HC Deb 05 February 1948 vol 446 cc2035-44

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Joseph Henderson.]

10.26 p.m.

Mr. John Lewis (Bolton)

The subject which I am about to raise tonight, unlike so many other subjects introduced on the Adjournment Debate, is not unknown to the Minister of Agriculture. I ought to say right away that I am not a farmer, and there are many hon. Members in this House who know very much more about the depredations of the warble fly than I do. My attention was first called to this problem when I visited a firm in my own constituency, Messrs. William Walker & Son, which is one of the largest and most efficient tanneries in the country. There I was shown what happens to leather when a warble fly has got at it.

I understand that the warble fly infests approximately two-thirds of the cattle in the United Kingdom. The fly apparently lays its eggs on the hairs of the legs of the animal, chiefly about the hocks. The issuing larvae pierce the skin and travel up to the gullet. In spring they migrate to the back of the beast, which is the thickest and most valuable part of the hide, used mostly for sole leather. They pierce breathing holes through the hide and when they are developed and mature emerge and fall to the ground, thus maintaining the cycle of infestation. I hope the House will forgive me if I do not know more about the technical side, but I have said sufficient to indicate how the damage is caused.

It is the actual piercing of these air holes through the hide which causes the main parts of the damage, and hon. Members who are not conversant with the industry may be interested to know what the effect of this vicious pest is to the industry in terms of the loss of leather of all kinds. I ought to say that apart from damaging and holing the hide, other hides are affected with blind warbles caused by the fly piercing the hide—after which the hole heals but leaves a scar there making the leather unsuitable from the point of view of high class manufacture.

Hon. Members may be surprised to know that every year leather, which could provide 20 million pairs of shoes for children and approximately 10 million pairs of adult sized shoes, is ruined by the warble fly. This will be well understood when it is realised that well over one million native hides are received with blind or open warbles. Then there are upholstery and other leathers for manufacturing as distinct from footwear which are equally affected by the depredation of the pest. These hides are split into two layers so that 30 square feet of leather is made into 60 square feet. These would be cow hides and 25 per cent, on an average would have open holes and 35 to 40 per cent. healed or blind warbles leaving only approximately 35 per cent. first-rate hides which would he suitable for manufacturing unblemished leather which is essential in certain industries. That gives an idea how serious is the problem with which I am dealing.

The same applies to belting leather and leather for wool combing machines, and although appearance is not its main saleable point, nevertheless the belt is of little use if there are any of these blemishes in it. I understand that belting must be sound and that the granular tissue which forms in the warble hole would fall out and thus affect adversely its efficiency. As 35 per cent. of all the hides sent to tanneries is all that is available to produce unblemished leather, it will be appreciated that this is a very serious national problem. I have gone into this in some detail to illustrate the colossal wastage of British leather, which, I think, is acknowledged to be the best in the world.

I should like to turn briefly to some steps that have already been taken to deal with the matter. It must be realised that in normal times it would have been possible for this country to import hides from Foreign countries, for example, Denmark, Sweden, Holland and South America, where I may say hides have been practically freed from warble fly by the use of methods which I shall refer to in a moment. But hides are in short supply and in addition there are currency problems. So that we must face the tact due to the warble fly alone that millions of people in this country are being denied footwear and the use of leather goods, and it is therefore vitally important that action should be taken to prevent the continuance of this waste. It is fair to say that it should not be assumed by anyone that the Ministry of Agriculture have not given a great deal of time and attention to this matter. Indeed, the Minister has been personally concerned with this question and I know that for several years he has devoted much time and consideration to it.

From 1936 to 1941 an order was in force known as the Warble Fly Dressing Order, which laid down that all cattle visibly affected by warble fly should be treated with derris wash, which I understand is the effective antidote to the fly when it is in the breathing holes in the hide. Unfortunately, however, as will be realised if I have succeeded in making the case clear, the damage has already been done before the derris wash can be applied. It has been proved to the satisfaction of the veterinary surgeons attached to my right hon. Friend's Department and to outside experts, including those associated with Hide & Allied Trades Improvement Society, who have amongst other things rendered great national service in drawing attention to this problem, that the only known method of killing the bug is by the application of the derris wash to the back of the cattle. In 1941, however, the order was suspended. It may be realised that owing to the shortage of labour and of material,—that is, the derris powder needed for making the wash—it was impossible for the order to be enforced. I am going to ask my hon. Friend tonight if he will give consideration to the necessity of reimposing this order at the first possible moment.

I believe that is not the only thing that must be done. There must be a concentrated effort to break the heavy incidence of infestation, which would go a long way to preventing the depredations of the pest and to the practical elimination of the pest. If we look at other countries, at Denmark, for instance, we find they have been very successful in their attack on the warble fly. In that country within two or three years of the institution of compulsory dressing, sometime in the early 1920's, they had cut down the incidence of warble fly to less than 5 per cent. That was really a first-class effort because it cannot be brought lower as I am advised it is biologically impossible to do so. It is still compulsory for cattle owners in that country every year to ensure that any warbled cattle are properly treated, and they are compelled to have all cattle examined for warble fly at certain times in the year. I believe that in Denmark there are more veterinary surgeons for every thousand animals than there are in this country. Another factor which helps in that country is that almost all their cattle are tethered, which makes it more easy to deal with them. Here we have three or four thousand veterinary surgeons to deal with 8,000,000 cattle, apart from pigs and sheep, and other animals. I mention these facts, however, to show that it can be done and it is possible to combat the problem if proper and effective action is taken.

As far as my hon. Friend's Department is concerned, I raised this matter with it as long ago as 1946. On 29th July, I put down a Question, in reply to which my hon. Friend stated that it might be possible to re-impose the order in the spring. I continued to press him on this matter, and in March, 1947, he wrote me a letter in which he said that he hoped to re-introduce the order in the spring of 1948. However the Minister did arrange a conference, over which he personally presided in 1947, at which experts from his Department were present. The case was put to him at that conference by myself and other hon. Members interested in the matter, together with representatives of the Hides and Allied Trades Association, and I hope that what was said on that occasion together with his own expert knowledge on the subject has impressed itself on his mind.

As the only known method of dealing with this pest is by means of the derris wash—that is, killing the fly while it is in the hide—in addition to the re-imposition of this order, which I think is vital, and should be done immediately, there should be more research directed towards the possibility of preventing the warble fly larvae entering the hide, which is the beginning of the cycle of infestation. At the moment, I understand, little is being done about this, at any rate, by the Ministry. Most of the propaganda and publicity work is being carried out by the Hides and Allied Trades Improvement Society to whom I have referred, and I feel it would be very unfair to leave it to a society of this kind to perform what is, after all, a duty which should be incumbent upon the Government.

This leather shortage is very serious and, indeed, I am of the opinion it should be the duty of the Government to take it rather more seriously than they have done in the past. I am not referring only to the order, which I hope is to be re-imposed; I am talking generally about the problem of publicising to farmers and other people the need for taking adequate steps to deal with the pest. I understand that the money for the Society's work at the moment comes from the tanners, and I cannot understand why the tanners should provide it, because, so far as my information goes, if hides are warbled the tanners buy them more cheaply, but nevertheless they are doing what they can to help. It seems to me that the Government themselves should sponsor more research and development work directly.

If this order is re-imposed it will have to be policed. It is not the slightest use ordering farmers to do something unless steps are taken to see that it is done, and in this connection there is the newly formed National Agricultural Advisory Committee, which I understand is in daily touch with the farmers. If there has to be policing to see that this order is carried out, I imagine that this may be a body which the Minister might consider a suitable one for performing that duty.

I am going to ask my right hon. Friend to announce, if possible, that he will re-introduce this Dressing Order at the earliest moment. The argument that there is not the agricultural labour available now no longer holds water. The derris wash has to be applied in the spring, and I understand that a fair number of agricultural workers are unemployed at that period of the year, many of them starting their main work at harvest time. Further, I ask that his Department should undertake an immediate research programme into the whole question of the depredations of the warble fly with a view to ameliorating to the greatest extent possible, this continuing loss of vital leather so necessary for the purposes of our export and domestic trades.

10.41 p.m.

Mr. Odey (Howdenshire)

Before I make my remarks on this subject, may I be allowed to declare my interest? I am chairman and managing director of a number of tanneries. May I thank the hon. Member for Bolton (Mr. J. Lewis) for his kind consideration whereby, if the Bill previously under discussion had been disposed of before 9.30 this evening, he would have allowed me to raise the question of the Leather (Charges) (No. 1) Order, 1947, on the Adjournment. I should also like to thank him for having raised this matter tonight.

As a result of the depredations of the warble fly, there is damage to domestic hides amounting to more than £120,000 a year, and we have reached a stage where we must, in this country, make the most of our raw materials. This is important in the tanning industry, where we import 75 per cent. of our raw materials from abroad and it behoves us, especially in these times, to see that where we have 25 per cent. of the raw materials in our own hands, we take care of them. In Denmark, as has already been said tonight, this pest has been eradicated, and there is no reason why it should not be eradicated in this country. The agricultural committees have a floating labour force, and there should be arrangements whereby that force will be sent out into the countryside in the spring to apply this dressing to the cattle. In a matter of two years the Ministry of Food, who are the ultimate owners of these hides, would reap a great reward, and not only the Ministry of Food but the whole country would benefit. I have mentioned the figure of £20,000 but it is really more. With the enlightened Government we have today, this is a measure which should have been attended to long ago; but it is by no means too late for it to be attended to now, and I hope we shall hear that that attention will be given.

10.43 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture (Mr. George Brown)

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman ended his remarks on such an exceptional note. I agree that we have an enlightened Government, and it is a pity we did not have such an enlightened Government years ago. Let me say, first that one trap which my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton (Mr. J. Lewis) and the hon. Member for the East Riding of Yorkshire (Mr. Odey) fell into, is the assumption that the agricultural industry is not busily engaged all the year, and that it has large blocks of labour which are not wanted until harvest time. The time of the year to do the preventive work to combat the warble fly is also the time when we are busily engaged in many other jobs in the countryside. County agricultural executive committees have, I agree, pools of labour, but that labour will be much wanted at spring time.

Mr. Odey

May I interrupt the hon. Gentleman to point out that the labour force required would be quite small?

Mr. Brown

Yes, but do not let us fall into the error of thinking that we have large numbers of agricultural workers waiting to do jobs in the spring. For my own Department. I can say that there is no need for us to thresh out this matter at all. That this pest is a miserable little fellow, causing difficulty and worry to the leather industry as well as to the agricultural industry is an accepted thing. I am advised that a good deal of research work is being done about it, and we have tried to learn from experience.

I was glad that my hon. Friend drew the lesson that cattle keeping conditions in some of the countries which have been freed of this trouble are not the same as ours. Conditions are not so simple for us as for them. We are trying through our own research, and the experience of others, to do all we can, but research has given no indication that there is any new or more modern or surer way of dealing with it than that mentioned—that of dressing the animal in the spring—the one time in the life circle of this little thing when its virtual immortality can be stopped. Otherwise it emerges as a grub, becomes a fly and starts the whole process over again. Thus the little fellow is virtually immortal. The dressing with derris wash from the middle of March to the early part of June or the end of May is the most we can do about it. Hitherto we have been hampered partly by the shortage of labour and partly by the shortage of raw materials to apply. But conditions are now improving.

The damage to the hides, and what is even more important, to the milk and meat production, is unquestionable. There is no doubt that we should do all we can to reduce it. This brings me to the real point which has to be faced. On the advice I have been able to receive and the conversations which I have had, it is a matter of doubt whether this is so much a question of policing as one of sheer good husbandry for which farmers themselves are responsible. In the nature of things it seems to me that policing would be a matter of extreme difficulty, and, indeed, to some extent punitive measures would only succeed in causing a good deal of resentment among farmers.

Mr. Odey rose

Mr. Brown

I am afraid I cannot give way; I am getting near to my time. There is a difficulty which concerns hill farmers having to round up their cattle, but in Denmark there is not this difficulty because the cattle are tethered at that time of the year.

Mr. Odey rose

Mr. Brown

The point I am making, if hon. Members will permit me, is that whatever we do about the order, this is a matter of sheer good husbandry, and the willing efforts by the farmer himself. He has to accept that it is in his own interest as well as that of the purchasers of his product to do what he can to bring the pest down. It is up to the good farmers to set an example to their fellows.

Mr. Gerald Williams (Tonbridge)

And further—

Mr. Brown

I am sorry but I must go on. This brings me to the point to which my hon. Friend referred. District committees and agricultural executive committees form a very good agency through which the efforts of good farmers can be set up as an example which can be followed. When the committees are asked, as they will be shortly, to undertake the administration of Part II of the Agriculture Act, 1947, it seems to me that putting pressure from behind will be one of the objects within their scope. I express the hope on behalf of my hight hon. Friend that the committees will undertake that particular job. It would be extremely dangerous for me to involve myself in an argument which is really proper to the Ministry of Food, but clearly the better the product the farmer ultimately produces, the better price he can expect to get, and that is an additional inducement.

With regard to the order, whatever I have said about the real need for dressing being done by the willing co-operation of the industry itself it may well be true that there is a case for the reimposition of this order so that farmers' own efforts may be backed up by policing work which we can do. But there are difficulties about it. There is the call on labour at a very busy time for other purposes; there is the problem of the movement of cattle, and there are obvious difficulties since we rely on the local authorities and the police in the rural areas for enforcing these measures and the various cattle disease measures. There are obvious policing difficulties which I would not like the House to ignore. It would be stupid of me to let the House believe that this order would be easy to enforce. Our veterinary service, which we were discussing the other night, is busily engaged and is inadequate for all the tasks put upon it; nevertheless, they attach considerable importance to this matter. I have had plenty of evidence placed before me today of the extent of their researches, though they have not shown us any very new or improved method to deal with this pest.

My right hon. Friend, however, recognises that there have been changes in the situation since he last decided not to reimpose the order just about a year ago. Since the time for applying a preventive or curative method is clearly in the spring, this is the time to take a decision about reimposing the order. The labour situation is a little easier. It is not quite the difficulty it has been in the past. The derris wash material is no longer a difficulty in the way, and the Minister is now considering, and was considering just before this Adjournment was notified, whether he should reimpose the order. He will take account of the strong views expressed on both sides of the House. He will take account of the fact that we understand that both the farmers' interests and the leather trade interests are united about its desirability—and that of course was not always the case in the past. We have been told about the feeling of the trade and we will consider very carefully whether the order ought not now to be reimposed. My right hon. Friend will announce a decision in a very short while.

10.53 p.m.

Colonel Clarke (East Grinstead)

I am glad to hear that the Minister is considering reimposing this order. May I remind my hon. Friend that in six weeks' time a decision has to be taken, for the warble flies are then coming out. There is also the point that police supervision is necessary. Now that sheep-dipping has been reduced to once a year, surely there will be more time for the police to supervise this. I must apologise for taking this matter up on the Adjournment for the Parliamentary Secretary knows that I am in correspondence with the Minister about it, but it seemed to me only proper to take the opportunity of making these points.

Adjourned accordingly at Five Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.