HL Deb 09 February 1915 vol 18 cc474-83

*THE EARL OF NORTHBROOK rose to ask His Majesty's Government—

  1. 1. Whether, by special permission of the Board of Agriculture, Friesland cattle for breeding purposes were imported from Holland on 4th August, 1914.
  2. 2. Whether the Board of Agriculture had any communication with the Board of Trade as to the inclusion of this importation in the Trade and Navigation Accounts.
  3. 3. Why the said importation was not included in the August Accounts, and its inclusion delayed until December.
  4. 475
  5. 4. Why, and upon whose authority, the said cattle were returned in the December Accounts as "Animals, living (for food)," thereby incorrectly increasing the quantity of food imported during the month, and rendering incorrect the declared value of the food imported during that month and during the year 1914.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, the Questions that I have placed on the Paper refer to a matter which is of much interest to the owners of live stock in this country. I may remind your Lordships that the Diseases of Animals Act, 1896, which amended the Diseases of Animals Act, 1894, prescribed that all foreign animals should be slaughtered at the port of landing—other than, firstly, foreign animals the landing of which was for the time being prohibited by an Order of the Board of Agriculture; and, secondly, foreign animals intended for exhibition or other exceptional purpose, the landing of which was allowed for the time being by the Board of Agriculture subject to the regulations of the Board as to quarantine. Your Lordships will observe that while prohibition as to the landing of foreign animals must be enforced by an Order of the Board, the exemption of foreign animals for certain purposes from slaughter at the port of landing may be "allowed" by the Board—and I understand that to mean allowed at the discretion of the President of the Board of Agriculture for the time being.

Last year the British Holstein Cattle Society, believing that it was desirable in the interests of the breed to introduce new blood, applied to the Board of Agriculture to be allowed to import a certain number of Friesland or Holstein cattle from Holland for breeding purposes, and the Board gave special permission to the society to import sixty of these cattle. Accordingly a consignment consisting of forty bulls and twenty heifers were shipped at Harlingen, in Holland, in the steamship "Falcon," and arrived at Tilbury Docks on August 4, and in compliance with the regulations of the Board of Agriculture they were subjected to quarantine for three months. At the expiration of the period of quarantine—namely, on November 6—these cattle were sold by auction at Byfleet. Fifty-nine were catalogued in the sale, and as the number imported in August was sixty there is one animal unaccounted for. No information, as far as I am aware, has been publicly given as to what became of that animal. I think we are entitled to ask whether it died from an accident or was slaughtered, or whether it died from disease, and, in the latter event, what was the disease with which the animal was infected. The fifty-nine animals that were sold on November 6 realised £14,936; and as the cost price was £4,268, the transaction gave a handsome profit of over £10,000 to the British Holstein Cattle Society.

I believe I am correct in saying that never since the Diseases of Animals Act, 1896, came into force have the Board of Agriculture previously allowed so large a number of foreign cattle for breeding purposes to be imported at one time into this country. I do not wish now to raise the question as to whether or not the Board of Agriculture were right in interpreting the words allowing the landing of "foreign cattle intended for exhibition or other exceptional purposes" in the Act of 1896 as giving them power to permit such a large consignment as sixty foreign cattle to come into this country for breeding purposes. Nor do I desire to discuss whether it was prudent on the part of the Board to allow such a large number of animals to be imported from a country in parts of which certainly disease had been very recently prevalent, and the distribution of which cattle throughout the United Kingdom might seriously affect the export trade in the pure-bred stock of this country and also subject our herds and flocks to the risk of infection.

But what stock owners have to complain of is the remarkable secrecy that was maintained by the Board as to this importation. I am informed that a notice as to the importation of these cattle did appear at some time in the London Gazette. Well, my Lords, the London Gazette is a publication which is not read by a very large number of the public, and I think it is unreasonable to expect that the stock owners of this country should peruse every issue of the London Gazette in order to have information on a subject which is of such great concern to them as the importation, under the special permission of the Board, of a large number of foreign animals. As a matter of fact few persons, except those in the confidence of the Board and the members of the Holstein Society—who kept their secret, I may say, very well—were aware that these animals had been imported until they read in the newspapers the account of the sale by auction in November, three months after the cattle had actually arrived in this country. If these cattle had not been publicly sold by auction—though, no doubt, the facts would have eventually leaked out—it is possible that the public might have remained in ignorance of their importation for a very much longer period.

A general impression prevails amongst agriculturists that the Board desired to keep this matter dark, and this, I regret to say, has to a considerable extent shaken confidence in the Board's administration of the Diseases of Animals Act, 1896, which they look upon as the greatest protection they possess against the introduction of disease from abroad. And this impression has been recently rather strengthened by the manner in which these cattle, imported in August, have been dealt with in the Trade and Navigation Accounts. As your Lordships are aware, monthly Returns are published by the Board of Trade which give information not only as to the quantity and the value of goods imported and exported during the month but also as to articles of food, and under "Imports and Consumption," Head No. 1. B, in the Return there appears "Meat, including animals living (for food)." I should like specially to point out that in these Accounts, under Head IV, "Miscellaneous and Unclassified," a Return is given of the number and value of living animals, other than animals for food, which are imported and exported during the month. For example, under "Imports" you find in the Return the number and the value of horses imported into this country during the month. Under the head of "Exports" you find, besides horses, the number of living animals exported for breeding purposes—cattle, sheep, and pigs. One would naturally think that the Holstein cattle that were imported very early in the month of August for breeding purposes would have been included under this head in the Return for August, or at any rate in the Return for September; but on looking through the Returns for those months and for October and November, I find no reference whatever to these cattle.


Is the date of the Return from which the noble Earl has been quoting January?


No; December last.


Are they exports or imports?


Both. If the noble Lord will refer to page 128 of this Return [December, 1914] he will find the heading "IV.—Miscellaneous and Unclassified," and under that heading are given the number and value of horses imported into this country. Then if he turns to page 250 he will find the number of living animals—horses, cattle, sheep, and pigs—exported from this country for breeding purposes. One would naturally have expected that the Friesland cattle which were imported for breeding purposes early in the month of August would have been included in the Return for that month, but no mention of them is made until we come to the month of December. In the Return for December, under the head of "Imports of Meat and Cattle Living (for food)," after setting forth the number and value of the cattle imported from the United States of America and from the Channel Islands, it is stated—"Cattle from other countries, sixty; value £4,260." That is an average value of £71 per head, which is certainly an extraordinary price to put upon animals imported for slaughter at the port of landing for the purpose of food. In fact, it is so extraordinary a figure that I should have thought it must necessarily give rise to suspicion and inquiry on the part of any person who studied this Return. As the number and value of the cattle here given correspond exactly with the number and value of the Friesland cattle that were imported in the month of August, I think there can be no doubt as to their identity.

The information that I would ask the noble Lord to give me is, first, why foreign animals imported early in the month of August were not included in the Board of Trade Returns until the month of December? Next, why animals imported for breeding purposes were returned as animals for food. As I have pointed out in my Notice on the Paper, this Return renders incorrect the record as to the quantity and the value of food imported during the month of August and during the year 1914. I should like to know whether the Return was made on information supplied to the Board of Trade by the Board of Agriculture, and also who is responsible for the delay in mentioning the matter in the Return and for the misdescription of the animals.


My Lords, I am very glad that the noble Earl has given me an opportunity of dealing with this matter, because I admit that the case against us, as stated by him, is very black indeed. I will deal first of all with the noble Earl's second, third, and fourth questions. We had no correspondence with the Board of Trade over this because, as a matter of fact, it was not the Board of Trade but the Board of Customs and Excise with whom we had to deal. The Board of Agriculture wrote to the Board of Customs and Excise on July 29 last about the landing of these cattle; they were duly landed a few days later, but the relative documents, although they appear to have been sent up by the Customs officer at the port, never reached headquarters. Nothing was known about it, and no record appears in the Monthly Account for August. I admit that on the face of it that is not a very satisfactory explanation. The only reason I can offer is that this happened during the opening days of the war, when the whole question of prohibition was being dealt with by the Government, and the Customs had to face a situation such as they had never had to face before. I think that is probably the true explanation why this regrettable loss of the documents occurred. My own Office is, I admit, also to blame in the matter, because the oversight was not noticed by us until December, when the Meat Trades Journal wrote to the Board of Agriculture about the omission. We then referred to the Board of Customs and Excise, who explained the matter to us, and having then obtained a copy of the missing entry they included the transaction in the Monthly Account for December, the other Accounts having, of course, been already published, and we were informed accordingly.

Then comes the other point to which the noble Earl referred, which also is rather difficult to explain—namely, why these animals were included under the heading of animals for the purposes of food. It is true, as the noble Earl points out, that animals for breeding purposes exported from this country are entered specifically under that heading, but for some reason best known to the Customs—I take it that the reason is that there have been so few animals imported into this country for breeding purposes—it has not been their practice to have a separate entry of cattle for breeding purposes; and we found, I admit to our astonishment, that these animals had been included under the heading of animals for the purposes of food.


Do I understand that none of the horses that appear as imported were imported for breeding purposes?


Yes, the horses are. There is a regular import of horses, chiefly pit ponies, and therefore they come under a specific entry in the Customs Returns. The reason apparently why the Customs authorities have not up to the present time given the same treatment to cattle is that the number imported is extremely few. We have drawn their attention to the matter, and the Board of Customs and Excise are in future going to tabulate their Returns so that animals of all kinds imported for breeding purposes will be entered as such. I can only express my great regret that this should have happened, because the last thing in the world that we wanted to do was in any way to conceal this importation. We knew that it was a question on which people in this country hold strong views, and we certainly had no intention whatever to try to conceal what we were doing.

As the noble Earl pointed out, under the Diseases of Animals Act an Order had to be made to permit this importation. That Order was presented to Parliament in the beginning of August and appeared in the London Gazette on August 4. It is true, as he said, that the London Gazette as such does not have a very wide circulation among the kind of people who are interested in these subjects. But what usually happens is this. The London Gazette is a publication which exists chiefly for public official notices, and these are republished, whenever they are of any interest whatsoever, by most if not all of the newspapers. It is one of the commonest ways of publishing an ordinary official notice, and I am quite certain of this, that had it not been that the newspapers were at the time entirely occupied with the subject of the war, the publication of this notice in the Gazette would have been commented upon by a large number of newspapers and would have received the necessary amount of publicity. The noble Earl referred to a missing animal—it was a young bull, which died in quarantine. During the whole time that the animals were in quarantine they were, of course, under the most careful veterinary supervision, and the post-mortem examination which was held on the animal in question showed that it died from heart disease, and there was no suspicion of anything like infectious disease.

Perhaps I may state, quite briefly, the reasons which led us to permit this importation. The breed of Holstein cattle in this country, though there are considerable numbers of them, is a breed that undoubtedly has suffered by the prohibition of importation laid down by the Diseases of Animals Acts; the breed as a whole was suffering considerably from the evils of inbreeding, and was very badly in need of new blood. The Holstein cattle that are bred in Holland are a dairy breed which no authority on cattle can afford to disregard. They are rapidly coining to be looked upon in a great many foreign countries as one of the leading dairy breeds, if not actually the leading dairy breed, in the world. As heavy milkers their records, authenticated under Government supervision in Holland, have never been surpassed. We find that there is a growing demand for these cattle in foreign countries. Even in the case of Holstein cattle bred in this country there is a growing export. But there is no doubt about it that in quality they do not compare with the Holstein cattle that belong to their native country. There is an additional argument, I think, in their favour, and that is that they are very much a working farmers' breed. The British Holstein Society consists very largely of dairy farmers, who find these cattle a very useful utility breed; and when they came to us and asked whether they could not be allowed to import a certain amount of new blood for the purpose of grading up their herds in this country, it seemed to us a very reasonable request and one which it would be difficult to refuse, provided that we could be satisfied that no danger and no evil effects would result.

Fortunately, in the case of Holland we are dealing with a country in which the Government supervision of contagious diseases is extremely efficient and strict, and we are therefore in a much better position than in dealing with countries where they are not so thorough in their administration. The position was this. In the provinces from which these cattle were imported there had been no foot-and- mouth disease for five months, no pleuropneumonia since the year 1887, and no cattle plague since the year 1867; so that after satisfying ourselves as to that we permitted this importation under very strict conditions of quarantine at Tilbury, at which every possible care and precaution was taken. The need for this new blood on the part of the members of the Holstein Society and the breeders of Holstein cattle generally is, I think, demonstrated by the extraordinarily high prices which these cattle fetched at the sale, which shows that the demand was a real one; and as it had been arranged that no one purchaser was to be allowed to buy more than two or three cattle, the success of the sale proved that a large number of members attached great importance to having these cattle.

I am bound to say that I think it is one of our obligations at the Board of Agriculture to do what we can, when opportunity occurs, to improve the breeds of live stock in this country; and if we can satisfy ourselves, as we did in this case, that the risks are not too great my interpretation of our duty is that we should be ready to do all we can in this direction. There is only one other point— the question of the effect upon the export trade. I admit that you would be paying much too dear a price if you shook the faith of foreign countries in the state of health of the animals in this country. That was a thing which we had not by any means left out of account. We did take steps to satisfy ourselves, in the case of certainly our most important client abroad, that this action on our part would not have a prejudicial effect.


My Lords, I think your Lordships will agree that we are under a genuine debt of gratitude to the noble Earl for having brought this question to the notice of the House. It is one which has engaged the attention of agriculturists throughout the country, and, as the noble Lord the President of the Board of Agriculture is well aware, a considerable number of recommendations have been addressed to the Board of Agriculture upon it. The chapter of misfortunes which the noble Lord had to relate is certainly an unhappy one. The mishaps which occurred, together with the delay of the entry of these cattle in the Accounts and their classification as for food instead of for breeding purposes, show a condition of affairs which is not at all satisfactory; but, in view of what the noble Lord has said, we must accept the facts as they are. I would press upon the noble Lord that this has been a serious departure from a well-established practice which has obtained for a good number of years, and which ought never to have been departed from except for some grave reason. Personally I am a little inclined to doubt the wisdom or the propriety of the steps which have been taken; but, as the noble Lord says, that is a matter for argument and one which ought no doubt to be the subject of a further discussion.

I would like, as the subject has been raised, to take this opportunity of saying that every precaution ought to be taken in the future, if ever such a large importation is contemplated again, to enable those most interested to have the fullest opportunity of considering the matter in all its bearings. This was a large importation, and possibly it is the magnitude of the number of cattle and the peculiar misfortunes that have happened which have caused a most unsatisfactory feeling of suspicion in the minds of a great number of people intimately connected with cattle-breeding and stock-rearing. I hope that as the outcome of this discussion the noble Lord will, before any further departure from the principle which has been universally accepted is contemplated, give the fullest possible notice, and that, even if the technical conditions are being complied with by the insertion of a notice in the London Gazette, the fuller opportunities which are at the disposal of the Board of Agriculture will be made use of in making known as widely as possible any such contemplated importation in the future.


My Lords, before the debate closes I should like to ask the noble Lord the President of the Board of Agriculture whether it is contemplated that there shall be any further importation of Friesland cattle, or whether the case which has been alluded to is an entirely exceptional one.


Every case of this kind must be considered on its merits. I should not like to give a definite undertaking that we will never permit a repetition of this. At the same time, I realise very clearly indeed that there is, or at any rate may be, a good deal of risk—which I admit it is my first duty to guard against—connected with any operation of the kind.