HC Deb 03 February 1964 vol 688 cc938-48

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

9.32 p.m.

Sir Leslie Thomas (Canterbury)

When I applied to you, Mr. Speaker, for you to include my name in the ballot for the Adjournment, I gave as the title of my subject "The case of T. Castle & Son". I think that a more descriptive title—certainly a more accurate one—would have been "Mr. Castle had a heifer; or was she a cow?" I do not mean to be facetious, because it is through the case of one of my constituents that I am attempting to bring out the effect of pregnancy changes in cattle on the operation of the fatstock guarantee scheme and to bring out the need, therefore, to ensure that there is no room for doubt in certification, classification and grading.

Under this scheme, provision is made for guaranteed prices to producers of fatstock. The scheme applies to fat heifers and the carcases of such animals which meet the standard minimum weight and other qualifications. The scheme does not—and I emphasise "not"—apply to cows or their carcases, although such a carcase may be accepted for certification if in the opinion of the certifying officer pregnancy was not sufficiently advanced to have been detectable in the live animal or to have depreciated seriously the quality of the carcase. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will agree that that is a fair, if a very general, summary of the scheme.

The case of my constituents revolves around the grading of an animal. Had it been graded as a heifer, it would have been eligible for the subsidy, but when graded as a cow, as, in fact, it was, it did not become eligible.

The facts of the case are that my constituents, who are dairy farmers, breed their own replacements. The heifer in question was, with others, put to the bull and was presumed to be in calf. After a time, all of which was spent, to use the local expression, yarded and under the care of an experienced stockman, my constituents doubted whether the animal was in calf. A veterinary surgeon was called in, examined the animal and decided that she was not. He stated that she was empty and had inactive ovaries. The animal was thereupon sold to the Fatstock Marketing Corporation, which accepted her as a clean animal.

The official responsible for grading, however, graded the carcase as a grade 2 cow. Consequently, my constituents lost the subsidy under the fatstock guarantee scheme. When it came to the sale by the Fatstock Marketing Corporation, however, the carcase was sold as a grade 2 heifer at a grade B heifer price.

It is generally recognised that the duty of examining and certifying animals calls for integrity and sound judgment. I do not for one moment cast doubt upon the integrity of the examining officers in this case, but in the light of the facts I have the gravest doubts as to the soundness of their judgment.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary for the trouble he has taken in this case and for the full letter which he wrote me on 16th October, setting out the reasons why the beast was graded as a grade 2 cow. He said, first, that the grader saw the animal, formed the opinion that it was a grade 2 cow and confirmed this view by what he, the grader, described as an examination of the uterus, which, according to him, revealed signs that the beast had had pregnancy and because of this the quality of the carcase was depreciated.

Secondly, the grader's superior officer confirmed that view after his examination of the carcase, although he admits that it was done without the uterus, which at that time was in the possession of my constituents' veterinary surgeon. The third reason was that there were signs of an earlier pregnancy.

I should like to deal with that last point first. It is rather startling, because until my hon. Friend mentioned it to me in his letter it had not been mentioned before, either verbally or in the correspondence between the Ministry's establishment at Reading and my constituents. No signs were shown in the organs of the beast, which were examined by the veterinary surgeon, and Mr. Castle, the owner, categorically denies it and is prepared to swear on oath that the animal had never been put to the bull before the occasion to which I have referred. How this point has crept in I really do not know, and I would beg of my hon. Friend, before his decision, perhaps to inquire further into this.

Now as to the other reasons. I would put to my hon. Friend this question: how could the grader have carefully examined the uterus when to do so he would have had to open it up? First of all, the grader is not qualified to do this; but, in fact, a fully qualified veterinary surgeon did so, and found the beast had not conceived, had not carried the foetus for longer than three months, up to which time—in fact, up to four months—it does not affect the udders or the carcase, nor does it affect the quality of the carcase for grading. I state that on the recent medical evidence of a fully qualified veterinary surgeon.

Regarding the examination by the superior officer, he admits he examined the carcase in the absence of the uterus—hardly a proper examination, I would suggest, because I am again told by qualified people, sound medical authority, that it is not possible to tell, merely by looking at a carcase, whether the beast is a cow or a heifer. It is extraordinary that neither the grader nor his senior officer were prepared to visit the veterinary surgeon's premises, as they had been requested to do by the secretary of the local branch of the National Farmers' Union, to examine for themselves the organs which had been removed, nor to listen to the view of a fully qualified veterinary surgeon of considerable experience. After all, neither of them had either the qualifications or the experience of this particular surgeon.

That the graders were wrong in this case is, I think, borne out by the fact that, first, the veterinary surgeon disagreed with the view the graders expressed; secondly, the official of the F.M.C. disagreed with the graders' view and, in fact, sold the carcase as a grade B heifer; and the eventual purchaser must have disagreed with their view because he bought it as a heifer and paid the price for a grade B heifer.

I leave out, of course, the view of the owner, Mr. Castle, because, naturally, it could be said that he could be biased, but here we have a responsible surgeon, a man of the highest integrity, a responsible official of the F.M.C. and the eventual buyer of the animal all disagreeing with the verdict of the grader.

Finally, the opinion of the veterinary surgeon himself, based as it was on his long experience as a qualified man, is supported by the publicly expressed view of eminently placed men in his profession. I have with me quite a schedule of articles, and I can hand them to my hon. Friend, and I should like to quote one in particular now. It is an article in the Veterinary Record of 20th July last, page 474, column I. The writer is discussing evidence required to allow a decision—and this is important—as to whether an animal is a cow or a heifer.

The writer states quite clearly that the uterus must be opened to allow the fullest examination, and he gives considerable details. I hope that my hon. Friend will refer to this article. The writer of the article—and what he says is confirmed by the views expressed by many others in articles and pamphlets—is a member of the Ministry's staff. He is an eminent member of the Ministry Research Establishment at Weybridge, Mr. P. G. Miller.

My hon. Friend states categorically that this is not a borderline case, and I agree with him. I think that my constituents have, indeed, the strongest possible case. In the light of this, I would ask my hon. Friend to review the case and also to give consideration, after consultation, possibly, with the appropriate body corporate—the Association of Veterinary Surgeons or the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, whatever the established body is—to sending out a directive to all concerned that the fullest examination on the lines of the suggestion made by this eminent member of the Ministry's research department must be made and that in case of doubt—there certainly was doubt in this case—the matter must be referred to a fully qualified independent person.

9.47 p.m.

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

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Sir L. Thomas) for setting out the facts of this case in respect of his constituents so clearly. I am anxious to explain as clearly as I can to the House why I have felt bound to come to the conclusion, and to maintain it this evening, that I cannot allow the guarantee payment on the animal to which he has referred.

It might be convenient if I quickly pointed out that the price guarantee is one for far cattle; that is to say, for clean steers and heifers fattened for slaughter as beef. Although other animals culled from the breeding and dairy herds are sold for meat, they are are not primarily raised and fed for beef production, and the guarantee does not apply to them.

The arrangements and conditions under which the guarantee payments are made are set out, as my hon. Friend knows, in the Futtock Guarantee Scheme, particularly in paragraph 16, which specifically excludes cows and other female cattle which are or have been pregnant, whether they are presented for certification alive on the hoof or dead on the hook. This is a right and sensible provision, and my hon. Friend has not called it into question.

However, we have made what I believe is a sensible arrangement in the scheme in relation to carcases only. The paragraph of the scheme which I have quoted goes on: Exceptionally"— this is where my hon. Friend was not quite right in his quotation— a carcase of such an animal"— that is, a heifer which is or has been pregnant— may be accepted for certification if, in the opinion of the certifying officer, the quality of the carcase"— this is an important point— has not been seriously depreciated by the pregnancy. This rule means that if a carcase is to all intents and purposes unaffected by pregnancy and that of a clean heifer, it can be accepted for the guarantee. As I have said, this applies only to carcases.

Accordingly, we have told our fat-stock officers in the field that if an animal is presented for certification alive and there is doubt whether it is or has been pregnant, they should suggest to the presenter of the animal that he might care to present it at a deadweight centre, when it may be certified and obtain guarantee payment if the carcase is acceptable, because it is easier on the hook, obviously, to decide questions of doubt.

The case we are dealing with concerns a past pregnancy, but it is not always easy to detect even present pregnancies in live animals. If a fatstock officer believes that an animal presented live is actually pregnant, while he cannot accept it for live certification he will suggest that it should be presented dead, so that the question can be settled and so that, where appropriate, he can exercise his discretion to accept it.

However, the farmer, or whoever is presenting the animal, may not wish to have it slaughtered on this basis, which is understandable. In that case, we are ready to accept a properly authenticated certificate from a veterinary surgeon stating that, as a result of a rectal examination, he has formed the opinion that the animal was not pregnant at the time. Our officers will accept a certificate of this sort as proof that the animal is not presently pregnant and, if it is otherwise eligible, it will be accepted for guarantee. Thus, I think that we have a sensible procedure for dealing with live animals where doubt exists about whether they are pregnant at the time or not.

So much for present pregnancies, which can be positively determined. But diagnosis of a past pregnancy is much less certain. Over the past year we have been discussing with our veterinary advisers and the British Veterinary Association how we might deal with this problem, and I should like to take this opportunity to say how much we have appreciated the help which the Association has given.

The advice we have had is that, because of the difficulty of diagnosing whether or not an animal has been pregnant in the past, the provision of a veterinary certificate is not a sound basis on which to administer the scheme. Indeed, the Association has now advised its members that veterinary certificates should be confined to the issue of whether or not an animal is presently pregnant, and has recommended a specimen form of certificate for the purpose.

My hon. Friend will realise from this that the Association itself does not accept that it is easy or indeed possible to determine a past pregnancy on that type of evidence and confines itself to present pregnancies. This therefore leaves the matter to the judgment of the fatstock officer. If the carcase of an animal is presented which he believes to have been pregnant he judges whether or not he may accept it for the guarantee, having regard to its condition.

If he considers that the carcase has not been depreciated by pregnancy and that, to all intents and purposes, it is that of a clean heifer, he will accept it. Otherwise he must reject it. We are anxious to administer the scheme as sensibly and as fairly as we can. We do not set out with the object of rejecting animals which, despite pregnancy, produce good meat.

Of course, all this means that we have to rely in the last resort on the judgment of our technical officers, which my hon. Friend has called into question. These are men—and this equally applies to the officers concerned in this case—of very wide experience who have been handling live cattle and carcases in large numbers throughout their working lives. They carry the responsibility of deciding whether or not an animal can rightly be accepted for guarantee payment. Grading of live animals and assessment of their carcases can only be based, obviously, on a subjective judgment.

Moreover, if the producer doubts the officer's judgment he has the right to call for a second opinion from a superior officer. This is the way in which we try to ensure absolute fairness for the producer. That was the procedure followed in this case.

When Mr. Castle's animal was presented for guarantee our fatstock officers were dealing with female animals on the basis I have described, except that their instructions were that they should pay regard to veterinary certificates relating to past as well as to present pregnancies. That position has now changed, but the basis of the scheme was just the same as I have described it and Mr. Castle's animal was dealt with just as it would be now.

I understand that the animal was originally regarded as a potential replacement in the dairy herd. It was subsequently decided, possibly because of doubt as to whether she could have been got in calf, to sell her for slaughter to F.M.C. Limited, and she was presented by that firm at the Canterbury deadweight centre on 31st May when she was something less than three years old.

The Ministry's officer examined the carcase and the uterus. His opinion was that she had had a pregnancy—not that she was pregnant but that she had had a pregnancy. I have with me here a copy of the report made at the time. If my hon. Friend has any doubt on that score, I can assure him that really there is no doubt about it at all. Our officer's opinion was that she had had a pregnancy. I do not think that I need read out all the technical detail of the report.

The officer was of opinion also that the pregnancy had depreciated the value of the carcase—this is vital—and that, accordingly, he could not exercise his discretion, as he could have done under the provision I have already mentioned, and allow the animal to be admitted under the Scheme.

Thus, we have reached the point when our fatstock officer examined the animal and decided on the evidence before him that she was not acceptable not only because she had had a past pregnancy, in his opinion, but also because that pregnancy had depreciated the value of the carcase to such an extent that it was unacceptable under the Scheme. F.M.C. Limited thereupon notified the fatstock officer's superior, the divisional fatstock officer, quite rightly, and asked to have his second opinion. In the meantime, as my hon. Friend said, the uterus had been detached by my hon. Friend's constituent's veterinary surgeon for examination and it was kept available for subsequent examination by the Ministry's officers.

However, the divisional fatstock officer examined the carcase and the evidence of the udder tissue. Here I must disagree with my hon. Friend. There are other criteria by which it is possible to judge whether or not a pregnancy has taken place. On the evidence of the udder tissue alone, he felt confident that the animal had had a pregnancy. But, over and above that, the carcase was slack in the loin and showed clear "cow-ish" characteristics. This was on the second examination, by the fatstock officer's superior officer, and those particular facts which he found caused him to conclude that the carcase was not of such a condition that it could possibly be accepted for the guarantee.

Perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, it might have been wiser if the divisional fatstock officer had actually examined the uterus, but the carcase was what he was concerned with, as I have said, and I am certain that the decision of that officer would not have been changed by the evidence which he might have found later. Therefore, although, with the benefit of hindsight, one can say that an examination of the uterus would have been the proper course to have taken, I am sure that it would have made no difference to the result.

I come now to the certificate presented to my hon. Friend's constituent by his veterinary surgeon. The certificate reads, as my hon Friend said: The uterus was not enlarged, both ovaries were functioning normally, and there was no corpus albicans in either ovary. This heifer had probably never conceived, but had certainly not carried a foetus for longer than three Months. I cannot agree with my hon. Friend that a few months' pregnancy has no effect on a carcase. Of course, it can have an effect. It varies from carcase to carcase and from animal to animal. The opinion given by the veterinary surgeon was undoubtedly an entirely proper professional one but, as soon as I saw it, it seemed to me that its terms were a clear indication of the difficulty of diagnosing a past pregnancy in a young animal. The certificate quite plainly provides no justification for the suggestion that our fatstock officer was wrong in his judgment, as my hon. Friend had suggested.

However this may be, when this particular animal was sold, it was sold at a price which was that of a grade B heifer. I accept that this was so, but, frequently, local choice for the type or kind of cut of meat often does not run exactly parallel with that of the grading standard as laid down by my Ministry. This is a matter for local choice, and I am glad that my hon. Friend's constituent was able to get such a good price.

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

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

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

I can quite understand the concern of my hon. Friend and his constituent about this case. It so happens, as my hon. Friend has said, that the guarantee payment was running at quite, a high level, nearly 50s. per live cwt, at the time. We endeavour to make our administration sufficiently flexible to cover cases where the guarantee can reasonably be paid without breaching the overriding principle that the guarantee must not be extended to animals other that those raised primarily for meat production. But, however flexible the administration may be, there is always the point at which an animal cannot be accepted. I am confident that in this case our officers acted rightly and in accordance with their best judgment.

I have the greatest sympathy with my hon. Friend's constituent and my hon. Friend has argued his case with honesty and great force, but I cannot accept that there should have been a subsidy in respect of this animal, or that the guarantee payment was unreasonably withheld. I have tried to prove to the House that we take all reasonable care and exercise whatever discretion we can. However, here was a clear case in which our own officer's judgment was that the animal had had a past pregnancy which had affected the carcase so that it could not be admitted within the guarantee scheme. We try to go as far as we can to deal with difficult cases like this, but a line must be drawn somewhere and we must adhere to it.

I am very sorry that I cannot agree with my hon. Friend and I am sorry for his constituent, but I cannot reverse the judgment concerning the payment of deficiency payment in respect of this carcase.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Ten o'clock.