Adjournment Debate. - Livestock Shipping Facilities.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Ring.

I am sure that is satisfactory and agreed.

The decision by the ferry operators, Pandoro, to withdraw from transporting weanling cattle to Spain, Italy and France last week has caused consternation in the farming world. Particularly badly hit are farmers with weanlings for sale as export markets are vital to keep prices up. It is estimated that some weanling prices are reduced by as much as £50 per head and nobody knows what will happen if such exports are permanently disrupted. It is ironic that there are no shortage of customers in Spain and Italy for our best weanlings and unlike live cattle exports to the so-called Third World countries EU subsidies are not granted.

The live trade for weanlings is vital to our economy. Last year 33,000 weanlings and 71,000 calves were exported live. This year alone up to 14 days ago 19,000 weanlings and 59,000 calves were exported to Europe. The weanling business is just getting into full swing and it will be disastrous if a certain amount of the animals cannot be exported. Our weanlings are in much demand on the Continent and it makes good sense to keep those contacts open at a time when we have a record number of one million suckler cows. Failure to copperfasten this vital export trade will cause a glut here in a few years time when each animal could be devalued by as much as £150 per head.

There has been a concerted campaign by animal rights organisations to stop the live shipment of all UK animals and some of these groups hold extreme views on the matter. It is in everybody's interest — farmers, exporters and continental buyers — that cattle are exported in suitable conditions which would ensure their safe arrival in good condition. Continental buyers will not pay for anything less than the proper product and many of the continental buyers have great praise for well fed and well handled animals.

I was astounded to hear a spokesman for one of the animal rights associations say to the Minister on RTE last week he believed cattle should not be exported live from Ireland. When the question was put to him, who would pay farmers for their huge drop in income, he blissfully told the listeners that it was up to the Government and the EU to compensate farmers for this loss. It appears that many people are still living in Rip Van Winkle land.

I want the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry to understand that because of the all time record number of suckler cows in the West of Ireland it is vital to have good live outlet trade. The Minister has not performed well. That lone telephone call to the shipping magnate, Lord Stirling, was not enough. The Minister should have done much more, and he does not have to go on bended knees either. Ferry companies are here to make money; they ferry more than cattle. If the Minister was interested in this trade he would speak to Lord Stirling in person. Perhaps the reason the Minister is not there is because it is not far enough away. If it was Russia or China the Government jet would be available. Perhaps it was that the Government jet was not available. Many people are extremely worried about the Minister's handling of this matter and some of the comments he made earlier this year about the live cattle trade are coming back to haunt him. There are many whose incomes depend on this weanling trade and the Minister should do something about it immediately.

My constituents in the west are concerned because it is a very good trade there. I agree with Deputy Connaughton that the Government has washed its hands of this. I propose — and this is a serious proposal — that the Government buys a ferry of its own. I have had many telephone calls to my clinic expressing concern about this issue and the Government does not seem to be concerned about it. I hope the Minister has some very good answers and does more than make one telephone call. If necessary the Government should provide a ferry. Perhaps the Ministers could use it and they might not go so far or so fast out of the country.

I am acutely conscious of the problems posed by the withdrawal of Pandoro from the livestock shipping trade to the Continent. This decision was foreshadowed by the decisions of all the livestock transporters operating on the English Channel route between England and France to ban the carriage of livestock on their ferry routes because of pressure from animal welfare groups in the UK. Despite this the short notice eventually given of the decision by Pandoro to ban livestock from their Rosslare/France ferry was unacceptable in normal commercial operations.

The background in this matter is concern among animal welfare interests about the carriage of livestock over long distances. There is merit in the argument that unnecessary transport of animals does not make sense, but the realities are that it is not always possible for various reasons such as climate, land productivity, agricultural practices, etc., to reconcile the availability of animals with demand. Consequently, circumstances dictate that the animals must be brought to the location of demand. In this respect, Ireland is a case in point. We are, by virtue of our climate a major producer of cattle and sheep and, because our production systems are based almost entirely on grass, surpluses of animals arise at certain times for which markets must be found. We remain committed, of course, to supplying markets to the greatest possible extent with beef rather than live animals. Market circumstances — and the need for essential competition — require, that we be able to export live animals also. Therefore, we need acceptable shipping facilities from Ireland.

I emphasise the word "acceptable". We do not have a policy of selling at all cost without regard to the needs of the animal. Animal welfare is a major concern of Ireland, first because it is an objective necessity, second we cannot antagonise our customers by falling down on welfare and third it does not make sense to have animals arrive at a destination in anything but the best possible condition. We are conscious of our obligations in this respect and have on many occasions refused permission for consignments to unsuitable locations by unsuitable vessels. I assure the House that we apply the highest standards. All animals are inspected by a State veterinarian and a certificate of fitness to travel is issued. The ships on which the animals are transported must be approved in advance, with stringent regulations applied to ventilation, drainage, feeding and watering of the animals. Veterinary inspectors accompany selected consignments to their destination to monitor the well-being of the animals.

In addition the welfare requirements laid down by the European Union require the preparation of a route plan for long journeys and this is also strictly enforced. The EU is at present engaged in supplementing its welfare rules with detailed rules for stocking densities, feeding and watering intervals, rest periods, etc., and it is arising from this process that the suggestion of a maximum journey time for animals going for slaughter has emerged. The question of a maximum journey is something which cannot be considered in isolation. We are prepared to play our full part in reaching a consensus on revised rules but the rules must be reasonable and pragmatic and give our exporters the same opportunities and their counterparts in other member states to sell their product in the market while, of course, fully and above all else respecting animal welfare needs.

When the ban was extended by Pandoro to Ireland, I immediately contacted the chairman of the parent company, P & O Shipping, and pointed out that there was no justification for the action taken. However, he is the chairman of a private company in another jurisdiction and there is a limit to what can be done in regard to private companies in other countries.

The UK authorities are, of course, in the same position as ourselves and close contact is being maintained with them in an effort to find a solution. I am also in contact with the Irish exporters in the field to see what options are available and have arranged that the problem be highlighted at every opportunity in the appropriate fora operating in Brussels. In a word, everything possible has been done to deal with the situation and any accusations to the contrary are without foundation. Should those involved in the business come forward with alternative transport then, as long as they meet the required standards, they will be free to proceed. However, it is not realistic to expect the Government to make transport available as suggested. The provision of suitable transport is clearly a commercial and not a State responsibility.

I believe that a solution can be found in the supplementary welfare rules currently under consideration by the Agriculture Council. The Council will meet on 24 October, and I am confident that agreed rules will be adopted at that meeting. This should enable the ferry companies which have withdrawn to reconsider their position.

Having said that, some 85,000 cattle have been exported to the continent already this year, with a further 178,000 exported to third countries. This year 400,000 animals will leave Ireland for the live trade. Live exports will, over the whole year, probably exceed last year's very high levels. Prices remain good despite the ferry situation. This week's prices this year are higher than prices for the same week last year. We have invested significant public and private funds in processing facilities in this country. There are many jobs involved and we cannot afford as a country or as an industry to go back to a situation where we become principally livestock rather than beef exporters. That would not be in the interests of farmers. Nor would it be in the economic interests of the country. I reiterate that we will do all we can to solve the problem but it should be seen in perspective and we should avoid talking a problem up into a crisis.