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Mrs. Browning: In the past three years, 51 abattoirs have closed. From 1971 to 1992, when the regulations on fresh meat came into force, 62 abattoirs per year closed. That is a significant difference.

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Mr. Tyler: I am grateful to the Minister. Clearly, the fact that closures have occurred and are continuing since we raised this issue with her in Committee last year must be a matter of real concern.

Mrs. Browning: In three years, 51 abattoirs have closed, compared with 62 closures per year from 1971 to 1992. That is a significant reduction.

Mr. Tyler: That is precisely the point that I was trying to make. In Committee last year, the Minister gave us assurances that that trend would not continue. It is disturbing to find that it is, and at the time when--I think that the Minister, with her south-west experience, would be with me on this--greater and greater concentration of abattoir facilities inevitably leads to longer journeys. We all know, and she knows better than anyone, from the problems with the new regulations on the welfare of animals in transit--apart from the export problems with which we are all familiar--that we must staunch the wound, and stop any more smaller abattoirs closing. The centralisation of facilities is damaging in that wider sense.

Thirdly, on the charges, the Minister said:

If that is true, either they have not worked or other increases in the cost regime have outbalanced that. As the hon. Members for Macclesfield and for Knowsley, South said, in some cases, the overall cost increases are dramatic. I suspect that, at the core of this, is again the fact that Britain has insisted on using expensive, skilled but utterly inappropriate methods for the purpose of inspection. The official veterinary service is not the right organisation to be employed on such an exercise. I hope that the Minister will tell us what is happening in the other 14 states. Are comparable professionals, at comparable cost, being used?

I was not there but I understand that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food spoke at the Conservative party's Blackpool conference and that the emphasis of his speech was that he was declaring war on expensive red tape in his Department. Some might say, "16 years too late", but never mind--that is good. I want to know whether this particular example of expensive Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food gold plating of what was given to us by agreement with the European Union has resulted in excessively burdensome costs on all parts of the industry, as the hon. Member for Macclesfield has said. Surely, if there is a war on red tape, this is a good place to open the first front.

11.46 am

Mr. Nicholas Baker (North Dorset): I welcome the debate. The hon. Member for Knowsley, South(Mr. O'Hara) was wrong on costs. He ignored the need for standards and much of the debate has ignored the fact that British people require standards, to which my hon. Friend for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) referred, because of the way in which they have been frightened about meat eating. Clearly, the way in which the Meat Hygiene Service is working in practice in his constituency is different from the way that it is working in mine, and I am sorry to hear that. Some of his predictions were imaginative, speculative and--I hope and believe--wrong.

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The figures that I have are that the total cost of providing the inspection service in 1995-96 is expected to be just over £35 million, compared with the previous local authority arrangements, which cost £45 million. That is a greater saving than was promised to us in the first place. Of course, I should like that cost to come down, but it is an improvement on what we had before.

Given that my experience of the MHS is different from that of my hon. Friend, I asked the National Farmers Union in my constituency what its experience is. It tells me that the work relationship between the MHS and NFU members and abattoir owners is generally good. It is impressed by the openness with which the MHS operates. There have been relatively few complaints from owners of abattoirs. I will discuss an abattoir in my constituency later, so I am familiar with that side of things.

In most of the debate so far, hon. Members have ignored the fact that the previous arrangements involving local authority inspections were severely unsatisfactory. They not only cost the business community overall a lot, but provided uneven and different standards in different parts of the country. Different arrangements prevailed.

Like other hon. Members, I regret today's climate. Like the Irishman, I should like to start my way to Dublin from somewhere else. Nevertheless, we must recognise that the old system of regulating and inspecting meat provision was unsatisfactory, unfair and did not produce results with which the consumer would ultimately be satisfied.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): Will my hon. Friend expand on his last statement, that the old system was unsatisfactory? It is easy to make such comments, but in that instance, he needs to provide some proof or evidence that the old system resulted in an unsatisfactory product.

Mr. Baker: I recognise my hon. Friend's expertise and I have no doubt that his direct experience is different from ours in the south-west, but it is the considered view of the National Farmers Union in my part of the country that the standards that were applied were different and that different abattoirs had to conform to widely differing standards--a practice to which, understandably, they objected strongly.

The Sturminster Newton abattoir in my constituency, with which my hon. Friend the Minister has been closely involved, provides an excellent service to the farming community and to the meat and butchering trade, and it has been affected by the regulations. They are a considerable hurdle for business to overcome. I must record my gratitude, and the Burden family's gratitude, to the Minister for the way in which she has handled the case. In the special circumstances, she felt it right to give a further derogation from those regulations to enable that business to renew itself.

Like me, the Burden family do not like regulations, but they recognise that today they must provide a first-class service. They want to achieve the best standards possible and, in so doing, do not want to pay more than necessary. They are undertaking a major fund-raising exercise to build a new abattoir. They want to take their business into the next century, and they want to export meat. They want to achieve the oval stamp.

There is a great market for the Burden family's beef, and for other meat, in the third world. That market will not be available unless the meat achieves the highest

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standard and the family need time to ensure that their factory meets those standards. They are grateful to have been given that time. The family recognise, albeit reluctantly, that if they want to compete, to provide a good service to the farming community and to export their product, they must achieve the highest standards.

Why are standards necessary? It is all very well for the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) to say, "Let us go to Europe and discover what other standards apply." Although that is a useful exercise, we start with the British consumer, who demands very high standards.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield that, regrettably, the British consumer has been panicked by a combination of mad professors and other people with other interests into being frightened of eating meat. Therefore, at least for the foreseeable future, we must ensure that standards, and no doubt even bureaucracy, exceed what we would like them to be ultimately. I concur with the hon. Member for Knowsley, South, who wanted self-regulation, but that is light years away. I wish that it were nearer, but it is not.

I conclude by quoting to the House an example from Dorset, which may be of interest to the hon. Member for North Cornwall, of the way in which panic and irresponsible behaviour operates on the British consumer in a way that it probably does not operate in any other country in Europe. Ten days before the end of the winter term, Dorset county council, under Liberal Democrat control, imposed a temporary ban on beef products in schools, not because new evidence had emerged--it had not--but because of scare tactics. The media were at work. One or two mad professors had made pronouncements. It was alleged that there had been

for the ban. Further inquiries revealed that a total of six letters had been received.

The ban had a devastating effect on the farming community. There was, I should add, no ban in old people's homes or anywhere else, only in schools. As the Dorset Evening Echo said, that was a "knee-jerk reaction" by the Liberal Democrats, and it was very much to be regretted. The Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee continued to state throughout that time that there was no evidence of linkage.

About two weeks ago, the ban was halted and the decision was changed. I welcome that. That step was taken as a result, not of new medical or health evidence, but of pressure and of a recognition that damage had been done to the farming community. Irresponsibly, a highly damaging panic was stirred up, and that is not an isolated example of the fears that can be aroused by people who appear to believe that it is in their interests to do so. There are more mad cows in county hall in Dorset than in all the cattle herds of North Dorset. I deplore that.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will tell us how she can reduce costs and bureaucracy--an aim with which I am entirely in sympathy--while maintaining across-industry standards. I was disturbed to hear suggestions earlier that standards were uneven, even under the new provisions. British meat is a first-class product. Our producers want to sell on the world markets. High standards of safety are required for public protection. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister understands that, even if others do not.

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