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11.25 am

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I congratulate the hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara) on obtaining this debate. Having listened carefully to everything that he has said in the past 25 minutes, I must tell my hon. Friend the Minister that I find it difficult, if not impossible, to disagree with anything. The hon. Gentleman has spoken the truth and put forward the case

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on behalf of the meat industry and I endorse not only what he said, but his request that that monstrous edifice and organisation in York be abolished at the earliest possible date, given all the unnecessary on-costs that it carries.

Macclesfield has long-standing historical connections with the farming and livestock industries. There is a splendid market at Chelford, which is owned and run by Frank R. Marshall--a company that has been in business for more than 100 years. Another market is on the borders of my constituency, lying in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton(Mrs. Winterton), who is away on an Agriculture Select Committee visit--otherwise she would be here supporting the views expressed by the hon. Member for Knowsley, South. That cattle market is owned and run by Whittaker and Biggs.

I have regular contact with small, private butchers, who are members of the Macclesfield and District Butchers Association--an organisation that still exists despite the tremendous competition from the superstores, such as the Tescos, Safeways and Sainsburys of this world. Funnily enough, I am going to its annual dinner and dance in only a few weeks' time. I applaud the role that the small, family butcher and the small and medium abattoir play in the life of the farming community and in that of many rural towns and villages.

Macclesfield is also home to a most excellent slaughterhouse, operated by TTS Meats on the Hurdsfield industrial estate. It is on behalf of that slaughterhouse, those who own it and supply it, those who are employed there and those who ultimately benefit from the high-quality products that it provides for customers that I have been conducting an on-going and determined correspondence with my hon. Friend the Minister and the Department for a considerable period of time. I am deeply concerned about the significant and adverse impact that dramatic over-regulation and excessive--I really mean that--administrative charges have imposed on that slaughterhouse and other small and medium slaughterhouses.

My passion for deregulation is well known to the House. It is a passion that I had been led to believe was shared by my colleagues in the Government. I despair of the way in which the Meat Hygiene Service was set up by MAFF and of how it has operated.

Abattoirs are singled out for extra regulatory controls, unique in the food industry: the presence of full-time public sector/agency officials to inspect the supervised hygiene procedures for meat and to apply what I would call a "health mark". They are also required to pay an inspection levy that enables the MHS to recover the costs of the health controls. The hon. Member for Knowsley, South mentioned that £54 million has to come out of the industry each year.

All other food businesses are essentially self-regulating. Operators take responsibility for compliance with regulations under the food safety legislation without having to pay direct enforcement costs. There is no evidence that that way of operating is anything other than successful. For slaughterhouse operators, the cost of funding public sector/agency meat inspectors has increased considerably and resulted in controversy, anger and resentment throughout the industry. I do not think that I can be contradicted when I say that the industry is totally opposed to what has happened.

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Millions of pounds are involved annually in meeting this hidden but unavoidable tax, which leaves the British slaughterhouse industry at a competitive disadvantage in Europe--a point eloquently made by the hon. Member for Knowsley, South. That threatens to drive it out of business altogether. Many hon. Members could name slaughterhouses that have gone out of business, to the disadvantage of the agricultural industry and of the communities in which they were located.

I refute absolutely the argument that the current punitive regime of inspection and fees is necessary on public health grounds as my hon. Friend the Minister will, no doubt, argue in her response. Ministers from her Department frequently come before the House and assure us, I believe rightly, that British meat is safe. She has said that time and again in recent weeks and I agree whole-heartedly with her. It is safe. However, that is not because of the bureaucratic empire that has been built and financed by sucking the blood of smaller businesses, but because most operators are responsible in their approach to hygiene and public health. They know that that is their duty and that they will suffer sanctions if they are not responsible. They know that the customer, Mr. and Mrs. Citizen, has never been more aware of, or demanding about, food safety issues and they respect that.

Meat hygiene legislation is founded on two fundamental myths. The first is that the slaughtering stage of the meat production chain presents special health risks that can be eliminated only by the full-time presence of public officials. The second is that abattoir operators, uniquely in the food industries, are either incapable or irresponsible in their approach to the introduction and implementation of adequate control measures. Neither of those misrepresentations can stand close scrutiny, but, until this debate, they have never been challenged on the Floor of this House.

In a food scare climate, which frequent outbreaks of mad media disease have exaggerated and misinformed ever since the first salmonella salvo from my misguided hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire(Mrs. Currie), public officials with jobs and empires to protect have shown even less inclination to question their purpose in life. Fresh meat is a low-risk food and current hygiene legislation has been demonstrated to have nothing to do with health control.

The greatest risk in the food chain, to those who know anything about it, is not slaughterhouses but the way in which cooking, preparation, storage, display and serving of food are undertaken. The wealth of scientific evidence to support that view was ignored by the House in 1992 when the meat hygiene regulations were introduced. It was against the background of sensational and irresponsible reporting by the media, faulty technology and a questionable law that the creation of a centralised meat hygiene service was pursued--wrongly, in my view. It is not surprising that dissent, confusion, anger and frustration have followed.

The regulations are not only unnecessary but, I say in support of the case of the hon. Member for Knowsley, South, anachronistic. They belong to another age and have no part in a modern society. Fresh meat is not a hazardous food. The sensible measures that are required to produce safe, good-quality meat are well within the capability of competent butchers. Abattoir operators can achieve the

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necessary standards in the context of the Food Safety Act 1990 without being singled out for trampling under the iron heel of Meat Hygiene Service charges.

Today, that iron heel demands that if an abattoir has enough turnover to keep an inspector occupied for only one hour a week, the operators nevertheless have to continue to pay for 40 hours' inspection charges. Such blatantly unfair practices, ridiculous overcharging, unacceptable levels of inspection and total lack of consultation have led to turmoil in the industry. Responsible business men and women are refusing to meet the unreasonable bills that they are being sent. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will not ask whether I support such action. I perhaps would not give a direct answer but I fully sympathise with them and believe that they have a very good case for taking that action.

Abattoirs faced, as the Minister knows, an immediate 25 per cent. increase in inspection charges when that monstrous body, the MHS, wrested responsibility from local authorities, to which I pay a tribute for the role that they previously played in the industry. On a turnover of £3 million a year, a typical slaughterhouse faces inspection charges of a staggering £50,000 annually. Businesses cannot survive in such a climate.

Furthermore there is patchy commitment on the part of the service to the implementation of the rules. That was referred to in a number of cases mentioned by thehon. Member for Knowsley, South. Responsible traders, who feel morally obliged to comply with regulations that require massive investment, are understandably bitter when they see the Meat Hygiene Service in other areas fail to take action against those who flout the regulations. While we have these regulations and this monstrous body, let the regulations be evenly implemented throughout the country. I do not like to look to Europe too much or too often but let us consider the charges that apply on mainland Europe.

It is high time that there was a root and branch reform of the Meat Hygiene Service and, what is more, of the principles upon which it is based. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister, in replying to the debate, will agree to such a review in addition to the request made by the hon. Member for Knowsley, South. I hope, too, that other hon. Members, perhaps those who serve on the Agriculture Select Committee, will consider this important matter and take steps to save our abattoirs before they are dismembered on the butcher's block of excessive bureaucracy.

11.38 am

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I congratulate, as will the whole House, the hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara) not only on bringing the matter before us but on the unstinting way in which he has examined the problems inherent in the Meat Hygiene Service. I hope that the Minister will note that any issue that brings together the hon. Member for Macclesfield(Mr. Winterton), the hon. Member for Knowsley, South(Mr. O'Hara) and myself must be of wide significance in rural areas. I want to deal briefly with three specific issues and underline the points already made by other hon. Members.

My first point concerns the rationale for setting up the Meat Hygiene Service. At the time, there was some misunderstanding and misapprehension--it was thought

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that the MHS in its present form was set up at the direct instigation of the European Union and the European Commission. Nothing could be further from the truth. On 5 April 1995, in the Fifth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, the Minister was good enough to say that that was the case. The MHS is a British organisation--it is the product of the thinking of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It is not some wicked Brussels bureaucratic plot.

As the hon. Member for Macclesfield has said, it is significant that other parts of the European Union have adopted different techniques, mechanisms and institutions to fulfil their obligations under the treaty of Rome and the directives. We need to know today--we pressed the Minister on this in Committee and did not get a wholly satisfactory answer, although I admit that that was because the institutions were comparatively new--what the comparable arrangements are in the other 14 states, as they now are, and if they are as expensive, as bureaucratic and as burdensome as the hon. Members have said. What is the competitive position in the so-called single market?

The hon. Member for Knowsley, South referred to the way in which the MHS has been set up and its responsibilities to its customers, to Parliament and to the nation. I repeat the statement made by the Minister in answer to a number of our questions in the Committee. She said:

Through the Minister, the MHS is answerable to the House--that is why the debate is vital and timely. It is an opportunity for the Minister to answer for the MHS. Note again: there is no question of the MHS being answerable in any sense to the bureaucrats of Brussels.

It is extremely important that we acknowledge the debt that we all owe to Christopher Booker, who has also considered this issue carefully and has identified the extent to which the responsibility lies fair and square with Whitehall. This problem was home grown, within a few hundred yards of this building. It is nothing to do with Brussels.

Secondly, I know that the Minister and the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) will share my concern at the way in which, over recent years, the regulations--not just since the MHS has accelerated the process--have impinged on the smaller abattoirs in south-west Britain. The same may be true in Wales and in other parts of the United Kingdom, with which I am not so familiar.

In Committee last year, we were able to demonstrate, using the Meat and Livestock Commission's figures, that the reduction in the number of abattoirs had been accelerating as the regulations came into place in 1992. That acceleration had increased. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us the latest figures for the number of abattoirs. It is not the throughput but the number that is important. That is what is geographically significant.

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