Finance in his Budget Statement of £12.7 million to be raised from farmers by way of levies will more than adequately fund the programme in the way I would consider it necessary for it to be carried out. In saying that the Animal Health Council were of the opinion that farmers were prepared to make funding available provided they would have an input with the experts in the Department into how the scheme would be desinged in the future. As a result of this increased funding from the farming community they probably will require more of an input with the Department into how they should progress. Being responsible for providing additional funding, farmers will probably be now more aware of the total cost to themselves of the scheme and the total cost to the National Exchequer to date of the scheme...

If there is an awareness on all sides of the importance of trying to eradicate tuberculosis in our national herd and now that farmers will be putting in a major contribution by way of levies, an air of urgency will attach to this scheme. I hope the Minister will have the goodwill of the farming community in trying to achieve an inspection of the national herd which begins next month. I wish the Minister luck and I hope sincerely in all our interests that this inspection and the testing that will arise from it will be successful. There will be no future for our cattle trade unless we can achieve the standard required in Europe.

[2216] I have worked closely with the officials in the Minister's Department on the scheme and as the old council have ended their term of office I want to take this opportunity to thank each one of them individually, those who are here tonight and those who are not, for the efforts they made in trying to design a scheme that would rid our farming community of this scourge of tuberculosis which is an incubating disease and one that can easily be transmitted from animal to animal by lateral spread and carelessness. That is what makes the efficacy of the scheme all the more urgent. We cannot stop until we have come to grips with this national scourge of tuberculosis.

I hope the scheme will be successful and that the farming community will accept the Minister's reasons for increasing levies in the process. No one wants to see anybody paying more than their fair share towards anything, but in this case the Minister will find goodwill on the part of the farming community in regard to stepping up the programme of eradication of this deadly disease which has caused widespread hardship in the past to farmers. They have never made money out of the scheme. They have lost money and have had their herds either totally wiped out or reduced. It has been a most traumatic experience to try to come to grips with this disease. It is a pity the impetus in testing should be slowed down because the disease, without being checked, can continue to spread laterally and otherwise. I hope any money that is not being used in the testing programme will be devoted to epidemiology which is an integral part of any research into how this disease is spread from animal to animal or from wild animals in particular. That area should not be neglected in any future programme that the Department, and the Minister, are responsible for.

Mr. Hussey: Information on Thomas Hussey  Zoom on Thomas Hussey  I should like to congratulate the Minister of State on his appointment to the Department of Agriculture and hope his term of office will be very successful. I know he will have the interests of the farming community [2217] at heart and will do everything possible to promote their interests.

Unfortunately, one of the Minister's first duties this evening is to impose additional levies on the farming community. That is something we all regret but we realise that in the present economic climate it is absolutely necessary. This levy of 1.1p. per gallon of milk processed and £6.50 per bovine animal slaughtered or exported live is required in order to proceed with the bovine TB eradication scheme. We have been tinkering about with this scheme for 25 years or longer and it has cost the taxpayers millions of pounds. Unfortunately, we find that in certain parts of the country bovine TB is greater now than it was 25 years ago. I cannot understand why that should be the case or why we have not put more money into research to try to find out how TB has increased in our national herd. I understand that in every other European country bovine TB has been reduced radically and yet we seem to be having a constant struggle to contain the disease. I do not think that is right because after all the money that has been spent on it and our experience over the past 25 years we should have some knowledge of what spreads the disease which seems to be worse in some areas than others.

We heard last year of the high incidence of TB in parts of Longford and Westmeath. Have the Department of Agriculture who are monitoring the scheme found out the reason? We are told that badgers are the cause of spreading this disease in some areas. Has anything positive been found about the badger? There is a difference of opinion between certain veterinary surgeons as to whether the badger is a carrier of the disease but surely it should be possible to find out if this is so and if it is to do something about it. Our national herd is very important to the national economy. It is important that we should have a healthy herd; that we are able to compete on the European markets with other members of the EC and if we cannot come to grips with the problem of bovine TB we are going to get a bad name in [2218] Europe. For that reason I hope the Government will tackle this problem with determination.

I do not want to see tests being called off like they were last year because if that happens we will not be able to monitor the disease and pick out the cattle affected by it. Why are the laws that exist not being implemented? We still have tags being switched, dirty lorries being allowed to convey cattle to and from marts and reactors being left on farms for too long. Tanglers — I can call them nothing else — are being allowed to buy reactor cattle from farmers and transport them from one place to another before they finally reach a factory. That should not be allowed to happen under any circumstances. I would like to see the law tightened up and enforced because there is no reason why this should be allowed to happen if our national herd is so important to us. Why are farmers being allowed to sell cattle that have not been tested? That is known to happen. The Department of Agriculture officials should see that the law is obeyed to the letter. There is no point in spending £30 million per annum or £1,000 million of taxpayers' money over the last 25 years if we are not serious about getting rid of the disease.

Tonight we are asking farmers to contribute to this fund and I know they will willingly do so if they see that the Department, and all interested parties, are serious about getting rid of the disease once and for all. Every time this topic comes up here we hear of the same problems. We are getting no nearer to the day when we can say that our herd is free of TB. I would love to see that day and I know every farmer in Ireland would but it is a long way off yet. We all know of the hardships that are being created by small farmers who are unfortunate enough to be affected by this disease. They suffer a complete loss of income. The dairy farmer whose cows are affected by this disease is closed down for maybe a full 12 months. He is not compensated by the Department of Agriculture, or anybody else, for that loss of income. The same applies to the dry stock farmer. I hope compensation, better than what is [2219] available at present, will be made available to those people who suffer a loss of income because their herd is affected by tuberculosis or brucellosis. I wish the Minister luck in his efforts to eradicate this disease once and for all from our national herd but unless the Government show determination, and unless they enforce the laws they will not get rid of the disease and we will continue to have tinkering with it for the next 20 years. I hope we get the co-operation of the farming community, veterinary surgeons and the Department to eliminate this scourge from our national herd once and for all.

Mr. Lennon: Information on Joseph Lennon  Zoom on Joseph Lennon  I should like to congratulate the Minister on his appointment. Coming from Louth I have no doubt he will do a great job because he has experience in the farming field. There is little for me to say on this topic because Senators Ferris and Hussey have covered the ground very well. There are some things that I feel I should add my voice to. Having been involved for years with the Animal Health Council, along with Senator Ferris, and having been involved with some of the health committees in my own county of Louth, I am not quite sure if we are any nearer solving the problem today than we were some 10 or 15 years ago. That is the worrying thing about it.

The Government of the day have decided to a step further than the previous Government in as much as they have imposed a higher charge of £6.50 per animal, which Senator Hussey believes the farmers will gladly pay. I am inclined to disagree with him because if we take, for example, the profits on livestock, particularly cattle, this is a severe blow. One has to take into account that we must continue with testing and, as the Minister said tonight, there have been some slight hiccups over the past few years. I am not quite sure if we are getting to the root of the trouble. Coming back to the charge of £6.50 per animal, a man fattening 100 cattle in the summer of the year has the sizeable sum of £650 to pay [2220] in disease levies. That is a big sum of money today, no matter what way we look at it. If we take haulage and all the other charges involved in sending an animal to the factory, it is very often the best part of £20. I have some experience in that field and often there is not that sort of profit at the end of the day.

The worst feature of it is that we have tended down through the years to blame everybody. We have cowboy farmers and cowboy vets and we look around us for somebody to blame. The real truth is that we were never able to lay the blame fairly and squarely on anybody's shoulders. Senator Ferris will probably agree with me. Many a day we sat from early morning until midnight discussing this. I often wondered how we could manage to did, once a month, for years. At the end of the day I often wondered what we were all talking about. We were talking and that is all were doing. We were to nearer to solving the problem, although many experts came with possible solutions.

The disappointing and worrying part about it all for many people throughout the length and breadth of the country is that in some herds which people have watched and carefully managed down through the years, where they did not buy in animals and where there has never been an outbreak, this has happened over the past couple of years and we have not been given any acceptable explanation as to how or why this should have happened. Some people tell us that it comes from a badger and some others will tell you that the disease can live in old walls for 100 years. Senator Ferris will agree that those are the types of explanations we have heard in the past. With all the explanations and experts we have, we are no nearer solving the problem. This is what is worrying me.

I do not believe that this £6.50 charge will be accepted by farmers — certainly not the way Senator Hussey has put it — as a charge they should have to pay to get rid of disease. Most people accept that we are going backwards.

It is very hard to lay the blame fairly [2221] and squarely on the shoulders of any Government. All Governments have fallen down on this job in the last number of years. We have said from time to time that there are certain farmers who withhold some of their stock and do not present them all for testing. The reason for this in some cases, especially with young stock, is that the compensation was never adequate for young stock. I think the Minister will agree with me on that. There was always a feeling among farmers when presenting young stock that if they had reactors the compensation was the most miserable you could ever think about. I see Senator Ferris nodding his head in approval on that one. We know many farmers — I know them myself as chairman of my own committee at home in Louth — who took young stock to the factories and there is no doubt that they did not get suck calf prices for them. This might have been the reason down through the years that stock were being held back and not presented for testing.

It is not enough to say today that testing is going ahead again. A new look must be taken at this problem. The Minister will have to bring all farming leaders together, including the livestock producers, and discuss this whole problem with them.

We know that the vets from time to time give the impression that they are very concerned about the disease. Others will tell you that they are very concerned about the money they get out of it and many of them are certainly very rich. We can truly say that. The administration cost of £10 million in relation to this scheme is certainly a shocking amount of money. I believe there could be some cheeseparing there. The Minister should take a look at that. I hope it will not be a case of pouring money down the drain and making no progress. That cannot continue.

My main concern is this savage increase up to £6.50 per head. Haulage and many other expenses amount to the best part of £20 per animal and I do not think the farming community and the beef industry can stand up to that. I would [2222] appeal to the Minister to do something about this issue. It is coming near midnight and I do not want to labour it. The Minister's job does not finish tonight by getting this House to agree to this increase of £6.50. I believe there will be a severe backlash by the farming community unless they see that something positive is to be done at the end of the day. They will not continue to pay £6.50 per head if they feel they have co-operated in the past in trying to eradicate the disease but that somebody somewhere else is to blame for this disease being as rampant as it is today. In my opinion all the experts who have been dealing with this disease for so long have failed to get to grips with it. I suggest that perhaps we could have a new scheme over three years to deal with the problem. Our approach so far has failed and failed miserably. Some assurance will have to be given to the farmers if they are asked to pay £6.50, which as I quoted before is £650 for a man with 100 cattle. That is not a large number of cattle to fatten over the summer. That amount of money is quite considerable because at present there is not much profit in beef at the end of the day. I think the Minister knows that very well. As long as I am here and on the home front, I will continue to fight as hard as I can. The Minister has not heard the last of my voice in trying to get something more done than the Government telling people they are now financing a new scheme or, rather, than the farmers are paying for this scheme to continue.

Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food (Mr. Kirk): Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  I take this opportunity to thank those who have spoken for their kind words of encouragement. Indeed, the three Senators who contributed to the debate are people whom I know have a deep involvement with the agricultural industry in this country. They have contributed immensely to its development over the years on different committees and at different levels. I sincerely hope that that involvement and that contribution will continue for many years to come.

Disease control and the elimination of [2223] brucellosis and TB from our national herd is absolutely vital. The importance of our livestock exports to the overall well-being of the economy cannot be overstated. In this day freedom from disease is vital in respect of products we are selling to very discerning consumers. The health and the well-being of our national herd is vital to the future of the economy. We must give it priority. We must ensure that the necessary finance and organisation is made available to ensure that the ongoing programme of disease eradication is accelerated.

While from time to time commentators and critics of the disease eradication programme tended to see the less positive side of the story, the reality is that from the earlier years there has been a reduction from 17 per cent to 3 per cent of TB incidence in our national herd. Undoubtedly the last push, as it were, to eradicate the disease is always the most difficult one. Certainly that has been the experience in other countries. Some of the speakers referred particularly to the involvement of the badger in the spread of the disease. While various opinions have been expressed as to its involvement — obviously we must keep in mind that its movement around can be a factor in the spread of the disease — it would appear that the main cause is the lateral spread from bovine to bovine.

I do not think there has been any direct reference to one particular black spot in Ireland in County Longford but Members may be interested in the progress that has been made in disease eradication in that area. I understand that the number of infected herds has been reduced by 100 over the last four months to the present figure of 278. There is a continuing and ongoing intensive programme of testing in the area to ensure that the number of infected herds will be drastically and dramatically reduced in the immediate future. The results of the investigation into the badger's contribution to the spread of the disease has been very mixed. The net result is a slow but steady improvement. We know that Longford [2224] will be a number one priority for the coming year.

Members who have spoken referred to the present margin of profit in dry stock. As one who comes from a farming background, I am more than aware of the difficulties of farmers who are solely dependent on dry stock for a livelihood. We must realise it is vitally important that the necessary finance is provided to ensure that the ongoing programme of eradication is accelerated. The economic fact of life today is that unless the finance is available for these programmes the rate of progress will not be what it is. Over the next few years we will see a dramatic improvement in the disease levels. We will move rapidly towards the ultimate objective of the complete eradication of the diseases involved.

Senator Ferris referred to the importance of having farmer input in the area of disease eradication. I tell the House that next Tuesday the Minister for Agriculture and Food will meet a delegation from the IFA to discuss the future of the TB scheme. I am sure all the different aspects can be considered at that stage. At this hour of the night I think perhaps it is time we brought the discussion to a conclusion. Over the next year or two I hope we will move towards the objective of the complete eradication of TB and brucellosis in our national herd.

Question put and agreed to.

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