Orders of the Day — Foot-and-Mouth Disease

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 29th November 1960.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. E. Wakefield.]

11.8 p.m.

Photo of Mr Anthony Hurd Mr Anthony Hurd , Newbury

I regret the lateness of the hour, but I feel that I must take this opportunity to draw attention to the very serious losses which the country is again suffering from the scourge of foot-and-mouth disease. A very large part of England and Scotland has unhappily become involved in widespread outbreaks which have demanded rigorous movement controls over livestock, so that the ordinary business of the countryside is brought to a standstill over much of our country.

In fact—I can quote information given me yesterday by the Minister of Agriculture—there have been 193 outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease since 6th November, and it has been necessary to slaughter compulsorily no fewer than 36,000 head of farm stock. The compensation payable is likely to amount to over £1 million. This is not only a heavy cost which will fall on the taxpayers but it is a tragic loss to many farmers and a dread threat hanging over the heads of thousands more farmers who are wondering whether, by ill luck, the infection will strike them.

I wish at once to pay a tribute to the hard and conscientious work being done by the Ministry's veterinary surgeons, by hundreds of private veterinary surgeons, and by the police, who are all co-operating in a campaign to confine the area of infection. Those of us who are Members for rural areas have only to get in touch with the local policeman to be assured by him that he never has to work harder than when his parish is in an infected or a controlled area. He is on the go the whole time, and that applies even more to the veterinary surgeons.

The Ministry's research station at Pirbright is trying to identify the different strains of the virus. The people there are pre-eminent in the world in their knowledge of these viruses, and their ability to "type" them and provide vaccines that will control the spread of the disease. Nevertheless, the fact that Pirbright is pre-eminent in the world in this work does not make it desirable for us to consider switching our present slaughter policy, crude as it may seem, to a policy of vaccination.

The Gowers Report of 1954 made clear the compelling reasons why we, an island community, very heavily stocked, should keep to the slaughter policy rather than play about with vaccines. That Committee's view was that if we tried the alternative of compulsory vaccination it would cost at least £24 million a year to vaccinate all our farm stock the necessary three times a year, and that vaccination does not confer any degree of immunity to the disease until after fourteen days.

Therefore, even if we tried to have a policy of slaughter in the immediate neighbourhood of the outbreak and then a ring of vaccination round, we would always be chasing the infection, which would jump faster than we could vaccinate. In any case, the cost would be prohibitive. We would always have this handicap of foot-and-mouth disease, which seriously affects milk yields in dairy herds, sets back the fattening cattle, and which would, if we allowed it to become endemic here, be a very serious handicap to the whole economy of our agricultural industry. I therefore have no doubt, nor have those scientists and others who have studied the problem, that with us, on an island, with a fairly biddable farming community, these precautions are the best and soundest to cling to.

How do we get this trouble? Are these waves of infection inevitable? The last bout was in 1952, when the compensation paid amounted to £2½ million of taxpayers' money and the consequential losses were very serious. Is it inevitable that we must suffer these visitations from outside? We do not generate the disease ourselves. The Gowers Committee stated that there are two main sources of infection. The first source is South American meat, usually in the form of scraps that are fed to pigs in swill that is not properly boiled, or the infection may be in bones. The second source is birds, probably starlings, migrating from the Continent and bringing the infection here on their feet.

The Minister was good enough to give me yesterday his Department's analysis of the causes of primary outbreaks in this country in the last five years ending in 1959. There were sixty-two primary outbreaks attributed to South American meat and forty-six attributed to infection brought from the Continent, probably by birds, while the causes of twelve were obscure. It is unfortunate that in this present bout of trouble the Ministry has not been able to put its finger on any definite cause. I say it is unfortunate, because our friends in the Argentine are only too ready to believe that all our trouble comes from the Continent by way of birds. That just is not so.

I took it upon myself when I had the opportunity last January to visit the Ministry of Agriculture in Buenos Aires to see the Director of Animal Health and the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture to make quite clear to them that we must pin the blame for much of our troubles on South America, particularly Argentina. The Gowers Committee said: So long as we have to import meat from South America and as long as foot-and-mouth disease is endemic on that Continent, there must always be a risk that contaminated meat may cause outbreaks. Swill that contains infected meat or other waste contaminated by it is a source of inspection that is clearly of great importance. I am afraid that is all too true. When I had the opportunity of meeting the top officials of the Ministry of Agriculture in Argentina, I discussed with them measures they were taking to rid their country of the disease. It is a heavy infliction on them and a curse to us. We may have to have their beef, good quality beef, but we must take care to see that the take whatever measures are possible, even if they are inconvenient, to safeguard the health of our herds and flocks when we bring in Argentine meat. I was assured that the Argentine Government had plans which would make an effective start in fighting the disease in their country and gradually accomplishing clean areas. Three propositions were put to me. The first was that a decree would be made requiring the vaccination of all cattle before movements off farms. That would be a considerable safeguard because much of the trouble comes to us from animals which are incubating the disease and not showing it. They are carriers.

When I was there we had two, and I understand that now we have three, Ministry of Agriculture veterinary surgeons whose business it is to attend at slaughterhouses and inspect carcases as they go through. I think that they do their job well, but they cannot have second sight and identify the carcases which are incubating the disease. Therefore, it is most important that all the animals being moved in Argentina should be vaccinated so that they do not carry the disease. One of the assurances given to me by the Ministry there was that they would start on this plan. It means a great increase in their production of vaccine. Last year they produced 35 million doses of vaccine. Many people do voluntary vaccinations, but many do not. To carry out this project they would need 70 million doses, quite a big increase.

Secondly, the Ministry assured me that it intended to increase its veterinary staff. That is vital. I understand that Argentina has only 400 veterinary surgeons in the official service. That is hopelessly inadequate when we remember that they have to attend to 44 million cattle, 45 million sheep, 5 million goats and 4 million pigs. That is quite hopeless. That number can never get round to know what is going on. So the Ministry is proposing—or was then—to increase its staff, by bringing in private practitioners, and also perhaps calling on other countries to help, to strengthen its veterinary force, so that it can really check outbreaks of the disease when they occur and see that vaccination is done properly and effectively.

The third proposition put to me was that the Government would establish a zonal scheme where vaccination would be compulsory. That was to be in the south of Argentina, where there is little foot-and-mouth disease, and it was to be brought gradually up northwards towards Buenos Aires, so that stage by stage they would get areas clean of the disease.

These three propositions appeared to me sound and to be much commended as first steps in ridding Argentina of foot-and-mouth disease and ridding ourselves of a constant and costly risk. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some news of what is happening in Argentina. Are they carrying out those assurances given to me? They were given to me in order that I might translate them to our Minister of Agriculture, who is now Minister of Labour, and I did act in that way.

It is surely, as Argentina herself must realise, as much in the interests of her livestock industry to get rid of this constant handicap to efficient production, and to get a clean bill of health, as it is in our own interests to keep clear of infection. Indeed, if Argentina wants to send meat to the British market or to other countries in Europe, or to the United States, she will find she must be able to present a clean bill of health, otherwise she will be cut out of world markets.

I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some definite news of what is happening and that the Argentine authorities are closing the loopholes by which we get infection and trouble constantly coming to us. I am sure that the time has come to take a firmer line. The Argentine authorities will not think any better of us if we are fobbed off again and again with assurances but very little performance. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us tonight what is happening and what action our Government are taking to safeguard the health of British livestock.

11.22 p.m.

Photo of Sir John Barlow Sir John Barlow , Middleton and Prestwich

We are all most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Sir A. Hurd) for bringing up this very important subject which is such a scourge to agriculture in this country at the moment. There are really only two things which occur to me tonight. In view of the importance of this matter to agriculture and to cattle breeders as a whole, I am somewhat disappointed, although we have the greatest confidence in the Parliamentary Secretary, that the Minister of Agriculture himself has not seen fit to reply to this debate. Likewise, I am rather surprised to see the great absence of interest on the benches opposite, in view of the tremendous importance of foot-and-mouth disease to the whole agricultural industry of our country at the present time.

11.23 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. W. M. F. Vane):

My right hon. Friend is grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Sir A. Hurd), who knows more about this subject, probably, than any other hon. Member of this House, for raising this matter on the Adjournment tonight, because it gives me, on his behalf, an opportunity to make a report.

No one will disagree when I say that when foot-and-mouth disease strikes in this country the farmers whose stock are affected are dealt a shattering blow. True, the Government compensate for slaughtered stock, on the basis of fair market values, but nothing can make good the loss of years of work in building up a herd, and all our sympathies go out to those who suffer this tragedy. The bare details—and I must speak in bare details only, as there is not a great deal of time—of the present serious outbreaks are as follows up to last night: 198 confirmed outbreaks involving the compulsory slaughter of just under 14,000 cattle, 16,700 sheep, and just under 6,000 pigs. Compensation is estimated to be of the order of £900,000. The areas most seriously affected are Norfolk, Northumberland, Nottingham, Durham and parts of Scotland.

Terrible though that is, to keep the matter in proportion we must bear in mind that primary outbreaks in this country are mercifully rare. Furthermore, our total cattle population is very large—something in the nature of 11 million. None the less, for those affected and for the country as a whole, this is a serious blow.

I particularly appreciate what my hon. Friend said about our veterinary staff. They have been tireless in their efforts to ensure that nothing is left undone to re-establish control after an outbreak and, most important, to follow up suspected contacts. It is of the utmost importance that all people handling livestock report to the police without a moment's delay any suspicious symptoms in their animals. Our veterinary surgeons would rather answer six false alarms in a night than have to deal with a confirmed case reported after some hours delay. I have been to our animal health headquarters at Tolworth and was most impressed, as any hon. Member would be, with the speed and efficiency of the organisation there.

As the Gowers Committee reported—and my hon. Friend referred to it—foot-and-mouth disease would rapidly establish itself as endemic in any country that failed to take rigorous measures. We are luckily an island and thus have certain geographical advantages. The disease probably comes in one of two ways, either from the Continent of Europe by indirect means, mostly by birds, or in infected meat from South America. To stop it getting a firm hold we must stamp it out whenever and wherever it appears, or the results would quickly be calamitous.

The Gowers Committee went thoroughly into the question of vaccination, which is not permanently effective and it is really no alternative to slaughter. The Committee concluded that it would be folly to change our slaughter policy, and furthermore it estimated, as my hon. Friend said, that vaccination would cost at least £24 million annually—it might be a great deal more—as compared with £2½ million in compensation for slaughter, which was paid in 1952 which was the worst year in recent times.

As to cures, there is no difficulty in curing the disease. The main mischief of foot-and-mouth disease lies in its extraordinary infectivity and the persistence of its after-effects, which include loss of milk, abortion and loss of condition. The justification for the stamping-out policy is not that the disease is incurable, but that infected animals continue to propagate and disseminate the virus if it is allowed to run its course.

Foot-and-mouth disease is regrettably endemic in the greater part of South America, throughout Asia, most of Africa and in many European countries. So far as Europe is concerned, the European Commission for the Control of Foot-and-Mouth Disease has devised an overall plan for the systematic use of vaccines where slaughter is at present impracticable. After the incidence of disease has been sufficiently reduced by this means, the slaughter policy will become practicable. This campaign has already reduced the risk of foot-and-mouth disease reaching us from the Continent. The more countries which join the Commission, the better. Progress is being made in South America too. Our trade is governed by the Bledisloe Agreement which provides certain safeguards, and further, beef from South America is exported to this country only from approved frigorificos. If foot-and-mouth disease is found in a single animal, no beef is exported from that particular troop of cattle. As the hon. Member knows, we have had special arrangements for many years to ensure special control and inspection at the named frigorificos from which our supplies come.

My hon. Friend mentioned that we have recently added a third to our resident veterinary staff in Argentina and we also have an agricultural attaché at our embassy. It is quite wrong for anyone to think that this trade is careless or casual. Recently, a new decree has been passed in Argentina to provide for compulsory vaccination against foot-and-mouth disease. This is undoubtedly a big step in the right direction not only to protect their cattle but also their trade.

If my hon. Friend had raised this question on the Adjournment a week or so later I would probably have been able to tell him more, because we have heard that the Argentinian Secretary of Agriculture is this very week intending to announce further measures to combat the disease, but, not being a thought reader, I am afraid that I cannot tell my hon. Friend what he proposes to say. I can say that more money has been voted by the Argentine Government in furtherance of his campaign and that the Pan-American Institute at Rio is co-operating fully and we are assured that there are greatly increased supplies of vaccine. Because of the importance of this trade to both countries and the hazard of foot-and-mouth disease we shall undoubtedly be most interested in the measures that he announces and, in the long term, to see their effect.

The systematic use of suitable vaccines in countries from which we might get infection is a real contribution to our own protection, and our own research station at Pirbright is and has been for a long time in the van of progress in the development of newer and better vaccines.

As to the present series of outbreaks in this country, unfortunately we have not been able to trace the primary source of infection and on this occasion with the passage of time it is unlikely that we shall ever discover it. There is no evidence to justify a considered conclusion about the cause, but it was most unfortunate that the presence of the virus of foot-and-mouth coincided with the season of active store-cattle trade and as a result one or more infected beasts passed through a whole series of markets at the beginning of November before the first case was diagnosed. The disease then erupted with extraordinary violence in Norfolk.

At least fifteen markets were involved in England alone, which shows the tremendous task that faced our veterinary staff in tracing all the animals that had passed through the markets. We had to impose a temporary standstill on movement over much of England and Scotland, until we had completed our inquiries and traced all the animals which had passed through these auction markets, because of the danger of further contacts.

I cannot forecast how many more outbreaks we are likely to get before we can say that we have definitely stopped the spread. I sincerely hope that we are over the worst of it, even though we have found it necessary to make yet another order restricting movement over a large part of the country. Without these restrictions, onerous as I know they are, we should be putting still more of the country at risk, and this we feel we should not do.

Before I came into the Chamber my hon. Friend asked me whether I could give any advice about various gatherings, about business or friendly visits, in areas where there is any suspicion of foot-and-mouth disease. Surely this is basically simply a question of one's duty towards one's neighbours, and I would say "When in doubt, don't". I do not think that I can offer any more advice than that. It is finally for the person himself to decide, but I am sure that when not only our own but our neighbour's cattle are at risk in this way the best advice is "When in doubt don't go onto their farms if you can avoid it."

Photo of Mr Marcus Kimball Mr Marcus Kimball , Gainsborough

Could my hon. Friend try to devise a system of making quite clear to people the duration in time and the length and width of control of infected areas? There is a great deal of doubt about this at the moment.

Mr. Vane:

Basically the rules are clear, but the spread of foot-and-mouth disease is so rapid that a neighbourhood finds itself subject to restrictions so quickly that it is not always easy for everyone concerned to understand all the implications. That is why I said, "When in doubt, don't." I will look into this question to see whether any better way can be found of disseminating the sort of information my hon. Friend has in mind.

Most people handling livestock know, and in fact the law requires, that all waste food must be thoroughly boiled before it is fed to farm stock, and as long as there remains any risk of infection, however remote, this is vitally important. Any slackness in this can have the most harmful results over a wide area.

It is up to us all to see that everything humanly possible is done to stamp out these outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease quickly and ruthlessly. I am afraid that there is no other way of dealing with it.

I conclude by saying that my right hon. Friend and I are most grateful for the co-operation and help which the police, farmers and others are giving our veterinary staff in dealing with this outbreak.

Photo of Mr William Baxter Mr William Baxter , West Stirlingshire

The Minister said that he was awaiting with great interest the statement that is to be made by the Minister of Agriculture in the Argentine. What ultimatum has he given to the Argentine, or what demands has he made on that country to try to cure this disease amongst its herds?

Mr. Vane:

I do not think that we will cure the disease by ultimatums to the Argentine or to anyone else. The way to cure the disease is by co-operation, by adopting the most efficient methods which science knows, and by the best administration that we can devise. Great progress has been made in Europe in recent years, although of course some countries are still suffering from this scourge to a very heavy degree.

We are in the closest touch with the Argentine. We have given them advice of various kinds, and they know how anxious we are to see this disease checked and finally eradicated. I believe that they are as anxious as we are about this disease, and I do not think that we will make very much progress simply by issuing ultimatums.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes to Twelve o'clock.