HC Deb 04 March 1968 vol 760 cc39-49
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Fred Peart)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the origin of the foot-and-mouth disease epidemic and about imports of meat from countries where the disease is present.

On 15th February, I told the House that we were considering the results of the investigations by my veterinary officers into the origin of the recent epidemic. This report contains circumstantial evidence pointing to a consignment of South American lamb as being the probable cause of the first outbreak of disease at Oswestry last October and also certain subsequent outbreaks. I am proposing to refer this report to the Northumberland Committee for its consideration, but, in the meantime, the Government have de cided that the ban on imports of mutton and lamb—including their offals—from countries where foot-and-mouth disease is endemic must be continued. This report is being published today as a Command Paper.

The Government have also reviewed the position on the importation of other kinds of meat which the report does not bring into question. I am most anxious that, in consultation with supplying countries, we should do everything possible to improve the safeguards which can be applied. I shall, therefore, be arranging for technical discussions with those countries.

I am glad to say that the Argentine Government have invited us to send out a veterinary mission to discuss with their experts the possibility of improving the present sanitary arrangements and other possible safeguards. This mission will be leaving within the next week and will also, I hope, be visiting other South American countries. In the meantime, and again at the invitation of the Argentine Government, I am arranging for the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, East (Mr. John Mackie) accompanied by senior administrative officers, to fly to Argentina in the next day or two for discussions with the Argentine Government in preparation for the veterinary mission.

Against this background, the Government have decided that imports of meat other than mutton and lamb can be resumed from 15th April.

Hon. Members


Mr. Peart

I am expecting that the Committee under the Duke of Northumberland, which I have appointed to review our policy and arrangements for dealing with foot-and-mouth disease, will be holding its first meeting next week. It will be examining the animal health aspects of the problem. When it has reported, the Government will, of course, look again at our whole policy, including the import arrangements which I have announced today, in the light of that report.

Mr. Godber

We shall wish to consider the full implications of the right hon. Gentleman's important statement very carefully and study the report. There is considerable concern about his announcement concerning beef, and we should like further assurances from him, if he can give them. We are glad to note that he is arranging for a veterinary mission to go to the Argentine and other South American countries. How long is it likely to look into these matters? Will it report back to him before 15th April, the date on which he says he will allow meat in? If it produces a report with which he is not fully satisfied, will he continue the ban until he is satisfied? The Northumberland Committee will also be considering the matter. If it puts points to the right hon. Gentleman before that date, showing its concern over the matter, will he give it yet further review because of the grave concern over imports from these countries?

Mr. Peart

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman said that he and his colleagues will carefully consider the implications of my statement and, above all, of my Chief Veterinary Officer's report. Before they comment loudly and strongly hon. Members should carefully read the report which, I believe, is important. It will be published as a Command Paper and will be available to hon. Members.

I am not yet in a position to say how long the veterinary mission will be in South America. That is why I wished my hon. Friend and senior administrative officers to go there, to discuss with the Argentine Government the length of stay of the mission and the details of the type of discussions it would have with its counterparts. I want this to be done quickly, and that is why my hon. Friend and colleagues will fly there in the next few days.

Mr. J. T. Price

Now that this terrible scourge is, happily, coming to an end, at least some of us in the House think that it is high time the House offered a word of congratulation to my right hon. Friend on the tenacious way in which he has fought the epidemic? Is he aware that whilst many anxieties naturally still remain about the source of the infections, which create such domestic havoc, we eagerly await the report of the Northumberland Committee on whether or not the use of vaccine, which was suggested as a remedy for the disease, is the right solution? Many of us are far from satisfied with the evidence made available up to now.

Mr. Peart

I hope that the Northumberland Committee will bear in mind the whole question of whether we should continue with the slaughter policy, to which import arrangements are relevant, and the use of vaccines, which have been developed to a great extent and are used by many countries in Europe. These are matters for the Committee, and therefore we must wait for its report.

Mr. Grant-Ferris

Is the Minister aware that the farmers of my stricken constituency, in which more than 700 herds have been slaughtered, will view with the utmost concern and deep consternation the fact that he is to remove the ban on beef now? Are they not entitled to expect that ban to be kept on for a few months longer until the Northumberland Committee has considered the matter?

Mr. Peart

When the hon. Gentleman questioned me recently, I recognised that he wanted a continuation of the ban. He pleaded with me to make a statement if I decided to lift the ban and to remember that it is vital that it should be kept on mutton and offals and that no carcases should come here which are not decapitated."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th February, 1968; Vol. 759, c. 1380.] I carefully read the report; I hope that the hon. Gentleman will read it. It points to lamb, and we have acted.

Mr. Hazell

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his decision to maintain the ban on lamb and mutton, and I appreciate that the ban on beef is to continue until 15th April. Should the committee of inquiry determine that the recent outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease is directly attributable to meat imported from South America, will my right hon. Friend look very carefully at the readmission of beef after 15th April?

Mr. Peart

When the Northumberland Committee makes its report, we shall consider it. If my own technical officers come back from Argentina with a report, I shall take careful note of it. The important thing now is to make a success of the veterinary mission.

Mr. Temple

In view of the many unknowns concerning the virus involved, why cannot the Minister give a guarantee that he will not lift the ban until we have had an interim report from the committee of inquiry?

Mr. Peart

The hon. Gentleman knows that I introduced the temporary ban in case we had more primary outbreaks, which would have put a great strain on my veterinary staff fighting a major epidemic. I was not pressed by hon. Members opposite to impose the ban. The right hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Godber) said on 30th January: I did not press the Minister to put it on in the first place,…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th January, 1968; Vol. 757, c. 1175.] I was not pressed to do it, but I thought that it was right. I have always said since then that I must await scientific opinion. There are many unknowns, and I have declared on many occasions when I have been questioned by hon. Gentlemen opposite that before coming to a decision I must await my Chief Veterinary Officer's report. I have done that, and I beg hon. Members to read it carefully. It points to Argentine lamb, and for that reason I think that it was right that the Government should continue the ban.

Mr. Godber

As the Minister has quoted what I said, may I ask him whether he is aware that I was indicating that only he could be in possession of the information on which to take such an important decision? The right hon. Gentleman is in possession of it now, but what has changed matters between the time he took the decision and now?

Mr. Peart

What has changed matters is the Chief Veterinary Officer's report. That is why I think it right that all hon. Members should have it. I have made that possible, and it is now in the Vote Office.

Mr. Elystan Morgan

Does the Chief Veterinary Officer's report state categorically that meat other than mutton and lamb could not have constituted the agency carrying the virus to the United Kingdom? Will my right hon. Friend give us an assurance that if the complicity of South American beef in the matter still remains an open question after the delegation has visited South America he will reconsider the partial raising of the ban?

Mr. Peart

I have said that the report from my Chief Veterinary Officer points specifically to lamb. I ask my hon. Friend to read the report. He is a lawyer. The report is mainly circumstantial evidence, but in the circumstances that is all it could be. My hon. Friend should carefully examine it. I shall take note of every report that will be put to me by my veterinary staff after discussions abroad.

Mr. James Davidson

Is it not fortuitous that the circumstantial evidence points to lamb rather than beef, and is the right hon. Gentleman not therefore prejudging the outcome by banning lamb and not beef? What evidence has been adduced about the likelihood of outbreaks resulting from meat containing bone? In the circumstances, would not it have been wise to ban all meat containing bone until the Committee had reported?

Mr. Peart

I cannot understand what the hon. Gentleman means by fortuitous. The Chief Veterinary Officer's report, which is the result of careful inquiry, points specifically at mutton and lamb. The hon. Gentleman should look at it carefully. The whole question of whether we should import only boneless meat is another matter. It may well be that after discussions with the trade and supplying countries—not just those in South America—we shall be able to improve greatly the way in which we handle meat, and this question should be linked with it.

Mr. Wellbeloved

Would my right hon. Friend note that he has the full support of the overwhelming mass of hon. Members in resisting the present outbreak of hysteria for a blanket ban on imported meat? Would he also note that the housewives will be delighted that he has now safeguarded their ability to buy cheap weekend joints of beef by lifting the ban on foreign beef?

Mr. Peart

I hope my hon. Friend appreciates that I am keeping the ban on mutton and lamb. We already have a ban on meat from West Germany and Italy. The previous Administration banned pig meat. However, I am glad to restore normal trading in beef in order to improve the position of supply. But at the same time I am anxious that we should have strong safeguards, and this is why I hope that the veterinary mission will succeed.

Mr. Biffen

Is the Minister aware that the heroic optimism of the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) will not be shared by every taxpayer who has had to contribute to the £26 million compensation? Is he further aware that the selectivity of choosing lamb rather than beef when lifting the ban on imports can be sustained only if his Veterinary Officer's report clearly establishes that this virus was of such a strain that it is found only in lamb and cannot be found in beef? Would the right hon. Gentleman confirm that he has been so advised by his Chief Veterinary Officer?

Mr. Peart

Before the hon. Gentleman becomes emotional, he should carefully read the scientific report. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] My answer is that if the hon. Member would read the report he would not come to the conclusion he has. It is not a question of being optimistic. I had to examine the report objectively, and I have done that.

Mr. William Edwards

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us on this side of the House appreciate the difficulties which he faces within the Cabinet, which is trying to make devaluation work? Could he tell us what firm contracts we have received from the Argentine to redress the balance of trade between the two countries in return for removing this ban?

Mr. Peart

That has nothing whatever to do with it.

Sir A. V. Harvey

Since the Ministry has had veterinary officers resident in and visiting the Argentine over a number of years, would the Minister say what the new mission will achieve which these officers have failed to achieve? Secondly, as he promised to deal with the financial situation, when will the House be told? What he said today will be ill received by farmers in my constituency whose herds have been struck down by this disease.

Mr. Peart

The hon. Gentleman has asked a very good question. Since the 1920s, we have had the Bledisloe arrangements which resulted from a mission which investigated conditions there. We are still working to that. The time has come, even if there had been no outbreak, for an examination of veterinary standards and arrangements which we have with supplying countries. I felt this when I was in Argentina last year. I discussed with the Argentine Government many improvements and reforms which they might make. This is the sort of thing which we may work out. This matter affects not just the Argentine Republic but many other supplying countries.

Mr. George Jeger

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his very careful statement and the adoption of selectivity in imports will bring great satisfaction to British exporters not only to South America but to countries such as Denmark? Would he include in the veterinary mission distinguished members of the veterinary profession who are not members of the Ministry's veterinary service?

Mr. Peart

I am afraid that I could not do that. I have put a distinguished veterinarian on the Northumberland Committee, but my official departmental veterinary team which goes to Argentina must contain people whom I employ and for whom I have responsibility. I could not bring in people from outside. That would not be right.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

Is the Minister aware that this is a rotten, bad compromise? Is he maintaining that the flocks of sheep and herds of cattle in the Argentine are kept separate? Is this virus applicable only to sheep in the Argentine? If so, how is it that so many cattle in this country have caught it and been slaughtered?

Mr. Peart

I do not think that that is a sensible question. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] I will tell hon. Members why. When the pigmeat ban was put on, I am sure that hon. Members did not argue that. I did not hear the cry during the period of the Conservative Administration, "You have put a ban on pigmeat. Why have you not done it for sheep?". The report points to sheep and lamb, and therefore I have taken action. This is not a party matter. In view of my veterinary officers' report, I believe that what we have done is right.

Mr. Gardner

Would my right hon. Friend repeat the assurance, which I thought he gave earlier, that if the Northumberland Committee or his own veterinary team make representations to him before 15th April he will consider keeping the ban on, because some hon. Members opposite seem to be hard of hearing or are unwilling to listen?

Mr. Peart

I have said that I shall consider the report of the Northumberland Committee and whatever my veterinary officers report back to me.

Mr. Kitson

Would the Minister confirm that his reply to the hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Kitson) before Christmas was correct, namely, that more outbreaks of foot-and-mouth in this country were caused by the import of Argentine beef than Argentine lamb?

Mr. Peart

I cannot remember saying that, but I will check. Historically, it may well have been so under previous Administrations, but I was not aware that they acted.

Earl of Dalkeith

Can the Minister confirm that the overseas buyers of British pedigree stock such as the Russians are happy to resume buying our stock so long as we resume importing beef from the Argentine? Has he had discussions with the Russian Government or with any other Governments who buy our stock?

Mr. Peart

No, I have not, but, in view of the termination of the epidemic, I hope that we shall be able to renew our exports of pedigree stock. I am well aware of the Russian position. This is a very valuable trade which we want to continue.

Sir J. Langford-Holt

The Minister's statement on beef will be a great disappointment. On the subject of mutton and lamb, is it the right hon. Gentleman's intention to have negotiations with the Argentine to ensure that their foot-and-mouth policy and ours are the same in future and that this will be a condition of the continued trade between our countries?

Mr. Peart

I have said that we shall have technical discussions with a view to improving standards in relation to safeguarding our herds from disease. This is the object.

Mr. James Johnson

In view of what happened under former Administrations, is my right hon. Friend completely satisfied that imports of beef were not involved in the recent initial outbreaks in this country?

Mr. Peart

The advice which I received came from my Chief Veterinary Officer. I hope that my hon. Friend will read his report. If he does, he will see why I came to this conclusion.

Sir W. Bromley-Davenport

Is it not very misleading to talk about any decrease in this terrible disease? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in Cheshire the majority of beasts which were standing outside are now six feet underground? What makes it even worse is that stock on farms which have since been restocked also caught this terrible disease and are now also six feet underground?

Mr. Peart

I am well aware of what happened in the county of Cheshire. It was a great tragedy. But the situation has been controlled now, and I hope that we are at the end of a long period of tragedy. However, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that we are now considering what to do next. That is why we have banned the importation of lamb, why we are sending a veterinary mission to our supplying countries and why we have the Northumberland Committee.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I must protect the business of the day.

Mr. Temple

On a point of order. I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 9, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely, the failure of the Minister of Agriculture to extend the ban on all meat imports from countries where foot-and-mouth disease is endemic until the Committee of inquiry has reported, and the serious dangers thus threatened for our livestock industry. I submit that this matter is specific. The present import ban should be extended until such time as the Minister has had a report from the Committee and he has been able to study it.

Secondly, I submit that it is important and urgent because farms are being restocked throughout the infected area and it is more than possible that another strain, or a similar strain, of virus may be introduced through imported meat, which would complicate the difficulties of the Committee of inquiry to an impossible extent. I submit that this is a matter which is right and proper for immediate debate in this House.

Mr. Speaker

I am grateful to the hon. Member for the City of Chester (Mr. Temple) for being courteous enough to give me notice this morning that he might take the action which he has taken.

The hon. Member asks leave to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 9 for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter which should have urgent consideration, namely: the failure of the Minister of Agriculture to extend the ban on all meat imports from countries where foot and mouth disease is still endemic until the Committee of inquiry has reported and the serious dangers thus threatened for our livestock industry The House will remember that under the new procedure of the revised Standing Order No. 9, which was agreed to on 14th November, 1967, Mr. Speaker is directed to take into account the several factors set out in that Order but to give no reason for his decision.

In the light of the new provisions, I now rule that the hon. Member's submission does not fall within the provisions of the revised Standing Order and, therefore, I cannot submit his application to the House.