HC Deb 21 December 1967 vol 756 cc1481-91
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Fred Peart)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I wish to make a statement on foot-and-mouth disease and on the basis on which the Government will approach the problem of the livestock sector of the industry at the forthcoming Price Review.

Since I last spoke to the House about the foot-and-mouth disease epidemic in the agriculture debate on 4th December and in an Adjournment debate on 12th December, we have had both successes and setbacks. But the general trend has been towards improvement. Here are the average number of outbreaks a day in each of the last four weeks:

Week 1 70
Week 2 47
Week 3 31
Week 4 (the week ended Tuesday 19th December) 27

These figures give us some grounds for hoping that the worst may be over, though we still have a very long way to go.

I realise that the restrictions I have had to impose have caused difficulties for many sections of the community and, above all, for farmers. I shall consider how these can be eased just as soon as it is safe to do so. But it would be the height of folly to relax too soon. I hope that all members of the public will continue to observe the rules I have given. Farmers must continue the most stringent precautions. Above all, farmers everywhere must keep a constant watch for signs of the disease and report any suspicious symptoms at once. Any farmer who even delays a report will have it on his conscience that he may have spread disease to his neighbours.

If everyone continues to play his part, I am sure that we can win this battle.

I referred in the debate on 4th December to the large cost increases facing the agricultural industry, of which the greater part have fallen or will fall upon farmers in the livestock sector. It is not yet possible to be precise, but the figures will certainly be higher than any in recent years. At the same time, it is clear that meat will continue to have an important part to play in the selective expansion programme.

We shall be considering in the Review the progress of the selective expansion programme and whether the industry has the necessary physical and financial resources. This we shall now do against the background of the situation created by devaluation. I have already said, for example, that beef is a commodity on which the Government recognise that devaluation gives us a new opportunity for competitive production at home.

In considering this progress, we shall also have regard to the consequences of the foot-and-mouth epidemic, which are falling so heavily upon livestock farmers and which are causing such a tragic setback to our aims of expansion in that sector. It is, of course, too soon to make a full assessment of this new burden.

Only at the Annual Review itself can we finally bring together all the data we need for our determinations, and so I cannot say in advance what these determinations may be. But I know that farmers are worried whether they will be able to go ahead with their plans, and I want to reassure them now.

In approaching the problem of the livestock sector of the industry at the next Review, we intend, in the light of all the important factors I have mentioned, to ensure that adequate resources are made available to meet these needs.

Mr. Godber

The Minister has made a statement on two issues. On the first issue concerning foot-and-mouth, is he aware that we on this side of the House certainly support him when he says that it would be the height of folly to relax too soon? We endorse that view to the full. We recognise that the drop in the number of outbreaks has been encouraging, but even the present figure would have been looked on as alarming in any previous outbreak. Would the right hon. Gentleman take particular note of the dangers in infected areas of travel over the Christmas period and give a warning to people who seek to travel in the infected areas that they should take particular care at this time, otherwise we might have a recrudescence of the serious number of outbreaks which have occurred in the last few weeks?

On the other part of the statement, does the right hon. Gentleman realise that what he has said today does not go far enough and that there is not nearly enough precision in his statement? He has not even indicated that the Annual Review will be brought forward. If farmers are to plan for the increased production which is so necessary, it is essential that we have something much firmer at a very early date. Would the right hon. Gentleman take note of that and give us some firm figures and give firm advice to the farmers at a very early date in January?

Mr. Peart

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about the foot-and-mouth outbreaks. I am aware of the support of the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, and, indeed, of the whole House, in believing that we should not relax too soon. This is the worst epidemic that we have ever had. I believe that the whole House, and certainly all those in the industry, and I as Minister realise that. I will be making a general statement to the public covering the points which have been made about travelling through infected areas. It is important to get that across. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I have made two broadcasts.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether I could be precise. I wish that I could be at this stage. I will advance the technical discussions, which guide us in the Price Review determinations and in our discussions, but I cannot make a more precise statement. I have said that we will see that this sector will have the resources. That is a very straightforward statement.

Mr. Godber

May I press the Minister a little further on that last point? All that he has told us so far is that encouragement will be given in regard to wheat and that he will give help in regard to resources. If farmers are to do anything for the 1968 harvest, they must have advice early. Will the right hon. Gentleman please do all that he can to bring forward his statement to the earliest possible moment?

Mr. Peart

If I can, I will. The right hon. Gentleman, however, knows the Review procedure. We are having discussions now. We work together, in a sense, in collecting information on both sides. This is not something which emerges only in February or, indeed, in March. As I have said, I will advance the technical discussions.

Mr. Biffen

May I ask the Minister a specific question concerning the problem of foot-and-mouth disease, namely, the rising scale of valuations? Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that he is sympathetic to the proposition that compensation should be related to replacement value? Can he confirm that he is currently discussing this with the National Farmers' Union, and will he indicate when he hopes to be able to make a statement?

Mr. Peart

Yes, I am sympathetic to that. The point is a real one. It was certainly put to me when I was in the areas concerned, and the local farmers presented their views to me strongly. We are having discussions on this.

Dr. John Dunwoody

May I assure my right hon. Friend that the more encouraging statement which he has been able to make to the House this morning reflects great credit on his officers and, in particular, on his Veterinary Service? Would he care to comment on the role played by the farming organisations in the handling of the epidemic?

Mr. Peart

The farming community generally has supported the Ministry and our staff. I was alarmed by an editorial about this in the Farmer and Stockbreeder, which said that there was no sign of authoritative central control being exercised and that the problems were referred to county N.F.U. chairmen. That editorial is really moonshine. I issue the directives and officials interpret them. Of course, we consult the National Farmers' Union, both at headquarters level and locally, about the content of the directives and their application. I have had fine support from the farming community.

Mr. Kitson

Can the Minister tell us whether he will have discussions with the National Hunt stewards in the next few days so that they may possibly consider a resumption of racing, if the necessary precautions could be taken, at some of the urban courses?

Mr. Peart

I made a statement that I was not relaxing the ban on racing. I am glad to have the co-operation of the stewards in that decision. They came to see me and I informed them that it was too soon yet to relax but that I would meet them again, and I hope to do so on the 27th December. Then, we shall discuss possibilities. I cannot say what I shall do. One must look at the trends. We shall, however, have a discussion on this.

Mr. Temple

Recognising the unusually dangerous type of virus in the present foot-and-mouth disease, may I ask the Minister whether he is aware of the widespread concern of farmers at the visits of his veterinary staff from farm to farm? Will he consider equipping them with sterilised equipment, as used in operating theatres, to be quite certain that those veterinary staff do not transmit the disease in the course of their visits?

Mr. Peart

We have a strict system and routine. It is important that the veterinary staff should be, to use a medical term, medically sterile and disinfected, and this we do. Every care is taken.

Mr. Brooks

Will my right hon. Friend clarify the position in the areas of Eastern Europe where reports suggest that another dangerous form of virus is present? In particular, will he clarify what precautions are taken to ensure that visitors to this country from those areas do not bring the infection with them?

Mr. Peart

This is a matter which my scientific staff are considering, and the director of Pirbright has issued a statement about it. We should not be too alarmed about that at this stage. It is an entirely different virus which we are tackling, and I want to win this battle first.

Mr. James Davidson

May I say, first, that we welcome the Minister's statement and ask him to give serious consideration to the possibility of placing a permanent ban on the import of meat from any country where foot-and-mouth disease is endemic? Secondly, in consultation with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, will the right hon. Gentleman seek to deal with a serious anomaly in the regulations relating to where floats, etc., may or may not go? At present, I understand, floats in Scotland, at least, cannot go from farm A to farm B without first delivering their load, being disinfected and then going back. There is, however, nothing to stop a grocer's van or a child's bicycle going direct from one farm to another. This seems to me to make nonsense of the regulations.

Mr. Peart

I hope that the hon. Member will appreciate that both I and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland have advised people not to go into farms when their journey is not necessary except with the permission of the farmer. The Scottish counties, fortunately, are not near an infected area.

I dealt with the questiton of a permanent ban when I made my earlier statement concerning the temporary ban which I have imposed on meat coming from countries where we believe that there have been a series of outbreaks. That order was made. I cannot go beyond that at this stage.

Sir A. V. Harvey

Will the Minister reconsider the suggestion, which I made to him a few weeks ago, that he should seriously consider setting up a committee to deal with the wider aspects of these problems, including the restocking of herds? In my constituency, about which I have written to the right hon. Gentleman, there are cattle haulage contractors whose business has completely ceased and who have no living. It will be a disaster in the West Midlands and Cheshire unless the Minister considers the wider aspects of these problems at an early date.

Mr. Peart

As I have said, I have set up advisory panels in the areas concerned. I agree with the hon. Member, who has pressed me about this, that the question of restocking is a very important one. We are aware of this and we are in touch with the N.F.U. about it. On the wider issue of setting up a committee, as I announced to the House, we shall have an investigation rather like the Gowers inquiry. I am not yet in a position to give details.

Mr. Bishop

Will my right hon. Friend realise that hon. Members on this side also urge very early assurance to farmers concerning financial compensation and the help that can be given? As to relaxation, is my right hon. Friend aware that even in the areas not affected by foot-and-mouth disease to date—I have in mind my own area of Nottinghamshire—farmers are very concerned about access of the public to farms and other places and that his assurance to me last week about Nottinghamshire not being an infected area has caused concern, because we feel that not enough is being done to prevent indiscriminate access to farms and other places?

Mr. Peart

I have made a statement about this and also a major broadcast. I will cover the point again, because it is important that the public should appreciate the difficulties that farmers are having. I note what my hon. Friend has said. The system of compensation is the one which has been pursued by my predecessors and recommended by the Gowers Committee. We shall look at this. I know that there are many problems of people who suffer consequential losses. This matter will have to be considered in a wider context later. I am, however, sympathetic.

Sir J. Foster

Concerning restocking, will the Minister consider whether he could not come to an immediate decision to give the early sufferers compensation equal to that which is at present being awarded? Many of the farmers in my constituency were early sufferers. It is obvious that when they restock they will need the extra money. Their anxieties would certainly be allayed if the Minister could decide on an average now.

Mr. Peart

We are doing that. If the hon. Member knows of any particular case in which there has been difficulty, perhaps he will let me know. We have tried to speed up valuations, which are important to determine the compensation. I thought that there was no delay, but I will certainly look at the point raised by the hon. and learned Member and make a check.

Sir 3. Foster

I think that the Minister misunderstood me—

Mr. Speaker

Order. It would be fair to have only one question each when other hon. Members are waiting to ask questions.

Sir D. Ronton

What is likely to be the effect during the next few months on milk supplies, and to what extent is milk still being sent from infected areas to uninfected farming areas?

Mr. Peart

On the question of milk supplies, the right hon. and learned Gentleman will have seen recently the statement by the Milk Marketing Board. There is no danger at present. Milk production went up; we had a very considerable increase, and for this reason there is no shortage. Milk coming from infected areas is checked; there is absolutely strict control. So far as I am informed by my veterinary staff, there has been no possibility of any outbreak having been caused by this.

Mr. Dalyell

Can my right hon. Friend say any more about discussions with the Secretary of State for Scotland about the Scottish position?

Mr. Peart

In what way? Will my hon. Friend say?

Mr. Dalyell

In reply to the hon. Member for Abesrdeenshire, West (Mr. James Davidson), my right hon. Friend said there had been discussions about the Scottish position with the Secretary of State. I was wondering if he could add to that.

Mr. Peart

I always consult my right hon. Friend. [An HON. MEMBER: "The right hon. Gentleman has got to."] Yes. He is the Minister responsible for Scotland, but I am responsible for the general strategy for foot-and-mouth control.

Sir J. Langford-Holt

The right hon. Gentleman, in answer to a Parliamentary Question which I put to him yesterday, said that under present legislation he is not able to increase the compensation to replacement value. Can he assure the House that if he brings legislation forward it will go forward as immediate legislation and not merely take its place in the queue of Government legislation? The second point which he made was that he will discuss the matter with the National Farmers' Union. He is now saying that he is already in discussion with the National Farmers' Union. Can we be assured that this is under discussion now?

Mr. Peart

When I say I am in discussion I do not mean that I am always personally in discussion. I really mean my officials are, particularly in the infected areas, but I am informed of the discussions on the question, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate. On the question of compensation, if we have to do something—and we are going to do something—and legislation is necessary, I know that the Leader of the House will be sympathetic to my point of view.

Mr. Hawkins

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he will receive enthusiastic support for bringing up valuations to replacement costs? Will he at the same time bear in mind that certain industrial and business concerns have been closed down by his own orders and that these people should also be borne in mind for compensation?

Mr. Peart

The question of consequential losses is a very difficult one, but on the first point I note what the hon. Member has said.

Mr. J. E. B. Hill

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the current review stresses the import saving rôle of agriculture? Will he also consider the need to strengthen the regulation of imports, since this country is now going to be greatly exposed to subsidised French surpluses?

Mr. Peart

The whole question of import substitution and import control is one which we will look at in relation to the selective expansion programme, and we shall also discuss it with the unions during the review period. I know the hon. Gentleman has pressed me previously on this, and I will bear it in mind.

Mr. Woodnutt

Will the right hon. Gentleman recollect that some four weeks ago I sent him a formula of a fertiliser used in certain parts of Brittany and; which appears to have immunisation qualities, because they have not had foot-and-mouth there during many decades? Would he reconsider his decision that this cannot be allowed here, "because I think that everything should be looked at and I think Pirbright might be well advised to look again at this fertiliser?

Mr. Peart

As the hon. Member knows, I receive a great many and various suggestions from hon. Members and from people outside the House. We look at them. I must rely on my scientific and veterinary advisers. I am sorry that I did not give the hon. Member a forthright reply to his question, but his suggestion was looked at.

Mr. Garrett

Has my right hon. Friend noticed a lack of encouragement coming from the Opposition benches this morning—[HON. MEMBERS: "Rubbish."]—but he need not be dismayed because, not only in the farming industry but in the industrial areas, there is widespread appreciation of the tremendous efforts he and his Junior Ministers and officers are making to try to curtail this drastic disease?

Mr. Peart

May I say to my hon. Friend that I believe that all hon. Members of this House wish us well in this campaign. We do have to answer critics from time to time, for it is inevitable that when one is fighting a battle someone will criticise. We shall win this battle.

Mr. Hooson

Can the right hon. Gentleman give authoritative advice on the need for disinfectant baths or pads along public roads? Farmers are extremely concerned about cars passing from infected areas to non-infected areas without apparently having any kind of disinfectant.

Mr. Peart

I have given firm advice on this, and we have also publicised it.

Mr. Jopling

Will the Minister consider the position of those vets who are doing this terrible work, and the fact that they work long hours seven days a week and probably will not have much of a Christmas? Will he see they are properly recompensed, particularly his own Ministry vets where the job, by its very nature, means confinement to their offices for long hours?

Mr. Peart

I note what the hon. Member says It is important that we should see that these hard working men and women do have adequate rest and time off. We are very much aware of this question.

Mr. Costain

Has the Minister had his attention drawn to the concern of Kentish farmers to the possibility of motor racing over the Christmas holidays and the risk of the spread of the disease?

Mr. Peart

I must be careful about this. Some people would like us to ban all activities everywhere. I am not going to do this. After all, there is the whole problem of football matches. Where there is a danger, after specialist veterinary advice has been given, I take action.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

Is the Minister aware how disappointed livestock farmers will be at the lack of an affirmative answer to their problems? Will he give an assurance that soon after the Recess he will give an answer and definite news about what he is going to do to help the expansion of the livestock sector? Technical arguments are not enough. What is he going to do to help them?

Mr. Peart

As the hon. Gentleman knows, as he was once a member of Government, the Review is the place for discussing this. I have said that I will advance the technical discussions, and they are taking place now informally.