HL Deb 16 December 1925 vol 62 cc1545-56

THE MARQUESS OF LINCOLNSHIRE rose to call attention to the ravages of foot-and-mouth disease and the consequent loss and inconvenience suffered in the districts affected, and to ask whether His Majesty's Government propose to modify in any respect the policy hitherto adopted to deal with the disease.

The noble Marquess said: My Lords, with the permission of your Lordships I should like to ask my noble friend Lord Bledisloe whether he is able to give any assurance that it would be possible for him to modify in any way the restrictions regarding infected cattle and the regulations, which are at the present moment somewhat drastic. I do not want to detain your Lordships at any length but I should like to call attention to the fact that this fell disease is no new thing. It is a very old epidemic. It was first known it this country, I believe, in 1839 and during the whole of the remaining sixty years of the nineteenth century it was not treated very seriously. In fact, the best authorities will tell you that in this country and in Ireland the disease was not treated very seriously. In the Eastern Counties it generally made its appearance in October and disappeared about Christmas. And I am told on the authority of some graziers in the County of Meath that in Ireland this illness was taken more or less as a matter of course. In 1902 an altogether different line of action was taken and it was determined to legalise the slaughter of infected animals. Statistics show that from 1902 on to 1925 333,000 animals have been killed at a cost of £5,000,000. In The Times of this morning we read that since September 25 of the present year 17,000 animals have been slaughtered and that the estimated compensation is £223,000.

I should like very briefly to ask my noble friend two plain questions. The first is: Does he think that in the present circumstances the country can afford this great expense? And the second is: Can he state that this policy has really been justified by results? Can the country afford it now? It aright have afforded it some time ago, but the circumstances under which we now live are so different that I think attention should be called to it. In 1918 the War came to a happy conclusion, and the Prime Minister of the day went to the country with a magnificent policy, and swept everything before him. He told us that he was going to make Germany pay for the War, and we all believed it. In those circumstances it was perfectly justifiable, and it was perfectly natural, that we should go in for a comprehensive and somewhat expensive policy. And he did.

The first thing that the Victory Government did—and all credit to them—was to say that they would put the ex-soldiers on the land. They did put 14,000 men on the land at a cost of £17,000,000. That comes to an average of £1,100 for each ex-Service man. An expert was appointed to the Agriculture Department at a cost of £2,000 a year. The expert, who was a man versed in the philosophy of small holdings, after he had dune that, transferred his services to Wembley. Wembley now has been wound up, and I understand that the gentleman in question has taken himself off to America. I am not in the habit of speaking ill of people, but I should thick that every Wembley guarantor, and almost all British tax-payers, would say that they wish to God he had gene there five and twenty years before.

The next thing that was done was that the Victory Government told the farmers that they would give them for ever and ever 96s. a quarter for their wheat, and they told the labourers that they would give them 46s. a week wages for all time. There was great opposition to that proposal, and in six months the Government discovered that the opponents of this scheme were right, and that if wheat fell to its present price—something like 50s.—the annual cost to the country would be between £40,000,000 and £60,000,000 a year. That was really a little bit too much, so they cancelled the whole thing, and repealed the Act. As a sop to those unfortunate farmers who had been misled by promises they gave a bonus of £17,000,000. But these things are really, after all, mere flea-bites compared with the results of the Treaty of Paris and the coal subsidy and various things of that sort.

We now discover ourselves in the position that we have to pay £800,000,000 to run the country which in pre-War time was run for £200,000,000. From what I have heard lately and from what passed in your Lordships' House, I gather that the Exchequer must be in a very depleted state, because we see that the Government of the day—I do not say enthusiastically, but not very reluctantly—accepted an amended Motion a fortnight ago to get more money—some millions, I think—by taxing betting, which, except in certain very pleasant places that we all frequent, and I hone that we all shall frequent in days to come—Goodwood, Ascot, Epsom, and places like that—is, under the law of the land, a misdemeanour that is punishable by fine or imprisonment. I need not labour that, but call attention to the fact that under the present state of affairs agriculturists are taxed to the amount of about 14s. 6d. in the £, and the question I ask the noble Lord, Lord Bledisloe, is this: Is he satisfied in his own mind that we can go on at this extraordinary rate of expenditure, and that we can sanction what I may call the Herodean policy of "kill, kill, kill," which is now resorted to?

I ask your Lordships' leave to make only one other point. Will any noble Lord get up in this House and say that this policy is doing any good? I do not ask the noble Lord to go so far as to say that it will stop foot-and-mouth disease, but I ask him to say whether this policy is doing any good? He will probably say that foot-and-mouth disease is very bad in Holland, and that if we do not kill we shall be in the same position as Holland. But after all in Holland these animals recover, for this is not a mortal disease. Yet, according to the Bledislonian policy, animals are slaughtered, and there is an end of the whole thing.

While I was thinking what I should say to your Lordships, a phrase of a Victorian poet came into my mind, the refrain of which was: "You don't know what you get until you've got it." That may be true nine times out of ten. I suppose it to be true if a man bought a second-hand motor car, or if he married a wife, or if he accepted a bishopric, or if he went to Doncaster and bought four or five yearlings at £4,000 or £5,000 a piece. That man would not know what he had got until he had got it. We have, if I may be permitted to use the expression in this House, got it "in the neck," and we are absolutely in the dark as to how we got it. We do not know how, why or when we got it. The whole thing is entirely a sealed book. The position of my old friend Sir Stewart Stockman is a very thankless one. He is in exactly the same position as a large posse of A Division of the police would be in if they were suddenly told by the Inspector-General that they were to go out into Hyde Park in a fog, and if they could find one to grapple with a ghost. That is exactly the position of my unfortunate friend Sir Stewart Stockman and his assistants at the present moment.

Before I close may I be allowed to take off my hat to the old Board of Agriculture, or the Ministry as it is called now, with which I had such a happy connection for five or six years? If it was only Lord Bledisloe we should be able to do something. The Minister of Agriculture has never been properly backed up by the tenant farmers. If you kill at once, well and good; but let me give an instance which came under my own observation. There was an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease about three months ago in one of my small holdings farmed by a smallholder. It was a most extraordinary case for it broke out right in the middle of the farm, and this man's cattle never went off the farm, he consumed everything, he never bought anything, and the only time the cattle went off the farm was when they went to the bull on the next man's farm. This outbreak broke out absolutely in the centre of the farm. Nobody could understand why it was. The Ministry of Agriculture behaved really most magnificently. The outbreak occurred on a Thursday night. A cordon was at once drawn round the farm, all the footpaths were stopped, and the farm completely isolated. By ten o'clock the next morning the officials of the Ministry of Agriculture were on the spot. By three o'clock the valuer was there and the whole stock was valued by five o'clock, and by nine o'clock in the morning they were all horned. That was a case in which prompt action was taken, with the result I have stated.

I am a child in these matters and I have asked people who knew, or who thought they knew, why on earth this outbreak occurred, and how on earth we get this foot-and-mouth disease. They said it did not come from the earth but from the air. In these days of gramophones and wireless and all these other things people seem to understand everything. Then some people said that it was brought by the birds; that the birds brought this horrible thing with them. You proceed to kill the victim but you do not kill the bird, and really I do not see how you can kill the bird. You may kill a couple or so of barndoor owls and perhaps 600 rats without trouble, but if you start to kill the birds you will get into trouble and agriculture itself will be in a worse mess almost than it is now. But why has this slaughter policy been introduced at all? What is the object of it? We have had epidemics in this country for years; our history is full of them. We have had the plague, which went through the people, but by degrees it disappeared. We have had the black death; we have had the black pox and the smallpox, and every other sort of dreadful disease, including sleepy sickness, but there has never been any idea of interfering with human beings. And I do not see how this slaughter policy can help us in any way. I do not see how any one can think that the County of Bucks or the Forest of Dean would be more immune from the scourge of influenza if, twenty-three years ago, the County Councils of those particular areas had beheaded Lord Bledisloe or poleaxed Lord Parmoor.

I must thank your Lordships for having listened to me for so long. I have only one other word to say. I have been asked what is the use of bringing up these Questions time after time. It is said: "You asked a Question a week or so ago about foxhunting and got the same stereotyped reply." Yes, two or three sentences of a reply, and then about five and forty minutes of a brilliant speech on every sort of question connected with agriculture, but which had nothing whatever to do with the matter I had raised, I am told that is all I shall get now. I am not so sure of that. There has been a change in the Government. The Hon. Mr. Wood has been appointed Viceroy-Elect of India and is to rule over countless millions of our fellow subjects. The new Minister of Agriculture is Mr. Walter Guinness. I have no information as to what his ideas may be, but there is no doubt that he has left a most extraordinarily fine record at the Treasury. I believe he is very much regretted there. It is said that he has been the most admirable Financial Secretary the Treasury has ever had.

He may know something about finance, but in addition to that we do know that Mr. Guinness is a man of courage. Quite recently he had to go through a by-election on being raised to the high position he now occupies in the Cabinet, and a very strong body of opinion in his division, the Farmers' Union, put a pistol at his head and said: If you do not tax food—that, I suppose, is barley, and barley is "glorious beer" and "glorious beer is supposed to be food—we will oppose you with all the power at our disposal. He put up a strong opposition at once and said that he was not going to be dictated to by any one. They opposed him tooth and nail, but the moment the agricultural labourers found out that the farmers were opposing him they plumped for him to a man, and he was returned with almost as big a majority as at the previous election.

What will Mr. Guinness do? I hope very much that the noble Lord. Lord Bledisloe, even if he cannot say anything very definite on this point, will at least be able to give us some hope of an alleviation of a policy which I do not think has been altogether proved to the House to be the success that it has been claimed to be, and that we may have some alteration of the drastic measures that are now taken against this horrible disease. If the noble Lord has any Papers that he can lay on the Table I shall be glad if he will do so in the interests of the agricultural community, but I can assure your Lordships that in asking for them I had no desire to trouble the House with further remarks upon this subject.


My Lords, among the somewhat discursive remarks of the noble Marquess there was one which I think was very true and to which I should like to call special attention. He said that he did not think that the Ministry of Agriculture received a proper amount of support from many of the tenant farmers of this country. We have heard too many stories of the advantage which some unscrupulous individuals get from this policy of compensation. These stories are going round, and I know that it is very difficult to prove anything conclusively about them, but there is too much suspicion in many parts that dealers buy inferior stock and then become very careless indeed as to whether the stock becomes infected or not. I should like very much to know whether the Ministry of Agriculture have heard of any conclusive cases which give them reason to suspect that this kind of thing is going on. If anything of the sort could be proved, I do not think that any punishment could be too severe.


My Lords, perhaps it would be convenient if I endeavoured to reply first of all to the question addressed to me by the noble Earl. So far as support by farmers of the policy of the Ministry is concerned, I think I can confidently say that all the more enlightened farmers throughout the country are giving us in this particular connection all the support that we could possibly desire, or indeed deserve. But when the noble Earl asks a further question with regard to possible irregularities on the part of certain dealers, all I can say is that cases undoubtedly occurred some two or three years ago, when we had a much more serious epidemic than obtains at present, which did evoke on our part some feeling of suspicion that there might be some such irregularities as those to which the noble Earl refers. We have tightened up our regulations accordingly, and incidentally we have reduced the amount of compensation payable on slaughter of infected animals. We hope that as a result there will be no further ground for any such suspicion in the future.

The noble Marquess, who is, if I may say so, always interesting and entertaining when he addresses this House on agricultural policy, succeeded in the course of his short speech in covering an immense amount of ground. In fact, he referred somewhat cursorily to the agricultural policy of no less than four different Governments before finally dealing in more detail with the subject matter of the Question on the Paper. He incidentally mentioned the question of the settlement of something like 14,000 smallholders at a cost of £17,000,000. In reply I would venture to remind the House that this subject will come up for discussion by your Lordships this week on the Land Settlement (Facilities) Amendment Bill, and there will then be an opportunity for further discussion of the matter if it is desired. The Question on the Paper refers not merely to foot-and-mouth disease generally but specifically to the present epidemic, and upon that I propose to concentrate my reply. The only practical remedy that the noble Marquess has suggested for the ills from which we are suffering is apparently the beheading of myself and the poleaxing of my noble and learned friend Lord Parmoor. One objection, of course, to that process is that the noble Marquess would render it quite impossible for me to reply to his Question.

He has put to me two specific questions. He asks in the first place: Can the country afford this great expense? Speaking quite shortly, the answer would be that the country certainly cannot afford the alternative to the present policy of slaughter and restriction. The noble Marquess asks, in the second place, whether the policy of slaughter has been justified by results. I am going quite shortly to prove to your Lordships that this policy has been justified up to the hilt. There have been during this year 247 outbreaks in England, and of these no less than 222, distributed over twenty-one counties, have occurred since September 25. They have been specially prevalent in Lancashire, in the West Riding of Yorkshire and in Wiltshire. In round numbers, 8,000 cattle have been slaughtered, a similar number of sheep, 3,000 pigs and 33 goats, making a total of 19,000 head of stock; and compensation consequent upon such slaughter has been paid to the amount of £257,697. But what is more interesting and instructive to us at the Ministry of Agriculture is that, although there have been more separate centres of infection than ever before in the history of this disease, so far as that history is recorded, we have reason to believe that the disease is now well under our control, very largely as the result of this partial standstill Order which I endeavoured to explain to your Lordships about three weeks ago and which, in our opinion, has proved an entire success.

It is perfectly true that the Order does interfere to a small extent with hunting, though not to any material extent, and that it does undoubtedly interfere with the business habits and the comfort of people living in the country, but there is no doubt that drastic action taken in time is proving to be a far more economical policy in the long run than allowing the disease to develop out of too much consideration for the feelings of possible objectors. During the last six weeks the number of outbreaks has steadily declined. They are thirty-four, twenty-two, nineteen, twenty, fifteen and ten respectively for the last six weeks, showing a progressive decline in the number of outbreaks. That progressive decline we attribute very largely, if not mainly, to this new policy of the standstill Order.

The noble Marquess quite properly adumbrated my reference to other countries by way of comparison, and it is significant and interesting that whenever there has been a considerable spread of the disease in this country it has always been largely prevalent and far more seriously prevalent in other Continental countries situated nearest to our own. For instance, in September last, in France there were 2,351 outbreaks and in the following months 3,200 outbreaks. In Holland there were in September 7,823 outbreaks and in October 4,300 and during the last three months in Holland there here 20,000 outbreaks as compared with 247 in this country since the beginning of the year.


What precisely does the noble Lord mean by "outbreak"?


I mean by "outbreak" an isolated occurrence of the disease, several cattle generally being involved. In Denmark in September there were 3,600 outbreaks. When I dealt with this subject on the last occasion, I would remind your Lordships that I stated that since the beginning of the year no fewer than 50,000 holdings in Denmark had been affected by this disease. That is in a small country less than half the size of Scotland. As I have pointed out, we have only had 247 outbreaks this year, and we are getting near the end of the year, as compared with 1,140 in the year 1922, 1,929 in the year 1923, and 1,440 last year. So as compared with the three previous years the epidemic has not been relatively so serious.

May I, however, just refer for a moment to the year 1924, which, as I pointed out, was a more serious year than the present year so far as foot-and-mouth disease is concerned. While our outbreaks in Great Britain in that year numbered 1,440, at the same time in Germany the outbreaks numbered 14,372, or ten times as many; in Belgium, 18,181, or over twelve times as many; in France, 12,965, or nine times as many; and in Holland, 66,859, or nearly fifty times as many as in this country. It has been estimated that the average loss in Holland to farmers during the last ten or fifteen years amounted to at least £2,500,000. In the year 1920, which was the worst year for this disease in France, it was estimated that the loss to farmers from mortality and deterioration of stock and loss of milk amounted to over £5,000,000. But the year 1925 has in this country been better than the three previous years.

The noble Marquess, who impliedly criticised or condemned the policy of slaughter, may be interested to know that there are otter countries that have adopted this policy, but most of them have adopted it for a period oily arid then abandoned it. Most Continental countries do not adopt the policy, but the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden and Dem ark revert to the policy of slaughter whenever they feel justified in so, when their outbreaks are not so serious as to put too great a strain upon their national exchequers. In the United States they have copied us in the policy of slaughter since 1902 and have continuously employed the policy of slaughter since that time, but the strongest argument in favour of the policy which we adopt is, in fact, to be found in following the history of the disease from the time when it first appeared in this country in 1839.

When it first appeared the landing of animals from the Continent was prohibited and the introduction of the disease was undoubtedly brought about by what is called mediate contagion—by birds or some infected material. The interesting fact is this, that up to the time of the inauguration of the policy of slaughter in this country—namely, in 1884—the disease was more or less continuously prevalent in this country. It was sometimes very seriously prevalent, particularly in the years 1841, 1849 (when Scotland especially suffered severely) and in 1871, when there were no fewer than 52,000 outbreaks reported by inspectors of local authorities, as well as a large number which, owing to the little attention then paid to the question of sanitary regulations, were not so reported. This prevalence continued up to 1884. In 1884 the local authorities for the first time were empowered by Act of Parliament to slaughter affected animals, and this was followed eight years later, because the local authorities adopted differential methods of dealing with the disease, by the passing of the Contagious Diseases (Animals) Act, which provided for uniformity of action and compulsory slaughter in the case of all outbreaks. From that date to this compulsory slaughter of affected and in-contact animals has obtained in this country. But this is the interesting fact, that from the year 1885 there were fewer than 600 outbreaks over a period of thirty-six years, making it perfectly clear that it was from the time of the adoption of the policy of slaughter that the abatement of the disease took place in this country.

The noble Marquess has referred to the seriousness of the disease. It is not a serious disease; we do not pretend that it is. There are plenty of cures for the disease, but we prefer rather to insist upon the policy of slaughter than to attempt to apply any remedies, because it happens to be the most infectious disease of which there is any knowledge either among livestock or human beings. And it is the extreme infectivity of the disease which renders this policy not only justifiable but inevitable if we are going to keep it at hay and reduce the far more serious bill which we should have to pay if, to use a colloquialism, we allowed it to "rip," as, in fact, they do to-day in many countries on the Continent where it is more serious. As it is, no more than eight per cent. of the animals affected by the disease would die from it in the event of their not being slaughtered.

The alternative of the present policy would be isolation, but it does not necessarily follow that isolation, which is already employed even now in the case of very valuable pedigree animals where there are suitable premises available, would be in any way a success in this country. First of all, we have a very large head of live stock in this country, and we have wholly insufficient housing accommodation for them to allow of infected animals being isolated from the rest. Then, if you did employ the policy of isolation, you would still have to maintain a very large staff of persons whose duty it would be to see that the disease did not assume most dangerous proportions. We are able to eradicate the disease to a large extent in this country by this policy by virtue of our insular position, and, owing to that position, we can effectively control the importation of animals into this country. Unfortunately, when cases of this disease occur, it has been ostensibly imported from other countries. It may be brought by birds—we are not in a position to judge—it may come by infected materials, and only lately orders have been issued by the Ministry relating to hay and straw used for packing merchandise, which, under the Order, must not be brought in contact with animals, and must be destroyed if it is not used again for packing. We have similarly, under the same Order, provided that no shrubs or other similar produce, coming from abroad and packed in hay or straw, shall be exhibited for sale in any place where livestock are also sold. Those precautions we are taking at the present time, and we hope to check the importation of the disease to some extent by this means.

The actual percentage of the stock of this country which has been slaughtered, even in the very worst epidemics we have had, is relatively small. For instance, in the very serious epidemic of 1922–24 no more than 1.5 per cent. of the whole of the cattle of the country were slaughtered. It is true that the percentage in Cheshire was a very large one, exceeding 25 per cent., I believe, but then, that is a very special and a very unfortunate case. No more than 0.2 per cent. of the sheep and no more than 1.7 per cent. of the pigs were slaughtered in the worst epidemic that we have had in the last forty years. In these circumstances I think your Lordships will be almost compelled to admit that our policy has been fully justified in its results, and that in the event of our "allowing it to rip," as certain Continental countries have done, the loss to our livestock, not only through mortality, but through serious loss of flesh, and particularly of milk, would cost far more than we are paying at the present time to keep the disease in cheek.