HL Deb 23 July 1914 vol 17 cc137-49

LORD LOVAT rose to call the attention of His Majesty's Government to the steps taken by the local authorities of England and Scotland prohibiting the importation of Irish cattle, and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I want to call the attention of the House to the question of the cattle trade in Great Britain and Ireland. I think this matter is of such importance that it does not require any apology from me for introducing it. It is a matter in which all farmers are interested, whether they are breeders or owners of pedigree stock. It is also a matter which obviously interests the whole of the meat trade; and consumers naturally, through the fluctuation in the price of cattle which occurs and the disorganisation of the trade, are also largely interested.

The situation, put as briefly as possible, is that the cattle trade between England and Ireland for two years now has been disorganised. I do not say that during the whole of that time there have been outbreaks in Ireland or in England, but for the last two years outbreaks have been recurrent, and many of the restrictions put on to deal with one outbreak remain in force until the next outbreak has arisen. Even as lately as yesterday or the day before I noticed that there had been a further outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Ireland, making, I think, about the seventy-fourth or seventy-fifth outbreak in all since January of this year. It is obvious that this is a serious matter, and one which causes the greatest concern, not only to the farmers but to consumers, who are beginning to realise the difficulties in which they may be put.

The special side of the question to which I want to call the attention of His Majesty's Government to-day is the position of the local authorities of the counties and boroughs with that of the Board of Agriculture. We have had periods in which the Board of Agriculture have practically taken off their restrictions, and we have found that counties and local authorities have put on restrictions and acted in almost direct opposition to the Board of Agriculture. This is a most unsatisfactory state of things, and I believe it arises from two causes. The local authority obviously wishes to keep its cattle clear in the particular county or borough it administers, and I hear rumours of farmers' meetings which are held by which the local authority is forced to put on these restrictions. A situation occurred about three months ago in which practically the majority of the restrictions had been either withdrawn or considerably modified, and yet in Scotland the whole of the counties, with the exception of Clackmannan, did not allow the cattle to be landed. This restrictive action of the local authorities also prevents the movement of cattle. If a county imports stock from Ireland the cattle cannot be moved from that county. Therefore you have a combination of restrictions which is most hurtful to the trade in every sense. This restriction made by the local authorities arises partly from suspicion of the method of conducting work in Ireland, and also from a suspicion that political pressure is put on the Board of Agriculture. I do not subscribe to either of those two suspicions. I have no complaint to make of Mr. Runciman's action. As far as I can judge, he is certainly carrying out the work of dealing with disease in this country most admirably. But the fact remains that suspicion does exist, and that the cattle trade is very materially hampered by these restrictions made in places.

I suggest that an inquiry should be held to see what can be done to make the administration of the Animal Diseases Act more efficient in Great Britain and also to link together the administration in Ireland and this country. There is no doubt that the methods are entirely, or to a very great extent, different in Ireland from what they are here, and the mere fact of that difference naturally leads to suspicion. Ireland may be perfectly well administered for all I know, but there are certain methods which do not seem to be so good as those we have on this side. I submit that it is well worth considering whether it is not possible to put the whole of the Animal Diseases Act under one authority, or at all events group the authorities so that they are much closer together than they are at the present time. As your Lordships will remember at the time of the introduction of the Scottish Land Bill the idea was to separate the authority for land from that dealing with animal diseases, which idea was stoutly resisted on this side of the House; and I think Scotland is to be congratulated that she has only one authority for animal diseases.

May I point out what advantages would arise if you had one central authority dealing with this subject. You could mobilise your inspectors and send them down at once to deal with any cattle disease that occurred. A single cargo of cattle suffering from disease can infect twenty markets in a day. Again, some of the cattle on arrival are driven off into the country and may infect three or four herds the first day. Therefore it is not only necessary to have adequate examination of the cattle but power to mobilise the inspectors on the spot to deal with any outbreak. It will probably be admitted that in all these matters in Ireland—it is exactly the same on the West Coast of Scotland—a good deal of local pressure is put on if you have an over-zealous inspector. I submit that if you had one central authority an inspector could be changed if the district got too hot for him, and another could be moved in to take his place. I further submit that that would also tend to the more efficient carrying out of the work.

Then there is the question of numbers, which is so important. If you had close relation so that inspectors could be changed over and sent to Ireland or Scotland or England wherever an outbreak occurred, that also would be a matter of advantage. Time also is of great importance. At the present moment there must be a loss of time arising from the necessity of one Department communicating with the other. A further point is that in Ireland your inspectors are veterinary surgeons and many of them are also practising privately. It stands to reason that a veterinary surgeon who has other local work to do cannot be such an efficient individual as an inspector of the Board of Agriculture of Great Britain who has nothing to do except his work under the Animal Diseases Act. He is a much more independent person, and can carry out the work more thoroughly. I put these views forward tentatively on the subject of what I believe should be the general line of inquiry.

I am confirmed in my belief that an inquiry should take place, because I notice that in the debate in another place on June 16 Mr. Runciman stated that— If any assistance can come from representatives of Irish stock-owners or English stock-owners, or local authorities in England or in Ireland, I think there might be some good in our holding some Conference of that kind or setting up a Committee which would sit with that object. And the matter was taken up, not only by Mr. Bathurst, who speaks with authority on English agriculture, but also by an Irish Member of Parliament who said he had authority to speak for the meat trade, and by two or three other Irish Members.

As far as I know, everything may be done in the best possible way in Ireland to lessen and shut things in, but the fact remains that they have had seventy-five outbreaks there in the last few months, and those outbreaks are still continuing. That is one thing. The second thing is that you have had numerous instances in the last month in which practically the whole of the local authorities have said, "We are not going to have these cattle brought into our districts." Notwithstanding that the Board of Agriculture have given permission for the cattle to be landed. I think that what I have said is enough to show that the condition of affairs is unsatisfactory, and that there is suspicion in the country of the way in which the Animal Diseases Act has been administered; and, as such is the case, I think an inquiry is desirable.

Moved for Papers relating to the steps taken by the local authorities of England and Scotland prohibiting the importation of Irish cattle.—(Lord Lovat.)


My Lords, my noble friend has taken exception to the action of the local authorities—


I do not take exception to the action of the local authorities. I only take exception to the existence of these separate authorities.


I quite understand that, but the noble Lord took exception to the county authorities taking upon themselves to prevent Irish cattle coming within their areas when they were not satisfied with the action of the Board of Agriculture. I believe Lincolnshire was the first county that started that, after the April Cattle Fair. There were some great sales, and there were representatives present from all the dairy farms in the Midland counties and stockbreeders and those who feed cattle for the butcher. There was a unanimous feeling that there could be no trust whatever in the action of the Board of Agriculture, because the Board relied entirely upon the representations made to them by the Board of Agriculture in Ireland. There is one thing that may be remarked. The Chief Secretary for Ireland has carefully never, during the last three years, stated in the House of Commons that he placed implicit confidence in the reports which were made to him. He has kept himself clear of every action with regard to cattle disease, and he has left it to Mr. Russell and to the Inspectors in Ireland to give him information to convey to the Board of Agriculture in England, on which they have acted.

I believe that Mr. Runciman has had the trust of all agriculturists in the way he has dealt to the best of his ability with the information he received, and I think he deserves our thanks, and I had the pleasure of moving a resolution to that effect last year. But we say that he relies too much on the reports from Ireland, and that those reports are not trustworthy. It is notorious that in the great outbreak in Ireland two years ago, when cattle were sent over in numbers to Liverpool, the cattle dealers in Ireland were well aware that they were not to be bought and did not buy them. It is also well known that, at the time when there was said to be very little disease in Ireland disease was actually prevalent everywhere, and there was not the care taken that might have been taken. In the last case where the inspectors had been down into the locality where it was supposed the disease existed, I believe they managed to slaughter a good many cattle; but the disease was set afoot again because one man in his selfishness had concealed a calf which had come from the locality where the other diseased cattle had been.

When that sort of thing is going on in Ireland you cannot expect but that the English people will take care of themselves.

My noble friend says that it would be a good thing if all agricultural questions were put under one Department. I think every one will agree with that. But we have to take things as they are. They are under two Departments, and, speaking for the agriculturists of the Midland and Eastern counties, so long as the present system exists, and so long as the English Department is dependent on the information that they get from Ireland, we shall act on the information we ourselves get from Ireland and use the power which we have in Lincolnshire and other counties of keeping cattle out when we believe it is not to the interests of those whom we have to look after to allow them to come in.


My Lords, I entirely agree with Lord Lovat's object, which is to bring about a better understanding all round with regard to the present position, and to try and inspire a little more confidence on the part of those local authorities who are at the present moment keeping out Irish cattle. It is, unfortunately, because that confidence does not exist at the present time in the degree which it might do that a great many of the present difficulties have arisen, and I can only state what our attitude at the Board of Agriculture is. I am not here to answer for the Irish Department of Agriculture, and I should be very sorry to do so—for this reason, and for this reason only, that there inevitably must come times when we and they do not see eye to eye, and we have to differ from them. Both Departments acknowledge that. And in everything I say I want simply to state our point of view, and I am perfectly prepared to state candidly what our relations with the Irish Department are.

I should like to point out, first of all, that the cattle trade between the two countries is one-sided. We send comparatively very few animals to Ireland, whereas they send enormous numbers to this country. In a normal year they send over one million. When any stoppage occurs, due to foot-and-mouth disease, the damage done to Irish farmers is enormous. No one realises that more than the Irish people do themselves, and no one realises it more clearly than the Irish Department of Agriculture. Therefore it is only natural, apart from any other considerations, that they should do every thing they possibly can to prevent the existence of foot-and-mouth disease in Ireland. And speaking for the English Board of Agriculture I can say that we have no complaint whatever to make of the way in which the Irish Department of Agriculture have dealt with outbreaks as they have occurred, and they have done their best to keep the country absolutely clear of disease. They have done it from the strongest of all possible motives, the motive of self-interest; and I am quite convinced of this, that if we had had the duty of administering Ireland we could not have done more than they have done.

Lord Lovat suggests an inquiry on two grounds which he alleges are the cause of the present difficult position—one, the suggestion of political pressure, and the other the crop of rumours that are circulating in this country. I am not sure that any inquiry would be able to investigate satisfactorily such a charge as that of political pressure. I know that political pressure is always supposed to exist, but I can say that no political pressure has been exerted which has had the slightest effect on my right hon. friend the President of the Board of Agriculture, for the very simple reason that no pressure that could possibly be brought by, let us say, the whole of the Irish Party in the House of Commons would be one quarter so strong as would be the pressure brought upon him on the other side by the whole body of British agriculturists to maintain their interests. Therefore if there is such a thing as political pressure and my right hon. friend is in any way susceptible to it, I am quite sure that that pressure would be exerted against Ireland rather than in favour of Ireland.

The thing which probably has as great an effect with local authorities as anything else is the enormous amount of rumour that is going about as to the health of animals in Ireland. I do not suppose we get a quarter of those rumours, but quite enough reach us for us to know the sort of talk which is going on among British farmers. All I can say is this, that it would be of the greatest service both to us and to the Irish Department of Agriculture if those rumours, if they could be solidified into anything, could be brought straight to our notice, and I am quite certain that the Irish Department would be more than ready and anxious thoroughly to investigate them. We have had rumours brought to us from time to time and we have been asked to have them investigated, but I am bound to say that in no case have they materialised. I know that in the minds of a great many people there is the belief that foot-and-mouth disease exists in Ireland and that all information about it is being suppressed. Foot-and-mouth disease is, of all things, the one about which one never can be positive. I do not want in the least to dogmatise, because one cannot state anything with certainty about it. But I would like to point this out. The export trade of cattle from Ireland is considerable. It affects the whole of Ireland. You get the fat stock coming from the East of Ireland and the store stock coming in from the West of Ireland. They converge by various channels, by railways and steamers and markets; and I think it would be almost an impossibility, foot-and-mouth disease being the highly infectious disease it is, for the disease to exist in Ireland without our being able to trace it through the animals which have come into this country.

During the year 1913 over 1,000,000 cattle—nearly 2,000,000 cattle, sheep, and swine—came into this country. They all came to our landing places, and were examined by veterinary surgeons when they came in. Some went to be slaughtered and others went away as store cattle to various parts of England, but not one single case of foot-and-mouth disease was traced to those cattle. I do not think that would have been so had the state of things which some people believe to exist in Ireland really been going on. There was a point which Lord Heneage made in explaining the reason why the Board of Agriculture does not command the confidence of agriculturists in this country.


Not the English Board of Agriculture. I said that the English Board of Agriculture had their confidence, but that the Irish Department of Agriculture had not.


I thought the noble Lord's point was that the English Board of Agriculture had not the confidence of the local authorities in this matter, because it acted on the information of the Irish Department. But if we have their confidence, I should like to ask him why they do not follow our advice and allow the importation of Irish animals? The fullest information passes naturally between the two Departments, but I would not like any one to think that the English Board of Agriculture always does what the Irish Department of Agriculture tells it to do. We reserve absolute freedom as to what steps we shall take, when to open the ports, what ports we shall open, and what restrictions we shall put on.

Lord Lovat suggested that the best way to deal with this question was by a closer linking up between the two authorities concerned—the Irish Department of Agriculture and the English Board of Agriculture—firstly because of the difference of method which he alleges to exist between the two, and, secondly, because under single control he thinks things would be better. As regards the difference of method, I am not quite sure that I gather what the noble Lord means. As regards the methods of dealing with the outbreaks, the methods of the two countries are practically identical; the steps they take are very much the same; and they consult us at almost every stage of the stamping-out proceedings.


The different methods of using the personnel would perhaps more accurately describe what I mean.


I do not think there is much difference in the method of using the personnel. The noble Lord was referring to the question of the local inspectors—


And part-time veterinary surgeons.


To a certain extent, though I speak without any special knowledge of the Irish Department, I think our methods are more or less identical. Both Boards have a considerable staff of whole-time inspectors in their employment, and those are the men who normally do the Boards' work. But I imagine that the Irish Department do exactly what we do when we are pressed with a heavy outbreak. If there is more work than our regular staff of veterinary inspectors can cope with, we have employed local veterinary surgeons to do a great deal of diagnosing and that sort of thing.


I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord once more. Perhaps I did not give the whole facts of the case. I think you will find on examination that in this country we have our inspectors for the tracing of these cattle. We do it by means of men who are inspectors, in nineteen districts, with their sub-inspectors who are not veterinary officers. In Ireland you do not have these people. The staff there are primarily veterinary officers. But there are also a certain number of half-timers, and these are the men who have to track these animals when an outbreak is about. Our method, I say, is more satisfactory.


The whole of that work is done under the supervision and orders of the regular whole-time men. Of course, they have in Ireland one thing which I think is rather an advantage to them, and that is the Irish Constabulary, who by their organisation can be more readily utilised. I do not want it to be thought that the Police do not help us here. Our Police are an enormous help to us in the country, but I think the Irish Constabulary, from the point of view of helping in the event of an outbreak, are perhaps better organised than our Police. The noble Lord raises a far bigger question, when he talks about the uniting of the two Boards, than I am competent to deal with. I mean to say that the position of the Home Rule Bill being what it is, if you were going to take away from the Irish Department of Agriculture and place in the hands of the Government in this country some of the powers now exercised by that Department, that would probably be a constitutional question of the first importance. I would only like to say this, that I should personally be very sorry to be an Englishman going over to Ireland to carry out the duty of trying to find disease, if it is true, as is alleged, that disease is concealed in Ireland.


Hear, hear.


I am quite sure that what the Irish Constabulary and the staff of the Veterinary Department in Ireland cannot find out no Englishman could find out. He probably would get his head broken, but he would not find out anything that the Police or the staff of the Irish Department are not able to find out for themselves. We know that cases of concealment exist, because of what happened in the Annoy outbreak; but for the reasons I have already given I really believe that local authorities are unduly frightened at the present time. I can say this for the Board of Agriculture, we have a great deal of information, and our information does not come only from the Irish Department of Agriculture, though, to do them justice, they supply us with all necessary information. I believe that we are in a better position to gauge the risks than any local authority can possibly be; and I think that it is a matter for great regret that the local authorities are not more prepared than they appear to be to take our advice upon this matter.

After all, the reputation of the Board of Agriculture, the reputation which my right hon. friend Mr. Runciman has been able to make for himself during the three years that he has been at the Board, is at stake in a case of this kind. He is not the man who is in the least likely to throw that away by being over-rash, and I think we can quote, to back that up, the success with which we have dealt with the cases that have arisen up to now. With the single exception of the outbreak at Birkenhead, when the landing place became infected at a time when both countries were thought to be absolutely free of disease, and when, therefore, no restrictions and no linking up of the two Departments would have been of any use, the measures which we have taken have been universally successful; they, were universally successful during the anxious time when in 1912 foot-and-mouth disease was cropping up in a number of different places in Ireland, and they were also successful at the time of this last outbreak, which, as Lord Lovat says, has been one of unusual severity. I think that might be adduced as a fairly strong argument that we are not running undue risks in the action we are taking with regard to the opening of the ports, and it should be some inducement to local authorities to follow the lines that we suggest they should take.


My Lords, in asking leave to withdraw this Motion I would say that the noble Lord has made an admirable defence of his own Department and also a defence of the Irish Department, but his speech leaves us in exactly the same position as we were before. Also, his treatment of the suggestion that I have put forward was much less sympathetic than that given by Mr. Runciman in another place to those stock-owners and farmers who brought forward the subject there. I think he has admitted that the position is unsatisfactory. We have heard a noble Lord who has been chairman of the County Councils Association testify to the grave suspicion which exists on the part of local authorities. It does not seem to me, if Lord Lucas's remarks represent the final word of the Government on the subject, that there is any likelihood of improvement. I do not wish to say anything against the Irish Department, but there are rumours to which I have referred, and they have had the disease over there frequently. The seventy-fifth or seventy-sixth outbreak has occurred since January, and from week to week there are recurrences of the disease. The risk to England is enormous. One single slip with regard to a cargo, one single moment of inattention on the part of Lord Lucas's inspectors, might land the whole of this country in for an outbreak similar to what we had before. We have got the country clear for the moment, and we wish, by the action of the local authorities, to keep it clear. I hope the noble Lord will reconsider the question. The animal health of a country is not a question which is confined to one country alone. It is a question of the highest importance to every single agriculturist on both sides of the St. George's Channel.


I do not in the least want to be unsympathetic to the noble Lord, but it appeared to me that he asked for an inquiry into two matters which he alleged were the cause of the dissatisfaction—(a) the suspicions of political pressure that were entertained by the local authorities; and (b) the rumours that were going about. I cannot see the least use of having an inquiry into those two grounds, which are the only ones the noble Lord has said were grounds for inquiry.


I am sorry if I have not made myself clear to the noble Lord. I said the inquiry should be into the condition of the animals, and should be on the broadest lines possible.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.