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Mr. Hogg: My hon. Friend has made a serious point. When the controls were administered by 300 local authorities, before the creation of the Meat Hygiene Service, it was not possible to have an overview of what was happening in slaughterhouses--and, a fortiori, it was not possible to have a national policy to improve them. The setting up of the Meat Hygiene Service has enabled us to know precisely what is going on throughout the country, and through that knowledge, and through the existence of the agency, which was opposed by the Opposition, to drive up standards. That is a very serious improvement, attributable to the Meat Hygiene Service and to Government policy.

Mr. John Garrett (Norwich, South): Given the increase in E. coli infection foreshadowed by the report, why did the Minister subsequently cut by £2 million the funding for food safety research being carried out by the food research institute in Norwich, which specialised in examining the causes and effects of E. coli poisoning?

Mr. Hogg: We always have to judge at any one time what are the chief priorities for scientific research. As a matter of policy, we have substantially increased

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the spending on research into BSE, in accordance with the wishes expressed in the House and with the peer assessment by those who know. I think that that was widely welcomed in this country.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that I took part in a Wednesday morning Adjournment debate on the Meat Hygiene Service initiated by an Opposition Member? The hon. Gentleman and I reflected the concern and unhappiness felt by many within the meat industry about the cost and the bureaucracy of the Meat Hygiene Service. Is it not odd, therefore, that the Opposition now seek to take what I regard as irresponsible advantage of the situation, in a manner that does no good to the consumer or to the industry?

In fact, perhaps even against my wishes, the Meat Hygiene Service, which has been responsible for revealing the problem, was set up against the wishes of the Opposition. Should we not make that obvious to the people of this country?

Madam Speaker: Order. I hope that, after that, questions will be short and to the point. They are much too long; they are comments and speeches, not questions. We must move on. We have another statement after this.

Mr. Hogg: Few hon. Members are more powerful than my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton). He is right to say that the Labour party opposed the instrument by which the facts are being known and the improvements carried out. That is an absurd position for the Labour party.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): Does the Minister accept that Professor Hugh Pennington is not just an eminent scientist, but a truthful and mild-mannered man? He told me this morning that he had no knowledge of the report, had not seen it and was extremely angry about it. Does the Minister not think that the House should believe him? Does he not find it incredible, against the background of 20 fatalities in Scotland, that no civil servant from MAFF or the Scottish Office thought to provide the report to Hugh Pennington? Is that not a comment on the atmosphere of secrecy over which the Government and all ministerial teams preside?

Mr. Hogg: That is nonsense. Of course Professor Pennington is a man of the utmost distinction. If he says that he has not seen the report, I am not saying he has. However, people in his group knew of the existence of the review. It would have been passing strange if they did not, because it is referred to in the annual report. [Hon. Members: "Where?"] Page 18. I am glad that hon. Members have got it. They will find an explicit reference to the review on page 18, paragraph 4.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West): It does not say what it said.

Mr. Hogg: It was open to the hon. Gentleman to ask for a copy of the review. He did not read it at the time, and he is now kicking himself.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Stamford and Spalding): Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is fatuous

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to suggest that any Minister can read every report produced by his Ministry, let alone every report produced by every agency under the aegis of his Ministry? It may be that some of his officials should have drawn his attention to the report or to passages in it, but if he was left in ignorance, it was hardly his fault, was it?

Mr. Hogg: Reference has been made to a report prepared by Mr. Swann. No report was prepared by Mr. Swann. He prepared a first draft, which his professional peers--and nobody else--found unsatisfactory. They wanted him to change it because it did not reflect their views, although they had helped to carry out the assessment. He decided not to do that. Consequently, another report was prepared--shorter and simpler to read--which was widely circulated in the industry. It is referred to explicitly as "the review" on page 18, paragraph 4.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West): I accept that the Minister may not have seen the report, but is he seriously suggesting to the House that, when he and his fellow Ministers came to the House to answer questions and make statements about E. coli, there was nothing in their background briefing on the contents of the report? If there was nothing, should not his civil servants be sacked? If there was, and he failed to tell the House, should not he be sacked?

Mr. Hogg: There is a serious misunderstanding here. The Government have known for a long time about the problem of, for example, faecal contamination of carcases in abattoirs. That was expressly referred to in the other place by my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Howe, when talking about poultrymeat and other regulations. The problem has existed for some time. It is one reason why the Meat Hygiene Service was set up.

We have discussed the recommendations to carry on the various works. I have had discussions with the Meat Hygiene Service, and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has had discussions with the industry on many occasions.

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton): Does my right hon. and learned Friend have a view about why the earlier, and it seems unsatisfactory, draft of the report, which appears to have been lurking around since the end of 1995, should have been given to the press in March 1997? Does he agree that people involved in farming and the meat industry will not easily forgive those who, for purely political reasons, seek to generate a fraudulent panic about the safety of British meat?

Mr. Hogg: I suspect that many farmers and others will agree with my hon. Friend. What is absolutely certain--this is the crucial point--is that there was full discussion of the report, which was the majority view of the professionals who carried out the assessment.

That full report--28 pages of it--was put before the industry forum, which includes the National Farmers Union and others and all those in the meat industry. They had copies of it, and it was discussed. The carrying out of the review is referred to in the annual report, which was laid before the House and which has been placed in the Library of the House. Any hon. Member who wanted a copy of the document had only to ask, and we would have been pleased to send one to them.

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Mr. Tony Banks: On the radio this morning, the Parliamentary Secretary said that she had not seen a copy of the report, and that it had not been drawn to her attention. With the benefit of hindsight, to which the Minister referred earlier, does he accept that it would have been better if the report had been drawn to the attention of Ministers?

Mr. Hogg: It is for Ministers to lay down policy. The implementation of the policy is the responsibility of the agency. In this case, the agency was doing three things: first, it established the benchmarks by which one can identify progress in the future; secondly, because it was taking over responsibility for functions previously held by local authorities, it determined the allocation of staff, both regionally and plant by plant; and thirdly, it wanted to use the process as the mechanism for driving up standards. All those things come into the category of implementing policy.

I have the highest confidence in the chief executive of the Meat Hygiene Service. He knows his function, which is to tackle this sort of problem. He will keep Ministers informed about the detailed implementation to the extent that he deems necessary, but he is primarily responsible for the implementation of the policy, and I have every confidence in him.

Mr. Mark Robinson (Somerton and Frome): Does my right hon. and learned Friend share my disappointment at the way in which the matter has been reported, particularly on television programmes today? The sight of filthy animals going into abattoirs caused me to telephone Southern Counties and Romford Meats to ask what it would do if it was presented with animals in that condition. I was told, unequivocally, that any such animals would be sent straight back to where they came from.

Mr. Hogg: That is absolutely right. If one looks at the report, which was circulated among the industry and was the subject of discussion within the industry, one can see that great weight is placed upon the ante-mortem inspections. It is made plain in that document that, if cattle are presented in a filthy state, they will be rejected. It is important for everybody in the industry to understand that, if cattle turn up at an abattoir in the state to which some people have referred, they will be sent straight back to where they came from.

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