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exclusive ‘My life was hell’: Whistleblower Tamara Bronckaers exposes top civil servants’ conduct

Taxpayers face unprecedented £1.25m bill because of shocking behaviour of two senior employees who remain unsanctioned


Tamara Bronckaers

Tamara Bronckaers

Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX

Tamara Bronckaers

For a year, Tamara Bronckaers tried to warn senior Stormont colleagues about animal suffering and abuse of the livestock traceability computer which could be spreading disease and facilitating fraud, but she was belittled, misrepresented, and hounded out of her job.

In her first interview, Dr Bronckaers has told the Belfast Telegraph of the way in which chief vet Robert Huey and one of his deputies, Julian Henderson, made her life “hell”. Both men remain in post unsanctioned. Two weeks ago, Dr Huey rewarded Dr Henderson with a promotion.

Dr Bronckaers blew the whistle five years ago about livestock movements between farms being electronically deleted from the main part of Stormont’s vaunted traceability system.

This was being done to artificially inflate animals’ value, but it also concealed welfare problems and facilitated the spread of TB. Animals with more than four inter-farm movements in their lives are worth far less when slaughtered, meaning that farmers, abattoirs, supermarkets and consumers were being misled.

After an exhausting and expensive fight, it can on Sunday be revealed that the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) has paid her £1.25m in compensation. A judge has endorsed her honesty, and even Daera’s internal audit admits she was right.

Vindicated — The whistleblower vet who took on the government and won

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Dr Bronckaers’ solicitor, John McShane of McCartan Turkington Breen, said he believed the settlement was the biggest in Northern Irish history. Bizarrely, in a scenario reminiscent of Prince Andrew’s settlement, the civil service still refuses to accept it did anything wrong.

Dr Bronckaers (54) was driven out of her job after the RHI scandal started — and Stormont has fought her all the way, despite publicly claiming it would learn from ignoring whistleblowers in that scandal.

In 2016, Dr Bronckaers, who is from Belgium but lives in Tyrone and had worked for Daera since 1999, was promoted to senior vet in charge of livestock markets, zoonosis (infectious diseases which jump from animals to humans) and biosecurity.

On being appointed, she was told to check that markets were adhering to the law. Around that time, a colleague testing for TB contacted her to say he had found a strange problem on a farm. She recalled: “He had it on his record that two animals had come from the market. But when he spoke to the farmer, the farmer said ‘No, I bought them from that dealer’. That was not on the animals’ trace, and he said he thought I should look into this because it was only by accident that he had found it.

“I checked [the animals’] history, and in a notes section on their file it said a move had been deleted, but it was in the tiniest box. I found this very weird because you couldn’t uncover that unless you went looking for it.

“I went to the computer team and asked them to draw up a programme that would give me a report of all animals in a date range which had moved through a market but had their moves deleted.

“When they did that report, there were hundreds of these animals. It emerged that significant numbers of these animals were being sold by dealers whose herds were restricted for TB.

“These animals potentially had TB but that move then was deleted — up to 55 hours, at times, after the initial move was recorded — and then a move from a market to a private owner was inserted.”

“When I queried that, it turned out that the markets were quite happy to do that over the phone.”

The meat industry pays a premium for animals which have been moved four times or fewer during their lives — a policy to satisfy supermarkets because it improves animal welfare.

“What the livestock market was doing, together with dealers and those who were aware of it, was keeping that number of moves at or below four, so these animals were artificially having their value increased,” she said.

Dr Bronckaers said that in the context of Brexit and the possibility of Northern Ireland accessing the EU market, she was particularly concerned about what this meant because “if I could find it, then any other team should be able to find it, and if we lose our credibility for the origin of our beef, where does that leave our farming industry?”

“I was also worried about what this meant for TB. So much money was being spent on dealing with TB and basic things like that. All the department had to say to the markets was, ‘Listen, stop doing this. You can’t do this. They just chose to do nothing and try and keep me quiet. Every month I would for a period of one week do all the markets and print off those reports. We calculated that in a year you were talking about 4,000 to 5,000 animals.”

When Dr Bronckaers raised it with her managers, she expected they would intervene “because they always prided themselves on traceability and said, ‘Nobody has a computer system like us’, and, ‘We can guarantee farm to fork’.” But really, they can’t. Plus, this is defrauding the meat plants, lying to the farmer who buys the animal and putting the health status of herds at risk.”

Dr Bronckaers said that initially one of her superiors thought the issue was serious, but it was then taken out of her hands.

Every month she would send her report to different senior colleagues, ensuring that as many as possible were aware of what was going on, but to no avail.

One responded with a “stroppy” email, she said, in which he effectively said: “I thought this was all sorted. Why is Tamara still talking about this?”.

Undeterred, she contacted his manager who raised it in a meeting of senior officials, but “he was shut down”. After that, she raised it again with an official in charge of TB policy, “but he just sent me an email saying, ‘Thank you’”. In the meantime, I’d had a lot of abuse from my line manager, Julian Henderson, and from Robert Huey. It was just all too much.”

The employment judge agreed that the scale of deleted moves “was unlikely to have an innocent explanation”. They said: “It is clear from the evidence that deleted moves were likely related to attempts to mislead buyers and abattoirs [for financial gain].”

Last month, Edwin Poots authorised farmers to kill what may be thousands of badgers to curb the spread of TB – while knowing that his department has failed to listen to a whistleblower who highlighted a far simpler potential solution. Just weeks ago, Mr Poots lauded Dr Huey and his colleagues, saying “the people advising me on this matter are the best available”.

When asked if livestock moves can continue to be deleted as Dr Bronckaers exposed, DAERA issued a statement which both said that it is working to address what the tribunal revealed – but also boasted about how great its traceability system is.

It said: “With respect to traceability, Northern Ireland has a unique and world leading traceability system (APHIS) that enables the real time recording of bovine animal movements between farms, markets and abattoirs. The system does, and should, facilitate corrective amendments to be made to ensure accuracy of the notified and recorded movements held on APHIS.

“For the 12-month period, from November 2020 – October 2021, only around 2% of market movements had a corrective amendment to the movement made by a Market Operator within one working day after the original sale. This corrective amendment is necessary to ensure the information held on the APHIS database accurately reflects the location of all animals and the movements that took place.

“However, should any animal be physically moved onto any holding within this timeframe, prior to its final destination, there is a legal obligation to notify the department.

“Where the department has information or evidence of a false notification, the Department will investigate and take appropriate enforcement action.”

In a statement, Ballymena Livestock Market said: “We have zero tolerance when it comes to animal cruelty. Indeed, we go to great lengths to maintain the highest animal welfare standards.

“We regret if there were any instances where those standards were less than what we ourselves demand.

“Farmers and consumers have every right to expect that we afford the highest possible care of animals left in our charge. We have re-examined what happened in the case referenced during the Employment Tribunal and must acknowledge our disappointment at what was alleged.

“The alleged incident occurred five years ago. Our animal welfare systems then were robust and in the intervening period, they have been further enhanced and strengthened.

“Hay and water are provided to animals left overnight and pens continue to be regularly disinfected. Our sales occasionally continue well into the night when it is not possible to move animals off site. When this happens, we make every effort to maintain high animal welfare standards.

“Ballymena Cattle Market, in common with other markets, adheres rigorously to rules governing the movement of livestock.”

Read the rest of the interview here:

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