HC Deb 31 July 1953 vol 518 cc1733-48

2.14 p.m.

Sir Leslie Plummer (Deptford)

In rising to open this debate, I think it is proper that I should say I have an interest, indeed, a very sad interest, in this subject. I am a breeder of pedigree pigs which are now suffering from this fever. It may be a consolation that had it not been for the grievous attacks of swine fever from which my herd is suffering I would not be so familiar with the effects and I would not be bothering the House with the subject today.

The position is really very grave indeed. The figures of the extent of the outbreaks of swine fever are quite alarming. In the 10 years since 1943 the number of outbreaks has gone up from over 500 to over 1,900 in 1953. That figure is only to July of this year, and only up to the 27th. It is true that the disease disappeared almost to vanishing point in 1947, 1948 and 1949, when the figures were 37, 27 and 5 respectively, but now there are 1,913 cases of outbreak of swine fever this year up to 27th of the month. The trend is upward, and the effects on breeding are so considerable that it is right and proper that before we go away for the Summer Recess we should remind the Ministry of Agriculture of these facts and ask some pertinent questions.

First of all, may I say that one of the difficulties of overcoming this disease, which is invariably fatal, is that it is extremely infectious. It is caused by a filterable virus, if anyone can tell me what that is. The efforts to overcome it are not made easier by the fact that farmers in some places are showing a superstitious attitude to it. I know that some farmers take the view that it is no good using the invaluable crystal-violet vaccine which is supplied by the Ministry of Agriculture for vaccination purposes because they say that if a sow which is in-pig is vaccinated it will slip its pigs, and that if a boar is injected it will become sterile.

I do not doubt that on animals in an advanced state of pregnancy vaccination will have a deleterious effect. Pigs are as temperamental almost as humans and they must not be upset in the last stages

of their pregnancy. The fact that in the past some farmers have suffered the loss of their animals or the loss of litters or have had boars become sterile is not a cogent argument against the use of the crystal vaccine.

There is a growing feeling—and I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to say whether it is true or not—that swine fever has been spread in this country through the American airfield stations and the swill obtained from those stations. This belief is based on the knowledge that there is a swine fever outbreak in the United States which has reached catastrophic proportions. It is believed by some that the food being brought into this country to feed the American airmen is in some way or another carrying the infection.

We had some doubts about this when there were outbreaks of fowl pest, but it was found eventually that fowl pest was brought into this country by food from America for consumption by American soldiers. If it is true on this occasion I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to see that the collection of swill from the airfields is stopped. It is of limited feeding value anyway, and the risks from it are very serious indeed. It would be much better if it were burned instead of being carried away and used to bring swine fever into healthy herds.

I have described the attitude of some of the farmers and the barriers they form against the abolition of this disease. But another barrier is the lack of enterprise and drive on the part of the Ministry. It is astonishing that an infectious disease of this kind is treated so light-heartedly by the Ministry in the direction of advising farmers when outbreaks are taking place. Unless a farmer has a private information service he cannot know that an outbreak has occurred for, unlike the situation that exists with foot-and-mouth disease, no one comes round to tell him that there is an outbreak in the district.

It is true that the area may be closed and that it may be impossible for a farmer to shift his animals to market or to sell any of his pigs off the farm, but he is not advised officially either that an outbreak has taken place or that an outbreak of the disease is suspected on the farm. The trouble with swine fever is that it can be taken unwittingly on to a healthy farm when it is in its early stage elsewhere.

Yet the Ministry knows who the pig producers are in an area which is infected or in danger of infection, because it has in its statistics the records of the pig producers. Above all, the police know because it is their job to go round the pig farms every so often to check the animal movements book. This is so important that I suggest some co-operation should take place between the Ministry and the police to see that, when an outbreak is suspected, the police warn farmers in the district of the dangers to their herds and to urge them to take urgent and effective action against the infection.

To quote my own experience, one of the things that has impressed me in our outbreak is the long time it has taken the Ministry to overhaul their propaganda machinery. It was in May, 1947, that the crystal-violet vaccine was released for general use and in May, 1947, some most effective propaganda in co-operation with the National Farmers' Union was issued by the Ministry, explaining to the farmers exactly what were the benefits of the vaccine. But in that year there were practically no outbreaks at all, as the figures I have quoted show, nor was there much in 1948.

The really serious outbreak of recent years took place in 1951. I cannot recollect, nor can I find, any examples of awareness on the part of the Ministry, which is absolutely necessary if we are to keep people informed: that is to say, by the issue of periodical reminders, exhortations and examples of the steps which should be taken to guard herds against this disease. Really, the Ministry have gone to sleep on this matter and it is time they realised the seriousness of the position and started it all over again with a really effective propaganda drive.

When a farmer gets a suspected case of swine fever on his farm, it is essential that he should get confirmation or denial of the existence of the disease in his animals as quickly as possible. Imagine the position of a man who finds that his own unvaccinated pigs are dying every day. He goes into his yards every morning and finds two or three corpses perhaps in each of his pens. He does not know the cause because he has not had any propaganda from the Ministry.

It is in those conditions that the man must be helped by being told as quickly as possible whether his animals have been infected. To quote my own case again, on Tuesday, 7th July, we called in the "vet" because we suspected swine fever. On Wednesday, 8th July, the "vet," after consultation with the Animal Health Division of the Ministries of Food and Agriculture, called on an official visit, slaughtered four pigs in accordance with the routine, carried out a post mortem and sent specimens to the Ministry of Agriculture laboratories, at Weybridge. On Friday, 10th July, he called again, again on an official visit sent by the Ministry, and repeated the operation. On Sunday, 12th July, he called again on an official visit and again repeated the operation.

Meantime, there was no word as to whether the disease was confirmed or denied. On Monday, 13th July, at approximately six o'clock in the evening a courteous and most helpful official arrived from the Ministry and said, "You will receive confirmation that swine fever does, in fact, exist," and on the morning of Tuesday, 14th July, I received a cyclo-styled and misprinted document saying, "Yes you have swine fever."

Incidentally, I do not see why the Ministry should not use, in connection with its information to farmers, a standard of typewritten correspondence at least equal to that sent to farmers by commercial firms. Six days elapsed——

Lieut.-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

How many post mortems had been carried out in that time?

Sir L. Plummer

About a dozen.

I appreciate the difficulties and I am sympathetic, but it is no consolation to the farmer who is anxious about his herd to have to wait for six days because the laboratories at Weybridge are blocked. Will the Parliamentary Secretary reply to the following questions? Is the Weybridge laboratory open on Saturday afternoon and Sunday to meet a situation like this? After all, British farms are open on Saturday afternoon and Sunday and it seems to me that, when farmers are faced with serious outbreaks of swine fever every day, Weybridge should be open day and night so that immediate confirmation or denial of the existence of the disease can be obtained. Is it really necessary that specimens should be sent to Weybridge? Why cannot the Ministry have a mobile laboratory which goes to the centre of the outbreaks so that confirmation can be given not in six days but in six hours?

What is the clinical position? As I understand, the Ministry confirms the existence of swine fever first on the probabilities as reported by the "vet" who, at this stage, has ceased to be the farmer's "vet" and is an agent of the Ministry. It is on his report on the probability, and on his report on the existence of ulcers on some part of the stomach, that the decision is taken as to whether swine fever exists.

What part of the stomach I do not know, because I find myself totally in capable of watching a post mortem, even on a pig. But surely it is not necessary to send specimens from all over the country to Weybridge to get that done. A trained, travelling man can do a post mortem side by side with the "vet" and can give confirmation practically on the spot. When we have outbreaks of this kind, it is no good trying to operate confirmatory investigations on the basis of the five outbreaks that took place in 1949. The gravity of the situation demands that the most serious measures are taken.

In May, 1947, when the crystal-violet vaccine was introduced for the first time after some years of experiment, the Ministry of Agriculture had a leaflet printed which goes out with the vaccine. Because I used to have some experience of the printing trade. I am able to interpret certain cabalistic references that appear at the foot of this leaflet, which I understand to mean that 50,000 of these leaflets were printed by the Stationery Office in April, 1947. The astonishing thing is that this circular has not been revised since April, 1947. It is six years old, and farmers are operating on the instructions of this leaflet in a way that is now being contradicted by the Ministry of Agriculture.

Let me give an example. The leaflet says that vaccination by the crystal-violet vaccine gives an immunity against natural infection for at least 12 months. But I was told a fortnight ago by a representative of the Ministry of Agriculture that that is wrong and that eight months is the period of immunity. I asked my "vet" whether he knew that it was eight months, and he said that he had never been told. He is still working on one of these forms and the advices issued six years ago.

Furthermore, the form says that young pigs from crystal-violet vaccinated sows should not be vaccinated until 14 days after weaning. For those of my hon. Friends who have no technical knowledge, that really means 10 weeks. But the same most helpful young gentleman who comes to see me says, "Take no notice of that. Young pigs should be vaccinated at four weeks." Nobody had been told that, and no one had told the "vet" that it should be four weeks. It is in the interests of agriculture and of food production that the Ministry should see that these leaflets are brought up to date, and that "vets," particularly in areas where outbreaks are occurring, should be supplied with an information service regularly and quickly and in conformity with the facts as they are discovered.

I am sure that the Ministry can do little until they find out the exact period of immunity given by crystal-violet vaccine. The attack that I have suffered has cost me more than 100 pigs but most of them were young pigs up to about three months of age. All the adult pigs that we had vaccinated have survived the attack. It is therefore important that farmers should know—at any rate, in our case, where vaccination took place at the right time—that vaccinated pigs in an infected farm are almost wholly immune from attack.

What is the period of immunity for young pigs? I was told that it was three weeks. I was then told that it was eight weeks. I then asked, "Which is right, three weeks, eight weeks or, as I suspect no weeks at all—that no immunity is inherited by the young pig from its mother; and is immunity affected in any way by whether the mother has been vaccinated during her pregnancy? "I asked that question of the Ministry a fortnight ago, but I have not yet had a reply. The reason, I imagine, is that the Ministry do not know.

Why do the Ministry not know? The fact is that swine fever has to be notified under the Diseases of Animals Act and, as a result, most of the research on the disease is being done at Weybridge. Consider what effect that is having. As I said, the main problem is to discover what period of immunity is granted by the crystal-violet vaccine. Considerable additional research is necessary to investigate the duration of the immunity and the extent to which the disease is passed on.

Those experiments are bound to be complicated and to require a great deal of planning and organisation, but because it is a notifiable disease under the Diseases of Animals Act industrial firms and other normal research agencies are inhibited from carrying on the work that they should be doing in finding out the period of immunity; and an enormous amount of work is thus loaded on to Weybridge.

Is Weybridge properly equipped, both with laboratory equipment and with staff, to meet the situation, or is it, too, suffering from the economy drive that the Treasury have imposed ever since the Conservative Party came into office? Weybridge must have the facilities, both with laboratory equipment and with manpower. I presume that at some time or other the Ministry, either by statutory order or administratively, will have to take such action as will give power to the other research organisations to proceed with finding the answer. Any scheme for the provision of a cheaper form of swine fever vaccine, while it is desirable, will not really solve the problem until we discover how the disease is caused and the period of immunity afforded by the vaccine.

What is happening to the projected scheme for setting up the special panel of vaccinated animals and by which farmers are to be provided, through their "vets." or directly, with the vaccine at a reduced rate, and which seeks the cooperation of auctioneers in ensuring that they have special pens and give special publicity to the fact that vaccinated animals are for sale? Why does it take such a long time to get a scheme of this kind established?

I want also to deal with the question of compensation. I cannot see why, if a farmer who suffers foot-and-mouth disease in his pigs is compensated, a farmer whose pigs have swine fever receives no compensation whatever. I am wrong, perhaps, in saying, "no compensation whatever," for every time the Ministry "vet." calls to see me and orders the destruction of pigs he gives us 7s. 6d. towards the cost of digging the hole for burying, which is scarcely adequate compensation for the losses we are suffering.

If fowl pest attacks a man's flocks, he gets compensation. If the pig farmer is a bacon producer, if he suspects that there is swine fever on the farm, he can send his healthy animals into the bacon factories and, by and large, he is not a heavy loser; but when a pig breeder who tries to improve the strain of the country's pigs loses his young suckling stock, two, three or four weeks old, it is no use whatever sending that young stock to anybody. It is slaughtered and buried, and the man is a complete loser. Although destruction is in the national interest in checking the disease, I submit that those animals should be slaughtered under exactly the same conditions as apply to animals that are slaughtered because of foot-and-mouth disease.

Some pig producers oppose the payment of compensation because they believe that it would lead to a large-scale view by the Ministry that slaughter is the only way out. I do not share that view. Under certain circumstances slaughter is essential, but while there is no compensation many farmers who are not as careful and as honest as they should be, although they suspect that there is swine fever on their farms, are inclined to send their animals either to market or to sell them in another way, thus spreading the risk of the disease. It would be a perfectly simple thing to supply the necessary safeguards as exist with fowl pest and with foot-and-mouth disease, to ensure that claims for compensation were properly examined and that people were not getting away with anything to which they are not entitled.

May I make it quite clear that in all I have said I have no criticism of any kind to offer of the Ministry's staff in the area in which I live? On the contrary, the staff of the Ministry and that of the National Agricultural Advisory Service are, in my experience, always ready and eager to help the farmer. I want to pay public testimony to the spirit of cooperation and understanding that the Ministry officials show.

The trouble is that there are not enough of them. I will give an example. In the middle of this outbreak I wanted to talk to the chief animal health officer of the Ministry at Chelmsford, but I was told I could not do so because he had gone to Scotland. I asked why and the reply was, "Because there is swine fever in Scotland." I pointed out that there was swine fever in Essex. It is quite clear that there is a shortage of staff and he was not breaking any orders in going to Scotland. But it really is not good enough, when there are serious outbreaks of a kind like this, to find that a man whose advice is sought so eagerly is not available because there are not enough officials in another area.

If the Ministry are to tackle the problem and have a drive to eradicate swine fever, they will have to go to the Treasury to get the staff and money to supply the apparatus which is necessary. Above all, they will have to reorganise their own Department to see that the drive is made in the interests of farmers and of food production in Great Britain.

2.42 p.m.

Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)

I feel that my hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Sir L. Plummer) is to be congratulated on having raised this very important subject. It is a subject which has been treated with far too great complacency—indeed, a complacency which has been exemplified today when almost throughout the speech of my hon. Friend there has not been a single Conservative hon. Member present on the back benches. At the end of the speech one hon. Member opposite turned up, not because he is interested in this subject, but because he has the next Adjournment subject. That is evidence of the complacency with which the governing party and the Government have treated this problem.

Sir Robert Grimston (Westbury)

Looking over the benches behind the hon. and learned Member, I would say that the situation he has described appears to be much the same on his side of the House. I think that there are six hon. Members there.

Mr. Speaker

I must caution hon. Members against drawing attention to the number of hon. Members present.

Mr. Paget

A considerable number of hon. Members were present on this side of the House earlier; in fact, relatively speaking, there were serried ranks here.

For a long time foot-and-mouth disease was treated with the same sort of complacency as swine fever is treated now. That disease took a tremendous toll of the country's agricultural wealth and was then treated with energy and the situation was got in hand. Our losses in foot-and-mouth disease, even in the bad years, when a lot of slaughter is necessary, are trifling compared with those on the Continent and in America. That is because the disease is now treated with energy. Fowl pest was also more or less neglected until it became serious and it is now getting in hand, but swine fever is now getting out of hand. It has increased alarmingly and nothing has been done about it.

Will the Ministry really take this matter in hand? Pig meat is the one easily expendable source of meat? Will the Ministry see that treatment of this disease is dealt with with the same energy and upon the same basis as foot-and-mouth disease and fowl pest?

2.44 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture (Mr. G. R. H. Nugent)

I begin by expressing sympathy with the hon. Member for Deptford (Sir L. Plummer) in his misfortune in having an outbreak of swine fever on his farm. All who have anything to do with the farming world know of the distress which is caused, apart from the cost by having an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, swine fever, or fowl pest.

In the figures given by the hon. Member about the incidence of the disease, I think he did not give an entirely fair picture of the general incidence of swine fever over the last 15 or 20 years. The fact is that in pre-war days the incidence was high. It was comparable to and sometimes even higher than what it is this year. That is not a matter of satisfaction but just a fact. Swine fever has been with us for many years, imported as well as germinated here, and except during the war years, when for a variety of reasons it was easier to get control, we have had a fairly high incidence. Certainly the incidence this year has been exceptionally high and it may well finish as high as in 1939 with 3,200 outbreaks. I hope it will not get so high as it was in 1940 with more than 5,000 outbreaks, but it certainly is high and a matter of deep concern to the Government. As I hope I shall convince the House, we are taking active measures to deal with it and I hope they will be progressively more effective.

On the matter of general policy, the main plank is the crystal-violet vaccination to which the hon. Member referred. We do use movement control and that is a very great help in dealing with an incidence of the kind we have had this year, but crystal-violet vaccine is the long suit for getting control and eventually I hope for suppressing the disease. The hon. Member asked if we thought that the very high incidence this year is due to swill from U.S.A. camps. The answer is, almost certainly not. The swill from those camps is now all sent to central processing plants where we can be quite sure it will be safely sterilised on premises where no livestock are kept. In the few camps where that cannot be done, they have agreed to burn it there and then on the camp, so we hope that not only this disease but fowl pest and all veterinary diseases from that particular source may be kept under control.

It is true, as the hon. Member says, that this vaccine became available in 1947 and its use has grown a little since then, though nothing like so much as I should like. Its use corresponds to a large extent with the incidence of the disease. When fanners hear that there is an outbreak in their neighbourhood they start to vaccinate, often of course too late. What we want them to do is to follow the practice of the hon. Member and vaccinate regularly every year in order to immunise their pigs. We do recognise the necessity at the Ministry to promote a drive to get this over to the farming community.

The hon. Member asked what had happened to the scheme which would make vaccination easier and more regular for farmers. Discussions with the British Veterinary Association and the National Farmers' Unions have been rather lengthy, but I am glad to say they have been practically concluded and, broadly speaking, agreement has been reached. I hope that in the course of the next couple of months an announcement can be made giving all details of the scheme. I believe that will offer to farmers generally the kind of vaccination service that they really could and should take up and use generally. When we are in a position to put that out we shall, I can assure the House, do everything we can to put it over and to keep on putting it over to the farmers throughout the country.

On the question of research, swine fever is, as the hon. Member observed, a notifiable disease, and following our general practice, therefore—there are exceptions—research work is done in our own laboratories. The research work is accordingly being carried on at Weybridge by our own people, and not, in this instance, by the A.R.C. Some valuable work is now going on there on three lines. The first of these is on the improved application of the crystal-violet vaccine, with the ultimate intention of being able to reduce the dosage in order to cheapen it. The second line of research work is on new and different methods of producing the vaccine; it is now expensive in production, as it has to be produced from a healthy pig. The third line of work is on a new method of diagnosis. Diagnosis is a difficult and lengthy process.

I have taken note of the hon. Member's observations about the need for research into the decreasing immunity conferred by vaccination, and I will consult the experts to get their view as to whether we could profitably engage on such a piece of research work. There are difficulties, however. To deal specifically with one or two of the points which the hon. Member raised on this matter, I would say that the best view is that vaccination is normally effective for complete immunity for 12 months.

When I say "normally" it must be realised that, as with any other vaccination, whether for human beings or animals, there are bound to be exceptions where the physiology of a particular creature is different from that of others, and the immunity is therefore not so strong. Then there is the other varient of the creature concerned, whether it be a pig or any other animal, meeting some particularly strong infection; so that there is the combination of a lower immunity due to less effective vaccination meeting an exceptionally strong infection. Then the immunity may break down. I can say that our view is that crystal-violet vaccination today is normally effective for a full 12 months. I can certainly confirm, and gladly do so, that the suspicion in the minds of some farmers that the vaccination in any way interferes with effective breeding capacity of either boars or sows is completely unfounded.

On the question of the vaccination of piglets, I have to wear a white sheet, and say immediately that this leaflet is out of date, but at the time when it was drafted the best view was that the pregnant sow would, after being vaccinated, confer some immunity on her piglets, and that during the period of weaning there would be some immunity for them. During the past few years the experts have gradually come to the view that that is not so, and that it is, therefore, desirable to vaccinate piglets as soon as possible after birth; and the present period after farrowing which we recommend is four weeks. I am sorry that the leaflet is out of date, and I have taken steps to see that it is brought up to date immediately. I hope that in the course of the next week or two the corrected leaflets will be going out. I am sorry that the hon. Member may to some extent have suffered by reason of the leaflet.

Turning to the history of the outbreak on the hon. Member's farm, it is true that it took six days before the disease was confirmed. I should be leading the House astray if I left the impression that we could normally expect a diagnosis to be confirmed more quickly. Diagnosis is difficult; it is not always possible to be sure, on one post mortem, that the disease is present in the entrails of the animal. Although there are clinical symptoms, the first post mortem may not confirm the presence of the disease and another post mortem may be necessary. It happened in this instance that the results were negative and a second post mortem had, therefore, to be made to confirm whether the disease was or was not present. Six days is really not unsatisfactory in the case of a disease which is so difficult to diagnose.

We are proceeding with research work on diagnosis to see if we can find some more certain method which will enable us to speed up the process. If we are able to do so we shall certainly put it into practice as soon as we can. It is worth mentioning that I understand that the hon. Member's private veterinary surgeon took the precaution of proceeding to vaccinate the young stock on 10th July, two days after suspicion was first aroused, so that the only possible precautionary measure that could be taken to save some of the young stock was taken, on the initiative of the hon. Member's own veterinary officer, and to that extent the losses were mitigated.

As for the absence of the divisional veterinary officer to which the hon. Member referred, that officer was absent in Scotland on leave. He was not, in fact, engaged on veterinary work there; he was taking part of his annual leave. During his absence the senior veterinary officer was deputising for him. It is fair to recall, in order to show that the veterinary staff of the county were really covering the situation, that although the senior veterinary officer was not present at the telephone when the hon. Member rang—he was out visiting a farm at the time—that information was passed to the hon. Member and he was given a number where he could ring up the officer if he wished to do so.

That was not done, but on the return of the veterinary officer to the office he was given a report and proceeded that afternoon to the farm. It shows that not only the veterinary officer concerned but the general capacity of the staff who cover the county was more than adequate that afternoon and evening. I should have thought that that was reasonably good service. I should also have thought that it shows that these men, while they are at times extremely hard worked, are sufficient in number for the many tasks with which they have to deal.

The hon. Member asked me an important question as to why we do not have notifications of swine fever in the same way as for foot-and-mouth disease. Foot-and-mouth disease is a very highly infectious disease which is carried in a great variety of ways—by human beings and possibly by birds and other animals. Therefore, in the case of a foot-and-mouth outbreak, it is necessary, as soon as it is confirmed, to establish an "infected area" of so many miles round the farm in order to limit the spread of infection. Therefore, arising from that physical fact notification must be made to all the farms in that area immediately, because they are all part of the infected area.

With swine fever we have a different picture. Fortunately, it is nothing like so infectious. To all intents and purposes, the infected area is the farm where the outbreak occurs, and it is normally possible to keep the infection within the boundaries of the farm. No infected area is therefore necessary, and isolation with all its consequent expense and the dislocation that follows is unnecessary. It is not a case of comparing like with like.

The hon. Gentleman asked why we should not have the same slaughter and compensation policy for swine fever as for foot-and-mouth disease. The answer is that this policy was followed until about 40 years ago. It was dropped in 1916 because the Government of the day, I understand, were of the opinion that the policy simply was not succeeding and the cost was very great.

Sir L. Plummer

May I make the point that crystal-violet vaccine was not then known?

Mr. Nugent

At the same time vaccination was beginning to come in. The combination of those features brought the Government of the day to the decision that it would be better to drop the slaughter policy. The same considerations still apply and there is a further one which is intrinsic. That is the veterinary objection of the long incubation period of anything up to 28 days during which time infection may be spreading and the outbreak cannot be confirmed. That makes it difficult to apply a slaughter and compensation policy.

There is also the important point of general policy. Foot-and-mouth disease is highly infectious. It is impossible to contain the infection within the area of a farm, and it may spread all over the country. With swine fever the infectability is by no means so great. It is possible to contain the infection and a large number of animals will recover. Mortality is not always 100 per cent. The policy of vaccination with a really effective vaccine is obviously the right policy to follow and our concern is to see that this is put into practice universally, or at any rate by all pig breeders throughout the country.

I can assure the House and particularly the hon. Member that we firmly intend to prosecute that policy to the utmost. Calling attention to it today will prove of considerable help in giving information and publicity to a subject which is of great importance to the livestock of this country.