HC Deb 27 November 1967 vol 755 cc34-42
Mr. Godber (by Private Notice)

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if, in view of serious spread of foot-and mouth disease epidemic, he will make a further statement.

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

Yes, Sir. The epidemic continues to be extremely serious and the loss of livestock is heavy. The number of outbreaks is 1,156. The number of animals slaughtered is approximately 102,000 cattle, 43,000 sheep and 60,000 pigs.

I have never minimised the seriousness of this epidemic, both to the individual farmer and to the nation. Within the main area of infection in Cheshire, Shropshire, Flintshire and Denbighshire there continue to be many new outbreaks and recently a number of outbreaks have occurred in Worcestershire. But the efforts of all those fighting the disease have so far prevented any large spread of the disease outside this area.

Since I replied to a Question by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury (Sir. J. Langford-Holt) on 22nd November, the controlled area has been extended to cover Scotland as well as England and Wales. I have myself visited the disease control centres at Oswestry, Chester and Crewe in order to assure myself that everything possible is being done to end this epidemic and to ensure that there is full administrative backing for the work of the veterinary staff.

I am determined that we shall win this battle.

Mr. Godber

Is the Minister aware that, without challenging the slaughter policy, or the work of his veterinary staff in the field, we are faced here with the most virulent and most contagious outbreak of this disease that has ever confronted us? Is he further aware that, against this, there is a growing sense of inadequate leadership and ineffective guidance from the top?

May I give three examples. First, the Smithfield Show. Why has he not given a clear lead in calling for it to be cancelled? He will be aware that the Poultry Show has already been cancelled. Secondly, why do the Government not say that all racing should stop, or at least that no horses should leave infected areas? Thirdly, why do the Government not accept the responsibility of trying to contain the disease, by themselves erecting regular disinfectant barriers on main roads, instead of leaving this to ad hoc arrangements by farmers or local authorities? It is the Minister's responsibility to give clear directions.

Mr. Peart

I am rather surprised at the right hon. Gentleman's tone. I arranged with the right hon. Gentleman on Wednesday that my Deputy Chief Veterinary Officer, and one of my civil servants, should meet him in his room to discuss the subject, to give him all the information and to ask him for anything constructive, which I thought he could have offered in view of his experience in the farming community.

I went further. When I arranged my visit to Oswestry and to Chester—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer the questions."]—I invited both local hon. Members, and they discussed with me ways and means of dealing with the situation locally. I thought it right to bring in the local Members, and I resent any attempt to make political capital out of this. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer the questions."] I hope that the hon. and gallant Member for Knutsford (Sir W. Bromley-Davenport) will not behave like a baboon.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Back to the serious problem.

Mr. Peart

I am trying to answer what I thought was a statement rather than questions. I am considering very carefully whether we should go further with the Smithfield Show. No cattle are going to Smithfield. There is a problem here, whether what is now purely an exhibition of machinery, which affects our exporters, should go on. If I feel that it is right to recommend a ban, I will do so.

I have been in touch with the racing authorities, and have had excellent cooperation from the National Hunt Committee. I am considering whether to have a complete ban all round. I assure hon. Members that this matter is being given active consideration.

On the question of disinfection, I applaud what has been done by local farmers and other members of the community. If I feel, from the advice that is given to me, that it is right to have this applied all over, then we shall do so. So far, I have felt that what we have done has been adequate. I have full confidence in my veterinary staff, who are responsible, and I hope that we shall have no niggling approach, such as we have had today.

Mr. Godber

May I suggest to the Minister, on those three points, that he has not given a single clear answer to any? Will he now tell us, or, at least within the next 24 hours, reach firm decisions on points like this? It is these matters which are worrying farmers.

Mr. Peart

I said that I am considering this matter. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must hear both question and answer.

Mr. Peart

If I feel that it is necessary, even within 24 hours or less, I will make a statement. I am looking at this and I give an assurance that if I 'think it is necessary I will do it.

Dr. John Dunwoody

Would my right hon. Friend agree that this very serious situation is not due to the failure of any of the tried methods that we have used in years gone by, but to the unique virulence of the virus causing this epidemic? In view of this, could he tell the House whether any consideration is being given to the introduction of some sort of mixed slaughter-vaccination policy? In particular, could he give serious consideration to the possibility of using a specific vaccine in a zone encircling the infected area, in an attempt to contain the epidemic in that area?

Mr. Peart

As I am sure my hon. Friend will appreciate, this is one of the fundamental issues which we have discussed over a long period. The Gowers Committee, set up a long time ago, reported on this issue. This is the whole issue—whether we should pursue a slaughter policy or have a policy of slaughter with vaccination. At present, we are following out the slaughter policy and we believe it to be right in the circumstances. We want it to succeed. There are great dangers if we go into the other sphere.

Sir G. Nabarro

Following the very grave outbreak in Worcestershire, including six new cases this morning, would the right hon. Gentleman give urgent consideration to the fact that many farmers outside infected areas—marginally outside—wish to send their healthy beasts direct to the abbatoirs immediately, but no slaughter men are now available to deal with these beasts?

Second, would he cancel all race meetings from tomorrow, including notably the Taunton meeting on Thursday, which is the soiree of much aggravation to the farming community?

Mr. Peart

I give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. That is why I said that I was considering banning all race meet ings. I know that I will have tremendous co-operation from the racing authorities.

I will look into the question about the shortage of slaughter-men. I toured the main centres on Friday, and I was not aware that there was a shortage of slaughtermen. In fact, I paid tribute to what has been done by the contractors. But I will take note immediately of what the hon. Gentleman has said and will get in touch with him.

Mr. Stodart

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the very stringent precautions which have been taken in Scotland, although Scotland is far from the infected areas? No stock is allowed to cross the Border, even by licence. Can the right hon. Gentleman say that sufficiently stringent precautions are taken adjacent to the infected areas? For example, how near the infected areas is a cattle market allowed to be held?

Mr. Peart

The answer to the second part of the question is, "Yes". This is accepted when animals go direct for slaughter. I have taken the advice of all my veterinary officers. People have to be fed as well. But when cattle are immediately slaughtered there is no risk.

On the wider question, I am glad that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that we regard this matter as important for Scotland. That is why the control area has been extended to cover Scotland as well as England and Wales.

Mr. George Jeger

Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the veterinary staff is adequate in numbers to deal with these appalling outbreaks all over the country?

Mr. Peart

Yes, I am. I should like to pay tribute to the veterinary officers who have come from other countries to help us in this campaign. It was gratifying to see them at work during my visits on Friday. The staff are under great strain, but I believe that we have adequate staff.

Mr. Peter Mills

Would the Minister bear in mind that the R.A.C. cancelled its rally in the interests of the agricultural community and the food of the country? Will he therefore take steps immediately to cancel Smithfield? Will he also look to the future and ensure that no more imports of Argentine beef come into this country?

Mr. Peart

I thought that I had answered the question about Smithfield. I am looking at this matter. Smithfield is now purely a machinery as distinct from an animal exhibition. I am considering whether it will attract farmers from the infected areas. This is a decision which I must take. I note what the hon. Gentleman says; I respect his views.

I said that the whole question of imports was being considered. There are problems here, as hon. Members will appreciate. I do not know whether we can say definitely what is the source of infection, but I am giving the matter very serious and active consideration.

Mr. Tinn

Would my right hon. Friend say whether, in dealing with this extremely serious situation, he is satisfied with the co-operation which he is receiving from the Army, police and local authorities?

Mr. Peart

I gained the impression of tremendous co-operation from meeting Army personnel on Friday in these areas. It is appreciated. We have good co-operation from the local authorities in the areas in question. I pay tribute to the work of the police and the contractors. I refer specifically to Wimpey's.

Mr. Kitson

What consideration is the Minister's veterinary staff giving to the question of wild deer, since there are now wild deer in nearly every county in the country? As the infected area is on the western side of the Pennines, can disinfectant precautions be taken on all the roads between Yorkshire and Cheshire, Lancashire, and so on?

Mr. Peart

The suggestion about disinfecting is possible. The hon. Gentleman's point about wild deer covers a wider problem and vermin as well. Our veterinary officers have examined the matter very carefully. Where we can prevent the spread of infection by shooting and destroying, we will do so. That is important.

Mr. Hooson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the great concern among farmers about the movement of people and vehicles from infected areas to non-infected areas? Vehicles, in particular, can travel through most infected areas without passing over any form of dis infectant pad or barrier? Would the right hon. Gentleman take steps, in conjunction with the Minister of Transport and the Secretary of State for Wales, to remedy this matter?

Mr. Peart

I have stressed the importance of disinfection. What is much more important is transport going into the infected areas and on to the farms. I made a special appeal to farmers to have a farm gate delivery service. I am glad to say that that has been taken up. I will look at the wider aspect concerning roads.

Mr. Bob Brown

Can my right hon. Friend say whether all reasonable safeguards are being taken in respect of the Smithfield Show? Could he say what the loss in exports would be should the show be cancelled?

Mr. Peart

That is one of the difficulties. We have prevented cattle from going to the show. It will be purely a machinery exhibition. One of the arguments is that the show will attract farmers from different parts of the country. I must bear that in mind. I assure my hon. Friend that it has not been neglected.

Mr. Birch

Is the Minister aware that one of the things which is worrying farmers most is the unnecessary movement of pedestrians across the country? Can he make the strongest possible appeal to stop it?

Mr. Peart

I appreciate that. In my first statement I asked people to keep out of the infected areas. I made a similar appeal during a broadcast. I accept what the right hon. Gentleman says. People moving in and out of the areas make the situation extremely difficult.

Lieut.-Commander Maydon

Can the Minister explain why there is, or appears to be, a wide difference in the stringency of control between the movement of horses in horse boxes or trucks and the movement of other animals? We are well aware that horses cannot get this disease, but surely they can carry it as easily as human beings, and so can the vehicles.

Mr. Peart

That is true. I recognise that a horse can be a carrier, and that is why we must have strict veterinary control. This is perhaps one of the main arguments against horses going to race meetings.

Sir Knox Cunningham

In view of the extreme virulence of the virus in this outbreak, would the right hon. Gentleman consider giving encouragement to farmers who would like to protect their animals to use vaccine?

Mr. Peart

I thought that I had answered that question. This is the great argument—whether to have a slaughter policy or a vaccination policy. There are dangers even in a vaccination policy. It does not cover cattle under six months and does not give complete immunity. This would be a complete departure from our traditional policy. I hope and trust that we shall win this battle. With the co-operation of all, I believe that we can.

Mr. William Baxter

As a small percentage of the animals which have been slaughtered are affected by this disease, could my right hon. Friend or his advisers find a way of utilising the carcases of cattle not affected but which have been destroyed?

Mr. Peart

We think it right to have wholesale destruction.

Sir A. V. Harvey

In view of the high percentage of cattle lost in Cheshire and adjacent counties, and bearing in mind that our future balance of payments depends on the expansion of agriculture, would the Minister, at an early date, set up a committee to consider this whole problem to enable farmers to get back into business? Many of them may be ruined if they have to adhere to the rules as they are today. Also, would the right hon. Gentleman make an early decision about the import of Argentine chilled beef?

Mr. Peart

I have stated my position on the second part of the question today. On the first part, when I was in the region on Friday, I announced that we would set up very soon farm advice bureaux to help those farmers who will have great difficulty in restocking. I agree that this has created great difficulties, and that there are tragedies here. We must approach this matter sympathetically from the administrative point of view. I am glad to have my announcement reinforced today.

Mr. Maxwell

Would my right hon. Friend say what pure research is being done by the Agricultural Research Council in this area, whether he has been in touch with the Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome with a view to getting its assistance, and whether he would be willing and able to make a statement in due course about the research and development which might be done to prevent this kind of calamity from occurring again?

Mr. Peart

I hope that my hon. Friend is aware that our research centre at Pirbright is the finest and best in the world. It is usually a case of Rome coming to us. Indeed, our scientists advise Europe even on its own vaccination policy. I do not think that my hon. Friend's suggestion would be profitable. If, however, other centres wish to help us, we are appreciative. I ask hon. Members to remember that a tremendous amount of research has been done.

Mr. Hastings

Is the Minister aware that cleansing facilities at a number of small abattoirs are quite inadequate and that adequate inspection does not take place because of lack of staff? Will he consider recruiting more staff, bearing in mind that one does not need a "vet." to make sure that a lorry is properly washed down? Secondly, does the Minister realise that there is great confusion among hauliers concerning the new licensing arrangements in control areas? Will he consider using the radio to make the position clear?

Mr. Peart

Abattoirs are a wider question. Of course, we want the strictest hygiene there. I take note of what the hon. Member has said about hauliers, but we have certainly impressed upon them the need for cleanliness.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We must move on.