HC Deb 25 February 1903 vol 118 cc864-74
MR. PRICE (Norfolk, E.)

said he begged to move the Amendment which stood in his name on the Paper. He would not bring forward the usual excuses that they were living under another Parliament and under another Government, and another President of the Board of Agriculture, because the real reason why he thought that this Act should be repealed wholly or in part was because he believed it was a most unjust Act to several portions of the community. He believed the Act had worked badly, and, as far as it was experimental in its character, it had failed. He felt that the time had arrived, after a six years' trial, when the House might be asked to pronounce that this Act, which excluded foreign cattle, and more particularly Canadian cattle, had been a failure from every point of view. The present President of the Board of Agriculture, as far as he knew, did not favour this view, in fact he had expressed opinions on several occasions in a diametrically opposite sense. Circumstances had come to his knowledge which led him to hope that the right hon. Gentleman might now be prepared to adopt a different position. In his own district there was a gentleman who had taken the field as a candidate, and, according to his own account, had triumphantly passed an examination at the head centre of the Conservative Party, that although he was found to be a completely sound supporter of the Government, at the head centre of his own Party, when he came down to his constituency he pronounced himself strongly against this Bill; and so he could only conclude that the gentleman referred to had received assurances that the Act to which he objected was not going to continue on the Statute-book with the connivance of the Conservative Government. He was afraid that the gentleman in question had not had a conversation with the President of the Board of Agriculture.


Hear, hear!

MR. PRICE said he assumed from that interruption that the right hon. Gentleman's opinions had not changed, and therefore he should ask the House to let him take them very briefly through the history of the Act. Up to 1892 Canadian store and other foreign cattle to some extent were imported into this country. It was, however, with the Canadian store cattle that he meant to deal. Canadian store cattle were imported in very large quantities for some years, and very extensively in Norfolk, the eastern counties, and in the East of Scotland. There wore large districts in England where the principal agricultural interest was that of fattening cattle, and the Canadian cattle were the very best store cattle they could have. There never was a greater blow inflicted on his district than when they were deprived of this very best raw material by this Act. At that time there was an Act on the Statute-book which permitted the Board of Agriculture to exclude these cattle from any country where there was any disease. In 1892 there was a case of suspected disease among cattle, and next year there were one or two more. They were cases of suspicion only. He had never denied that the officials of the Board of Agriculture were justified in treating a case of suspicion of pleuro-pneumonia as if they were eases of conviction, and he never objected to them preventing such cattle from landing on our shores. None of those who opposed this Act had ever taken an opposite view to this.

During the years 1893, 1894, and 1895 Canadian store cattle were still excluded, because the cases he had mentioned were still under suspicion. He thought it was only fair to say that Canada ought to be found guiltless of having any cattle disease, for the Canadians never admitted the fact and they challenged the Government to prove it. What was more, the facts had turned out to be in favour of Canada. It was quite true that there were officials at the Board of Agriculture whose ability could not be impugned for a moment, but no one knew better than he did that it was easy to make a wrong diagnosis. He thought it was impossible to imagine such a state of things as had been alleged either arising or existing in Canada with regard to pleuro-pneumonia. The officials of the Board of Agriculture might frankly say that, in point of fact, they did not now think there was disease in Canada. But whether they did so or not, the fact was that there had been no pleuro-pneumonia in Canada of any kind.

In 1896 the then President of the Board of Agriculture brought in a Bill, which became an Act they were now seeking to have in part repealed. That Act had been defended on several grounds. The President of the Board of Agriculture stated then that he believed there was disease in Canada, and that we were only protected by Order in Council and not by Act of Parliament. That being so, he said there was always a dangerous agitation going on for the admission of those cattle, and that this at some future time might be allowed to take place. This was commented on as being a reflection on those who would succeed him in office, but this the right hon. Gentieman repudiated altogether. The right hon. Gentleman stated that it might not always be possible, in view of an agitation taking place, to keep the ports closed against cases of suspicion. He also said he considered that only a small number of people existed in the districts which were interested in imported store cattle, whereas a very much larger number existed in the breeding districts of England where the people wished to have restrictions imposed upon the importation. The right hon. Gentleman at that time gave statistics which were probably from the 4th of June Return. That, however, would give a very wrong impression regarding the average number of cattle in the districts. If the census were taken at another period of the year they would arrive at a very different proportion. The late President of the Board of Agriculture in his speech on that occasion made a number of prophecies which had not been justified by events. Those who opposed the Bill expressed great fear that there would be a scarcity of store cattle in the feeding districts, that the price would rise very considerably, and that the feeding enterprise, hitherto prosperous, would be seriously injured through those engaged in the trade not being able to obtain store cattle. The right hon. Gentleman stated with all the strength of his official position he had reason to believe that while the Bill would give breeders security against d sease, it would provide a supply of stores which would meet the demands. Of course one of their arguments was, that if, as the right hon. Gentleman supposed, the Act would give a stimulus to breeding and induce breeders to breed more cattle, it would only be because by getting higher prices they would be able to make more profit. Though it was unfortunately the fact that ever since that time the price had been materially higher, he did not think any one could say there would be a profit in feeding stores for the market. The increase in the supply of stores from the midland districts, and even from Ireland, had not been at all marked, if there had been any at all.

The right hon. Gentleman had kindly supplied him with statistics showing that at the present moment there was a larger number of cattle in this country than in 1896. He found that in 1896 there were 10,753,000, and now there were 200,000 more. That was not a very large increase for six years. In fact, it was only about double the increase for one year previous to the passage of the Act. He could not help saying that the forecast of the late President of the Board of Agriculture had been utterly falsified by events. The hon. Member asked the House to look at the case from the Canadian point of view. He understood from speeches delivered by the right hon. Gentleman that he was of opinion that the Canadian case was not so strong as it had been. He held that the Canadian case was even stronger now than formerly, because there was not now any suspicion of disease. He did not know whether the feeling was so strong as it was before, but he hoped it was not, for in 1896 the Canadians were almost mad against the restrictions which were imposed. He hoped they had not been in that state of quasi insanity ever since. He did not know whether the right hon. Gentleman read the literature on this subject. Some of it was so uncomplimentary to him that he would not read it in this House, not because it was unparliamentary, but because of the strength of the language in which the right hon. Gentleman's actions were criticised. He had seen the report of a meeting at which one of the speakers, a gentleman largely interested in the cattle trade as an exporter, expressed the view that the fear of pleuro-pneumonia was not what animated the British Parliament in passing the law, but rather a desire to give protection to our own breeders and feeders in the markets of this country. This showed that the feeling in Canada on the subject was still strong. He doubted whether the right hon. Gentleman was correct in stating that Canada was doing a good business in cattle. Some districts were suitable for feeding and others for breeding purposes. The feeding districts were, no doubt, very well employed at present. They were feeding beasts and sending them over here as fat cattle. The breeding districts of Canada were not so well employed as before. From the districts not suitable for feeding the Canadians had been in recent years sending large quantities of store cattle over the frontier into America, paying a duty of 27 per cent. These cattle could be introduced free into this country, and they were just the raw material we wanted to turn into meat for the people of England. He understood that the bulk of the Scotch beef came to the London market. What was the position in English districts which went in for the feeding of cattle? Their position was, he thought, as bad as they had foretold it would be when these restrictions were imposed. People thought he was exaggerating when he said it would cause ruin in some cases. Throughout the eastern counties, where feeding was the industry, the process of ruin was going on. He wrote to some friends and asked them their view of the situation.

A correspondent, writing on behalf of the Secretary of the Norfolk Chamber of Agriculture, said— I can honestly Fay that the price of store stock is so high that it is impossible for us to see any return upon our outlay. Thus, if we are to buy at six and a half as stores, how is it possible for us to sell at six and a half when fat? This is the exact position we are in, and one that I see no way out of, as the bree ting of stock in this country has declined, and is declining year by year, and my opinion is that we cannot compete with any chance of success so long as this one-sided protection is continued. He did not know really whether his informant was right or wrong in saying that the breeding of stock was actually diminishing in this country, but if it was not diminishing it was very nearly at a standstill, while the quality of the stock bred had not improved as the late President of the Board of Agriculture said he hoped it would. In point of fact, in the early part of the year the class of stores which came over from Ireland was very good, but later in the season they became worse and worse in quality, and short in number. Feeders had to buy lean, hungry beasts, which, instead of putting on flesh after eating up the feeders' food stuffs, weighed no more at the end of a week than before. They were of that class of desperate beasts which broke the farmer's heart. Feeders sighed and sighed in vain for Canadian stores, which were always healthy, took readily to their food, and soon grew fat. The best market they had for stores had apparently been closed against them beyond recall, and he supposed that the moans of the feeders would not appeal to the right hon. the President of the Board of Agriculture to prevent the dying out of a profitable industry, which had produced in the past not only "the roast beef of old England," but the roast beef of old England of the very best. He begged to move the Amendment standing in his name, and he trusted that it would meet with sufficient support to carry it if the right hon. Gentleman did not see his way to give a favourable answer.

DR. FARQUHARSON (Aberdeenshire, W.)

said he was glad to have the opportunity of seconding the Amendment. He had never made this a Party question, because he had attacked Ministers of both Parties on the subject. His own constituents were concerned in the question, but it was one which affected the whole interests and prosperity of the agriculture of Scotland. He was sorry that the hon. Member for Islington was unable to be present to second the Amendment, because from his position as President of the Associated Chambers of Commerce, and as the representative of a large City constituency, he would have been able to give reasons for the faith that was in him. This was not solely a farmers' question, but one deeply affecting the supply of cheap and wholesome food for the people. Nobody could tell him that animals brought over sea, after a long voyage, and slaughtered at the port of debarkation, could yield good and wholesome food. Those animals should be put on to the beautiful plains of Forfarshire and Aberdeenshire, where they could be fed up by skilful farmers before finding their way to the mouths and stomachs of the consumers.

Since the great meeting of farmers and representative of the large towns in the country had been held in Westminster, his hon. friend had gone to Canada and there ascertained for himself the fact that not only was there now no pleuro-pneumonia in that country, but that it had never existed there, and that their cattle had been unjustly shut out from the markets of Great Britain. Two years ago the hon. Member for Kincardineshire and he had got up a conference in Aberdeen on the subject. It was not a hole-and-corner meeting, but open to all, and was attended by a large number of representative farmers. If this had been a question between the feeding and the breeding industries, that would have been brought out at the meeting, but only one dissentient voice had been raised against the proposal to freely admit into this country Canadian store cattle, and that had been speedily drowned. One of the greatest shorthorn breeders in the world had expressed the opinion that the exclusion of Canadian store cattle from this country was injurious to the best interests of agriculture. He had been glad to hear from his hon. friend that some doubt had been expressed as to the continuance of stiff-backedness on the part of the Minister for Agriculture in regard to this matter, but that the right hen. Gentleman could not do anything without legislation, and that he could not induce his colleagues to give him time to pass a Bill. He had prepared a Bill on the subject and would be glad to hand it over to the right hon. Gentleman, who could pilot it through all the quicksands and rocks which a private Bill had to encounter in this House. The cattle feeders of Aberdeenshire and Kincardineshire, who were the most successful in Scotland, and naturally in the world, felt deeply the taxation of the raw material which was necessary to carry on their industry, and that they were compelled to see the money which formerly flowed into their pockets transferred to the pockets of the Canadian feeders. His hon. friend had described the animals which came over from Ireland as lean and hungry beasts, although they had improved a little of late. Whether that was due to the longing for "home, sweet home," which was predominant in the Celtic breast of every man and beast from Ireland, he did not know; but the fact remained that the Irish store cattle did not take kindly to their new surroundings, and did not feed up so quickly as the Canadian stores, which eventually yielded a profit to the feeders of from £2 to £5 per head. One of the reasons for the exclusion of Canadian stores from this country was the risk that they would introduce here cattle disease. If he were assured of that he never would be in favour of their introduction. The talk about Canadian disease was now a bogey. He did not believe it existed. While speaking, in all respect, of the scientific advisers of the Board of Agriculture, he thought the balance of opinion was against them. They had heard that the representative of Canada scornfully repudiated the accusation. Would not the Canadian people be the first to stamp out disease in their own interests if it existed? In these days of an enterprising press if disease existed in Canada they could not prevent the news being wafted over to England. Another point was that the frontier of the United States has been free from disease for at least six months; and he understood that the frontier arrangements for the purpose of preventing disease being imported were now amply sufficient. He hoped, therefore, the President of the Board of Agriculture would give a sympathetic reply. He was glad his hon. friend had brought forward his motion in such an excellent speech, and he would gladly second it.

Amendment proposed— At the end of the Question to add the words, ' And we humbly represent to Your Majesty that the absence of cattle disease in the Dominion of Canada, and the requirements of cattle feeders in this country justify the repeal of the law which excludes Canadian store cattle from our markets.' "—(Mr. Price).

Question proposed, "That those words be there added."

*MR. SPEAR (Devonshire,) Tavistock

said that as a feeder of cattle, and not a breeder, he intended to vote against the Amendment, because although the restrictions had caused some inconvenience, the protection of cattle from disease consequent upon those restrictions in his judgment far more than compensated for any inconvenience they had caused, and they were deeply indebted to the Government for the precaution they had taken to protect their herds. He remembered quite well in years gone by when their herds were devastated through foreign disease, to-day they were practically free from any such scourge, and he attributed it in no small degree to the precautions which had been taken by the Government with reference to the importation of foreign cattle. Of course he was ready to admit, as a somewhat large grazier, that in recent years the industry had not been so profitable as formerly, but that was a difficulty that would right itself, and if it was found that cattle rearing was more profitable than cattle feeding, cattle rearing would increase and feeding would decrease. A discontinuance of the precautions would lead to a periodical influx of cattle disease that would injure not only agriculturists but the whole country. The hon. Member for East Norfolk had hinted that this was Protection. Lt was. It was the protection of their native cattle from disease imported from abroad. That was the kind of protection of which he was an enthusiastic supporter. Even if there were no restrictions they would not get the same number of store cattle from Canada to-day as formerly. The low price and the increased production of corn in that country compelled farmers to use their own store cattle to consume the corn; but any advantage I at would begained by the removal of the restrictions would be overbalanced by the dangers which would be incurred. Consequently, he should vote against the Amendment

*MR. CATHCART WASON (Orkney and Shetland)

said he hoped the House would not be led away by his hon. friends the Member for East Norfolk and the Member for West Aberdeenshire in regard to this matter. No one could put the case of the large grazier and the large landowner stronger than they did; but he desired to put the point of view of the general good of the population. His hon. friend the Member for Kincardineshire at the Conference had said that the question was a working man's question; and there he most cordially agreed with him. The working man was entitled to be considered equally with the large graziers of Aberdeenshire and Norfolk. His hon. friend the Member for East Norfolk represented that the number of cattle in this country was declining. The latest statistics, however, showed that cattle had increased during the last sixteen or seventeen years from 10,000,000 to nearly 11,500,000, which was a very satisfactory state of things. Speaking as a man who had a practical knowledge of farming, and had to make his living by farming, he cordially endorsed all that had been said by the hon. Member for the Tavistock Division with reference to this question. It was not a case of Protection versus Free Trade in the ordinary sense of the words. Many hon. Members were old enough to remember the terrible havoc wrought in Scotland thirty-five or forty years ago by rinderpest, which ruined farmer after farmer as well as the agricultural community in many places. Why, therefore, should they run the great and serious risk they would run if they swept away those restrictions. His hon. friend the Member for East Norfolk gave away his whole ease in one sentence. He said the frontier was always open. That was just the difficulty. It was not a question of Canadian cattle; it was a question of cattle from the Gulf of Mexico right up to the Canadian frontier. It was impossible to devise any scheme by which cattle could be prevented from getting into Canada from the United States. He had seen a great deal of that part of the country. Huge herds of cattle were driven north by a small army of men, and the entire population of Canada could not stop them from entering that country. It was said that the United States was free from disease six months ago. Was that any reason why the United States should be regarded as free from disease now, or in a few days or weeks hence? Where there were large herds of cattle, as in the United States, it was impossible to say whether there was disease or not. Irish cattle were infinitely better than Canadian cattle, just as Irish horses were the best in the world, because they got careful individual attention. When animals ran wild in large herds, they had all the characteristics of wild beasts; whereas, in Ireland the cattle were carefully tended, and even small farmers in that country treated their stock with more care and attention than farmers in either England or Scotland. If the constituents of his hon. friends paid more attention to cattle tending, they would be doing more good than by agitating for the removal of the restrictions. There was one matter in which much might be done to increase the food supply of the country, and that was by preventing the destruction of immature calves for food. That would increase the number of cattle in the country by thousands. The murder—that was the only word for it—that went on was perfectly sinful. How could such food make up for the roast beef of Old England? That was a great national question. No one appreciated anything colonial more than he did, being a Colonial himself; but the case had not been put—

And, it being half-past Seven of the clock, the Debate stood adjourned till this Evening's Sitting.