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.
n 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.
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”.
‘Sheep were fighting for hay and some pens were overcrowded’
It was after Tamara Bronckaers had attempted to get Stormont’s agriculture department to investigate animal moves being deleted from part of its tracing system that a second issue emerged.
Dr Bronckaers received a tip-off about animal suffering but rapidly found that her senior colleagues did not share her desire to enforce the law, with chief vet Robert Huey telling her that he personally knew the manager of Ballymena Livestock Market, where the issue had emerged, and also knew its chairman.
She said: “The legislation states that even though animals can be kept overnight in a licensed livestock market, they have to be provided with bedding, food and access to drinking water.
“This man who contacted me was very concerned because he said, ‘It’s so common now that about 100 sheep are being kept overnight in Ballymena Livestock Market and they have no water or nothing’.”
Dr Bronckaers inspected the market the following day without notice. She recalled: “We saw a whole load of sheep that had been kept overnight. We gave them buckets of water. A sheep doesn’t normally drink out of a bucket of water, but these sheep did drink out of a bucket. We gave them bits of food — they fought each other to get the bits of hay we found.
“They were kept on a floor which had just a dusting of sawdust, nothing else. Some of the pens were overcrowded.”
She said that while she was there, a double-decker lorry arrived with sheep and offloaded them into dirty pens, contrary to legislation which requires surfaces to be disinfected between sales to prevent the spread of disease.
She took photos, wrote a report about what she had seen for Dr Henderson and asked for permission to interview under caution a senior figure from the market. He refused and said she should instead send a warning letter. But when she drafted that letter, he said it was too tough. She said that Dr Henderson then redrafted the letter three times, watering down what it said, but she refused to sign it.
“He got really angry and he signed it then. Then, after that, I had my in-year review and I was told that there had been a complaint about me — that I had been disruptive in the office. He wouldn’t say who the complaint was from.
“He told me that it wouldn’t be good for my career to continue visiting the markets on my own, that I shouldn’t be doing market inspections. That was followed by an email saying that we weren’t allowed to just land in a market and inspect a market; we had to first ask for permission to come.”
She said that would have meant they were “just doing lip-service” around enforcing the law. At this point, Dr Huey became personally involved.
“Robert Huey hadn’t been speaking to me at all since I’d had the report of the market. I said to him, ‘Robert, I want you to look at these photographs in Ballymena market’. He said, ‘You know what? You come into my office’.
“So I went into his office with my photos, with my reports, and he wouldn’t look at them. He just said, ‘Tamara, no way are sheep being kept overnight’. I said: ‘There are sheep being kept overnight — I’ve evidence of it.’ He said: ‘No way.’ I said: ‘There are — and not only that, it’s happening in other markets.’
“He kept saying, ‘No way. There’s no purpose for that; that’s not happening’. I said, ‘Robert, I’ve seen it’.
“Then he said to me, ‘Well, you may think that they do things like this in Belgium — and they probably do — but I want to remind you that here we work with the industry’.
“I got up and said, ‘Thank you very much, Robert’, turned around and walked out. I was in tears. It just got worse from there on in, to the point where I couldn’t sleep anymore.”
Dr Huey denied to the tribunal that he referred to Belgium, but the judge did not believe him, saying that Dr Bronckaers’ evidence was “the true account”.
Judge Orla Murray said that both Dr Huey and Dr Henderson’s evidence was “deeply unsatisfactory”.
The judge said that Dr Huey decided to “clip her wings” and the encounter with Dr Huey made Dr Bronckaers realise that “the attitude to her went all the way to the top”.
After a five-year legal fight, Daera settled the case earlier this month and “unreservedly apologised” to the whistleblower. Dr Bronckaers only learned of the apology from this newspaper. The department said its minister, Edwin Poots, was not involved because it was a staffing matter.
She said that the department told her lawyer it was “never going to admit liability” and the payout “was definitely not an admission of liability”.
Asked about the apology, she said: “I don’t believe a word of it. The only apology that I want is that they change the system and that they do what they’re supposed to do and that they stop threatening staff.
“I was lucky that my husband backed me. He said, ‘We can live on less wages. We’ll sit through this’. There are people there that have their mortgage riding on their wages, so it’s not that simple for them to walk away from a job that’s well paid.
“Apologies are just words. They don’t mean anything unless they change what’s causing all this. They put me and my family through hell for years… and there’s no excuse for it.”
When asked what she would say to a civil servant who believes the law is being broken, she said she could not advise them that the civil service would listen to them as a whistleblower, but they should be persistent and go to the top of the department — to the minister and the head of the civil service — and keep records.
She added, “Only for John McShane, my solicitor, I wouldn’t have got through this”, adding that she made clear to him that under no circumstances would she accept a gagging clause which prevented her from talking about the case, even if she was offered more money to buy her silence: “They could keep their money if there was a gag attached to it.”
What does she hope will now happen? “I just hope that the nonsense stops. Vets in the department at a lower level are genuinely decent people. If they see things wrong when they’re standing with their two feet in the job, they should be listened to and their concerns should be acted on. The country would be in a lot less trouble if that was done.”
When asked about the department’s claim that public health and animal traceability have never been at risk, Dr Bronckaers said: “That’s not true; 4,000 to 5,000 animals every year have had a move deleted and that was just accepted. Nobody was willing to put that move back on to their system.”
She said that if animals were missing from the part of the system used by vets in the field, markets and abattoirs, they would have “no idea where these animals are” and could not organise for them to be tested for TB. Even though another part of the system retained all the moves, if that could not be seen by most people “then there’s a break in traceability”.
“In total, we’re talking about 20,000 animals over the last four years which have breaks in their traceability,” she said.
“They were adamant that in the background they knew exactly where these animals were going and they knew exactly where the TB risks were.
“But that’s nonsense because none of the vets who are dealing with TB traceability on the farm have access to that background system.”
She said she had “no confidence at all” that the traceability system could be repaired with the department’s current management in place.
At the time of going to press, neither Daera nor Ballymena Livestock Market had responded to requests for comment.
https://www.independent.ie/business/farming/news/farming-news/ni-vet-scandal-whistleblower-exposes-top-civil-servants-conduct-41584413.html NI Vet Scandal: Whistleblower exposes top civil servants’ conduct