HC Deb 29 June 1953 vol 517 cc158-72

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

9.47 p.m.

Mr. Spencer Summers (Aylesbury)

The subject I want to bring to the attention of the House tonight is that of the policy of the Government as it affects the disposal of pig swill. There are certain features which warrant public attention, and I want to stress the effect of Government policy on at least one case in my constituency of which I have full details. I also want to discuss this matter so that others similarly placed may contrive somehow to escape the most unfortunate consequences which fell upon my constituent, Mr. Stanbridge, of Whelpby Hill, near Chesham.

The best way in which I can bring out the general points which have a wide application is to relate the circumstances affecting one case and to refer to the general aspects as the story unfolds itself. The father of this farmer had a property alongside Bovingdon Aerodrome. The family lost almost the whole of their farm and a shop when the aerodrome was established. They had only two or three acres left from which to derive their living. They decided that the most satisfactory way in which to make use of the land was to develop it as a small holding for the rearing of pigs.

To that end they sought a source of supply of feedingstuffs and contrived, as far back as 1943, to arrange contracts with the Army in Berkhamsted and with the Royal Air Force at Bovingdon for regular supplies of pig swill. Arrangements were made by the farmer to collect from those sources. Everything went smoothly until 1950. At that stage the Americans took over the aerodrome. They were faced with the problem of disposing of the swill which arose as a result of the occupation of the aerodrome.

I want to stress in this story the fact that, at that time—September, 1950—the Ministry of Agriculture recommended this particular farmer as one who was suitable to receive the swill from the aerodrome, and also described him as a qualified contractor. On that recommendation, a 12 months' contract was arranged by the American authorities to enable him to receive a supply, and that contract ran for a year. The farmer found that the numbers on the aerodrome were increasing and the quantity of swill that came his way for his pigs was getting larger, with the result that, in July, 1951, he thought it necessary to equip his place with a more up-to-date plant. Encouraged by the recommendation from the Ministry and its recommendation of him as a qualified contractor, he spent no less than £500 in a variety of ways in order to put himself in a more satisfactory position in which to handle the supply which came to his pigs from the aerodrome. That contract was renewed for another year.

In August, 1952, inspectors from the Ministry came round to see what were the facilities at the disposal of this farmer, and whether it was reasonable that he should handle pig swill. They came, as far as I know, without warning, inspected the site, and reported themselves well satisfied with all they found. In September, a month after the inspection by Ministry officials, there was a letter, a copy of which I have here, from the American commanding officer at Bovingdon recommending that a further contract for swill should be entered into, because they were well satisfied with the service they had had hitherto. Therefore, up to that point in the autumn of 1952, there had been nine years of satisfactory handling by this particular farmer of swill from the Army, the R.A.F. and the American Forces without a single complaint.

Notwithstanding the recommendation two years earlier of the Ministry, and the wish of the American authorities to continue to send their swill to this farmer, pressure was brought to bear by the Ministry of Agriculture, the effect of which was to discontinue, or rather to prevent, the renewal of that contract. At that stage, I came on the scene, and I had all the information put at my disposal. I entered into what has proved to be a very lengthy correspondence with my hon. Friend in which all the circumstances leading up to that situation were brought out, and an explanation was given to me why the Ministry had declined to approve of the renewal of that particular contract.

It seems that the Government view is that the risk of foot-and-mouth disease is so great that they must pursue a policy in the handling of swill which ensures, as far as practicable, that it shall be dealt with only in central plants where sterilisation can be carried out. As a consequence, where there is within a reasonable distance of the source of supply a central plant where sterilisation can be carried out, farmers who have had such supplies are no longer able to receive them, because they have to be delivered to the central sterilisation plant.

I do not want to enter into the technical justification of that policy, as announced by the Government, and as now applied to this particular farmer, for I am not qualified to judge whether the evidence upon which that policy is based is satisfactory, but will content myself by saying that it seems strange that plant which had been inspected and passed by officials within a mile of the source of supply should be thought less satisfactory for handling swill than plant 17 miles away where, admittedly, there are facilities for the sterilisation of supplies.

As I say, I do not want to go into details. There may be other hon. Members present tonight who know more about the technicalities of handling swill than I do, and, if so, I hope they will express a view on this aspect of the matter. The point I wish to bring out is that it is quite unreasonable for the Government to take the view that central sterilisation of this material is necessary without, at the same time, taking steps to ensure that those farmers who do not have such facilities and who depend upon pig swill in order to maintain their livestock are warned that as soon as facilities are available in the district for central sterilisation they will be deprived of their supplies.

In this instance, apart from there being no warning that the ability to receive supplies from the aerodrome was a purely temporary one, inspectors came down and gave the farmer the clearest indication that he need have no fear for the future because they were reporting to their principals in Whitehall that the practice which he was carrying on was entirely satisfactory. Having had the goodwill of such business for a number of years and in view of the complete absence of any complaints and the wish of the supplier to continue the arrangement, coupled with the fact that he was described by the Ministry as a qualified contractor and that officials had passed his practice as satisfactory, is it to be wondered that he felt justified in spending what to a man of his type of farming was a substantial sum, namely, £500?

In the correspondence which I have had with the Ministry, I pointed out that in my opinion there was a very strong moral obligation upon the Ministry to make good the lack of warning by them in this instance by compensating the farmer for the expenditure he had incurred and which had resulted from the implied encouragement he had received and the absence of any warning that his source of supply was to be regarded as purely temporary until such time as it was diverted elsewhere. So far I have been unsuccessful in persuading the Ministry that the hardship felt by this farmer is deserving of some recompense. As a result of the correspondence I remain completely convinced that there is a very strong case for recognising that hardship and for reimbursing this man for at any rate some, if not all, of the expenditure incurred.

Were the story left there it would be consistent, but the House will be interested to learn that despite the effect on the farmer of cutting off his source of supply in the interest of the scientific prevention of foot-and-mouth disease and despite the long correspondence and ultimate refusal to guarantee the position, his contract was cancelled in the autumn of last year.

It being Ten o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Summers

It is surprising, in the face of all that, to note the apparent determination of the Ministry to continue the policy of centralised handling of pig swill. Despite the fact that they had made arrangements that the Army, the Air Force and the hospitals should send sup-lies in the way I have described, I am given to understand that in February of this year, after the contract had been cancelled, authority was given for a contract between the R.A.F. at the same aerodrome but a mile further away, and the same farmer.

It is fantastic that such completely inconsistent policies should be pursued by the Ministry in this matter. I acknowledge that the size of the contract with the R.A.F. would not lead to the passing of very large supplies, by reason of the fact that the people are not sufficient to build up a very large supply of pig swill. Nevertheless, I want to bring out the inconsistency of policy in returning to that second contract. It is rather strange, after all that has transpired, that there should be such a complete reversal of policy.

I want to allude to only one other aspect of this case, and I would refer to an extract from a letter written by my hon. Friend. I want to correct an impression which appears to exist in the Ministry, and I will therefore read one paragraph from the letter, which is dated 21st November, 1952. It is: As you have pointed out, it is a weakness of our procedure that no warning was given to Mr. Stanbridge that these inspections are without prejudice to our central sterilisation policy, and action on these lines will be taken in the future. Although no such warning was given, however, I can find no evidence that the outlay for renewal of the plant last year was connected with any visit by our officers and I do not think that Mr. Stanbridge himself makes this particular claim. Mr. Stanbridge does not make such a claim, and nor does anyone else. The reason money was spent was that he was described as "a qualified contractor," which seemed quite sufficient justification to him to expect a continuance of the supplies and no interference by the Minister. That was not so.

I would end by saying that I hope that others who are taking pig swill from wherever it may be locally, and not owning central sterilisation plant, will, as a result of this discussion tonight, realise that the day may come in the near future when their source of supply will be stopped and diverted to a central sterilisation plant. They may be told that they need not concern themselves very much, because arrangement will be made for a similar quantity of material to come to them from the central sterilising plant, but the price suggested in this instance from the sterilising plant was, delivered, £7 10s. per ton. That is a very different proposition from the price of the raw material, practically across the road, ready to be put into the boiling plant of the farmer himself.

In this instance, the price is not the prime consideration because on more than one occasion an experiment has been made to discover whether the service from the central plant would be satisfactory in the hope that that would be the easy way out and the way to meet the wishes of the Government. Great inconvenience and trouble was involved and even when his whole scheme was stopped the farmer found it more satisfactory to curtail the number of his livestock than to rely on a service by the central sterilising plant some 15 miles away.

In this instance no satisfactory alternative was offered to the supply upon which the farmer had relied all along. I hope that I have said sufficient to bring out the point that this farmer was perfectly justified in spending £500 because of the absence of warning on the part of the Ministry and the implied encouragement which he received. There is a strong obligation on the Ministry to make good their omission to warn him of the precariousness of his supplies by helping him to recover the money which he has spent to no purpose and to cope with the (position in which he finds himself in having to cut down very materially the size of his livestock as the result of Government policy. I hope that what I have said will reach the ears of those who are similarly affected and will prevent their being placed in the same position.

10.7 p.m.

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

I must say straight away to my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Summers) that my personal sympathy throughout has been with Mr. Stanbridge, the pig keeper who has suffered in this case. I acknowledge also that my hon. Friend has put the case very fairly and I congratulate him on behalf of his constituent on the trouble that he has taken in writing to me and in now bringing the matter before the House.

There are certainly aspects of the case which are hard and not altogether satisfactory, and I accept the responsibility. If ventilation of this case does no other good it certainly will give additional publicity to an aspect of Government policy which is perhaps not as well known as we could wish it to be.

First of all, I should like to state briefly the general policy that we are following with regard to waste food collection so that the events which have occurred in this case become intelligible. The general policy on waste food collection depends on two factors. The first is the wish to collect all the waste food which can be turned into feedingstuffs for stock, and mainly for pig feeding. Secondly—and this is the important and difficult condition—there is the provision that collection and processing shall be done with the minimum of danger of spreading animal diseases. Those diseases are principally foot-and-mouth disease, swine fever, fowl pest, and the less known disease that comes in American swill—vesicular exanthema.

It is worth while recording in passing that it has been a successful policy, started at the beginning of the war and pursued since. The total quantity of processed swill in central plants last year was about 382,000 tons. We have no exact estimate of the amount which went through farm boiling plants but it was at least an additional 250,000 tons. Those who have worked at it in the past and those who are doing it now are making a very useful contribution to feeding livestock in this country.

Mr. Summers

I understood that about three-fifths of the total was sterilised. Could my hon. Friend say how long his policy of establishing central plants has been going on?

Mr. Nugent

It has been proceeding gradually over, I thould think, the last five or six years. The process has been a fairly gradual one. I am quite willing to deal with that point now, as my hon. Friend has raised it. The development of the policy of processing in central plants depends on getting co-operation, first of all, from Government Departments and then, so far as possible, from catering establishments as well. Government Departments, of course, cover all camps, aerodromes, schools, hospitals and so forth.

It took some little time to get this policy generally understood and accepted by all the various Government Departments concerned. Then, having got the policy centrally accepted, again it took some little time for that to became known to all the separate catering units throughout the country and gradually to get those responsible for these catering establishments to turn over their contracts for collecting from the private collectors to the central processing plants.

Therefore, it has obviously taken quite a considerable time for it to develop, and of course many catering establishments at present still let their contracts out to private farmers for one reason or another, often because there is not a central processing plant available. As I say, it has been a gradual process, and I quite acknowledge the point that my hon. Friend has made that it is not generally as well known as it might be. This whole situation to a large extent rests on that fact.

I feel that I should refer in some detail to the veterinary considerations. Imported meat coming into this country very often contains foot-and-mouth virus or swine fever virus, and imported poultry carcasses often contain fowl pest virus. These viruses will all survive for long periods even when they are in refrigeration, and they can only be killed for certain by boiling. Therefore, the first line of defence in dealing with waste food for livestock feeding is the regulation, which has been in existence for about 25 years, requiring that all raw swill shall be boiled for at least one hour before it is fed to livestock. That has been administered by the Ministry of Agriculture for many years.

The second line of defence against the spread of veterinary diseases is to require that, as far as possible, all raw swill shall be taken to a central processing plant away from livestock and be processed there. It is this second factor which has been the main cause of the hardship that Mr. Stanbridge has suffered. The justification for the central processing policy is that the veterinary records show that, apart from the exceptional outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease last year, nearly 60 per cent. of all primary outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease have occurred on farms where raw swill is brought and processed for feeding to the livestock there.

In the face of those statistics one simply has to accept that the risk of raw swill being taken on to the farm and being processed and fed to the livestock contains danger of the spread of disease which should be avoided if at all possible.

Mr. Summers

Which year was that?

Mr. Nugent

Those are all the years for which our records have been compiled—presumably over the last 20 or 25 years. It is not just for one year, but year after year after year, excluding only the figures for the tremendous and exceptional outbreak of last year. It shows quite clearly that, reluctant as any of us would be to interfere with the private collector's contract, in the general interest of the livestock industry and with our responsibility for stopping the spread of veterinary diseases, we have no alternative but to pursue a policy of central processing. That has been done not only by this Administration but by previous ones.

There is no doubt that, so long as the raw swill is brought to the farm, the potential danger is there. The livestock may help themselves to the raw swill. They may walk in and eat it. Alternatively, dogs, cats, rats, mice or birds may transfer the virus, or the attendants who deal with the livestock or swill may easily carry the infection on their hands or clothes; and utensils and vehicles are all possible ways of spreading the virus of foot-and-mouth disease, which is very persistent and highly infectious. No reasonable man can doubt that the policy of central processing cannot be refuted. The figures speak for themselves.

The development of the policy of central processing has been gradual, and inevitably so, as Government Departments have been gradually able to back up this general line of Government policy. Inevitably, wherever there has been the ending of a private contract in order to bring in a central processor, there has been difficulty and hardship for the farmer concerned, but we have to recognise and accept the fact that this is done in the general interest of all livestock keepers. We have done our best to ameliorate hardship by requiring that the operator of the central processing plant shall give a priority supply of his processed material to the farmer who loses his private contract, although I quite agree with my hon. Friend that it is not the same thing as getting raw swill. It is more expensive, and the private farmer is left with his processing plant, for which he has no use.

These, however, are aspects of the operation of a general policy which is fully justified, and the fact that the man is left with this plant which he cannot use is something for which the Government cannot accept responsibility. Much as I sympathise with Mr. Stanbridge in this case, there are no funds available to compensate farmers who find themselves with plant for which they no longer have a supply of raw swill for processing. But I am convinced that the general policy is justified.

I went into the case of Mr. Stanbridge in great detail, as my hon. Friend gave me the opportunity, and I agree that it is one which might wring anybody's heart. This unfortunate man had been handicapped in getting his living by the development of the aerodrome, and it seemed particularly hard that he should lose his contract. With regard to the swill from American camps, however, we had to bear in mind the special consideration that American swill is known to contain this particularly troublesome virus—vesicular exanthema—which, in the view of our veterinary surgeons, is so dangerous that the swill should either go to a central processing plant or should be burnt.

Naturally it took us a little time before we first of all were able to form this view reliably that here was a risk. This is not a disease which is endemic in this country. Then, having taken the view, it took us a certain amount of time to persuade the American authorities of the need for this rather drastic policy and to get them to carry it out. In due course they did accept it, they did agree to carry it out, and that meant that contracts from the aerodromes where American personnel were living had to come to an end immediately. That was why in this particular case there had to be such an immediate and drastic end. I think that now throughout the country the Americans are being good enough to follow out this very drastic policy.

In regard to the point which was made by my hon. Friend that there was inconsistency, in that we allowed Mr. Stanbridge to go on collecting from the R.A.F. catering establishment at Whelpley Camp, the explanation is this. It is perfectly true that we are following the general policy of central processing, but we are not executives in the matter. The camp authorities have a fair measure of discretion about how and when they should bring these contracts to an end. In this case, I am advised, the R.A.F. personnel were going to leave Whelpley last month, and therefore their catering establishment was to come to an end, and I suppose they thought it was a reasonable thing that they should allow Mr. Stanbridge to continue to collect the swill for the few months that remained, in order to help him out and because there was very little point in starting a new contract there.

Mr. Summers

Is my hon. Friend aware that the contract was entered into three months after the American contract was cancelled?

Mr. Nugent

Yes, I am perfectly aware of that, but I am making the point to my hon. Friend that there was not an especial veterinary risk in this R.A.F. swill, as opposed to the American swill, and that, as the period remaining was relatively short, I do not doubt that the camp commandant felt it was not unreasonable to allow Mr. Stanbridge to have the collection for that period; and I am bound to say I should not have thought so either in the circumstances.

In the whole of this policy we have just got to accept that we cannot make a law requiring central sterilisation and processing throughout the country everywhere or the destruction of the swill. We must accept a gradual process of more and more central sterilisation and processing and less and less private collection, and it is bound to take time before it has general application.

Lieut.-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

While he is on that point, would the Parliamentary Secretary say to what extent over the period of last year or 18 months the central processing plant has been extended? At what pace?

Mr. Nugent

I am sorry I cannot give the figures. It is not easy to give figures, but I should say that it is going well and making fairly good progress. General instructions from Government Departments have been reaching the camps and catering establishments generally, and they have been progressively acting accordingly. In spite of the hardship involved, there is no real inconsistency in a policy which is bound to be gradual and bound to be flexible.

On the question of warning, I do agree with my hon. Friend that the present arrangements for informing farmers of what this general policy is are not as satisfactory as they should be, and I recognised that when I looked into this case. There was nothing that could be done to help Mr. Stanbridge in the matter, but I did immediately ask the Department to see what steps we could take to see that swill collectors are informed throughout the country. It has taken a certain amount of time to do that. It has involved fairly lengthy discussions with the representatives of the farmers, the National Farmers' Union, to settle the points with which we were concerned. We were concerned with two considerations. First, we wanted them to know that there was this risk of their contract coming to an end, and, second, I particularly wanted them to know what were the conditions necessary in a plant so that it could qualify as a central processing plant, and so that farmers who could transform their farm plants into the conditions required for a central processing plant might do so.

The sort of conditions we require would be separate entrances, separate premises, separate transport and separate attendants running the swill plant. All these details take time to get agreed between the veterinary considerations, on the one hand, and the commercial considerations, on the other. We have got this pretty well agreed, and as soon as it is finally agreed we shall have this policy put in pamphlet form so that the veterinary officers can distribute them when they visit farm boiling plants.

We shall also ask the National Farmers' Union to use all their publicity facilities to let their members know of it and do anything else that we can to let the swill feeders know. I can assure my hon. Friend that if no other benefit comes out of this, we shall see that the farmers generally know what are these conditions.

Finally, may I say, in expressing my real sympathy for Mr. Stanbridge, who has suffered from this policy, that I hope by the end of next month, when we get into a period when feedingstuffs will no longer be rationed and he can buy all the feedingstuffs he wants, that if he has suffered by this act of Government policy he will at least benefit by that aspect of Government policy, because his feedingstuffs problems will be over.

10.27 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary said that he was going to take steps to ensure that the Government's policy of the extension of central processing would be made known more widely in the future than in the past, that he was going to inform the veterinary surgeons in the country and ask the National Farmers' Union to let their members know. The only point on which I want to make certain is this—that the agricultural executive committees are not going to be left out. I hope that they will also be brought into the picture because they have their livestock officers, many of whom are very competent people, who get round a good deal and establish contact with people who are not necessarily members of the N.F.U.

I take it that the agricultural committees will also be brought into the picture in making as widely known as possible the need for central processing on the very strong grounds which the Joint Parliamentary Secretary has given to the House.

10.28 p.m.

Mr. Archer Baldwin (Leominster)

I want to make it clear that I agree entirely with the idea of sterilisation and of making swill as safe as it can be in these camps. I am rather at a loss to understand why this particular man had not been instructed. It is agreed that he was carrying on his job satisfactorily, and that went on to the autumn of 1952. Yet my hon. Friend says that for five or six years they have been concentrating on central sterilisation. It seems to me that in this case unnecessary hardship has been caused to that man in that he was not warned. Instead of being told that he was doing his job properly, he should have been warned that the Ministry were going in for a policy of central sterilisation and then he would not have incurred the expenditure of £500 on new plant.

My hon. Friend says that he is full of sympathy. I hope that even at this late stage that sympathy will be put into a cash form to offset the heavy loss which this man has incurred through no fault of his own but through negligence on the part of Ministry officials in that they did not warn him in sufficient time.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes past Ten o'clock.