HC Deb 21 July 1950 vol 477 cc2743-61

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

2.37 p.m.

Captain Duncan (South Angus)

I am fortunate, because of the chance of the ballot, to be able to raise this matter this afternoon. The last time I was fortunate in the ballot I gave a warning to the Government on the subject of soft fruit, a warning which was more or less correct. This time, with my renewed luck in the ballot, I wish to give another warning to the Government on another subject, that of the dangers attending the Poultry Carcases (Importation) Order, 1950, which came into operation on 10th July.

It may seem strange that a Scottish Member should raise this question because Scotland has been more free from the danger of fowl pest than has England. I should like to make it clear, however, that I am speaking this afternoon for the whole of the United Kingdom and not for Scotland alone. The Order to which I have referred permits the importation of poultry from a number of countries. It is one of the Orders made under the Diseases of Animals Acts, and, if it is not past praying for, it is an Order that one cannot pray against.

It allows the importation of poultry of various kinds, including domestic fowls, turkeys, geese, ducks, pheasants, guinea fowl and partridges, under an open general licence from various countries defined in the various parts of the Schedule. At the same time as this Order is being implemented, the open general licence system is again restored, because the Ministry of Food are now stepping out of the business of buying poultry from abroad. To the extent that private trade and freer trade is being restored, I welcome this Order. My objection to it is because certain countries from which these carcases are to be imported have fowl pest either endemic or suspected there. The danger of this disease becoming endemic in this country is what I am pointing out this afternoon.

Fowl pest is highly infectious. It is something like foot and mouth disease in cattle. It is bacterial in origin, and if it is allowed to enter this country it will be extremely difficult to prevent it from spreading. If it becomes endemic, it will materially reduce the production of eggs and poultry from British farms. That is the real point of my argument. There have been a number of outbreaks during the last few years. Answering a Question the other day, the Minister of Agriculture said that the number of attacks had been reduced, which is a fact, but they have not been eliminated.

Only last week there were three outbreaks in Lancashire involving, I am informed 600, 900, and 2,000 fowls respectively. The first of those outbreaks was considered to have contracted the disease from hotel waste containing a Polish chicken which had not been boiled and was infectious. The other two outbreaks were contacts from the original Polish chicken. This is an illustration of how frightfully infectious the disease is and how quickly it spreads. One Polish chicken, put into hotel waste for swill, was responsible not only for the slaughter or death of 600 fowls in the original outbreak, but for the slaughter of another 2,900. The agricultural community are extremely anxious that this infectious disease should not come upon our fowls. We want prohibition of the import of these carcases from countries where the disease is already endemic.

Mr. Tomney (Hammersmith, North)

Is there more than one suspected source?

Captain Duncan

I do not claim to be an expert but I gather that the main source of infection is the imported carcase. Provided it is cooked, it is all right. In the uncooked fowl, even if eviscerated, the disease is there. It gets into the bones of the fowl and is liable to infect others.

In the proposed Order there are restrictions on distribution, but I suggest that they are not enough. The restriction on fowls applies to certain areas detailed in the Fourth Schedule. They are London, various parts of Essex, Hertfordshire and Kent. I do not think there are many fowls in London, but there are many in places like Hemel Hempstead, Woodford, Epping, parts of Warwickshire, Surrey and other suburban areas, Lancashire, South Wales and the city and County Borough of Bristol. The danger is that even though there is a restriction on these areas, somebody may throw out a carcase not properly cooked and it will get into the swill, to be conveyed to a nearby farm and start another outbreak. We say, even with these restrictions, the metal discs and all the rest of it in the Fourth Schedule, that the danger is so great that we ought to prohibit importation from the countries where this disease is endemic.

Answering a Question on 13th July, the Minister of Agriculture explained that the arrangements proposed in the Order should materially reduce the risk of infected carcases coming into this country. We say that that is not good enough. We must eliminate the risk altogether. He continued: I am advised by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Food that supplies of poultry would not be adequate, particularly for the Christmas trade, if imports from all countries where fowl pest is endemic were entirely prohibited."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th July 1950; Vol. 477, c. 1545.] I venture to give one or two figures which will show that that is not quite good enough.

Countries known to have fowl pest at present are Poland, Hungary, France, Holland, Belgium. The importation from those countries in 1949 reached 158,017 cwts., out of a total importation of 615,547 cwts., roughly a fifth. That figure compares with the pre-war importation in 1938 of 440,718 cwts., so that even with total prohibition from the infected countries the volume of imports would still exceed those of 1938. Home-produced poultry for 1949 came to 1,620,000 cwts., as against 1,560,000 cwts. for 1938. It is common knowledge that the markets today have plentiful supplies of table poultry at reasonable prices. It seems clear in the light of those figures that the small reduction which would result from the total prohibition of importation from countries known to have fowl pest would in no way injure the consumer interest. In any case, if it were necessary to increase the production of table poultry in this country, an increase in the feedingstuffs rations would bring it about.

In the circumstances, I hope that the Minister will seriously consider amending the Order. Fowl pest is a frightfully dangerous infectious disease which spreads like wild-fire, through an invisible bacterium. If once this country had it endemically, not only should we never be able to get rid of it, but we should materially reduce the eggs and table poultry for our own people. We are producing those commodities in very large quantities today and we could produce more of them if necessary.

I hope the Government will seriously consider making a change in this Order. I should like to leave the further details of this story to my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Nugent). He will give further details of the workings of the Order, and I believe that he will be able to answer in greater detail than I can, because I do not pretend to be an expert, the question of the hon. Gentleman opposite.

2.50 p.m.

Mr. Baldwin (Leominster)

I want to reinforce the argument which has been so ably put by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Angus, South (Captain Duncan). I am Chairman of the British Livestock Export Group, which is a nonprofit-making body looking after the interests of pedigree livestock, including poultry, in this country. We get able assistance from the Ministry of Agriculture and the Board of Trade in our deliberations. One of the big problems of the group is arranging quarantine for various countries. When an outbreak of disease occurs it cancels the trade which has been done and makes the export trade very difficult.

The livestock industry of this country, including poultry, is extremely important. For many generations we have been looked upon as the reservoir of the world for livestock, and every attempt should be made to see that we are kept as free as possible from disease. Every time disease breaks out it drives overseas buyers to other countries for their stocks. The export trade is very highly competitive. The United States of America is looking to the trade of the world and seeks to take our place. The United States has very stringent regulations dealing with disease and it takes great care that there is no chance of an importation of disease from any source whatever. If we do not take the same steps here we shall lose a great deal of our export trade, and it is a very important trade because it is often with dollar countries.

It is well known that on several occasions an outbreak of fowl pest has occurred and stopped the exportation of day-old chicks to the Continent. I ask the Minister to close every possible avenue to ensure that we do not allow the disease to come from some of these badly affected countries. I know that it is part of the regulations that swill should be boiled in order to prevent any risk of contamination, but that regulation is extremely difficult to supervise and I have not the slightest doubt that there are many cases of swill not being sufficiently and properly treated before it is fed to our animals.

If the disease becomes widespread here we shall have less poultry and eggs than we have at present. Every time an outbreak occurs it tends to put poultry breaders out of business in the areas round the outbreak. Local markets close and it is very difficult for local producers to get their poultry sold through the normal channels. All these things tend to make producers go out of business. We must keep this country as free as we can from this disease.

Fowl pest is causing a great deal of trouble on the Continent and I understand that it is wiping out the poultry industry in South Africa. If we can keep free of this disease it may well be that South Africa will turn to us to replace the losses which are taking place there at present, but if she knows that we have fowl pest here she will go to another country which is free from the disease. I hope the Minister will carry out the suggestion made by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Angus, South, and strengthen the Order in such a way that it will be impossible to import this very serious disease.

2.55 p.m.

Mr. Kenyon (Chorley)

As a Lancashire Member I want to support the hon. Members who have raised this subject, because Lancashire has had much experience of the terrible ravages of disease. Before the war Lancashire suffered very severely from disease. The smaller number of poultry kept during the war has allowed the land and fowl houses to become clean, but now we are restocking the industry we are faced with the introduction of fowl pest because of the way in which diseased birds are imported.

It seems peculiar that this should be the case when we are so careful about providing the public with clean meat. When cattle, pigs and sheep are killed, the veterinary inspector has to inspect every carcase and give it a clean bill of health before it is sold to the public. Yet we are actually importing poultry carcases which are known to be diseased. Because they are known to be diseased, we surround them after their arrival with certain regulations which would not be necessary if the disease was not present. It seems a peculiar feature of administration to demand freedom from disease for our own stock here and yet to import what we know to be diseased carcases from abroad.

It may be argued that these birds are clean when they come here, but the disease can be carried on the outside of the carcase—it can be carried on the feathers—and the only thing that will destroy it is heat. The disease can be carried on the feathers, and when the poulterer plucks the bird and throws the feathers away the disease can be carried wherever the feathers go.

There was a report in the "Lancashire Evening Post" yesterday of which I propose to read the salient parts. A certain poultry farmer of Pilling, Lancashire, was summoned for not boiling waste foodstuff before feeding it to his poultry. The report says: Mr. G. S. Halford, Ministry of Agriculture inspector, said that the failure to boil food was one of the chief sources of fowl pest which was so prevalent at the present time. It was stated that: On 20th June defendant discovered that 50 of his poultry were infected with fowl pest. They died on the premises. Another 452 had to be slaughtered. Defendant said that he obtained the swill from a local hotel. I believe that that swill is coming from an hotel which should not have this poultry if the regulations limiting these poultry to certain large towns were properly carried out, but it is impossible to carry them out unless we employ a tremendous number of inspectors to ensure that the poultry go to the correct places. These poultry may be supplied to Manchester, and if anyone goes to Manchester and purchases a bird he can take it anywhere in the country. One fears that fowl pest will spread over the country. The reason why we are so keen that it should be stopped is that so many of our birds are of the highest standard, and we find that they are in very great danger of contracting this disease.

I know that the number of outbreaks in recent years has fallen, but I understand that only about 6,000 lb. of poultry comes from those countries where this disease is endemic. In the present state of our poultry industry, and in view of the large number of birds we have, we could very well supply that quantity of birds out of our own stocks without any difficulty at all, and I think that, for the sake of the building up of disease-free stocks in this country and in order to maintain a clean bill of health for our own poultry, these imports should be stopped. I urge the Minister to take such steps as will prevent the importation of diseased poultry into this country.

I do not know what people will think when they learn that it is possible to go to a poulterer's shop and buy diseased poultry, when we are not allowed to sell such birds. We cannot sell diseased poultry without getting into very serious trouble, but here the Minister comes along and quite openly sells poultry which is known to be diseased, which is admitted to be diseased and which upon inspection is proved to be diseased. It is entirely wrong that the public of this country should be subjected to the danger of eating diseased poultry when we ourselves are compelled to destroy it.

I hope the Minister will take a far more serious view of the matter than has been the case so far, because if this disease spreads, as it appears to be doing once again in Lancashire, it will affect the poultry industry of this country very seriously.

3.3 p.m.

Mr. Nugent (Guildford)

I am very grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South Angus (Captain Duncan) for his courage in entering the ballot for the Adjournment Motion on a Friday afternoon, and I hope the Minister will give due weight to the importance which we attach to this matter, since a Scottish hon. Member is prepared to be here to discuss it on a Friday afternoon. I was not surprised to hear the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Kenyon) adding his contribution to the case put forward from this side of the House. Of course, Lancashire is deeply concerned with this matter because of its very large poultry stocks and the very large sums of money at stake.

The history of this disease is that we have had two sporadic outbreaks, one about 20 years ago and another in the middle 30's. The disease takes its colloquial name of "Newcastle disease" from a sporadic outbreak in Newcastle in 1935. Neither of these outbreaks was serious, and both were dealt with quite efficiently by a policy of slaughter, but the position with which we are now dealing started in February, 1947, when a serious outbreak began and has continued ever since over the last three and a half years.

There was some dispute at first as to how it started, but today it is common ground with the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary that there is no doubt that the disease came in on the imported carcases from Hungary in the first place and subsequently from Poland. The losses we have experienced in the last 3½ years are 400,000 birds slaughtered and died, over 3,000 outbreaks, and a total compensation in slaughtered birds of about £300,000. So already the outbreaks have been quite sufficient to be serious to the farming industry.

Serious as they are, I would not say that they are serious enough for us to come to this House and say that there should be a total prohibition of imports of poultry of this kind unless there were other considerations as well. The real weight of the argument is that so long as these diseased carcases are imported, we shall never get rid of the disease. There are two ways of dealing with it. One is the slaughter policy which to date has been followed efficiently and succeeded in checking it as far as possible, and the other is to accept the fact that we are to have the disease permanently and to vaccinate birds in an effort to immunise them against it.

So long as importation continues, it is just a matter of time before the disease spreads throughout the country and becomes endemic. That happens this way: when the disease makes its initial onslaught it is in an acute stage which is recognisable by the high mortality that follows, but once it becomes really established it takes a milder form which is far more difficult to diagnose. It then flares up from time to time into the acute stage.

We get a fair example of how that develops in America. In most of the European countries we have been talking about they do not have a veterinary service or an organisation which gives a clear picture, but in America they do. The disease in that country is endemic and the annual losses run into several million birds and cost enormous sums of money. They have this chronic form of fowl pest which exists mainly in a mild incidence but then flares up from time to time and gives a heavy mortality. They try to deal with it by vaccinating every bird, but this is not particuarly satisfactory. It is difficult to get a really effective vaccine and, if a live vaccine is used, it interferes with the condition of the bird and for the future those birds become reactors. Therefore, once vaccination is started as a general policy fowl pest has to be accepted for ever.

We hope earnestly that in this relatively small country surrounded by sea we can get rid of this unpleasant disease and have our flocks healthy. So long, however, as we continue to import the disease in carcases coming from other countries, we shall never get rid of it. I recognise that the work of the Ministry's Veterinary Department has been first-rate in controlling it as far as possible, always allowing for the fact that it is continuing to come in, and the incidence today is much less than it was in the first year. Then we had over 2,000 outbreaks, but now we are down to about 200 a year. Certainly the incidence has been reduced by the control measures the Department has taken of marking the carcases, distributing them in certain areas only, controlling markets, and so on, but it does not alter the fact that, so long as we go on importing, the danger is bound to continue of gradually establishing the disease in the mild form which it is quite impossible to diagnose by visual inspection.

The measures that the veterinary experts have taken in sending advisory missions to the principal countries concerned, Hungary and Poland, we trust will bear fruit in due course, but it will be some time before those countries have cleared themselves of the disease. One other small point in connection with the veterinary staff. I think the hon. Gentleman will agree that his Department is extremely short of trained veterinary men. There is a big programme on now of developing the attestation of our dairy cattle. Every time there is an outbreak, as we have now in Lancashire, the hon. Gentleman is obliged to draw his veterinary staff off that work in order to deal with the fowl pest outbreak. It is not a substantial reason, but it is another one which adds up in the picture.

On the export point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin), I should like to cite one instance—the development of the poultry unit in Gambia. In the farming community of this country we were all very shaken when we heard that the poultry unit in Gambia was to be stocked with American chickens because the English poultry world was considered to be too diseased to be used. On further inquiry, we learned that the man who was running the unit was an American, and he had been told that this country was full of fowl pest. That is the kind of reputation which we so easily get because we had this incidence of fowl pest here. Our export of poultry is not tremendous, but it is something. It is significant and we do not want to lose it. That is another point that we hope the hon. Gentleman takes into account.

I have done my best within the industry to urge the acceptance of the various regulations to reduce the incidence of the disease, because in past years we have not been in a position to go to the Minister and say, "You have enough poultry without importing these diseased carcases." On account of the consumer interest, it has not been possible to advocate that the importation of diseased carcases should be prohibited. Today, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South Angus has said, the volume of imports is such that we could do without these diseased carcases. Supplies of poultry are substantially more than pre-war, taking home production also into account.

I recognise that the Minister of Food is bound to be concerned with securing enough Christmas poultry. Turkeys and geese come from these countries, and that is the only special thing that would be lost, assuming that these importations were prohibited. The total volume over the year, and especially if we take into account as well the enormous number of rabbits now available, does make sure that the consumer interest cannot suffer today.

Therefore, I feel that we can fairly ask the Minister to look at this Order again and to accept, as I know his Department does accept, that his veterinary staff can never do more than control the incidence of this disease. It is like sitting on an atomic bomb which may burst at any time and infect the whole country. It is really in the interest of the nation as a whole that importation should be brought to an end, and that we should be able in that way to clear up the disease throughout our poultry stocks. The Minister knows that it is completely within his powers, under the Diseases of Animals Acts, to prohibit the importation of carcases of any kind, poultry or meat, which are diseased. There is no contravention of any trade agreement in doing so. Here, there seems to be an absolutely sound case for doing it.

I hope the Minister has been persuaded, by the case we have put up today, that the risk we are running is the permanent infection of our poultry stocks so long as we continue to import diseased carcases, and that the relatively small consideration, on the one hand, of getting a few Polish geese for Christmas—which are pretty tough anyway—is just not worth it when, on the other hand, the health of this important section of our livestock industry is in the balance. I hope he will look at it again and agree that the total prohibition of import of diseased carcases is the answer.

3.15 p.m.

Mr. Drayson (Skipton)

I think it has been fairly well confirmed in our discussion that the major proportion of the incidence of this disease in Great Britain is due to the importation of carcases from overseas, and we on this side of the House will support the Minister of Agriculture or the Minister of Food in any steps which they take to deal with it.

What I am anxious about—particularly because this matter was raised by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South Angus (Captain Duncan)—is that there should not be too much discrimination between Great Britain and Scotland. In Yorkshire we breed some of the best breeding stock in the country, and we are anxious to send it into Scotland to improve the stock there. There seems to be some discrimination against the Yorkshire birds. We are sorry to hear about the outbreak of the disease in Lancashire, and I have no doubt they are dealing efficiently with it, but whereas I am in favour of any restrictions which the Minister might choose to impose on the importation of carcases from overseas. I think it would be a pity if this problem were dealt with too much on a sort of nationalistic basis between the North of England and Scotland.

I hope the Minister will see that any undue discrimination against breeding stock from Yorkshire will not be tolerated by his Department. I think it has also been agreed that we are capable in this country of producing all the poultry we really need for our own requirements if only the Minister would see that we get adequate supplies of feedingstuffs.

3.17 p.m.

Mr. Snow (Lichfield and Tamworth)

Like other hon. Members, I also have been approached by my constituents about their fears in this matter. I would like to feel convinced that there is not a point involved in this demand for the restriction of imports, which has not been made absolutely clear by the people who are agitating in this matter. If we are to indulge in a policy of restricting imports, we must not be too shy about admitting the fact that it will be to the advantage of the domestic producer, which in itself is no bad thing, but we must have some regard for the price at the consumer level in this country.

I must apologise for arriving late in this Debate, and I must take the risk that this point has already been made. If the Ministry would make some declaration based on its information as to what countries there are where fowl pest is known to be, and make quite certain that we do not import from those countries, that would go a long way towards reassuring our domestic producers. As I understand, the four main countries where fowl pest is really prevalent—Poland, Hungary, Holland and Belgium—are countries against which I know there has been a certain amount of prejudice in the Press. I cannot help remembering that at the time of the importation of Russian grain about two years ago, there was political prejudice against that grain because it was Russian grain; indeed, one heard stories of the grain being below standard even before that grain had been distributed. Speaking for myself, I hope that consumer interests will be fully regarded and that, at the same time, a sane veterinary view will be taken of the matter.

3.19 p.m.

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

The discussions both outside this House and in it have ranged not round the general question of restricting fowl imports but around the question of whether we should do something of a restrictive nature where it is common ground and admitted that fowl pest is endemic in the flocks from which we are getting our imports.

While I dissent from nothing which my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow) has said, I think everybody who knows anything about this subject would agree wholly with my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Kenyon) in saying that it would be much too big a price to pay for this limited field of imports—if we could replace them from any other source—to bring them in and run the risk, as we obviously should do, of infecting the whole of our own flocks in quite a short time and having the very costly business of trying thereafter to eradicate the disease. I think my hon. Friend can be satisfied that those who have spoken this afternoon are concerned with this limited field of the small number of countries from whom we are obtaining a proportion of our supply and with the high degree of disease in those countries.

I want to say one or two general things about the Order, which will, I think, deal with the questions which I have been asked. but before I forget may I make some comments on points which, it has occurred to me, need to be cleared up so that no unnecessary alarm and despondency is caused outside? My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley spoke about selling diseased birds which we import, and I would not like that to alarm consumers of chickens. It is a fowl disease and not a human disease and, since heat is the one treatment which kills the bacteria, there is no reason why anybody should assume from my hon. Friend's comments that we are selling birds in this country which could have a considerable effect upon the health of the people who eat them. I am sure my hon. Friend did not intend to convey that impression.

A number of checks are made to try to get at the birds which come into the country with the disease but, as my hon. Friend knows, these are not very good checks and, short of a laboratory test, it is difficult to tell. That is why we have to take these general precautions against all the birds coming from those countries.

Mr. Daines (East Ham, North)

Are diseased birds being sold or not. I understand that if these birds are sold, and if they are cooked properly, the disease will not be transmitted to human beings, but I should like to know this: if the authorities know the birds are diseased, are they then sold?

Mr. Brown

The point I was making is that it is because we do not know the birds are diseased that we have set up considerable checks. We have sent veterinary officers to the countries concerned to have talks with them about their tests of the birds but, short of a laboratory test, there is no way of showing whether the bird is or is not affected. All we know is that these birds come from countries in whose flocks the disease is endemic, and there is a considerable probability, therefore, that a number are affected. In any case, the disease is not transmittable to, nor does it affect, human beings. It is a disease affecting other chickens, but it does not affect human beings at all.

The next point, was, I think, made clear by the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. Nugent). Talking about the dollar situation and the export of our livestock, the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) seemed to talk as if the United States had advantages over us in this matter of disease-free flocks and as if we were in danger of losing our export markets as a consequence. The position is entirely the other way round. In fact, the disease is endemic in the United States, whereas it is only now that we are concerned here and it affects only a very small number.

Mr. Baldwin

In quoting America as a country which was competing for our export trade, I was not referring to the poultry industry but to all livestock.

Mr. Brown

In any case, I am not at all sure that I accept that argument. I am dealing with our flocks of birds and there is no doubt of the position. This Order is not a relaxing Order, but one which considerably improves the position from the point of view of tightening up and giving new—and, we hope, effective—safeguards which did not exist before.

I think I agree with all hon. Members who have spoken that the only complete check we could get in this way would be to prohibit imports from those countries where the disease is endemic. If there were no other circumstances I am certain that the Ministry of Agriculture, would take the view that the health of our own flocks should have priority and would, therefore, ban importation. Unfortunately, there are other things we have to have in mind, and the fact that we cannot feed the nation without importing food is a point which must always be considered. It has to be considered not only with regard to birds. If we were to take the view that we would not import from countries where meat-borne diseases are endemic, for instance, we should find ourselves in considerable difficulty about agreeing to import any meat from South America, because of the situation there. It would be a very good thing from the point of view of our own herds, but, obviously, we are not able to do it.

Similarly, for that reason the Government have come to the conclusion that we cannot take the risk of prohibiting imports of poultry coming from all countries where fowl pest is endemic. What we think we must do is to see what other safeguards we can provide, how we can shield ourselves against the disease, and, at the same time, maintain our food supplies. I shall have a word to say about that before I sit down

The latest step we have taken is in the Poultry Carcases (Importation) Order, 1950, which came into effect only a short while ago. This goes a considerable way towards restricting imports. Previous to this Order we had no statutory restrictions on animal disease grounds on the importation of dead poultry. Before the war the disease was not sufficiently prevalent in Europe to make them worth while, and during the war, and since, of course, the Ministry of Food, as sole importer, was able to make its own administrative arrangements. The new Order for the first time, therefore, prohibits imports from all countries where fowl pest is widespread, except four, and they have been correctly mentioned—Belgium, France, Hungary and Poland.

That is not the whole story. In the case of Poland we are excluding her geese and her ducks because there are special difficulties, because of their production methods, in taking adequate steps to prevent the import of diseased birds, these are the worst offenders in the sense of getting disease into this country. Therefore, we have prohibited them completely from Poland, at any rate for the moment.

The reasons why we are continuing some imports from those four countries are that they have a long-standing trade of this kind with us, and there are difficulties about interrupting that trade. They—in particular, Hungary and Poland —are our main suppliers of poultry, although over the year as a whole the total proportion we get from those four countries, as the hon. and gallant Gentleman said, is not a very high proportion of our total supplies of poultry.

Then there is the point the hon. Gentleman the Member for Guildford fairly put, that of the Christmas market. Those of us who have been in the House for the last few years up to and including last Christmas know of the considerable pressure there is round about Christmastime for getting sufficient supplies of turkeys and other poultry, and how we are all concerned to see that our own constituencies have sufficient supplies. It is unquestionably a fact that the total supplies of poultry for next Christmas are not potentially at the moment sufficient for us easily to disregard the imports we get from those four countries.

In 1949, our total supplies of Christmas poultry were a little over 16,000 tons, of which some 6,200 tons were provided from home production. We had from Hungary and Poland—and we propose to exclude Polish geese from now on—some 2,100 tons of geese. In 1950, we estimate that there will be a slight increase in our home production to 7,400 tons—an increase of 1,200 tons; but as we are cutting out Polish geese, and as we cannot count on supplies from Hungary, it is quite clear that there is a considerable risk that in 1950, even allowing for imports from those four countries, our total supplies may be less rather than more.

Therefore, I feel that it would be unreasonable—and I again emphasise this is a question of balancing one consideration against another—for the Government to take the risk of cutting off the consumers from those sources of supplies, if we can make other arrangements to restrict the field of damage which those importations may do.

I say again—I hope it is clear from what I have said already—that I am giving a quite firm undertaking that, although we feel we must continue to allow imports, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Food will review the position in the light of the Christmas supplies when we have seen how they are coming in, and what the trade can obtain from areas that are free.

The steps taken to safeguard our flocks are two: first, to reduce the risk of infected carcases being sent to this country; and, second, to localise and prevent the spread of infection from any outbreaks that occur. There are two Orders, the one already referred to, the Poultry Carcases (Importation) Order, and the Live Poultry (Regulation of Sales, Exhibitions and Movements) Order, which aim to do these two things. The first Order requires that the poultry from the countries we have mentioned must, first, be eviscerated, second, be marked with the country of origin, and third, be sold by retail only in five areas in England and Wales, which areas we have chosen because of their industrial and built-up nature, and because there is less likelihood, if we can observe the terms of the Order, of this being spread about and affecting our own commercial flocks.

The second Order, as hon. Members will know, restricts the movement of birds to and from those areas. We have sent our veterinary officers abroad, as has been stated, to Hungary and Poland to try to get some agreement with those countries as to the steps that ought to be taken. In general, subject to the one exception I mentioned, of Polish geese, there has been considerable co-operation, and a good deal of improvement has been made at that end.

I should like to give one or two figures, because I should not like the impression to get about that we have been having this Debate because the position in this country is getting worse. That is not true. There have been 96 cases of fowl pest in Great Britain since 1st January of this year, as against 208 in the same period for 1948 and 319 for the same period in 1949. One has always to be chary about tempting fate on these matters, and I merely mention those figures to show that, far from there being any evidence that the position is getting worse we are, on the whole, managing to keep it under control.

Finally, I should like to say one thing to the poultry keepers themselves. Assuming that we have got to let these fowl in—as, indeed, I think we must for the time being—and assuming that we have taken all the steps we can to localise their movement when they come here so as to be protected, the poultry keepers themselves must do what they can to protect themselves and their own flocks. What has been said today must convince poultry keepers of the danger of using swill that has not been properly boiled, and particularly of allowing their poultry to come into contact in any way with unboiled swill which contains any poultry scraps at all. I would emphasise as strongly as I can that it is much better to get swill which has been boiled off the premises. It cannot be said often enough that it is a penny wise and pound foolish policy to bring in swill to boil oneself if there are poultry on the holding, rather than paying for it from a central plant. It must be boiled properly. That is the most important thing poultry keepers can do themselves.

I feel sure that we need not be unduly gloomy. We can keep this pest under control; we can prevent it from becoming endemic here if everybody co-operates—the merchants who handle the imported stuff, our own Department and our own veterinary officers, and the poultry keepers themselves. We shall keep the question under constant review. Should supplies of poultry turn out to be greater than we expect, we shall certainly consider amending the importation Order. Should the Order and the other steps prove to be less effective than we think they will be, we shall certainly be willing to review the Order with a view to tightening it up.