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9.50 am

Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree): I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise a matter of concern to my constituents in the town of Witham who are residents of Bridge Learning Difficulties hospital. It was built in Victorian times, not as a hospital but as a workhouse and asylum. It has all the hallmarks of such a building. It is forbidding and depressing in character. It has been used for many years for people with learning difficulties. Although the hospital was originally on the edge of the town, close, as the name suggests, to the bridge across the river, it is now closer to the heart of the town.

An important factor for those with learning difficulties is that they are in the community. A warm regard and affection has grown up between those who live in the hospital and the residents of the town of Witham. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will not be surprised that there are now proposals to close that hospital and move the residents out into the community. Progress has already been made towards reaching that objective. Like many buildings erected in former times, the hospital has a considerable area of land attached to it. A large part of the land has already been sold for residential housing development. It is expected that if the balance is sold, that too will be used for residential housing. The consequences of that will be that those who have lived in the hospital--some of them effectively for all their life and many of them for many years--will be scattered away from their friends and in some cases from their families, into circumstances that will be alien to them.

I have been approached on a number of occasions by a group called the Friends of Bridge Hospital, made up of the parents of the children who are residents. When I say children, I am talking about some people who are in their middle age. Most of them are men and their parents are now in some cases becoming elderly. The children naturally go home to visit their parents at certain times during the year, but I am told that it is touching that when they leave the hospital they want their parents to assure them that they will be going back there after their holiday. That is because many of them regard the hospital as their home.

I do not defend the layout or structure of the hospital. In many ways, it is an appalling building. Some of the residents are still living in communal wards, with all the humiliation and lack of dignity that that implies. Others have their own private rooms. To their great credit, the hospital authorities have made great strides in making those rooms homes for those who live in them.

I believe that the way forward is not to cling to the ideology of care in the community. That ideology, like the ideologies of eastern Europe, is waning, and we should take a more balanced view. Every ideology, byits nature, imposes a philosophical and intellectual straitjacket on those who practise it, and care in the community has in some ways been as thoughtless as other ideologies. The tendency to care in the community is now beginning to change in other areas. I hope that the New Possibilities NHS trust will begin to consider sheltered community accommodation for people with learning difficulties so that they remain together. They could live in bungalow developments rather like those for our older people, with wardens and medical staff on hand to assist them. In such circumstances, the community would still be there, the residents would still have their relatives close

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at hand, they would still be bonded to the place where they had always lived, they would maintain the relationship with the wider community and they could move forward with dignity and reassurance. I hope that it is not too late for that to be achieved.

I know that the hon. Member for Colchester(Mr. Russell), whose constituency is not far from my constituency, has a similar residential home for people with learning difficulties run by the same trust. I know that he shares some of my concerns. I hope that the Minister will say that there is a way forward within which we can gain the benefits of community living, but maintain the dignity of those who spend their lives in the hospital.

9.55 am

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): I am most grateful to you, Madam Speaker, for calling me so early in the debate. The subject that I want to talk about is one that the journalist Christopher Booker has described as farming's forgotten crisis or, in other words, the plight of small abattoirs and the crisis in the pig industry. I shall explain in a moment why I believe that the House should not adjourn until these matters have been resolved.

I should preface my remarks by declaring an interest. My financial interests in the meat industry are as listed in the register. I am president of the Meat Training Council and of the British Pig Association. Both positions are unremunerated and honorary.

It is certain that Parliament will go into recess today. I invite the Minister to consider the uncertainty that currently faces the small abattoir sector. If the original plans announced by the Government were to go ahead, it would face tomorrow an astronomical increase in the charges that it has to pay for meat inspection. It will not be difficult for right hon. and hon. Members to appreciate the position of any business facing increases of the order of 23 per cent. Bishop's Castle Meat Company in my constituency faces an increase from £4,800 per month to £8,000. That is not untypical. I am told of another slaughterman in Devon, John Coles, who currently pays less than £300 per month but faces the prospect of charges increasing to £3,500 per month. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) will acknowledge that. That is an astronomical increase by anyone's reckoning.

It is unfair to expect the industry to continue in uncertainty. Ministers have not said that the charges will not be imposed tomorrow or announced when they will come into effect.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): Will my hon. Friend concede that those businesses will not continue to trade? They will go out of business. There is no way in which they can take the costs. Many butchers in my constituency who butcher their own meat are in a similar position. If the proposals go forward, they will go out of business. Yet they provide an excellent service to the local community.

Mr. Gill: My hon. Friend is right. I have a lifelong experience of the meat industry, and I understand the economics of running abattoirs, both large and small. I know that the small abattoirs simply will not be able to bear the astronomical costs that are supposed to kick in from tomorrow. The effect on other parts of our economy will be serious. The House will recognise that many small

31 Mar 1999 : Column 1013

abattoirs are located in rural areas and provide vital wealth creation and employment prospects. They also provide an outlet for many livestock farmers, especially small farmers, who may produce a specialist product for a niche market and will be deprived of a slaughter point.

As my hon. Friend appreciates, when such a farmer cannot get his specialist product slaughtered in a small abattoir, where there is total traceability, a whole raft of economic activity is lost. We must bear it in mind that a large abattoir is not interested in doing the job. It is extremely serious that small abattoirs are closing at a time when people in the countryside are desperate to find ways of diversifying. There will also be serious implications for the welfare of animals which will have to travel much further to the point of slaughter.

On 17 March, I accompanied a small deputation of people who are involved in that sector of the meat industry to meet the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Minister of State at the Ministry. The deputation included representatives of the Humane Slaughter Association, who are especially interested in welfare matters, the National Federation of Meat and Food Traders, which represents small butchers, whose work will be handicapped if small abattoirs are closed, and the chief executive of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, who is concerned about the niche marketing that his members have established using small abattoirs.

I must give credit where it is due. It is only fair to say that the Ministers were most attentive to our case and they acknowledged the seriousness of the situation. They confessed that the proposed increase in charges will be more than many sections of the trade can bear. They acknowledged that some of the small abattoirs will have to close--as my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) pointed out. They also stated that Government policy was that animals should be slaughtered as near as possible to the farm. They assured us that they were considering all possible ways of reducing the overheads of the Meat Hygiene Service and that they were doing their level best to minimise the cost increases due to take effect next month.

Ministers are on the horns of a dilemma; on one hand, they are under enormous pressure from the European Union to implement fully the meat inspection directive, but on the other, they know that if they do so, scores of small abattoirs will close and there will be a knock-on effect for other small businesses.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on setting up the meeting to which he referred. He was kind enough to invite me and a Labour Member, which made it an all-party occasion. Does he recall that, at that meeting, the Ministers acknowledged that the meat inspections directive did not seem to be biting equally across Europe? One of the most ludicrous matters is that there seems to be a surplus of inspecting veterinary staff in most continental countries, to which we have to apply so that there are enough vets to carry out inspections in this country. There seems to be a trade imbalance in vets.

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