HC Deb 13 December 1912 vol 45 cc1054-62

I rise for the purpose of asking for some explanation from the Vice-President of the Department of Agriculture in Ireland as to the reasons for proclaiming county Meath in connection with foot-and-mouth disease. The only genuine case of the disease in county Meath occurred on 13th August last, more than four months ago. The recent case which has appeared in county Dublin was that at Kells, which was held by the right hon. Gentleman's own inspectors not to be a case of foot-and-mouth disease. No doubt the English inspectors differed, but the animals which were exported to Dundee are still sound. As regards the alleged case at Dunshaugh-lin, the inspectors held that not to be a case of genuine foot-and-mouth disease, and the eminent professor they called in agreed with them, although the English inspectors differed. Time has vindicated the Irish inspectors, and that herd is now free from all signs of disease. I ask when the right hon. Gentleman proposes to permit these cattle to leave Dublin? There is no trace, so far as official information goes, of any foot-and-mouth disease in Meath at the present time. It is a perfectly clean county according to the right hon. Gentleman's own inspectors. What has he done in regard to that county? When a case occurs in England it is invariably the custom to proclaim a radius of fifteen miles, and no more. That is the maximum circle drawn in this country. What has the right hon. Gentleman done in Ireland? He has dealt with the whole county. There is the town of Kells and the town of Gormanstown, which is twenty miles away from Dunshaughlin. I ask the right hon. Gentleman on what precedent he has acted? There is no such precedent under the English Board. The counties of Meath and Dublin hug each other, and the county of Dublin runs in several places into the county of Meath. As the crow flies from Dunshaughlin to Drogheda, it would have to pass over at least ten miles of county Dublin and five miles of county Meath. Why has the right hon. Gentleman proceeded by way of prohibiting counties instead of drawing a cordon? Are the microscopic microbes of foot-and-mouth disease bounded by county areas? Are they confined to a county? There is no other explanation of his conduct. If he were to draw a circle round ten miles of a suspected place there would be some show of reason, but in his present action I can see that he is neither guided by official experience nor by any degree of common sense.

The right hon. Gentleman may tell me that Meath is a suspected county, but what grounds are there for that suspicion? His action is a parallel case with cases in coercion days, when men were imprisoned as suspects. What ground has the right hon. Gentleman for treating Meath differently from any other county? Meath is at present full of cattle, and Drogheda, twenty-six miles from the source of any alleged disease, is at present a closed port. For what reason? I hope he will give some explanation. I suggest that he should draw a cordon around the alleged places of disease of five miles, and allow the cattle outside that line to be sent to market on the owners producing a certificate that they are sound and free from disease. The Meath stock owners who came here this year to confer with the right hon. Gentleman and with the President of the English Board, leaving their farms at their own expense, were told they ought to provide qualified men with long experience to inspect their cattle before they left, and if the right hon. Gentleman will only adhere to that now, I believe they will be only too happy to agree. If he will, on the production of a certificate that there is no disease upon their farms, grant them a licence to take their cattle to the port of emigration, I believe he will do a great deal to allay the discontent and the justifiable dissatisfaction at the action of his Department in not drawing a cordon around the affected area, instead of proclaiming a whole county.


My hon. Friend has made out, I believe, an unanswerable case for the Division which he represents. I rise for the purpose not so much of entering a plea as for making a protest. The case for the county of Louth, one Division of which I represent, has been submitted time after time to the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Russell) as well as to the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Runciman), and if I had the time and the opportunity to put the case before the House, I am sure there is no fair-minded and reasonable man who would not agree that there is absolutely neither rhyme nor reason for keeping the county of Louth under the restrictions of this Act. I enter my protest—I know there is no use doing anything else after the arguments brought forward time and again in connection with this matter—against the action of both the English and the Irish Departments. I shall not trouble the House with the grotesquely absurd regulations that have been made in dealing with the county Louth in the past, but now when the other parts of Ireland are being freed from restrictions I think it is time to raise my voice here on behalf of that county as to the treatment to which it is subjected. Now it appears that the county Louth, because it happens to be adjacent to a county in which there is a suspicion of this disease being in existence, is to be placed under these restrictions, and that, too, at this season just on the verge of the Christmas fairs, when sore injury will be done to the people engaged in this trade.

I do not know what view the right hon. Gentleman takes of the question, but suppose that he separates himself altogether from the position he is in, and that he looks upon it from the outside standpoint, and asks himself the question, what would he say if two great powerful Departments, with highly trained staffs of inspectors, permanent officials, and with this disease under the notice of the two Departments, not for a week or two, or a month or two, but for many months, are not able to say where the cases of disease originated, but as a mere matter of suspicion are prepared to put a stop to the trade of the whole county, and to inflict an enormous amount of expense and hardship upon the people belonging to that county and the whole community generally. The two Departments have, as I have stated, large and highly-trained staffs of experts for the purpose of doing this kind of work, but, more than that, in Ireland they have the Royal Irish Constabulary, to whose efficiency for this kind of work the right hon. Gentleman has borne high testimony. In addition, they have got the offer, publicly made to the President of the Board of Agriculture in this country on the part of the people interested in this trade in Ireland, to place the whole of the resources of the country at the disposal of the two Departments—I mean the county councils, district councils, and others—and even to find money to back up the resources of the two Departments for the purpose of tracing this disease. Is it not too bad that, after all this, we should have the county Louth closed merely because it happens to be on the borders of a county in which this disease is suspected to exist?


It is as representing one of the counties which are included in the recent Order of the Department of Agriculture that I desire to join in the protest made against the action of the Government. The procedure adopted, to my mind and to those in Ireland who are better acquainted with the trade than I am, is absolutely reckless, reckless in its disregard of the great and vital in- terests of the cattle trade in Ireland. The Department of Agriculture ought to be blamed for assenting to an arrangement which inflicts such gross injustice on the farmers of Ireland. The case of Armagh, the county which I have the honour to represent, is one of peculiar hardship. There has not been a case, or even a suspected case, of foot-and-mouth disease in that county during the last thirty years. It is absolutely free from disease at the present time. The inspectors of the Department have made a special search for foot-and-mouth disease, and have not been able to get a single sample of the disease throughout the whole county. Yet notwithstanding that Armagh has an absolutely clean bill of health, that county has been scheduled as a part of Ulster from which the export of all cattle must cease. The reasons given for this drastic proceeding by the Vice-President of the Department seem, to my mind, wholly insufficient. The fact that five diseased animals were shipped from Newry, and that some of the animals which went over in the same vessel came from the county Armagh, does not afford any reasonable ground for suspecting that the disease exists in the county.


They were not diseased when they were shipped.


Yes, The suspicion has been proved to be groundless by the investigations which have taken place by the Department. I cannot understand why Armagh should be included in the Schedule at all, or why the county Down should be included. The fact is that the action taken in regard to the matter shows a spirit of panic which is nothing more or less than deplorable. So far as the scheduled areas are concerned, the Order could not be more drastic if they were reeking with disease. Many parts of Ireland are treated in a similar way, which is absolutely unjustifiable. Upon a mere suspicion these restrictions have been imposed upon the cattle trade in Ireland. I would like to know if there is any precedent for making such an Order as this in England or Scotland? I know of none. You demand proof in England and Scotland of the existence of the disease before you schedule an area, but that is not the case in Ireland. The same treatment ought to be given to Ireland as to Great Britain. No one could object, if cases of the disease had been actually discovered within an area, to that area being scheduled, but it is absolutely unjust that the whole cattle trade of Ireland should be disorganised and subjected to restrictions which cause enormous loss in Ireland merely because it is suspected that cattle disease exists somewhere or other in the country. We contend that no Irish county should be treated worse than an English or Scotch county is treated in this matter, and I trust that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to afford to us Irish Members in a matter of such grave importance to our constituents some information that may tend to relieve the great strain placed upon those engaged in the cattle industry in Ireland.

Mr. T. W. RUSSELL (Vice-President of the Department of Agriculture, Ireland)

I have not the slightest objection to Irish Members expressing their views on this question, and I very much wish that what they ask could be done, seeing that I am an Irish Member myself. The two Departments have been acting together responsibly, and I take my share of that responsibility. The House will do well to remember that the animal which was landed at Birkenhead had been found to be infected, and it infected four or five other animals, and the Board of Agriculture in England shut down the English ports against the whole of Ireland. Let the House start with that. I had nothing to do with it. When the ports of England were shut no beast could leave Ireland for any port of Great Britain. My first duty, I am sure hon. Members will agree, was to consider how the ports could be got open. This animal came from a district very well known, and let me tell the hon. Baronet that it was the county of Armagh.


Does the right hon. Gentleman say that the diseased animal was traced from the county of Armagh?


It was traced to the borders of Armagh and Tyrone.


Was it traced to the county of Armagh, as the right hon. Gentleman has now stated?


The first duty I had was to discover how the ports could be got open for the rest of Ireland, and the rest of Ireland is more important than these Northern counties, however important they may be. I conferred with my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Agri- culture on that point. They complain in Ireland that as an Irish Minister I have been told over and over again to look after Irish interests, and not bother about England. That may be patriotic sentiment, but it is not business. My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Agriculture, in the exercise of his right, said that unless certain precautions were taken in Ireland cattle would not be allowed to come over from those parts which were suspected. What happened? While I was justified in seeing what could be done in the interests of Ireland, my right hon. Friend's duty and right was to protect English interests. He submitted to me that the whole area was suspect, and that no cattle could be allowed to come from that area until the whole of the facts had been investigated. I had no option but to schedule the whole district and investigate the facts. The ports will be open on Monday—they are already open for fat cattle—and my right hon. Friend intends on Monday to make a statement which will lighten this darkness very considerably. As at present advised, if nothing happens, that will be the case. I do claim that Irish Members should recognise that Irish interests are not always English interests in this matter, and that we are doing the best we can in difficult and trying circumstances. I beg to assure the House that I and my responsible officers in Ireland are as anxious to get rid of this disease as they are, but we must work in harmony with the English Board of Agriculture, and, whether we like it or not, we must do so. I really must do the best I can under the circumstances. I ask the Irish Members to believe me when I tell them that there is not an hour of the day and far into the night but I and my officers are working on this matter.


I desire to ascertain one matter. Amongst the cattle that were found, or supposed to be suspected of having the disease and being owned was a beast from a part of Meath. I would ask the Vice-President whether the gentleman who owned that beast is to be compensated for the slaughter of the beast, or is he to be prosecuted for concealing the disease in that animal?


I can answer straight off. It is quite true that there were two beasts from Meath. The Irish Department refused to recognise them as foot-and-mouth disease, but the English Board's officers found that it was foot-and-mouth disease. We hold to our opinion in Dublin now, and we are to a certain extent confirmed by Professor MacFadyean, I am glad to say. But for practical purposes it rests with the English Board of Agriculture. They say it is and that the animals according to their officers are affected with foot-and-mouth disease, and you must schedule. That is the answer.


Will the right hon. Gentleman say when Meath will be released?


It is the action of the English Board of Agriculture and not of yours that is the cause of the scheduling?


I will not allow the hon. Member to say that. I am co-operating with the English Board. They have their rights and we cannot take them away. I am doing my best for Irish interests in consultation with the English Board, and I do not find that they are intensely desirous of inflicting Ireland with these regulations one hour longer than is necessary. They had the power to say it was foot-and-mouth disease.


I understand them that Meath is scheduled not because of foot-and-mouth disease being traced there, but because the English Board of Agriculture say you must schedule it—is that not so?


The English Board of Agriculture say those two animals were affected with foot-and-mouth disease. They asked the Irish Department to schedule the county of Meath from which they came, because of that. That is their contention. If I refused, and I could have done so as the English Board had no power over me, but no port in England would be open to Irish cattle.

Mr. JOHN GORDON (Londonderry, S.)

For the satisfaction of the people who are concerned, I should like to know, apart from the action of the English Board, what are the facts and circumstances which led to the scheduling of a large portion of the county of Down and a considerable portion of the county of Antrim. As I understand the animal which was affected with the disease was traced to some place I think in the county of Tyrone, near Armagh, but there has been no trace of disease in either Antrim or Down. I would like to know the facts and circumstances.


If the hon. and learned Gentleman will wait until Monday I think all the trouble will be removed on that point. Antrim, of course, will certainly be free. The whole thing is a precautionary measure, and we made as wide a sweep as we thought necessary under the circumstances.


I only desire to say that our Irish Friends have our fullest sympathy in the position in which they find themselves to-day. In this matter Irish and English interests are absolutely indentical. It is one trade between the two counties, and that trade becomes quite impossible when Irishmen lose the confidence of possible English buyers. All we ask is that the administration on your side shall be such as to inspire us with such confidence that our Board can act with the full confidence of English breeders and purchasers in the joint interest of the common trade.


I do not think you can complain?


I wish to see such community of action between the two Boards and wise administration as will inspire confidence.


Can the right hon. Gentleman promise that the restrictions in the county of Armagh will be removed next week?


The President of the Board of Agriculture is as anxious as I am to remove the restrictions, and it is a mere matter of investigations being carried out by the English Department.

And it being half an hour after the conclusion of Government business, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put.

Adjourned at Twenty-three minutes before Six o'clock, till Monday next, 16th December, pursuant to the Order of the House of 14th October.