HC Deb 12 December 1967 vol 756 cc383-94

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

11.29 p.m.

Mr. Jasper More (Ludlow)

I am grateful for this opportunity of raising again the serious problem of the foot-and-mouth outbreak in Shropshire. As I was fortunate enough in last week's debate to catch Mr. Speaker's eye, I will be brief tonight and merely refer to a few matters that concern the southern part of the county.

In the debate last week I asked the Minister—

Mr. John Boyd-Carpenter (Kingston-upon-Thames)

Where is he?

Mr. More

—if we could have some clear guidance. I shall send the right hon. Gentleman a letter which I have received from the clerk of my county council pointing out that, in some respects, clear guidance has not been received from the Minister.

I am also concerned about the question of publicity. In a letter which the Minister sent to me he refers to statements which have been put out on the radio, but one must be critical of the fact that we have had nothing in the Press. The only advertisement I have seen in the Press is one referring to the national emergency, but, on studying it, one sees that it was inserted not by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in this country but by the Irish Ministry. Clear instructions should have been given, particularly in local papers, and each week the farmers and public generally should have been informed about what should be done.

Everybody is particularly concerned that there should be a proper organisation if we are ever faced with this emergency again. People want to see somebody firmly in control so that everything in advance is known about what action should be taken. They want to know who is responsible and all the other factors so that, if we are again faced with this emergency, everybody concerned can go into action knowing from the first what they should do.

As I have already said, I do not want to take up a lot of time myself as I was fortunate enough to be called last week, so I hope that with these few words, which the Minister will be able to read in HANSARD tomorrow, he will let me have an answer in writing.

11.31 p.m.

Mr. John Biffen (Oswestry)

I should like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. More) for his generosity and kindness in limiting his remarks in so brief a fashion. I will detain the House only shortly, but there are a number of points which are clearly of considerable concern to anyone representing the Oswestry division because Shropshire is a stricken county.

I calculate, on the most modest assessment, that the compensation that has been paid by the Government in respect of stock slaughtered in the division alone must be at least £2 million to £3 million.

There are four points which I wish to make. The first concerns the question of how best one can limit the spread of this disastrous epidemic. Under this heading, I should like to ask the Minister if he could give some guidance as to what should be the convention governing football matches. The whole question of public gatherings, both in infected areas and counties and in adjacent counties, affecting those who may travel from the infected counties, is one on which we would be grateful for the most clear and unambiguous guidance.

The particular point which I want to put to the Minister is whether he is satisfied with the present situation whereby football teams are not only travelling within the infected counties but are travelling from infected areas to play in non-infected areas, and taking crowds with them. This has caused a great deal of disquiet and it has been the subject of numbers of representations which I have had. I would be very grateful if the Minister could comment on that.

There are three points I wish to make which are concerned with alleviating the very considerable distress now characterising the areas affected by the disease. The first point concerns the rise in valuations of stock slaughtered as the epidemic has proceeded, and I think I can do no better than to quote from a letter I received in my postbag this morning from a constituent, Mr. Sockett, of Waen Farm, Maesbury, near Oswestry: Since my farm was cleaned of foot-and-mouth I have been working cleaning up other farms that have had foot-and-mouth. I am finding that farmers on farms that I am working on are getting £20–£30 per cow more than I received when I had my outbreak on November 12th. Although our valuation was fair at the time, I do not understand the rise in the valuation especially as those who had foot-and-mouth first will be longest out of production. It seems to me that there must be very general anxiety in the agricultural community that there shall be full and fair equity for the early victims of this epidemic, and I think the point raised by my constituent is one on which guidance —and the most generous interpretation— will be expected of the Minister, because it is not just a question of referring to the indicated preferences of the Gowers Report.

This outbreak is of a severity and consequence totally out of scale with anything this country has suffered before. Therefore I feel we must look at these things with different interpretations. In relation to the payment of grants, will the Minister indicate his preparedness to have certain grants paid at least in part before inspections have been completed to verify that the conditions for these grants have been carried out? As he will appreciate, in many cases Ministry officials cannot visit these farms to verify that the conditions have been met, but these are farmers going through very considerable economic distress, and some payment in advance—and as it were on trust—would be very much appreciated.

My final point concerns what can be done to enable farmers to continue in employment farm workers who very often are in situations where they will not be able to practise their full range of farming activities for many months to come. In these circumstances, there must be real pressure for them to limit their costs to the minimum. This presents a genuine and inescapable threat to the jobs of many farmworkers in Shropshire and in infected areas outside the County of Shropshire.

I feel—and this, again, will be a characteristic of adjacent counties—that alternative employment prospects are not particularly rosy. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will consider making what representations he can to his colleagues in the Cabinet to see that the Selective Employment Tax mechanism can be used in such a way as to encourage farmers to retain labour which they might otherwise feel obliged to dispense with over the coming few months.

I promised that I would limit my remarks. I have touched briefly upon four points, but they are all points of major significance, not only for Shropshire, but for all areas which are affected by the epidemic. In Shropshire and on the Welsh border there is a tendency to feel that London seems far away and that, perhaps, there is an element of remoteness about the whole approach to the problem. I know that this may be an unfair interpretation of the way in which the Ministry has moved in this matter, but I assure the Minister that there is paramount need for sympathetic consideration of the points which I have raised if the Welsh border areas are to be made to feel that they have the sympathy, the attention and, above all, the zealous concern of the authorities at Westminster.

11.37 p.m.

Sir John Langford-Holt (Shrewsbury)

I undertake to speak for only a couple of minutes, but I would like to make two points. My hon. Friend the Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen) has spoken about football matches. I wonder whether the Minister will address himself also to the question of schools, because they are getting near the end of term. Would he not consider that children passing from one village to another, from one part of the county to another, are also a threat to the spread of this disease?

This outbreak is unique in its severity, extent and duration. We have not seen its like in this country before. My hon. Friend mentioned compensation for replacement value. I implore the Minister to consider this point urgently. The important feature which we must bear in mind—the extent to which agriculture will suffer in the long term—depends upon the industry's ability to recover from this attack.

What the Minister must do, and as a matter of urgency, is to take any possible action to see that the industry is put on its feet again. One of the ways in which he can do this is to make sure that the compensation which is given, both to the type of person mentioned by my hon. Friend and to all farmers who have been afflicted, will enable them to recover from the attack at the earliest possible moment.

11.38 p.m.

Mr. Timothy Kitson (Richmond, Yorks)

The one point which I would like to raise with the Minister, and about which I have been in touch with his Ministry today, is the length of the gaming season. I wonder whether it would be possible to extend it for a fortnight. There is a problem here. There has been a good deal of confusion over shooting. The statement which was issued tonight has clarified the position, and I am sure that everybody is grateful for it because people will know the position.

The Minister will appreciate that far too many pheasants running about in the spring will be an embarrassment to many farmers, who want to see them done away with before sowing time. The game season was extended during the war. Many people would be grateful if the Minister could give guidance about whether it will be possible to shoot pheasants, and pheasants only, in the first fortnight of February.

11.40 p.m.

Mr. John M. Temple (City of Chester)

There is one point I should like the Minister to clear up in regard to precautions which should be taken by livestock owners during this epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease. It is in regard to disinfectants. Manufacturers of disinfectants are not able to test them in conditions of virus. Although they may be all effective against all other kinds of bacteria, they are not always effective against foot-and-mouth virus and that can be tested only in the Ministry's laboratories.

Another point concerns their efficacy in frost conditions. There is no doubt that frost deteriorates disinfectants and separates the phenols from the emulsifiers in tar-based disinfectants. I understand that the Minister has said that salt should be put on the disinfectant pads, but I gather that salt destroys the effect of tar-based disinfectants and makes them relatively ineffective.

We should have clear guidance from the Ministry about the effectiveness of these "approved" disinfectants under all conditions.

I appeal to the Minister to issue a brochure or pamphlet telling farmers their rights and duties on infected premises. This is a matter I have suggested to the Minister before. I hope that he will get out such a pamphlet in the near future.

11.42 p.m.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Fred Peart)

I am grateful to all hon. Members who have spoken in this debate. I thought it would be wrong for me to intervene immediately after the main speaker because the hon. Members for Shrewsbury (Sir J. Langford-Holt), for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Kitson) and for the City of Chester (Mr. Temple), apart from the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. More), who initiated the debate, have quite rightly a very important interest in this matter. I thought it right to hear their points of view.

If I do not cover in the time at my disposal every specific point which has been made, it is not to be taken that I am being discourteous but it is because I have taken a careful note of the matters which have been raised. The hon. Member for Ludlow spoke about no clear guidance having been given. We have done everything possible in this direction. As the hon. Member knows, I have even taken the liberty and privilege of making a Ministerial broadcast on radio and television. I have tried to impress on the farming community and the general public the sort of conduct that should be applicable in this case. I have spelled out in detail specific guidance to the farming community.

Mr. More rose

Mr. Peart

I have little time— Mr. More: The right hon. Gentleman did not hear my speech.

Mr. Peart

I came in immediately and I was given the points made by the hon. Member. I hope that there is no conflict between us. We are both anxious to see an end to this outbreak and the winning of the battle. I shall do all I can to give guidance and I have taken note of what has been said. If we can improve publicity, even at this stage, I shall do so. We try to give all the useful publicity that we can.

I gather that the hon. Member mentioned organisation if foot and mouth disease should occur again. I have said that I will set up an independent investigation. The Gowers Committee reported a long time ago. Even if there had not been the present outbreak, it would have been necessary to have another investigation, for, after all, science changes.

I am grateful to the hon. Members for Ludlow, Oswestry (Mr. Biffen), Shrewsbury and the City of Chester—who was with me recently in the area concerned— for the way in which they have acted and for their moderate and responsible attitude. I mean this sincerely. There is still a grave situation in the County of Shropshire, which includes the constituencies of most of those who have spoken. I welcome this opportunity to say a few words about it.

I assure the House that I am no easy optimist in this matter. One has to be realistic. The plain fact for all to see is that we have here an exceptionally savage strain of the virus, with an attacking power and a power of mobility beyond anything experienced in this country before. This does not mean that it cannot be beaten. We have to battle on resolutely until the epidemic has been stamped out. There will be matters of detail which we shall have to examine. I am glad that the hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks raised the question of pheasant shooting. I shall carefully consider his observations. I know that he has been in touch with my Department, but it is a matter affecting not only the Ministry of Agriculture but other Departments as well, including the Home Office. I shall treat his suggestion sympathetically. I think that he has a point, but I say no more about it at this stage. I shall probably wish to have a further word with him about it.

We have, as I say, to battle on resolutely until the epidemic has been stamped out. My own public career has been associated very closely with the interests of British agriculture, and the industry's sufferings in the West Midlands weigh heavily on me as they do on all hon. Members, especially those who have spoken tonight and all others who represent agricultural constituencies.

Now, the question of control of animal movements. In the debate on 4th December, the hon. Member for Ludlow said that the disease had only just appeared in his constituency and that, because it had appeared in sheep at least 20 miles from any other case, it must have been due to lack of control of movements. The hon. Gentleman is right to be perturbed at the appearance of the disease in sheep in this area—it is a grave development—but I must say, without wishing in any way to be offensive, that he has no evidence to support what he has said about the cause. He was right to raise the matter, but I emphasise that he has no evidence for what he said about the cause itself.

I have been asked about markets, and I know that the hon. Member for Oswestry is concerned about them in his own area. When I was in Worcester yesterday, many farmers put questions to me on the same matter. I have been asked about the future role of the fat-stock market in our present campaign. Licensed fatstock markets in infected areas have the advantage of ensuring full veterinary supervision, inspection of animals and disinfection of vehicles. This does not mean that farmers should go to the markets themselves. Nor does it mean that we shall not license individual animals direct to the slaughterhouse, subject to all proper precautions. But we cannot have dealers going from farm to farm collecting animals. I stress that, and I hope that I have the support of all hon. Members.

The hon. Member for Oswestry has raised with me a particular point about lack of access to an abattoir at Market Drayton. I regret that I cannot allow fatstock to pass from the main infected area in Shropshire to the infected area further east. I am sure that hon. Members would rightly criticise me if I did.

Now, the control of movement of people and the whole question of football matches and shooting. There has been much discussion about the prevention of gatherings of people. Football matches are not a disease risk in themselves. In or near infected areas they should not be held on farmland or adjacent land or where access is over farmland. That is my advice to the organisers. My advice to people on farms or in contact with farms is not to go to football matches or other large gatherings. I shall use my powers to prohibit access to farmland should that prove necessary.

Shooting parties also have been drawn to my attention. I was glad to see the recent Press notice by the Country Landowners' Association and the National Farmers' Union. I have decided that, in order to reduce the risk of spreading the disease, I should use my powers under the recent Order, if necessary, to prevent the holding of shooting parties in the infected areas or in any county adjoining the infected areas. In the remaining counties of England and Wales any person coming from an infected area or the counties adjoining an infected area should not be admitted to land on which a shoot is taking place.

All these measures amount to a considerable restriction on the public. But I am sure that that is right in this situation. I fully appreciate that the restrictions will be irksome for some, particularly over Christmas, but they are necessary.

The hon. Member for Oswestry laid stress on the future, and I know that this very much concerns the farming community. Many hon. Members have mentioned it to me. They have asked me about help with rehabilitation and the problems of farmers in the meantime. We must win this battle. We must make a success of our slaughter policy. We must also think in terms of the future, but the main effort must be put into winning the battle in the areas where we still have the disease.

I have already announced a new ploughing grant for farmers who have lost livestock, and it is welcomed by the industry. I am glad to see the national response, of which I found evidence yesterday in Worcester.

Mr. Emlyn Hooson (Montgomery)

People in the ancillary industries, as well as in agriculture, are concerned about their overdrafts. They are unable to get the income that normally comes in at this time of year to reduce them.

Mr. Peart

The hon. and learned Gentleman has spoken to me on this point. I believe that he is thinking, for example, of those who are connected with haulage and deal with the cattle industry. If he writes to me, I shall give the matter sympathetic consideration, but the question of consequential loss is not easy. However, I think that the new ploughing grant can help the farmer who has been affected in certain circumstances. I have also promised that there shall be interim payments on improvement schemes. I have said that livestock subsidies shall not be lost for lack of inspection by my officers. Tax problems are being thrashed out in consultation with the National Farmers' Union.

The problems of farm workers have been raised, and these are important. Hon. Members may have seen the press release yesterday by the National Union of Agricultural Workers about my meeting with Lord Collison. The ploughing grant will help in providing some work for farm workers and some income to pay their wages. Some farm workers are employed by my Department on infected farms. There is always much work to be caught up with on farms, and:his is an opportunity, though a tragic one, to do many jobs that have had to wait. I am sure that no farmer who can avoid it will lose a worker at present.

I am well aware of the problem of increases in livestock values since compensation was assessed in the early days of the epidemic. It has been mentioned to me by farmers, and the hon. Member for Oswestry raised it tonight. The matter has not been overlooked, and there will be discussions on it shortly with the National Farmers' Union. I give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. This is not begging the question. Sometimes I am chided about giving assurances, but I mean this sincerely. We will have talks with the unions on this, and I am aware of the problem.

The hon. Member for Ludlow has raised questions of the scale of research and of future animal health safeguards for meat imports, and he has written to me about this. These are matters for the independent committee, which I have undertaken to set up when the epidemic is over. This is right for the reasons which have been mentioned. I shall see that the Committee conducts a thoroughgoing review. That is important for the industry.

I know that time is now up. I am grateful to hon. Members for being so constructive. I say this to them. I know that they feel strongly about this epidemic. I do, too—I must, as Minister responsible for agriculture. We must win this battle. Let us hope that we shall.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Twelve o'clock.