Adjournment Debate. - Animal Diseases.

I and Deputy Fox wish to share time with Deputies Timmins and D'Arcy.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this issue for discussion. Scrapie has been described as an age old disease and since 1992 it has been a notifiable disease. Random testing was commenced in 1998. In the autumn of this year there was grave concern expressed about what looked like a very negative report from the British authorities. It was widely rumoured at the time that the report would link scrapie and BSE. In October a statutory instrument was signed into law and the following Monday inspectors from the veterinary section of the Department served section A restriction orders on specified farmers in a number of counties. In all, 35 flocks have been locked up since those notices were issued, five of them in the constituency shared by me and Deputy Fox and 16 in Wexford.

In the middle of October the IFA met officials from the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development and the process of negotiations about how the crisis would be dealt with got under way, with particular reference to farmers whose flocks were locked up. Two days after these discussions commenced the news broke, to everybody's surprise, that the UK research report had been discredited. A fundamental error in the science had occurred and the report was effectively useless.

On 9 November the IFA and the Department began meetings on this issue in Agriculture House. On 20 November the summary position was reached and following a meeting in Brussels, as IFA delegations reached Dublin for further negotiations they were given a copy of what they understood to be the position. Later that morning there were further discussions. A letter was issued from the Department on 23 November. This letter, it was agreed, set out the final position resulting from the negotiations. Four days later a further version of this letter was issued by the Department. This letter had a paragraph which has caused grave difficulties for farmers as it was a fundamental departure from the agreed position. The paragraph dealt with the issue of scanning sheep matter which had not been dealt with prior to this. Since that letter arrived, the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development has effectively dug its heels in and has presented the farmers affected by this with a most invidious choice. It is a Hobson's choice. They can either keep their flocks locked up or surrender to the Department. I suggest to the Minister here tonight that this issue can only be resolved by co-operative arrangements between the Department and the IFA. What has happened should be changed and I ask the Minister to instruct his Department officials to do that.

There are a number of restricted scrapie-positive flocks in the country and the way these restricted flocks have been treated by the Department leaves a great deal to be desired. On 8 October a number of Department officials arrived on to 35 farms to serve restriction orders. These officials were not able to give information to the farmers in question on the duration or circumstances of the restrictions. The IFA met Department officials on a number of occasions to discuss how to deal with the compensation issue and it has produced a discussion document drawn up by independent consultants on how to deal with the issue.

Unfortunately, when this document was discussed with the Department a number of crucial parts relating to the special circumstances of individual farmers were knocked back by the Department. No distinction was allowed by the Department among any farms in the compensation packages it would agree to and it refused to discuss the costs involved in establishing new flocks. I urge the Minister to ensure that there is a change in attitude in the Department in its handling of this matter. Farmers entered negotiations in a co-operative manner to try and pursue a fair solution. However, the process has been stymied from the word go. The delay in the matter is preventing these farmers from making an income and the fact their sheep they are locked up is being used as a stick to try and force a one-sided agreement. That is completely unacceptable.

The Department will have to seriously consider helping with the costs associated with restocking. It must look at the bigger picture and try to find ways to eliminate the disease. Department officials will require the co-operation of flock owners to help in the eradication of scrapie. It is time they were reminded of that fact.

I thank my colleagues for sharing time with me. This issue is about negotiations carried out in good faith on which the Department has reneged. One of the flock owners said:

In conclusion, it can be seen that these negotiations, which were entered into in the spirit of co-operation and in pursuit of an acceptable and fair solution to the problem of restrictive flocks, have deteriorated into a very one-sided and dictatorial position on the part of the Department of Agriculture.

My colleague, Deputy Dukes, raised this issue during Question Time as far back as 23 October and in response Deputy Ó Cuív stated that the words "as soon as possible" meant as soon as possible after the evaluation process was completed and that they had to agree the evaluation process and make the arrangements. Many of these flocks are facing into the lambing season. I put it to the Minister that we do not want promises. We want solutions that are acceptable to everybody. At the moment these flock owners are being treated in a very high-handed and unfair manner. If the political will is there it can be solved. Please solve it.

In the time available there is little I can say and most of it has already been said. The word "depopulation" is a serious word to any farmer. These farmers have been told by the Department that they must depopulate their flocks. There is a dispute in progress between the Department and the farmers who are represented by the IFA. I have had lengthy discussions with the Department and with the IFA but there is no sign of a solution. The Minister must clarify the situation tonight. The first letter was sent out on 23 November and the second on 27 November. The Minister is quite aware that there is a paragraph in that to which the IFA objects.

The word "depopulation" has a devastating effect on any family. Wexford has the largest number of affected sheep flocks, between 15 and 17. One affected farmer in Wexford was closed up for also having BSE in his herd, but the herd was found not to have it when examined by Department officials. A further reason for closing him down was the foot and mouth disease threat. This all happened in the past six months and now he is being told he must depopulate his flock. I urge the Minister to clarify this tonight. We are coming to the lambing season in Wexford and some of the flocks have already started lambing. A serious problem will develop if the issue is not resolved. This must be cleared up in the next few days and I appeal to the Minister to do that. I ask him to be sympathetic to the farmers in view of the prevailing circumstances.

Scrapie has been present in sheep here for some 200 years, and there is a low incidence of the disease in Ireland. It is, however, a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, (TSE). Therefore, notwithstanding the lack of evidence scientifically linking it to BSE, or CJD in humans, there is no doubt that its profile has increased among consumers in recent times, against a background of increased concern about TSEs generally.

This level of concern was increased by the expectation that on 19 October the UK authorities would announce the results of a scientific study indicating that sheep in the UK in the early 1990s may have had BSE rather than scrapie. In the event, it emerged that the brains tested in the UK exercise may have been bovine rather than sheep brains and this study has now largely been discredited.

In this regard the view of the scientific steering committee of the European Commission on this matter on 24 October, 2001, was that there was no evidence that BSE was present in small ruminants under field conditions. However, the com mittee also indicated that the possibility that sheep fed with meat and bonemeal in the past might potentially be infected with BSE could not be ruled out. Against this background, in order to address any residual, subliminal concern on the part of consumers and to maintain the high level of confidence in Irish food it is desirable that we seek to eradicate scrapie from the national flock.

A scrapie control programme has already been operating in this country for some considerable time. This programme was developed in the context of controlling TSEs generally and includes compulsory notification, a ban on meat and bonemeal, removal of specified risk materials, testing at meat factories, research into developing genetically resistant sheep, and strain typing research.

Acknowledging the desirability of eradicating the disease from the national flock it was decided to substantially expand my Department's programme for the control and eradication of scrapie. To that end, flocks which have had cases of scrapie since 1999, including a number in Counties Wicklow and Wexford, have been restricted. The intention is that these flocks will be culled and restocking will not be permitted for a period of two years from the date of depopulation.

Other flocks which have a history of scrapie are being examined and may also be slaughtered out. This depopulation component, which offers an effective means of addressing known cases of scrapie in the short-term, complements the medium term element of enhanced testing and the longer term element of genetic research, all of which are components of our approach to effectively addressing the eradication of the disease.

I acknowledge that this may be a bitter pill to swallow for some of the flock owners concerned. However, it is clear that the elimination of scrapie is in their long-term interests and in those of the 40,000 or so farm families involved in the sheep sector in Ireland.

Furthermore, my Department has been in negotiations with the IFA in relation to the provision of compensation to the flock owners concerned. The approach throughout has been to facilitate early depopulation of the flocks in question by offering a package which encompasses compensation for the market value of each depopulated flock and for loss of profit over the two year period in which destocking is not permitted and in the year restocking commences. It also addresses a number of other concerns expressed by the flock owners through the IFA. That offer has been on the table since 21 November, when discussions with the IFA concluded, and my Department has since been on stand-by to begin depopulation under the terms of the package. There is no question, and never was, of the Department "rowing back" in any way from the outcome to discussions with the IFA on this matter and it is a misrepresentation to present this picture. It is a matter for each flock owner to decide whether he or she wishes to accept the Department's offer.

The Department is conscious of the pressures on the flock owners in question, given that their flocks have been restricted for some time, even though before the recent rounds of discussions on all elements of a compensation package and in response to an approach by the IFA on behalf of certain named flock owners who—

Will the Minister give way?

There is no pro vision for giving way on the Adjournment. We have already gone over time on this debate. The Deputy is out of order. The Minister's five minutes is concluded.