HC Deb 01 August 1912 vol 41 cc2386-93

10.0 P.M.


I wish to call the attention of the House and the Minister for Agriculture to the seriousness of the proposal of establishing what is called a testing station in that part of Surrey which I myself represent. The section of the county where it is proposed to establish this testing station to ascertain whether or not cattle are diseased is of a highly agricultural character. The people there are intimately connected with farming and other occupations of that kind, and to establish a station of the description to which I refered in a thickly settled portion of the country would apply not merely to the area immediately surrounding it, but to the military station at Aldershot to the great open market of Guildford, as well as to the supply of milk and butter and cheese to that market, is a matter of very serious import. There is more than one consideration to be borne in mind in this connection. In the first place, if it is necessary to establish a testing station, surely the last place in which to put it is in a section of the country so central, so densely populated and so intimately connected with agriculture as is that portion of Surrey where it is proposed to place it. It is suggested that one of the objects of this station is to secure certificates for healthy cattle to be exported to foreign countries and to British Dominions overseas. It is further suggested, and a representation has been made on the subject, that arrangements will be made for examining every animal admitted, and the most stringent precautions will be taken to prevent any possible spread of disease. This at once suggests that in a station of this kind disease will necessarily be found, and when discovered the cattle will be isolated there. That being the case, the effect must be very disastrous to the surrounding country and to the occupations of the people there. A large portion of the area is devoted to grazing as well as to agriculture, and the numerous herds which are now being grazed would have to be removed, so that those who devote themselves to the occupation of cattle-grazing would suffer correspondingly. There is another aspect of the subject. If it is necessary to have a station of that kind, surely it should be established in some remote part of the country which is not thickly settled, and which is not used for cattle-grazing or agriculture. I do not suppose that such an institution would be particularly desirable in any part of the United Kingdom, but if it is a necessity it seems to me that it should be established in some sparsely-settled area. If it is to be used for the certification of cattle for export when healthy, then, surely, instead of being put in a central portion of the South of England, it should be placed near some seaport, so that when the cattle had been examined and certified to be healthy and free from disease, they could be conveniently conveyed to the ships for the purpose of being sent abroad. I have had occasion to ask one or two questions of the President of the Board of Agriculture with regard to the advisability or inadvisability of establishing this institution where it is proposed, and the answers which I have received seem to suggest the neighbourhood of a common. But there are various farms and roads which abut upon a common, and therefore there is obvious danger of the spread of disease, more especially where the common is devoted to the purpose of grazing. I also asked the right hon. Gentleman whether he would make some further local inquiry, and I have here a letter from the Department, which states— No useful purpose would be served by the institution of a local inquiry or by a conference of local sanitary authorities. The Board do not propose to take any steps for that purpose. It seems to me, not merely from the point of view of the local industry, but from the point of view of general health and from the fact that there are large consignments of milk, butter and cheese from this community in Surrey to the small neighbouring towns and villages, to Guildford and Woking, and to the markets of the Metropolis, that the local sanitary authorities should be consulted as being very competent authorities in regard to a matter of this kind. If disease should be further spread in the neighbourhood from that station, it would affect the whole surrounding country, which is so largely devoted to cattle-grazing. It would also affect Guildford, which has a large cattle market. A great meeting was recently held in that portion of the country, when representatives came from miles around, and a resolution was unanimously adopted condemnatory of this proposal. In that meeting people of different political opinions participated, and there was uniform opinion as to the danger and inadvisability of this station. Some of the gentlemen who spoke are large cattle breeders, possessing large herds, and Mr. Selous, the distinguished African traveller and hunter, spoke of the danger of rinderpest and of disease overleaping the most careful boundaries which might be set about it. For my own part my experience in regard to these matters is limited, but from the information given to me it seems that the proposal is fraught with great danger, and that sufficient precaution has not been taken, and sufficient inquiry has not been made. Furthermore, it appears to me that it would be more suitable to establish such a station somewhere convenient to a port, where the difficulties could be more easily coped with, than in the centre of an agricultural country, where it is proposed to place it. I believe the subject is not only of local but of general interest, and I ask for it the attention of the right hon. Gentleman.


I ask the indulgence of the House while I—


Does the hon. Member wish to speak on the same point?


No, I rose to speak on the question of the inadequacy of the Grant.


We had better dispose of this topic first.


I desire to ask the President of the Board to give an answer to my hon. Friend. The matter is one no doubt of local interest, but also, I think, of general interest, and of real importance. I gather that the object of the station in question is to test the cattle with a view to ascertaining whether they are subject to disease of a certain kind. It must follow that they are in some sense suspect, and that there is a probability of disease being found. If so, I do not understand why a testing station has been established, or is proposed to be established, in the midst of an agricultural country near a highway, and near other farms where there is pasture, and near other cattle; and in a position in which it might possibly be a centre from which disease might spread. It seems to me my hon. Friend is quite right in saying that if there must be—and I daresay there must be—a station of this kind, that it ought to be established at some point as near as possible to the coast, and as far as possible from other farms; and in such a place that the risk of spreading this great plague of cattle-disease is as little as possible. Clearly the place chosen is not a place of that kind. The proposal is condemned by the district council, as I understand, or, at all events, by those in the neighbourhood, as likely to lead to serious danger. I think, therefore, the House is entitled to an answer from the Board of Agriculture to the very serious complaint made.

The PRESIDENT of the BOARD of AGRICULTURE (Mr. Runciman)

I can quite understand the hon. and learned Gentleman and the hon. Member who preceded him presenting this question on the information which they have apparently at their disposal; but I doubt whether either they or their constituents need be in the least nervous about the proposal which has actually been made by the Board of Agriculture. To begin with, they are associating now in their minds this testing station with the present epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease, with which it has absolutely no connection whatever. From the very first I have resisted every proposal to have anywhere in the United Kingdom or in the British Isles a station where foot-and-mouth disease could be the subject of experiment. That is one of the reasons why I declined at the Board of Agriculture to have any scientific investigation conducted within these Islands on foot-and-mouth disease. I felt that to have any experimental station might be dangerous, and would certainly lead to a great deal of uneasiness, and would not enable me to give what is most necessary for the cattle export trade, a clean bill of health to this country. There is no suggestion whatever that any animals that will ever pass through this testing station can, or will be, tested for foot-and-mouth disease. As a matter of fact, if they had foot-and-mouth disease it would be discovered long before they got there. There is no lack of tests for that disease, and it is known at once. The object of this station is entirely different, however much that appears to have entered into the minds of those in the neighbourhood of Guildford and those who organised and attended the meeting to which the hon. Member drew my attention.

May I point out exactly what a testing station of this kind is for? As everyone who is connected with the cattle export trade knows, a number of animals go out every year, when our ports are open, and they are not open at present, owing to the existing epidemic; when they are open a number of animals of very high value go out to all countries which receive English stock. When foreign breeders want to get the best bulls or the best rams, they come to this country for them, and they pay very high prices for them. One of the great obstacles to the export trade is that sometimes those animals, having passed a veterinary test in this country as being absolutely sound, have, on reaching the port of arrival in other parts of the world, been very often rejected on a second veterinary inspection or examination. There have been grave misgivings about this second veterinary examination, and in some cases rejection of the animals at the port of arrival has led to considerable loss, and has involved the breeders and the exporters, not only in considerable loss, but has damaged the reputation of their herds. It was a suggestion of the Committee which sat on the export trade in cattle that there should be a test on this side which would be accepted by foreign buyers, or foreign governments. We have already received assurances from one or two foreign governments and from one or two of the Colonial Governments that a test applied under our supervision would be accepted by them as sufficient. But it was not with respect to foot-and-mouth disease, or cattle plague, or pleuropneumonia, or rinderpest, or any other of the phrases which are used quite indiscriminately with regard to the present outbreak, it was purely with regard to tuberculosis and other individual diseases which are not supposed to be of an epidemic character.

Then there is another side of the question. We have been conducting at our laboratories, in very inadequate quarters, the work of an immunisation station. A largo number of valuable animals are bought every year for the Colonies. In South Africa, for instance, there is an immense number of bulls of the highest class and of the second class taken out by breeders as well as by the Government, and when they have got there the mortality quite recently from red water fever has been enormous. Almost whole herds have been swept, and unfortunately the highest grade animals are those which have suffered most. Owing to discoveries which have been made over here, English veterinary scientists have found means of securing animals against the risk of red water fever. In our immunisation station, under difficult circumstances, we are immunising every week large numbers of animals for the Colonies—animals bred in England, sold by English exporters, and going out to the Colonies. There, once they have been immunised, they live much longer and more useful lives. Our stalls are crowded. We never have a vacancy. If we had ten times the number of stalls, we could have them occupied. But a necessity for this station is not only that we should have a sufficient number of stalls, and the immunisation be done under Government control, but also that the station itself should be removed from the risk of diseases not in the station, but around the station. When the hon. and learned Member speaks of the risk of disease being spread by the station, I would in reply say that our anxiety is not that disease may go out from the station, but that disease outside may come into the station, which would, of course, destroy not only the work of the station itself, but bring disease into some of the most valuable animals in the world. That is the reason why we have tried to obtain a spot which is comparatively isolated. The hon. and learned Gentleman reminds me that, although the farm to which reference has been made is almost isolated, it is not entirely so. It is difficult to find anywhere a place that is completely isolated. I have had particulars of a large number of farms in various parts of the country, but I have found none better suited for the purposes of a testing station. I regret that it should start with any undue unpopularity in the district, as there is not the least ground for it.

I may point out how little risk there is by stating that this station will be used, not by unhealthy or tuberculous animals brought there to be cured, but by the healthiest animals. In fact, they are the only animals that can go abroad. They will be tested there in order that our certificates may be sufficient for the purposes of foreign Governments. These very diseases for which the animals will be immunised are not diseases which can be spread or would be spread by mere asso- ciation, however intimate. They will be micro-organismal diseases, which cannot be spread directly by affected animals. It is only when the animals are of a very healthy and very valuable character that there would be any object in their owners sending them there. The owners will have to pay for the immunisation. It is not to be done free of cost, and naturally they will not incur that expense unless they have very good reason to believe that the animals will be accepted by the purchasers on the other side. I think that the whole misapprehension has arisen from the fact that an impression got abroad that we were going to have an animals' hospital. We never intended anything of the kind. I believe that the station will not be a source of danger to anyone near. The suggestion is made that we ought to have planted it near a port. I must draw the attention of the hon. and learned Gentleman to the fact that the veterinary officers who have to do this work have also a great deal of administrative work to do, so that they must be within reach of London, and able to travel backwards and forwards as rapidly as possible. If it be said that we had here a station further away than the present place—well, that is far enough away for the convenience of our staff; and no one need be under any apprehension in the matter.


I can quite understand that there are a great number of people who were naturally nervous when they first heard of this proposal. I myself was one. But, having heard the closing observations of the right hon. Gentleman—not being able to be present earlier—I am bound to say that he has made a good defence of the case for which Alperton Lodge should be used. Of course it is obvious to everyone that if the Lodge was used for purposes in connection with foot-and-mouth and other diseases, people acquainted with the subject would have been exceedingly anxious, and they would have taken steps to bring that anxiety to the notice of the Board of Agriculture. But we have specific assurances from the right hon. Gentleman that foot-and-mouth disease is a question on which there need be no apprehension, nor rinderpest, which we had for a great number of years, and I sincerely trust that we may never suffer from it again. Then, in respect to the other diseases that were mentioned, I did not hear exactly, and I am not quite sure whether the experiments were limited specifically to tuberculosis or not. Is that so?


No, tuberculosis is one of the things which gives the inspectors trouble, because the tuberculosis test tried here is not accepted on the other side. Arrangements have been made with one or two foreign and Colonial governments to accept the tubercular test certificate of the Government.


But experiments are to be made in other diseases?


Immunisation against red-water fever.


These two things alone?




At all events the right hon. Gentleman gave us an assurance that the place would not be used for the purpose of dealing with diseases of a contagious character. That being so, and some of these criticisms have been disposed of by the right hon. Gentleman, undoubtedly there are purposes to which the Lodge is to be put which would be most useful. I can only say, so far as I am concerned, and perhaps for some others on this side of the House, that my apprehensions have disappeared. I believe that the work in which the right hon. Gentleman proposes to engage may be exceedingly useful.