HC Deb 20 March 1962 vol 656 cc229-66

4.8 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Peart (Workington)

We wish to initiate on this Resolution a short debate on one of the major agricultural Estimates contained in the Supplementary Estimates, 1961–62, namely, that dealing with the slaughter of diseased animals and compensation therefor, Subhead D.1, which, in effect, relates to fowl pest. We find the figures on page 154 of the Blue Book. The additional provision for fowl pest resulting from the heavy incidence of disease will be £3½ million, a considerable increase over the sum originally estimated and the sums spent in the past.

The Estimates Committee in its Third Report, page vi, commented on the additional provision of over £3 million mainly required for compensation because of an outbreak of fowl pest and reported that this could not have been foreseen. I have gone into the matter and as I find that there has been a similar circumstance before, I think that the Government should give an explanation this afternoon.

After all, we are dealing with large sums of money. I appreciate that it is for a special purpose—to combat disease affecting our livestock production, our fowls and the health of our animals—and that we are anxious not to reduce this expenditure if it is really necessary. Nevertheless, it is only right that we should very carefully examine this expenditure. I recall that about a year ago the noble Lord the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Hinchingbrooke) said in an agricultural debate that we must carefully look at our support policy and agricultural expenditure.

On one specific item today—although it may be said to be a limited item—a considerable amount of money is under discussion and it is only right and proper that the House should carefully examine the matter. I have looked up the spring estimates over a period of years and I discover that for 1955–56 there was no Supplementary Estimate. There was a Supplementary Estimate for 1956–57, and I am dealing only with compensation for fowl pest. In that year, 1956–57, the Estimate was for £1,350,000. In 1957–58, there was no Supplementary Estimate and in 1958–59 there was one of £350,000. In 1959–60, we were faced with the large figure of £4½ million and in 1960–61 the figure was £2½ million. Today, for 1961–62, the figure is £3½ million.

We are, therefore, dealing with large sums of money and this has caused concern and various comments. I have with me the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General, in which he comments on the various amounts of expenditure for agriculture last year. No doubt hon. Members have read this document. Commenting on fowl pest, he said: The charge to Subhead D/"— that was for the previous year— in this Account includes approximately £4.9 million for compensation and other expenses in Great Britain in respect of poultry slaughtered because of outbreaks of fowl pest This is nearly four times the average cost in the previous three years. The Comptroller and Auditor General went on to say: Section 48 of the Diseases of Animals Act, 1950, authorises the compulsory slaughter of poultry suffering … from fowl pest and of other poultry which appear to have been exposed to infection of the disease. For poultry, other than diseased poultry so slaughtered, the Act requires the Minister to pay compensation equal to the value of the birds immediately before slaughter. There followed an examination of the whole administration of the slaughter policy. I will not go into the details of the review, but I would remind the House that the Comptroller and Auditor General stated: I therefore asked the Ministry whether they were satisfied that compensation had not been paid to any considerable extent in respect of birds affected with fowl pest. If we read the details which the Comptroller and Auditor General gave we discover that compensation was given in respect of birds where it should not have been given. Thus, it is reasonable to ask if the Act is working. Is the Order which operates under the Act satisfactory, or is too much compensation really being paid? In other words, an alarming amount of money is being spent—four times the average cost for the previous three years—and the Government are asked if their slaughter policy is working and whether compensation is being paid in correct proportions.

That is what we must consider today; whether the additional provision of the £3 million required for compensation because of outbreaks of fowl pest is really necessary. There is no doubt that there has been considerable uneasiness outside the House about this matter. To prove this I quote from a paper read by Professor Titmuss to the National Association for Mental Health, last March. He was talking about public expenditure on mental health and was showing how insufficient money was being devoted to that subject. He compared the expenditure on mental health with that on fowl pest compensation and said: it is probable that we are now spending a smaller amount per head on community care for the mentally ill (as distinct from the mentally subnormal) than we were in 1951. And what we are spending today is substantially less than the sum of £4,900,000 paid out in compensation and expenses in dealing with fowl pest in Great Britain in 1959–60 … Professor Titmuss was comparing the compensation we are paying to deal with a disease in our poultry flocks with the amount being spent in other sectors of the administration.

I know that there is anxiety in the agricultural world about this matter. It is only right, therefore, that hon. Members should be anxious to scrutinise this expenditure. In view of this relatively long history of compensation for fowl pest, are the Government really satisfied with the present position? The Ministry is asking for an increased Estimate, but is the Minister satisfied with the present arrangement? Is the Government's policy working along the right lines because, after all, these Estimates are only-a reflection of Government policy—in this case agricultural policy in relation to the eradication of disease. Can we really say that that policy is working?

In the Report from which I quoted the Comptroller and Auditor General commented on assurances that were given by the Ministry. Some time has passed since then and we still have considerable outbreaks of fowl pest. The disease is still with us, and so is the concern. Many hon. Members have addressed questions to the Minister about the incidence of fowl pest, its effect on our poultry and, above all, the cost to the Exchequer. The large sums involved indicate the size and seriousness of the problem.

Are the Government satisfied that we are tackling fowl pest in the right way and that their slaughter policy, which has led to large sums of money being paid out in compensation, is correct? Is research into this problem sufficient? I give credit to the work being done at Weybridge and elsewhere. Many hon. Members have visited the research centre at Weybridge. I am in no way denigrating the work that is being done by the scientists and research workers into this problem, but are we working along the right lines? The Government's policy is extremely costly to the Exchequer but, despite that, is it working?

I have here one of the latest Press notices on fowl pest issued by the Ministry. It deals with infected area restrictions extended in Hampshire and imposed in Dorset. It states: From midnight, Tuesday, 13th March, restrictions on the movement and marketing of poultry already in operation in North-Eastern Somerset, most of Wiltshire and a large part of North-Western Hampshire are being extended to cover further areas in Hampshire and Dorset. Since 4th March, sixteen outbreaks of fowl pest have been confirmed in the additional area now coming under the restrictions, which are being imposed in order to reduce the risk of further spread of the disease. Can we really say that our slaughter policy has succeeded and that the advice which has been given officially has brought benefits and arrested the outbreak? Of course we cannot. In other words, the pattern of the outbreaks I have mentioned has been repeated in many parts of the country. Inevitably, the Government have to come to the House, as they are doing now, for an increased sum of money for compensation.

Many hon. Members are worried about this, as it affects many constituencies. Many hon. Members have constituencies where the incidence of fowl pest is great. The industry is now becoming a major one. Just as we were, and still are, concerned about foot-and-mouth disease—there is an item dealing with it in the Estimates—so there is concern about fowl pest. To the poultry industry fowl pest is as important as foot-and-mouth disease is to other sections of agriculture.

Our poultry production now is estimated to be worth £250 million per year, just less than the total sale of farm crops and nearly double that of horticultural produce. I have figures from the Farmer and Stock-breeder, which has a poultry section, and I will give some of them to show the importance of the industry and why we must be concerned about our policy. Should we deal with fowl pest by slaughtering rather than by a vaccination policy?

There are 452,000 egg producers registered with the British Egg Marketing Board, an increase of 36 per cent. since the initial poll in 1957. Packing stations throughput in the last full year was 21,277,052 boxes, each of 360 eggs. We have more than 29 million fowls of over six months in England and Wales, more than 1½ million ducks, 325,000 geese and more than 5 million turkeys. The turkey industry is affected very much by fowl pest. Farm gate or direct sales of eggs are estimated at 28.4 per cent. I could give many other figures.

Consequently, it is apparent that we are discussing a major industry. When someone asked me what we were debating today I said "fowl pest", and he smiled. It may be that fowl pest is not very exciting after the introduction of the victors at Middlesbrough and Orpington, but it is an important subject, and every hon. Member who has remained in the Chamber to discuss this matter appreciates its importance and the seriousness of the issue to agriculture.

As this is a major industry, there ought to be a clear assurance from the Government that research into a disease which hits the industry so hard will be stepped up. I am not satisfied that we are spending enough on it. After all, we should relate this to the vast sums of money that we are now spending on fowl pest slaughter compensation. The Poultry and Egg Producers Association of Great Britain, a very responsible body—many hon. Members are directly and indirectly connected with it—has expressed concern about the Ministry's attitude. In its 1962 year book, throughout its annual report and in the section dealing with fowl pest, the Association expressed concern about the Government's policy. The Association has, I know, co-operated fully with the Ministry in publicising the dangers of fowl pest and the need to take precautions at farm level, at markets and elsewhere.

But what does the Minister say to the following extract from the Association's report: Following representations by the Association to the Ministry of Agriculture which deplored the Ministry's failure to hold any meetings of its Fowl Pest ad hoc Committee for many months, the long awaited Government committee of inquiry into fowl pest was set up during the year, and upon invitation, the Association submitted to it a detailed memorandum of evidence. Why did the Ministry delay so much in holding meetings of its Committee? Surely the Minister must have appreciated the seriousness of fowl pest. Surely the Ministry, which had come to the House repeatedly for increased Estimates, must have known that it was a matter requiring urgent attention.

While I welcome the setting up of the Committee—now known as the Plant Committee—which will soon be reporting, why was there so much delay and lethargy? It is important that we should know, because this affects policy, and that is the concern of all of us. Why did the Minister fail to hold meetings of his Committee for so long? We should like some assurances on this subject.

What action are the Minister of Agriculture and the Secretary of State for Scotland taking to prevent the disease growing? I can give examples of what I mean. There has been concern that fowl pest has been spread from chicken carcases which have been imported. An outbreak at Mildenhall has been traced to an American Army depot. Poultry farmers are concerned whether imports of poultry meat direct from America to, say, Holy Loch, might be infected. This is not an exaggeration. We have already had an outbreak which has been traced back to an American base.

I should like to know what representations have been made to the American Army authorities. I know that with regard to Holy Loch the Secretary of State has promised to do something, but what is the Minister of Agriculture doing about carcases imported into England? Have representations been made to the appropriate military authorities? We do not desire to create a scare, but it is right and proper that precautions should be taken at every centre where there are imported carcases which might lead to the spreading of fowl pest.

Also, what steps is the Minister taking to stop the spread of chicken offal over the land for mammal purposes? This is thought to cause the spread of infection. What other precautions have been taken? What instructions have been issued to market authorities and auctioneers, who have certain responsibilities under legislation, including the Fowl Pest Order, 1936, the Live Poultry (Restrictions) Order, 1957, and the Live Poultry (Movement Records) Order, 1958? All these impose duties upon market authorities and personnel working at markets.

What precautions have been taken and what new instructions have been issued? Have auctioneers had special instructions? Is the Minister satisfied that our markets are thoroughly cleansed and disinfected after each sale? What steps have been taken to alter the practice of the use of noms de plume by purchasers, which creates considerable difficulties in tracing them after an outbreak? What instructions have been issued to poultry slaughterhouses in relation to, for example, neighbouring flocks, control of visitors, hygiene of employees, disinfecting of vehicles, disposal of swill, and so on?

All these are important matters, and we should like to know whether the Government are satisfied about the precautions which are taken, or should be taken, and whether statutory duties are imposed on the persons concerned. Also, have the Government been energetic enough about these things?

Despite all the criticisms that I have made, I appreciate that fowl pest is a difficult subject to deal with scientifically. It is a difficult subject for us to discuss as laymen, but it is one of major importance to a major industry. We all know that the disease goes back to 1926, when it became known as the "Newcastle disease". Since then we have had various outbreaks. There was a very large outbreak in 1933, and the Government issued a fowl pest Order in 1936. Obviously, that Order failed.

So far, the legislation which has been introduced by the Government, however worthy their motives, has failed. Ever since 1926 we have had intermittent outbreaks of fowl pest. Fowl pest is often difficult to discover, for its symptoms are extremely difficult to detect, and in the end a slaughter policy was recommended. I should like the Minister to tell me whether he is satisfied with the slaughter policy which we have pursued since the 1930s. Is the slaughter policy proving successful?

I believe that the Plant Committee may well be in favour of a vaccination policy. I hope that is an intelligent guess, for I do not know, but I feel that will be so. It may well be that the Government's slaughter policy will be altered. If a vaccination policy is introduced, the cost of the vaccine is likely to be placed on breeders and owners, and the Exchequer will, therefore, save a considerable sum of money. It may well be that the Plant Committee will report on these lines. Consequently, I should like to know what research has been done into vaccination for this purpose.

There are three lines here. One is the use of dead vaccine, the virus having been killed. Another is the use of live virus. Another is the use of a modified or attenuated virus. I should like to know, but without too much detail, whether the Government have conducted adequate research into the use of vaccines. Research into vaccines has been done in the United States and, I am informed, in Holland and France as well. What research has been done in this country?

If we can produce a successful vaccine, it will not only save the Exchequer large sums of money, but also save our producers considerable sums of money. Large stocks of valuable birds will be saved, and the cost of the vaccine will be negligible compared with the value of the produce with which we are dealing. Consequently, from the point of view of both the Exchequer and the producers it is essential for us to speed up our research into how to deal with fowl pest and, above all, into the use of vaccines. What research has been done in this direction? I have a feeling that we have not done enough.

For example, a distinguished veterinary scientist from the United States, Dr. Bankowsky, of the University of California, was working at the Ministry's Foot and Mouth Centre at Pirbright, Surrey, in 1958–59. This man had done original research work on modified vaccines against fowl pest, but he was never consulted about it by the Ministry even though he was over here at one of the Ministry's establishments. Since his return to America, he has perfected a vaccine. What steps is the Ministry taking to investigate the claims of the Bankowsky vaccine, especially in view of the fact that the Americans claim that it is the answer?

What research have the Government conducted in that direction? Why have they restricted the use of virus to their own establishments? Why have private centres of research been denied the use of virus? This is a matter in which I expect the support of hon. Members opposite. I am informed that private research establishments which conduct vaccine research have not been able to obtain the virus because of restrictions imposed by the Ministry. If that is so, it is a shocking commentary on our position.

There may be proper scientific reasons for that, and the Minister might be able to give the answer, but I should like to know why the restrictions were imposed. Possibly, it was because of the fear of infection. Even so, the Government could have called upon distinguished scientists and veterinary surgeons in private establishments, who have an honoured record. What is the reason for this restriction?

I trust that I have not monopolised too much time in initiating this debate. My case today is first, that the Estimate is large—several million pounds—and that we need a detailed explanation. Secondly, there has been a long history of forecasting which has been commented upon by the Comptroller and Auditor General. Thirdly, fowl pest disease has a long history. It causes concern in the industry, hardship to many individual producers and the loss of much valuable stock and food. Finally, I indict the Government for their lethargy towards research. Those are the five main points of my approach. We should have adequate answers from the Government if the Estimate is to be approved by the House.

Several Hon. Members rose

Sir Spencer Summers (Aylesbury)

On a point of order. Can you give us guidance, Mr. Deputy-Speaker? Four separate Votes are before us and we have approximately three hours from the start to deal with them. Is it your intention to ration them to equal time, or can you give us any notion of how the time is to be apportioned?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir William Anstruther-Gray)

The Chair has no power to ration the time. We merely continue the debate until we come to a decision on the Vote in question and then we proceed to the next, until we come to the end of the proceedings, when all the remaining Votes will be put.

4.40 p.m.

Mr. John Peyton (Yeovil)

It would be ungracious if the first speaker from this side of the House did not at least begin by saying that we greatly appreciate the action of the Opposition in giving us a chance today to discuss these Supplementary Estimates. I have on other occasions commented on the fact that far too often the vote of Supply is brushed over only too quickly and we get on to the more congenial task of demanding more money. On this occasion, the Opposition have undergone a notable conversion and it would be most ungracious if we did not thank them for it and welcome the fact.

The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) seemed to trot amiably around the point without making much of it. What disturbs me is that we are being asked for £6 million, an increase of almost 100 per cent. on the original Estimate. Speaking as a layman and from an abysmal ignorance, I cannot see why, given a catastrophe, we should not have a vastly increased liability over even the miserable, unwelcome one which we face today.

Sir S. Summers

In the interest purely of accuracy, may I point out that the increase is 29.4 per cent., as is stated in the Report of the Estimates Committee?

Mr. Peyton

I beg my hon. Friend's pardon. My understanding of the Estimates Committee's Report, however, is that additional provision of £3,050,000 is required for compensation because of an outbreak of fowl pest. We see from page 150 of the Supplementary Estimate that this additional sum is required on an original Estimate of £3,209,000. That makes it fairly clear that the increase which is demanded is roughly 100 per cent.

That discloses a fairly serious situation. Apart from anything else, it occurs in an industry the face of which has changed almost beyond recognition. No longer is it in the general category of what is understood to be the agricultural industry. It is much more of a factory than anything which previously had a place in agriculture. Therefore, in attempting our duty of safeguarding Government expenditure, we should ask the Minister whether the Government have considered the advisability of continuing this policy. The face of the industry has changed and the liability has changed with it. Might it not be right for the Government to consider whether such a compensation policy is advisable for an industry which is really situated in factories?

It might well be said that the fowl pest hazard to the broiler industry is similar to the fire hazard and that it would be right to put upon the broiler industry the burden of carrying its own insurance in the event of the catastrophe of fowl pest rather than looking to the Exchequer or to the taxpayer for a sum of compensation, the limit of which the Treasury cannot possibly foresee. This is a point to which my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary should pay serious attention.

There is a tendency to allow these things to go by without giving them the serious attention which they need. There are relatively few of us in the House this afternoon to show a lively interest in the constant creeping up of these Estimates year after year. I hope that I may be forgiven if I remind the House of a couplet by Mr. T. S. Eliot: Those who sit in a house the use of which is forgotten are like snakes that lie on mouldering stairs content in the sunlight. It is not for me to say who is a puff adder, a cobra or an asp. It is, however, of great importance that we should not let these relatively small sums of £2 million or £3 million pass by without careful examination and without challenging the Government, before we vote Supply, to make our position clear beyond per-adventure.

4.45 p.m.

Mr. F. H. Hayman (Falmouth and Camborne)

I do not intend to detain the House long, but I hope to draw attention to one or two points which have not yet been made but which I consider seriously in need of attention. As the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) has just said, we are dealing with a Supplementary Estimate relating to an increase of from £3,209,000 to £6,259,000—as the hon. Member pointed out, an increase of nearly 100 per cent.

I question whether we are justified in pouring out these relatively prodigious sums of public money in the way that the Ministry is doing. It seems to me that the Ministry is so complacent with precedent, by what previous Ministers have done in paying compensation for the slaughter of animals, that its mind is closed to other methods of dealing with what is, admittedly, a serious problem.

My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) drew attention to many points. I will not repeat what my hon. Friend has said, but I am not clear from page 150 of the Estimate exactly how much is covered by fowl pest compensation. Obviously, it must be a considerable sum. On 6th November, in answer to a Question of mine, the Joint Parliamentary Secretary told me that to 31st October last, £2,795,000 had been paid out in the current financial year.

In answering my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hilton), the hon. Gentleman said: Compensation in the last three months has been assessed at £664,000. about half of which is payable to one breeder ".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th November, 1961; Vol. 648, c. 596.] I put another Question to the Minister on 7th December, asking what estimate he has formed of the cost of keeping an index of claims for compensation for fowl pest and for checking future claims with this index. That was because the hon. Gentleman rather sneered at a supplementary question of mine about checking the claims to see that one breeder was not getting compensation time after time from the Exchequer.

I put this supplementary question to the Minister on 7th December: May I refer the hon. Gentleman to a statement he made that one claim alone amounted to £⅓ million? Is the hon. Gentleman aware that it has been suggested that that claimant got £250,000 last year and a substantial sum the year before? Does not the hon. Gentleman think that this is something that requires a thorough investigation? The Minister replied: My replies were not inconsistent, because the previous Question referred to making up an index of past claims. The reply today refers to the annual cost of keeping an index of future claims. It is possible to check back on any individual case where it appears to serve a useful purpose, but each claim must be decided on its individual merits."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 7th December, 1961; Vol. 650, c. 1521–2.] That reply seemed to indicate that the Minister had not grasped the significance of the fact that it seems to be possible for a poultry keeper to get £⅓ million in compensation out of the Government, possibly—I cannot substantiate what I am told—following a year in which he had £¼ million.

I just do not know, but I do think that the Minister ought to instigate a very thorough investigation into how these claims are being dealt with and being repeated. Did the poultry keeper who got one-third of £1 million keep those birds on the same ground on which he kept his birds the previous year, when also he got a huge sum in compensation? The House is entitled to know from the Minister. I should have thought that any Minister worth his salt would, after my allegations, whether they were true or not, have instituted a thorough inquiry. In putting these allegations I do so in all good faith, voicing complaints made to me, and I put them forward because the Minister told the House that one man got one-third of £1 million. When the Joint Parliamentary Secretary replies to the debate I hope that he will tell us that a thorough investigation has been made, and let us know what the results are.

I will if I may weary the House with a note which I got, anonymously it is true, posted at Norwich on 15th December last. It referred to the fact that I was putting another Question to the Minister and it says: Well done! This fowl pest industry is getting out of hand. At the worst it is criminal (the turning of a switch?) At the best it is a widespread racket. You are correct about the poultry keeper and company you have in mind. The firm whose total compensation amounts to nearly £500,000 now produce the turkeys, etc., for someone else to advertise. He sent the advertisement, and he finished by adding: The taxpayer is being systematically milked and swindled. A charge of that sort does need thorough investigation by the responsible Minister. Year after year now we are getting huge claims for compensation for fowl pest, and I think that the House is entitled to an answer by the Minister to serious charges of this kind. It seems to me, as one who has some knowledge of administration, that this kind of thing should be going on year after year is simply the result of very lax administration.

4.53 p.m.

Mr. Denys Bullard (King's Lynn)

I should like to pursue this question of the very big claims in cases in which contact birds have to be slaughtered in fowl pest outbreaks, the point which has been raised by the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hayman). I think that he was suggesting fraud on a fairly big scale. I do not want to suggest anything of that kind.

Mr. Hayman

It does seem to me that there may be fraud. I do not suggest that there is, but there certainly seems ground for suspicion that there may be.

Mr. Bullard

Whether there is or whether there is not, it is not that aspect with which I want to deal.

I want to raise the question whether these very big claims ought to be met at all. My reason for arguing on these lines is this. It is well known throughout the whole of agriculture that when we over-intensify any enterprise we very greatly increase the risks. That is an age-old principle of husbandry. It is upon that that the whole basis of the rotation of crops is founded. With almost every plant and every animal which concerns the farmer this truth has to be observed.

In the consideration of this matter by the Estimates Committee last year my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Kirkdale (Mr. N. Pannell) raised this question with the witnesses from the Ministry of Agriculture. The answers which were obtained were to the effect that there did not seem to be any evidence that intensification itself was a contributory cause of the disease, but that it was the case that where we had these vast numbers of poultry together under one roof, as is very common in modern conditions, we got very rapid spread throughout the whole unit, and that there was no alternative but to pay compensation for the lot because the lot had to be slaughtered.

I think that that is undoubtedly true, but I wonder whether a warning ought not to be given to poultry keepers that if they do mass birds in these huge flocks they will, if they suffer an outbreak of fowl pest, run the risk of not being paid compensation for them. I do not really see why poultry keepers should be compensated for flying in the face of one of the elementary risks of over-intensification.

I wish that the Plant Committee, which is considering this matter, and no doubt considering this aspect, would hurry up and make its report. The Committee was appointed in 1960. I know it has got a very difficult problem in front of it in producing an alternative, if one can be produced, to the present slaughter policy, but at any rate I hope that the Minister will be able to give me an assurance that this aspect of the matter will be considered by the Committee—and by the Ministry if the Committee's recommendation is to the effect that compensation and slaughter policy must continue.

That is really the only point I wanted to make on this Supplementary Estimate. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) was quite correct in saying that the increase was of 100 per cent. I believe that it is (really a bit more than 100 per cent. because compensation for fowl pest would have been £3½ million if it had not been for savings under the heading of disease of animals, which brings the figure down to just over £3 million. Nevertheless for this purpose we do have this sum which, with the best will in the world for the poultry industry, none of us, I think, can countenance without some degree of protest.

4.58 p.m.

Mr. Cyril Bence (Dunbartonshire, East)

I would not have intervened in this debate had I not heard the frightening figures mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hayman) for compensation to one person. One-third of £1 million is a tremendous figure of compensation to be paid to one man for loss due to fowl pest.

I quite agree that it is reasonable to suggest that there should be compensation for such a terrible disease as this. It is possible that, were there no compensation payable, a person would not notify an outbreak and it would spread like wildfire all over the countryside, and so it may be just as well, in order to get notification at the time that the outbreak happens, that it should be known that compensation is payable.

Nevertheless, there is an assurance which we should like from the Minister. We know there is intensive breeding of poultry—in incubators with a capacity of 10,000 eggs, and the raising of chicks by intensive breeders. There are these methods of intense breeding which produce vast quantities of poultry. Are we certain that these large companies which go in for breeding on this scale carry out the processes of breeding, mating, and killing for slaughter and rearing for commercial egg-laying under the most hygienic conditions possible to save the taxpayer from having to pay these huge sums in compensation?

I agree that when these diseases break out and the farmer exercises all the control within his power and the animals are lost through no fault of his own, it is reasonable to compensate him. It is not easy to deal with nature. But when we are dealing with these vast sums in the Estimates the general public are entitled to feel and the House of Commons is entitled to know that the people who enter this business do so with full knowledge of the job and that they use satisfactory appliances, that hygienic conditions are maintained, and their general husbandry is such that the chances of their poultry contracting disease, are considerably lessened.

There should be no payment by right if neglect can be proved on a farm and if hygienic conditions are not maintained. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will give some assurance that the Department takes every measure possible to ensure that the rearing of poultry, either on free range or in intensive conditions, is done in the most scientific and most hygienic way so that we may cut down this huge annual figure which the taxpayer has to pay in compensation for losses.

5.2 p.m.

Sir Spencer Summers (Aylesbury)

As one who was concerned with the Estimates Committee's Report on Supplementary Estimates, I should like to make one or two brief comments. When the requirements of a Department turn out to be nearly double what was first expected there seems to be a suggestion that there is some sinister situation which Parliament should examine. But it is not because there is a great increase in the Estimates that an examination is required, but because no less than £6 million is required to pay compensation for fowl pest.

It is difficult to express what I have in mind. When all the Supplementary Estimates are taken together and added to the original Estimate to make a grand total it is found, when it all comes out in the wash and public expenditure under all heads is taken into account, that it is less year after year, as shown in the Report, than the original Estimate plus the Supplementary Estimates. This is because in the original Estimate and in the Supplementary Estimates no account is taken of the savings in those funds for which no Supplementary Estimate is required. This puts into proper perspective the whole essence of Supplementary Estimates.

I intervened because I wanted to urge that we should not wait until Supplementary Estimates are due to decide whether a Department needs a microscope to be applied to its expenditure. This should be decided when the original Estimates are presented to Parliament. It may be no fault whatsoever of the Department concerned that it has to ask Parliament for a great deal more after the original Estimate was made. It is as well to keep in perspective the degree of blame possibly attributable to Departments in presenting Supplementary Estimates. It is easy to err on the side of criticism which, in the nature of the case, may not be justified. This, however, does not detract from the value of a debate when we raise a matter of £6 million and it is thought that some examination of the situation is required.

5.5 p.m.

Sir Harwood Harrison (Eye)

I should like to put the point of view of some of my constituents on this subject. Over the last two or three years I have written on it on a number of occasions to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary. When we are being asked to vote nearly double the original sum we might think that the industry was satisfied, but I do not think that anyone in the industry is satisfied with the present situation. Although the small man who may be compelled to destroy 150 laying birds receives compensation, he loses his source of income.

There is a good deal of anxiety about the vast sums which are paid out where there is a great concentration of birds, but there is another source of anxiety. There are a number of farms where Ministry officials have taken tests and Weybridge has reported that the poultry are diseased, but one can never convince the farmers concerned that that is so. Many of them are experienced men who know the signs when their birds are failing and they all tell me that their birds were healthy. I do not say whether they are right or wrong, but it should be borne in mind that mistakes can be made, even at Weybridge, and that in liability to error we are all human.

I urge my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to assure the House that the Minister will take quick action when the Plant Committee reports and that he will not be hidebound in the future if there is a better way simply because we have stuck to certain other ways in the past. We shall respect my right hon. Friend even more than we now do if his Department presents to the House a new method to change the present situation.

I should like to point out to my hon. Friend that with the development of the broiler industry difficulties arise when the established boundaries are strictly observed in prescribing areas where regulations dealing with the outbreak of fowl pest apply. I have had bitter complaints from constituents, particularly at the time of the year when they have large stocks of fattened poultry, such as Christmas, that when there is an outbreak of fowl pest they are not allowed to send their healthy birds to the factory to which they are accustomed. The Ministry tells them to send the poultry to another factory within a certain area. They then find that that factory is completely filled with deliveries and cannot accept more.

Many poultry keepers therefore suffer financial loss through an outbreak of fowl pest even when their own stock is healthy. Many of them say that if there were no compensation there might be less disease. The present situation is serious and calls for urgent action. I hope that the Minister will agree with any ideas which are put forward in the best interests not only of the taxpayer, but of the industry as a whole.

5.8 p.m.

Mr. James Scott-Hopkins (Cornwall, North)

I should like to pursue the line followed by my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) and my hon. Friend the Member for King's Lynn (Mr. Bullard). Two factors are involved in this matter. First, there is the fundamental decision whether or not to slaughter. I think that the Ministry is right in the slaughter policy when fowl pest is found. I do not believe that research into vaccine is sufficiently advanced to warrant the risk of adopting the vaccination procedure at the moment, but I should like to hear my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary on that point.

The second factor, of vital importance in view of the enormous amount of money we are talking about, is the fact that we have these large units which by no stretch of imagination have anything to do with farming. They are found in urban areas and frequently in borough areas where there is no question of attached farmland. In those cases where there are units of 5,000 head or more my right hon. Friend should earnestly consider whether compensation should be paid, or whether there should be a statutory obligation upon the owners to be insured. If they were insured, the charge in the event of an outbreak of fowl pest would not be on the Treasury, but on the insurance company.

But there is one snag, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mr. Bence). The important thing is that fowl pest should always be reported immediately the farmer suspects it. If we do away with the compulsory compensation system there will be a danger that owners of poultry will not report fowl pest immediately. My hon. Friend must look into that point. Nevertheless, I do not believe that it would be an insurmountable problem if we adopted the insurance principle.

Sir Douglas Glover (Ormskirk)

Can my hon. Friend tell me why he thinks that insurance would be good in the case of flocks of over 5,000 birds and, presumably, bad in the case of smaller flocks? The insurance principle seems to be a sound one, and I do not see why it should not apply to all flocks.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

If we go below 5,000 birds we are usually talking about flocks which are free-ranging on the farm, in which case I do not think that the insurance principle could apply. A farmer's wife may have 300 birds, in a small unit. In such a case, insurance would not be required. It might be possible to go down as far as 2,000 birds, but that is about the limit. If we went below that it would not be a practical proposition for my hon. Friend to carry out a proper system of inspection and to make certain that all outbreaks were reported at the earliest possible moment.

Subhead A.3 refers to grants for the reconstruction of sea defences. I apologise for wearying the House with this, but it is a very urgent matter in my constituency. About two weeks ago we had some very bad gales, and part of my constituency was badly damaged. Padstow is an estuarial town and, therefore, does not come under the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. Any compensation that might become due must, unfortunately, come from the river board or my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture. Two weeks ago a shipbuilding and ship-repairing yard in Padstow was badly damaged by high winds and gales, which brought down part of the sea wall.

The urgency of the matter lies in the fact that we shall have more high tides and high winds in the near future, and I am hoping that when this matter comes before my right hon. Friend it can be included under Subhead A.3, because the wall has been completely breached by the gales.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Member is straining the limits of what is in order on the Supplementary Estimate.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

I must bow to your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, but Subhead A.3 refers to grants for the reconstruction of sea defences, and the sea defences of this town were breached two weeks ago.

Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)

Does not the subhead go on to make clear that it is in relation to the Provision required to meet grants and outstanding claims "? Surely the hon. Member's claim can hardly have been outstanding at that time. If it was, it must have been provided for.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

The claim was not outstanding at that moment. I shall not weary the House further. I merely express the hope that my right hon. Friend will deal with this matter sympathetically.

5.14 p.m.

Sir Godfrey Nicholson (Farnham)

I shall not keep the House for very long, because there are other Votes that we wish to deal with, but I am interested in the question of fowl pest. The Estimates Sub-committee went into this matter very closely last year. What worries me is the fact that there appears to be a high probability that a vaccination policy will take the place of the slaughter policy. It has taken years for the Plant Committee to report, and I cannot help reflecting that if it had been dealing with a human ailment, or with something necessary to win a war, the Committee would have reported in a great deal less than two years. The moral to be drawn is that Departments are very prone to feel that they have settled a problem merely by appointing a committee to investigate it. The Ministry of Agriculture probably said, "We have appointed this Plant Committee. Our conscience is now clear."

I am glad if the Ministry's conscience is clear, but in the meantime millions of pounds of the taxpayers' money goes up the spout. Departments should be forced to stimulate these committees to act with urgency. If a Committee of this House had been appointed it would have been required to report within the limits of a single Session, sitting two or three times a week to do so, and I see no reason why a body of eminent scientists should not sit twice a week to investigate a matter which is of extreme financial urgency.

This leisurely method of procedure is to be deplored. It may be because the members of the Committee are not paid, in which case we cannot expect them to come to London more than once a fortnight, or even once a month. That is quite reasonable. But if that is the case, they should be paid. When millions of pounds of the taxpayers' money is at stake the spending of a few thousand pounds in paying the scientific members of a committee would be money well spent.

In my experience on the Estimates Committee, this sort of thing happens in many Departments. A committee is appointed, and the matter drifts on for some time. The rule should be that as soon as a committee is appointed steps are taken to see that it acts as expeditiously as possible.

5.18 p.m.

Mr. Clifford Kenyon (Chorley)

In a farmers' paper at the weekend I read that the Plant Committee would be reporting within a month. Whether or not this is true I do not know, but I hope that it is. If it reports within a month we may have something far more difficult to discuss than we are discussing now. I hope that that Committee will not support a vaccination policy. Let us keep our flocks clean. We must not allow fowl pest to become endemic.

Hon. Members have suggested that fowl pest is increasing because of the tremendous intensification in poultry keeping. I see no grounds for that allegation. Fowl pest is introduced by contact. When very large numbers of birds are kept together the greatest care is taken by the poultry keepers to preserve the purity of the flocks. The danger lies in the fact that there are so many contacts from different quarters. Fowl pest is in the egg, and in the bones of imported birds. Birds come here and are bought by housewives, after which the bones are thrown out. In all kinds of ways the disease is transmitted from infected birds, dead or alive. That is why there has been an increase in the disease.

Poultry keepers in Lancashire have been punished by this disease for a long time, and they are tired of it. Many of them are getting out of the industry altogether. The Minister should introduce stringent regulations governing the reintroduction of poultry on a farm that has been infected. Only when a farmer has gone for three months clear, has had his cotes and appliances disinfected, and has done all the necessary things to his land, should he be allowed to start up again. There are all kinds of difficulties about restarting. A poultry keeper may even buy infected poultry without being aware of it. At least twelve months should elapse before a farmer or poultry keeper is allowed to restock his place, to make sure that there is no infection left in the ground or in the appliances.

One hon. Gentleman opposite said that one of his constituents had told him that if there was no compensation we would not have so much fowl pest. I had the same suggestion put to me by a poultry farmer in my constituency only on Saturday. He told me, "You need not abolish compensation altogether, but out it in half." When a person gets more in compensation than he paid for the birds, it is a tremendous temptation.

We know that the assessors of the poultry do their best, but there are some very smart dealers in the industry. If the compensation were administered a little more stringently, there would not be as much fowl pest as there is at present. Whatever the report of the Plant Committee may be, I hope that the regulations covering fowl pest will be made a little more stringent.

5.21 p.m.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

I wish to add my voice in support of those who have expressed concern at the considerable increase in the sum allotted for fowl pest. However, I disagree entirely with what was suggested by my hon. Friends the Members for Cornwall, North (Mr. Scott-Hopkins) and King's Lynn (Mr. Bullard). If any fowl producer is to become competitive, we cannot discourage him from having as big a unit as he possibly can. What way is there for a man in eggs or poultry to become more competitive and to hold his place in the markets of this country and, perhaps, in the Common Market—if we join—other than by increasing the size of his unit? Directly to give him a disincentive by saying that, if his unit is over 5,000 birds, he wil not qualify for compensation, is entirely the wrong method of tackling this problem.

I want to take the discussion away from fowl pest for a moment or two. I apologise to my hon Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if I am being exceptionally dense, but I cannot, for the life of me, understand exactly what the figure in Subhead L, on page 150 represents. I have turned to the Explanatory Note, on page 155, but I am still not sure what the figure represents. There has been a marked increase from £45,000 to £203,000. I should be obliged if my hon. Friend could throw a shaft of light on that.

On page 151 of the Supplementary Estimate, under Subhead Q, there is reference to the purchase of sugar from South Africa. In the Explanatory Note on page 156, there is shown a difference between payments and receipts of more than £1 million. Does the total figure given for receipts represent the same amount or same quantity of sugar as was purchased? In other words, did we sell all the sugar we received? If so, am I correct in assuming that there is an apparent loss of approximately 50 per cent. on this transaction?

I understand that South Africa's participation in the Commonwealth Sugar Agreement will end in 1966, but that, as from that date, her existing quota of 150,000 tons of sugar per annum will no longer be permitted to her. Perhaps at that time the Government will consider enlarging the quota for home-produced sugar.

5.25 p.m.

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

A great many questions have been asked about this Supplementary Estimate in respect of fowl pest, and I shall be very ready to try to explain as much as I can. If I am unable to give satisfactory answers to every technical question put to me—there was a very large number of them—I will certainly communicate with hon. Gentlemen concerned.

The discussion has ranged not only over the conditions pertaining last year, which have given rise to this Estimate, but also about our policy for the future. The Plant Committee's report is due to be published and will be in the hands of hon. Gentlemen within a very few days. In a way, it is rather a pity that this debate has preceded publication of the report. We have not held the report back. One cannot get a report of this size published within a matter of days of a Minister receiving it, but its not being available does limit the value of this debate.

Mr. Peyton

Very much the reverse.

Mr. Vane

I am glad that my hon. Friend says "Very much the reverse", but at least it does, perhaps, make unrealistic discussion of certain future developments when we know that authoritative comments on some of them may be in the hands not only of the industry, but also of hon. Gentlemen, in a few days.

Mr. Peart

Whilst we do not wish to show any disrespect towards members of the Plant Committee, I would remind the hon. Gentleman that it is the House of Commons which is discussing this Estimate and that Parliament is a more important body even than that Committee.

Mr. Vane

I do not wish to be disrespectful to any hon. Gentleman, least of all to the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart), who asked a number of pertinent questions. But the fact remains that the gentlemen on this Committee were chosen for their expert knowledge, that they have given a great deal of time over a long period, and that their conclusions will be very valuable to us when we have them in our hands.

The hon. Member for Workington divided his speech into a number of paragraphs, each of which virtually amounted to a question. He ended on the fact that the cost seemed to vary abnormally from year to year. He asked whether our slaughter policy was working. The slaughter policy works towards the objective of eradicating the disease.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether compensation is too generous and went on to ask other questions. Are we doing enough research? Have we a proper check on imports from the United States? In particular, are we aware of all the developments in vaccines? Other speeches have carried on some of these questions and have developed others, and I will do my best to answer them all.

It is true that compensation this year is again at a high figure. It is paid to the owners of slaughtered birds, for contacts, birds not showing any symptoms of the disease. It is demonstrably the case that the sum we are asking for is substantially higher than the Estimate Which the House approved last July. We are now seeking an additional £3½ million which, with the original £1 million, will bring the figure to £4½ million.

This figure must be considered against the background of what we spent in compensation in previous years. The hon. Member for Workington mentioned this. In 1959–60, we spent £4.4 million, and last year £3.4 million. It may be asked why, in the face of this, we originally sought provision for only £1 million. The reason is that, by agreement with the Treasury, we have hitherto deliberately confined our annual Estimate dealing with fowl pest and foot-and-mouth disease to the figure below which payments were unlikely to fall, even if the year turned out to be a very good one, from the point of view of outbreaks of disease.

In 1958–59, for instance, we spent only a little more than £1 million, which shows that the original figure in the Estimates was not as wildly optimistic as it might now appear. However, when the Estimates Committee considered the Ministry's Estimates last year, it criticised this basis of estimating as unrealistic. As a result, our Estimates for 1962–63 will take full account of the actual cost of outbreaks in the past few years, and we shall, in due course, ask the House to approve a figure of about £3.5 million for fowl pest compensation. We hope that that might in the end prove to be an overestimate, but, in accordance with the comments made, we are now to base our Estimates on this new and different calculation.

It has been said in various connections that we are complacent about the increased number of outbreaks and the consequential heavy increase in the cost of compensation in recent years. The House knows that the increase in outbreaks was one of the reasons which led my right hon. Friend's predecessor and the Secretary of State for Scotland to set up in 1960 a committee to review the whole of our present fowl pest policy and that explains why the Departmental Ad Hoc Committee has not been meeting meanwhile, because its work was taken over by the Plant Committee appointed to go further into the matter.

Mr. Peyton

I have made no charge of complacency yet, but I am concerned to know whether the Ministry is to break new ground and not go on, year after year, I care not on what formula, paying out £3 million, £3½ million or whatever it may be. Will my hon. Friend look into the whole business of making the larger units insure themselves?

Mr. Vane

That is another question, which I shall come to later.

I was saying that the next year's Estimates will follow more closely the higher level of compensation that we have paid for the past few years. I thought, therefore, that, in view of the criticism, the House might like to hear that that decision had been made.

The Plant Committee's report has been received by my right hon. Friend, and will be in the hands of all hon. Members in the matter of a very few days. It is unfortunate that we have not got the recommendations of the Committee, and consequently cannot discuss them today, because, in one sense this has, I think, robbed today's discussion of a certain value. Nevertheless, I now come to some of the more technical questions which have been put to me.

The question of fowl pest is a difficult one, and the time which has been spent by the Plant Committee, as I think hon. Members will agree, has been well spent. It has, I know, gone into the matter very thoroughly. At one time, we wondered whether there would be value in having an interim report, but, on balance, the Committee preferred to continue and present one final report. The report was not very far away when the questions to which the hon. Gentleman referred were being put to my right hon. Friend and myself. Meanwhile, it is true that epidemics have continued to hit the poultry population in some parts of England, and East Anglia has been mentioned as the area worst hit, but there have been other outbreaks, including a serious one in Hampshire, Wiltshire and Somerset. With the increasing size of poultry and turkey units, considerable sums of money have on occasion been paid out to individual owners.

Questions have been asked whether we could not consider a different policy, and if the outbreaks continue, some modification of compensation for the larger units. As long as we have a general slaughter policy in the interests of the industry aimed at the eradication of the disease, there does not seem to me to be justification for singling out one individual rather than another to receive a larger scale of compensation.

I shall come later to how the compensation is assessed, but the fact that a man, large or small, has to have his flock slaughtered does not necessarily mean that he has neglected his flock, or that the disease is on his own premises. It may be that the whole cause lies with the development of the disease on a neighbour's premises, so that the hon. Gentleman should not be too ready to criticise the present basis of compensation, although I do admit that the way that the poultry industry is developing, means, particularly in the case of turkeys, that large sums of money have, on occasion, been involved.

Mr. Hayman

May I ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether the case to which I referred was thoroughly investigated and, if so, whether the Ministry was satisfied with the results of that investigation?

Mr. Vane

We do not pay out large sums of money on the scale which the hon. Gentleman was mentioning, or, for that matter, smaller ones, without a check and the proper tests being satisfied. There are, as he knows, Checks all the way down the line. All these items, large and small, are subject to various audits.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the disease as being of long standing in this country, but we should keep this matter in proportion. The disease did not become a serious problem in this country until 1947, and with the powers of slaughter and compensation which were already available to us under the Diseases of Animals Acts, there was at that stage every reason to suppose that by bringing the slaughter policy into operation right away we could eradicate the disease. There are some countries where the disease has been endemic for a long time. We, on the other hand, have been able to attempt to eradicate the disease, even though I admit that our efforts have not met with the success that was hoped in the first place.

In 1956–57, the disease began to assume more serious proportions, and in that year compensation amounted to £1,400,000. Nevertheless, in 1958, we succeeded in eradicating a very serious epidemic in Lancashire, and although East Anglia continues to be troubled in a very severe way, it is not true to say that the slaughter policy cannot achieve very considerable success. We have the evidence of a successful experience in Lancashire. We spent a little more than £1 million in compensation in 1958–59, but by 1960 compensation had grown to nearly £4½ million. It was then that my right hon. Friend's predecessor realised that the whole situation was developing differently from what we had hoped, and asked the Plant Committee to review the policy.

It is true, as hon. Members have said, that the industry has recently grown enormously and that intensive methods are being more and more used. These have brought their own problems, and I think that we all have sympathy with what some hon. Members have said about the future of some of the victims of the disease. The fact that the birds are more numerous and thicker on the ground certainly facilitates the spread of the disease, even though it does not necessarily facilitate its original incidence. It does, however, certainly facilitate the spread, and thereby increases the strain on the Exchequer when it comes to paying compensation for contacts.

This year's Estimate has caused a good deal of understandable comment. I am sure that hon. Members will appreciate that when dealing with diseases like foot-and-mouth, and fowl pest, it is impossible to know at the beginning of a year how much compensation may have to be paid out during the year, because it is impossible to predict the number of outbreaks. They may vary from sporadic outbreaks to serious epidemics in one part of England or another.

Anyhow, when we put in the original figure of £1 million, it was thought that compensation could not cost us less than £1 million for the current year, but, equally, we hoped that the drastic measures which we were continuing to take would mean that the figure would not rise to that which I am now asking the House to approve.

The industry itself is very conscious of this and has a committee which has been running an anti-fowl pest campaign and endeavouring to make better known what precautions can be taken. Whereas some understand these things, there are others who are possibly careless about the disposal of carcases of birds which the on their premises, and it is those people rather than the larger units whose carelessness is responsible for the spread of the disease.

Last year there were 1,415, outbreaks as against 1,871 in the previous year. I do not say that with any pride, but the number of outbreaks was less than that of the previous year. However, the average size of the flocks continued to rise, so that, in consequence, the average amount of compensation paid has been higher than for the year before. That is particularly the case with turkeys. The geographical distribution of fowl pest has been similar to that of the previous year. The disease was largely confined to East Anglia, but some large flocks were infected in other parts of the country.

In defence of the turkey breeders I must say that it is more difficult for a turkey owner to suspect the existence of the disease among these birds than it is among ordinary domestic chickens. In some cases the disease may not have been noticed until it has been carried and spread by the turkeys to chickens with which they have had contact. Turkeys can act as carriers and do not always show the same obvious symptoms as ordinary chickens. In the stamping out policy which we have endeavoured to operate it has been necessary to slaughter flocks which were believed to be contacts. This disease is infectious and spreads easily, but in the last quarter of 1961 the diesease was much less widespread than it had been in the preceding years. The general situation was much better than it had been, but there was a continuation of infection in East Anglia and some other counties.

Local epidemics were largely brought to an end last autumn, but towards the end of November we had a primary case among fowls in Hampshire. Although our veterinary officers carried out very careful investigations, they were unable to find the origin of the infection. Then there was a serious spread of infection within the area and by the beginning of February of this year the disease had involved five other districts in Hampshire. Towards the end of January the disease had spread to a very large laying unit of 36,000 fowls in Wiltshire, and this was the forerunner of the serious epidemic in that county which also affected part of Somerset.

I mention that to show how the disease can be spread from one district to another. It is, however, easy to lose one's sense of perspective in a matter of this sort. This is a large sum of money—I am not pretending that it is not—and it is distressing to contemplate the large number of slaughtered birds represented by this figure. But our poultry flocks are now immense and their value is also immense, and whether calculated in birds or in compensation this is a small sum when compared with the total value of the flocks. None the less, this is a wasteful disease and whereas many infected birds would not die, their productivity would be seriously reduced.

As long as we have a vast and valuable poultry industry, so must we take some measure to protect it. I have been explaining what we have done over the last few years and this year to give rise to this Supplementary Estimate. What the future will hold is something about which we are always thinking, but we will probably be thinking about it more pertinently after the next few days. It is worth noticing that Scotland and Wales and large areas of west, central and northern England have been kept practically free of the disease as a result of our present policy. That is something which cannot be said of many other countries. For instance, this disease is endemic all over the United States of America.

I was asked what measure of control we had over poultry imported by the United States forces. The arrangements are under the direct control of our veterinary officers and not only is every precaution taken to ensure that all carcases coming into the country are from flocks free from disease at the premises in the U.S.A., but there is scrupulous care in the disposal of swill and offal, and special arrangements are made which are under the control of our veterinary officers. I do not think that we could do any more.

Sir G. Nicholson

Do our veterinary officers inspect the premises in the United States?

Mr. Vane

They do not inspect premises in the United States, but I think that we can trust the certificates. Our control arrangements are not just paper ones. There is control of these birds and of swill at Holy Loch, which an hon. Member mentioned—

Mr. Peart

Would it not be better if the American forces bought British production to avoid any such risk?

Mr. Vane

It would be very nice if they would, but these are special arrangements, much as those we had in the Forces when the hon. Member and I were abroad at various times during the war, when we were not rationed only to what originated in the country concerned. I know that the Americans have very strong feelings about this, but from the British point of view it might be hoped that we could demonstrate that the British chicken has a better taste.

Mr. Farr

Would not my hon. Friend agree that it is a remarkable coincidence that the majority of outbreaks of fowl pest occur in East Anglia and that the majority of American Air Force bases are in East Anglia? Is he satisfied that it is only a remarkable coincidence?

Mr. Vane

I do not believe that there is any evidence to support my hon. Friend's argument. I know that the matter has been carefully looked into. If we felt that there was any sort of connection such as he has suggested, none of us would be quiet about it or allow it to continue. This has been put to us before and investigated and I do not think that there is any evidence to support his contention.

It has been suggested that we pay too much compensation. The hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Kenyan) made one point in favour of compensation for me when he said that if the compensation were not adequate those who suspected the disease on their farm would not immediately notify it. If we are to control a disease like this, it is vital that there should be the earliest possible notification of every outbreak. If compensation were not adequate—I do not mean over-generous—there would not be the same encouragement to notify every suspected case.

Compensation for commercial birds is assessed according to market prices taken in relation to the development of the birds at the time of slaughter. The assessments are usually made by the Ministry's veterinary officers and independent valuers are called in where the valuation is disputed, or often where high-quality breeding stock is involved. In default of agreement, there is provision for arbitration.

I believe that that is a fair basis. Further, after the slaughter of stock, whether or not disease has been present, the premises must remain empty for some time. They have to be disinfected under the supervision of our veterinary officers. Some hon. Members suggested that the time was not long enough. We will look into this question and see whether there are any grounds for extending it, but as long as the premises are compulsorily empty, although there may not be any blame attaching to the man whose birds are slaughtered, he cannot carry on his business and there is no compensation for any disturbance of business or loss of income. The compensation is for apparently healthy birds which are compulsorily destroyed because they are suspected as contacts. The diseased birds from the point of infection may not even be his birds.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Scott-Hopkins) suggested that there might be compulsory insurance of units over 5,000 birds. This would be attractive to the Treasury, as well as to others, but this will be one of the questions we shall have to consider in the future. It hardly comes into the justification for the Supplementary Estimate which I am asking the House to approve.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Eye (Sir H. Harrison) asked us not to be hidebound. He said that, if the Plant Committee suggested any better or different way from what we are now doing, we should not be obstinate. This is probably out of order on this Supplementary Estimate, but I assure my hon. and gallant Friend that we are not hidebound. Nobody would be more pleased than we would if we could find ways and means of having more effective control.

It was suggested by the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mr. Bence) that special care should be taken over the hygienic conditions at large units. I have had no evidence that the hygienic conditions at large units fall below those existing at smaller units. The reverse may well be the case. If large numbers of birds are kept where the hygienic conditions are not as good as can be devised, they will be troubled not only by fowl pest, but all sorts of other troubles may assail them.

The hon. Member for Workington asked me further questions about vaccines. We have done considerable research in the matter of vaccines. We have exchanged samples of vaccines developed at Weybridge with Dr. Bankowsky, who was in this country. Hon. Members should bear in mind that, if the aim is to eradicate by slaughter, then research directed to control by vaccine is probably rather less in these circumstances than in circumstances where slaughter would be unrealistic.

Mr. Peart

It should not be.

Mr. Vane

Such resources as we have must be used to the best advantage. We have only limited resources at Weybridge and elsewhere, but I am sure that everyone who has been to Weybridge is proud of what goes on there. Within the limits of our resources we must select certain priorities. We are doing research into vaccines and will continue to do so.

Mr. Peart

I cannot understand the argument. Very little money is required for research into methods of slaughtering birds. No research is required for that. That is a negative policy. A vaccination policy should have been carefully investigated by the Ministry over a long period.

Mr. Vane

We have investigated it. We have probably done nearly as much as many other countries have done, but I could not claim that we have done as much as America. A slaughter policy in the United States, with the aim of total eradication, is quite unrealisable for them. They have, therefore, had to concentrate on a different policy. I could tell the hon. Gentleman a great deal about our research into vaccines. Until a short time ago we had greater hopes than we now have that we could eradicate the disease by slaughter. It has, therefore, probably been wiser to devote more of our research facilities in connection with other diseases. This does not mean that we have done nothing about this disease, but if we have concentrated on vaccines in connection with other diseases in preference to a vaccine for this disease, it is because we thought that eradication by slaughter was the right policy for fowl pest.

I hope that I have succeeded in convincing hon. Members that this large sum is not the result of any carelessness on the part of the Department, or any laxness in the efforts to control this disease by one method if not by another. We have had a measure of success in containing it in certain districts and even eradicating it in Lancashire. I readily admit that it is a large sum. We should all like to think that this is the last occasion on which the House will ever be asked to approve a sum of this kind for this disease or for any other disease, but, none the less, I claim that it is reasonable this year to ask the House to approve this sum. I hope, too, that when we have the advantage of considering the Plant Committee's report future Estimates will take a rather different form.

5.57 p.m.

Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)

This large Supplementary Estimate is due to other things also. I do not claim to be an agricultural expert. I only farm, and that with two clean boots. What I shall say will be about the Estimate side of the matter. The Joint Parliamentary Secretary rather took the wind out of my sails, because he started by admitting that the basis for estimating this very peculiar matter had been wrong in the past and that the Government would adopt a new basis next year. If he had left it at that, I should not have much to say. However, the hon. Gentleman went on to justify past practice. It is a mistake to repent of one's sins and say at the same time that one has always been innocent, which is what the hon. Gentleman did.

I ask hon. Members to consider the history of this matter. The provision under which this Estimate arises was brought in by Statute in 1950. Very shortly afterwards, in January, 1951, Mr. Tom Williams, as he then was, in reply to a Question—he used the same language in a statement circulated at the time—made it perfectly clear that the slaughtering method was to be continued so long as there is any reasonable prospect of its achieving its object." … —[OFFICIAL REPORT. 25th January, 1951: Vol. 483, c. 302.] The object was the eradication of fowl pest.

We are now in 1962. I share with the hon. Member for Farnham (Sir G. Nicholson) a certain hesitation or doubt as to how long it takes to convince a Government Department of the need to reconsider what it has been doing in the past. The comparative absence of research into other methods—I say "comparative", but I appreciate what the Joint Parliamentary Secretary said about our doing a good deal—is defended on the grounds that this was our main method. I am not an agricultural expert. I merely look at what happened. In 1956 and 1957 there were some very bad outbreaks. In 1960, ten years after the Act and nine years after the statement, the Government at last set up a committee to investigate it.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary said that it is a pity that we are having this discussion today, because the report is coming out in a few days' time. As I understand our practice, on the day when the spring Supplementary Estimates appear we either have to discuss them or nothing. It is not a question of being kind to the Government or even to the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton). We have to discuss them. We selected this item because it is a very large figure.

Mr. Peyton

I do not claim that the Opposition have been kind to me. As the hon. and learned Gentleman has challenged me, I will tell him that I was merely paying a tribute as an act of grace to the Opposition for doing now what they ought to have done long ago.

Mr. Mitchison

The answer is that, tribute or no tribute, it is the only thing that we can discuss today—the spring Supplementary Estimates. The hon. Member must not take these things quite so seriously.

The Committee was set up in 1960. If there is any complaint about the choice of the subject, I must say to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, "How were we to know?" He did not tell us that the Committee's report was coming out in a few days' time.

Mr. Vane

I do not want the hon. and learned Gentleman to do me an injustice or the reverse. I think that in answer to Questions my right hon. Friend said more than once that he hoped this report would be out before the end of the month. As this is going to arouse interest beyond the reasons which have caused us to ask for this Supplementary Estimate this year, I said that it would have been convenient to have discussed the two together.

Mr. Mitchison

I am very glad to hear that. In that case the means of disseminating the information were not very successful, because a number of hon. Members did not know that the report would be out shortly.

That is the 1960 position. The facts on these Estimates show that £4½ million was required in 1959–60, £2½ million in 1960–61, and that in 1961–62, £3½ million will be required. I agreed with the comment that was made, and with the Joint Parliamtary Secretary's own acceptance of a better method of estimating in the future, that it is not right year after year to put down as an estimate of what is required the sum of either £750,000 or £1 million—these are the two that have been popular lately—when in fact experience of the last three years has shown that it is quite insufficient.

It may well be that this is a matter that ought to be covered by insurance. If it is not to be covered by insurance and we are to keep the present legislation—which is all that we can talk about today—I am very glad indeed to know that this will not happen again. That is all that I have to say on the matter.

Question put and agreed to.