HL Deb 30 November 1920 vol 42 cc742-9

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the object of this Bill, which for practical purposes is only a one-clause Bill, is to stop a leak which was caused by my friend Mr. Runciman. Perhaps I had better refer to the particular section of the Act which it is proposed to amend by this Bill. It is the Act of 1896, which amended the Diseases of Animals Act, 1894, and the particular provision which I objected to is contained in subsection (b) which says— … foreign animals intended for exhibition or other exceptional purposes, and the landing of which is allowed for the time being by the Board subject to the provisions of Part 11 (quarantine) of the Thu 0 Schedule of this Act. Mr. Runciman took upon himself to introduce a precedent. It had always been regarded by Presidents of the Board of Agriculture that the Amending Act, to which I have referred, strictly confined itself to animals for exhibition, or animals coining under a special category, such as bringing in some specimen to the Zoological Gardens. It was not regarded as covering cattle brought in for commercial purposes, as was done by Mr. Runciman. In 1914 he brought in a large importation of Friesian cattle at, I am credibly informed, a very great advantage to those concerned. I am told that they made a profit of £10,000. At the same time there were considerable risks by reason of the animals having to go into quarantine, though that is denied. There is not only the risk of foot and mouth disease, but there is also the risk of pleuro-pneumonia, which is one of the most difficult diseases to diagnose, the animal having to be in a serious condition before it can be ascertained to be suffering from that disease.

Mr. Runciman set a precedent, having discovered that he could take advantage of a particular subsection of the Act—a subsection which, I contend, was only intended to be used in exceptional circumstances. There was a great outcry about it in agricultural circles at the time. I remember that Mr. Walter Long and Mr. Ailwyn Fellowes were very indignant about it, but owing to the war nothing was done at that time. Then my noble friend Lord Ernie, who I am sorry to see is not in his place, went one better even than Mr. Runciman in this matter, and declared quite openly, as regards Canadian cattle, that he had an absolute right by the stroke of his pen, if he so wished, to introduce Canadian stores into this country.




My noble friend shakes his head, but he was not present when this question was discussed. If he will refer to the OFFICIAL REPORT he will find that what I say is correct.


Lord Ernie admitted that it would require fresh legislation.


I beg my noble friend's pardon; it was nothing of the kind. I have just refreshed my memory about it, and he certainly took the view that I have indicated. If my noble friend will look up the report of the Colonial Conference he will find that Lord Ernie said that he had power to do it without legislation. Again, we have the noble Lord the Minister of Agriculture continuing what Mr. Runciman began, and giving permission this year for the importation of Friesian cattle. When my noble friend the Minister of Agriculture was questioned regarding that he said that he was doing it as he had a right to do it. Apparently there is a right to do it, and therefore I have brought forward this Bill. No Minister, however, (lid it until Mr. Runciman set the precedent, to which Lord Ernie went one better, and the example of which the noble Lord the Minister of Agriculture is following.

What does this Bill do? It simply provides that if the Minister for the time being desires to allow cattle to be introduced into this country, as has been done by Mr. Runciman and by the noble Lord opposite, he would simply have to give public notice in the Gazette of his intention to do so. Cattle then could not be smuggled into the country, as they were in 1914, without public notice. I am told that the Board of Trade returns did not show that those cattle were brought in, and it was only discovered by accident. This Bill provides that public notice should be given, and that the Order must be laid upon the Table of both Houses of Parliament so that there may be an opportunity to Members of Parliament, if they think fit, to state any objections that there may be to these cattle being brought in.

The Bill does not prejudice the Minister. He can make an Order to bring in cattle, but only under the conditions which I have indicated. I do not see why your Lordships should not be ready to approve of this Bill. Its object is to take the power out of the hands of the Minister, and to give it to Parliament, of saying whether cattle should be imported or not into this country. I think that many of your Lordships will agree that in these days it is very necessary that Ministers should be restricted because, as has been truly said, the present House of Commons simply does what it is told. Certainly Ministers exercise much greater power and authority than they used to do, and are much less checked by Parliament. Ministers should be the servants of Parliament and not its masters.

I am introducing this Bill on behalf of the Central Chamber of Agriculture. If the Houses of Parliament have no objection then, as a matter of course, cattle can be imported and no one would be the worse. On the other hand, if there is a strong feeling against it in the country Parliament will have the right to stop the importation. I do not wish to detain your Lordships further upon the merits of the Bill. It is probably enough to say that it has the support of all the agricultural societies, from the Royal Agricultural Society of England down to the smallest societies. All have passed resolutions strongly opposed to the importation of cattle under the provision which has been taken advantage of by my noble friend Lord Lee of Fareham and by Mr. Runciman. The noble Lord the Minister of Agriculture cannot quote a single society as having passed a resolution in favour of retaining the provision under which he has acted. I do not think he can even get his friends the Farmers' Union to support him, although he has lately given us a Bill on their behalf. The agriculturists of this country are most anxious to see this power taken out of the hands of the Minister and put under the control of Parliament, which alone can be the judge whether it is right that our flocks and herds should run the enormous risk of infection from flocks and herds imported from abroad. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—Lord Strachie.


My Lords, I should like to support the Second Reading of this Bill. I do so not only as a member of the business committee of the Central Chamber of Agriculture, which is responsible for the Bill, but also as president of the Bath and West of England Society, and as president of the Dairy Farmers' Association. I am bound to say that those organisations regard with considerable apprehension the stretching of the discretion of the Minister which lie is authorised to exercise and is intended to exercise in a very limited degree by the provisions of the Diseases of Animals Act, 1896. All that we are asking in this Bill is that the authority given by the Minister shall not be given in a secret or clandestine way, but that it shall be made known to the public through the channels mentioned by my noble friend, and through the medium of Parliament before the actual importation takes place. The case to which my noble friend Lord Strachie referred might have been a very serious one, when Mr. Runciman authorised the introduction of animals from a country in which foot-and-mouth disease was certainly prevalent at the time; I cannot say about the other serious contagious diseases. Fortunately although the importation was considerable the precautions taken apparently had the effect of preventing any serious results. But a risk was involved, a risk which I venture to suggest to your Lordships in the light of past history we cannot securely face.

I do not think I should be wrong in suggesting to the noble Lord—I am sure he will not contradict it—that although We all realise, I hope, the enormous importance of raising more bread-stuffs in this country, as he has been urging this afternoon, it is the livestock of this country that has been the sheet-anchor and the very backbone of agriculture during the last thirty years, and enabled us during the period of the war to provide within our own shores something like 50 per cent. and upwards of the meat required for consumption in this country. It is a matter in which we can take no risk, and, whatever is done under the authority of the Minister which was originally intended to apply only to exhibition animals after proper safeguards had been taken, we should not, owing to the secret exercise of this discretion, run serious risks to that section of British agriculture which has been the very backbone of the industry in which we are interested. I beg to support the Motion


May I, in the first place, express my obligation to my noble friend Lord Strachie for having kindly postponed the moving of this Bill until after I had got through my heavier task and I am afraid exhausted most of my voice in so doing. Having done that, I do not think I can altogether thank him for the tone of the speech which he has just delivered It seems to be animated in almost equal proportions by a dislike, not of myself personally, but of all Ministers of Agriculture and a deep distrust of any of their acts.


Only since 1914.


That is a long time, and a good deal of water has flowed under the bridges since then. He seeks in effect by this Bill to substitute for the administrative discretion which has been conferred under the Minister by Parliament the direct intervention of either House of Parliament in a matter which is really one of administrative detail. That is a very unusual procedure to suggest, and is certainly not one which I am prepared to accept. I think it is the harder, if I may say so, in that it is directed against me in particular, because I have taken a somewhat rigid and unyielding view with regard to the importation of cattle under any conditions which could possibly be a menace to the flocks and herds in this country.


Hear, hear.


I have been considerably pressed, even attacked, for so doing. I believe I am still under the concentrated fire of a widely-read newspaper in this particular connection, and for your Lordships to take this opportunity of expressing your complete lack of confidence in my power to exercise in any reasonable way powers with which I have been invested by Act of Parliament savours a little bit of what I might call ingratitude. From my noble friend Lord Strachie's indictment, which grew in vehemence as he proceeded, one would almost have thought that there had been an uninterrupted flow of diseased animals pouring into this country ever since 1914, I think the date is, as the result of the clandestine and secret connivance and almost at the instigation of the Minister of Agriculture of the day.

I am sorry to have to prick that particular bubble, because on looking at the actual facts I find that since the first Act came into force in 1894 there have been only two occasions in which any animals have been introduced which could in any way have come into subsequent contact with home farmed stock. The first occasion was in 1904, when thirteen goats were brought from France by the British Goat Society. The second was in 1914, when sixty Holstein cattle were brought from Holland. The other animals imported under the authority of the Act so far have consisted entirely of zoological specimens and a few animals brought in for special experimental purposes. I believe there is the exception of a pet pig which was landed from the German warship "Dresden" and a goat which was found in Gallipoli and brought to this country by His Majesty's ship "Prince George"; otherwise there has been in effect the most rigid exclusion of animals under this section, and successive Ministers of Agriculture have exercised their discretionary power in a way which I venture to say has been completely satisfactory.

What my noble friend Lord Strachie now asks is that in a matter of purely administrative procedure I should first of all advertise my intentions in I do not know how many newspapers and gazettes; that I should then come down here and lay the proposal on the Table in both Houses of Parliament, and if the House is not sitting—perhaps it might not be sitting for six months—the whole of this discretion should be withheld, although as his Bill is framed I am not at all sure that I should not retain the power to order the admission of these animals and then in six months' time, when Parliament took the matter up, they would put upon me the task of getting rid of these invaders. I feel that my noble friend Lord Strachie is afraid of a shadow which really has no substance.

The conditions under which alone any animals can be imported except for purely zoological purposes are now so rigid that I venture to say there is not the smallest risk of the importation of disease under the restrictions which are imposed. I have no doubt that he has in his mind—indeed he referred to it, I think—the permission which I gave some time ago for the importation of a limited number of highly exceptional animals (Friesian cattle) in response to the very strong recommendation of the Committee on the Production and Distribution of milk, but so rigid did I make those conditions that so far not a single Friesian, like the camel, has succeeded in getting through the eye of a needle—there has not been a single importation under those provisions, and I shall be greatly surprised if the permission is taken advantage of effectively to any material extent. And in the meantime I am just as persuaded as are my noble friends—for, after all, the odium of outbreaks falls largely upon the Ministry for which I am responsible—of the vital importance, not only in the interests of the Ministry but of the whole country, of doing nothing which could possibly endanger our flocks and herds. But to say in effect, as this Bill does, "We do not trust you; we consider that the discretion which was given you by Parliament ought to be taken away by Parliament, and you are in effect, therefore, unfitted for your position" is something which I cannot be prepared to accept with any warmth, and certainly I am not prepared on behalf of the Government to accept this Bill which my noble friend has moved.


My Lords, we all feel, I think, that it is a little hard upon the noble Lord opposite, after the very clear and necessarily long speech which he had to deliver on the previous Bill, once more to have to rise and reply to my noble friend in respect to this other measure. But at the same time I cannot help feeling that the noble Lord's reply will be heard with some disappointment by many of your Lordships. The noble Lord has, I fear, taken this too much as a purely departmental and personal matter, as though mistrust were entertained against him in respect to the importation of cattle. That really is not so, because in the particular case to which the noble Lord last alluded, that of the importation of Friesian cattle, he will quite well remember that when some of us representing the agricultural societies attended at the Board of Agriculture on that very subject we were all highly sensible of the care which he personally desired to exercise in the matter, and we expressed our thanks in that regard. But the noble Lord does not, I think, quite realise what the strength of feeling is in this matter on the part of agriculturists. At the Central Chamber of Agriculture, for instance—I happen to be chairman of it this year, and my two I noble friends are both prominent members, as your Lordships know—there was a unanimous desire that this question should be dealt with by the means which my noble friend has formulated in his Bill. I am certain I can say the same of the Shorthorn Society, of which I happen also to be an official at this moment.

I think the noble Lord, on the contrary, ought to consider himself somewhat complimented, rather than the reverse, by the fact of this Bill being introduced. He may remember that in the course of his speech on the Agriculture Bill he threw out some almost lurid suggestion as to the course which a possible successor to his office might take with regard to compensation and such matters. I do not mind saying from my own personal conviction that, so long as the noble Lord is Minister of Agriculture, I feel convinced that he will desire to hedge about this power of import with the same close restrictions which he has applied in the case of the Friesian cattle, of the necessity of which he is, I am certain, convinced. But we do not know that his successor would act with the same necessary degree of caution.

And considering how tremendous is the

Resolved in theaffirmative, and Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.