HC Deb 01 May 1969 vol 782 cc1636-45
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Cledwyn Hughes)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I wish to make a statement on Part I of the Report of the Northumberland Committee on Foot-and-Mouth Disease, which deals with policy to prevent and control future outbreaks of the disease.

I regret that because of an industrial dispute affecting the Stationery Office it has not yet been possible to provide printed copies of the Report. This will be done as soon as possible. Meanwhile, limited numbers of photographic copies have been placed in the Library of the House and my Department has issued a Press notice containing the full text of the Committee's recommendations.

I would like to thank the Committee for its careful analysis of this complex problem and for the clear way in which it has set out its findings and recommendations. Its main recommendation is that the slaughter policy by itself should be continued as the best means of eradicating the disease provided that we maintain a meat import policy which reduces substantially the risk of primary outbreaks.

The Committee proposes that the existing ban on imports of mutton, lamb and pigmeat—including unprocessed sheep and pig offals—from countries where foot-and-mouth disease is endemic should be extended to all unprocessed beef imports, unless wider considerations should make this unacceptable, in which case imports from these countries should be limited to boneless beef and processed offal.

The Committee's view was that if bones, unprocessed offals and lymph glands were excluded from beef imported from such countries, the reduction of risk would be almost equivalent to that which would be achieved by a complete ban on imports.

The Government have taken account of this assessment of the animal disease risks of the alternative courses, along with their economic implications for our meat supplies and our trade with a number of traditional supplying countries with whom we value our close relations. The Government have decided that the animal health and other interests can best be served by accepting the Committee's recommendations to continue the existing ban on imports of mutton, lamb and pig-meat and unprocessed offals from such countries where foot-and-mouth disease is endemic, and by limiting imports of beef from such countries to boneless beef and processed offals.

There is already some trade in boneless beef, and to give reasonable time for the necessary changes in trading to be made, it is our intention to delay the introduction of the new arrangements until 1st October next. We propose to reduce the relatively high tariff of 20 per cent. on boneless beef so that a reasonable level of trade may flow, and will have the necessary consultations to this end.

The Committee considered that it would be necessary to impress upon the Governments of those countries which will be permitted to supply beef only in boneless form the importance of attaining a high standard of compliance with animal health requirements, and of hygiene and public health inspection.

The Government attach great importance to this matter and will follow it up urgently with the Governments of the countries concerned, who will be reminded of the necessity for Her Majesty's Government to withdraw immediately authorisation for supplies to come from plants which do not meet the required hygiene standards.

With the adoption of the Committee's recommendation on meat imports, we propose to continue to rely on slaughter by itself to eradicate foot-and-mouth disease. But we accept the Committee's recommendation to prepare contingency plans for ring vaccination.

We propose entering without delay on discussions with the Governments of countries and domestic interests affected by these decisions about their implementation.

I am circulating in the OFFICIAL REPORT and making available now in the Library our decisions on other recommendations of the Northumberland Committee.

The Committee is now studying the other aspects of its remit and I understand that it hopes to be able to present the second part of its Report towards the end of the year.

Mr. Godber

We would like to associate ourselves with what the Minister said in thanking the Duke of Northumberland and his colleagues on the Committee. We shall wish to study their Report with the greatest interest.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we welcome the retention of the principle of the slaughter policy, which I think, has always been welcomed on both sides of the House and throughout the whole country? Is he also aware that we wish to give a general welcome to the proposals on imports and to what the Minister told us today in regard to the Govment's intentions about them?

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us a little more about reduction—I think that that was the word he used—in the 20 per cent. tariff? The House would wish to be assured that there is no disadvantage in regard to boned meat. It would be ridiculous if there were a disadvantage in the light of what he said.

We would also wish to study the proposals for ring vaccination. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will keep the House informed about consultations on that.

Mr. Hughes

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for what he said about the attitude of the Opposition to the statement.

On tariffs, in the course of time import duties on boneless and on bone-in beef have got out of line. The duty on boneless beef is 20 per cent., and on bone-in beef it is ⅔d., or ¾d. per lb. which equals about 2.5 per cent. This is the difference between boned and carcass beef. Since we are channelling supplies to boned beef, we need to make an adjustment to allow the trade to flow reasonably.

Dr. John Dunwoody

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement and assure him that it will give rise to wide satisfaction throughout the country? Could he publish very soon a list of countries which are considered to be foot-and-mouth disease free from which there will be no restriction on the import of meat to this country? Secondly, can my right hon. Friend say anything about a ban on importation of meat from Uruguay, announced this morning?

Mr. Hughes

I will certainly consider the questions my hon. Friend has asked. As to Uruguayan meat, we have to make absolutely sure that meat which comes into Britain is safe. In the light of advice from our public health and animal health experts, I had no option but to withdraw the certificate in relation to Uruguay, because I was not satisfied that meat inspection arrangements there were adequate. My view is that we cannot take risks with public health.

Mr. Turton

Will the Minister explain why, if he attaches great importance to the animal health aspects of this policy, he takes the risk of delaying the ban for five months?

Mr. Hughes

I do not think that this is unreasonable. In view of the adjustments which will have to be made by traditional suppliers, this can be regarded as a comparatively short time.

Mr. Wellbeloved

Will my right hon. Friend give a clear undertaking that he will arrange for a debate as soon as possible on his acceptance and interpretation of the Committee's recommendations? He will bear in mind that those of us who have had an opportunity to make a very quick reading of the Report are alarmed at the suggestion in paragraph 80 that it is impossible to identify the origin of the 1967–68 outbreak.

We are also concerned that the Committee's findings are not based on scientific grounds. I would give a welcome to my right hon. Friend's statement as to the reduction in the duty and as to consultations. That is absolutely essential if the effect of this unfortunate policy is to be minimised in relation to the price of meat to the housewife.

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is a time for brief questions, not for debate.

Mr. Hughes

I appreciate that my hon. Friend and right hon. and hon. Gentlemen would wish for time to study the Report. The question of a debate is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and the usual channels. I am sure that my right hon. Friend has heard what my hon. Friend has said.

I realise that hon. Members will be concerned about the question of price increases. I do not think that a change to boneless beef should cause a general increase in meat prices. There may be some reduction in the quantity of some of the cheaper cuts available. But I do not think that there will be a sharp rise in price.

Mr. Grant-Ferris

Will the Minister convey to His Grace the Duke of Northumberland and his Committee the very heartfelt gratitude which the farmers in my constituency will feel for the enormous amount of work which these distinguished gentlemen have done? They have very largely met the policies which we have been advocating for so long.

Will the right hon. Gentleman also give an undertaking that the recommendation, which is not specifically mentioned, on epidemiology will be taken very seriously and acted upon quickly, because research takes time and it is very important that the utmost trouble should be taken to eradicate the disease on the lines recommended?

Mr. Hughes

I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman has said. I agree that the question of epidemiology is a very important matter which we must study.

Mr. Oakes

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that as well as being Minister of Agriculture he is also Minister of Food? Will he consider the effects on the price of meat of this ban on Argentinian meat? Has he calculated, and can he tell the House, by what percentage the price of meat in Britain is likely to rise? Will the acceptance of this Report mean that some families in Britain will not be able to eat meat?

Mr. Hughes

I know that my hon. Friend will wish me to take a balanced view, not only as Minister of Agriculture, but also as Minister of Food. This I have consistently tried to do. I do not think that a change to boneless beef should cause a general increase in meat prices, but there could be a slight increase in the price of some of the cheaper cuts which are available. Our policy—I think that it is important to emphasise this to the House—is not a total ban, but a change to boneless meat, and the trade should be able to make this change.

Mr. Alasdair Mackenzie

On behalf of the Liberal Party, I would like to associate myself with the tributes already paid to the Duke of Northumberland and his Committee for this very comprehensive Report. It will be widely welcomed in the livestock industry, and I hope that the Minister will implement the main recommendations at the earliest possible moment—if possible, before October.

It is noted that there are substantial gaps in our scientific knowledge. In the long term I think that this is a very important issue. What proposals has the Minister got to overcome this lack of scientific knowledge?

Mr. Hughes

I am grateful to the spokesman for the Liberal Party for what he has said. I believe that 1st October is a reasonable date by which to make the necessary adjustments.

I agree that much research has been done and that the Duke of Northumberland and his Committee have made a very valuable contribution and filled most of the gaps in our knowledge. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will wish to read the Report before making a final judgment.

Mr. Maclennan

I have no doubt that the Report will be warmly welcomed by the agricultural community in Scotland. What action will my right hon. Friend be taking to satisfy himself about the animal health conditions in the countries from which we are likely to import? Will he undertake to keep the House informed about the reactions of the countries which are likely to be affected?

Mr. Hughes

We have to work out these arrangements in some detail. I will certainly make an announcement to the House about them. The important step which we shall be taking is to strengthen our veterinary staffs in these countries as a matter of urgency.

Mr. Biffen

Can the Minister confirm that the Northumberland Committee said that the Government had a choice between either a total ban on carcase beef or restriction to boned meat, depending upon economic and political considerations? Did the Committee itself indicate which course it would have preferred merely on consideration of animal health?

Mr. Hughes

The Committee did not come down strongly for one or the other. As the hon. Gentleman has said, it took account of the fact that there are social, economic and commercial considerations, but it made clear that there would be little difference in animal health protection between a total ban on carcase beef and the boneless beef solution, provided that there is a high standard of compliance with animal health standards. Our duty now is to ensure that these safeguards exist.

Mr. Paget

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, whilst we all say, "Thank you very much", there will be the father and mother of a row if we get an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease from boned meat before October? Is it possible to keep any tag or control on the distribution of boned meat during the intermediate period before October?

Mr. Hughes

The possibilities of an outbreak are a constant source of anxiety to myself and all hon. Members. I believe that it would be difficult to set a date earlier than 1st October for the new import arrangements. In the meantime, my officials are keeping a constant watch on the situation in relation to boned and boneless meat.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

As one who advocated the boneless beef policy week after week in the House, I am very gratified that the Committee has reached the same conclusion. Will there be a full publication of all the evidence—not for members of the public, but to be placed in the Library? Because of the Gower Report and of the uncertainties that remain, it would be very useful if a very wide range of the evidence which has been taken by this excellent Committee could be placed in the Library for our use?

Mr. Hughes

I will certainly consider that.

Mr. Gardner

Those of us who represent rural constituencies accept that a repetition of last year's disaster must be prevented. Will my right hon. Friend say a little more about what he intends to do about the 20 per cent. duty'? What does he mean by "out of line"? Will he accept that many of us on this side will expect him to ensure that the duty is reduced to a rate which will maintain the lower level of beef prices?

Mr. Hughes

These import duties have been in existence since the 1930s. This is why I said that the tariffs on carcase beef and on boneless beef are out of line. But I cannot say more this afternoon, because this must now be a matter of negotiation, not only with traditional supplying countries outside the Commonwealth but with Commonwealth countries as well.

Mr. Farr

May I congratulate the Minister on his statement and ask for a clear undertaking that under no circumstances will these regulations be postponed after October 1st?

Secondly, what action does he intend to take to encourage the home beef producing industry to meet any shortfall in supply that may come about when imports from South American countries slacken?

Mr. Hughes

I am hopeful that the date 1st October will be adhered to. I outlined in the Annual Review the incentives to the home beef producer, and, as the House knows, they were generally welcomed.

Mr. Temple

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that for many of us the vast massacre of livestock during the last epidemic is a very living memory? While congratulating him on most of his proposals, may I ask whether he is aware that the main proposal of the Committee was for a complete ban? Is he satisfied that what he has proposed will not be a very big disappointment to the livestock industry?

Mr. Hughes

I believe that when farmers and others in the country read the Report of the Northumberland Committee and study the arguments they will come to the conclusion that the policy which the Government are now adopting, which is in line with a major recommendation of the Committee, is the right one. It will be widely welcomed.

Mr. Noble

Will the Minister not agree that, while there is an argument for continuing with boned beef till 1st October, if he is to do this there is also a very great duty on him really to see that this meat is properly inspected in the country of origin? All the evidence we had at the time of the typhoid epidemic, and the evidence that I have seen since, is that the inspection machinery in these countries, run by the right hon. Gentleman's Ministry, has been totally inadequate.

Mr. Hughes

The inspection machinery goes back a long time. But it has been strengthened considerably in recent months and will now be strengthened again. The House will be aware of the decisive action I have taken during recent days and recent months wherever I believed that there was any danger.

Following is the information: I have dealt with the main recommendations of the Committee in my statement this afternoon. The Committee also recognised that, within countries where the disease is endemic, there may be well-defined areas completely free of foot-and-mouth disease. We shall explore the possibility of supplies from such areas. We should have to be fully satisfied that conditions existed for keeping such areas free of disease. There are three recommendations, numbers V to VII in the Report, which the Secretary of State for Scotland and I accept in principle. Revocable conditional licences are already used to a considerable extent to regulate the imports of meat and we are considering the extension of their use, as the Committee recommends. We agree with the Committee that the cleansing and disinfection at the point of entry into Great Britain of vehicles engaged in the transport of livestock is desirable. There are difficulties to overcome in introducing the control, and we shall be considering these problems with the authorities concerned. The Agricultural Research Council will take account in its planning of the recommendation on the expansion of research at the Animal Virus Research Institute at Pirbright; and arrangements are being made to put epidemiological teams into the field in support of the epidemiological studies that are usually conducted during an attack of the disease.