HL Deb 11 August 1972 vol 334 cc1443-8

11.27 a.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question of which I have given Private Notice—namely:

"To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will make a Statement on the prospect of settling the dock strike and in particular restoring the normal supply of animal feedingstuffs."


My Lords, since the official National Dock Strike started on July 28 the Jones/Aldington Committee have held a series of further meetings. Their aim has been to clarify the recommendations in their interim report published on July 25—in particular those relating to container groupage work. The Government had hoped that by now the Committee would have made sufficient progress to enable, the Transport and General Workers' Union to recall their National Delegate Conference and secure a resumption of work. This has not yet happened, but I am sure we all hope that there may be an early recall. The Committee are continuing to meet—they are indeed meeting again at this moment. Your Lordships will, I am sure, join me in expressing the desire that all concerned should act with the utmost speed to bring this damaging strike to an end.

The present position on animal feeding-stuffs remains much as I described it in your Lordships' House during the debate on the Emergency Regulations two days ago. It has been agreed with the National Farmers' Union and the feed trade that the need to use emergency powers will not arise within the next few days. We remain hopeful, however, that an early resumption of work will restore not only the normal supply of animal feedingstuffs and other essential imports but also the vital flow of exports.


My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for his helpful Answer, and sharing with him the hope that agreement will soon be reached on the basis of the Jones/Aldington Report, may I ask my noble friend whether he is aware of the magnitude and the imminence of the danger which now confronts the small livestock industry of this country? Is my noble friend aware that there are some 130 million chickens, including my own breeding flock, some 8½ million pigs, which are almost completely dependent on a fed ration, which at this time of year is almost entirely imported before the main harvest begins to flow, and that that consists of some 200,000 to 300,000 tons of feedingstuffs per week?

Is he further aware that the best forecast that can be made is that these supplies of feedingstuffs, in the hands of both merchants and farmers, will be completely exhausted certainly by the end of next week, and possibly by the middle of next week? Is my noble friend also aware that before farmers start slaughtering their pigs and poultry they will probably keep them for a few days in the hope that supplies will come through, so that these animals will be starving for several days before they die. Is my noble friend aware that this crisis implies the starvation of millions of pigs and poultry by the end of next week; it means the ruin of tens of thousands of livestock farmers, and the drastic reduction of home-produced supplies of pig and poultry meat and eggs? I beg him to give a more definite reply that if agreement has not been reached by the middle of next week he will be prepared to use his emergency powers in order to restore normal supplies?


Hear, hear!


My Lords, I am generally aware of the position as described by my noble friend, although I was not aware of the precise details of the amount of poultry for which he himself may be responsible. Having said that, I think I should add that my understanding—indeed, the Government's understanding—which is based on close consultations with the trade, is that while the position on the animal feedingstuffs front is undoubtedly very serious, it is geographically patchy. There are certain areas—I refer particularly to Cornwall, Devon and Dorset—where it is more critical than others. In that connection, it is perhaps not without significance that a meeting is taking place at Bristol at this moment to decide whether the dockers at Bristol, where there are considerable quantities of animal feedingstuffs locked up, if I may use that expression, will move on a voluntary basis animal feedingstuffs and release them to the critically affected South-Western areas. I do not wish to say anything which might in any way prejudice the successful termination of this important meeting.

Having said that I would only wish to add, in the words which my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, used after a meeting with the trade interests last Wednesday, that we are living here rather from day to day. But I can give my noble friend this assurance: that the Government will not hesitate to use their emergency powers if it becomes essential to ensure the continued flow of supplies. But again, as I said when we were discussing the Emergency Regulations last Wednesday, we regard such a step as a last-resort measure.


My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that I believe there will be general support for the moderate stance the Government are taking, while acknowledging the acute seriousness of the situation as described by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford—and my noble friend Lord Beswick is more competent to comment on this aspect than I am. But is he also aware that the continuation of the dock strike, whether triggered off by some unfortunate statement from the Government of a kind we have had in the past (though I am happy to say that on this occasion such a statement has not been forthcoming), could lead us into such a national disaster that by comparison the feedingstuffs disaster would pale into insignificance?

We must all hope that an agreement will be reached, but in the event of the continuation of this strike have the Government in mind that in certain circumstances Parliament may have to be recalled?—though he may not wish at this moment to discuss the question of a recall.


My Lords, I do not dissent from what the noble Lord, the Leader of the Opposition, has said about the possibly grave implications downstream if this strike were to continue for any considerable length of time, and I am gateful to him for the moderate and reasonable line he has taken in questioning me on this subject. As regards the recall of Parliament, I think it is the hope of all noble Lords that this strike will be settled reasonably and soon. I would not wish anything I said at this moment to prejudice chances of a settlement. I feel that the noble Lord's question about the recall of Parliament is a hypothetical one, and all I would say is that in circumstances of this kind there are well-established channels for consultation between the major Parties to cover this eventuality.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the point made with regard to the poultry industry by my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford is not in any sense an exaggeration? In fact, with his usual moderation he did not go far enough. In this particular industry I do not think it will be possible to slaughter all these small animals. Is my noble friend aware these animals will die of starvation? It is not going to be possible to take millions of very small chickens and have them slaughtered in a plant designed for large animals to be hung for slaughter. I think the urgency of this matter is therefore very great. May I ask the Government whether they cannot organise, through the National Farmers' Union and the poultry-packing industry, very urgently, some emergency plan as to how these small birds can be humanely disposed of if a crisis develops.


My Lords, I should be glad to pass on that suggestion to my noble friend: indeed, I will take it up with my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture.


My Lords, while not in the least wishing to urge the Leader of the House to subtract one iota from the reticence and moderation with which he has answered questions put to him, may I ask him to give the House an assurance that there are in existence plans which, if the fears expressed by the Leader of the Opposition should be realised, would enable the proper and orderly distribution of the essentials of life? It is my experience, based upon war-time administration, that the orderly distribution of the essentials of life take some time to organise. It would be reassuring to feel that the Government had plans in existence against an emergency which all of us, of course, hope will not occur.


My Lords, I can give the noble Lord that assurance.


My Lords, in order to avert the unnecessary suffering of small animals dying from starvation, may I ask Her Majesty's Government to make a special appeal to the dockers to shift feedingstuffs for animals now?


Hear hear!


My Lords, appeals have been made in this regard, but they are being made locally. In the circumstances of the particular situation with which we are faced, that is probably the best way appeals should be made.


My Lords, without wishing to criticise what the noble Earl has said, may I ask whether he would not agree that, while panic is to be deprecated, complacency is not without dangers? We are, therefore, appreciative of the nice balance that the noble Earl has struck. May I raise a point about the particular grains involved? The noble Earl has said that the problem is geographically patchy; but would he not agree that the difficulty is that there are particular grains which are in short supply? It is quite impossible to feed the poultry with home-produced grain which is now coming forward. There is therefore a special danger, which is possibly being masked by the apparent introduction of the newly harvested grain.


My Lords, I think I should be careful about going too far into agricultural details. I recognise there is a question of selectivity involved. I am grateful for what the noble Lord, Lord Beswick has said about the need to maintain a balance, but the fact that an airlift is being organised at this moment, and is to take place to-morow, to the Orkneys and Shetlands, shows that the Government are determined to see that essential supplies for our community are maintained.


My Lords, is the noble Earl aware of the news item on the 9 o'clock bulletin this morning? The item said that dockers have decided to load foodstuffs and materials for the Shetlands and the Orkneys.


My Lords, I am aware of that. There was a meeting this morning of dockers at Aberdeen, and I am glad to say that, in response to the appeal made to them (this is what I had in mind about the efficacy of appeals being made locally), this was the decision of the dockers. The position, however, is that there are certain critical shortages in the Orkneys, and above all in Shetland, and any relief which could be obtained from seaborne supplies from Aberdeen would not be in time to tide the two communities concerned over the weekend. The two loads of 90 tons each which are being supplied in Orkney and Shetland will give about half a week's relief. It is hoped that by then normal supplies, loaded through Aberdeen, will be becoming available.


My Lords, would the noble Earl agree that one of the lessons to be learned from this dispute is that the Government should aim to reduce the population of people and animals in these islands to numbers which we can feed from within our own resources?


My Lords, while there are many lessons to be learned from this dispute, I am not absolutely certain that that is one of them.