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31 Jan 1996 : Column 948

11.56 am

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Mon): I hope that the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Baker) will forgive me for not following him into his little difficulty with the Liberal Democrats. I shall turn my attention to the core subject of the debate, which was expressed well by the hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara), who has done us all a great justice by initiating the debate. It is important that the House recognises that there is considerable and widespread concern at the way in which the Meat Hygiene Service operates, the costs of that service, which are now evident, and the impact that they have not only on the abattoir industry but on the farming community generally.

I know that the Minister is aware that it is necessary that several outlets should be available to farmers. As other hon. Members have said, a vast number of small abattoirs have closed. The Minister may be able to tell us that the rate of closure is slowing, but some are still closing, to the detriment of the agriculture industry.

The Minister knows that, in sparsely populated rural areas far from a marketplace, some abattoirs have great difficulty attracting the right level of throughput from their local community throughout the year. At some times of the year--in my area, from January to April, before the lambs come on the market--they have to bring in animals from other parts of the United Kingdom, which is an increased cost. It is necessary for employment to be maintained in the abattoirs throughout the year. Abattoirs are an important source of local employment. Their difficulties have been compounded by the substantial increase in costs that has confronted them as a result of the introduction of the Meat Hygiene Service.

When I spoke to managers at the abattoir mentioned by the hon. Member for Knowsley, South--Cig Mon Cymru Ltd.--they predicted that their costs would increase by between 50 and 55 per cent. when the service commenced. In January 1995, they gave me an estimate of what they thought the cost of meat inspection and veterinary visits would be. Some people thought that they were being pessimistic and that the level of charges would be substantially lower. When the Government introduced the concept of the Meat Hygiene Service, it was on the basis that it would be cost-effective and reduce the overall burden on the industry.

In March 1995, the abattoir company came to me and said, "Our predictions were right. Our costs will go up 50 per cent. because we have been told by the Meat Hygiene Service what our costs are likely to be". I have been in regular contact with the Welsh Office, which is responsible for agriculture in Wales, about the level of charges. I have been told that there will be consultation between MHS officers and each abattoir to determine the level of cost for each abattoir and whether it can be justified.

Despite the predictions that were made in January 1995, despite the representations that I made in March 1995 and despite the Department's statement that there would be consultation, the January 1995 predictions were absolutely correct. There has been no variation in those charges, and the costs are exactly as predicted.

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I subsequently made representations to the Welsh Office, and I was told that it was difficult to make a true comparison between proposed MHS charges and previous local authority charges. The Minister added in a letter to me:

I have heard some excuses for price increases in my time, but that takes the biscuit. There had been no change in the type of animals going through the abattoir, no change in the level of throughput and no change in its plant size, but the cost still increased by 50 per cent.

By the end of 1995, even though the industry had been told that there would be consultation and an appeal procedure, and that the service would be cost-effective, charges were substantially higher than they were under the old local authority regime. I agree with the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Baker) that we must have a hygiene service for meat that is of the highest possible standards. People need to be confident that the meat that they eat is safe--but the current system is destroying the industry.

The Government must find a formula that enables abattoirs to be absolutely confident that the meat is safe, yet reduces the burden and cost of bureaucracy that the type of service which the Government have introduced has placed on them. That is absolutely clear. I should like the Minister to acknowledge that the abattoirs which predicted that costs would increase have been proved right and that Ministers did not listen to them. The Government must respond to that. People at the abattoirs have asked me, "Why should we have to pay this kind of charge to the Meat Hygiene Service when there is no competition? We have a service that can charge virtually what it likes. How can we challenge that? The Minister will not listen to us, and the Government will not listen to us. Why don't they introduce a service that has an element of competition in it?"

If someone else can produce a service that is more cost-effective and competitive, it should be considered. I know that the Minister is aware of those issues, and I hope that she will take them on board.

12.3 pm

Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara) on so diligently and eloquently pursuing this further disgraceful episode in the misgovernment of our country. The Government's excuse for taking away the responsibility for meat inspection from local authorities was the desire to avoid the varying standards and costs that applied in different local authorities. The truth is that it was part of their vendetta against local government in general, no doubt brought about by the humiliation heaped upon the Tory party at every local election. As Lord Howe has apologised for getting rid of the Greater London council, so I hope the present Secretary of State for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), will soon repent for the damage that he has caused the meat inspection service.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen(Mr. Williams), who has great experience in these matters, put the issue clearly when he said that any problem in obtaining uniformity in pricing and standards could have

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been solved simply by issuing guidelines. The solution is simple. I must tell the hon. Member for North Dorset(Mr. Baker) that there was no reason to create, without accurate and adequate consultation, a new organisation with so many drawbacks and which has aroused fears that, after short-term cushioning, charges will increase substantially, which would speed up the decline in the number of British slaughterhouses, harm jobs and lengthen travel distances for animals.

One of the main concerns expressed about the Meat Hygiene Service was its lack of accountability, and that is still the case. A great advantage of today's debate is that it gives the Minister the opportunity to cast aside some of the secrecy with which the MHS has been shrouded. Perhaps she will tell us when the agency intends to report publicly on its activities. We should appreciate information on cost-effectiveness, throughput, animal health, and enforcement against abattoir operators and meat traders. Will she tell us when we can expect more information so that we can better judge whether the MHS is providing a more efficient service?

Meat products are notoriously open to contamination and the dumping of bad meat. It is essential that effective monitoring arrangements are provided.

Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East): The hon. Lady will be aware that the total cost of providing the service through local government was about £45 million a year, which is slightly more than the MHS proposes to spend this year. Is she aware that many local authorities subsidise their inspection service? Does she believe that it is right for council tax payers and consumers to continue to subsidise the British meat industry?

Mrs. Golding: The system we now have in place is a costly shambles over which we have no control. Prices can be increased without any consultation or recourse to anyone.

Mrs. Browning: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Golding: No; the Minister will have time to reply, and I should like to make some progress.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Golding: No, I will not. There is not much time, and other hon. Members have been waiting to speak.

I should like to examine some of the specific matters which have given local authority associations concern. One of the main bones of contention between local authorities and the Government when local authorities controlled meat hygiene was veterinary supervision of meat plants. The local authorities' view was that environmental health officers were cheaper and more effective than vets.

Local authorities wanted to reduce veterinary supervision, but the Government refused to allow it. However, the Government are now allowing the MHS to reduce supervision--the very thing that was refused to local authorities. Why, oh why, is that? Because the MHS has found it difficult to recruit staff, not least in hiring the appropriate veterinary surgeons to manage staff at slaughterhouses and abattoirs? Is it because the

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Government now understand the problem that high veterinary fees--the basic legality of which are now being studied by the European Court--caused local authorities?

Costs would be even higher if the Government had not made the savings that local authorities wanted, but were not allowed, to make. Will the Minister tell us what the annual cost of the MHS would have been if the savings had not been made, and what the cost is now?

While local authorities and MHS local officials are working together--the MHS is using local authority offices in such places as Smithfield market--local authorities are concerned that the MHS has added to the confusion over food safety enforcement and created gaps. Will the Minister tell us what arrangements the MHS has made to inform local authorities about food health issues in their areas?

Those important issues must be addressed if the public are to receive proper protection. For example, the Association of District Councils has drawn my attention to the issue of illegal slaughter by unlicensed slaughtermen on premises that are also unlicensed. As a consequence, meat is sold that may have been prepared in insanitary conditions. It has advised that:

Will the Minister comment directly on that point, which has a bearing on the important subject of bovine spongiform encephalopathy? On 4 April last year, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, Southdrew attention to the fact that it was local authorities which had pressed a reluctant Government to:

Will the Minister confirm what guidance is now issued to MHS staff about BSE matters in general and, in particular, about the enforcement of the new regulations relating to bovine spinal offal?

The Association of Metropolitan Authorities is concerned about the low profile of the MHS and the responsibility of its vets during the BSE scare last year. The AMA tells me that, from a local authority point of view, it is "very suspicious". The AMA has long held and expressed the view that vets are not the right people to be put in charge of meat hygiene. It has said:

The AMA's view is clear:

They are very serious concerns and the Minister must address them.

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There is great concern in the country about BSE, animal health and animal welfare. From the local authorities' point of view, there is little evidence that the MHS is tackling those problems with the vigour that the Government would have expected from local authorities. We seek an assurance from the Government today that they will repair the damage that they have done to our country's food protection service.

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