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Q4. Mr. Dalyell: To ask the Prime Minister if he will discuss with President Clinton the relevance to the Lockerbie inquiry of the publication of the report by the

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United States Inspector General into laboratory practices and alleged misconduct in explosives-related and other cases. [17578]

The Prime Minister: I understand that the report has not been published. As the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley), made clear on 28 February, we understand that there is nothing to suggest that the report will reflect in any way on the Lockerbie case, but if anything relevant emerged from it, the Government would evaluate the implications carefully.

Mr. Dalyell: Against the background set out in that Adjournment debate, have the Government asked the Americans how it is that their forensic expert, James Thurman, has been found to have fabricated forensic evidence? If the Prime Minister asked the Americans, what did they say?

The Prime Minister: Yes, we have made inquiries about that, as the hon. Gentleman may have anticipated. The United States authorities have confirmed that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has transferred Mr. Thurman to other duties while the activities of the FBI laboratories are investigated. However, we are further advised that the case against the two Libyans does not depend in any respect on any evidence that Mr. Thurman may give.


Q5. Dr. Michael Clark: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 6 March. [17579]

The Prime Minister: I refer my hon. Friend to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Dr. Clark: Is my right hon. Friend aware that my constituency has the highest number of home owners in the country, at a fraction under 90 per cent.? As we now have low inflation, low interest rates and very attractive mortgage rates, what advice would he give--as we approach a general election--to my constituents and to home owners throughout the country?

The Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend says, we have stable prices, low mortgage rates and a rapidly improving economic situation that is unmatched anywhere in Europe. The advice that my hon. Friend should give to his constituents is to stick to the policies that have created that and not put it at risk by following policies adopted on the continent which have led to a quite different outcome.

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Meat Hygiene Service (Report)

3.32 pm

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Douglas Hogg) rose--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. Will hon. Members leaving the Chamber please do so quickly and quietly? We have business to conduct here. Minister, when you are ready.

Mr. Hogg: It may be helpful if I make a statement about the report by the Meat Hygiene Service on the state of hygiene in slaughterhouses, which has been the subject of much comment in the press this morning.

The facts are as follows. The Meat Hygiene Service came into existence on 1 April 1995 as a Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food agency, and took over responsibility for enforcement of hygiene rules in slaughterhouses that had previously rested with local authorities.

One of the targets for the agency, approved by Ministers and announced to Parliament, was to carry out a review of the state of hygiene in each individual slaughterhouse in Great Britain. It was required to complete that assessment by the end of March 1996. The purposes were threefold: first, to create a comprehensive benchmarking of standards and practices within the British fresh meat industry; secondly, to allocate resources to a function previously performed by local authorities; and, thirdly, to drive up standards across the board and in individual plants.

The Meat Hygiene Service conducted its review by appointing hygiene advice teams to visit each slaughterhouse in the country to assess its score and make recommendations for improvements: a mark was given to each slaughterhouse to serve as a benchmark against future progress.

The final outcome was a comprehensive assessment of the state of hygiene that had been found and a long list of recommendations for future action. The report in its final form was always intended as an internal working document, to be used by the enforcement authorities, so it was not formally published. However, it was presented to the Meat Industry Forum--the leading representatives of meat industry organisations, with whom the Meat Hygiene Service holds regular discussions--and was the subject of frequent discussions with the industry and others. The fact of the review was also explicitly referred to on page 18 of the annual report on the Meat Hygiene Service's first year of operations, which was presented to Parliament on 17 July 1996, and placed in the Library of the House.

I will deal with some specific criticisms which have been made. Was the report turned down? The facts are as follows. Hygiene assessment teams of MHS staff prepared reports on individual plants. An editorial board, chaired by the MHS head of operations, and made up of professional staff who had all been part of advisory teams, asked Mr. Swann to compile a report on red meat.

Mr. Swann's first draft was regarded as rather unsatisfactory and not fully reflecting the views of others who had taken part in the review. Mr. Swann was asked to recast his contribution, but was not willing to do so. The editorial board then asked another senior member of

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staff to redraft the section on red meat. The revised and condensed version covering both red meat and poultry was put to the industry representatives last year. The final report reflected the majority judgment of the professional veterinary staff who carried out the review.

It is said that important recommendations were not acted on, but that is untrue. Individual reports were made on specific plants and were discussed with individual operators.

Meat Hygiene Service staff are present in every slaughterhouse. In their continuing discussions, they are in a position to ensure that necessary improvements are carried out. All their work is carried out under the over-arching supervision of the State Veterinary Service.

One specific point of concern is in relation to E. coli--namely that cattle should not be delivered to slaughterhouses in a dirty condition. It is quite clear that concerted action is needed by the enforcement authorities, by slaughterhouse management and by farmers, to ensure that cattle are presented for slaughter in the cleanest possible condition. The MHS has taken action. For example, ante-mortem checks are carried out on all cattle and are being tightened up. Further action is in hand. The MHS is preparing clear visual operational guidance on the standards expected and how to achieve them. It will be issued this month.

Our purpose in creating the MHS--a policy that was bitterly opposed by Opposition parties--was to drive up standards within abattoirs and the slaughtering industry. The preparation of the report and its follow-up is part of that process. Standards are constantly improving, and they are substantially better now than they were when the service was provided, to varying standards, by more than 300 local authorities. That is a tribute to the MHS, and to the Government for insisting on its creation.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East): Does the Minister accept that, for many years, we have realised how vital it is to have high standards of hygiene in our slaughterhouses, and that, following the discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, it was even more important to achieve those standards because of a possible link with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease?

Does the Minister agree that the report produces alarming evidence showing just how badly the Government enforced the controls in our abattoirs to keep BSE, E. coli and other diseases out of our food? Spinal cords were not being removed, bovine specified offal bins were unmarked, and there was a major problem of faecal contamination, which could infect carcases with E. coli, salmonella and other organisms. The report also draws attention to important worries about animal welfare.

Can the Minister confirm that the report is thorough and substantial, and, indeed, that it cost some £1 million to produce? Can he confirm that it makes 81 major recommendations on abattoir practices? Can he confirm that all those recommendations are now being implemented? Can he assure us that the problems identified by the hygiene advice teams are being addressed? Does he agree with the report about the need for a proper national strategy in relation to contamination in abattoirs? When will that strategy be implemented?

May I point out to the Minister that this final report is dated December 1995? He needs no reminding that it was in March 1996--March last year--that Ministers were

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advised of the probability that the new variant of CJD was linked with BSE. Surely, against that background, we had a right to expect that Ministers were leaving no stone unturned to ensure that the highest standards were being implemented in our abattoirs. Surely Ministers had a responsibility to examine the situation assiduously, to ensure that all the regulations were being properly enforced--and it should be remembered that the BSE regulations were introduced as long ago as 1989.

If Ministers were carrying out that proper examination, how could they be unaware of this major report? It is not a routine report; it is not a casual document containing a few minor criticisms. It is a devastating critique of practices in our abattoirs. How was it that Professor Pennington, who has been conducting the inquiry into the tragic outbreak of E. coli in central Scotland, was unaware of the report? Why was it never shown to him? How was it that Richard Cawthorne, a United Kingdom abattoir monitor and owner, and president of the European Meat Association--he was on the radio this morning--did not see the report?

We are advised that the report was due for publication in March 1996, but it was never made public. It really is not good enough for the Minister to say in his statement that there was a reference to this major report, which was completed in March 1995, in a document that came from the Meat Hygiene Service to the House of Commons, and was placed in the Library just as the House rose for the summer recess. He has not answered the question--and his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has not answered the question--why on earth was the report not made public and put in the public domain? How can we be confident that Ministers are acting on these matters if they do not make such reports public?

Why cannot the Government understand that, on food safety matters, we have to be open and up front on everything? Is this matter not further evidence of the need for an independent food standards agency, with food safety as its No. 1 priority? Secrecy only undermines consumer confidence in the safety of our food. Yet again, another episode is leading the public to lose even more confidence in the Government on the subject of the safety of our food.

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