HC Deb 09 April 1984 vol 58 cc21-3 3.32 pm
Mr. David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

(by private notice) asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement about the number of outbreaks of fowl pest throughout the United Kingdom, the number of chickens slaughtered and the source of infection, and what steps his Department is taking to prevent the sale of contaminated feedstuffs.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Michael Jopling)

Eleven outbreaks of Newcastle disease have recently been confirmed in Great Britain. About 420,000 birds have been slaughtered. All the cases where investigations have been completed, with one exception, provide evidence suggesting that the disease was caused by feed contaminated by feral pigeons. Suspicions centred on two storage areas in the port of Liverpool — Huskisson and Alexandra — which have subsequently been strengthened by the isolation of virus from raw material stored there. The feed trade associations have given, and carried out, an undertaking to emphasise to their members the importance of ensuring as far as they can that none of the contaminated materials is used in the preparation of poultry feed. I understand that no materials are leaving the contaminated premises in question without a warning that they should not be used in poultry feed.

We are preparing an urgent amendment to the fowl pest order which will further strengthen these arrangements by giving me the power to declare the storage areas in question an infected place. Further movements of feedingstuffs material from these stores would then be subject to licensing. Finally, we have been in touch with the metropolitan county authority which is considering whether to institute proceedings under feedingstuffs provisions of the Agriculture Act 1970.

Mr. Steel

I am grateful to the Minister for his statement. Will he confirm that the British Poultry Federation considers that the outbreak has already cost the industry millions of pounds, and that in the summer jobs are likely to be lost in the food processing factories because of the lack of chicks and eggs?

Will the Minister explain why the Ministry has not taken powers to stop the distribution of feedstuffs since issuing its press notice on 23 March? Is he aware that there is strong criticism of the fact that feedstuffs have been allowed on to farms not connected with poultry, from which the disease will inevitably spread, as there are very few farms which do not have some poultry on them?

Who will pay for the havoc that has been caused?

Mr. Jopling

When there is an outbreak of this magnitude, naturally one greatly regrets the difficulties that will be caused throughout the poultry industry. We hope that there will be very few, if any, further outbreaks of the disease.

We have been engaged in intensive discussions with all the interests concerned. We sought their immediate assurance that they would seek the co-operation of their members in ensuring that infected material was not used for poultry feed. Since the first discussions, positive evidence that infection exists in feedingstuffs has come to light. We shall need to cover the possibility that individual traders may not give full support to voluntary arrangements. In those circumstances, we considered it prudent to obtain more powers in the event of our not having the same co-operation as we have in this case.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that we are grateful for the extreme seriousness with which he has treated the outbreak and for the steps that he has in hand? I am sure that that is also appreciated by the British Poultry Federation.

Will my right hon. Friend have discussions with the Secretary of State for Scotland and do all that he can to prevent the disease from spreading into that country, which at the moment appears to be free of it?

Mr. Jopling

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his opening remarks. We shall discuss the matter with the Scottish Office, but there have been two outbreaks in, I think, Berwickshire.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

After the House has risen for the Easter recess, if my right hon. Friend judges it necessary to bring in compulsory vaccination, will he have power to do it while the House is in recess?

Mr. Jopling

I hope that it will not be necessary to move to compulsory vaccination, but if it is we shall move with a minimum of delay.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

Is the Minister aware that people in the areas surrounding the infected areas are astonished that the Government, having isolated the source of contaminated feedstuffs, did nothing about it? How can he possibly justify that decision?

Mr. Jopling

The hon. Gentleman has perhaps failed to note what happened subsequent to our discussions with the feed trades. I mentioned it in my statement.

I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the statement that was put out immediately by the United Kingdom Agricultural Supply Trade Association Ltd. The final paragraph of the statement, which I shall not read out to the House, says that the association has indicated to the Minister that it will emphasise to members the importance of ensuring, as far as they can, that none of the contaminated materials is used in the preparation of poultry feeds. It is ridiculous to suggest that we have done nothing.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Does the Minister agree that the correct course of action would have been to trace consignments of feed from the contaminated source and to warn individual purchasers of that feed that it might be contaminated?

We welcome the fact that there is no lateral infection of one flock by another, but is there any possibility of there being what I can only describe as lateral contamination in places where feed is held in store before being sent to individual customers?

Is the Ministry giving any help and advice to those whose flocks have had to be slaughtered, so that they may know how to obtain compensation from the suppliers of contaminated feed?

Mr. Jopling

This is a simple matter, on which producers should seek legal advice. I would not presume to give that advice. As to tracing consignments, the material from these stores was one of the rudimentary ingredients which appear in a large proportion of poultry feeds. We thought it right that the best way to do this was through discussions with UKASTA— to which I have already referred—which issued a press notice, and by keeping in touch with the British Poultry Federation.