HC Deb 10 April 1963 vol 675 cc1437-48

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

11.13 p.m.

Mr. John Mackie (Enfield, East)

I rise to plead that the Minister of Agriculture should reverse a decision which he made a few years ago not to allow the breeding in this country of pure Charolais cattle, the French breed of which he allowed an importation of bulls in 1961. I propose to be brief because I have promised to leave the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Gibson-Watt) a few minutes to take part in the debate, but I should like to give a short history of this importation.

In 1957 many farmers who were anxious to improve the crossing of cattle, particularly dairy cattle, in this country felt that this French breed would help. They made private applications to import them, but these were turned down. Then the Milk Marketing Board took an interest in the matter and the Ministry was forced to take notice of the applications. At about the same time as publicity was given to the Milk Marketing Board, the old breed societies, particularly the Shorthorn, Hereford and Angus, began to realise that this was a competition which they would like to fight. I do not blame them for trying to fight this competition—everybody tries to fight competition—but I feel that they fought it in an unfair way.

The Minister's predecessor, in my opinion, lacked sufficient political courage to take a decision himself, and so he appointed a Committee to give him information which, I think, he had before him all the time. There was this delay caused by the appointment of the Terrington Committee, which ultimately recommended the importation of Charolais bulls, which recommendation the Minister accepted, but the Committee refused to recommend the importation of females at the same time so that the breed could be established in this country.

I wish to persuade the present Minister that he can no longer shelter behind the Terrington Report. A lot of the opposition was based on the possibility of disease being introduced. This question has now been settled. We have in this country a veterinary service and a quarantine service which can give absolute certainty that no disease will enter when the animals are imported. It has been settled also in another way. Since the applications by individuals to have cattle imported, the Minister has allowed other cattle from Europe to come in, Danish Reds and Dutch Friesians. One lot of Dutch Friesians developed the disease leptospirosis. When the Charolais bulls came in and they took this disease in the quarantine station, there was a chorus of protest. I have in my hand the middle page of the Farmers Weekly, with headlines about "Charolais Shock. Minister receives Protests", and so on. There were calls to send them back to France, and what not.

Two months ago, when the Friesian animal took the same disease, there was one small paragraph in the Farmers Weekly and the Minister receive no protests whatever. This simply goes to show that it was not the disease problem at all which worried the old breed societies. It was just that they were scared of the competition. I feel that that is proved by the fact that they have not protested when these other breeds have come in.

The next fact that shows that the Terrington Report is now quite out of date is that people have changed their minds. Scotland, which, of course, is the home of many breeds, though not of Herefords, created a considerable amount of difficulty against the suggestion that the Charolais breed should be started in this country. When the bulls were allowed in, the Secretary of State for Scotland was persuaded not to allow any into Scotland. Then there was a report in the Farmers Weekly. Angry Scots seek Canadian Bulls". They wanted to go to Canada for bulls. More recently, there was the heading, Scots call again for Charolais Bulls". They have changed their minds since the bulls came into this country, whereas earlier they protested as the others did.

Moreover, many breeders who gave evidence to the Terrington Committee against the importation are now using Charolais semen. They told the Committee that the importation would destroy cattle breeding in this country, but some of them were the first to use the semen when the Charolais animals came here. One gentleman, who is a personal friend of mine, was chairman of the Shorthorn Society. When I was speaking in another hon. Member's constituency recently—not on a political subject—he tried to persuade me that Silver Galloways were the best breed to cross with Charolais cattle. Yet he had given evidence against the importation of Charolais.

If any further evidence were needed, it would be this. An ex-chairman of the Shorthorn Society, who went to France for the Highland Agricultural Society and reported to the Terrington Committee views dead against the importation of Charolais from the start, is now a member of the Charolais Society of Great Britain. This gentleman is a personal friend of mine. He has now seen the error of his ways; he must have done so before joining the Society. But we want to use this man's skills. He is one of the best breeders of cattle in Great Britain. We want his skills to develop the breed so that we can export the cattle all over the world, because there is a demand. It is obvious from what I have said that the Minister must no longer use the Terrington Report. In any event, when have Ministers sheltered behind Reports as much as the Minister has sheltered behind this one? Government Reports are usually pigeonholed and not used.

Why do we want to breed these cattle, and what is the reason why I consider that we should not wait until the Minister finishes the experiments which are being carried out, and which will take eighteen months to finish, to see what these cattle can do? I will deal with the second of these points first. There is ample evidence for the Minister. If he does not have it, I have it and can give it to him.

I should like to give the House a few figures. I have details of an experiment extending over eleven years, conducted not by any particular breed society, but by the Texas Agricultural Experimental Station, involving a large number of cattle. This experiment shows that the Charolais and Charolais crosses have an average daily weight gain of 2.8 1b. No doubt, the hon. Member for Hereford will be pleased to know that the next best is the Hereford, with a daily weight gain of 2.4 lb. Down the list with a daily weight gain of 2.2 lb. come the Angus and the Shorthorn. That is a considerable difference in daily weight gains.

I have some Canadian figures also, which show daily weight gains of up to 3.1 lb. In case, however, anyone replies, "That is all very well, but what about the cutting-out figures", which are the important ones, I have had figures prepared showing a difference above the lowest figure of the other breeds of 22.8 dollars in return and killing out, which, at an exchange rate of 2.83 dollars to the £, represents a difference of something like £8 in favour of the Charolais cattle killed out.

I can quote one of the country's best authorities who went to the Argentine to see the crosses. It will be apparent that I am quoting from all over the world—Alberta and Vancouver, in Canada, Texas and the Argentine—from countries whose climates are either comparable to or worse than ours. From the Argentine, Professor Cooper has quoted figures showing that at an average weaning age of eight months, the Charolais crosses had an advantage of 1½cwt. over the Herefords and other breeds and an average daily weight gain of 3 lb. These figures are impressive. I have other figures showing that the Charolais have weight gains of 3.05 lb. and returns of 26 dollars above other breeds on sale.

I should like to call attention to the figures for the calves now being born in this country. I have gone around collecting various figures and I find anything up to liveweight gains of 3 lb. in the first three months of the life of the calves in this country. A big breeder with fifty of them averaged gains of 2.52 lb. at less than 100 days. I am sorry to tread on the toes of the hon. Member for Hereford, but that same man has a batch of almost the same number of Hereford X Friesians, the figure for which is just under 2 lb., as against the 2.52 lb. for the Charolais. This shows the difference. I could go on quoting figures.

Some time ago, the Parliamentary Secretary tried to persuade me that South Devons might be the answer, so I wrote to that society and got particulars, from which I was horrified to find that the highest figure which that breed could produce was about 1.5 lb. in one experiment and 1.85 lb. in another, coming nowhere near the figures of the Charolais. These figures for Charolais are really impressive and attention should be paid to them.

What do the farmers think now that they have tried these cattle and since the first cross calves arrived? I have investigated the numbers of inseminations to find out what success there has been and whether there has been difficulty in calving. I find from Aberdeen, the home of one of the breed societies, that during the last three months, over the first seven months when Charolais bulls have been made available, there has been an 80 per cent. increase in inseminations. In another case in England, the area of which I was asked not to quote, the increase was actually double during the last three months since the first calves arrived. So there is proof that the Minister does not need to wait any longer. All the proof is in front of him that this breed is worth a trial.

Why do we want pure breeding in this country? It is because we want pro- gress. There is no other word to use. I have heard the argument that there are too many breeds in the country already. But that is a measure of the fact that not one of them is the right one. It is the same with pigs. We have too many pig breeds. The import of Landrace pigs has almost solved that problem; and I think that the import of Charolais cattle will solve the cattle breed problem. There is certainly room here for the Charolais breed.

Another reason is that there is a world demand for the cattle. This country has a name for breeding pure cattle second to none. As I said, I want to use the skills of the ordinary breeders. I am not a breeder of cattle; I am more of an arable farmer. But I mentioned my friend, and I want to use his skill to improve these cattle in order to get trade all over the world, I have been in Canada and the United States, and the demand is tremendous there. My brother, just back from New Zealand, says that they are dying for this semen or these bulls there. But the Minister will not allow the export. Ireland has gone to the length of getting American Charolais, and is beating us to it. So I could go on.

There was a letter in the Economist from the hon. Member for Hereford speaking about the need to increase exports of cattle. He wants us to export the cattle that the world wants. The world wants this type of cattle more than any other. I suggest that he thinks about this.

The Minister must agree that we have lost six years. We could have bought the cattle in 1957. The Minister may say another year or two does not matter. But that is what is wrong with this country. It is always later than we think. We ought to be getting on with the job.

I wish to quote the Secretary of State for Scotland. I told him I would do so, but he said he had to leave. He told the Scottish National Farmers' Union: In our thinking about the future we must be ready to question traditional practices and attitudes. I should like to think that he is not holding this development up in any way. I want to question the old breed societies about the old breeds not being the right ones for the country, and point out that the new one is not something from back of the Himalayas or a cross between a dromedary and a yak but a breed established in France and used all over the world. But one would think it was some curious breed of which we were scared.

I appeal to the Minister. I appeal on behalf of our Canadian friends for one thing. Their importation was in 1933–37, and they have cross bred and had no fresh blood. They want us to help them. Why should we not help our friends in the Commonwealth? It is harmless to give them semen. Yet the Minister has refused it. I appeal on their behalf and for the sake of exports from our country. We would like Charolais direct from France if the Minister would allow it but would be content to import Canadian cattle. I appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary to ensure that his right hon. Friend takes note of what I have said. He will never regret altering his decision. Even if we have wasted six years, let us start now and not waste more time.

11.29 p.m.

Mr. David Gibson-Watt (Hereford)

I am glad to be able to say a few words in this debate. It seems to have been somewhat of a Scottish evening. The main difference between the hon. Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Mackie) and myself is that my folk left Scotland 200 years ago while he still has one foot north of the Border.

I am going to hit him pretty hard. I make no excuse. I just warn him before I start. On 30th January last year I raised this question on the Adjournment, and the debate was answered by my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Vane), and it was also contributed to by the hon. Member for Enfield, East. I make no bones about the fact that I was one of those opposed to the importation of these cattle from the start. I want to explain why.

I find it odd that the hon. Member should raise this matter tonight in an effort to get the Minister to allow the Charolais breed to be brought into the country more quickly than at present planned. Everyone knows his interest in the matter, although one can hardly call it a constituency interest. It is an interest he shares with friends of his, and I think it a little odd that an hon. Member should ask the Minister to make something go quicker so that a certain body of people can thereby do a great deal better out of it. I say that quite straight to him. I hope that he will understand me.

Mr. Mackie

The fact is that the hon. Member and his friends are trying to prevent me doing so in order that they can have the thing to themselves.

Mr. Gibson-Watt

That is not the point.

Mr. Mackie

It is.

Mr. Gibson-Watt

The hon. Member refers to my friends. I represent a constituency which has the largest breed of cattle anywhere in the world, and I am proud of it. But the hon. Member is not making a constituency point. It is, rather, a personal point on something out of which he and his friends, the Charolais Society, might make a very good thing. If I say that he is rather like Oliver Twist in asking the Minister for more, then he will understand what I want to say.

At the Perth sales this year I found a great number of his agricultural friends saying that the hon. Member would have better used his ability in boosting the export of our own cattle instead of asking the Minister to hurry up this experiment.

Perhaps the most important question is one I raised last year in the Adjournment debate when I said that I had visions of unnecessary cruelty being caused by using large, heavy animals with animals which were very small behind.

That was with particular regard to the crossing on Ayrshire cattle, and I asked what results there had been in this respect and what had happened in the experiment. There had been disturbing reports. The hon. Member was rash enough to quote from the Farmers Weekly. I shall quote from it also, from this week's edition. A letter from a reader said: Seven of my Ayrshire cows have calved to Charolais bulls and to date I have only had one calving without complications. Except for that one calf all the animals have had varying damage to the pelvis. I will miss out a great number of other paragraphs and come to the last which says: Of the seven calves born only three were born alive and two died shortly after. This is an important point. I ask my hon. Friend to comment on that report. As his Ministry is in charge of the experiment he must know a great deal more about it than one person writing to the Farmers Weekly. Those who concentrate only on the liveweight gains are not seeing the whole picture. We must not be blind to the problem of cruelty to animals. We must watch that very carefully.

When the Minister initiated this experiment and opened the London Quarantine Station to let these animals in, he said it was the intention to improve the crossing of dairy breeds. He said that he would not hurry to introduce the breed itself. I hope that my hon. Friend will confirm that assurance.

One of the Charolais colleagues of the hon. Member for Enfield, East, Mr. Wheaton-Smith, broke the law with regard to the importation of Charolais semen. Can we be told where he is at the moment, whether he is still abroad or whether he has come back to this country? Perhaps the debate tonight may have had something to do with him, and I think that the history of the Charolais importation has been somewhat chequered by events of this sort.

To sum up, I ask my hon. Friend to recognise the cruelty factor, to carry out the tests to their logical conclusion, to give our breeds an adequate chance to compete, and not to be rushed into giving way. I quote my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland who wound up the debate last year, and, quoting St. Paul, said: Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.

11.35 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. James Scott-Hopkins)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Mackie) for raising this topic tonight. I have not much time in which to answer the points made by the hon. Gentleman and by my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Gibson-Watt).

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman said during his speech that the peg on which he wished to hang the hat of this debate was is Question about the importation of Friesian cattle from Holland, one of which reacted to the test for leptospirosis. There is no division of opinion about the need for effective safeguards over the health of livestock, and these are written into the Diseases of Animals Act, 1950, which imposes a general ban upon imports of cattle from all sources outside the British Isles other than Canada, for which there are special arrangements.

My right hon. Friend may make orders permitting importations from other countries, but we seek to minimise the use of these powers in order to reduce the number of occasions on which our animal health is at risk. The importation of Dutch Friesian cattle this year was the first for over twelve years, and they were allowed in because we were satisfied that it would continue the process of breed improvement which previous importations had brought about. The importation was organised by the British Friesian Cattle Society.

One heifer reacted to a leptospirosis test and was returned to Holland, but the remainder were kept in quarantine for a further twenty-eight days. At the end of that time, after further tests, they were given a clean bill of health and went elsewhere throughout the country.

The hon. Gentleman made the point in his Question to the House, and in his speech tonight, that this reaction caused little concern compared with the outcry which arose when some of the Charolais bulls showed a similar reaction during their stay in quarantine. When the bulls were brought into this country, there was tremendous public interest. The public were interested in everything that hap-pended, and when three of them reacted to the leptospirosis test this was a matter of tremendous public interest, and the fact was reported in the Press. There was not a public outcry, but there was certainly great interest in what happened. This is why the matter received such wide publicity.

There have been no repercussions during the fourteen months since they left their quarantine. The Charolais experience therefore demonstrated the efficacy of the safeguards that we took, and it was natural that the Friesian reaction should cause less fuss.

The hon. Gentleman made the plea that we could safely bring in numbers of Charolais females from France with the object of establishing the breed here. He makes the point that things have changed since my right hon. Friend's original decision. It is true that there is nothing to stop us bringing in cattle from France, if the veterinary requirements are satisfied, but this is not the dominant factor.

I take the point about cruelty made by my hon. Friend. There have been about 60,000 inseminations, but I have no details of the amount of difficulty that there has been in calving. I understand that there have been one or two isolated cases of difficulty, particularly with the small breeds like the Ayrshires, but I shall look into the matter and let my hon. Friend know the position.

These bulls were brought here for the purpose of experimental cross-breeding, and it will be at least another eighteen months before the results of this crossbreeding can be fully assessed. This can be done only on the butcher's slab, which is the ultimate test.

The hon. Member for Enfield, East now says that he is bringing forward new evidence about the Charolais breed. He is bringing forward evidence of lightweight gain and killing-out percentages, but he quoted dollars, which made his argument a little confusing. All this is new evidence, and obviously we must study it very closely.

The object of our own trials is to see how Charolais crosses perform in this country when produced by females of our breeds and reared in our climate. I think that the hon. Member recognises the importance of this. On the last occasion that we debated the subject he asked, "How can we test our cattle in France in a totally different climate?"

If I understand him correctly, he is now asking us to make a fresh approach to the subject and to appraise the Charolais breed itself on the basis of the new evidence and data available from the various countries concerned with a view to its establishment here as a pure breed on its merits. He has made out a fair case on the evidence, but I have not that evidence at my command. I am willing to examine it for its authenticity and applicability.

Whatever the outcome of such an examination—and obviously I cannot now forecast its outcome—the earliest practical date for an importation would be late in 1964 because of the vaccination problems in France. We shall also know a great deal more by that time about the outcome of our cross-breeding trials. I feel sure that there would be general agreement that if we are to establish the breed here it must be from the best possible available stock. This minimum timetable leaves my right hon. Friend time for consideration. We, will study the evidence which the hon. Member has presented and form a view in good time on whether there would be justification for an earlier decision or whether the Government should await the final results of the current cross-breeding trials being carried out with our existing breeds.

The hon. Member spoke about importation of cattle from Canada. This is a very complex matter, and there are regulations which cover it. I hope that he realises that these regulations mean that only pure-bred cattle can be brought into this country for breeding. Only if they conform to our standards are they allowed in.

I have no information on the point which my hon. Friend made about a gentleman whom he mentioned, but I will look into that matter.

I hope that the hon. Member for Enfield, East will give me the evidence which he has so that we can study it closely and make up our minds on it. We have time to do so because of the timetable. We have time to evaluate it, and if it proves satisfactory we shall decide whether the Government should not delay their decision or whether we should continue to the end of the current tests in order to make certain of our assessments at the end of the day.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes to Twelve o'clock.