HC Deb 12 March 1968 vol 760 cc1333-40

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Armstrong.]

11.17 p.m.

Sir John Langford-Holt (Shrewsbury)

By the rules of the House I must be very careful not to anticipate in any way the debate which will take place tomorrow. I want, therefore, to raise the question of a difference of opinion between one of my constituents and the Minister of Agriculture on the question of compensation for foot-and-mouth disease.

It might be convenient if I were to give what I understand to be the history of the case. On 20th December last foot-and-mouth broke out at the farm of Mr. E. P. Jones, Horton Lodge Farm, Cruckton, Shropshire. The stock affected were 109 cattle of an Ayrshire pedigree herd, plus two bulls and 239 pigs. There is no difference of opinion about the pigs.

The Ministry vet arrived at 10.30 a.m. on the morning of 20th December and at 2 p.m. Mr. Mullock, the Ministry valuer, arrived and carried out a valuation. He handed Mr. Jones particulars of his valuation on a piece of paper. There were no printed Ministry forms available at this time. The valuation was for 57 cows £9,110, for 52 young stock £4,080, a total of £13,190. The Ministry at this stage called in a Mr. Kirkwood of Reading as another valuer. Mr. Jones was told by the Ministry vet that Mr. Kirkwood was coming to value the bulls. No mention was made of other animals. Mr. Kirkwood arrived at 1 a.m. on the 21st December and saw both bulls, by which time they were dead, having been given an anaesthetic by the Ministry vet.

At 9 a.m. on 21st December, that is later the same morning, Mr. Kirkwood returned and carried out a second valuation of the cattle. This valuation lasted until about 5.30 p.m. He filled in the Ministry's valuation form, and he made the valuation £8,771, as against the previous figure of £13,190. Mr. Jones regarded that, and said so at the time, as a ridiculous figure, and Mr. Kirkwood then left. There were three Ministry officials at the farm at that time, and they attempted to persuade Mr. Jones to sign a valuation form. They said that it would not mean anything if he signed it, but Mr. Jones refused, and after a while they told him that he could get a third valuer on his own behalf, and this he did. At 8.30 p.m. Mr. McMorran arrived from Wellington, and completed his valuation at 10.30, that is two hours later. Slaughtering has started before he had completed his valuation.

The two bulls had died before they were valued by the Ministry's valuer at a figure which the Ministry now wishes to accept. The originally infected bull was sedated at 10.45 a.m. on the 20th, and this is how Mr. Jones described the condition of the bulls: The bull was then given another injection and shortly after he began to cry out. Twelve hours later he finally died, having been bawling and crying all the time. At midnight he struggled to get up and then died. I had a second bull which was injected in a similar manner. He was driven out of his pen into the rain—he luckily died in five hours. The point that I wish to make is that the bulls, having been subjected to considerable discomfort, to put it no higher, were dead when they were valued.

I will deal only with two valuations which are relevant, the one made by Mr. Mullock, who was chosen by Mr. Jones, and the valuation by Mr. Kirkwood, whose valuation the Ministry seeks to use. I have here a letter from Mr. Mullock commenting on the Minister's subsequent decision. It shows knowledge, competence, and indeed diligence, and the comments of a man who knew what he was doing. As he said in his letter, this herd was one of the best dairy herds in the country". Similar comments have been made by the Vice-Chairman of the Shropshire Ayrshire Breeders Club, and the President-Elect of the Ayrshire Society of the British Isles.

Perhaps we might look for a moment at the circumstances surrounding Mr. Mullock's valuation. The first point to note is that it was the first of the valuations. These terrible things were happening at this farm through nobody's fault, and it is important to note that the first valuation is most likely to be the most significant one. Secondly, Mr. Mullock had with him a Mr. Holmes who was also a Ministry valuer. They arrived at 2.30 p.m. on the 20th, a few hours after the outbreak had been reported. During the valuation a volunteer veterinary surgeon for the Ministry was left in charge. He admitted that he knew nothing about Ayrshires, and anyway, as far as I understand it, expressed the view that Friesians were much better. He was told, when Mr. Mullock had completed his valuation—this was at 5.30 in the evening—that no valuation forms were available. The veterinary surgeon, of whom I have spoken, had already telephoned the Shrewsbury centre to say that, in his view, the valuation which had been given was much too high.

Mr. Mullock gave Mr. Jones a written statement of his valuation—I will come later to the quality of that statement—and Mr. Jones acceped it. He accepts it still. Mr. Mullock and Mr. McMorran were then removed—Mr. McMorran having given a valuation as well—from the Ministry's list of approved valuers. It is my view that they were badly treated, to put it mildly.

I come to Mr. Kirkwood's valuation. He arrived at 1.30 a.m. on the 21st after a journey of 200 miles. I am told that even before he had seen the bulls he had put a price on them. It should be noted that one of the bulls had been dead for 10 hours and that the other had been dead for one-and-a-half hours. During Mr. Kirkwood's valuation of the cattle, Mr. Jones was not allowed to point out either the milk record or the pedigree of his cows.

It is worth noting, too, that among the animals being valued were nine heifers which had been with the bull which had taken 13 hours to die; and one can therefore imagine the condition of these animals when they were valued. It was 33 hours after normal husbandry had ceased that Mr. Kirkwood's valuation was finished. They had given milk at 8 p.m., but during this period they had received no feed. During Mr. Kirk-wood's valuation, these animals had gone through—this is obvious but it must be emphasised—exceptional changes in their routine. Having heard comments about the conduct and results of this whole affair, I would not like to state many of them, although they may have to be stated at a later stage if the Ministry persists in its policy.

I come to Mr. Mullock's written valuation and the law. The Joint Parliamentary Secretary, the hon. Member for Enfield, East (Mr. John Mackie), who I believe is in South America, talked about the "statutory procedure laid down by Parliament". Under paragraph 3(1) of the relevant Statutory Instrument, this procedure is given and, whether or not the Minister likes it, that procedure was carried out. It was obeyed in all respects. I have read the Instrument, but it contains nothing about a printed form, which the Minister suggested should have been available. The Minister said that Mr. Mullock was not employed to give Mr. Jones the statement required under paragraph 3(1), but Mr. Mullock was so employed by the Ministry and there is no doubt that he gave such a document containing the valuation to Mr. Jones. In a letter to Mr. Jones' solicitors, the Ministry of Agriculture made this extraordinary statement: It must have been perfectly clear to Mr. Jones at the time that an unsigned piece of paper of such informality was not an official document from the Minister. Later the letter stated that if it had been he … would hardly have scribbled all over it. However, anybody with experience of the personal filing systems adopted in country districts knows that this sort of thing happens to documents. There is no mention of the need for signatures in the Statutory Instrument, and it does not say anything about an official document or about whether a document from the Minister should be formal or informal. There is no doubt that this statement by Mr. Mullock was given by a valuer employed by the Minister, whether he likes it or not. Arbitration is not the answer at this stage. The law has been properly followed, and the Minister, like Mr. Jones, should follow it. The Minister appointed a referee, he did not like the score, he fired the referee and he now expects my constituent to agree to a replay.

11.32 p.m.

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

I am grateful in a way to the hon. Member for Shrewsbury (Sir J. Langford-Holt) for raising this subject, but it was not his intention to raise it tonight. Indeed, if he felt so warmly about it, one would have expected him to choose this as his subject, but he did not.

Sir J. Langford-Holt

The subject which I had intended to raise tonight I have been applying for for the past six weeks. Many of the final details of this present matter have not yet reached me because they were posted in Shrewsbury at 1.30 p.m. yesterday and I have not yet received them.

Mr. Hoy

This was not the hon. Gentleman's original subject: there is no doubt about that. He did us the courtesy of 'phoning at 11.30 to say that this was the subject which he would raise—

Sir J. Langford-Holt


Mr. Hoy

I listened to the hon. Member for a quarter of an hour—

Sir J. Langford-Holt

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Am I not entitled to protection? I was telephoned only this morning by the Table Office and told that I was not allowed to raise the subject of which I had given notice earlier.

Mr. Hoy

With all respect, that is just what I said—that the hon. Gentleman did not put down this subject. He must not get angry about how the debate came about when I mention it. I do not know why he should be so peeved.

One of the troubles which he has given us—I have read all the correspondence on this matter—is that it is difficult to speak about this case at the moment. The hon. Member knows that there is the possibility of it going to court. He will know this from the correspondence. Therefore, it would obviously be wrong for me to comment on that aspect. In any case, it has been agreed that, failing this recourse, it should go to arbitration. I am a little surprised that the hon. Member should have seen fit to raise it, in view of these circumstances.

It is not for me to defend unconfirmed statements by certain people at these interviews, as reported by the hon. Gentleman. But I would say, with regard to his comments about the vet who apparently did not know the difference between an Ayrshire and a Friesian, that the hon. Gentleman does a gross injustice to a competent man—

Sir J. Langford-Holt


Mr. Hoy

This is what the hon. Gentleman said. I do not know whether he is aware of what he said, but he does an injustice to the man concerned, who is held in high repute. I obviously must defend him. The two bulls the hon. Member spoke so much about were, I think, the property of the brother of the owner of the farm and happened to be there for a certain purpose. The R.S.P.C.A. officer called at the veterinary centre about them. He had witnessed the use of the tranquillisers and believed that it was done in the best way. We should get this into proper perspective.

The matter has been taken up by the owners' solicitors direct with my right hon. Friend's Department. Of course, in all the replies given the Department has been acting on the advice of the Minister's legal adviser. There is undoubtedly, and I admit this, a dispute over the valuation of the cattle involved, although not of the pigs. The hon. Member said this, I believe, and I agree. The dispute is in regard to the valuation of the cattle and the owners have been given the opportunity of going to arbitration and I understand that their solicitors agree. No doubt the arbitrator will resolve this problem. Because of this I can make no comment on this or on the claim made by the owners' solicitors that the original valuation, which was given to the owners by the first valuer, is a legal document under the terms of the Diseases of Animals (Ascertainment of Compensation) Act, 1959.

There was a paper, I have heard it described as a scrap of paper. I am not disputing that at times there may be peculiar ways of keeping accounts in the farming world. I am sure that the House would agree that it would be wrong for me to say more about that at this stage, because this may be the paper which will be produced if a legal case ensues. I am certain that neither the hon. Member nor I would be doing his constituent any good if we were to discuss that in the course of this debate. There is, however, some confusion as to the procedure on valuation. I think that we had better have it clear for the record because this is not something new, something invented by this Government. It has been going on for many years. Under the Diseases of Animals (Ascertainment of Compensation) Order, 1959, the Minister has to value the animals and give notice in writing to the owner of this. For this purpose, the Minister obtains the advice of an expert valuer, but this person is in no sense a referee. He is engaged by the Minister to give the Minister his professional advice. If the Minister, or any of his staff acting on his behalf, does not accept the professional advice, he may discharge his first adviser and employ another.

No doubt this is a matter that the Northumberland Committee of Inquiry may want to look into, whether this is a good system or a bad one, but I remind the hon. Member that it is part of the existing law of the land and has been for many years. I have no doubt that when the Committee looks at the case it might want to look at this point. In this particular case the principle of arbitration was agreed. Attempts were then made to agree on an arbitrator. The names of valuers from outside the foot-and-mouth disease infected area were suggested to Mr. J. S. Jones, owner of the two bulls, and Mr. E. P. Jones, owner of the remainder of the cattle. They refused to accept any of the names and claimed that they must have an arbitrator from within the area. The Department therefore wrote and told them that we would not accept this and that we wished to adopt the statutory procedure and ask the President of the Chartered Auctioneers and Estate Agents Institute to nominate an arbitrator. That is the procedure which is followed.

The next stage was a solicitor's letter enclosing a scrap of paper which Mr. Mullock, the original valuer, is said to have presented to Mr. Jones. If so, that was quite without authority. The solicitors claimed that this was the statement in writing as provided for in Article 3(i) of the Order, and must therefore be paid. On legal advice, we rejected this view and the correspondence with the solicitors is still proceeding. The solicitors have recently replied to the effect that they are proposing to present the scrap of paper to the arbitrators. It is not for the arbitrator to decide whether this is a valid document under the Order. Most' hon. Members would agree that only the courts can determine whether the solicitors' claim is legally correct.

It was in those circumstances that I said at the beginning that there was very little more I could say. When it has been agreed to take a case to arbitration, and when there is even a possibility of legal action, it would be quite improper for me to make any further comment in the House tonight. Obviously, when an hon. Member raises a case of this kind I am bound to take note of what he has said. I shall certainly have one more look at it in case anything has been missed, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that neither he nor I will lend very much to the case by discussing it tonight as it may be going to the courts. Neither he nor I would want to say anything that would impair the chances of his constituent or of a correct verdict being reached.

In any case, if we go through the whole procedure of arbitration I think that he would agree that we want the arbitrator to be free to make his valuation without having been influenced by anything said here.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes to Twelve o'clock.