HC Deb 30 January 1962 vol 652 cc1053-64

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

11.29 p.m.

Mr. David Gibson-Watt (Hereford)

This Adjournment debate, which follows an important debate on the British Broadcasting Corporation, is on the danger of leptospirosis in Charollais cattle that has been caused by the Government's agreement to allow the Milk Marketing Board to import Charollais bulls from France for use on dairy cows in its artificial insemination centres.

When, about six years ago, I made my maiden speech, I was lucky enough to be very much helped by my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary. I hope that his answers to my queries will help me tonight. Perhaps I might be so bold as to ask for the usual kindness and courtesy of the House to one who has not made a speech for over four years because of being in a somewhat reserved occupation.

I am glad that my hon. Friend is to answer in this debate, because he has an unparalleled practical knowledge of farming and livestock matters generally. Like myself and others, he is concerned with improving our cattle industry. It is, however, with my right hon. Friend the Minister and his predecessor that I have occasionally had arguments on this present matter. I am interested in it, not only as a small breeder of Welsh black cattle, but also because my constituency of Hereford has given its name to one of the country's most famous breeds of cattle.

I am also interested because I have recently been made chairman of the Livestock Export Group, a non-profit-making organisation which has as its object the increase of our export of all types of livestock. We believe that those exports, which are already growing. could very well reach a value of £5 million a year. At a time when the country needs every pound's worth of exports, the export of cattle is very important.

If we are to export our cattle, we must continue to keep our reputation as a clean livestock area. To maintain that reputation, the Ministry of Agriculture has for some time insisted on a slaughter policy for foot-and-mouth disease, and I well remember my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary arguing about a year ago, very rightly and cogently, in favour of that policy as a means of convincing the rest of the world that we treat that disease very seriously.

The point about the foot-and-mouth slaughter policy is that it is applied not only to animals actually suffering from the disease, but to the rest of the animals in the herd. I asked the Minister the other day why it was that when leptospirosis was discovered amongst Charollais cattle already brought to this country, only those animals suffering from it were slaughtered, and not all of them. I admit, of course, that they were all under the surveillance of the Ministry. My policy was altogether too bold and too bloody and, quite frankly, I was not surprised when my right hon. Friend said that it was not possible to adopt it.

After the Terrington Committee had advised the Ministry that it might send its vets to France, a batch of Charollais bulls was brought back here. Some were discarded before coming across the Channel because they showed signs of leptospirosis, and others were discarded and killed for the same reason after their arrival. The remainder, however, were distributed to the A.I. centres last Friday conveniently before this debate took place.

I may be of a somewhat suspicious nature, but this is a matter of some importance to the livestock industry, and in all the months of public discussion we have not once had the chance to debate it in this House. I must say that I think that it is an example of bad public relations. It would have been much better if the Ministry had waited until not only myself, but, perhaps, other hon. Members, had had a chance of addressing the House before actually sending these cattle to the stations.

What benefit will Britain get, or our livestock industry receive, from the importation of Charollais cattle? The Minister must know the answer if he is prepared to take such risks. Are the benefits so much greater than the risks that the experiment could not have been carried out in France? Was it a question of time or cost that the experiment with these bulls was not carried out in that country? Surely, if properly organised, the experiment would not have taken any longer in France than it would in England? I feel that those interested in this matter—not only the Milk Marketing Board, but private individuals as well—might have been able to find the money for the experiment and it would not have cost the Ministry a penny.

Why were these people and the Milk Marketing Board so keen to try this experiment on our dairy breeds and produce these cross calves? What profit can there be in that? The King Ranch, with nigh on 1 million acres in Texas, producing meat beef for the Chicago market, tried the experiment and chucked it. Why do the Government think that the Charollais experiment will work here? Is it considered that the carcase produced will be suitable to our butchers, remembering that the type of butchery in Britain differs from that of France?

Charollais cattle have three physical drawbacks: first, they are slow in maturing; secondly, they are large; and, thirdly, the quality of meat is poor. In France, as many hon. Members will know, Charollais cattle are killed for veal at twelve months compared with our beef cattle which are killed at six or nine months. At three-and-a-half years the Charollais is mature for beef while most of our breeds mature at under two-and-a-half years. This slow maturing is a drawback.

Size enters into this, and this factor worries me. It is clear that the animals for which Charollais are to be used are our Ayrshire cows. I would remind the House that the Charollais is big in the head and shoulder and anyone with experience of the difficulties of calving—in the dark or daylight—does not want to see those difficulties made greater. I have visions of unnecessary cruelty being caused by using large, heavy animals with heavy characteristics with animals that are very small behind.

Why cannot the Charollais be used on Friesian cows? The Friesian is big and Friesian cattle have already proved themselves to be dual purpose cattle. There cannot be any point in using Charollais cattle and, in any case, they are much quicker in maturing. The greatest drawback is the possibility and danger of disease. I am not a "vet", but I am told that leptospirosis can remain in the urine of cattle for up to twelve months. I therefore stress the importance of keeping Britain disease free both for our livestock and our plants.

This is one of the things that gives us the reputation we have in the world. I implicitly trust our agricultural veterinary surgeons. They have done a great job for our livestock industry and have, therefore, a great responsibility to watch this matter to avoid any possible chance of disease.

Here, then, is something which the Minister should consider. What is his future policy about these cattle? What is his plan? "Planning" has become a quite respectable word lately, so long as it is used with a small "p". With a large "P" it sometimes gets hon. Gentlemen into trouble. What is the Minister's objective in allowing this importation? Are these the only bulls which will be imported? Does he intend to allow Charollais females in if they are asked for by other people? It is things of that kind that we want to know.

What trials are to take place to compare Charollais results with our home beef breeds? I understand that there are to be trials. May we be told where they are to be held and who is to be in charge of them? We can be assured that the French have sent us their best bulls. The price paid was fairly high. I know that some valuable beef sire performance tests have been carried out by B.O.C.M. at Selby, in Yorkshire, using Aberdeen Angus, beef Shorthorn and Devon bulls. I ask that due regard be paid to the claims of all our home beef breeds to be fairly represented in these tests. There is an idea that somebody might choose a sire representative of a home beef breed which is not up to standard, and if that should happen it would not be particularly fair to those who support and keep these cattle. I do not think that I am asking too much.

In a short time I have covered a fairly wide field but, I think, with justification. Many people are affected, and there are, indeed, many sides to the problem. The Minister owes it to the cattle industry to explain his intentions and future policy in regard to Charollais cattle. To sum up, I will put my questions in tabular form.

First, why did my hon. Friend's Department agree to import these Charollais cattle, and what benefit does his Department think they can bring to this country? Second, now that the stable door is shut, so to speak, will he keep a careful watch on the Charollais bulls now in artificial insemination centres in order to make quite certain that those who rely on us to export cattle to them may have complete and utter trust in our handling of the situation? Third, will the Minister see that in comparative tests on dairy cows our own beef breeds get a chance to try their best bulls in competition? Fourth, will the Minister take particular note of calving difficulties which may arise with the smaller breeds and make any recommendations required to avoid unnecessary cruelty? Finally, does he intend to allow further imports of Charollais bulls or cows, and, if so, what safeguards will he take?

There is much at stake, and I make no apology for raising the matter on the Adjournment of the House tonight.

11.44 p.m.

Mr. John Mackie (Enfield, East)

I apologise for intervening, but I think that the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Gibson-Watt) must be put right on various statements he has made which do not hold water at all.

First, the Charollais has not a very large head. It has a small head. It has big shoulders, but it has a small head. Next, the French did not send us their best bulls. I think that we were a little parsimonious in our price. I was over there at the time and the French made it quite clear that we were buying nothing like their best.

Next, the French kill the Charollais cattle for veal at three to four months, whereas ours are killed at six to eight months. I can show the hon. Member a whole bunch of letters from ranches in America and Canada where the experience is completely different from the experience he referred to. As for the question of testing in France, how can one test our cattle in France in a totally different climate? There was no sign of leptospirosis or disease in any of the bulls chosen in France to be sent to this country. So on all these facts, I am sorry to say, the hon. Gentleman is wrong. He can check them if he likes.

However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman's view of the veterinary service. I can assure him and his friends in the conservative breed societies in this country that there is no danger. I am sure that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will also reassure him about that. I have had consultations with the Chief Veterinary Officer in Canada, and he has so much faith in our service that all the animals that go through Canada to the United States, which is our main buyer, will be allowed to go through easily. I cannot understand why our breed societies are so scared.

Mr. Gibson-Watt

I am grateful to the hon. Member for answering my points. But when do he and his friends intend to apply to import Charollais cows?

Mr. Mackie

As soon as we are allowed to.

Now I come to the most important point. I do not know where or when the hon. Gentleman got his figure of £5 million for exports. For the last six to eight years the average has been slightly over £600,000. I do not know how he will get to the bigger figure. I use a Front Bench expression in saying that it is "a row of beans" compared to the advantage we shall get if we reach the figures got by other countries in conversion rates and weight for age gains in our own beef production.

No one knows these things until we try. Professor Cooper, one of our foremost authorities, has given us figures of 3.05 lb. gain per day and 1½ cwts. heavier in six months than Herefords. An average of 15 to 17 per cent. less feed is used in conversion rates, and 2.75 lb. per day increase. I could go on quoting figures like that in reply to the hon. Gentleman's figures. If we consider our beef production, then even £5 million worth of exports would be that "row of beans" compared to the effect on our industry if this matter were handled right. Perhaps the Minister of Agriculture would not then have to come to us for Supplementary Estimates. It is worth trying. The hon. Gentleman should look closely at the facts before he criticises something which will do this country so much good.

11.47 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. W. M. F. Vane)

I think that the hon. Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Mackie) has answered many of the questions raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Gibson-Watt) and has shown that his fears are groundless. Nevertheless, we should be grateful to my hon. Friend for choosing this subject for his second maiden speech, because it has aroused a great deal of interest in the country over a certain length of time. Everyone does not think the same thing about it, and some have felt unduly apprehensive, particularly about the question of exports.

I am glad to say that the results of the Hereford sales today show, however fearful some hon. Members may have been about the possible effect on our sales of cattle for export, that there does not seem to have been any effect on these sales. I hope to show my hon. Friend that the other fears, which I am sure he does not show even though he has spoken of them, are groundless.

Mr. John Brewis (Galloway)

Surely the danger on the export market is that a ban will be put on exports of all British livestock because of the Charollais? What happens at Hereford hardly affects that.

Mr. Vane

I should have thought that what happened today was relevant and that the sort of fearful attitude that some people in this country have shown from time to time is not really doing a service to our livestock in the markets of the world.

The minutes left to me are not numerous, but I will do my best to answer the points which have been raised. First, as to the background, the importation of these Charollais bulls was very carefully examined by an expert Committee set up in 1959 under the chairmanship of the late Lord Terrington and it received and took into account the views of all sections of the cattle industry. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture and the Secretary of State for Scotland announced their acceptance, in principle, of the Report of the Committee and decided to proceed with an importation. It is quite wrong to suppose that the views of breeders of pedigree cattle were not considered during this stage. They emphasised their fears that the disease risks associated with the importation would imperil our export trade.

Against this, we have to bear in mind that we have relied on and profited to a large extent in the past from the importation of livestock from overseas—British Friesian cows, for example, and, in recent months, the Red Poll Society has imported Danish Red cattle with the object of improving the breed. Polled Devons were recently brought in and it is not so long ago that polled Herefords were imported from Canada for the same reason. This is happening all the time under proper control and it may be interesting to some hon. Members to note that in the past even the Charollais has benefited from the infusions of beef Shorthorn strains. This is a two-way traffic and has been going on for a long time. We have all benefited from it.

My right hon. Friend felt that the recommendations of the Terrington Committee were sound and that experiments with Charollais as crossing bulls might prove of benefit to the farmers of this country. I thought that that was widely known to be the purpose of the importation. It is essential that, however high the reputation of our stock, we should not overlook the possibility of improvements brought in from elsewhere, and we must do that if we are to continue to remain in the van of progress.

The Terrington Committee recommended that there should be the importation of Charollais for the purpose of testing their usefulness as crossing bulls for the production of beef from the dairy herd, and suggested that they should be put to fairly extensive experimental use in commercial herds whose owners were willing to try them.

I want now to say something about the very important animal health aspect. Having satisfied ourselves of the possible advantages of an experimental importation, the next consideration was to ensure that there would be no adverse effects on the high standard of our animal health. We had to be sure that we were not likely to introduce a disease which would be a hazard to British livestock. Clearly, no matter how carefully imports are regulated, there must always be some element of risk associated with the importation of live animals—or, even for that matter, human beings—but this can be reduced to negligible proportions.

It was found possible, with strict veterinary precautions, to counter every foreseeable risk in the Charollais importation and, after a close study of the incidence of animal diseases known to exist in France, the Ministry's veterinary officers were able to lay down a number of veterinary requirements, full details of which have been published in HANSARD.

Before the bulls were purchased, tests for tuberculosis, brucellosis and leptospirosis were carried out by the French veterinary service, who also certi fied that leptospirosis had not been diagnosed during the previous twelve months in any of the herds from which the animals came. There is an international standard for testing for leptospirosis and it is normal for the exporting country to carry out such veterinary tests and to give appropriate certificates.

On completion of the 28-day quarantine period at Brest, the French veterinary service also certified that the animals showed no clinical signs of any contagious, infectious or parasitic disease affecting cattle. On arrival at our quarantine station in London, the animals were subjected to a variety of tests, including tests for four different types of leptospirosis. Unfortunately, three of the bulls failed to pass the test for one variety of leptospirosis, a type which has never been recorded in this country and which is known to be dangerous to the health of cattle. Throughout the whole period of quarantine, all the necessary and usual precautions were observed to make sure that the infection was not taken outside the station. The carcases of the slaughtered animals were burned under veterinary supervision and great care was taken in disposing of the manure.

My hon. Friend referred to foot-and-mouth disease. This is not a comparable example. The slaughter of the reacting bulls removed the known source of infection, but it was necessary to retain the remainder in quarantine and subject them to a further series of tests until we were satisfied that the disease had not been transmitted to them. None of the remaining cattle reacted to these tests, and it was perfectly correct that they should then be released for the purposes for which they had been imported. Very strict tests were carried out, and my right hon Friend was right to release the animals from quarantine last Friday.

My hon. Friend mentioned possible calving difficulties. These were among the matters which the Terrington Committee examined most carefully. The Committee considered that, although the evidence it received was not conclusive, the amount of calving difficulty likely to be encountered by the use of reasonably well selected Charollais bulls on cows or heifers was not likely to be so excessive that it might not be readily offset by other advantages, and, certainly, it was not a factor which would lead one to dismiss the idea of these experiments. The Committee's conclusion was that there was no serious degree of risk, but, of course, we cannot be certain until further trials have been conducted in this country.

My hon. Friend asked for information about these trials. They are to be coordinated by a working group under the chairmanship of the Ministry's Chief Scientific Adviser. All sides of the cattle industry are represented on this group, as well as officers of the National Agricultural Advisory Service, and the aim is to secure the widest possible range of controlled comparisons between the Charollais and British beef breeds for crossing with dairy breeds. I am sure that my hon. Friend will appreciate that the tests carried out in France could not be of the same value as the range of tests to be carried out in this country.

These trials are being organised in three parts. Two Ministry experimental husbandry farms and three other centres which possess exceptional individual feeding facilities will compare the Charollais with Herefords in crosses on Friesians and Ayrshires, and also with pure Friesians for liveweight gain and efficiency of conversion and on assessment of the carcases. There is to be a second group of trials at 40 centres which are able to maintain accurate records, but do not have the same individual feeding facilities. The Charollais there will be compared with 13 different crosses of British beef breeds or dairy breeds, and also with pure Friesians.

The Milk Marketing Board will be responsible for the other range of tests, farmers who participate in these tests will be asked to record information on such matters as calving difficulties and on age and weight at slaughter. There is to be a wide range of tests, and in these last tests farmers will rear the crosses according to their own ideas and resources. Other tests are planned under the auspices of the Department of Agriculture and Fishery for Scotland.

I have tried, in a short time, to answer as many questions as possible. I hope that my hon. Friend now sees that there is a definite purpose in these trials. As to what the results will be, we shall have to see, but there were good grounds for allowing the importation. There have been certain detractors of this experiment. If it is not a success, we shall have lost nothing. If it is a success, we may all have gained, and I recommend to my hon. Friend something that St. Paul wrote in a letter in another context, but which is applicable here. He said: Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. I am sure that it was in that spirit that the Terrington Committee made its recommendations, and it is in that spirit that we are carrying out these experiments.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Twelve o'clock.