HC Deb 15 February 1968 vol 758 cc1589-99
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Fred Peart)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to report to the House on the present position of the foot-and-mouth disease epidemic.

The number of outbreaks has continued at a low level since I last reported to the House in a debate on 30th January. In the week ending at midnight last night there were seven outbreaks, almost the same number as in the preceding week. In view of this, I have been able to make substantial reductions in the size of the controlled area, releasing those parts of the country which are now distant from the remaining centres of infection.

This is encouraging. But clearly the epidemic has not yet been stamped out. When I made my statement about meat imports on 4th December, I said that, in any event, the arrangements would be reviewed in three months' time—that is, by 4th March. This review is being undertaken and we are also studying the first results of the investigations carried out by my veterinary advisers into the origin of the present epidemic. I propose to announce before 4th March the results of the review. In the meantime, the arrangements announced on 4th December will continue.

I have already told the House that I propose to appoint a Committee of Inquiry into our policy and arrangements for dealing with foot-and-mouth disease. I am glad to say that the Duke of Northumberland has accepted my invitation to act as Chairman of this Committee of Inquiry. The terms of reference will be: To review the policy and arrangements for dealing with foot-and-mouth disease in Great Britain and to make recommendations. I hope that the Committee will make a full investigation of the circumstances of the recent epidemic and advise on the policy that should be adopted to control foot-and-mouth disease in this country in the light of the latest scientific knowledge. I am inviting a number of other possible members to serve.

Mr. Godber

Is the Minister aware that there will be general acceptance on this side of the House of the appointment of the Duke of Northumberland to chair the Committee? We congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on that choice. However, is he aware that there is a great deal of growing impatience about setting up the Committee? Will he get it set up at once and get it working, as it should have been a month ago? Is he satisfied that the terms of reference will enable the Committee to look fully into the question of the origins of this outbreak, which has so alarmed people?

On the more controversial first part of the Minister's statement, will he understand that there is growing uncertainty and dismay about the fact that there has been no clear decision to maintain the ban until the Committee has reported? Will he do his utmost to give a firm assurance on this matter at the earliest opportunity, because the continuing uncertainty is doing great harm?

Mr. Peart

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his approval of the choice of the Duke of Northumberland to chair the Committee. His appointment will be welcomed by all sections.

I could not have acted quicker. The announcement today shows that we are anxious that the Committee should act. By its terms of reference it will deal with the matter which has been raised and will cover many of the problems which Gowers covered many years ago. The terms of reference are wide.

I accept that the question of meat imports is concerning many hon. Members on both sides of the House. I made a statement on imports on 4th December. I said then that I would ensure that the arrangements were reviewed in three months' time—that is, by 4th March. As I have said, I propose to announce before 4th March the results of the review and will come to the House to be questioned by hon. Members.

Mr. Elystan Morgan

Would not my right hon. Friend agree that nothing has happened in the last two months to prove the contention that this deadly disease did not originate in the Argentine or some other country where foot-and-mouth disease is endemic? Would he give the strictest assurance to the House that there will be neither a relaxation nor a lifting of the ban unless and until such proof is forthcoming?

Mr. Peart

My hon. Friend will appreciate that it was said in the Press the other day that I would today announce that I was lifting the ban. I have not done so. I have said that I am still reviewing the matter in the light of a veterinary report which I have received. Naturally, I must do that. I will report to the House within three months of my earlier announcement. I am aware of the point made by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Thorpe

Since the Minister has confirmed that the Committee will have. within its terms of reference, the right to consider the possibility of imported meat carrying this disease, surely there should be no question of the ban being lifted until the Committee has reported and the House has had an opportunity to debate its report? In fairness to the Committee, is it not essential that the Minister should give that undertaking? Secondly, would the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is a widespread feeling about lifting the ban among, not only the farming community, but women's institutes and many other consumer organisations in the country?

Mr. Peart

The Leader of the Liberal Party must be aware that I am well aware of the point of view that has been put and that representations have been made to me. I said on a previous occasion in December that I would review this situation. I must carefully look at the veterinary report that has come to me—he will appreciate that this is only right —-and I will then make my statement to the House. However, I note what has been said by the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Maclennan

While fully acknowledging that my right hon. Friend is discharging his duty in this matter to great satisfaction, can he say whether this Committee will have within its terms of reference consideration of the effect of the indefinite prolongation of this ban on our international trade? Can he further say whether it is true, as has been reported, that an extremely important order for the sale of a nuclear reactor, worth £30 million to this country, has been lost as a result of the ban—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Questions must be reasonably brief.

Mr. Peart

After the review I will have to consider this from the point of view of the veterinary situation and also the position of British agriculture. This I will do. Hon. Members know of this. Added to that, I have announced the Chairman of this Committee and the terms of reference, which are very wide: To review the policy and arrangements for dealing with foot and mouth disease in Great Britain and to make recommendations. They are rather similar to the terms of reference of the Gowers Committee. This will enable the Committee to consider animal health hazards in relation to imports.

Sir A. V. Harvey

Will the Duke of Northumberland and members of the Committee have facilities to take evidence from individuals in countries which export meat to Britain?

Mr. Peart

I think that it will consider the points which have been raised, as indeed the previous inquiry did. This will be an independent Committee. I must let the Committee properly decide what it will do. I have every confidence that the Chairman and his colleagues will do this sensibly.

Dr. John Dunwoody

Would not my right hon. Friend agree that a far greater economic effect would result from another foot-and-mouth epidemic like the one we have seen than could possibly result from a continuation of the ban on imported meat? Will he seriously consider the possibility of inviting interested Governments to an international conference to discuss the world-wide implications of this disease?

Mr. Peart

On the latter part of my hon. Friend's question, I know that he has taken a great interest in this matter and has suggested this course in a recent debate. I am looking into it. This is a very important matter. We must remember that the F.A.O. has considered it on a previous occasion, but it may be necessary to initiate something like that. I will bear that point in mind. On the question of the inquiry and also the economic aspects which have been mentioned, I am aware of what this epidemic has cost this country. We must bear this in mind, too.

Mr. Gibson-Watt

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House when the independent Committee of Inquiry is to sit and whether it will include members from areas, including north-east Wales, which were particularly affected?

Mr. Peart

I hope that we will not think of this Committee in terms of sectional representation. I have initiated discussions in relation to invitations. I want this Committee to be completely independent. I hope and trust that the members I will suggest and announce to the House will have the confidence of all hon. and right hon. Members. I am sure that they will. However, it would be wrong if we sectionalised this. After all, this is a matter which affects the whole economy.

Mr. Ford

Could I impress upon my right hon. Friend the grave concern felt by the Latin-American Export Council at the prospect of an indefinite prolongation of the ban on meat imports? Is he aware that there is about £180 million-worth of trade concerned with the Argentine alone? [Interruption.] This figure was given in The Times by the Chairman of the Export Council. Will the Minister give due consideration to the possibility of some compromise, such as has been suggested, for importing meat off the bone?

Mr. Peart

Many of these points have been put to me by hon. Members opposite. I recognise that we have mutual trade, but, at the same time, as many hon. Members have said, I must bear in mind the economic consequences to our home agriculture. I would not like to be dogmatic. I have said that I am studying my reports and I hope to be in a position to make a statement in a fortnight's time.

Mr. Grant-Ferris

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there will be widespread satisfaction that at long last he has named the chairman and set up the Committee of Inquiry? Is he further aware that there is very strong farming opinion from the top downwards that at the top of the Committee's agenda should be the consideration of the importation of meat from the so-called endemic countries? Will he go further than my hon. Friend said and put it right at the top of the Committee's agenda, even though he feels he must leave other things to the Committee?

Mr. Peart

On the first point, I am glad that the hon. Member, who has been involved in this tragic epidemic, appreciates the setting up of this Committee and the appointment of the Chairman. I am aware of the strong feeling in the farming community. As Minister of Agriculture I have received communications from responsible people. They have conveyed views to me which confirm the views of the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Wellbeloved

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that he has the sympathy of the House and the public in the difficult situation with which he has to deal? Will he take account of the fact that the ban on imported meat is having a serious effect on the meat trade and is also having a serious effect on the cost of living for the British housewife because of increased costs? Will he, when he comes to consider his veterinary report, bear in mind that unless there is a definite link with imported meat it would be wrong in the national interest to continue the ban?

Mr. Peart

My hon. Friend will have to await my report after I have studied the veterinary reports. I am aware that inevitably there has been a shortage of supplies because of the epidemic and the ban. I mentioned this in the House and I believe that the British public understands this.

Sir W. Bromley-Davenport

When the right hon. Gentleman talks about the low level of infection, does it not really mean that there are fewer beasts left to catch this disease because others are six feet under ground? How can the wretched farmers expect to restock their farms when any compensation they get is subject to iniquitous taxation?

Mr. Peart

I note the point made by the hon. and gallant Gentleman. I am looking into the question of compensation, and I am sure that he will appreciate why.

Mr. Gardner

Will my right hon. Friend accept that there is mixed relief in the country that he did not succumb to the overtures made by those seeking a vaccination policy? Can he say what plans the Ministry is making to obtain supplies of cheap beef if the Committee of Inquiry recommends maintaining the ban on imports from endemic countries?

Mr. Peart

The question of vaccination was a difficult issue. I ordered vaccine as a precaution. I am glad that we have seen virtually the end of the epidemic without its use. The slaughter policy, despite all the difficulties, has worked. I still believe that the Committee of Inquiry should look into it very carefully. It may well be that with new scientific developments new vaccines will be forthcoming. I do not think that we should be dogmatic. I defend the slaughter policy. I have always stood firm on it. We have succeeded, but nevertheless the Committee should carefully consider this.

The question of cheaper beef is a much wider issue and I do not think that I should comment on it at this stage.

Mr. Chichester-Clark

Will the Committee be encouraged to take evidence from the Ministries of Agriculture of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland who have not had this disease for 56 years and do not import Argentine meat, but none the less have to bear a proportion of the expense of the precautions necessary if the disease hits this country?

Mr. Peart

Yes. The hon. Member will he glad to know that I am meeting the Minister of Agriculture for Northern Ireland today.

Mr. Roebuck

How wide will the terms of reference of this Committee be? Will it, for instance, be able to look at the question of the widespread outbreaks of this disease in certain Common Market countries, and what the effect will be on British agriculture if we join the Common Market?

Mr. Peart

I hope that my hon. Friend, and indeed I, will not allow prejudices to affect the issue. I believe that we should inquire into all sources of infection, whether they be in the Common Market or not. Under its wide terms of reference the Committee will he able to do this.

Mr. Temple

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that a very much more far-reaching statement was expected by the House and the country? Can he say what he is going to do to help the earlier sufferers with regard to compensation payments, which were at a low level? Can he further say what his Parliamentary Secretary meant when he indicated that there would be additional help to those who were not able to gain any advantage from the ploughing grant subsidy?

Mr. Peart

I am surprised that that has been said. It is true that the Yorkshire Post and other papers in the North said that I was going to lift the ban, but I have not done so, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman is pleased about that. With regard to the other matters, I reply to him immediately. The compensation issue has not been settled. We are having discussions about giving additional help, and I hope to make a statement about this, too.

Mr. Cronin

When my right hon. Friend is making his final decision, will he bear in mind that the total amount of meat imported from these endemic Latin-American countries is a very small part of the British home market, and it could be largely overcome by increased British production? Will he also bear in mind that our balance of payments position with these countries is far from satisfactory?

Mr. Peart

I am aware of the points raised by my hon. Friend. I need not elaborate on that.

Earl of Dalkeith

Will the Minister seek to inspire the farming industry with the maximum degree of confidence in the Committee of Inquiry by saying how admirably qualified is the Chairman, the Duke of Northumberland, and will he announce the names of the other members of the Committee as soon as possible, together with their technical qualifications?

Mr. Peart

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has paid tribute to the Chairman. I think that this is a wise choice, and I hope that his colleagues will receive the approval of the House.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

Can the right hon. Gentleman, without committing himself this afternoon, say whether he has studied seriously the question of importing meat off the bone? We have pressed him about this before, but he has been reticent about making a statement.

Mr. Peart

I know that the hon. Gentleman has raised this before, and that during the war this was the traditional trade to save shipping space. I am considering the matter. I cannot say any more until I make my statement in a fortnight's time.

Sir J. Langford-Holt

As it seems unlikely that the Committee will be able to form any conclusions before 4th March about the cause of the recent outbreak, and as much evidence has been brought to the right hon. Gentleman's notice that the importation of meat was the cause, may we have an assurance that he will not make the greatest of all mistakes, which would be to withdraw the ban, only to have to reimpose it a few weeks later, when the damage could possibly have been done again?

Mr. Peart

I note what the hon. Gentleman has said. I am carefully studying my Chief Veterinary Officer's report, and I shall make an announcement about this.

Mr. Peter M. Jackson

Will my right hon. Friend make a statement about his negotiations with the Cuban trade delegation regarding the importation of beef?

Mr. Peart

That is another matter, and it is outside my statement on foot-and-mouth disease.

Mr. Biffen

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there will be considerable relief that his statement does not confirm the speculation in certain newspapers that the ban was to be lifted, but that that relief will be tempered by some anxiety that he is still not able to inform the House about the conclusion of his talks on the treatment of compensation for tax purposes, and the treatment of valuations of early victims of the epidemic? Will he take this occasion to say when he hopes to make a statement on these important points?

Mr. Peart

I would like to clear this up even before I make my major statement. I shall do my best to speed it up, but this involves other Departments.

Mr. Heath

This matter raises great problems, not only for British agriculture, but also for the housewife and for our foreign trade, and until the Minister makes his statement there is bound to be immense anxiety and great doubt about future plans. Is he therefore wise to say that he cannot come back to the House for another fortnight? Ought not he to come back at the earliest possible moment?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that our view is that the Government will not be justified in lifting the ban unless he can prove beyond any shadow of doubt that there is no risk in so doing, which we do not believe to be the case.

Perhaps I might out another point to the right hon. Gentleman about this Committee. Is not this a case in which it is not justifiable to adopt what I might term the normal committee procedure in the British way of life, which means that it takes a year, or 15 months, or 18 months to report? Is not this a case in which the Minister should say that the Committee must consist of people who are prepared to sit full-time and produce a quick report? Almost all the information is available, or is quickly obtainable. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to get away from the normal routine of committees, and to tell the members of this one to sit full-time.

Mr. Peart

I accept the last point made by the right hon. Gentleman about the Committee. I have always taken the view that this is a matter for the committee concerned, but if, as Minister, I feel that it is necessary, and I am so advised, I shall take note of it and examine it. It may be wise to have a quick interim report. There are many matters covered by the terms of reference which will affect our long-term policy, and it will be some time before conclusions can be reached. I cannot elaborate on that now, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate. On the other hand, there are other specific matters to be considered, such as the cause and origin of this disease, about which the information will be known and the Committee can act quickly. I take careful note of what the right hon. Gentleman said.

I shall try to make my statement as early as possible. In December I told the House that the arrangements would be reviewed in three months' time—that will be by 4th March. I am considering this urgently, and trying to speed it up as much as I can. I propose to announce before 4th March the results of the review, and in the circumstances I think that this is reasonable.

If one did something which meant putting people's livelihood at risk, any proposition of this kind would have to be carefully considered by the Government. Indeed, this is perhaps the first time that any Government have had to take a decision of this kind, although I appreciate that this is due to the size of the epidemic. I will study carefully everything that has been said.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must get on.