Priority Questions. - Agri-Food Sector.

Charles Flanagan

Question:

29 Mr. Flanagan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the consequences for Irish trade, business and enterprise resulting from the current foot and mouth crisis; the steps she proposes to take to minimise loss, damage and adverse effects; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7013/01]

According to estimates made by Bord Bia, exports of agri-food products amounted to approximately £5.4 billion last year. Although figures for the full year are not yet available, it is expected that total exports of merchandise goods last year will have exceeded £60 billion. Exports in the period January to October 2000, the latest period for which figures are available, reached £59.3 billion, an increase of 25% on the same period in the previous year. The CSO initial estimate of exports in December is an additional £6.26 billion.

An outbreak of foot and mouth disease would affect primarily the agri-food industry and have knock-on effects in other sectors of the economy. It is estimated that each job in the agri-food industry supports up to four others. The food industry employs about 47,000 people in addition to the number of farmers. The best way to protect those jobs and all businesses which might be affected by an outbreak is to prevent this dreadful disease from entering Ireland. As the Deputy is aware, the Government is taking every possible step to do that. The implications of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the agri-food industry are a matter primarily for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development.

I register not only my disappointment, but my annoyance with this reply from the Minister of State. Do I detect correctly that he wishes to pass the buck on this matter to his colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development? We are facing a crisis throughout the entire economy. How many lay-offs have there been in the past ten days as a result of the foot and mouth scare? It amounts to negligence on the part of the Minister of State not to establish, in conjunction with his Government colleagues, an economic subcommittee of the Cabinet to deal with the consequences of the foot and mouth scare.

Hear, hear.

Severe hardship is being experienced throughout the economy, particularly in the tourism and transport industries.

The Deputy is making a statement, he must put a question.

The Minister of State is unaware of the consequences of the scare to date and he is not up to it. He stated in his reply that the matter for the most part is a problem for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development.

The Deputy should not misinterpret my reply. He clearly does not appreciate that there is a Government committee, headed by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, meetings of which have been attended by the Taoiseach. There is a representa tive of our Department on the committee, which has met on a daily basis. A major effort is being made by all Departments, including ours.

I do not have figures regarding the number of lay-offs but there is concern about the position in various sectors. A total of 47,000 people are employed in the food industry. The Government has adopted a major hands-on approach to the issue. Activities must be co-ordinated and that role is being undertaken by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development.

What is the nature of the diplomatic offensive undertaken by the Department abroad? We are in the third week of the crisis. When can we expect an accurate assessment of the economic impact of the emergency measures and the likely consequence to the economy of the continuation of the crisis given the incidence of the disease has not yet peaked in Britain?

There is an ongoing diplomatic effort by all our embassies. Many of us who were abroad over the St. Patrick's Day weekend reinforced the message that Ireland is free of the foot and mouth disease. The position is monitored on a daily basis in terms of what actions are required. The Deputy has been kept well informed. The economic assessment is also been undertaken in this context. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development has established an expert committee of biologists and microbiologists to advise on the appropriateness of control measures in place and on the level of risk posed by certain events or activities, particularly in the context of the tourism industry and what changes might be made in that regard. All decisions are made on the basis of clear expert advice.

The Minister of State has no information on lay-offs to date. Will he provide that information to the House at an early date, perhaps, tomorrow? What steps has he taken, in conjunction with his Government colleagues, to talk to financial institutions regarding their approach given that small businesses are beginning to feel the pinch? Financial institutions will be the first to engage in meetings in regard to credit. What steps has the Government taken to ensure an early meeting with financial institutions?

I assure the Deputy that as data become available they will be provided to him. As he will be aware, the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation has kept in touch with the various interests in the tourism industry. Co-ordination is a feature of the approach being undertaken. It involves many Departments and the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation is centrally involved.

The suggestion to make contact with banks is a good one and I will feed it back into the pro cess. Many useful suggestions have been made in the House and that is a good one.