HC Deb 11 February 1913 vol 48 cc899-910

1. "That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £63,572, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending the 31st day of March, 1913, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries, and of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, including certain Grants-in-Aid."

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution."


Even at this late hour, Mr. Speaker, I propose to say a few words on the important question of research; for this is the one opportunity which we have during the year. In the speech of the President of the Board of Agriculture (Mr. Runciman) on Saturday, he certainly did refer to research, but in a somewhat perfunctory way, and we are face to face with the striking fact that during the whole course of the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, involving an expenditure, and perhaps a loss, of hundreds of thousands of pounds, no steps were taken to discover the origin of this disease and its progress, and no attempt was made to regard the whole question from the point of view of research. I would endeavour to observe to the House, in a few words, that this is not any academic question at all, but is one of very great practical importance, and I will endeavour to finish with a practical proposition. In fact, I will venture it now, and it is this: In June, 1912, the Royal Commission, appointed by the President of the Board of Agriculture, terminated its labours, and that termination synchronised almost exactly with the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. My suggestion is that that Commission should be reappointed, and that fuller powers to order experiments, and to deal actively with research, and to call in the services of eminent bacteriologists outside the Department, and even, if necessary, from foreign countries, should be given to it.

Although the evidence was given under great disadvantages, in the fact with regard to the purposes of the Commission, that there had been no outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in these Islands for a great number of years, even then the outcome of the Royal Commission was not altogether useless. The fact that the evidence of the Royal Commission has not been considered was nowhere better brought out than in the Debate on Saturday, where eminent agriculturists, men recognised in the House as experts, again and again committed such serious errors in regard to this matter as to show they had not consulted, much less studied, the evidence of that Commission. For instance, it was mentioned again and again—and this has a bearing on the very important point of twelve hours' detention—that the period of incubation might be as short as one day, and might extend as long as twelve days. As a matter of fact, it was laid down by the best authorities during the Royal Commission that the period of incubation was about five days, and it is absolutely inconceivable that a disease of this character should vary in its period of incubation from such a great period as from one to twelve days.

In regard to the outbreak in Antrim, although the disease was well characterised, and although, as a consequence of that outbreak, the whole county was put under a ban, and the cattle trade held up for a number of days, it appeared on investigation that the disease was not foot-and-mouth disease at all. If the knowledge of this disease had been brought to an efficient state, such a gross error would not have occurred, and this period, during which the whole county was under the ban, and suffered a great loss of money, would never have occurred. Then again, with regard to the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease at Kildare. It was said again and again, and apparently accepted by the President of the Board of Agriculture, that this outbreak was traced to foreign straw, but no evidence whatever had been adduced as to the origin of the outbreak. It is rather a singular thing, and one gathers it from the Royal Commission itself, that whereas the most experienced bacteriologists and veterinary surgeons—such as Professor Bang, of Copenhagen—put a restriction on the importation of hides, hair, horns, and hooves. They allow a free importation of hay. Yet, as showing that these apparently technical and scientific matters have a very great practical bearing, pressed hay was one of the commodities which the President of the Board of Agriculture put under a ban to the great detriment of the export trade in my own Constituency, although of all the subjects mentioned, according to the opinion of the best bacteriologists, that would be the one least liable to suspicion.

I certainly grant that the difficulties are very great in regard to the investigation of this subject because, as the President of the Board himself said, the microbe seems to be ultra-microscopic. It is so small, in fact, that Professor Loeffler says it must be less than one to 125,000ths of an inch, and apparently it escapes even the finest filter, yet it is so virulent that the same authority declared that one 300th part is sufficient to infect an animal, and so give a start to the disease which may spread through the entire herd. We also can draw some guidance from another very important point, and that is that dryness and light appear to destroy the disease. Under these conditions the germs are incapable of living for more than a week, so that it would be absolutely impossible, for instance, that in these circumstances, the germs could be preserved for months from the period of the outbreak in Ireland, which has now terminated, thus proving clearly, moreover, that the disease was brought to Ireland from outside sources.

I will conclude with this important proposition, which I hope the President will consider carefully. In regard to the whole outbreak, I am inclined to think he regarded the matter too much from the point of view of the ordinary administration, and of the perfunctory routine of his office, even although working at high pressure. Although perhaps his Department is above reproach in the ordinary way, and they followed the routine adopted by precedent, yet of the President, who came with fresh energies, new ideas, and great ability, we expected something more. I venture to say that, from the very beginning of this outbreak, he should have regarded it much more from the point of view of the bacteriology of the matter than from the actual administration of his office, and should have put not only the whole force of the scientific skill of his own Department to the work of investigation, but should have invited outside help, from a great many bacteriologists in this country, and even, if necessary, from distinguished bacteriologists abroad, who have spent many years in investigating this disease, such as Professor Loeffler, Professor de Jong, or Professor Bang, of Copenhagen.

If the necessary funds were not at his disposal, he should have gone, without hesitation to the Treasury, and demanded a sort of blank cheque for any amount he required. The importance of this is that we might now have known the etiology of the disease, and we might have been able to identify—if not the individual microbe—at any rate its cultures. We should have known the sources of the disease, the manner of its incubation, and the course of its progress, and had we known these in the early stages, we might have been able to stamp it out, and so save the country and Ireland the expense of many thousands of pounds. I therefore suggest that the President should reappoint this Royal Commission, and should secure that it should have much more specific powers than it appears to have enjoyed in the past; that he should not be content merely with those investigations which have been carried out in India—because the cattle of India are of a rather different breed, and there may be many points in the incidence of the disease in India which are not comparable to those prevalent in this country. He should regard the entire question of foot-and-mouth disease from the most important standpoint, that of the bacteriology of the disease, and should put on the full working power of his Department, under his own guidance, so that the greatest efforts of the whole scientific ability of this country may be directed to the investigation of the disease, the discovery of its causes, and finally its entire elimination.


I am not going to detain the House more than a minute. What I would like to know is whether any of the extra sum required is due to an increase of the wages of labourers at Kew Gardens. Some few years ago the President of the Board of Agriculture promised that these men's wages would be increased. Each year since then they have petitioned for that.

Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Mr. Maclean)

That arises on the original Estimate. There is no reference whatever to Kew Gardens in the Supplementary Estimate we are now considering.


No one could regret more than I do the necessity for prolonging the Debate at this late hour, but the necessity is due not to me but to t he President of the Board of Agriculture. The right hon. Gentleman listened patiently last Saturday to speeches, mostly laudatory of himself. At their conclusion he complacently acknowledged the compliments with the air of one who thought that he had deserved them. As soon as a speech of real criticism was delivered, instead of answering it, the right hon. Gentleman moved the Closure.


I would remind the hon. Member that the action of the House cannot be criticised.


We were given to understand last Saturday that we should be given two further occasions for considering this matter—on Report and on the Appropriation Bill. Might I be allowed to proceed on that question. The plea that the President of the Board of Agriculture could not answer the particularly critical speech to which I refer, because he had already spoken really did not apply in Committee at all, and if it did it provokes the pertinent inquiry—why had he already spoken? That is our first ground of complaint. Why did he assume the air of a man answering the case against his Department before that case had been made.

Did not the President of the Board of Agriculture know that the flattering compliments which he was in such a hurry to acknowledge were not a case against his Department. Did he not know that there were men of serious purpose in this House, and that the wasting of a Saturday meeting of the House in lavish compliments to him, could be no part of their business here. Practically he assumed that there was really no case at all against his Depart- ment. His whole speech was based on that erroneous assumption, and therefore amounted to so much waste air. If there were serious and well-founded complaints against his Department, as there certainly were and are, he was by that fact placed on the defensive, and it was not for him but for those who made these complaints to determine whether they had or had not made their case. Having come here on a Saturday we wanted to do the work for which we had come. We were prepared to sit here for whatever time was necessary, and it was no business of the President of the Board of Agriculture to prevent us doing it. By preventing us he rendered the present intervention necessary. The President of the Board, in his gracious speech last Saturday, did not answer even the points made before he spoke. He had been pressed by both English and Irish Members to relax the twelve hours' quarantine in those cases in which a rigid enforcement of it would, owing to train arrangements, result in extending the period to twenty-four or thirty-six hours. Without denying that there were such cases, and while admitting that there was no special virtue in twelve hours, the right hon. Gentleman did not consent to relax that period. His silence amounts to an admission that the rigid twelve hours' period is indefensible. He was asked to explain why the cordon of fifteen miles radius which satisfied him in England did not satisfy him in Ireland, whether it was more rigorously enforced owing to the superiority of the police force there. All he condescended to tell us on that point was that he had often answered it. He certainly never answered it intelligibly. On this point I find that English Members helped him to obscure the issue by saying that the schedules and cordons in Ireland are the work of the Irish Department. That is not wholly correct. It is the English Board of Agriculture that closes the British ports and tells the Irish Department that unless certain areas are scheduled and restricted, the British ports will be closed against the whole country. That has been done over and over again during the last six months of 1912. The President of the Board did not utter one word of recognition of the losses imposed, even quite needlessly by his instructions upon the inarticulate peasants who have not been in a position to send deputations to him, and to whose representatives in this House he has not been over courteous. He did not make any attempt whatever to deal with the argument that his Board had no legal warrant for some of the things it did. In fact in his speech he confined himself to the stale platitudes of mocking sympathy, of which we are so tired. Even that sympathy was confined to the inconvenience which he was good enough to admit some people had suffered. Inconvenience may be an adequate description of the consequences of foot-and-mouth disease in England. We are here to represent people who have suffered much more than inconvenience, whom his restrictions have ruined, to whom this matter is not a mere question of finance, but one of life and death. There is an impression in this House, and in this country, and the President of the Board of Agriculture contributes towards its propagation, that in every case of direct loss, full compensation is paid.


On a point of Order. Is it in order for the hon. Gentleman to read the whole of his long speech?


I thought I saw the hon. Member glancing up frequently. I did not know he was reading it entirely.


The suggestion that, in every case of direct loss in connection with these restrictions, full compensation is paid is wholly inaccurate, as I desire to prove by a concrete case. A Constituent of mine, named Edward Sheridan, and a few other men of small means, deal jointly in mulch cows, in which trade they had last summer all their money invested. At the end of June, before any case of foot-and-mouth disease was known to exist in Ireland, these men shipped to England in the usual way their entire stock, consisting of 111 cows immediately after calving. While they were on the voyage the disease was discovered in Ireland and a restrictive order was issued. On arriving at Heysham the cows were delayed some twelve hours at the landing place, and then packed into railway trucks, taken out of them again, hustled back into a ship, and returned to Dublin, where they were detained in quaratine for three weeks. Talk of humanity! This treatment would have been bad for any cattle, but for cows fresh after calving it was a refinement of cruelty.


I have observed the hon. Member a little more closely, and it does seem to me he is en- tirely reading his speech now. I must direct his attention to the fact that that is not in accordance with the traditions of the House.


He is only consulting a chart.


These beasts were detained in Dublin for three weeks, with the result that their value was reduced £11 per head, or £1,221 in all. Their owners spent in various ways, apart from the loss of trade, a sum of £60, making a total loss of £1,281. I submit to the House that in the case of men of this class, whose whole property was invested in these beasts, "inconvenience" is a wholly inadequate word to describe that loss. During all that period not one of these beasts showed a single trace of foot-and-mouth disease, or of any other contagious disease. When I brought this matter to the notice of the Government in this House, the answer was that to compensate the owners of these cows would require legislation. I respectfully deny that. I say it is not the only instance in which the Law Officers of the Crown have been wrong, and I say that in this particular case they were wrong, because they based their opinion on the assumption that a claim in this case would come under the Diseases of Animals Acts, but no claim could have been made under those Acts for the simple reason that the animals in question never had any contagious disease. The whole loss was caused not by disease, for there was none, but by a mistake, if you will, of a Government Department, and should, therefore, be paid in full as part of the expenses of that Department, and for that reason embodied in this Estimate.

We do not for a moment admit the pretention of the Board of Agriculture that it is more anxious than we are for the suppression and the stamping-out of this disease. Neither the Board of Agriculture nor anyone in this country has a greater desire to be rid of this disease than we have in Ireland, and none have better means of vigilance on account of the number and efficiency of police; but what we do claim is that in a case of this sort, where heavy loss has been caused to men whose sole property these beasts were, not by disease, but by the maladministration or mistake of the Government Department, it was clearly the duty of the President of the Board of Agriculture to represent to the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, and the Treasury, that this loss should have been made good to the sufferers, and that, as it was caused by him as the head of his Department, it would be his duty, unless it was so made good, to resign his position. Let the right hon. Gentleman come to any court of any class of the people of that country and test their views on this point. I submit that if the Prime Minister were made aware of the loss occasioned to industrious people in this way by the mistakes of a Department, and if it were represented to him by the President of the Department, he would himself embody the amount lost in this Estimate or have it embodied by the President of the Board, or would put another President at the head of this Department who would do it.


Representing, as I do, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, a large grazing and dairy country in the South of Ireland, I rise for the purpose of joining with my colleagues in asking the President of the Board of Agriculture to take off the twelve hours detention, at least in the case of fat cattle coming into this country. It undoubtedly is a great hardship on the resources of the cattle breeders in Ireland, and I ask the right hon. Gentleman what real good can this period of detention do? None; in the first place, twelve hours detention is not long enough for any inspectors appointed to trace disease in cattle when it is in the period of incubation. That must be an acknowledged fact by anyone possessing common sense. Then, with regard to the trouble and expense caused by the delay of getting these cattle into the lairages for this long period and feeding them, and say that if they are put into a strange place with cattle they do not know those cattle will begin to horn each other, and so instead of doing them good it will do them harm.

What I want to put before the President of the Board of Agriculture is that instead of detaining the cattle he should adopt the system in use in other countries, and that he should make provision for the feeding of those cattle in the transport boats while they are going from one place to another. It is the practice in America, and in sending cattle to this country from Canada, to make provision by which the animals are watered and fed in the boats. That, I think, is a practical step to take, instead of keeping the cattle at the ports at great cost and expense to the purchasers. That cost, undoubtedly, you must take from the farmers in Ireland in the first instance, because we all know that when buyers come down to the fairs in the south of Ireland they must take into consideration the cost of transit and the period of detention, and consequently they give a smaller amount for the cattle than they otherwise would do.

The right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Agriculture must know from reading the papers that we in the south of Ireland, where no foot-and-mouth disease was traced amongst our cattle, have suffered a tremendous amount from his restrictions, and we complain that, where there has been no foot-and-mouth disease for thirty years and over, we should be placed on the same footing as those counties where the disease undoubtedly existed. We have suffered a great deal. I know for a fact that when I was at home during the last recess on my holidays there were several farmers in my constituency and no beast could be sold. There were no shippers in the fairs, though there were plenty of cattle. We all know that when the time for the payment of the annuity comes the farmers in the south of Ireland have to sell their cattle for whatever price they can get. I know farmers who have about twenty acres of land and who keep dairy cows, and who instead of selling their calves young put them out to grass for about six or eleven months. They put them out from May to October and when October comes round they have to sell these yearlings, as they then are, for whatever price they can get for them. The result is that they have suffered tremendous loss.


Divide! divide.


I think this is a very important matter. I did not know this question was coming on. I only just came into the House and when I found that the hon. Member for West Meath (Mr. Ginnell) was raising this question and I had not had an opportunity of raising it before I said to myself—I must have a go at the President of the Board of Agriculture and tell him what we think. We are tired of passing resolutions condemning him for keeping on this twelve hours detention and I daresay he has a good many of those resolutions. My point is that the small farmers in my constituency and those all over Ireland have suffered tremendously, and I want to impress upon the right hon. Gentleman that he ought to take that into account now, and act in a generous spirit by taking off these restrictions, at any rate in the case of fat cattle. Store cattle may require feeding because they are younger. I would impress on the President of the Board of Agriculture the point I have made, that he will find that twelve hours' detention is practically no use whatever. Unquestionably, as he knows, there has been no disease, except in a few cases in isolated counties which have been traced to other causes. In the interests of the farmers of Ireland, we ask him to take off the twelve hours' detention, and to consult his advisers about this matter.

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

I can assure the hon. Member for Westmeath that I am by no means unsympathetic to his constituents. The case he has brought to the notice of the House this evening has already received my consideration. I am afraid his constituents are not the only people who suffered by the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, and I hope the action taken by the Vice-President of the Department of Agriculture in Ireland, and by myself here, will not necessitate any further disturbance of the trade between the two countries. In reply to the hon. Gentleman who opened this discussion, I would say we have lost no opportunity, since the outbreak of this disease, in accumulating a large amount of data on which scientific men can work. Scientists abroad, either in America or in Europe, have not been able to ascertain very much about the nature of foot-and-mouth disease, but whatever they do learn, that knowledge will be of value to us here, although I agree that the conditions of India are different from those at home. I think, however, on this occasion that I can assure the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Lynch) that we are at work on the very problems of which he spoke this evening, and we shall base our administration in future on the knowledge which will naturally result from the work of our scientists.

Motion made, and Question proposed, 2. "That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £38,000, be granted to His Majesty to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1913, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Department of Agriculture and other Industries and Technical Instruction for Ireland, and of the Services administered by that Department, including sundry Grants-in-Aid.