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Thursday, 27 September, 2001, 16:40 GMT 17:40 UK
Cattle 'infected to inflate compensation'
Cattle
The disease is prevalent in pregnant cattle
Some farmers in Northern Ireland are deliberately infecting cattle with a devastating disease to gain inflated compensation, a senior government official has claimed.

Department of Agriculture permanent secretary Peter Small told an Assembly committee how outside valuers had been drafted in amid concerns at some valuations placed on herds struck down by brucellosis.

The admission came as Stormont's Public Accounts Committee launched an inquiry because a dairy herd was slaughtered after the government's own Agricultural Research Institute failed to carry out tests for the disease on cattle bought in to boost its herd.

Asked by committee chairman, Ulster Unionist Billy Bell, if he accepted denials that underhand activity went on, Mr Small said: "I would like to agree with farmers' representatives, but the evidence doesn't let me."

Completed

He told members the department was currently looking into five suspicious cases, with probably "a few more" undetected incidents.

The RUC is investigating one case, with compensation withheld until police inquiries are completed.

Another potential prosecution where the department had hoped for a conviction has collapsed, after a key witness withdrew his evidence.

The spread of brucellosis has seen compensation payments spiral from 200,000 in 1996-97 to 9.3m in 2000-01. Over the past five years some 22.5m has been paid out.


The failure to test the vendor's herd for disease prior to purchase was a shortcoming

John Dowdall
Auditor General

Amid concerns at some compensation levels being set at auctions held on brucellosis-infected herds, the department has brought in valuers from Britain.

Although he stressed there was no reason to suspect auctioneers of being involved in murky practices, Mr Small pointed out: "The auctioneers from Northern Ireland may well be known to farmers."

Alliance assembly member Seamus Close said he had been "staggered" by one case where a farmer got an independent valuer to give a 1.4m valuation for his brucellosis-infected herd after a department appointee decided it merited just 375,000.

The department refused to accept this figure and appointed its own independent valuer who slashed the compensation to 275,000.

No money has been paid out and that herd owner could face criminal prosecution for deception on possible ear tag offences and misrepresentation of pedigree status.

The claims were made as the committee mounted an inquiry following a report which said the Agricultural Research Institute slaughtered 794 cattle - at a cost of 1.3m - when eight pregnant cattle introduced brucellosis to the herd.

'Shortcoming'

The Northern Ireland Audit Office said infected cattle had been purchased by the Hillsborough institute in March 1999.

Auditor General John Dowdall said a decision not to test the cattle for disease appeared to have been "poorly judged", given the known increased risk of the disease in pregnant cattle, which causes cows to abort.

He added: "The failure to test the vendor's herd for disease, prior to purchase, was a shortcoming, especially in view of the very substantial research and monetary value of the institute's own herd and the fact that it did not have isolation facilities for purchased animals."

He said the fact that the institute was not aware of an increase in the incidence of brucellosis in Northern Ireland in late 1998 suggested there was a "need for improved communication" by the Department of Agriculture's Veterinary Service.

Eradicate

Mr Dowdall recommended the department should consider how information on disease, held by the veterinary service, might usefully be shared with prospective cattle buyers.

Several committee members asked department officials why they were not aware the cattle being bought came from a herd in Armagh which had suffered two abortions just months earlier.

But Chief Veterinary Officer Bob McCracken pointed out official herd books kept by the farmer who sold the eight cattle made no reference to abortions.

See also:

31 Jan 01 | Europe
Germany to kill 400,000 cows
26 Jan 01 | Europe
UN: World at risk from BSE
02 Feb 01 | Europe
Germany's mad cow laboratory
20 Aug 01 | UK
Cattle back on sale
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