HL Deb 28 July 1919 vol 35 cc1096-110

LORD STRACHIE rose to call attention to the statement of Dr. Robertson, the Chief of the Canadian Agricultural Research Department, that the War Cabinet considered the question of importation of Canadian store cattle in April, 1917, and decided that they should be admitted to this country at the end of the war; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, before I deal with the actual Motion standing in my name on the Paper, I should like to say that it is not from want of courtesy on my part that I was unable to put it off until the new President of the Board of Agriculture was appointed. It is very late in the Session to put off any Motion, and considering that the Government have taken up and will continue to take up more of unofficial members' time, and that it is uncertain when the new President may be appointed, I shall have little chance of raising this question. Apart from that, this is really a matter which does not affect the Board of Agriculture or the President for the time being; because it is drawing attention to the statement made by the representative of the Canadian Government as regards the action really of the War Cabinet.

On the 10th of this month I read in The Times under "Political Notes "—and up to now it has not been contradicted—the following— Dr. Robertson, the Chief the Canadian Agricultural Research Department, revealed to the House of Commons Agricultural Committee yesterday the interesting fact that the War Cabinet considered the question of the importation of Canadian store cattle in April, 1917, and decided that they should be admitted to this country at the end of the war. That is a very clear and definite statement, and it seems remarkable that it could have been made to the Agricultural Members of the House of Commons by an official of the Canadian Government when, during the debate that I raised in this House on March 6, 1918, it was stated by Lord Northbrook (who was then representing the Council of the Royal Agricultural Society in this matter) that he was satisfied as regards the present matter and that there was no intention to bring store cattle from Canada to this country—as I had supposed—because in a letter which had been addressed to the Council by Sir Daniel Hall it was said— You will see no promise has been given to permit the entry of these stores now or after the war, and should the question come up later the breed societies and other interests concerned would have ample opportunity of stating the case against the change of policy. Then later, when the Duke of Marlborough (then Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Agriculture) was challenged with regard to this pledge, he said— I think it will simplify matters very much indeed if I say the letter which the noble Earl, Lord Northbrook, read out from Sir Daniel Hall to the Royal Agricultural Society, sets forth in clear and concise language the precise news of the President of the Board of Agriculture. It will be better for me, I think, to confine my reply to the noble Lord to stating that I prefer to pin my views on that letter, because it is the carefully considered and chosen language of the President; and I do not feel authorised in any way to go beyond it. That seems a very definite pledge that the Council of the Royal Society and the other breed societies should be consulted upon this matter. Then comes that startling statement made by Dr. Robertson that the War Cabinet had actually made a promise that Canadian stores should be allowed to come into this country.


When was that?


The statement appeared in The Times on July 10 of this year. If that had been all, and no further statement had been put out on behalf of the Board of Agriculture, I should have been satisfied with leaving the matter there, and merely asking whether we should have a definite pledge from the Government that they made no such promise and that they had no intention at the present time of allowing store cattle to come into this country from Canada. I should have pressed for a definite pledge, because the House will remember that the record of the previous Government is not very clean in this connection. Just before the war, Mr. Runciman (who was then President of the Board of Agriculture) admitted dairy cows into this country from Holland, though it is well known that in Holland foot-and-mouth disease exists practically all the time. It is true that Mr. Runciman impounded these cattle and kept them in quarantine for something like three months; but, still, it showed that the Government had done this, and the question would have been seriously raised in both Houses of Parliament if it had not been for the war. Therefore it seems to me very necessary that I should get some definite assurance that Canadian store cattle will not be imported into this country, and that the procedure adopted by Mr. Runciman will not be followed again thereby allowing us to run a great risk of disease, because there is risk even with quarantine.

As I have said, I should have been satisfied merely in putting this Question and asking for pledges, but there appeared in The Times this morning a statement which I think is very serious indeed, having in view the statement that was made by Sir George Rogers at the Imperial Conference on April 26, 1917. Sir George Rogers then said— If the Board of Agriculture conceive it to be their duty and to be in the public interest of Great Britain to have a policy of protection of their live cattle industry, then we would have no complaint and offer no objection. That question at once raises the question, not of disease, but of Free Trade and of Protection. What did The Times say this morning? They had a long statement headed "Canadian Store Cattle. British Farmers' Interests." It looks to me very much like one of those inspired communiqués which are being constantly issued. The Times, referring to the Motion which I have upon the Paper, says— The Board of Agriculture, on the other hand, in a statement issued on Saturday, maintain that it is absolutely necessary, in the present and future interests of the industry, to continue the prohibition— That is of Canadian stores— not because they can no longer assert that such importation would be specially dangerous to the health of our herds at home, but because it would be felt as a menace to the security of the British farmer and would cheek that development of the industry which is absolutely essential to the national prosperity. Then again The Times, commenting upon this, says— Agriculture is for the moment in a very precarious position. Every measure which in any way threatens the future market or the apparent security of the farmer will be at once reflected in diminished employment within the industry, and the opening of our ports to Canadian stores would seem to many men a complete breach of faith on the part of the Government and proof positive that now the food emergency is past they have no longer any care for the interests of the farmer … It is want of confidence alone at the present time which hinder, the farmer from starting up his business and employing more men. He feels tempted—in many cases he has already begun—to lay down his land to grass, as thereby he spends little and risks little. He will only go on with the arduous and expensive plough programme to which he was perforce introduced in the war if he feels safe about the future. I think it is pretty clear from this that the position apparently is desired by many people who hope the Government will disclaim that as a whole they do not approve of the assertion of the Board of Agriculture that now we have not to exclude Canadian cattle because of the fear of disease, although I personally believe the fear of disease is just as great at the present moment as it was in the past—I do not say because Canada is not free, but you have to remember that there is an immense frontier as regards the United States. How is it possible to guard that immense frontier from cattle coining over from America and spreading foot and mouth disease in this country? Sir John Butler, who had to make a report for the Government from a defence point of view, said it was quite impossible to police the Canadian frontier and to prevent American cattle straying over into Canada. We know very well that in America foot and mouth disease does exist. It may be quite true that there is no disease at the present moment in Canada, but how can the Canadian Government assure us that that state of things will exist for ever, or that foot and mouth disease cannot in the future be imported from Canada?

It seems to me that it is very unfortunate indeed that the Board of Agriculture, from the statement put forward in The Times, now wishes to raise, not the question of protection from disease, but rather the question of protection for Canadian stores coming into this country when other stores are kept out. I do not believe for one moment that the workers of this country are going to agree to the exclusion of Canadian cattle, or any other cattle, except on the ground of disease and the protection of our flocks and herds from that disease. They assert, and to my mind quite properly assert, that if there is no fear of disease then they have the right to get meat in the cheapest possible form. If it is possible to bring it over on hoof, which I very much doubt, they will insist upon that. To my mind that is very unfortunate at the present moment when there is less shipping, and it is of course much more economical to bring over frozen or chilled meat from Canada or America, or wherever the country may be.

It is now proposed apparently, from the statement of the Board of Agriculture which I have quoted, that all the old theories we had of keeping out Canadian, American, and Argentine cattle on account of disease are to be scrapped. If you admit cattle from one country you will have to admit cattle from another. It seems to me that if the Government do not speedily repudiate this suggestion of the Board of Agriculture that Canadian cattle are to be allowed to come into this country in the future if free from disease, but for the time being they are to be kept out in order to bolster up the breeders in this country, it will be very unfortunate. It seems to me it is only once more putting forward the question of Imperial Preference. It is true that the Board of Agriculture say that at the present moment it will not be done, but they look forward in the future to excluding Canadian cattle from this country only on the ground that it is protection for the British farmers. I beg to move for Papers.


My Lords, I will make to your Lordships a statement on behalf of the Board of Agriculture, Lord Ernie being unable, owing to indisposition, to be here to-day. So far as I can learn, this subject has never been before the War Cabinet, but it was discussed by an Imperial War Conference which was held on April 26, 1917, to discuss the admission of Canadian cattle into the United Kingdom. Documents on that subject have already been laid before Parliament. It was then urged by Sir George Rogers, on behalf of Canada, that a great injustice was done by the Board of Agriculture to the cattle industry of the Dominion in respect of the ground taken in prohibiting the importation into this country of live animals. He said— If the Board of Agriculture conceive it to be their duty and to be in the public interests of Great Britain to have a policy of protection of their live cattle industry, then we would have no complaint and offer no objection; but we do seriously complain in that an embargo is placed against our cattle which supplies this protection and carries with it the stigma that they are liable to have pleuro-pneumonia, and therefore we suffer not only in this market, but more or less in the markets of the United States. The same argument was used by Sir. Robert Borden, who stated— If it is thought desirable in this country that the cattle industry should be protected, whether in Ireland or England or Scotland or Wales, that is a matter of domestic concern for the United Kingdom, about which we do not desire to make any suggestion. Two points were thus raised—the removal of the ground of the prohibition as a matter of justice to Canada, and the removal of the prohibition itself as a matter of domestic policy. The ground of the prohibition was stated by the Canadian representatives to be "a stigma," "an undeserved slur," "an old sore," and "an old grievance." Assuming it to be the case that Canada suffers in the markets of the United States from the ground on which the prohibition is based, the first question is whether it is justified by the prevalence of disease in Canada. I think, and am advised, that the cattle born and bred in Canada have been exceptionally free for many years from all forms of infectious disease. There are probably no cattle in the world which can show so clean a bill of health. So far, then, as cattle are concerned which are born and reared in Canada, and leave that country for the first time by direct shipment to a British port, it is, in my opinion, impossible to justify the ground of the prohibition.

But it must be remembered that Canada has a long frontier line with the United States, that the United States cannot show so clean a bill of health, and that there may be risk lest, if an export trade from Canada with Great Britain were developed, cattle should be brought in from the United States which were subject to infectious disease. This point is one of serious importance, and while, in my opinion, the ground of the prohibition ought to be removed so far as it affects Canadian cattle born and bred in that country and leaving it for the first time by direct shipment to a British port, it does not necessarily follow that even the ground of the prohibition itself could be safely removed, in view of the possible risk involved in the importation of cattle from the United States.

The question of the removal of the prohibition stands on a different ground. In March, 1917, we were asking the agriculturists of this country to increase to a very large extent their arable area. We were also extremely short of imported fertilisers, and dependent in the main on home resources. If the corn-growing policy was to succeed, the farmer would need an increased number of store cattle to trample the straw, consume the roots, and make manure. The margin of money profit on the feeding industry is always extremely small: it mainly lies in the manure. Cheap stores were of supreme importance to the progress of the corn-growing programme. At the same time, in April, 1917, the reserves of frozen meat upon which the Armies of the Allies mainly depended, were running dangerously low. It appeared in the highest degree probable that we should have to depend upon a very large slaughter of our home-fed cattle. We could not cut down our live stock sufficiently to meet the military needs of the moment, and at the same time supply the increased number of store cattle required for the additional arable acreage.

Another consideration was that Ireland was ploughing up considerable areas of her second-rate grass. She was thus enabled to finish a larger proportion of her cattle at home, rather than obliged to send unfinished stores into Great Britain. This process was already beginning. It has since been accompanied by the setting up of a refrigerating company in Ireland which, in proportion as it succeeds, will diminish the number of Irish stores coming into this country. If tonnage had been available in 1918, the Board of Agriculture would not have hesitated, on these grounds, to endeavour to supplement the supply of stores in this country by obtaining them from Canada, under such precautions as were regarded as necessary, and to ask Parliament to sanction the temporary importation of Canadian stores.

To-day the position is, so far as Great Britain is concerned, considerably altered. We are certain to be very short of concentrated feeding stuffs, and shall find it very difficult—almost impossible—to carry our existing herds through the winter months. We could not feed stores from Canada even if we brought them into this country. It therefore appears absolutely impossible to allow even the temporary importation of Canadian cattle into this country at the present time. The economic interests of Canada are strongly in favour of finishing cattle in that country and, by the installation of refrigerating works, opening up a dead-meat trade with this country. But, for the moment, the want of an export trade in cattle checks the development of the Canadian cattle-rearing industry. It is as a temporary measure, in order to maintain and encourage that industry, and to bridge over the interval before the dead meat trade can be opened up, that Canada mainly wishes to re-open her export trade with this country.

The advantage to this country from reopening a trade in Canadian stores are, that the stock-feeder will obtain a cheaper material, and that the butchering profits, the offals, and the hides, will be retained for this country. It cannot be reasonably urged that the meat supply of the country will be increased by the importation, since live cattle from Canada can always be imported for slaughter at the ports. From the breeders' point of view, the main arguments are that, since the importation of live animals into this country as stores was prohibited, home-bred stores have very largely increased in number; that it is desirable to encourage their further increase; and that the certainty of freedom from imported disease has done, and will continue to do, much to stimulate this branch of the live-stock industry. Further, the Boards of Agriculture in each country are making great efforts to improve the quality of the stock bred by organising farmers to keep better sires and by assisting in their purchase. This movement, which is now growing rapidly, would be prejudiced if the breeders were threatened with the competition of foreign stores at the present moment.

Canada asks to export cattle as stores mainly because of the psychological effect upon her Western farmers, who will thereby be encouraged to breed cattle in larger numbers. On the other hand, the psychological effect on British breeders of permitting the import of Canadian cattle will naturally be to discourage the breeding industry. If that result follows, then, as soon as Canada is in a position to open up her dead meat trade, the breeders of Great Britain will not be in a position to meet the competition by a larger supply of homebred stores for feeding purposes. This seems a very important argument, rendering it inexpedient to remove the existing prohibition and permit the importation of Canadian cattle as stores.

So far as the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries is concerned, the position, therefore, is this. The Board acknowledges in the fullest measure that the ground of the prohibition on which Canadian stores, horn and reared in Canada, and leaving it for the first time, are now excluded, is not justified, and that they are, and for many years have been, exceptionally free from disease. But the Board is equally strong in the opinion that no relaxation of the prohibition itself is possible in the interests of live-stock at home. It follows that, if the present ground of the prohibition is removed as a matter of justice to Canada the prohibition itself must remain as part of the domestic policy of the United Kingdom. I may add that the general importation of Canadian store cattle into this country is impossible without further legislation.


I am sure your Lordships listened with interest to the full and complete essay—that, I think, is the correct term—which we have just heard from the Board of Agriculture, through the mouth of the noble Earl. The conclusion—namely, that it is not expedient to import Canadian stores now, or, as I gather, in the future so far as we can see it—will, I think, commend itself to your Lordships generally, and will certainly commend itself to those interested in cattle breeding in this country. But it is a curious fact, which the noble Earl did not mention, that there has been here in England a definite change of opinion even among those who are feeders rather than breeders of cattle. There are some parts of England, the Eastern counties, in which there was a strong body of opinion in favour of encouraging such importation, but I am told, and I believe it to be true, that there has been no small change of opinion even in those parts of England. It would take too long to examine the possible reasons for such a change.

I do not think the statement of the Board of Agriculture lays sufficient stress on the paramount, the overwhelming, importance to this country of the industry of breeding cattle and sheep. It might have been supposed from their Paper that there really was not much to choose in relative importance between the fattening of store cattle in this country and the breeding of the different types for which this country is so famed. In my view these islands ought to be kept absolutely and permanently free from the importation of cattle of all kinds; on the same principle that no cow or bull of a foreign breed has been known to be allowed to land in the Channel Islands for certainly 300 years. There are ordinances in those Islands going back to the beginning of the seventeenth century which have been scrupulously maintained ever since, and they include transit from one island to another.

Considering how supremely successful our breeding of cattle has been, and to what a remarkable extent the type changes after some years of acclimatisation in other parts of the world, so that it is quite easy for anybody who understands shorthorns to tell from photographs the difference between a first-class South American shorthorn and a first-class British-bred shorthorn, it is absolutely impossible to over-estimate the importance of keeping this country clear from the faintest, and even the remotest, risk of cattle disease. This, of course, hinges upon the amazing value of the stock that is bred. Once you get pleuro-pneumonia or foot and mouth disease on a considerable scale in this country, you may in a few weeks destroy stock worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, and no scale of compensation which has ever been devised or thought of meets the case of such losses as those.

I can quite understand, because I have been Colonial Secretary myself, that there is a great deal of feeling in Canada that it is hard it should be supposed there is risk of disease among animals coming from Canada. I entirely appreciate and sympathise with that view. To speak of Canadian cattle specifically as being a danger is, I think, altogether unfair. But there is the fact of the three thousand miles of frontier and the practical impossibility of insuring that some animals from Canadian ports may not have come from over the frontier. Therefore if it is understood that the prohibition is absolute, with no particular relation to Canada but applying to the whole world, I cannot think that our Canadian friends need continue to regard this as a special hardship.

I am bound to say that I would continue to put prohibition on the ground of disease only. Once you mix up the question of possibly making this small island self-supplying in all respects, for beef as well as wheat and everything else which the human race may require for the purpose of consumption, then you get into deep water, and you will find that you are definitely harming your agricultural system instead of setting to work to improve it. Personally, I am not content therefore to place the maintenance of this prohibition so much on the general grounds mentioned by the Board of Agriculture as simply upon those that, being the foremost breeding country in the world, we are not prepared to run even the faintest shadow of risk of importing disease into this country.


My Lords, I am very glad the noble Marquess has mentioned the question of disease. I quite agree with him upon that point, and I think the argument should have been put very much more forcibly by the Board of Agriculture. Disease when it attacked us in Ireland was most serious. Cattle in Ireland have now to be destroyed, but when I was a young man I remember seeing foot and mouth disease there, and at that time there was no question of destroying the animals. It is therefore on the ground of disease that I was delighted to hear that the Board of Agriculture are not going to allow the importation of Canadian cattle into the country. Pleuro-pneumonia is a. most fearful thing to think about, and when it came into our country it nearly ruined the cattle trade. I only wish to enforce this one point, that disease, and disease only, is the most impor- tant question with regard to the importation of cattle.


I am, of course, quite satisfied with the noble Earl's assurance that the statement made by the Canadian representative, that the War Cabinet had promised to admit Canadian cattle in to this country, was unauthorised. May I ask, without having given notice, if the noble Earl would give an assurance that no cattle will be imported from Holland?


My Lords, every one interested in agriculture and in our celebrated herds of cattle is greatly indebted to my noble friend Lord Strachie for so constantly keeping his eye on this question and raising it whenever there is any alarm whatever about a change in the present legislation. That alarm cannot fail, I think, to be very much allayed by the extremely unqualified statement of the noble Earl, speaking on behalf of the Board of Agriculture, and, as I understand, reading from a Memorandum by that Board, that in no circumstances is there to be any change whatever made with regard to the importation of cattle from foreign countries into the United Kingdom, which is to override the statement in the Act of Parliament that they shall not leave the wharf alive. That is what is of real importance. There have been constant misapprehensions on the question of cattle diseases in England ever since I can remember. Mistakes and misapprehensions have been made by Ministers time after time, and even by Prime Ministers. I remember that Sir Henry Campbell Bannerman, many years ago, promised his constituents in Scotland that store cattle should be imported into this country. That was very much at the request of the feeders of store cattle in Scotland. Of course that promise was not adhered to. It was overridden. It was found that very bad consequences would in all probability have followed.

There have been other misapprehensions, and perhaps I may just say this much more upon the subject, as this is a matter with which I have been familiar for many years, and moreover I was the Minister who first extirpated that fell disease pleura-pneumonia from the cattle of this country. There have always been three diseases which we have had to contend against. One was cattle plague. I am old enough to remember how it absolutely destroyed the greater part of our herds at one time. From that date, I thank God, we have never had a return of it and I pray that we never may have. Then there is pleuro-pneumonia. That has been extirpated too, and unless and until the law is altered it can never recur again, because one of the peculiarities of this disease is that unlike foot and mouth disease it can only be conveyed by immediate contact. It is not indigenous to this country, and if no foreign animal is allowed to leave the wharf alive we shall be safe from any return of pleuro-pneumonia in this country.

I do not think that we should be safe if that law was departed from. It is one of the most difficult diseases in the world to detect in the living animal. Many living authorities will tell you that it is impossible to detect it, and although in Canada they may think they are free it is impossible for them to know. They have this enormous frontier of goodness knows how many thousands of miles, on the other side of which it is known that pleuro-pneumonia exists. It is a disease which lies dormant for many years. All these reasons together make me rejoice more than I can say that the noble Earl on this occasion has given us the most positive assurance that can be given by the Government, that as long as they remain in power there shall be no change in the law, which will allow animals brought from abroad into this country to leave the wharf alive.


I am sorry to trouble your Lordships again, but Lord Chaplin is reading into my remarks more than I think is in them. I beg him to study with care the statement, which will be printed verbatim in the OFFICIAL REPORT available to-morrow morning. I could give no such pledge as he has just asked me to give, because the actual Statute allows animals to leave the wharf alive, for very good reasons with which he is familiar.


Then what are we to understand?


I will explain to the noble Viscount. In the first place, I have given an extremely carefully prepared statement on the general views of the Board of Agriculture. So important is that matter, both to the Dominions and to ourselves, that I did not trust myself to give a verbal version to your Lordships of what has been carefully set down to paper. Then Lord Chaplin assumes that this statement means that no animal shall leave the wharf alive, and asks me to give that pledge, and went so far as to say that the Government had given that pledge. I sefeguard myself by saying that I cannot give that pledge, because the Statute provides conditions under which animals can leave the wharf alive.


I am aware of that, but those conditions are so special that they require that if the animals leave the wharf alive they are to be kept in the closest possible quarantine and cannot come into communication with any other animals. After what has now fallen from the noble Earl, I do not think the public will be so satisfied with his statement. Unhappily I do not hear as well as I used to, and I will take the earliest opportunity of reading the printed statement of the noble Earl; but if I find that it does not bear out what I thought it did, and that there is any intention to re-admit animals into the country alive—cattle from foreign countries—then I shall reserve to myself the right of raising the question again at any time, if I see the least necessity for doing so.


The noble Viscount's criticism may not carry weight in this House on this subject, yet outside the House a great number of people may be unnecessarily alarmed. I understand from what the noble Earl said, and I speak as an agriculturist of long standing and on a large scale, that the law is not to be altered. With that I am perfectly satisfied. Is not the noble Viscount satisfied also?


I have stated that as plainly as I can.


Then we are all at one; but do not let it go forth that, with his vast agricultural experience, the noble Viscount is not satisfied with the matter as it leaves the House of Lords.


May I ask the noble Earl whether he will answer my question about Holstein cattle?


I have no information about Holstein cattle. If they are introduced into this country it must be under subsection (b) of Section 1 of the Statute. I will refer the matter to the Board of Agriculture.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.