HL Deb 12 February 1947 vol 145 cc608-12

5.28 p.m.


had given notice that he would ask His Majesty's Government whether it is true that claims are outstanding for over £90,000 in respect of cattle and sheep in Scotland which have died from eating grass poisoned by smoke or gas fumes, following the destruction by fire of unwanted ammunition; how many of these claims have been under consideration by the War Office for over a year; whether it is true that only has so far been paid to farmers as compensation; what is the cause of delay in dealing with this matter, and what further steps are being taken to prevent, or compensate, for this serious loss; and move for Papers.

The noble Duke said: My Lords, in rising to move the Motion which stands in my name. I have no intention of occupying your Lordships for any very long period of time. My Motion concerns the question of paying compensation to a number of farmers for loss of livestock caused by eating poisonous grass after the destruction of unwanted ammunition. This question affects rather a large area of land, somewhere about sixty farms covering many thousands of acres of land.

The ammunition destroyed was poison gas, and also cylinders of cordite. They were destroyed by burning. I have seen clouds of smoke over the grazing fields, and when the grass is wet the poisoned smoke lies on the grass. The cattle then come along and eat it and they die. When they were dying by large numbers a conference was called between the War Office and the veterinary experts, and after the conference it was decided to slaughter over 1,500 head of cattle, over 4,000 sheep, over 400 head of poultry and over a score of horses. All these were slaughtered after a conference between the military and other authorities. It is obvious that the farmers who had their stocks slaughtered through no fault of their own have lost a large amount of money. Surely it is unfair when they put in claims for compensation for little to be done about them, especially as now claims from farmers amount to £90,000. But although the need for compensation is recognized by the military authorities the money is very slow in coming, and it is not merely compensation for the dead loss of livestock which is concerned but also compensation for loss of trade.

One farmer I know owned 136 head of T.T. cattle. These milking cows were giving a full ration of milk to 2,400 people. They were all slaughtered. That was a dead loss to the farmer of a life's work. They were valued at between £6,000 and £7,000. On top of this there is a loss of trade for four or five years—you cannot re-create a herd of T.T. cattle under four or five years. His loss in this respect amounts to another £6,000. There you have a loss of £12,000 to one farmer alone Farmers say that some of their claims have been in for over a year, either before the Treasury or the War Office. Up to October last only £62 was paid. There is something wrong there. Since October, I believe, some further payments have come along, but, whatever they are, they are nowhere near the amount of the claim for £90,000 cash loss or for the loss of four to five years' trade. There is a bottleneck somewhere. We have endeavoured to work to get the bottleneck removed and obtain compensation. It is not merely a question of compensating a hard-working man for loss of capital and loss of trade; it is a question of food production. Till these farmers can get compensation they cannot get started again in building up food production; therefore if compensation is due to these men—and it is acknowledged by the military authorities that the cattle were slaughtered with their consent—surely it should be paid quickly. That is the object of my question: to ask if anything can be done to pay compensation without further delay.


My Lords, I will, with your Lordship's permission, explain as briefly as I can the background of the claims referred to by the noble Lord. In the late autumn of 1945 and the beginning of 1946, certain surplus ammunition and smoke generators were destroyed by the War Department in the Kippen Area; such destruction was by burning. Complaints were received during and subsequent to the burnings of damage to stock in the Kippen Area. Cattle had become infected by a disease which could not be diagnosed by the local veterinary experts acting either on behalf of the owners of the stock or of the Department. At first arsenical poisoning was suspected, but chemical analysis of the organs of deceased animals failed to confirm this theory.

Professor Boddie of the Royal (Dick) Veterinary College, Edinburgh, was called in and conducted extensive investigations. He came to the conclusion that the disease was due to the external and internal effects of a corrosive irritant, and he suspected that irritant to be mustard gas which was a component of some of the ammunition that had been destroyed. However, further tests by scientific experts failed to locate the presence of mustard gas in the affected area, either in the water or in the atmosphere or on the ground. In May, 1946, the Department was agreeable to considering the acceptance of liability to a limited extent only, it having been impossible to obtain positive evidence up to that date that the death of the animals was attributable to the residuum of burned mustard gas. There was a sharp division of opinion between the various experts and it became necessary to conduct a series of trials and experiments at the Chemical Defence Experimental Station, Porton.

At a meeting of the representatives of the Government Departments concerned and other technical experts, the conclusion was reached that there was no definite explanation of the death of the cattle, but that it was probably caused by smoke from the burning ammunition and generators. Poisoning by zinc chloride was suspected, but the exact chemical cause of the disease was unascertained as the Porton tests were inconclusive. It was then decided to conduct trials in the affected area to discover whether the ground was fit for pasturage so that farmers could re-stock and graze their animals with safety. The trials were completed in October, 1946, and proved favourable, this fact being immediately communicated to the farmers.

Finally, in November, 1946, the War Department accepted full liability and the settlement of claims began. Details of the position on February 10, 1947, as to settlement of claims, of which 87 have been received to date and a few more may yet arise, were as follows:

£ s. d.
8 claims repudiated.
24 claims paid to date 5,508 8 5
15 claims passed for payment 13,778 6 7
3 claims accepted in principle and under detailed consideration with a view to financial approval 9,469 10 8
37 claims under consideration 86,190 0 0

All possible steps are being taken to negotiate and settle claims without delay, and I am informed that the general agents who act for the majority of the claimants have expressed themselves as well satisfied with the progress made.

May I sum up by attempting to give the House a straight answer to the straight questions asked by the noble Lord? First, the noble Lord asks whether it is true that claims are outstanding for over £90,000. The answer is that at the moment claims are being considered which amount to 1,86,190 0s. 0d. Secondly, he asks how many of these claims have been under consideration by the War Office for over a year. The answer is that no claim still under consideration was definitely formulated over a year ago, most, I understand, being formulated about the middle of last year. Thirdly, he asks whether it is true that only £62 has so far been paid to farmers as compensation. On this point, he is completely misinformed. On the contrary, £5,508 has been paid, £13,778 has been passed for payment, and claims totalling £9,469 have been accepted in principle and are being considered in detail with a view to financial approval.

Finally, he asks what is the cause of delay in dealing with this matter and what further steps are being taken to prevent, or compensate for, this serious loss. The cause of delay I think I have already explained; F shall be saying one word more in a moment. As regards compensation, I can assure the noble Lord that now the liability has been accepted claims will be disposed of as rapidly as possible. As regards disposals, alternative methods are now being used. Grazings previously affected have now been proved safe as the result of extensive tests. As for the future, we have reached the conclusion that this method of destroying such ammunition, although universally used without mishap elsewhere (I think that, in fairness, I should emphasize this), is open to suspicion in certain areas, and alternative methods of disposal are being used and developed—in particular deep-sea dumping. I should like to close by expressing our regret for the original damage, which I do not think anyone could reasonably have foreseen, and also for the somewhat lengthy delay, which, I hope the House will agree, could not have been reduced in view of the somewhat mystifying circumstances and the detailed investigations necessary in order to make sure that the liability of the taxpayer was properly safeguarded.


My Lords, I am very much obliged to the noble Lord for the full information which he has given. We make no complaint as to ammunition being destroyed or as to the places where it has been destroyed. All that I, and those who are with me in this, desire is that the Military Authorities or the Treasury should recognize that in Carrying out the process of destruction they are doing a lot of damage, and that it ought to be paid for as quickly and as fully as possible. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.