Official Report: Minutes of Evidence

Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, meeting on Tuesday, 26 May 2015


Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr W Irwin (Chairperson)
Mr J Byrne (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr S Anderson
Mr T Buchanan
Mrs J Dobson
Mr T Elliott
Mr D McAleer
Mr K McCarthy
Mr O McMullan
Mr I Milne
Mr E Poots


Witnesses:

Mr Raymond Kirke, Department of Agriculture and Rural Development
Mr Ken Laverty, Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs
Mr John Love, Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs
Mr John McConnell, Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs
Ms Pauline Rooney, Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs



Cattle ID Cross-compliance: Department of Agriculture and Rural Development

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): I welcome Pauline Rooney, acting director of EU area-based schemes; John Love, veterinary officer; Ken Laverty, EU area-based performance; John McConnell, animal identification, legislation and welfare branch; and Raymond Kirke. I ask you to take up to 10 minutes for your presentation, and then we will ask some questions.

Ms Pauline Rooney (Department of Agriculture and Rural Development): Thank you, Chair. The EU introduced cross-compliance in 2005 to ensure that businesses that received farm subsidies adhered to other key farm-related EU regulations, and cattle identification is one of those. Correct identification of cattle is necessary to allow traceability for reasons of public health and animal disease control. Cattle must be identified at all times by two ear tags bearing the same identification number. No period of time is offered to replace lost tags in European legislation. However, under national legislation, we have allowed a period of 28 days to replace lost tags after discovery. This legal requirement on farmers dates back to the 1990s and has been included as part of the cross-compliance rules since their introduction in 2005. This requirement has not changed: farmers remain responsible for replacing missing tags within 28 days.

The adjustment we introduced from January 2014 was on how we assessed farmers' compliance with this obligation, and we are committed to keeping this under review. The change was prompted by the European Commission's interest in this area. It has written guidance on the issue and the findings of recent audits in GB. For example, failure to adequately comply with this guidance in England has led to adverse findings in an audit and a disallowance risk. The guidance explains how Commission auditors interpret EU legislation in this area. It advises that, instead of allowing a keeper 28 days following an inspection to replace a missing tag, which has been our position, we should seek to identify whether the keeper has an effective procedure in place to replace tags when found to be missing or illegible. The document accepts that single ear tag losses can occur, and that it is unreasonable to automatically apply a cross-compliance reduction where one or several animals have one ear tag missing, providing the keeper can demonstrate identification of the animals by other means. The working document also states that the tag-loss rate in the holding should be within normal limits.

In response to the statements on one or several animals with one missing ear tag and within normal limits, we introduced a threshold for missing or illegible tags. This has been set at 10% of animals within a herd or 20 animals with single plastic tags missing, whichever is less. In setting this threshold, we sought to balance the Commission guidance with industry interests. In relation to industry needs, we took into consideration the average tag-loss rate in Northern Ireland. Based on this, even in larger herds, a keeper could fail to replace any lost tags for some time without breaching the threshold. For example, if you had a herd of 300 animals and your tag-loss rate was average, it would take just under six months before 20 tags were missing. For a herd of 500 animals, it would take about three and a half months, and for a herd of 800 animals, it would take just over two months to breach the threshold. If the level of missing or illegible tags is below this threshold, we will conclude that a satisfactory tag replacement policy is in place. The cross-compliance breach will not be applied if the keeper replaces missing or illegible tags within 28 days of the inspection. If the missing or illegible tags are not replaced within this time, this will no longer be considered an automatic intentional breach. This is an easement of the earlier approach, as it reduces the chance of being subject to a high penalty. A negligent breach will not be applied unless the inspector considers that an animal keeper deliberately did not replace the tags within 28 days.

The Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU) representatives raised a number of issues in their meeting with you on 12 May, and I want to address those. The UFU suggested that we use animal and public health information system (APHIS) records on a keeper's tagging performance as a tool for assessing retagging practice. We did consider this when deciding how to implement the Commission guidance; however, it was decided to proceed using a threshold to ensure a consistent approach to the application of penalties and to avoid introducing any subjectivity on the part of inspectors. We will, however, continue to consider if tags against APHIS could be used to support our current threshold approach. It is worth highlighting that, if we decide to use APHIS, it may lead us to identify breaches that we otherwise do not using the current method.

The applicability of our 10% or 20 animals threshold to each of the 20,000 cattle farms of varying size in Northern Ireland was also raised. We believe that the two-element approach to the threshold addresses this. The percentage calculation applies to herds containing 200 animals or fewer, while the actual number of 20 applies to larger herds of over 200 animals. To allow the percentage figure to apply to larger herds would mean that a high and unacceptable level of cattle with missing single tags would indicate a satisfactory tag-replacement policy, which would be against the normal limits guidance provided by the Commission.

The tagging difficulties faced by flying herds were raised. In our view, the requirement for flying herds to replace missing tags is the same as in all other herds. In operating a flying herd, the keeper accepts that he does not have control over the tags that are initially used to identify the animals and how they are applied. However, the Commission takes the view that the keeper has a professional responsibility to ensure that all his herd bovines are correctly identified. Such a herd keeper must therefore factor any additional risk of tag loss into their tag replacement policy to ensure that tags are replaced within 28 days.

You will be aware that, with effect from 1 January 2015, we introduced an easement to reduce the seriousness score that animals found with one missing ear tag attract. That will, in some cases, reduce the level of penalty. Modelling that approach on 2012 inspection findings for missing single ear tags shows that, of the circa 700 businesses inspected, 86 would have exceeded the threshold, which is 0·3% of businesses that keep cattle in Northern Ireland. Of the 86 businesses, 56 would have received a warning letter, 18 would have received a 1% penalty, nine would have received a 3% penalty and three would have received a 5% penalty. So, if the new approach had been in place in 2012, 0·13% of businesses that keep cattle would have received a cross-compliance penalty for single plastic tag breaches. It is also worth highlighting that, to receive a 1% penalty, herds of over 200 animals must have at least 30 single plastic tags missing. For a 3% penalty, at least 50 single plastic tags need to be missing, and, for a 5% penalty, 100 single tags had to be missing. In our view, that threshold is not unreasonable, and, in fact, there is a risk that the Commission may consider it too generous. Indications from 2014 inspections are that 48 businesses exceeded the threshold and, of those, nine had a 3% or 5% penalty applied. That indicates that compliance with the cattle ID legal requirement in Northern Ireland is widespread and that non-compliance is not a major issue.

I would like to address the issue of whether we are more strict than neighbouring jurisdictions. The systems in place to assess compliance and identify the appropriate cross-compliance penalty are complex. In Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, a cross-compliance breach and a warning letter is issued if a single tag is missing, which can lead to a higher chance of receiving an inspection the following year. That is more strict than here, as we only record a breach if the number of missing tags is above the threshold. However, Scotland will only apply a financial penalty if 16% of a herd has lost a single tag, while the Republic of Ireland threshold is set at 30%. Our approach to the application of penalties is tougher. However, it is our opinion that those other thresholds are generous and not consistent with the Commission guidance. The risk of disallowance for a weakness in that cross-compliance control is real. Given that the vast majority of applicants for direct payments in Northern Ireland keep cattle, the application of a 5% disallowance could equate to £1·2 million per year. We are undergoing a Commission audit on cross-compliance next week. The audit may provide clarity on what the Commission expects in relation to cross-compliance and missing tags, and, as I said earlier, we will continue to keep our approach to the issue under review and react to any new information that suggests that we should revise our current position.

The UFU was concerned with the quality of tags available in Northern Ireland. Tags must meet standards published by the British Standards Institution before they are approved for use here. Tags used here are designed and produced by international companies and are also widely available in other countries. The system of tag approval provides keepers with choice on which type of tag they use based on quality, price, convenience and service. The tags used in the South are available here, so a keeper can choose to use them if they wish. Allowing a range of tag suppliers allows innovation and competition in the marketplace, which should be of benefit to keepers. For example, I understand that at least one cattle tag supplier will supply free replacement ear tags for the lifetime of the animal if they originally supplied the tags.

There are a number of factors that affect tag retention, including tag quality, environmental factors and the way that the tag was applied. If a keeper believes that a type of tag is not performing to an acceptable standard, they should report that to the tag supplier or to DARD. DARD is keen to explore ways that tag loss can be reduced, as that will improve traceability and lessen the impact on keepers. We have funded some Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) research on that. AFBI is analysing the APHIS data on tags applied to calves in 2007 to determine how long they remained in the animal's ear. The research findings will therefore apply to tags supplied in 2007 only. It considers the impact of factors such as the animal's age, whether the animal was moved between holdings, the animal's breed and the type of farm, such as beef or dairy, for example, that the animal was kept on. It is important to note that APHIS does not record the tag model or the tag manufacturer, just the supplier. That limits the way in which the research output can be used. When the research project concludes, DARD will review the findings and consider how best the information can be used to help farmers reduce tag losses.

I thank you for your attention during my opening statement. We are happy to take questions.

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): Thank you very much for your presentation. The EU guidance states that no reduction should be applied as long as the loss rate on the holding is within normal limits. As you are aware, I have had concerns about this, as a dairy farmer, and in that I declare an interest. I am fully aware of the potential to lose tags. The other day, my neighbour had animals feeding at a round feeder. His animals were going to the factory to be killed and, out of 10 animals, six had single tags. Tags get pulled out at round feeders. That is a genuine case. You said that the threshold is 10% or 20 animals, which, no doubt, discriminates against the larger farmer. It might be OK if it was 10% or 8% across the board. The threshold for a farmer with 200 animals is 10%, and the larger farmer has no such threshold. How do you justify that?

Ms Rooney: I gave you the figures earlier. The average tag rate in Northern Ireland is 14%. If you apply that to a herd of 200 —

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): That is 140 in a herd of 1,000.

Ms Rooney: I will apply it to a herd of 200, in the first instance. It takes over six months to get to a time when 20 tags are missing. If you have to replace tags within 28 days, that seems very reasonable.

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): Are you saying that tags need to be replaced within 28 days, irrespective of how many are missing?

Ms Rooney: That is the legal requirement. There is a legal requirement to replace tags within 28 days of discovery. The Commission is saying that the farmer needs to have a tag-replacement policy in place. That is what the Commission requires them to have.

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): Do you accept that there are times of the year when more tags will be lost?

Ms Rooney: Yes, and it is a farmer's professional responsibility to respond to that.

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): It is possible that very few tags will be lost when the animals are out at grass. There is much greater potential to lose tags when animals are feeding in houses or at round feeders. The percentages do not work out as you say, if you understand me. The practicalities do not work out that way.

Ms Rooney: I see the point that you are making, William, but it is a farmer's responsibility to replace lost tags within 28 days of discovery. That is what the law requires of them.

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): That is not a problem. I think that is fair enough, but, if you do an inspection, how do you know many days the tags have been out?

Ms Rooney: You do not know that, but take the limits that we have: at the average tag-loss rate, it would take six months to get to 20 tags missing in a herd of 200 cattle.

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): That depends on when you do that inspection. If it is in March, when cattle are being fed in houses, there is much more potential to lose tags. If you do an inspection in September, it is a completely different scenario.

Ms Rooney: But a farmer will understand that. He understands his requirement to replace tags within 28 days. So, if he is changing the environment within which animals are living, he will have to change his approach to ensuring that he meets that legal requirement.

Mr John McConnell (Department of Agriculture and Rural Development): European law covers cattle traceability. It states that the animal must have two tags at all times. It does not give a period in which to replace missing tags. We brought in the 28 days in Northern Ireland to give farmers an appropriate period in which to replace those tags, but European law states that they should have tags in at all times. That is why the Commission takes a more strict view of this, sometimes, unlike us. Not all countries have that 28-day period in which to replace lost tags, but it is something that we have here, and they have it across the water in GB.

On the issue about the time of year, the Commission would say that, when the animals are grassed, the farmer might see them less often, so it is more difficult to replace the lost tags, but that, when the animals are being fed in houses, the farmer has access to the cattle and sees them more often so will notice that the tags are lost. They should therefore notice sooner that the tags are lost and possibly have greater access to the cattle to replace the lost tags. So, we might not find a great deal of sympathy for the argument that the animals might lose more tags at certain times of the year.

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): You say it is not a requirement but that the Commission says that no reduction should be applied if a herd keeper replaces a tag within 28 days. So, that is the Commission view, is it not?

Mr McConnell: The 28 days is a Northern Ireland requirement.

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): Is it definitely not the Commission?

Mr McConnell: No. The 28 days is not in European law; it is simply in Northern Ireland law and over in GB.

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): Do you not see any inconsistency in the fact the larger farmer does not have the same threshold as the smaller farmer?

Mr McConnell: One of the points I would make on that issue is that, if, on a farm with 500 animals, you gave 10%, 50 animals would be allowed to have a single tag.

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): That is absolutely no different from the 200 with the 20. There is absolutely no difference. It is exactly the same —

Mr McConnell: In percentage terms, that is correct.

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): Exactly the same. How do you justify it?

Mr McConnell: We have to take a view on what the Commission's approach to it would be if a farm had 50 tags missing, for instance, or an even higher number than that.

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): But it is not a higher number. It is the same percentage.

Mr McConnell: Yes, the percentage is the same, but it is about the number of animals. The point that Pauline made earlier about how long it would take for a herd to build up that number of missing tags is critical in all this. At our tag-loss rate, an average of around 14% of animals lose a tag per year. It takes quite a considerable portion of that year for a farmer to get to a 10% loss rate. With the examples that we gave, you will find that a significant number of weeks will be required, even for a large herd, to reach 20 lost tags.

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): For a large herd, I do not think it would take very long. I guarantee that, if you had a herd of 1,000 animals and you read the tags this week, then you read them in a week's time, you could possibly be at that, especially if they are being fed in houses.

Ms Rooney: We looked at a herd of 800. It would take just over two months — just over eight weeks — at the average tag-loss rate for 20 tags to be lost. If you go to 1,000, it is probably something like six weeks for 20 tags to be lost.

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): That is the average you are working out.

Ms Rooney: Working at the average tag-loss rate, yes.

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): I gave you some examples of how it does not work like that.

Mr Poots: It strikes me that you are exercising a more draconian scheme in Northern Ireland than is being exercised elsewhere. Is that not the case?

Ms Rooney: We are complying with the EU regulations and guidance, which cross the whole of the EU.

Mr Poots: That is a common line that the Department trots out, "We are complying with the guidance". Other countries are complying with it in different ways.

Ms Rooney: People have different approaches to how they comply. Ken, will you outline how others —

Mr Poots: In the Republic of Ireland, for example, they have three months for a minor breach.

Mr Ken Laverty (Department of Agriculture and Rural Development): In the Republic of Ireland, if one animal is found at inspection with their tag missing, that is a breach. It is a cross-compliance breach that is reported to the Commission. They issue a warning letter for it, but it is still a cross-compliance breach. That is different from here, because we do not apply a breach for one animal or for the number up to our thresholds. Where they also differ from us is when they start to apply financial penalties. They have a rate of 30%, which, as Pauline pointed out in her presentation — we have to make judgements against the guidance that we have been given to work within — we cannot see how the Commission can live with that.

Mr Poots: Well, obviously, they do.

Ms Rooney: They are coming next week to audit cross-compliance, and we will certainly have a better understanding of their view after the audit has been completed.

Mr Poots: Wales, for example, does not have a threshold. Scotland's threshold is 16%.

Mr Laverty: Again, in Scotland, if an animal loses one tag, that is a breach. They get a warning letter and it is reported to the Commission. They have a threshold of 16%, but they also have a second assessment where the inspector checks against their database and against the farmer's records. It could well be that, if a farmer is below the 16% threshold, he will be in breach because of the second assessment. The percentage is to give their inspectors guidance on whether to start looking at other practices.

Mr Poots: Why are we doing the matrix when the Commission says that no reduction is to be applied if the tags are replaced within 28 days?

Mr Laverty: First, the Commission does not really say that the tags can be replaced within 28 days. It says that animals should be identified at all times.

Ms Rooney: At all times by two tags.

Mr Poots: Yes, and they are identified, with one tag. Let us be clear: if an animal has a tag, it is identified.

Ms Rooney: The legislation states two tags.

Mr Poots: Double-tagging gives you an assurance if a tag is lost. However, let us be clear that the animal was identified already. Do not raise that as a red herring, please.

Ms Rooney: The EU legislation states that an animal should be identified with two tags at all times.

Mr Poots: But it is identified.

Ms Rooney: With two tags. The legislation is quite clear.

Mr Poots: But it is identified. You want animals to be identified with two tags preferably. Those are the rules.

Ms Rooney: It is not preferably. It is required.

Mr Poots: Animals lose tags, and the Commission accepts that. The Commission is not saying that you need to do this, but you are doing it.

Mr McConnell: The guidance that the Commission published is essentially in two sections. It talks about animals that have lost both tags and how that should be interpreted by the member states, and about animals that have lost one tag. Part of the guidance is about the loss of one tag and the penalties that are appropriate for that. It is that part of the guidance that was implemented that we are discussing today. We are still attempting to follow the Commission's approach to that as far as we can. The verifiable standard that we have is very clear that there must be two tags in each animal. That is the standard that must be met based on European law. It is identifiable, of course, if it has one tag left in it. Part of the reason for having two tags is so that, if one is lost, you know which animal it is.

Mr Poots: That should be replaced within 28 days.

Mr McConnell: You are correct in saying that you know which animal it is. The Commission is aware of that, and it still says that one missing tag should lead to someone being penalised in the correct circumstances. That is laid out in its guidance.

Mrs Dobson: I declare an interest: my husband is a beef and cereal farmer. The UFU raised some genuine concerns about the Department's approach. Frankly, they and many farmers I know view the Department's attitude as totally overbearing and feel that the Department is gold-plating guidance from the EU. This is not legislation; it is guidance. Why are farmers treated so harshly by the Department? Contrast that to the other regions of the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

Ms Rooney: We moved to a position of adopting this guidance as an outcome of two audits that were carried out in Scotland and England. It became clear from those audits that the Commission anticipated and expected this guidance to be used in the particular event of one single tag being missing.

Mrs Dobson: But it is guidance.

Ms Rooney: It is guidance, but the Commission expects it to be used. England faces a disallowance risk for the years that it was audited on because of failure to comply with this guidance. It is important that we take the guidance into account. That is what the Commission does when it audits.

Mrs Dobson: But farmers feel that you are so heavy-handed. They feel that it is legislation when it is just guidance, and that is because of how you as a Department implement it. They are so annoyed and stressed by the cross-compliance. I have said before, including when the Ulster Farmers' Union presented, that it has driven many farmers, including a constituent of mine, to the brink of suicide. Do you not feel responsible for this overly bureaucratic and heavy-handed approach? How do you plan to redress this and get back to building a relationship with farmers?

Ms Rooney: It is important that we comply with the guidance. As I said, we moved to this position after two audits.

Mrs Dobson: But it is guidance; it is not legislation. It is for you.

Ms Rooney: You are right: it is guidance. However, it is guidance that the Commission is using and that it expects to be implemented and us to adhere to. England faces a disallowance risk because the guidance was not adhered to. We have an audit next week. It is on years 2013 and 2014: one year when we had our original policy in place and another year when we had the new approach in place. I anticipate that we will get feedback from the Commission auditors on this.

Mrs Dobson: But you are using the threat of that EU audit, which is guidance, effectively to treat farmers as criminals. It is guidance; it is not legislation.

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): Jo-Anne, I am sorry. We have to suspend for Question Time. Questions to the Agriculture Minister are in a few minutes. You can come back to this at 3.30 pm. Can we ask you to remain as there are members who want to ask more questions?

Ms Rooney: That is fine.

Committee suspended.

On resuming —

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): Welcome back. Sorry about that, but it is one of the necessities today.

Mrs Dobson: Surely the upcoming audit that you referred to is a classic example of you — the Department — asking the EU how high it wants you to jump, irrespective of the consequence for farmers. You are very aware of the anger of the Ulster Farmers' Union and the farming community at the departmental stance. I cannot understand why you continue to ignore them. This is guidance, not legislation. Other countries and regions do not gold-plate it in the way that you do in Northern Ireland. Are you going to listen to those voices or continue to gold-plate it and ride roughshod over whatever opinions are out there?

Ms Rooney: We try to listen and take on board issues on all sorts of aspects of what we do. When the audits were done in Scotland and England, it was the EU's practice that it expected this guidance to be implemented. The weaknesses in the English findings were because the guidance was not implemented there.

Mrs Dobson: So you decided to go to the other extreme and implement it and force it on farmers. Farmers feel that the Department treats them, in effect ,as criminals over missing ear tags. You have decided to go to the other extreme and enforce it very aggressively, is that it?

Ms Rooney: We are implementing the guidance as it is written.

Mrs Dobson: You are absolutely not.

Ms Rooney: I do not think that we are taking it beyond where it needs to go. The Commission's view when it audits us, particularly given that it is looking at the year before and the year after, will be useful.

Mrs Dobson: The industry, the Ulster Farmers' Union, and so many farmers whom I would love to take you to, are telling us that you are gold-plating it and that it is over-bureaucratic. You said yourselves that it is guidance, not legislation, but you are gold-plating it to make it more and more difficult. Farmers feel that you are not listening to them. They feel that they are being treated like criminals; they feel that you are not listening. I have not heard anything today to make me think that you are listening or that you will address it or change it to make it less bureaucratic. That frightens me, not just as a member of the Committee but because, as I said, my husband is a wheat and cereal farmer. If you are interested not in helping, assisting and working with farmers but only in policing them, that does not bode well for the future of the industry. Perhaps you can give a reassurance. I and others have tried to tease that out. Are you going to listen to the concerns of farmers, or are you going to roll over and jump as high as you can to meet EU legislation when the EU officials come over?

Ms Rooney: We seek to listen to people, certainly to industry stakeholders. We do that. We need to find the balance —

Mrs Dobson: That is not reflected in your attitude or in the changes that you are going to make. Are you going to consider, for example, removing the threshold for missing tags? Are you going to proactively work with farmers rather than police them? What will change? Will you do anything differently to look after our industry?

Ms Rooney: We are having an audit next week. There will be findings from that, and we will discuss those with the industry. We will probably have to have an action plan coming out of that, and that will seek to balance what the Commission requires us to do with industry needs. We do seek to do that.

Mrs Dobson: Will there be a bit more balance, and will it not be as over-bureaucratic as it has been? Will you redress that balance, or will you still gold-plate it and be heavy-handed?

Ms Rooney: We are always open to reviewing any approach that we take. It will be timely to do that after the audit rather than now.

Mrs Dobson: I am not holding my breath.

Mr Byrne: One of the vexed issues for the Farmers' Union is the quality of tags on the market. Why is it that DARD seems to approve so many different tag manufacturers when quite a few of them are defective? That is leading to great frustration. What can DARD do to publish the AFBI research project on this? The sooner that happens, the better.

Mr McConnell: We have a policy of allowing any tag manufacturer who applies to us and provides evidence from the British Standards Institute (BSI) that the tags meet the published standards to supply those tags. There are about 80 different models of tag on the market. [Inaudible.]

In the South, of course, they have one authorised tag supplier who is allowed to supply through a tender exercise. Our policy is similar to the one across the water where anyone is allowed to supply tags as long as they meet the published standard. Those tags are tested by BSI across the water and are certified as meeting the standard, which covers the quality of the tag, the strength of the tag and being able to tell whether it has been tampered with, its weather resistance and the effect of ultraviolet light on it. Those tags all meet the standard.

We asked AFBI to look at the APHIS data in 2007 on the quality of tags and how long they stayed in the ears. It looked at all the tags applied to calves in 2007 to see how long they remained in the ears and whether it could draw any evidence from that information that we could use to find a way of improving the retention of tags in Northern Ireland. We will see what the outcome of that research is when it is finished; it is not quite finished yet. When we have that, we will work with the industry, including the UFU, to see how we can use that information to work towards better-quality tags that stay in ears for longer. There is a whole range of factors that affect tag retention in ears, from the quality of the tags, which is a big factor, to the way that they are applied and other environmental factors, as we mentioned earlier, such as the types of feeders on the farm. We want information from the research that we can use to advise farmers how they can, on their own farm, improve the way that tags stay in ears.

Mr Byrne: How much is that research project costing?

Mr McConnell: I do not have the figure with me.

Mr Byrne: When will it be finalised and published so that we can get on with the business that farmers are concerned about?

Mr McConnell: We hope to have findings later this year, about September time.

Mr Byrne: We are now in mid-2015, so what is the delay?

Mr McConnell: It is not a question of delay. It is part of a larger project to look at the quality of sheep tags and one or two other aspects of tagging. The tags were applied in 2007 but the project started in 2012 and 2013, and it has studied five years of data from APHIS about how long those tags stayed in ears. It has taken the time since then to process all that data. As you can imagine, a lot of tags were applied in that year and there is a lot of information to go through and lots of processing to be done.

Mr Byrne: It is indicative of the laissez-faire approach that is taken. The sooner the thing is tightened up, the better.

Mr Buchanan: Does DARD believe that the system already in place is not robust enough?

Ms Rooney: At the moment, I think that it is robust enough. I would like to think that when we get an outcome from this audit, it will be seen as compliant.

Mr Buchanan: Yes, but we are talking about the 28-day arrangement. Does DARD believe that that is robust enough?

Ms Rooney: We have not changed that. It remains the legal requirement that farmers should replace ear tags within 28 days of discovery. I do not think that we have plans to change that.

Mr Buchanan: You talked about the research that you are doing on the quality and durability of the tags and so forth. Does that cover the design of the tags? It could be that the problem is more the design of the tag than its quality or durability.

Mr McConnell: It does not cover the shape of the tag, for instance, or other additional factors. I know that you are referring to the fact that a tag might become caught in a feeder and so forth and whether the shape of the tag might contribute to that. I do not think that the research goes as far as that. The tag suppliers pay attention to the shape of the tag and whether it has flexible corners and that sort of thing. They want to satisfy their customers and make sure that they are content with the tag staying in the ear. On the tag suppliers' websites, they often describe the tags as being difficult to catch on things. So, they pay attention to that. However, I do not think that the testing element looks at those shape factors, if I am correct.

Mr John Love (Department of Agriculture and Rural Development): The primary tag must be a certain size; it is laid down in EU legislation that the size of the primary tag must be 45mm by 45 mm, or something like that. There is a minimum size for the primary ear tag.

Mr Buchanan: What assessment have you done of the financial effect that the 20% changing will have on a farmer?

Ms Rooney: Results from 2014 indicate that there is wide compliance with the 28-day requirement to replace tags. Certainly, those are the findings in the cross-compliance inspections that we did. We did between 600 and 700 inspections, and only 48 were found to be not compliant. Of those, nine had a 3% or 5% penalty applied, which suggests that there is widespread compliance in Northern Ireland with the cattle identification requirements.

Mr McAleer: I want to identify a lot of issues raised. The UFU was here a number of weeks ago, and it made the point very clearly that it thought that the guidelines were being interpreted in a very hard-line way and were gold-plated. One issue that it raised was the fact that this was introduced in January 2014, but it was not until May 2014 that it was consulted on the threshold. Why did it take so long?

Ms Rooney: I think that it was March that the Department wrote —

Mr Laverty: Yes, I think so.

Ms Rooney: I think that we wrote to stakeholders about it in March 2014.

We adjusted our approach to monitoring. We did not change the standard, which has been the standard for years. The legal requirement is that farmers have responsibility to replace tags within 28 days of discovery. That has not changed. What we altered was our approach to monitoring compliance with that standard.

Mr McAleer: Given the fact that this has an impact on farm businesses, do you not think that it should have been consulted on?

Ms Rooney: I think that you can always do communications better, Declan. No matter how much effort you put into it, you can always do better. That is one thing that I would see: it would be much better to have an ongoing conversation about the issue rather than leaving it to a specific time.

Mr Poots: I am totally dissatisfied with the responses that we have been getting today. It appears to me that, whenever you are asked a question about comparables, guidelines or legislation, we get a single transferable speech. Frankly, that is treating this Committee with disrespect. We are raising serious issues with you that are causing massive consternation. The organisation that checks up on these things is called the CIA, and it strikes as much fear into the farming community when it knows that the CIA is coming as when the CIA lands at the door of someone in the United States of America, because they are treated like criminals.

I have to be honest: this Committee will not find that acceptable. I do not accept what is being put forward to us today, and I expect you to go back and reflect on what you have heard in this Committee, because we represent the views of the Northern Ireland public. The days of direct rule Ministers are over. This Northern Ireland Assembly is accountable to the people of Northern Ireland, and you, as civil servants, are accountable to this Assembly to act on their behalf. You cannot come here and stonewall people. Chair, the treatment that we have had from both DARD delegations today is wholly unacceptable. This cannot go on.

Mrs Dobson: Well said.

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): I think that this is resolvable and needs to be resolved. There needs to be a clear threshold for everyone across the board rather than treating someone with a herd of up to 200 completely differently from a larger farmer with a herd of 200-up. That is the view of this Committee. It does not stand on an equality basis either, because it is clearly an inequality: someone who has six or seven hundred cattle is treated totally differently; they have a different threshold. Twenty-eight days is no problem; we accept that. The threshold is the issue, and the Committee is unanimous in asking you to go back and look at this.

Ms Rooney: We are happy to take views on board, and we will do that.

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): I hope that you understand clearly where we are coming from.

Ms Rooney: I understand the point that you are making to us. It is because of the timing: we have this audit next week, so the time to review it will be once that is over.

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): I accept that you have an audit first. Even Europe must accept that there is an issue. If you are allowed 10% of tags with up to 200, why is the man with 500, 600 or 700 not allowed the same percentage? It is an issue of fairness.

Ms Rooney: That is certainly something that we will consider. The perspective behind the minimum of 20 was based on the guidance stating "one or several". "Several", especially when it is conjoined to "one", is not a big number, and we need to take that guidance into account.

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): In the mainland and in Greece, it is 16%. We are not talking about 16%; the Department is allowing 10%, which is nearly half of what the UK is implementing.

Ms Rooney: That is in Scotland; it has 16%.

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): We are not talking about that, and the Committee does not expect it. We expect the farming community to be treated equally across the board.

Mr Poots: Sixteen per cent of 1,000 is 160.

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): Yet a farmer here with 1,000 cattle is allowed only 20.

Mr Poots: That is grossly unfair.

Ms Rooney: I take your point, but it would be difficult to call 160 "one or several".

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): We are not even asking for that. We have taken the example of the level in Scotland, but no member of the Committee expects for one moment that degree of latitude. However, the level needs to be fair and equitable across all farms.

Ms Rooney: We are committed to reviewing our approach when we get new or further information, as we always are. We will certainly take the view of the Committee into account.

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): Will you come back to us with the result of the audit and provide an update on this?

Ms Rooney: We will. I am not sure when we will hear the result, but we can make a date to come to advise you on it.

The Chairperson (Mr Irwin): OK. As you aware, most of the Committee have strong views on this, as do the Ulster Farmers' Union and farmers on the ground. Thank you.

Ms Rooney: Thank you.

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