Wednesday, 7 July 1999
Seanad Éireann Debate
Minister for Agriculture and Food (Mr. Joe Walsh): This section provides that a census may be carried out to confirm the location, category and ownership of animals in the State. In addition, it sets out the parameters of the information to be provided. The question may be asked why it is necessary to conduct a census when a computerised database is being established which will record all the details on animals' identification and movements. The database is as good as the information which is supplied to it and if any party fails to notify details of movements then they will not be recorded. A census would provide a comprehensive and independent check of the data held on the database and would help to identify any gap in the information being provided. It could also act as a benchmark against  which information being entered onto the database could be checked.
Mr. Connor: Will this be a total census of all animals? The section says that the Minister may conduct a census. Will it be conducted by officials of his Department? As the Minister knows, the Central Statistics Office or another Government agency conducts an annual census of animals based on a sampling rather than an actual head count. Will this be a head count in the same way as the census of population which takes place every five years? How frequently will the census be held?
Mr. Joe Walsh: No consideration has been given to the frequency of the census. I assume that once precise numbers of cattle in the country are available, along with the improved electronic computerised movement system we have now, it will be quite infrequent – possibly every ten years or so.
Mr. Caffrey: Section 23 deals with the powers of authorised officers and the Garda Síochána. It does not state, however, on what basis a member of the Garda Síochána or an authorised officer would make an assumption that premises should be entered by force or otherwise.
Mr. Joe Walsh: Section 23 sets out the powers of authorised officers and the Garda Síochána under the Act. Section 23(1) provides that authorised officers and the Garda Síochána may enter, search, inspect, copy and remove any records found in any holding, premises, vehicle, vessel, aircraft or container that relates to the production or processing of animals, carcases, meat or feedstuffs for the purposes of this Act. Section 23(2) provides that the persons in charge of holdings, premises, vehicles, vessels, or containers shall produce records and provide information as requested by authorised officers and the Garda Síochána. Section 23(3) provides that a warrant from a District Court is necessary to enter a private dwellinghouse without consent. Section 23(4) sets out the grounds under which a warrant may be granted in the District Court. Section 23(6) provides for the seizure, detention and removal of animals, carcases, meat and feedingstuffs which are found in a holding, premises,  vehicle, vessel or container, which are in contravention of the Act or unfit for human consumption. Section 23(7) details the procedures to be followed in respect of animals seized under section 23(6) and the grounds on which animals may be disposed of or destroyed. Section 23(8) provides for the recovery of the cost of disposing of the animals.
These are standard powers which are considered necessary for authorised officers and the Garda Síochána to implement the provisions of the Act. The circumstances under which authorised officers or gardaí would enter premises would be where they have grounds for suspicion of contravention of the Act. This is a standard practice under various Acts.
Mr. Connor: These are fairly radical proposals. I do not know if authorised officers of the Department of Agriculture and Food have such powers under other legislation. This also involves the Garda Síochána. Although the Minister is giving us that assurance, I would like it to be put on the record that these powers would only be used in exceptional circumstances. Their insensitive use could lead to rather unpleasant incidents. These matters would be noticed by the farming community and it could lead to difficulties regarding co-operation between the farming community, authorised officers of the Department and the Garda Síochána. To what extent are these powers new? Did powers akin to these exist under any previous legislation or regulations?
Mr. Callanan: One welcomes the support of the farming organisations for this legislation. There was a time when farming organisations might have said the same as Senator Connor. Farmers generally want that scene to be tidied up. If people are in serious breach of the regulations, farming organisations have no problem in supporting these powers to ensure the provision of good, clean food.
Mr. Joe Walsh: Where the Garda Síochána or authorised officers have grounds for suspicion or prima facie evidence that there have been contraventions of the Act, they will obtain a warrant from the District Court and will have power to search and investigate the circumstances. Those powers are already in fairly extensive use under the Animal Remedies Act and the Abattoirs Act. They will be rigorously implemented. We have an important food industry and the small percentage of cowboys and others who flout the regulations and bring the industry into disrepute must be rooted out. Only in circumstances where there is a gross violation of the rules would a warrant be obtained. I intend to ensure that we have a credible food industry and that there is no place in it for people who deliberately adulterate food in any way, or who contravene the animal disease or animal feed regulations.
 The scourge of a small percentage of BSE, or mad cow disease, cases affects our markets worldwide. It also affects confidence in beef at home, yet we still find people who are prepared to add and recycle banned substances. No responsible person could stand over that. It is my intention to ensure the provisions of the section are upheld.
The Minister referred on several occasions to the Animal Remedies Act. It contains a forfeiture provision. Given that this legislation seeks to ensure the product reaches the highest standard necessary, perhaps the Minister would consider this amendment because it may give him a similar power of forfeiture and strengthen his hand.
Mr. Joe Walsh: I am glad we have reached this amendment. I have a great deal of sympathy with the proposal. The Minister will have powers of seizure, detention, destruction and disposal of animals. It may not be necessary to include such a provision. I will have the proposal examined by the parliamentary draftsman and the Attorney General's office in case there is a provision in any other Act which would cut across it and with a view to introducing an amendment on Report Stage to strengthen the Bill and to reflect the intention of this amendment.
The amendment seeks to ensure indictable offences should be created only by statute. Under  the terms of the legislation, indictable offences carrying a penalty of up to five years imprisonment are created simply by regulation. We do not believe this is a good principle to enshrine in legislation. Increasingly, the various agencies and individuals charged with considerable responsibility to implement legislation indicate that we are over-reliant on regulations and statutory instruments. For example, only in the last few weeks the Ombudsman has drawn attention to the absence of accountability generated by the preponderance of regulations and an over-reliance on regulations. I heard reference to this long before I became a Member of this House. In this regard, section 25 provides for a use of regulation in a very important way. A breach of regulation should, on indictment, not involve more than one year's imprisonment, whereas a breach of the Act should involve a greater penalty. This is a very important amendment in that respect.
Amendment No. 8 attempts to introduce balance in that it provides that it is not an offence to contravene the regulations under section 32. The amendment provides that a person who fails to comply with a provision under section 32(1) will be guilty of a summary offence. The amendments are proposed in a constructive attempt to improve the Bill.
Mr. Joe Walsh: With regard to amendment No. 6, the enabling provisions will dictate this legislation. To exclude the possibility of prosecution or indictment under them would substantially reduce the effect of the scheme because of the seriousness of the matter.
The regulatory powers of the Minster are described in great detail in the legislation. They provide a clear and specific framework for the making of regulations and include sufficient checks and balances against unwarranted and unnecessary ministerial regulations. It would be inappropriate to include a greater level of detail and procedural description in primary legislation.
I have checked the matter with the parliamentary draftsman and the Attorney General's office. However, I will ask the experts in that office to have another look at these provisions, although they were categorical in expressing their satisfaction that the current text is appropriate, correctly drafted and constitutionally correct. In view of this, I am unable to accept the amendment. NEW SECTION.
Ms O'Meara: I move amendment No. 7:
In page 19, before section 27, to insert the following new section:
“27.–(1) The jurisdiction conferred on the Circuit Court by this Act shall be exercised by the judge for the time being assigned to the circuit where the participant concerned resides or carries on business.
(2) The jurisdiction conferred on the District Court by this Act shall be exercised by the Judge for the time being assigned to the District Court area where the participant concerned resides or carries on business.”.
This is a technical amendment with regard to the jurisdiction of courts. The amendment is necessary to clarify how the jurisdiction of the courts would precisely be exercised under the legislation.
Mr. Joe Walsh: I have a great sympathy with this amendment. It involves the inclusion of a new section which provides for the taking of proceedings against participants only in the area in which they reside or carry on the business. If somebody in Ballyhaunis has a problem, it would not make sense to have it resolved in Malin Head.
The proposal would not appear to pose any great difficulty but, again, I would need to examine it further in association with the Attorney General's office and check if it runs counter to any general courts legislation. If it is considered appropriate, it can be reintroduced on Report Stage. It is a good proposal. I welcome any amendment which improves the legislation.
Ms O'Meara: In view of the Minister's remarks I withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 27 agreed to.
Question proposed: “That section 28 stand part of the Bill.”
Mr. Connor: Section 28 deals with the Minister's powers to appoint authorised officers. Who will be an authorised officer? I take it every employee in his Department will not be eligible for appointment. Am I correct in assuming these provisions refer to more senior officials, such as those at the rank of executive officer or higher executive officer? Given that the work they may have to undertake with regard to searches and so on is very sensitive, it is important that people of suitable seniority with appropriate levels of responsibility are appointed authorised officers, certainly for the purposes of carrying out some of the more difficult tasks required under the legislation.
Mr. R. Kiely: The Senator may qualify after he loses the next election.
Mr. Joe Walsh: Experienced inspectors, drawn from the veterinary inspectorate, and senior agricultural officers will be involved because it will be an onerous task which will carry considerable responsibility. Senior staff in the Department will be given authorisation.
Question put and agreed to.
Sections 29 to 31, inclusive, agreed to.
Amendment No. 8 not moved.
Question proposed: “That section 32 stand part of the Bill.”
Mr. Connor: The section states: “The Minister may make regulations on any or all of the following matters: (a) management and supervision of holdings and premises; (b) the construction and maintenance of premises, equipment, etc..” I take it that the regulations refer to abattoirs and premises where food or feeding stuffs are manufactured or kept. Nevertheless, they are open ended. Could hygiene regulations be laid down which would relate to farm buildings which house cattle during the winter, for example, or the numbers of animals kept in winter housing? The section does not rule that out and perhaps it might not be bad if this were to happen. Is it possible to deal not just with abattoirs and meat plants, but with ordinary farm buildings which house animals? Another issue is the manner in which animals are fed because they are often given spoiled fodder. Could regulations be laid down to cover that?
Mr. Joe Walsh: The section provides for making regulations covering a range of issues, including the management and supervision of premises, such as abattoirs, meat plants and other food production facilities. The purpose of these regulations is to close any gaps in existing legislation regarding the matters which have been mentioned; to implement good manufacturing practice in those premises and to make sure that the documentation and operational procedures are correct and, if they are not, that they will be put in place. The procedures involved, such as the Q mark and various other comprehensive systems, are adhered to by relatively small companies. Virtually every supermarket and retail outlet insists on having those quality marks anyway and this legislation will underpin that. It is almost impossible for people to stay in business if they do not routinely ensure that food is properly presented and cared for in the food chain so that any source of contamination is excluded.
Mr. Connor: I thank the Minister for his explanation. Is it true that holdings and premises on farms where animals are reared, kept or fed do not fall within the ambit of this section?
Mr. Joe Walsh: That is correct. The premises referred to are abattoirs and meat plants.
Question put and agreed to.
Sections 33 to 36, inclusive, agreed to.
First, Second and Third Schedules agreed to.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported without amendment.
An Cathaoirleach: When is it proposed to take Report Stage?
Mr. T. Fitzgerald: On the first sitting day of the new session.
An Cathaoirleach: Is that agreed? Agreed. When is it proposed to sit again?
Mr. T. Fitzgerald: Just before I reply, I thank you, a Chathaoirligh, for the way you have handled the business of the House in both easy and difficult times. I thank Opposition Members, who have been most helpful and co-operative. I also thank the Minister and his staff for getting through the business expeditiously. I hope that when the Minister goes to Europe he will tell the people there about the famous Upper House in Ireland and how it deals with legislation. I wish everyone a happy holiday. The House will adjourn sine die.
An Cathaoirleach: Is that agreed? Agreed.
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