HC Deb 08 May 1952 vol 500 cc551-6

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:


—To ask the Minister of Agriculture what sum of money is being spent annually in research on foot-and-mouth disease.

59. Mr. T. DRIBERG,—TO

ask the Minister of Agriculture if he will publish in HANSARD a full statement of the progress made in recent years in research into foot-and-mouth disease; whether this research has the highest priority on all necessary financial and other resources; and how soon he anticipates that it will be possible to deal with outbreaks of this disease other than by complete destruction of infected herds.

64 and 65. Sir RALPH GLYN,—TO

ask the Minister of Agriculture (1) what evidence he has that the virus of the present outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease is new; whether it has yet been properly identified; how long animals take to recover; and, during the present outbreak, how many animals have been slaughtered as possible contacts but have not actually contracted the disease;

(2) whether, after consultation with the Lord President of the Council, he will consider the setting up immediately of a Veterinary Research Council on the same lines as the Medical and Agricultural Research Councils, but with the special object to co-operating with veterinary services in British Dominions and Colonies, with a view to establishing a better understanding of purely veterinary problems, especially foot-and-mouth disease.


—To ask the Minister of Agriculture if he will appoint a standing conference drawn from research scientists, the veterinary profession, the Royal Agricultural Society of England, the National Farmers' Union and other representative agricultural bodies to keep under review Britain's policy on foot-and-mouth disease so that all may be assured that the best advice is being taken in deciding and carrying out national policy.

At the end of Questions—

The Minister of Agriculture (Major Sir Thomas Dugdale)

With your permission, Sir, and the permission of the House, I should like to answer Questions 53, 59, 64, 65 and 67.

The present situation is serious, but it is certainly not unprecedented, and unless it deteriorates very seriously, I have no doubt that it can be brought under control.

Since November, 1951, until midday today, there have been 258 outbreaks of the disease in this country. This should be compared with the experience of Denmark, where 26,000 outbreaks have occurred in the last six months, and that of Holland, where there have been 23,000 in roughly the same period. Western Germany has suffered much more severely. There the total number of outbreaks in 1951 was 155,000. The outbreaks that occurred in the United Kingdom in the winter of 1937-38 and in 1941 were comparable in severity to the present one, and there were much more serious outbreaks in each of the years 1922-24 and in 1942. In every case the disease was stamped out, to the immense benefit of the flocks and herds of this country, of meat and milk production and of our valuable export trade in pedigree stock.

Movement and marketing restrictions have been imposed over most of Great Britain because of the danger of infection having been spread through two markets. This is purely a holding operation while the veterinary staff of my Department are tracing and keeping under observation the animals concerned, which have been dispersed over a wide area. When that operation has been completed, I hope it will be possible to make substantial reductions in the area under control.

Research on foot-and-mouth disease is carried out at the Foot-and-Mouth Disease Research Institute at Pirbright. A total of £93,540 has been provided for grants to this Institute in my Department's Estimates for the current financial year, and with the approval of the Treasury considerably increased funds are being made available for the development of the station. The governing body will in future be publishing an Annual Report. The OFFICIAL REPORT, I would suggest, is not a suitable medium for the publication of reports on scientific work. My veterinary advisers keep in the closest touch with the progress of scientific research, not only at the Pirbright Institute but at similar centres overseas. In addition, machinery exists through the medium of the Agricultural Research Council, and the Agricultural Improvement Council for ensuring that any results of research which may have a bearing on administration and policy are brought to my notice. I do not consider that any new body is required for this purpose. I have asked the Chairman of the Agricultural Improvement Council to bring the matter up specially at the next meeting of the Council.

I have no evidence that the virus of the present outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease is new. It has been identified as type "A." Recent experience on the Continent with this virus has shown that a number of animals, particularly young animals, die, and the time taken by others to recover varies considerably.

As it is not possible to say in every case whether, at the time of slaughter, a contact animal has contracted the disease, no figures are available as to the number of unaffected animals which have been killed.

Finally, I would ask the House to accept my earnest assurance that there is no question whatever that in the present state of our scientific knowledge, the abandonment, or even relaxation, of the slaughter policy would involve the livestock industry of this country in the gravest disaster since the days of the cattle plague of the 19th century, with incalculable consequences to our meat and milk supplies.

All responsible agricultural organisations are emphatic in the view that the slaughter policy is the best method of dealing with the disease in this country.

Sir R. Glyn

Is my right hon. and gallant Friend aware that in 1947 the Ministry of Agriculture stated that they would produce a report of the work done at Pirbright? Whilst there is, according to my right hon. and gallant Friend, to be an annual report, can he take steps to publish as early as possible a report on the very valuable work which that department has done?

Sir T. Dugdale

I will look into that.

Mr. Somerville Hastings

May I ask the Minister whether the help of the Medical Research Council, which lately has been carrying out more useful researches in connection with virus diseases, has been asked for?

Sir T. Dugdale

I could not answer that question today, but I will certainly see that it is looked into.

Mr. Hurd

May we take it that from now onwards it will be a definite and regular responsibility of the Agricultural Improvement Council to gather together scientific information and to link this with the administration of our slaughter policy and to advise the Minister regularly, so that in future there are no gaps between research discoveries and the administration of policy?

Sir T. Dugdale

Yes, Sir. I think that the Council is a very suitable body to perform that task, and I will make certain that that takes place.

Mr. Driberg

Can the right hon. and gallant Gentleman say whether there has in fact been any significant advance in recent years in the knowledge and treatment of this disease? Would he also be good enough to answer more precisely the second part of Question 59; whether this research has as high a priority as, for instance, atomic research on scientific manpower and equipment as well as finance?

Sir T. Dugdale

I cannot answer the second part of that Question, but I can say that so far as my Department is concerned, it has absolutely first priority, and I am giving the very greatest consideration to all aspects of research in this very great problem.

Mr. Driberg

Could the right hon. and gallant Gentleman answer the first part of the supplementary question—has there been any significant advance in knowledge and treatment in recent years?

Sir T. Dugdale

My answer to that is that from everything I can learn I understand that our station at Pirbright is considered throughout the world as being the most advanced in the researches they are making into this great problem.

Brigadier O. L. Prior-Palmer

In view of the fact that Imperial Chemical Industries have found a serum against the tsetse fly menace in Africa, is their advice sought at Pirbright in this matter?

Sir T. Dugdale

Pirbright do take all advice from all sources.

Mr. R. T. Paget

Is not the trouble the fact that if we did get an efficient vaccine, the cost of innoculation would be still higher than the cost of the slaughter policy?

Sir T. Dugdale:

I think that is correct to start with, but the real problem of immunisation is that it takes two or three weeks to develop immunity and in that time infection could have spread very far and wide.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir Thomas Moore

Could we know what proportion of the animals so slaughtered are suitable for use for human food?

Sir T. Dugdale

A very large proportion now; it depends on whether they are cattle, pigs or sheep, but a very large proportion.

Mr. Harold Davies

Does the right hon. and gallant Gentleman think it might be worth while for his Ministry to take the initiative in calling an all-European agricultural scientific conference to deal only with this problem at this moment? Secondly, may I ask him to consider the possibility ultimately of expanding the veterinary service, in view of the fact that we have only about 94 veterinary surgeons per million animals, and that is one of the lowest proportions in the advanced countries of the world?

Sir T. Dugdale

I would answer that question this way: I think it might interest the House to know that my Department keeps in very close touch with the work of F.A.O. in this field, and hon. Members may be interested to know that Sir Thomas Dalling, who was until recently my Department's Chief Veterinary Officer, has now taken up the post of Chief Veterinary Officer with F.A.O., with the particular object of trying to do something to deal with this disease on the Continent of Europe.

Major H. Legge-Bourke

Will my right hon. and gallant Friend bear in mind that there is a considerable number of agricultural shows due to take place at a fairly early date? Will he do everything in his power to arrange that his Department give the earliest possible information to those organising those shows, if there is the remotest possibility of their having the shows, after all?

Sir T. Dugdale

Yes, Sir.

Mr. Julian Snow

Will the right hon. and gallant Gentleman consult with the Leader of the House to see that some time is afforded so that the House can consider this question in its proper perspective?

Sir T. Dugdale

That is a question for the Leader of the House.

Mr. Crouch

Is my right hon. and gallant Friend aware that his reply will be received with a great deal of satisfaction in the agricultural community, because they have always been behind the slaughter policy and the figures he has given us this afternoon have proved that the slaughter policy is right? Is he aware that his statement will cause a great deal of relief among the nonagricultural community, who are anxious about this question?