HC Deb 09 March 1938 vol 332 cc2034-46

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £229,450, 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, 1938, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, and of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, including grants and grants-in-aid in respect of agricultural education and research, eradication of diseases of animals, and fishery research; and grants, grants-in-aid, and expenses in respect of improvement of breeding, etc., of livestock, land settlement, improvement of cultivation, drainage, etc., regulation of agricultural wages, agricultural credits, and marketing, control of diseases of fish, fishery development; and sundry other services.

11.10 p.m.

The Minister of Pensions (Mr. Ramsbotham)

My right hon. Friend would not have needed to ask for this Supplementary Estimate of £229,450 had it not been for the outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease. Had those outbreaks not occurred there would have been a substantial saving on the Vote. On page 21 there is shown additional expenditure required in connection with foot and mouth disease of £420,000. That has been reduced by net savings on the subhead amounting to £85,600, bringing the figure to £334,400. The principal saving has been in respect of tuberculosis in cattle, and as a result of the decision to postpone Part IV of the Agriculture Act, 1937, from 1st January to 1st April next. Therefore the net increase is £334,400. The additional provision for other Ser- vices amounts to about 10 per cent. of that figure, namely £35,000.

The Committee would like me to say a few words about the outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease which are the occasion of this Supplementary Estimate. During the first six months of the financial year there were only 17 outbreaks, costing £39,000. Since then and up to the closing of the Estimate there were 261 other outbreaks, involving a total expenditure of £455,000. We ask for power to provide £45,000 for other possible outbreaks, making a grand total of £500,000; that is to say, £420,000, as shown in this Estimate, plus the original Estimate of £80,000.

The series of outbreaks began in the middle of October. It was of a severe character and its source was Central Europe. This disease was apparently reintroduced into France from North Africa and spread during the summer through France and Belgium, Holland and Germany. To give an illustration of the position at our peak stage of the series of outbreaks, when we had 87 outbreaks, there were 45,085 in France, 22,419 in Belgium, and 21,604 in Germany. Since then I am glad to say that so far as we are concerned and, fortunately, so far as other countries are concerned, there has been a satisfactory decrease of the disease. It is clearly waning. In January we had 75 outbreaks, 26 in February, and up to 8th March there was only one.

I do not want to worry the Committee with a long story of the origin of the outbreaks; but it is supposed that migratory birds are responsible for the infection coming to this country. The heaviest infection was in the autumn at the time of the mass migration of birds to the Eastern and Southern counties. This type of disease is very virulent and is exactly of the same virulent character as the disease on the Continent. We know that the disease can be carried long distances. It is not yet known whether birds are susceptible, but it is highly probable that they are mechanical carriers of the virus. Other suggested sources of it are, of course, rats, hedgehogs, imported vegetables, motor tyres, and so forth, but if any of them had been responsible we should have expected a much wider distribution of the disease. One fact that emerges is that in this country, for a total expenditure of less than £500,000 and the destruction of 50,000 animals—a very small fraction indeed of our total animal population—we have saved this country from anything in the nature of the appalling disaster which has fallen upon Central Europe. That seems a very small premium to pay for the very great risk that is involved.

The Committee would, perhaps, like me to say a word about research, which is of vital importance in dealing with this disease. It is carried out by the Foot-and-Mouth Disease Research Committee which has recently, and rightly, been strengthened. It consists of eminent scientists in the medical and veterinary professions, under the chairmanship of Sir Joseph Arkwright, and it is giving particular attention at the moment to the problem of immunisation, which is complicated by the fact that there are several types of virus in this disease. Immunity may be secured against one type by means which will not give immunity against another. The committee have also outlined a series of experiments to ascertain whether birds are susceptible to the disease or are capable of mechanically transmitting the virus. The question of a serum, as employed in Germany, has been carefully studied and experiments made, but so far they have not been very successful.

I want to draw the attention of the Committee to some facts about land drainage. It will be seen from page 20 of the Estimates that there are anticipated savings of £65,000 on land drainage grants, which must seem rather strange in view of the experience of past years. The explanation is that it is often extremely difficult to estimate for the exact sum required, particularly with a new service. Of this sum, £40,000 is accounted for by Part III of the Agriculture Act of last summer, under which the Minister was empowered to make grants to statutory drainage authorities. It was very hard to estimate what would be the amount required in the first year. We provided £100,000, and in point of fact only £60,000 was wanted; hence the saving of £40,000. There were 188 schemes approved, at an estimated cost of £182,500. The balance of £25,000 related to grant-aided catchment board schemes under Section 55 of the Land Drainage Act of 1930. A catchment board failing to keep to its estimated expendi- ture may have a substantial effect upon the Ministry's Vote. For example, the Trent Board spent less than was estimated, and there was a reduction of £29,000 in the Vote, but that has been offset to a large extent by extra money spent by several other boards. Notwithstanding that, there is a net saving of £25,000, making, with the £40,000, a saving of £65,000.

I wish to make only one further point, which will be of interest to hon. Gentlemen opposite. On page 21 there is a small item of £950 relating to repayment to the War Office and the Air Ministry in respect of services rendered by them in the fenlands last year. Hon. Members will recollect the grave dangers that arose in that part of the country last year. A great deal of emergency work had to be done on the spot and at once. It was not a question of getting fresh men to make up the banks; you cannot employ more than a certain number on the banks, and local men are the best for the work. But there is the question of communications, so that people may be warned of the danger points, and for that purpose the signal units of the Army and the Air Force were placed at the disposal of the local authorities, which accounts for the expenditure involved. If there are any other points that hon. Members wish to raise, my right hon. Friend will deal with them when he comes to reply, but I think I have dealt with the main points of the Vote.

11.22 p.m.

Mr. Alexander

I am obliged to the Minister of Pensions for the explanation he has given for his former Department, and to the Minister of Agriculture for turning up to deal with any points that we may raise. I do not propose to detain the Committee for long, but there are several very important points which ought to be considered. The opening statement of the Minister of Pensions with regard to the outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease in the last few months is of great importance to farmers and to the community as a whole. A very heavy recurring expenditure is involved from year to year, and farmers are thrown into an appalling disturbance in which it is certain that confidence cannot be restored by the actual monetary compensation that they get. No matter in which part of the House we sit, we can always have complete sympathy with the farmer who is suddenly faced with the decimation of a herd which he has taken, perhaps, years to build up, and the replenishment of which cannot possibly be provided for out of the Government compensation.

That leads me to say that it is all the more important that every possible effort should be made to avoid, as soon as it can conveniently and safely be done, the policy of slaughter. Of course it is plain that up to the present slaughter has been the right policy for getting rid of the disease, and I am not very much encouraged by the Minister's references to the serum experiments in Germany. I have yet to learn, however, that, in connection with the much more widespread outbreaks on the Continent, the same ruthless policy of slaughter is followed, and the sooner we can get a satisfactory serum for a policy of inoculation against the disease, the better it will be both for the taxpayer and for the peace of mind and confidence and stability of the farming community generally.

I think we are entitled to ask, in connection with this new increased Vote, what is the sum that is being spent this year on research for this service? We are glad to know that there is a committee sitting, under the able chairmanship of Sir Joseph Arkwright, but we are not encouraged as regards these research reports when we discover from the Schedule to the Supplementary Estimate that the Government's chief concern is apparently to save maney. If hon. Members interested in the farming community will look at Items G.3 and G.6 dealing with agricultural education grants and research generally, they will find a saving of £40,000, which does not seem very encouraging as regards the point we have now in mind. Will the Minister tell us, in the first place, what he is spending on research in regard to foot-and-mouth disease this year, and how soon this position can be improved? I could say a great deal more about this, but it is late, and I do not want to detain the Committee.

I hope the Minister will be able to give us some reassurance with regard to the second matter which he raised. One is a little disturbed by the fact that the drainage grants in question are not reaching the amount which was estimated by the Minister. I recognise that when any Department comes to Parliament for money for grants which depend on the work actually carried out by authorities other than the Department, much depends on those authorities; but a great deal also depends on the amount of pressure which is brought by the Department upon those authorities, to induce them to carry out the work. When one considers the situation which has arisen again in the last few weeks in the eastern counties with regard to floods—and floods not entirely caused by land drainage in the catchment areas, but aided by floods up the river from high tides—

The Chairman

I have been looking in the Estimate for these items to which the right hon. Gentleman refers.

Mr. Alexander

There are two items. In page 20, there is the saving, referred to by the Minister in his opening statement, of £65,000 on drainage grants, and in page 21 there is an item of £950 repayment for services rendered by the War Office and Air Ministry in respect of floods in 1937.

The Chairman

The first item to which the right hon. Gentleman refers can quite properly be mentioned, but savings and appropriations in aid cannot be debated. The other item refers to the floods in 1937.

Mr. Alexander

I do not know what your view is, Sir Dennis, on this point. If the Minister comes to us for a Supplementary Estimate of £455,000, and then says, "We do not want all that, because we are going to save on land drainage grants," and we think he is not spending enough, surely we are entitled to say that it is not right to run the risk of a new menace because of the money he is saving on that?

The Chairman

The right hon. Gentleman cannot do that on a Supplementary Estimate. The only way it comes in is as a saving, and, therefore, it is not part of the Estimate.

Mr. Alexander

I do not want to come into conflict with you, Sir Dennis, on a matter of this kind. My point will be met if I say that we have an item of expenditure of £950 with regard to services rendered during the flood menace in the spring of 1937. I think I am entitled to say that, if the grants for land drainage had been properly taken up by the authorities who should do the work and to whom the grants should be made, that money, in all probability, would not have been required, and that there is every indication, on the experience of the last few weeks, that the menace has not been removed, but is being threatened again.

The Chairman

I am afraid that it is useless for the hon. Member to refer to the item of £950 as connected with what he wants to talk about: he has been driven to link up the £950 to the savings in order to get away from the 1937 Estimate to 1938. That will not do, as he cannot discuss the savings and we cannot discuss the hon. Member's subject of 1938 floods.

Mr. Alexander

I do admire the dialectics of the Chair, but I admire even more this little Box and Cox arrangement of expenditure and saving.

The Chairman

If Cox is a saving we cannot discuss it.

Mr. Alexander

I feel sure in my own mind—I hope that I am not being unduly insistent about the point—that I am on sound ground when I say that this point with regard to the £950 of expenditure would not have been necessary if the item of saving had not occurred. If the money had been properly spent on land drainage and the areas had been made free from menace, we would not have had the Army and Navy special accounts in order to meet the menace. That is the whole case I want to put to the Minister, and I want to express my profound regret that we seem to be faced with a new menace in the Eastern Counties to-day.

The Chairman

The right hon. Gentleman is all right up to that point, but he must not go beyond it.

Mr. Alexander

I will put it another way. I think that I may ask on this Supplementary Estimate what steps the Minister is taking in connection with the land drainage authorities, catchment boards and others to prevent another presentation to this Committee of a Supplementary Estimate of payment to the Army and Navy to meet another menace. We have recently had a flood menace, and I ask what steps the Minister is taking to prevent another menace? Perhaps we can then get an answer which will be in order.

The Chairman

I am not quite sure about what answer would be in order, but, as I have often said, when it is generally for the convenience of the Committee, I do not mind stretching a point to allow a question to be asked, if the Minister is prepared to answer it, but it must be only a brief question and a brief answer.

Mr. Alexander

If it had not been for my difficulty in meeting your point of Order, Sir Dennis, my question might have been finished before now. I want to keep in order, but I think that you will agree that in the present danger in the Eastern Counties it would not only be for the convenience of the Committee, but would be in the public interest that the Minister should give all the information he can and state the steps that are being taken to deal with the menace. It depends upon the answer of the Minister whether we shall or shall not divide the Committee on this Vote.

11.34 p.m.

Sir S. Cripps

I notice that there is a saving of £80,000 on the diseases of animals grants in respect of tuberculosis in cattle which is set off as against the expenses on foot-and-mouth disease. There is also in Z, Appropriations-in-aid, an anticipated deficiency on the contribution from the diseases of animals account in respect of staff and duties in connection with tuberculosis in cattle amounting to £23,000. That, I understand, is an extra expenditure, but I am not clear as to the form in which it takes place. If it is a deficiency in Appropriations-in-aid, I take it that more was expended and that that has not been met by the anticipated Appropriation-in-aid. I should be glad if the Minister would explain that matter. Why has less money been spent on dealing with tuberculosis in cattle? Is it because there is less tuberculosis—though I am afraid not—or is it because less work is being done on tuberculosis and fewer steps are being taken to purify the herds? About £80,000 has not been spent and we are most anxious to see that the purification of the milk supply of the country is proceeded with as rapidly as possible. We are most anxious that there shall be no let-up to get our herds free from tuberculosis.

Mr. Davidson

I have received a letter from a constituent who claims to have given 15 years to a study of agricultural problems, who says that he sent certain information to the Ministry of Agriculture on the prevention of foot-and-mouth disease. I should like to know whether such efforts on the part of private people are encouraged by the Research Department of the Ministry and whether they are considered.

11.37 p.m.

The Minister of Agriculture (Mr. W. S. Morrison)

I can only give the general assurance that the Research Committee, which was set up to consider the question of foot-and-mouth disease and other diseases, is always ready to consider any suggestion which is made to it and which would help to solve a problem which is not only a British concern but a European concern. On the general question of research, there is a complete interchange, internationally, of information upon these common problems. A central office in Paris collects all information obtained in any country and it is at once transmitted to us. When hon. Members consider the question of expenditure upon research they must remember that in this matter there are no international boundaries and that there is complete freedom for the interchange of information. The hon. and learned Member has raised the question of the saving on tuberculosis. I was glad to hear that the hon. and learned Member favours and supports the policy of clearing our herds of disease as the most satisfactory way of securing a supply of pure milk. I cordially agree, and I can assure him that this saving is due to no slackening of our efforts on that score, but is indirectly due to increased momentum in that direction. In the Agriculture Act passed last summer I proposed to make an assault on this disease by means of a central State veterinary service, taking over the functions performed by veterinary officers attached to and employed by local authorities. At the time the Estimate was framed I anticipated that it would be possible for the new service to take over the duties of local authorities by 1st January, 1938, but when it came to the details of transferring these many duties to the new staff I found as a matter of administration, in order to secure smoothness, it would be necessary to allow a little more time, and consequently the date of the transfer was postponed from 1st January to 1st April. As the Act provided for the payment of these officers from 1st January, and as we shall not have to provide the money until 1st April there is a saving to which the hon. and learned Member has drawn attention. I should like to tell the Committee that there has been a satisfactory response by the agricultural community to the new inducements offered by the Act for attested and disease free herds. I hope that the momentum now given to that beneficent process will continue, for the benefit of us all.

With regard to the remarks of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough (Mr. Alexander), I am sure the whole Committee will share the sympathy which he expressed with the farmers who, in some cases of foot-and-mouth disease, have seen the work of a lifetime destroyed when a cherished herd has had to be slaughtered. I wish to pay a tribute to the agricultural community which, throughout this visitation, has shown itself alert to report to and co-operate with the authorities in the eradication of the disease. During this very trying time, I have received letters of an encouraging character showing that the slaughter policy is backed up by the whole farming community, despite the inconvenience caused by its operation.

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that there is no question of our ceasing to pursue research for the purpose of finding an adequate serum. The right hon. Gentleman asked for certain figures as to the expenditure upon research. I have recently proposed an extension of the foot-and-mouth disease Research Committee, bringing in certain other scientists whom we think can collaborate; and the estimated expenditure for 1938–39 is approximately £30,000. I would again remind the Committee that that sum has to be considered in conjunction with the expenditure of other countries, whose results are freely pooled with our results. I assure hon. Members that no effort will be spared to find a satisfactory serum.

My hon. Friend the Minister of Pensions mentioned the difficulty that surrounds the serum question, and the Committee may be interested to know that about fifteen months ago, we re- ceived from Germany a serum to which the Germans attach some importance. It was tested in the Research Committee, but the Committee recommended that, although it was efficient in the case of mildly virulent attacks, it was not advisable to recommend is as a trustworthy alternative to the slaughter policy. How wise that advice was has been shown by the fact that, although the serum was largely employed on the Continent in the recent outbreak, there the disease was completely victorious over the immunity which it was supposed to give.

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough also referred to the saving on drainage, and my hon. Friend indicated what was the chief reason for that saving. It also arises from the Act, which was passed last summer, in which we provided £100,000 in order to make grants to drainage authorities other than catchment boards. Those authorities have not, in fact, availed themselves of the full amount provided by Parliament. The Act was passed last July, but it took some time for the local authorities, the internal drainage boards and the county councils to frame schemes, and they could not do so in time for them to become operative during the winter season, for which the grants were available. I am confident that in future years, with more preparation, they will be able to take further advantage of this sum of money.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the difficulty which sometimes arises on the Supplementary Estimates of dealing with matters of policy, but perhaps I may be permitted to give this general explanation of the duties of the Ministry and of our position at the present time. The duty of land drainage, for the most part, falls entirely on those local authorities created for the purpose by the Land Drainage Act, 1930. The Minister's duty in the matter is, for the most part, to give advice, which is sometimes accepted and sometimes not accepted, and to provide grants from public funds in aid of the local necessities. The powers of coercion supposed to be possessed by the Minister under the Act are non-existent, but I am glad to say that we have established happy relations with the catchment boards.

Mr. Wedgwood Benn

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Board of Trade make themselves a great nuisance to these catchment boards by imposing charges for foreshore protection works?

Mr. Morrison

There is some divided responsibility with regard to the Crown foreshore, which still reposes in the Board of Trade, but I would not like to assent to any general proposition such as the right hon. Gentleman has suggested that they make themselves a great nuisance. As a matter of fact, I am a sort of guardian angel of the catchment boards, and if the right hon. Gentleman has any knowledge of any instance where he thinks a board is being hampered in its duties, and we may be able to overcome the difficulty, I shall be very glad if he will inform me of the circumstances, because I am anxious to assist the boards in carrying out their very responsible tasks. In the present case I can only say that we are keeping the situation under close observation and are having constant consultations from day to day with the catchment boards, and in so far as any further assistance can be granted them, applications from them will be speedily and sympathetically considered.

Mr. Alexander

We did not get any explanation as to why there was such a heavy saving on the four items for research.

Mr. Morrison

The saving under this sub-head is largely on account of veterinary research. A sum of £22,350 was saved owing to the postponement of part of the contemplated experimental programme, a programme which rendered necessary the erection of certain buildings and building alterations. A research building has to be elaborately guarded to prevent animals from spreading contamination outside, and we had planned certain alterations which in fact were not completed in the time. The other savings are due to delays in connection with certain research institutes which we aid by grants. They are for the most part initiated on the responsibility of local authorities, and we had provided a sum equal to what we thought would be called upon by local authorities as grants-in-aid from central funds. This is a matter where our expenditure follows automatically on that of local authorities, and as they have actually spent less than was contemplated, we have not been called upon for such a large contribution.

Mr. Alexander

In view of what the Minister has said, we shall not move a reduction of the Estimate, but we are not satisfied about the research grants, and we hope that the Minister, in dealing with the Civil Estimates this year, will tell us something more about what pressure can be brought to bear to see that the research grants are needed.

Resolved, That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £229,450, 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, 1938, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, and of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, including grants and grants in aid in respect of agricultural education and research, eradication of diseases of animals, and fishery research; and grants, grants in aid and expenses in respect of improvement of breeding, etc., of live stock, land settlement, improvement of cultivation, drainage, etc., regulation of agricultural wages, agricultural credits, and marketing, control of diseases of fish, fishery development; and sundry other services.

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