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Poultry Farm, Crowmarsh (Losses)

Volume 480: debated on Thursday 16 November 1950

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

6.47 p.m.

Three miles from Wallingford there is a small village called Crowmarsh, and in Crowmarsh there is a hatchery run by two gentlemen whose names are Mr. Guy Betts and Mr. John Bethell. They call their hatchery "Newnham Manor Poultry Farm" and it lies within my constituency. It is not a very large concern. It is quite a small business which is run by these two gentlemen, but they have made a reasonably good thing out of it and give a good deal of service not only to the local community but also to the production of food in the country as a whole.

The incidents I wish to relate to the House started in February of this year when Mr. Betts and Mr. Bethell set 48,000 eggs for hatching. I understand that the normal expectation is that about 70 per cent. of the eggs so set will be hatched out and on that basis they would expect about 33,600 chicks to appear in due course. During the period which followed they carried out fumigation in the normal way with formaldehyde gas in accordance with some regulations which are the subject of this Debate tonight.

During the period between 13th and 23rd March a number of eggs were hatched out amounting to 11,422, a very much smaller number than was originally anticipated; less, in fact, by some 22,000 chicks. I understand that it is believed that about half of the chicks one will get out of eggs will be pullets and the other half cockerels and, accordingly, the loss of pullets on that estimation would be about 11,000. The list price of pullets is, I understand, £15 per 100 and, therefore, as a result of the loss of hatching eggs which did not hatch out, these gentlemen have now suffered a serious financial setback amounting to some £1,650. How did this happen? That is the subject I wish to raise before the House.

I wish to turn to what is known as the Ministry of Agriculture Poultry Stock Improvement Plan which has been in operation for a number of years. Under that plan certain regulations are from time to time promulgated by the Ministry, and these two gentlemen had been in the habit of getting these regulations regularly. They had become an accredited poultry hatchery because they complied strictly with the requirements of the Ministry and observed all the regulations. Accordingly, they received a particular stamp and they had, in addition, the right to use certain certification marks and registration, which they could put on their notepaper and other advertising matter. I am told that this is an extremely valuable method by which a hatchery or poultry breeder can be given a certain stamp to mark him from the rest.

The regulations for the 1949–50 season ran from 1st December, 1949, to 30th November of this year. Among those regulations are instructions relating to fumigation, this process which had already been carried out. The regulations provide for the fumigation by formaldehyde gas and it is interesting to note that this year the regulations provide for formaldehyde double the strength used last year to he used this year. I assume that what happened was that last year it was found that the strength was not sufficient to carry out what was intended, and, accordingly, the strength was doubled this year. The regulations provided the method by which fumigation should be carried out. On page 5 of the regulations this important information and advice is given:
that is to say, the ports of the hatching houses—
"should be left open and the fumigation should continue for at least 20 minutes."
That is on page 5 of the regulations. On page 10 of the regulations there are a number of other notes which are headed "Special Notes for Hatcheries." The information on page 10 repeats a great deal of the information given on page 5 and, indeed, additional information is added. But one very important matter is completely omitted on page 10, and that is this important advice about the ports of the hatching houses being left open.

I would admit at once that anyone who studied the regulations carefully would not have failed to notice that important instruction on page 5 that the ports should be left open this year, when double strength fumigation was being used, as against keeping them closed last year. So far as Mr. Betts and Mr. Bethell were concerned, in due course they received a copy of the Poultry Stock Improvement Plan Regulations and that copy I have in my hand. This is an interesting document because it is completely defective in an important essential. Pages 1 to 4 of the document are in proper sequence and order. There is no page 5. Page 8 is printed following page 4, but it is printed upside down, and page 6 has been printed on the reverse side of the sheet. Then follow pages 7 to 16 in proper order and sequence.

That was the document which these two men received and those were the regulations they were called upon to observe. They did not therefore have available to them that important instruction to which I have referred, which appeared on page 5, that the ports should be left open during the fumigation with formaldehyde gas, of this double strength. Page 10 contained what appeared to be complete instructions as to fumigation, but they did not know, and had no means of knowing, about the important fact that the ports should be kept open this year. They did look for page 5, but in any event page 5 appeared to be sandwiched between instructions relating to breeding poultry, with which they were not particularly concerned, and additional information, which again did not appear to them to be important or about which they need worry.

The resulting loss of chicks, as I have said, has meant a financial loss to these people of about £1,650. In addition, they have undoubtedly lost a good deal of their good will which they had built up over the years, because, as I have said, they serve their local area. They have also lost almost all their valuable stock and they are at their wits' end to know how, first, to replace the financial loss that they have suffered; and, second, how to replace the stock.

I have no doubt that it will be said at once by anyone studying the matter that, of course, they were negligent and careless to a certain extent. Having received a copy of a document which appeared to be defective, they ought to have written off to the Ministry for a proper copy. That is the sort of thing one might easily say, but we have to realise the sort of people that they are. They are poultry breeders and hatchers and they are extremely busy. They have very little staff to help them in their work. When they find a regulation coming into their hands—admittedly defective—appearing to repeat all the regulations they have observed for the previous 12 months, they naturally say, "Page 5 does not affect us. It is obviously something about breeding, because pages 1, 2, 3 and 4 are about breeding, and, therefore, we need not worry. Anyway, here on page 10 are all the regulations referring to hatching and fumigation."

Having done that one might say that the loss was on their own heads, but, apart from the legal rights, there is a certain amount to be said for the point that it would not have happened, had it not been for what I must call negligence and carelessness in the Ministry in sending out what was a completely faulty copy of the regulation. If that had not been done their carelessness would not have arisen. It is worth while noticing that the Ministry, having had this matter drawn to their attention and appearing to take note of what happened here, made some alterations in the regulations sent out for next year, because the regulations relating to fumigation, including this important point about the ports being left open, are printed together on page 11 of the 1950–51 regulations. I have approached the Ministry themselves about this matter, and I have drawn the Minister's attention to the serious loss which these people have suffered. They themselves found that they were not getting very much help. They were told by the Ministry's officials that it was an unfortunate thing to have happened, but that the Ministry could accept no liability for the loss incurred. Accordingly, they consulted me.

I have had a certain amount of correspondence with the Minister of Agriculture. I want to read to the House a passage from a letter written on 25th September last. I had explained the circumstances in much the same way as I have tried to explain them tonight, and the paragraph in question from the Minister's letter reads as follows:
"I have looked into Mr. Bett's claim for compensation in respect of this high incidence of mortality among his hatching chicks which occurred last March, and which it is alleged was due to the fact that he was supplied with a faulty copy of the regulations of the Poultry Stock Improvement Plan for the 1949–50 season. As you will appreciate"—
this is the point to which I wish to draw the attention of the House—
"many thousands of copies of these regulations are distributed, and it is impossible to check each individual copy before despatch; and in the event of an incomplete copy getting into circulation the onus for obtaining an amended copy must rest with the recipient."
It will be noted that no word of apology was offered. With all respect to the right hon. Gentleman, he might have said that he was very sorry that this gentleman had suffered this loss mainly due to an incomplete copy of these regulations being put out. The Parliamentary Secretary appears to disagree with me on this point. I would have thought that he would have agreed that there should have been some word of apology.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture
(Mr. George Brown)

I was disagreeing with the hon. Gentleman's argument about this result being mainly due to the incomplete copy of the regulations.

I apologise if I misrepresented the hon. Gentleman, and can only hope that he will not disagree with the other point I was making. I hope he is with me in saying that his right hon. Friend might have been conciliatory and apologetic, because in the first case the mistake was that of the Ministry.

I approached the Minister to see whether some compensation could be granted to Mr. Betts and Mr. Bethell. I have pointed out the facts to the House, and I leave it to hon. Members to judge whether that claim was justified or not. It may be said straight away that they ought to have been more careful. That I do not deny, but if the Ministry had not been careless the other carelessness would not have arisen. An approach was made to the Minister to see if he would make an effort at compensation, not necessarily the complete compensation of £1,650 but an ex gratia sum, which would in some degree mitigate the tremendous loss that these people have suffered. They are now faced with what is little more than bankruptcy as a result of their loss, and I feel that the Ministry, even at this late stage, might reconsider the matter and offer some compensation to mitigate its effects.

If something like that is not done I do not know what is going to happen. These people will be put in a serious position unless they can replace their stock, maintain their good will and meet the financial claim now to be made upon them. I can fairly say, without overreaching myself or putting it too high, that all this results from issuing an incomplete copy of a document. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will tell us that he is prepared to reconsider the matter, and that something will be given to compensate these people for the loss which they have sustained.

7.2 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture
(Mr. George Brown)

May I, first of all, in dealing with this matter say that I immediately offer to the hon. Gentleman the Member for Henley (Mr. Hay), for what it is worth, my regret that his constituents should have been involved in a loss of money in this way. However, I think the hon. Gentleman will feel, on reflection, that he has been unfair in alleging that my right hon. Friend has himself not offered some regret. My right hon. Friend has not admitted liability nor am I prepared to do so tonight, but in a letter which he sent to the hon. Gentleman on 25th September he says, in the penultimate paragraph:

"I am very sorry about the serious financial loss sustained by Mr. Betts."
I do not think that that can be called anything else but an expression of regret.

I did not read it in that way. I read it as expression of the Minister's regret for the man's loss. What I thought might have been said was regret that this loss had occurred because of a faulty document sent out by the Ministry to the people concerned.

This is hedging. The thing to regret is that for some reason or another this gentleman suffered a loss, and I could not believe that my right hon. Friend, who is one of the most courteous of men, would have omitted to express regret. Therefore, I looked up the correspondence and he had written just as I thought he had.

I make no complaint about the way in which this case has been developed or about the general facts as given by the hon. Gentleman. The story of this matter is roughly as the hon. Gentleman put it. It all turns upon what deduction one draws from the history of events. On the question of a faulty document going out with a page missing, I must point out that there were some 10,000 copies of this issue. No book publisher engaged in sending out a document on that scale could undertake to examine and proof read—that is what we are being asked to do—each one of the tens of thousands of documents. In fact, one must assume as we have received no other complaints, that 9,999 went out accurately. Therefore, I do not think it unreasonable for any publisher or sender of documents to assume that the person receiving it will be the one who will do the examining and the proof reading. If a document is received incomplete then he will find out that there is something wrong, and will exclaim, "I had better have the complete document."

In this case there does not seem to be any dispute that Mr. Betts did have his attention drawn to the fact that this document contained some differences from those of previous years. In fact, he was warned that he ought to study those differences with great care because they were very important. If that is done and the gentleman concerned is asked to sign an undertaking, as a condition of receiving the benefits of being accredited, that he had read the thing carefully and studied the differences, one is entitled to assume that he has done so.

The moment he reads it carefully, as he said he had done, it would be immediately obvious that an important page of this particular document, unfortunately, was not there. I am surprised that Mr. Betts went ahead with what, to a man with his experience, was obviously a very substantial change without having read carefully all the cautions, and so on, associated with it. I am unable to accept the view of the hon. Gentleman that Mr. Betts had no reason to think that page 5 affected him. With all respect, that appears to be like an explanation which was produced afterwards when the man was looking round to see how this happened.

There is ample references in the document to the need to study the page that was, in fact, missing. For example on page 2—there is no argument that that is not there—there is a paragraph headed "Accredited Hatcheries," which draws attention specifically to the conditions that should be observed and carried out, and there is a reference to paragraphs 2, 4 and 5. It is, unfortunately, impossible to read paragraph 4 unless one has page 5. The very moment that his attention had been called to the importance that had to be attached to the very page that was missing, he should have seen that it was necessary to get that page. He went ahead instead, saying, "I do not think that means me." I do not think that that is an explanation which can hold water.

I realise that it is a great pity that there should have been a slip up in one of the 10,000 documents. I wish that that had not been so, but I do not feel there can be any grounds for us accepting liability. The whole thing was made perfectly clear, and every step was taken to draw attention to what was set out. He chose to go ahead with an imperfect document, having declared he had already read it when, in fact, he had not. This trouble ensued, and it is very difficult for me to see what else we could do.

We are asked to make some ex gratia grant. That is a request which is eminently reasonable and has something in it. One is attracted to the fact that this is a rather pleasant and sensible way to help a chap, whom we put up against a difficulty. We must remember this, however—in the first place, there can be all kinds of problems of this kind. One has to be very careful, in buying one's way out of a difficulty, not to let the taxpayer in for a whole lot of money which he is unwilling to pay. Anyone in the position of my right hon. Friend or, indeed, of myself tonight, must realise that it is not our own money we are dispersing; it is the taxpayers' money, we cannot see why the taxpayer should be called upon to pay any sum of money to Mr. Betts when Mr. Betts is in no different position from thousands of producers all of whom managed to study the regulations carefully.

The second point is that my right hon. Friend has no funds voted to him by this House from which he can make payments of this kind. For all those reasons, I do not feel that anything can be done to help the hon. Gentleman or his constituent any further. I feel that, when he went to read it, he ought to have been on guard in case the document had gone out with a page missing. Since he did not, for whatever reason may have seemed to him to have been proper, decide to follow it up, as he was asked to do, and, therefore, obtain a complete copy, for that reason and for the others I have given, I can only express my deep sympathy.

Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to ask two questions? Has anything been done in his Ministry to stop these faulty copies going out on future occasions; in other words, has this experience been taken into account; and is anything to be done in future to have these copies printed properly, instead of being produced as duplicated sheets, so that the risk of typographical error is reduced?

The question whether we should print them or not is a technical matter, because of the difficulties of getting printing done, but the documents are clear, and I gather that there is no complaint that they have not been clear. As a matter of fact, they are quite well produced. Therefore, I cannot promise that they will be printed. On the question of making sure that never again shall one go out with a page missing, that is an impossible undertaking to give. There are tens of thousands of such documents, as the hon. Gentleman must be aware, and, while there is this risk, we cut it down to the very minimum. If we get only one faulty copy in 10,000, I think we are keeping the margin of error to very narrow limits.

7.12 p.m.

I would like to say a word or two in support of my hon. Friend, and I feel that the Parliamentary Secretary should not take umbrage because I am going to say something now. The reason why I have not spoken before is because I had hoped that the hon. Gentleman's reply would have been in far more handsome terms than it was, and I really feel that in this most remarkable series of coincidences some relief is justified.

It is not in the least discourteous, because the hon. Gentleman has not really answered the problem. Here we have a change, a specific alteration, made to a previous regulation, and I feel that, as I have had some hand in drawing up these regulations, I should be failing in my duty if I did not state my views.

We have heard that the previous method of fumigation was not efficient in dealing with this salmonella infection, and, therefore, considerable thought had been given to the proper method of incubator hygiene in order to control the disease. As a result, new regulations were drawn up providing for strong enough fumigation to destroy the salmonella germs. A most extraordinary fact concerning the framing of these new regulations is that the exposition of the method of fumigation appears in two places, on pages 5 and 10, but the vital point was that the safety device of leaving the ports of the incubator open during the period of fumigation was not on page 10, but only on page 5.

It is perfectly competent for the hon. Gentleman to say that these particular farmers should have read the regulations and should have known, because their attention was directed to it, that there was something which they should read on page 5, but it is not really enough to say that when, on another page, there was a complete set of directions as to how to do this fumigation. It seems to me that the hon. Gentleman cannot escape all the responsibility in this matter, because it did happen that into the hands of these breeders went copies of the regulations which omitted the vital direction necessary to prevent the destruction of a large part of the hatching eggs which were set.

I understand that there are no funds to deal with an emergency of this kind, and I quite understand the dangerous precedent that may be involved, but that does not alter the fact that into the hands of these breeders went regulations which were incomplete in a very vital factor. The hon. Gentleman has not been able to say that there were no directions in the copy which they received for fumigating the incubators, and that it would be quite unreasonable to ask why they had not made inquiries. As these hygiene regulations appeared on two separate pages and were virtually complete except for this vital detail, it seems reasonable to say that, in this remarkable set of coincidences, there is some reason for the hon. Gentleman to look at the matter again and see if he cannot do something for these unfortunate poultry farmers, who, through no fault of their own, through no fault that any reasonable and normal farmer——

Will the hon. Gentleman, who has taken the extraordinary course of repeating the speech of his hon. Friend after I have replied, address himself to this point? He says "through no fault of their own," or through no fault that any reasonable poultry farmer would have been expected to make, but will he now answer the point that, on page 2, they were specifically directed to read page 5? Is it not reasonable to expect that anybody, knowing he is expected to read page 5 and finds it is not there, will write for another copy of the regulations?

I am certainly not repeating the speech of my hon. Friend; the points I am making are quite distinct, and the hon. Gentleman has still not answered them.

I entirely accept the point he made that there is a direction given on page 2 that farmers should read page 5, but the germane point is that complete directions for the fumigation of the incubators appear on page 10. Had there been no other directions for this fumigation, it would have been perfectly reasonable to say that this hatchery should have endeavoured to discover what the directions were. Due to that fault, I feel that, in this very extraordinary set of circumstances, there is something to be said for the hon. Gentleman looking at it again and trying to find a more generous solution, which I hope he will do.