HC Deb 17 December 1968 vol 775 cc1318-29

10.43 p.m.

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

I beg to move, That the Livestock and Livestock Products Industries (Payments for Scientific Research) Order 1968, a draft of which was laid before this House on 26th November, be approved. The purpose of the Order is to resume payments of the industry's contribution towards the cost of the Meat Research Institute which were interrupted when the Meat Industry (Scientific Research Levy) Order, 1963, was revoked in 1966. When the Order was revoked, it was made clear that the payments would be resumed under the authority of the Agriculture Bill, then in preparation, which became the Agriculture Act, 1967.

Part I of the Act set up the Meat and Livestock Commission, and Section 16, under which the draft Order is made.

gives powers either to provide a contribution as part of the Commission's general levy or as part of a separate levy.

The Order, as was foreshadowed at the time of the passage of the Order authorising the Commission's genera] levy, uses the method of obtaining a contribution from the Meat and Livestock Commission which will be financed out of the Commission's general levy. The Order merely provides the means of transferring the sums from the Commission to the Agricultural Research Council. It does not increase the size of the Commission levy or require any further payments from the industry.

It would, perhaps, be helpful to the House if I went over a little of the history of the Meat Research Institute and its financing. The decision to set it up was taken in 1961, and it resulted in an amalgamation and extension of the work which was being done in the Department's laboratories in London and Fareham and at the A.R.C.'s Low Temperature Research Station at Cambridge. Though much of importance had been achieved, there was an absence of experimental and, particularly, slaughterhouse facilities, and these were essential if really significant work on the quality of meat was to be undertaken.

At the time when the then Government decided to set up the Institute, they decided also that the meat industry should contribute half the capital and running costs. The original levy Order imposed a levy in equal shares on buyers and sellers and was collected through the machinery of the Fatstock Guarantee Scheme in respect of cattle and sheep, while for pigs the Pig Industry Development Authority made a voluntary contribution from the proceeds of its own levy equivalent to the amount of levy due on pigs.

This method of collection, however, ran into difficulties in 1964 and 1965, when there were periods when no guarantee was payable to producers of cattle and sheep, since the levy system involved the buyer paying the seller half the levy at the time of sale and the whole levy being deducted from the producer's guarantee payment. When there was no guarantee, the buyers paid their share of the levy at the time of sale, but there was no guarantee payment from which to get the levy back from the producer.

It was for this reason that the levy Order was revoked and new powers were taken in the Agriculture Act, 1967. It was made clear at the time of the Order's revocation that the temporary cessation of the levy did not in any way alter the intention that the industry should contribute over the life of the Institute taken as a whole half of the full costs.

The purely technical financial difficulties have not prevented progress with the establishment of the Institute. It has been established at Langford near Bristol and was opened by Her Majesty the Queen in April of this year. A great deal of highly important and useful work is already in hand. The Institute's main task is to provide by means of anatomical, physiological and biochemical studies basic information on the growth and development of meat tissues and on factors which influence the quality of meat.

It will also study the effect on eating quality of such factors as breeding, age, sex, feeding systems, pre-slaughter treatment, slaughtering methods and post-slaughter treatment. Investigations are being made also into changes in the structure and composition of meat under various conditions of storage and processing, and the Institute is particularly concerned to eliminate causes of taints and off-flavour, spoilage and other hazards. Some attention is being given to packaging problems, too.

The Order lays down the industry's contribution to this important work up to the end of March. 1972. It seems reasonable to make clear at this stage to all concerned and affected the general size of this contribution for a reasonable time ahead. It is true that the sums now required are in excess of the annual sum of £165,000 which the Commission provisionally allowed for in its programme of work published in May this year. However, further study of the needs and the development of the Institute shows that this sum would not be adequate to cover the industry's share over the whole period, and we think that it is in everybody's interest that the same amount should be required in each of the three years. Half of the annual amount is being required in the current financial year since the collection of the Commission's levy began only in October, 1968.

The sums required will accord with the principle, which has been followed since 1961, that the industry should in the long term contribute half the current and capital costs of the Institute. The work of the Institute is of great importance and will be of substantial benefit to consumers and to all sections of the meat industry.

The general principle of financing is not in dispute between the two sides of the House. The sum required of the industry is not excessive, and it is being collected in the most painless way, as part of the Commission's general levy.

This Order is not in itself a levy raising Order, but merely provides for the transfer of funds from the Meat and Livestock Commission to the Agricultural Research Council, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and I have no hesitation in commending it to the House.

10.50 p.m.

Mr. Grant-Ferris (Nantwich)

I want to speak about a disease in sheep known as scrapie and to direct attention to the necessity for some of the money being voted tonight to be spent on furthering research into the disease. My credentials for speaking on the subject are that I was a breeder of pedigree sheep and ram exporter of pedigree rams to Australia, New Zealand and North America.

In 1951, some sheep from this country were imported into Australia where the disease of scrapie was detected. A ban was imposed on the importation of sheep into Australia, and New Zealand followed by a similar ban on their import into the United States and Canada. The result has been that our pedigree rams have been excluded since 1951 from those countries although, I believe—I am not sure about this—that some relief has been given in North America. However, in the main market of Australasia no import of sheep is allowed because of the disease of scrapie.

Scrapie is a peculiar disease and it has excited a great deal of attention by the veterinary profession over the years, but not enough has been done to find a solution to the problem. The disease is not itself a killer. It affects the wool of a sheep. The wool begins to come off and the sheep staggers about, but what kills the animal is that the irritation of the skin is so great that the animal simply cannot take time off from scratching to eat and so it dies.

When the disease was found in Australia and New Zealand ram breeders in this country were extremely put out because a lucrative market for our rams was closed to us and a scheme was started at the Agricultural Research Council's research centre at Compton under Dr. Gordon, who is no longer there. It was a very good scheme. We all gave a number of sheep. I think that those most concerned gave two to the centre in order that experiments might be conducted to see whether the sheep would get scrapie. Many of them did, and I suspect that a great deal of information was discovered.

However, somehow the whole scheme seemed to peter out and no satisfactory result has been obtained. So far as I know, little or no money and time have been spent of late years on work on this disease which is preventing the export of British stock to these countries. Not only is this trade immensely lucrative to sheep farmers, but it is good for British prestige in foreign countries that our rams, like our bulls and stallions, should bring about a greater appreciation of British agriculture.

I hope that with this money it will be possible for more efforts to be made to solve this problem. I realise that there is a certain vested interest in Australia and New Zealand which is none too keen to see the problem solved. They like to sell their rams to each other, and this would mean that there would be more competition. The pressure on the veterinary services in those countries is naturally very strong to see that the ban is on no account removed. I do not quarrel with that because it is important to keep any disease away from sheep when it might run through the national herd. If it happened to the Merino breed it would be a terrible thing for Australia. One can understand that the veterinary surgeons there are very keen to see that the ban is maintained.

I am not at all happy that the right amount of money and attention is being devoted to this problem. What is happening? What is being done following on the work done by Dr. Gordon at Compton 10 years ago? Where have we got, and what is it proposed to do in future? This is a legitimate British agricultural interest which is being neglected. Something should be done to get to the bottom of this disease and isolate the virus so that this ban, which is so deleterious to our Commonwealth trade can be removed.

10.57 p.m.

Sir Frank Pearson (Clitheroe)

I do not want to delay the House at this late hour, but the Minister has said that these funds will be transferred from the funds of the Livestock Commission. When we debated the Commission I remember that there were many of us who had serious doubts as to whether it was right to raise levies from a very narrow sector of slaughtering interests, to spend them on general research and the organisation of the meat trade. When the Minister suggests that we transfer funds from the Commission for research, I am even more doubtful whether we were right at that time to agree to this levy on the slaughter of animals being put into the pockets of the Commission.

I do not recollect that the Minister then proposed that some of these monies should in future be transferred for other purposes. My hon. Friend the Member for Nantwich (Mr. Grant-Ferris) raised this interesting and important point about scrapie, and the export of pedigree animals to Australia and New Zealand, am doubtful whether the funds for this type of research ought to have been raised by the methods we have agreed. This is clearly a sphere of research which ought to be financed directly, either by the industry or the Government. It ought not to be raised for the purposes of the Meat and Livestock Commission and then transferred.

I would be interested to hear how the Minister justifies this transfer. It is only a matter of a few months since the Commission started operating. There has been considerable hostility to it on the part of many sections of the trade, and up to date I have not heard of any useful function having been performed by it. I remember when we had the debate on the Commission the Minister proposed that, for pigs, everything would go on as before. With regard to research in beef and sheep, there was to be a two-year delay.

I should be grateful if the Minister could assure us that although he is transferring these funds from the Meat and Livestock Commission to this other purpose, this will in no way inhibit the work of the Livestock Commission.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harry Gourlay)

Order. We are not debating the Livestock Commission tonight, but merely the appropriation of the funds.

Sir Frank Pearson

I entirely agree, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but the House is entitled to have the assurance that the operations of the Meat and Livestock Commission will not be in any way inhibited by these funds being transferred to this other purpose. That is the only point I wish to make. We are due for an explanation from the Minister of how this will affect the operations of the Meat and Livestock Commission.

11.1 p.m.

Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine (Rye)

No one with experience of draft Statutory Instruments expects to find the whole story revealed clearly in the actual document. Therefore, we are grateful to the Minister for the explanation he has given us tonight of the way in which the Order will be applied. The hon. Gentleman seemed to be dealing mostly with the Meat Research Institute. There are one or two questions that I should like to ask him about that and one or two things that I should like to hear about that which he might have wanted to include in his remarks.

Before coming to that, however, we see at the beginning of the Statutory Instrument that not only does the Minister seek to make the Order under Section 16 of the Agriculture Act, 1967, but that it goes on to say and of all other powers enabling them in that behalf. I have looked at Section 16 of the Agriculture Act, 1967. It seems wide enough to enable the Minister to do almost anything he likes. Perhaps, therefore, he can explain why we need all the other powers in addition to Section 16.

I commend to the hon. Gentleman the remarks which have been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nantwich (Mr. Grant-Ferris) about scrapie. Those of us who have anything to do with livestock are well aware of the difficulties which this causes, particularly in Australia and other places. My hon. Friend the Member for Clitheroe (Sir Frank Pearson) has asked the Minister to explain about the funds of the Commission. I have no doubt that he has listened carefully to what has been said on that as well.

If the Minister looks at the last Report of the Agricultural Research Council, he will see that the Meat Research Institute then had a current expenditure of £254,000, a capital expenditure of £564,000 and receipts of £167,000, leaving a net total of £651,000. The total which is being provided under the Order is £98,000 to 31st March and £197,000 in each of the three subsequent years to 31st March, 1972. At first glance, therefore, it seems to me that there is a quite large sum which the Meat Research Institute managed to spend in the year ended 31st March, 1968, which, unless the hon. Gentleman can explain that he has other funds tucked away somewhere, it will not be able to expend in subsequent years.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman will recall that during the debates last July about the Meat and Livestock Commission Levy Order, his right hon. Friend the Minister said certain things about the Beef Recording Society. At the beginning of his remarks, the right hon. Gentleman said: We have, for example, rightly used public money to get beef recording started. He went on to say: Government support will have been given to the Beef Recording Association for some five years, which is a good deal longer than might reasonably have been expected at the time, and a good deal longer than most hon. Members expected. It is, therefore, time for the industry to finance, through the Commission, what amounts to an investment in its own future. The right hon. Gentleman then set out the way in which he expected the Commission to spend its money. Having dealt with three-quarters of the money that it was expected to spend, he went on to say: The remaining quarter of the Commission's expenditure … includes sheep recording; carcase classification and evaluation in the interests of producing meat most suited to the requirements of the housewife … "—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th July, 1968; Vol. 768, c. 1610–2.] In the Civil Estimates for 1968–69 he will find that in 1967–68 a sum of £65,000 was set aside in the account for the Beef Recording Society and that in the current year a sum of only £10 is provided. I was therefore expecting that possibly the hon. Gentleman would say something about that tonight. If he is not going to do so, perhaps he will indicate, within the rules of order, how the Beef Recording Society will continue with only £10 in the current year. There are many things which I feel that society could usefully do. Certain people are critical of it and the hon. Gentleman has probably seen a very critical article in a recent issue of Beef and Sheep Farming, but many beef producers find that the services offered by the Beef Recording Society are extremely valuable, and I certainly hope that something will be said on this subject by the hon. Gentleman.

Another matter that I should like to raise relates to livestock products. That is, after all, one of the items mentioned in the Order. The final words of the Explanatory Note are: … and the livestock products industry. That industry is facing a somewhat different future compared with its past situation. There are substitute protein products, and there are acceptable synthetic products which may challenge the industry. Therefore, research in livestock products ought to receive attention, and the first matter which ought to receive considerable attention is the question of the quality and reliability of these products.

Another point that the Minister mentioned in his speech in July was carcase classification, on which the hon. Gentleman said nothing tonight. I would have thought that that might also be covered by research.

Finally I come to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Clitheroe about the disquiet in the industry concerning the way in which this money is collected and spent. The first thing the trade will ask the Ministry is that there should be value for money, and what the trade wants in particular is practical technology as well as basic research. They want employed in research people who understand exactly what is going on in the industry and not simply people who are doing research well away from those who are working on the farms.

I hope that before we part with this Order the Minister will deal with at least some of the points that I have raised.

11.9 p.m.

Mr. Hoy

I am glad to respond to the hon. Gentleman's invitation. I thought that I had given a fair amount of explanation of research in my opening speech. I did not go into every conceivable matter but I thought that I had covered a wide field and that the hon. Gentleman would have accepted it.

May I say to the hon. Member for Nantwich (Mr. Grant-Ferris) that the disease of scrapie is being studied by the A.R.C. It does not come within the province of the Research Institute, and therefore it does not come within the terms of this Order. I should have said so earlier, but I did not want to be accused of curtailing the debate. I thought that I ought to make it clear that this is the case, and I hope it will bring some consolation to the hon. Member for Clitheroe (Sir Frank Pearson) who thought that it ought not to be in the Order. We are aware of the importance of this disease. The Department and the A.R.C. are not only aware of its importance, but research is going on into it.

Mr. Grant-Ferris

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I apologise for introducing a matter which, apparently, was not in order. I consulted the Table, and the Clerks and I thought that it was in order. If it was not, I apologise for having raised the matter.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harry Gourlay)

The matter was in order. It is a matter that is covered by the A.R.C.

Mr. Hoy

I am not objecting to the matter having been raised. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman did raise it, because it has given me the opportunity to let the hon. Gentleman know that it has not been overlooked by the A.R.C. or by the Department.

The hon. Member for Clitheroe had some difficulty in understanding how the money came to be raised. The hon. Gentleman was not listening to my opening speech, or perhaps he was not here then. In the third paragraph of my speech I said: At the time this Order"— that is the old Order— was revoked it was made clear that payments would be resumed under the authority of the Agriculture Bill, then in preparation, which finally became the Agriculture Act, 1967". There was no lack of clarity. Indeed, the matter was made clear in Committee. I remember taking part in the debates on this, and I am certain that there could have been no misunderstanding.

Sir Frank Pearson

I did not accuse the hon. Gentleman of a lack of clarity. The clarity was there. The point that I wished to make was in connection with the levy from the slaughterers. At the time of our discussions about the Meat and Livestock Commission I had some doubt about whether the House understood that the money would be transferred to deal with this type of work.

Mr. Hoy

The hon. Gentleman will remember that this principle was laid down by his Government. The division of money as to half from the industry, and half from the Government, was laid down in those days. What we have done here it to carry out the same procedure. We have gone no further than that.

I was grateful for what the hon. Member for Rye (Mr. Godman Irvine) said about my explanation, even though he thought that I ought to go a little further. The powers in the Order are being taken, not by the Minister, but by the Commission. We are making provision for the Commission.

It is true that last year the M.R.I, cost £254,000. Expenditure on the M.R.I. is not exactly 50 per cent. provided by the industry on a year-by-year basis, but over a period of years. The industry will pay 50 per cent. of the total cost, taking several years together, because the M.R.I., in its earlier years, includes much capital expenditure which is being spread over several years to spread the load as regards the industry's 50 per cent. That is why it is being done in this way.

Beef recording is not an element of this Order, but the Meat and Livestock Commission will carry on beef recording by means of its own funds. This is one of the jobs that it has been given.

The hon. Gentleman said that I did not say a great deal about the Institute. In my opening speech I paid tribute to its work, and went to fair lengths to outline what it was doing. I said that the work of the Institute was of great importance and that it would be of substantial benefit to consumers and all sections of the meat industry. I regret that some hon. Gentlemen opposite do not consider that we have made sufficient provision in this matter. I thought that the hon. Member for Rye was arguing that instead of the sum of £197,000, £254,000 should have been made available to the M.R.I. If we have made a small economy, he should be grateful and accept that we are not making too great a demand on the resources of the industry.

I hope that I have answered the points that have been raised to the satisfaction of hon. Members and that we may now reach a decision on the matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Livestock and Livestock Products Industries (Payment for Scientific Research) Order 1968, a draft of which was laid before this House on 26th November, be approved.