HC Deb 01 June 1960 vol 624 cc1593-604

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

10.32 p.m.

Mr. Timothy Kitson (Richmond, Yorks)

I am pleased to have this opportunity to raise the subject of compensation for T.B. reactors, and as I realise that other hon. Members will wish to take part, I shall be as brief as I can.

I raise the matter because I am certain that the present rates of compensation are totally inadequate under present conditions. The Tuberculous Compensation Order of 1950 laid down the rate as an amount equal to an animal's market value but said that the compensation should not exceed £100. That was altered by an Amendment Order in 1959 to three-quarters of the infected animal's market value but, again, the amount was not to exceed £100.

In 1950, it was possible for a farmer to move his infected cattle off his farm and keep his breeding lines, but the situation has now changed, and any infected animal is slaughtered. In some cases this means that a man, after years of having a herd free from T.B. reactors, may suddenly have a serious breakdown in the herd and not only faces a heavy financial loss but the loss of years of hard work spent in building up a first-class herd. It is proposed that in October of this year the whole country shall be clear.

I have had two very serious breakdowns in my division in the last few weeks, and I wish to explain to the House what has happened in both cases. The first is the case of Mr. Norman Seymour, of Stokesley. He has a pedigree herd of Friesian cattle, which had been clear of reactors since 1950. On 27th October last he had a test, and 38 cattle reacted. Their value was £5,658. His compensation was £3,416—a loss on valuation of £2,242. This was a terrible blow. Mr. Seymour is not a large farmer, and he lost most of his foundation stock. On top of the £2,242, he had, of course, consequential losses, as many of the cattle were producing valuable winter milk.

He had another test in February of this year, and ten cattle reacted. This time the animals infected included a bull that he had purchased six months before. It was valued at £2,000, and the compensation on it was £100. On this occasion, the valuation of his ten animals was £4,050, and the compensation was £905—a net loss of £3,145. Mr. Seymour was allowed to take semen from the bull before it was slaughtered, but it is not known what the life of this particular stored semen is, and it may be of no use at all. He did this to try to cut some of his losses. Indeed, in a period of four months he lost cattle valued at £9,608 and received compensation amounting to only £4,321, a net loss of £5,387 plus consequential trading losses.

I am sure hon. Members will agree that to clear the country of bovine T.B. will be welcome and will benefit both the consumer and the producer of milk and beef. But these losses are too heavy to expect any one farmer to carry. I must reiterate that the farmer to whom I have referred not only lost more than £5,000 but his breeding lines and foundation stock, and there were also the consequential trading losses.

It might be argued that that he should have covered himself with insurance, but this would not have been possible on his October test. He has now a policy which covers him for animals up to a value of £200, with special terms for animals up to £500. I cannot accept that it would be right and proper to ask the farming community to carry these additional insurance costs. I agree that insurance against consequential loss is one thing, but to insure against the loss of animals slaughtered by the Ministry is a completely different matter. I shudder to think of the sort of precedent which might be established—with foot-and-mouth disease, swine fever and fowl pest.

The second case to which I wish briefly to refer shows that the Ministry tests are not 100 per cent. accurate. Mr. Hutchinson, of Scorton, also in the Richmond Division, has written to me saying that since last November he has had cattle slaughtered which were valued at £3,332. His compensation was £1,479. a net loss of £1,853, again plus consequential trading losses. Mr. Hutchinson is a young man trying to get on building up his herd. His herd had been free of T.B. since June, 1954, and such a serious setback is very hard for him. One cow had passed four tests in thirteen months, being completely clear. When the animal was sent to the Fatstock Marketing Corporation for slaughter the carcase was rejected as being full of T.B. The report on the carcase of the cow from the meat inspection of the Fatstock Marketing Corporation meat inspector stated that the infection was found to be evident in the nodes, the substances of the lungs, liver, spleen, and kidney, while evidence was found in the prescapular precural and popliteal and supramammary lymph nodes.

Yesterday I was in touch with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons in London, which says that this infection all over the animal's body shows that it must have been infected at the time of the last test. Recently a case occurred in Shropshire when 49 cattle were slaughtered. There the loss was £4,900 plus consequential trading losses. There was a case at Chester where a cow which had passed a test ten days previously, when slaughtered, was found to be full of T.B. There were 30 reactors and the farmer suffered a considerable financial loss. Only on Monday there was an incident at Wrexham involving 14 pedigree Fresian reactors in a herd which had been clear for many years. A week previous to that 15 Fresians reacted at Carmarthenshire.

I am sure my hon. Friend will agree that that even when we get the country clear this autumn we must still expect to get occasional outbreaks, as we still get occasional outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease. The House will also agree that the present position and the rates of compensation are totally inadequate and we should abolish the £100 maximum. I should like to see the full compensation paid, but if that is not possible it is wrong to consider fixing a maximum price. At least a percentage of the total value of the animal should be paid. I beg my hon. Friend to take some immediate steps to alter the present unsatisfactory position.

Finally, I wish to say that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has been extremely helpful in this matter, and I am sure that he is very conscious of the loss suffered by Mr. Seymour and others. My hon. Friend was kind enough to meet a deputation from the N.F.U. along with Mr. Seymour and myself to discuss the position. It is now some months since we met my hon. Friend, and I understand that the N.F.U. is going to have further discussions with him. I only hope that those discussions will take place very soon because as each week passes there is the possibility of further outbreaks and further substantial losses. I should hate to think that by delaying the matter great hardship might be inflicted on some poor unsuspecting farmer who for many years has had his herd free from tuberculosis. When my hon. Friend replies to the debate I hope that he will be able to give us some good news for the farmers.

10.41 p.m.

Mr. Clive Bossom (Leominster)

I will not delay the House very long because I feel that my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond. Yorks (Mr. Kitson) has put forward a very strong case for higher compensation. However, I want to support the plea which he has made.

I also have had similar cases in my division, and on 2nd January I took up with my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary a case concerning a leading breeder of pedigree cattle in north Herefordshire who had the misfortune to buy a reactor, the first to be had in his herd after twenty-two years. Under the present arrangements this breeder was only able to claim the maximum amount of £100 although he had paid 260 guineas for this Hereford female in calf. The breeder bought the animal from a herd attested by the Ministry of Agriculture at a very large reduction sale of 90 to 100 animals.

During the past six months, whilst I have been looking after the interests of the Ludlow division, I have received appeals from Cleobury Mortimer and Ludlow farmers' organisations concerning this inadequate compensation. They have also pressed that the present programme of yearly tuberculin tests should be continued. They have stressed that very much.

I base my plea to my hon. Friend on the fact that the limit of £100 was fixed as far hack as 1st January, 1951. Since that date the value of most pedigree cattle has risen considerably. Wales and Scotland are now fully attested areas, and England nearly so. Since 1st March, 1960, there has been no area where one could sell a reactor. It had to be slaughtered. Therefore, I think my hon. Friend will agree that the amount of compensation to be paid from now on should get less and less.

I fully recognise the difficulties facing my hon. Friend, but to be just and fair I hope that his right hon. Friend will see his way to raising the compensation figure by abolishing the unjust ceiling of £100 whilst maintaining the present figure of 75 per cent. of the market value of the animal.

10.44 p.m.

Mr. A. Bourne-Arton (Darlington)

I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will take particular note of the disturbing reports which my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Kitson) has given of the invasion of my town of Darlington, with its magnificent cattle market, by this rotten cow for which I cannot blame the constituent of my hon. Friend because it was an attested cow that had just passed a test.

I had always understood that the purpose of the test was to detect whether a cow was liable to get the disease, that a cow which had passed the test was supposed at the time of the test to be immune from getting the tubercle. What sort of an attestation scheme is it which is so unreliable that it cannot even detect an animal that is rotten with the disease? I ask my hon. Friend to have a very careful look indeed at this test.

While I fully support the plea made by my hon. Friends that the basis of compensation in this scheme is out of date, no scheme can surely command public confidence if it is based on a test that is as unreliable as this one.

10.45 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. J. B. Godber)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important matter, but in order to put the points he made into perspective I should like to give a little of the background to this problem before I deal with particular matters.

A quarter of a century ago, bovine tuberculosis was rife in this country. It attracted a great deal of attention from the public health angle, and rightly so, because at that time it was estimated that this cattle disease was responsible for more than 2,500 deaths annually among the human population and for a still greater amount of serious illness. Children were perhaps the greatest sufferers by reason of infected milk.

Such a situation could not be allowed to go on, and in 1933 the Government of the day introduced a plan providing for the payment of bonuses to farmers who joined voluntarily what was called the Attested Herds Scheme and abided by its rules. The object of the scheme was, of course, to establish and maintain herds free of bovine tuberculosis.

By 1950, sufficient progress has been made to justify the introduction of a comprehensive programme for the compulsory eradication of this disease. It was a tremendous undertaking, but, thanks to the complete co-operation of the industry at all stages, we are today on the threshold of attainment. Within a few months we expect that throughout the whole of Great Britain bovine tuberculosis will have been virtually eradicated as a national disease.

There may still be pockets of infection cropping up here and there for some time afterwards, but that is all we expect to find. As evidence of what we have done, it is worth saying that slaughterings of cattle affected with the disease in clinical form have fallen from nearly 24,000 in 1936 to 119 in 1959. This is a magnificent achievement, and it is clear proof that the Government's general policy is right.

This success has not been achieved without the expenditure of a great deal of public money. Disregarding indirect costs, such as labour, overheads and so on, we calculate that all told the Exchequer will have contributed something over £120 million, of which about £113 million will have gone to farmers by way of bonuses. I ask the House to keep this figure in mind.

Having deliberately set out to get rid of this disease—and this includes all of us, farmers and Government alike—we have created a situation in which an animal which reacts to the tuberculin test has little or no value on the open market, apart from what it will fetch as carcase meat. This is as true of a bull that was bought at a high price as it is of any dairy cow. If there should be any doubt on this score, I ask this simple question: would any responsible farmer think of buying a bull which he knew had reacted positively to the tuberculin test?

Unfortunately, on occasion, breakdowns do occur, and this can, of course, happen in valuable pedigree herds just as much as in ordinary commercial herds. It is not, of course, a frequent feature, but is it, none the less, serious for the farmer affected. I am afraid that there is no simple explanation for this. One of the problems is that very occasionally an animal which is quite heavily infected with tuberculosis will show no positive reaction to the tuberculin test.

This in no way invalidates the general level of efficiency of the test, as the figures I have just quoted will show, but it is frankly one of the difficulties that veterinary science has not yet solved. My hon. Friend has mentioned the details of one particular case in his constituency, where an animal had passed the test but was subsequently shown to be suffering very considerably from tuberculosis. Speaking generally, these rare cases of infected animals that do not respond are usually accompanied by positive reactors in the same herd. They are picked up in consequence. Certainly—and I stress this to the House—we must not allow these exceptional cases to throw doubt on the general validity of the test, which has proved itself extremely reliable, and without which we could not have achieved the impressive results to which I have referred. I impress that upon the House, because while I recognise the feelings about this particular case, I think it would be wrong for people to get the impression that these tests in the main are not absolutely successful.

At an earlier stage owners of highly valued reactor cattle would have been able to dispose of them in the ordinary way of business outside attested and eradication areas. We have now gone so far along the road of eradication that this cannot be done any longer. The entire country is either fully attested or in the eradication stage. In short, we have passed the point of no return. We must go on in the direction which we are convinced—I am sure this will be universally agreed—is the right one.

The question remains, what is fair compensation nowadays for a reactor, pedigree or not? The rule is that the Government pay compensation for reactors on a basis which in present-day circumstances, I am sure the House will agree, is realistic. Such animals attract three-quarters of the full market value of a comparable fully attested animal, subject, however, to a maximum of £100. If we receive more for the carcase than we have paid the farmer—as occasionally we do—then the extra amount is passed on to him. More often than not we get less than we paid by way of compensation. We also allow farmers to have reactors slaughtered on their own account if they think they can do better for themselves in that way.

What this amounts to in practice is that the Government provide a measure of free insurance for owners of most cattle. I do not think it is right to expect us to go beyond this, because if farmers have animals of exceptional value, such as those mentioned by my hon. Friend, it is quite open to them now to take out commercial insurance to cover excess value against risk of their proving reactors, just as they can in relation to other particular risks. There are, as my hon. Friend well knows, for he has been instrumental in this, commercial insurance policies available to cover precisely this risk. I think that where an animal is above the normal commercial value it really is the duty of the farmer himself to insure himself against the risk of loss occasioned by a breakdown in his herd. I think that is where there is a difference between my hon. Friend and me on this, but I feel that it is a very important point that the Government should not automatically be expected to give complete, full insurance cover on these exceptional animals.

My hon. Friends have said that the present limit which we have placed is not high enough. My right hon. Friend has studied this whole matter again afresh in the light of the representations made by my hon. Friends and others. As I have said, the present limit is £100 per head, but I would give this information to the House, that by next October, when we hope that the whole country will be attested, and when, as regards compensation, all farmers in the successive eradication areas will have been treated alike, my right hon. Friend has now decided to raise this limit to £120. I would make the point that we have decided it is only fair to do this after the present eradication is finished, otherwise it would mean that those who were last to take advantage of it would get benefit over farmers who received only the previous limit. Also my right hon. Friend has decided that as from the same date compensation equal to the full market value will be paid on cattle slaughtered compulsorily as dangerous contacts with reactors, although they themselves have not positively reacted to the tuberculin test.

I do not want to make too much of this point. There are not likely to be many of these cattle, but we must continue to reserve the right in special circumstances to slaughter those apparently healthy cattle which might nevertheless be in the very early stages of the disease. It is in the interest not only of the owner but of other farmers, and it is necessary to the general maintenance of tuberculosis-free national herds. In those cases, and those cases alone, we think it right to pay the full value.

Mr. Kitson

Does that mean without a £120 limit—full compensation?

Mr. Godber

Yes, full compensation for those which do not have the disease but have been in contact and we feel that because of that they should be slaughtered. It is not often that we do that, but where there is a herd of which a large number have to be slaughtered, one or two which have not reacted could be classified as such and compensation would be paid in full without any limit.

Comparison has been made with the compensation arrangements where there is compulsory slaughter because of foot-and-mouth disease and full market value is paid. I emphasise that there are essential differences between the two diseases. In the case of foot-and-mouth disease many of the animals are healthy at the time of slaughter. There is the clear analogy between them and the contact cases I have mentioned in this case where there is reaction on a big scale. With foot-and-mouth disease one has a very large number of animals in which the disease is not evident but which we have to slaughter because of the virulent nature of the disease. We have, therefore, to slaughter many healthy animals. In addition, outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease call for urgent and immediate action because of its nature, and every incentive must be given to encourage immediate reporting of the disease.

The position with tuberculosis is very different. There is no question of the disease spreading rapidly, and only animals which positively react to test are taken. As I have explained, major contacts may also be slaughtered but in that case full market value will be paid. We are trying to keep a comparable basis here, but we do not feel it to be right for the Government to assume responsibility for full insurance in relation to this disease, any more than in relation to a large number of other diseases which are natural risks in the farming community of which we are all aware.

I hope the House will agree that the Government are giving a perfectly fair deal to farmers in this matter of compensation. I would only add that if the figures which we have extracted for the period from 1st October to the present day are a fair guide to what we may expect in the future, the new maximum of £120 which I have mentioned, to come into operation from October, will cover all except about 1 per cent. of the total number of reactors in the country. Surely that is sufficient indication that the figure is realistic and fair to the farming community.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Clive Bossom) mentioned the problem in his division and said that he had been approached on the matter by the farmers of Cleobury Mortimer. I understand his concern, as I understand that of my other hon. Friends, but I hope that my hon. Friends who have spoken will realise that the Government must try to strike a fair balance. We must give reasonable compensation for animals slaughtered, in relation to their commercial value, but I do not think that it is right for us to accept the additional responsibility of paying out of the public purse this additional cost, particularly now that we know that it is possible for insurance to be effected.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks for raising the subject, because it has given me the opportunity to clear up certain misunderstandings which may have existed and to announce the Government's intention for the future. Unfortunate as these breakdowns are, particularly when they occur in these valuable herds, I hope that the House will agree that they must not be allowed to obscure the central fact that bovine tuberculosis is no longer a national problem. Ninety-seven per cent, of all our cattle are now attested. Amongst these, the reactor rate is only about .15 of 1 per cent. We have practically achieved what we set out to do. What is the exception today was commonplace enough in the not so distant past. It is inevitable that it should attract attention. That it does so is surely, I claim, an indication of the measure of our success.

I hope that in what I have said, neither my hon. Friends nor the farmers concerned who have had the losses will think that we are being hard-hearted. I ask them to recognise that we have to strike a fair balance between proper compensation, which the Government are willing to accept in relation to diseases, and the duties of the farming community to cover itself by insurance against the additional risks that exist in relation to cattle of high value.

I am sure that this debate will have been valuable. I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised the matter and I hope that he will accept the answer I have given as being a fair decision in relation to a very difficult problem.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Eleven o'clock.