HL Deb 15 February 1968 vol 289 cc223-30

4.18 p.m.


My Lords, with permission I should like to repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture in another place. The Statement is as follows:

"I would like to report to the House on the present position of the foot-and-mouth disease epidemic.

"The number of outbreaks has continued at a low level since I last reported to the House in a debate on January 30. In the week ending at midnight last night there were seven outbreaks, almost the same number as in the preceding week. In view of this, I have been able to make substantial reductions in the size of the controlled area, releasing those parts of the country which are now distant from the remaining centres of infection.

"This is encouraging. But deafly the epidemic has not yet been stamped out. When I made my statement about meat imports on December 4, I said that, in any event, the arrangements would he reviewed in three months time; that is, by March 4. This review is being undertaken, and we are also studying the first results of the investigations carried out by my veterinary advisers into the origin of the present epidemic. I propose to announce before March 4 results of the review. In the meantime the arrangements announced on December 4 will continue.

"I have already told the House that I propose to appoint a Committee of Inquiry into our policy and arrangements for dealing with foot-and-mouth disease. I am glad to say that the Duke of Northumberland has accepted my invitation to act as Chairman of this Committee of Inquiry. The terms of reference will be:

'To review the policy and arrangements for dealing with foot-and-mouth disease in Great Britain and to make recommendations.'

I hope that the Committee will make a full investigation of the circumstances of the recent epidemic and advise on the policy that should be adopted to control foot-and-mouth disease in this country in the light of the latest scientific knowledge. I am about to invite a number of other possible members to serve."


My Lords, may I thank the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, for reading out the Statement made in another place. I welcome the news that the epidemic seems to be subsiding and that the outbreaks are now at a low level; and perhaps I may express the hope that soon they will have died out altogether. May I also welcome his announcement of the name of the Chairman of the Committee of Inquiry? As the noble Lord is aware, there has been some criticism of the delay in making this announcement, but now that we have heard the name of the noble Duke, the Duke of Northumberland, we shall all agree that it was well worth waiting for.

With regard to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, about the review, which is still going on, of the temporary ban on imported meat from sources where the disease is endemic, I note that no decision has been made yet, and I hope that the silence on this matter to-day indicates that the temporary ban will be continued during the period of the Inquiry. Is the noble Lord aware that the devastating losses that have occurred in the farming world have caused immense anxiety, and that it would be a very great relief to know that this ban is to continue at any rate until a long-term policy has been decided?

With regard to the long-term policy on meat imports from sources where foot-and-mouth is endemic, will the noble Lord confirm that the terms of reference of the Inquiry, which he has read out to us, include a review of the sources of supply of our meat, including importation from sources where foot-and-mouth disease is endemic, because this could be a major factor for the Committee of Inquiry? If importation from these sources with endemic foot-and-mouth continues, the Committee of Inquiry might very well make one recommendation with regard to the best method of controlling the disease. On the other hand, if it were decided not to continue to import from such sources, they might very well recommend another method of controlling the disease in this country. Therefore, it is vitally important to them. But may I express my best wishes to the Inquiry in this very important matter?


My Lords, perhaps I may reply at once to what the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, has just said. First, I would say that I share with him—and, indeed, I am sure, the whole House—the hope that this epidemic will shortly be completely stamped out. May I thank him, too, for the welcome which he has given to the appointment of the Duke of Northumberland. I am sure, as the noble Lord says, that the appointment will carry the confidence not only of all sections of the farming community but also of the rest of the country. I am glad to tell the noble Lord that the terms of reference are certainly as wide as those given to the Gowers Committee, and will enable the Committee of Inquiry to deal with the matters to which he referred. They can make recommendations about imports, although, of course, those recommendations will be based on animal health considerations, and the ultimate decision in these matters must necessarily rest with the Government, who must take into account all the national considerations.


My Lords, may I associate myself with everything that the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, said in relation to this Inquiry? So far as the terms of reference are concerned, I think he has put his finger on a weak spot. The terms of reference can possibly be stretched to mean almost everything, but in fact they do not cover prevention. They cover dealing with the disease, and they cover control, but they do not cover prevention. I think the Government will have to think very closely about this point which the noble Lord made, because it is not enough to say that terms of reference such as were given to the Gowers Committee are wide enough for this Inquiry. They must be a little wider.

In relation to the ban, may I just say this? Obviously, the Ministry of Agriculture will have to come to a decision on this ban long before the Committee can report. I personally hope, like the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, that the ban will be extended until that time. Nevertheless, the Minister of Agriculture is under very considerable pressure from other interests, and I hope that what I may term "blackmail" from the Argentine will not be listened to too closely.


I am sure that what the noble Lord, Lord Henley, has said will be borne in mind. With regard to the Committee's terms of reference, I do not think he properly heard what I read out at the end of my right honourable friend's Statement, when he said that he hoped the Committee would make a full investigation of the circumstances of the recent epidemic and advise on the policy that should be adopted to control foot-and-mouth disease in this country…


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether it is known how many farms there are in the restricted area which has not yet been affected by the disease?


No, my Lords. I could not answer that question without notice, but I will certainly send the information to the noble Marquess.


My Lords, may I, from these Benches, express a word of thanks to the Minister for the Statement that he has given to us of the Committee has been appointed will I know that the news that the Chairman give the greatest satisfaction. May I also add my word to that of the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, in wishing this Committee well? At the same time, perhaps I may remind the Minister—although I am sure he does not need any reminder—that the people concerned in this epidemic have passed through a traumatic experience, and it is therefore very important that their confidence should be restored at the earliest possible moment.

I hope that the ban on meat from countries where foot-and-mouth disease is endemic will be kept on until this Committee, possibly with an Interim Report, have been able to consider this particular issue. But may I also remind the Minister that there are other matters, which I think will probably be outside the terms of reference of the Committee, about which some assurance is needed? There are these questions of compensation, for instance, and the question of the encouragement of the employment of skilled labour, so that these men are not lost from the places where they are so greatly needed.


My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is right, of course, in saying that there are other considerations. They were touched upon in the debate which we had in this House, and I hope that what I said then indicated that the Minister is fully aware of them.


My Lords, may I be allowed to express my thanks to the noble Lord for repeating this Statement to-day, and also to welcome the appointment of the noble Duke as Chairman of this Committee? I think it would be difficult, if I may say so, to find a more suitable person to fill this very difficult post. The noble Lord will perhaps remember that in the debate the other day I said, I think wrongly, that I understood the Inquiry was to be held in public. But, to clear up that matter, can the noble Lord assure the House that in fact the Report of the Inquiry will be made public after the Inquiry has taken place? Also, could he say anything today about the size of the Committee, and from what fields of experience its members will be drawn? Further, can the noble Lord give me any idea when this Committee will be able to start work? He will agree, surely, that it is a very urgent matter. Perhaps he can also say something about another point which I raised with him the other day, on the question whether the secretariat which will serve the Committee is already at work and preparing what one might call advance information in a dossier which will help the members of the Inquiry in their work when they get down to it.


Yes, my Lords. The Committee is expected to be about the same size as the Gowers Committee, which noble Lords will remember was eight in number, including the Chairman. It is expected that the appointment of the members will follow fairly quickly. It is a matter to be entered into after full consultation with the Chairman; but, certainly, it is hoped that the Committee will be able to start work fairly soon. I assure the House that the Working Party to which I referred when the noble Lord raised the relevant matter of getting and collating information now has a mass of information already there to be put before the Committee when it starts work.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord not to dismiss lightly what my noble friend Lord Henley said? The terms of reference used the phrase "dealing with". The statement talks about "controlling" foot and-mouth disease in the United Kingdom or in this country. What many of us are worried about is the prevention of it in the future. I submit that those two words "dealing" and "controlling" in this country do not necessarily cover prevention by the banning of imported tinned meat.


My Lords, I have just the same feeling of worry, especially when the Minister, in answering the noble Lord, Lord Henley, seemed to think that "control" was the same as "prevention". It obviously is not. "Control" assumes that the disease is there; "prevention" means not allowing it to arise. To the ordinary person who is not versed in the technicalities of this matter, one of the main elements in the problem has been the question of vaccination, which has been tremendously argued upon by lay people and which has given rise to a great deal of correspondence in the newspapers. That is very important indeed; but it might well be said that it has nothing to do with control; that it is purely a question of prevention. If the Committee cannot go into this problem of vaccination then I am sure it will be a disaster. I hope that the Minister will look at the terms of reference again and make it quite clear that prevention is covered.


My Lords, I do not believe that there is any doubt in the minds of those who have spelled out the terms of reference, nor, if I may venture to say so, in the mind of the Chairman who has been appointed. The terms of reference are very wide. I spoke about "control" and other noble Lords used the word "prevention". In fact, in the terms of reference it speaks of "arrangements for dealing with". Certainly, the question of imports from abroad will be within the terms of reference of, and within those matters to be considered by, the Committee. Indeed, the Gowers Committee sent representatives, if they did not go themselves, to various countries in different parts of the world, including South America. There is no reason to believe that this Committee, if it so wishes, will not also go. The only point I made was that the final decision, in regard to the trading policy of this country, must be a matter for Her Majesty's Government.


My Lords, while welcoming the appointment of the noble Duke as Chairman of the Committee, which I think is excellent, may I ask whether there will be an Interim Report or any time limit set on the Committee's work? Sometimes these Committees hang on for a long time. This is a matter of great urgency, and I hope that either an Interim Report will be made or that the Minister may be able to set a time limit.


My Lords, I am sure that the Chairman realises the urgency of this matter. It is not for the Government to set a time-limit; but clearly we want, on the one hand, a deep-searching and authoritative investigation and, consistent with that, a Report as early as possible.


My Lords, in regard to the question of preventing foot-and-mouth disease from being introduced here, may I ask whether we should not immediately ban the import of bone manure from endemic countries?


My Lords, that is an opinion which is shared by many.


My Lords, although I agree with everything that has been said this afternoon—and anything that could prevent a recurrence of this terrible disease must take first preference—may I draw the Minister's attention to the other side of this issue? I happen to know that there are £150 million worth of exports involved with South America. I should like the Minister to bear in mind the value of that trade to us. If some sort of compromise solution could be worked out, which in no way left the possibility of this disease coming back again, I think it would be worth studying. For instance, I would suggest that bone meal is prohibited, and possibly also meat on the bone; or something of that nature.


My Lords, the noble Lord indicates the other considerations that have been the reason for the delay in reaching a decision on this matter.