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Slaughterhouse Accreditation (Devon)

4 pm

On resuming--

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this subject today. As a traditionalist, I should have preferred to discuss it on the Floor of the House of Commons, but times change, even if I do not change with them. The issue concerns the west country as a whole, and transcends divisions of town and country, and of party. It is sufficiently grave to have prompted the Western Morning News, a newspaper which normally uses modern terminology, to use phrases such as

I first raised this issue in the Chamber on 8 December and, several days later, I raised it again through another device. It may surprise some of those who have followed my career, such as it has been, to discover that I do not intend to attack the Government today. I attacked them in my previous speech, and I shall doubtless do so in my next, but today I do not intend to berate them. I am satisfied that the problem, which has resulted from a decision taken by the Intervention Board, is not directly of the Government's making, although only the Minister can solve it. If the decision is allowed to stand, from 4 January next year, Devon, a large county with one of the densest cow populations in the country, will have no abattoir at which cattle can be slaughtered under the over-30-months scheme. Cows in west Cornwall will be slaughtered at Madron Meat, but animals east of that point will have to be transported through Cornwall and Devon to one of three slaughterhouses in Somerset or Bristol.

We are not talking about placing one fit animal in its prime on a 125 express and delivering it quickly; animals will have to travel as much as 160 miles and endure a journey of more than three hours. In the main, such animals will be elderly, worn-out milking cows that are not in their first flush of youth and have never before left the farm on which they were born. For the first time in their lives--and, indeed, the last time--they will be carted and taken away. For such animals, any journey would be an imposition, but the current proposal is simply unaccepatable.

At the moment, the farmer transports a cow to the nearest slaughterhouse in a trailer. It is put on board by someone that it has known since it was born, and is delivered to the abattoir relatively quickly. I shall not discuss details with which the Minister is familiar, but animal transport regulations currently prevent the transportation of animals across great distances. However, in future, animals will be loaded on to a lorry with which they are unfamiliar by someone they have never seen before, and taken to a collection point, where they will be unloaded and then loaded again. They will then be taken on a last, long journey to abattoirs in Langport, Bridgwater or perhaps Bristol. I make no criticism of those slaughterhouses, but on arriving, the layerage will inevitably be limited, and animals that

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were collected early in the morning may well remain in lorries overnight. They will need to be milked. The consequences--the Minister and others will be familiar with the details--do not bear thinking about. As I have said, we are not dealing with beef animals in their prime, but tired, worn-out, elderly animals that may be lame or have damaged udders. For such animals, such a journey is unthinkable.

An urban audience is sometimes surprised to discover that farmers feel passionately about animal welfare, but this is the issue that will unite me and the Minister, whose track record on the matter is well known. We will not always reach the same conclusions on fox hunting or mink farming, but we share the belief that the welfare of animals is paramount. I know of no farmer who, the day that his cattle go for slaughter, is anything other than miserable. Slaughter is a necessary part of the life cycle, but farmers always greet that day in sombre mood. They will have known their animals--I use the word deliberately--intimately. They will have milked them twice a day for perhaps the past seven years. If animals are condemned to a final journey of the type that I have described, farmers will be genuinely distressed. Some 30 farmers are here today in the Public Gallery, not because of the extra burdens that will be placed on agriculture, but because they are concerned about animal welfare.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said, but the issue is not restricted to the west country. East Anglia, which no longer has a slaughterhouse, will face the same problems. Is my hon. Friend aware that more than 1,000 farmers--not members of the public--in East Anglia have signed a petition protesting at the removal of our slaughterhouse? Is he also aware that the Intervention Board appears not to have recognised those abattoirs that have made the necessary adaptations, and that, during this round, contracts have been awarded to companies that do not have operating abattoirs?

Mr. Nicholls : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. A Minister told me last week that representations have been received from other parts of the country. Those who deal with such matters at the sharp end cannot comprehend the figures involved. It is not my usual style to attack civil servants, but the statement issued by the Intervention Board is unreal. It states that

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It is not only farmers and me who are concerned, but the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. I shall quote the salient parts of a letter from John Avizienius, the RSPCA's senior scientific officer, to the Intervention Board. He says:

    "The implications for poor animal welfare scenarios due to the extended journey times are extremely worrying, particularly at this time of year, when there will be inevitable waiting lists.

    Also, we must be aware that many of the animals which are booked to go onto the scheme are at the older end of the age spectrum, and these in particular must not be subjected to these extra journey times.

    Also, we must be aware that the Intervention Board has failed to consider this aspect of animal welfare when the decision was taken to close certain abattoirs." This is an understatement, which would not necessarily be apparent to a politician. He concludes:

    "The RSPCA would urge you to reconsider this decision in order to avoid imposing even more unnecessary stress onto the industry, which, as noted above, has the potential to compromise the welfare of both animals and farmers alike." I make that point in the way in which it was made to me. If it proceeds, the decision will indeed impose extra burdens on an industry that is already reeling, but that is another speech for another time; the concern of those by whom I have been briefed today is animal welfare.

What is to be done? It cannot be claimed that the Intervention Board has fulfilled the remit with which it is charged. It is simply not sufficient to produce figures, and to add to them the formulaic expression that location has been properly considered. At Madron Meat, animal welfare can cost £30 a beast. At Southern Counties and Fresh Foods Ltd., a slaughterhouse in Somerset, the figure is £17.50. West Devon Meat is not so far above that, at about £22. However, the point about those figures is that this process has been carried out like a blind auction. The Intervention Board, once it realised where those slaughterhouses would have to be, should have told the slaughterhouses concerned what the target price might have been. Such an approach might conceivably have achieved something.

I believe that the solution is twofold. First, a temporary solution is that the decision should not be allowed to be implemented on 4 January. Secondly, the Minister should look at those figures as a matter of urgency and ask the Intervention Board to re-examine the representations made by me and by hundreds of people in the west country. Even if the Minister were minded to do that, it would not be sufficient unless coupled with action to ensure that this decision is not implemented on 4 January.

I probably shocked the Minister by saying that I would suspend the usual hostilities on this occasion. I urge her with whatever power I can command to look at the matter again. In terms of animal welfare, this decision cannot be allowed to stand. Whatever may disunite us in the House, whatever disunity may exist between urban and rural communities, and whatever our disagreements may be on agricultural matters, the one issue that unites virtually every hon. Member is a concern for animal welfare. This is pre-eminently an animal welfare decision and it cannot be allowed to stand.

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4.12 pm

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls). I am also grateful to the Minister for finding time in her busy schedule this morning to speak to me and my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) on this matter. I want to raise one or two points a propos that meeting, in connection with today's debate.

The Minister has kindly agreed to have the average tender figures re-examined, and I am grateful for that. I hope that due weight will be given in those figures to the fact that West Devon Meat is a most efficient organisation, and its costs for meat inspection are significantly lower than those in many other abattoirs. The disparity is about £6 a bullock.

I also draw the House's attention to the fact that, as the hon. Member for Teignbridge said, the allocation requirement for cull quota is higher in Devon than in any other county--virtually 1,000 beasts a week. The allocation for Cornwall is over 500 beasts a week, making a total of 1,500 beasts. All the cull quota given is effectively 300 beasts a week, as far south-west as one can get: Madron Meat in Penzance. That abattoir is about 190 miles from the nearest abattoir at Bridgwater.

This decision--which I hope will be reconsidered--will give rise to many problems, especially for the farming industry, which has been on its back in a depression for four consecutive years. In terms of cash flow, farmers will have to wait longer for their money. They will have to feed the animals, especially in winter, which will cost money. The decision will impose an additional cost of £20 a beast. Farmers receive only about £300 under the over-30-months scheme. Additional transport charges will cost an extra £10, as will collection point charges.

The hon. Member for Teignbridge has said--and, as one who has farmed for nearly 25 years, I agree--that farmers love their cattle, their sheep and their pigs. They are devoted to their animals. The majority of the animals in question will be suckler cows, and dairy cows. I cannot bear to think of the state in which those cows will be, if they have not been milked or sucked out for24 hours. It is absolute cruelty to submit them to that.

Finally, I want to say a few words about the impact on Hatherleigh, which has for many years been my home town. Hatherleigh depends on this abattoir and on the market, which are interdependent, and it has had a terrible time over the past four or five years, as it depends so much on agriculture. I hope that the Minister will either reconsider this decision or endeavour to insist that the Intervention Board reconsiders it. Will she instruct the Intervention Board to allow transitional cull quota for West Devon Meat until the matter has been fully debated and resolved?

4.15 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) on securing a debate on this issue. He said that, as a traditionalist, he was not keen on this forum. However, given that other proceedings are taking place in the main Chamber at present, this forum has provided an opportunity for this important matter to be debated

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before the Christmas recess and before the operation date of 4 January, to which he and other hon. Members referred.

This debate gives us the opportunity to address the concerns raised by livestock farmers in the constituency of the hon. member for Teignbridge, in the south-west generally and around the country. I accept the point made in an intervention by the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) that the subject is also of enormous interest to people in other parts of the country. I say that with a certain amount of feeling, because one of the unsuccessful tenderers was in my constitutency and in the north-east, my own part of the country, there has been concern about the practical implications of the changes. The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) also raised with me the concerns of farmers in his part of the country.

I am conscious of all those concerns, and of the number of hon. Members raising those issues on behalf of their constituents and their regions. However, as a result of their representations, I have examined the situation closely. Hon. Members have urged me to have meetings with the Intervention Board: I have already done so. As the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) said, I met him and the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) this morning. I shall hold meetings with representatives of the National Farmers Union tomorrow.

There is a willingness to engage in this issue, but the hon. Member for Teignbridge is right to say that the Intervention Board is the department responsible for the administration of the over-30-months scheme throughout the United Kingdom. Therefore, in pursuing representations that have been made to me, I have consulted the board and received from it a full account of how the process evolved and the various conditions and procedures that have been gone through in order to reach the present stage.

Mr. Burnett: What weight would the Minister give to oral representations made by the Intervention Board to tenderers during the tendering process?

Ms Quin: The Intervention Board has conducted this process according to the rules laid down for a public procurement exercise, and for the exercise of a tender process. That certainly involved a stage of bid clarification, in which the competitive pressures and the factors that would influence the final outcome were explained to the tenderers. That bid clarification process offered an opportunity for explanation, particularly to West Devon Meat, which was involved in the process. I am satisfied that, at that stage, the Intervention Board explained the competitive pressures and the price competition that West Devon Meat was facing.

The previous tendering exercise for over-30-months scheme slaughtering services was debated in the House on 26 November 1997. The hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) was worried about the reduction in the number of scheme abattoirs that followed the Intervention Board's previous tender. I mention that at the outset to make the point that, although I understand hon. Members' anxieties, we have been through a similar process in the past, during which anxieties were expressed, and the outcome of that previous round was

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satisfactory. The process is rather ironic for the south-west, because at that time it involved Somerset farmers, worried mainly about transporting animals west, rather than Devon farmers worried about transporting animals east. Some of the anxieties expressed at that time were examined closely by the then Ministers in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

I should explain some of the background to the events under discussion. Since July 1997, 28 abattoirs in the United Kingdom have been slaughtering OTMS cattle. As hon. Members will know, effective implementation of the OTM rule and scheme is one of the central pillars of the Florence agreement to tackle the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis and its aftermath so as to build up consumer and European confidence and secure a normal operation of the European market, into which, as hon. Members from all parties know, we have put a huge effort.

The Government's negotiation of a partial lifting of the beef export ban suggests that the service that the plants provide has been found satisfactory by the majority of our European partners and, significantly, by the European Commission and the authorities in Brussels. It is clear that the scheme is now operating to the satisfaction of the majority of farmers, much more so than two or three years ago.

Between them, abattoirs slaughter about 750,000 OTMS cattle a year, at a cost of about £22 million, which is borne by the UK taxpayer. We also pay about £230 million a year to farmers in compensation under the scheme, of which about £160 million is reimbursed by Brussels. The 1997 tender, under which the current 29 contracts were awarded, reduced the cost of the service by about £12 million a year in comparison with the rates that had applied since 1996. As hon. Members will know, the Public Accounts Committee criticised the high rates paid to abattoirs when the OTMS was first introduced. Both the 1997 and the 1999 tender exercises have secured a better deal for the taxpayer.

Mr. Pickles : Will the Minister give way?

Ms Quin : Yes, but it must be the last time, or I shall not be able to make the points that I want to make.

Mr. Pickles : The Minister mentioned cost, but the Intervention Board mentioned seven other criteria, ranging from past track record to location. How did the Intervention Board decide against people who made a bid but did not operate an abattoir?

Ms Quin : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is right to flag up the fact that a range of criteria were involved. Especially in view of the emphasis that the hon. Member for Teignbridge understandably placed on animal welfare requirements, I should emphasise that price is not the only factor in the equation. However, price is important because of pressures from the National Audit Office and, not least, from the Public Accounts Committee, which has been vigorous in examining the cost of BSE measures. Although I realise that hon. Members are worried about agriculture in their own constituencies in particular, pressures operate in the House in respect of the scheme's financial consequences, and it is only fair for me to point that out.

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The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar mentioned location, which is also a factor. Indeed, the Intervention Board has produced a map showing the location of not only abattoirs but the number of animals involved. In his constituency, the number of animals entering the system is much lower than elsewhere. Such factors must be considered in offsetting the overall arrangements and evaluating the criteria.

Mr. Nicholls : Will the Minister give way?

Ms Quin : I shall give way, but the hon. Gentleman does himself a disservice in terms of time.

Mr. Nicholls : We shall know very soon.

Is the Minister seriously suggesting that a trip of 130 miles is appropriate for this class of animal? She will remember that I did not emphasise strongly the cost to farming. I based my argument almost entirely on welfare, and 130 miles is not acceptable.

Ms Quin : I did not claim that the hon. Gentleman emphasised the cost to farmers. I am not sure how he gained that impression. I have asked the Intervention Board about the 130-mile figure--the figure of 160 miles was cited in one press release. I do not believe that a journey of 130 miles will be involved. The fact that Madron Meat in Cornwall was allowed to continue is a prime example of how location can tilt the balance--even though the company quoted a lower price, given its average kill, than West Devon Meat. For Bridgwater, the most efficient and value-for-money tender in the country, the ratio was three to one in favour. The Intervention Board must consider both geographical spread and value for money. It would be irresponsible if it did not.

I reassure hon. Members that the new arrangements will not flout the maximum travelling times allowed for animals under our animal welfare rules. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point about our overall commitment to animal welfare, and the fact that the matter is a cross-party concern that does not divide parties. Animal welfare considerations are extremely important. West Devon Meat uses animals from outside Devon: 25 per cent. of its current throughput relates to animals from outside the county. In Devon, 50 per cent. of farmers already use the market system. Presumably, many will continue to do so, so that they do not transport their animals themselves.

I am perfectly willing to examine animal welfare considerations that hon. Members draw to my attention once the scheme has come into operation, and if the fears of the hon. Member for Teignbridge are realised.

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