Dáil Éireann - Volume 536 - 16 May, 2001

Written Answers - Illegal Animal Imports.

119. Mr. Hogan asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development the precise action that he took to deal with the market implications, traceability, animal disease concerns and VAT fraud in the sheep sector from Great Britain and Northern Ireland when he was informed of the concerns of farmers in respect of these issues on 16 November 1998; if he received reports in respect of illegal smuggling of animals from that jurisdiction; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13938/01]

Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development (Mr. Walsh): When my Department became aware of allegations in December 1997 that sheep from Northern Ireland and Great Britain were being slaughtered illegally in meat factories in Ireland, it immediately advised its veterinary staff at meat plants of the allegations and [736] asked them to review inspection procedures as a matter of urgency.

I should point out, however, that at the time the issue was raised, the entire island of Ireland had the same veterinary status which meant that, under EU regulations, sheep from Northern Ireland could be imported freely into Ireland without certification. In other words, from a veterinary point of view, the island as a whole was a single and free market for sheep. The position now is, of course, quite different in that there is a ban on imports from the United Kingdom including Northern Ireland because of the FMD situation there.

My Department was aware, however, of possible VAT fraud and wrote to the Revenue Commissioners on 17 December 1997 asking them to undertake an investigation into the situation. This letter was followed up by further letters in February 1998. Later that year, the Department was informed by the Revenue Commissioners that they had uncovered VAT irregularities at two meat plants and that substantial settlements had been reached at those two plants.

Following further representations from the IFA to my Department on 16 November 1998 about imports of sheep, my Department again issued a circular to its veterinary staff at all meat plants reminding them both of the import requirements and the need for vigilance in relation to sheep imported from Northern Ireland or Great Britain. My Department had already been in touch with the Revenue Commissioners in August 1998 on the VAT refund issue and had been informed that they intended to investigate all meat plants on an ongoing basis. The issue was also discussed in the sheep forum in December 1998. While the forum recognised the free movement of sheep on the island and also acknowledged the importance of the wider internal EU market, the introduction of a tagging and traceability system was suggested as a solution to the problem of illegal imports. However it proved impossible until recently to secure the agreement of producers and processors to the introduction of a sheep tagging system.

I want to emphasise that my Department has endeavoured over the years, and well before the current FMD situation, to prevent illegal trade in cattle or sheep. However, in view of the fact that there is free trade in sheep between Ireland and Northern Ireland and against the backdrop until now of widespread resistance among producers and processors to the introduction of a sheep tagging system, the detection of illegal activity has been severely hampered.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that the authorities responsible for implementing the law in this area – the Department, the Garda and the Revenue Commissioners – are, as in all cases, highly dependent on the co-operation of the law abiding farmers to bring to their attention any illegal activities of which they are aware.