HC Deb 09 February 1951 vol 483 cc2168-76

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

4.1 p.m.

Mr. Dye (Norfolk, South-West)

I find myself between the devil and the deep sea. The devil which drives me on is the fowl pest which is raging in the country and to which thousands of our poultry have fallen victim, whereas the sea before me but a few minutes hence is a kind of race to catch a train which will enable me to get to another engagement. I trust, therefore, that it will not be considered discourteous if I leave before the end of this debate.

The problem of fowl pest is very important to our agricultural industry because of the losses that have already been inflicted and its potential danger to the poultry industry. I find that whereas in June, 1939, we had a total of 74 million poultry in this country, that number had risen to 95 million by June, 1949. By June, 1950, the further increase had been very small, and the figure still stood at just over 95 million, indicating that there had been a halt to the rapid rise in the number of poultry in the country. That has been due to, among other things, the incidence of fowl pest disease which is prevalent in the country.

The country was benefiting by the increase in the number of poultry, because if one compares the number of eggs that have been produced, with the pre-war figures, one finds that imported shell eggs in 1938 averaged 23 million dozen per month whereas the average in 1950 was only 14 million dozen per month. Yet the average consumption of shell eggs over the period 1934–38 was 12 million dozen per week compared with a consumption of shell eggs in 1950 of 14 million dozen per week, of which three-quarters were home produced. Thus there had been a change-over to the extent that the home poultry keepers were now bearing three-quarters of the burden of supplying our people with a greater quantity of eggs than were consumed pre-war.

This disease is bound to bring a fall both in egg production and table poultry in 1951, and unless this disease can be overcome very soon it will have a profound effect on our home-produced supplies. Therefore, the matter is one of extreme urgency. The reason I raise it this afternoon is because I do not feel that this House has so far given the attention it ought to have given to this very important problem It was shown in Questions and answers just over a week ago in this House that the supplies of dead poultry from countries where fowl pest exists rose from 6,764 tons in 1949 to 8,050 tons in 1950. That is to say, in a period while we had fowl pest in this country, the number of poultry which were being imported had risen, and beyond any doubt the disease originated in this country as a result of imported poultry. Yet during 1950 we continued to import still greater quantities. What do these 8,000-odd tons of poultry mean in this country's supplies? They represent just over 6 per cent, of our total table poultry. But the damage which will be done to our own production of poultry this year will far exceed the quantity that has been imported in this way.

Therefore, I ask the Minister whether he can decide now to cease the import of table poultry from all countries where this disease exists, side by side with the most stringent efforts to stamp out the disease in this country. I was extremely disappointed to learn from the Minister of Agriculture the other day that as late as 23rd January this year a case of fowl pest in Birmingham was traced back to imported birds. This is a disease which spreads so very easily and is carried by dead poultry as well as probably by some other birds. Therefore, we have this problem with us.

I have a few notes from the Animal Health Trust which throws some more light on this problem. They say: A breakdown of the outbreaks during 1947–48 in this country shows that over 60 per cent. could be plotted within 20 miles of six industrial areas, regions where these imported carcases were most likely to be distributed. Some 33 per cent. of the outbreaks showed a history of feeding on potentially infected swill; 42 per cent. originated from traffic in live poultry through auction markets and dealers. Less than 8 per cent. occurred by local spread. In other words, once the disease was established in the country by the feeding of infected swill the further spread was from movement of livestock. We are all hoping that the Government's effort to stamp out this disease will succeed. But consider what happened in Australia. Here again I am reading from the notes which have been supplied to me. At the discussion on Newcastle disease at the International Veterinary Congress last year a veterinary surgeon from Australia said that after the disease had been eradicated from the country by slaughter and by a complete ban on importation, a further outbreak occurred six months later when birds had been held in cold storage for over six months and were released for the market. There is a need not merely to ban the import of birds but to recognise that for a considerable period there should be no more coming into the country if we want to maintain a poultry industry in this country. If the industry is worth saving from the point of view of food production, then beyond any doubt the poultry keepers of this country are willing to put up with any restricions which will have the effect of stamping out the disease. Therefore, I ask the Government to take the strongest possible measures, to face this problem fairly and squarely, and ban the imports which are found to be dangerous to us. The amount involved compared with our potential production at home is so small.

The second outbreak of disease that same to the country was of a different character and seems to have originated from birds brought in from America to supply American forces here. This may be a less deadly type of disease, but, since last October, it has wiped out some of our finest flocks of poultry. Surely we must have a definite understanding with our allies and friends who are in our midst so that they do not become the greatest enemy to our food production?

I ask the Government what communications they have had with the American Government with a view to control over the supplies of poultry sent to their troops stationed here. This is a vital matter. We may have an element of control over the camps and over the swill, refuse or surplus that goes out of the camps into the surrounding country, but, having had this heavy attack of fowl pest in the Eastern counties, and having seen it spread to other parts of the country, we cannot be too careful in the measures we take with a view to stamping out the disease.

I mentioned the question of marketing. The marketing system itself has been a danger to the poultry industry, and I ask my hon. Friend whether it is not time that the Government took steps, in consultation with representatives of the poultry industry, so that we can have urgent measures adopted to improve our system of marketing poultry. I know there have been restrictions, but even these can have adverse effects in the way in which poultry are killed for the local markets.

So I ask the Parliamentary Secretary if, in replying, he can give the poultry industry today fresh hope to enable it to withstand any severe restrictions placed upon it and also to ensure that it will be able to provide this country with greater quantities of eggs and table birds in future.

4.13 p.m.

Brigadier Medlicott (Norfolk, Central)

I intervene only for a moment to support the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Dye) in stressing the urgency of this problem, and I am sure that we are all grateful to him for having raised it at this time.

I want to make a protest however. On 13th January, following upon a meeting with representatives of the poultry industry in Norfolk, a group of Norfolk Members wrote a very carefully reasoned letter to the Minister of Agriculture, asking to be allowed to see him in view of the great urgency of this problem. For reasons best known to himself, the Minister would not see us. This week, the Minister, apparently without any difficulty and through his Parliamentary Secretary, has received a deputation from Suffolk, although it is true that there were two hon. Members from Norfolk present who had been invited by the courtesy of the hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans).

I have no wish to make any point as between one county and another, nor is there any question of hurt feelings; the problem is too serious for that. I do suggest, however, that Norfolk has been particularly hard hit by this outbreak of fowl pest, and, since it has been possible for the Minister to see one group of hon. Members this week, I confess I am rather disappointed that the right hon. Gentleman could not see the Norfolk representatives when we raised the matter nearly a month ago. If the fact that the Minister has seen a deputation this week is proof that he realises the increasing urgency and seriousness of the matter, then I make no further complaint.

I want to make two other short points. I would underline the appeal made by the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West on the desirability of stopping imports from abroad as long as this disease continues here. There is no doubt whatever that the poultry industry are not asking for this through any selfish motives or through fear of foreign competition. They are only concerned with stamping out the disease in this country, and that is proved by the fact that they have not only expressed themselves as being willing to submit to restrictions of the most drastic kind, but have themselves actively suggested the restrictions which they consider the Minister ought to impose upon them. So much for the short-term policy, and I hope that the Minister is going to tell us something decisive about it today.

The other matter which has apparently not been given quite as much attention as it deserves, is the need for long-term research with a view to finding out the causes of this disease, and perhaps, finally eradicating it. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us that not only money, but the best brains are being applied to the problem of eradicating the disease by every means in our power.

4.16 p.m.

Mr. Nugent (Guildford)

I share the great anxiety of the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Dye) about the incidence of this disease, and I think I can inform the House straight away that its incidence commences with the importation of diseased carcases. The right way to prevent the disease is to stop importing poultry. There is no other satisfactory treatment.

There are two points which I wish to raise. The first is, as the Minister knows, that the farmers throughout the country are co-operating wholeheartedly with the slaughter policy, and I think this House should record its appreciation of that cooperation. It is quite true that there is fair and reasonable compensation for flocks that are slaughtered, but that does not compensate the farmer, first of all, for loss of profits until he can get going again, which may take several months or even longer; nor does it compensate him for the loss of breeding stocks, on the building-up of which he may have spent a lifetime. As the Minister knows, some very valuable breeding stocks have had to be slaughtered in this way, and it has been a terrible blow to the farmers concerned. I think it should go on record that fair as the compensation is, it cannot compensate farmers for that kind of loss.

My second point is on the question of imports. I sympathise with the Minister sitting on the Front Bench, which was rather more crowded last night when his right hon. Friend had to answer the debate on the subject of our meat supplies, and he is naturally very sensitive about having to cut them down in any way. But, on balance, I would ask him to consider whether it is really in the consumer interest or in the producer interest to make these importations. In America the incidence of this disease is very high. They lose, approximately, 30 million birds a year in that country, where the disease is endemic. In this country, with about one-fifth of the poultry population, we should lose something of the order of six million birds. If we average their cost at £3 apiece, we get something of the order of £18 million worth of poultry, which is rather more than the total of diseased carcases imported at the present time.

As the Minister knows, there is much more I should like to say on the subject, but, knowing that he has already generously compressed his time in order that I might say a word or two, I do not propose to detain the House any longer. However, I hope that in looking at the whole picture, the Minister will recognise that, on balance, it is in the interest of both the consumer and the producer to stop these imports, which are the sole source of this disease.

4.19 p.m.

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

I think it would be in the interests of the House if I replied to the debate now because there are some things which I ought to say about this matter. I agree with much of what has been said about the importance to our flocks, to the health of the birds and to the supplies of poultry and eggs, of getting this disease under control, and, indeed, of getting rid of it as soon as possible. I ought to point out to the hon. and gallant Member for Norfolk, Central (Brigadier Medlicott) that the difficulty with regard to Norfolk was that I did not hear about the request, and I hope that Norfolk will realise that there was a break down in staff work, rather than any desire to be discourteous.

Turning to a review of the position at the moment, it is difficult to be sure what is now happening concerning the progress of the disease. This is the first outbreak of this type of the disease, which is rather different in its nature and in its symptoms and effect from the more virulent type of fowl pest of recent years. The first outbreak of the present type was confirmed on 5th October, and perhaps because of the mild symptoms and delay in notification, the build-up for dealing with it was somewhat slow. However, up to midnight last night there had been, in East Anglia and Kent, taking the two together as a group, 216 outbreaks, in the rest of England 167, and in Scotland 15, making a total of 398 outbreaks.

There was a total of four outbreaks in one week in mid-December, rising to 90 in one week at the peak, about the middle of January, after which there was a decline, but I am sorry to tell the House that in the last week there have been a number of outbreaks hitherto unreported, some in Scotland and some in different parts of England, which bring the total number of outbreaks this week to 60,which is again getting on towards the peak figure. Whether these figures are due to delayed notifications or whether the disease is flaring up again is very difficult to say, but we are determined to do all that we can to get the disease under control and to deal with the cause.

We have made a Control of Movements Order, similar to the one that already applies in England and Wales, to apply to Scotland, which will operate from midnight tonight, to prevent the disease getting out of hand in Scotland by the indiscriminate movement of birds. One of the effects of the Order will be to prevent the holding of the poultry section of the dairy show, which, I understand, will open at Glasgow next week. In view of what happened at the English poultry show in December, I think that everyone will agree that that is a wise course to take.

The very best brains that we have in the veterinary profession have been hard at work on this disease ever since it was first realised that something new was happening. We are working on long-term research, and, more important immediately, on the short-term job of getting the disease under control and isolated. It seems reasonable to assume —and there is some circumstantial evidence—that this new outbreak had its origin in American camps in East Anglia. The American authorities have been most co-operative in discussing ways and means of disposing of the birds in a way which would not spread the disease, and quickly agreed to put into operation arrangements which we were able to approve.

I am happy to tell the House that, following further discussions, the American authorities have now agreed to prohibit the import of poultry for their camps from America because of the likelihood of bringing in the disease. It will take a little while before we can operate the ban because they have to make arrangements to replace these supplies from other sources, but that is being done as quickly as possible and I am sure that the House will pay the highest tribute to the Americans for their sincere understanding of the problem.

Mr. Edgar Granville (Eye)

On the question of swill in the American camps, is the Parliamentary Secretary satisfied that this will apply to all American camps and that the discipline will be completely effective?

Mr. Brown

If they are not to bring in any more, the point becomes a little academic, but so long as there is swill to dispose of we are satisfied with their willingness to co-operate and put the regulations into effect and to deal with any breach of them. They have given all the co-operation and assurances that we could want in this respect.

I ought now to turn to the question of imports, apart from the American imports. I have the greatest sympathy with the desire to end imports which might run the risk of bringing the disease into this country, but we have to remember that things are seldom black or white and that we have to balance the position. Not only are we discussing this question against the background of an 8d. ration of meat, but from the point of view that importations from the Continent, where the disease is prevalent, represent about 50 per cent. of our total imported supplies during the three months of the year about Christmas-time. Although it is a small percentage compared with the whole year, it is a large percentage at this time of the year. Discussions are going on between the interested Government Departments, and I can assure the House that we are all aware of the problem and anxious to get a decision very soon. I hope that we shall be able to announce a decision in the course of a month.

It is not a fact that we are destroying more birds than we can import. We must get the matter into perspective. The figures show that between 1947 and 1950 something like 400,000 birds—roughly, 1,000 tons—were slaughtered. In addition, a number of birds died from the disease, but even if these losses are put at the outside figure of 50 per cent. the total loss is not more than 1.500 tons, whereas our imports from these countries during the same period were some 27,000 tons. We have to take into consideration the shutting out of 27,000 tons for a loss of the order of something like 1,500 tons during the same period.

Mr. Nugent

My point was on the loss we should experience if the disease became endemic.

Mr. Brown

I concede the point the hon. Member has in mind. I am pointing out that there is another side to this matter to be considered.

I can assure the House that we appreciate the seriousness of the position, and that so tar as the immediate outbreak is concerned, we are doing all we can, by the veterinary services and by administrative work, to bring it under control. We shall continue the slaughter compensation policy so long as it seems likely that we shall get it under control, and whether we can do that or not largely rests in the hands of the poultry keepers themselves. So long as the poultry keepers report all outbreaks, giving us time to get to work, there is every hope that we shall get this under control. We shall consider the import policy as vigorously and as quickly as we can. I hope that what I have said about American importations will lead the House to think that the possible source of the outbreak has also been covered.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Half-past Four o'Clock.