Department of Agriculture officials have moved to reassure farmers that compensation payments under the TB and Brucellosis Eradication Schemes (ERAD) will continue, despite fears they are set to be scrapped.
However, the Department has thrown farm organisations into disarray with the assertion that it was never legally obliged to pay any compensation.
Concerns had been expressed that the wording of the Animal Health and Welfare Bill will make compensation payments optional instead of compulsory.
But officials in the Department have insisted that concerns about the compensation scheme were based on a misreading of the current legal situation.
"The provisions in the Animal Health and Welfare Bill do not make any change to the meaning of the 1966 Act but make the language clearer," insisted a Department spokesman.
"While the 1966 Act uses the term 'shall' at one point, this is qualified by the term 'may' and also that compensation under that Act can only be paid following agreement by the Minister for Finance.
"In any case, the ERAD scheme currently operates without any legal requirement on the Government to pay compensation.
"Nevertheless the Government pays, and will continue to pay, fair compensation," he continued.
"The Minister made this point clearly and that there is no reason to see any move away from the current approach.
"The eradication of TB is an important policy aim and significant progress has been made in recent years.
"Ensuring that cases of disease are reported and tackled requires the continuing confidence of the farming community that they will be treated fairly.
"Therefore, the Animal Health and Welfare Bill will make no change to the approach taken."
However, ICMSA beef chairman Michael Guinan said it was his organisation's understanding that the Government was legally bound under the 1966 Act to pay compensation, and any interpretation to the contrary would come as a major surprise to farmers.
He insisted that the confusion must be cleared up immediately.
A spokesperson for the IFA said that they would be concerned about any change in interpretation.
The Animal Health and Welfare Bill provides for some cases where compensation will not be paid, such as where disease was illegally and deliberately introduced to a herd, where tests were interfered with or where animals were illegally imported.
The Bill has passed all stages in the Seanad and is due to return to the Dail next month.
It is on course to become law later this autumn.
- Martin Ryan and Caitriona Murphy
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