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I return to my theme, which Ministers know that I have been pursuing for at least two years. I remind the House that in June I initiated a debate in Westminster Hall on rural abattoirs. I used a statistic given by a Labour Minister in the other place. Baroness Hayman said:
My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar talked about large abattoirs. I accept that they can employ economies of scale, but smaller abattoirs are important in the local community. We have too few already. Labour Members have queried whether we have enough and whether they are strategically situated, and we need assurance from the Government that nothing more will be done to prejudice their future. I say that because a reduction in the number of private butchers and specialist meat producers who supply niche markets is an inevitable result of the demise of small abattoirs.
All parties in the House have flagged up the development of niche markets as one of the great hopes for the future of agricultural industries, not least the livestock industry--but without the smaller, specialist abattoirs, there will be no niche meat markets. Big plant abattoirs are not the least bit interested in dealing with small numbers of animals for specialist outlets, just as no big abattoirs are interested in taking an animal for private kill for home consumption, or slaughtering a perfectly fit animal that has to be disposed of. Only smaller abattoirs have been prepared to continue that service. It would be wrong, but administratively convenient, for Ministers and the Department to deal with a relatively small number of big abattoirs rather than the few hundred in existence, and many in the trade suspect that administrative convenience outweighs all the other considerations.
The situation is certainly serious: there is a prospect of the livestock industry being decimated. I do not think that any Member on either side of the House doubts that the margins on which livestock farmers currently operate are minuscule, and I believe that this will be the last straw for many of them. There will also be a high attrition rate among specialist livestock hauliers. All that is bad news for the livestock industry in general.
It is ironic that in imposing ever stricter standards on the British industry--I refer not just to the livestock industry but to abattoirs and manufacturing industry--we are making our own industry less and less competitive. Yet we are apparently prepared to admit imports from anywhere in the world, provided that they carry a piece of paper stating that the meat was produced in conditions of which we approve.
Ministers will say that they have evidence in their Departments of instances of the law not being complied with in this country. What makes them confident enough to believe that the law in all the countries from which we import is being applied as rigorously as it is here, and that the products that we import meet the standards on which we insist?
Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): Is not the truth of what my hon. Friend says demonstrated by the fact that the infection must have come from abroad? The disease had been eradicated in this country. Whatever else may eventually transpire, it has come here from abroad.
Mr. Gill: Absolutely. The same point was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor), who was once Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. He said--I think I quote him correctly--that the cause of the disease had presumably come from abroad. If we did not have the disease a fortnight ago and we have it now, it must have come from somewhere; therefore it must have come from abroad.
I understand the difficulty in which the present Minister finds himself, and I know that he understands the point that I am making to him, which is: how are we to maintain our high health status while allowing imports from the rest of the universe? Is it fair to bear down on our own industry in so draconian a fashion, making it uncompetitive and putting sections of it out of business, while the product that it used to supply is supplied by foreigners?
I believe in free markets and free competition, but we all face a dilemma that must be resolved. If the recent outbreak of classical swine fever was caused by someone carelessly discarding the proverbial ham sandwich, no amount of trouble that Ministers and Departments go to in order to ensure that our animal health status is maintained will be effective. Sooner or later, Ministers must address the question of food imports in a much more robust fashion, or else accept that the objective of maintaining 100 per cent. animal health status is not feasible.
That was the point of my intervention on the hon. Member for West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire (Mr. Ainger), when I asked whether we would be able to turn our face against vaccination for ever. It is possible to do that for ever and a day, provided that there is a cordon sanitaire around these islands, and provided that we know that no import will destroy our 100 per cent. animal health
We all agree that the slaughter policy is correct now, but we are dealing with a situation that is very different from that of 1967. The whole world has moved on, and, as many Members have pointed out, trade has been globalised since then. We must keep an open mind on, for example, whether we can sustain our high health status without vaccination; and we should perhaps reconsider the policy of slaughtering, slaughtering and slaughtering again until the disease has apparently been eradicated. Neither the Minister nor I can estimate how many thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or even millions of animals may have to be killed before we get to the end of the problem.
I have made this point many times, but I need to make it again. Ministers must understand that if the abattoirs close, there is scant prospect of their reopening. The reason is straightforward. Abattoirs operate on high volumes and low margins; they are now burdened with a huge amount of bureaucracy and inspection, and there are always the environmental pressures imposed on them by neighbours.
As with galvanising works, everyone knows where an abattoir should not be sited, but no one will say where one should be sited--and if an abattoir owner has a site that could be developed for housing or any other purpose, he could hardly be blamed for cashing in his chips and going out of business in the present circumstances. That is regrettable.
What is to be done? Movement must be resumed. We must halt the unnecessary closure of small abattoirs. My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) referred to the parlous state of the United Kingdom's biggest pig abattoir. The problem does not just affect small or medium-sized abattoirs, or indeed large abattoirs; it affects all abattoirs, including the biggest, which is in Malton in my hon. Friend's constituency. The maintaining of the movement ban threatens the future of all abattoirs, regardless of size.
Let me end by saying something that is self-evidently true: without abattoirs, there can be no livestock industry. The Minister needs to understand the importance of keeping all our abattoirs going, to provide the industry with an essential service and to convert its product into a food that the public will, I am sure, wish to buy. I believe that, given the choice, the vast majority of the British people would prefer to buy meat produced in this country.
Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): I should start by declaring a tangential interest. I own five acres in Derbyshire, which are occupied by about 15 sheep. I receive no money or material gain from that. I have asked the young couple who look after them to take precautions, mainly to prevent possible infection from me because I travel a good deal within my constituency and there is a suspected case--although, fortunately, the initial test has proved negative--in Hartshorne in my area. We hope that the outcome will continue to prove negative, but, clearly, that case has caused much concern among the local farming community. The community of south Derbyshire respects its local farmers, although it does not always agree with everything that they do, and regards them as an important part of what is essentially a rural community with strong ties.
Let me touch on the immediate issues. The first relates to a conversation that I had this morning with a farmer who is not from my constituency, but from the neighbouring constituency--that of the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin). The farmer raised comparisons with the way in which the crisis had been dealt with in 1967, which shows that some people farming now were farming in 1967 and they have accurate memories, as they see it, of what happened then. From what he had observed from a distance, that farmer felt that animals were being slaughtered and carcases destroyed less speedily than in 1967. I remarked that I thought that one of the difficulties was the different circumstances now; the infection is much more widespread. In 1967, it was concentrated in particular areas and it was easier to marshal resources to destroy animals speedily. Nevertheless, I pass on the remark that he made from his experience.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill). He probably knows that I agree with much of what he said about abattoirs. When he strayed into references to foreigners, he lost my sympathy somewhat, but I have pursued a long campaign in my time as a Member of Parliament on the competitiveness issue: how we regulate and charge for abattoir services and the effect that that has had, particularly on the small abattoir community.
I think that I have achieved some progress. Initially, the competitiveness issue was not regarded as relevant; it was regarded essentially as a matter for individual Community countries, not a concern of Her Majesty's Government. Then a full survey was conducted of relative charges and charging regimes and, not to everyone's surprise, it was discovered that the regulatory regime that we applied was rather more rigorous in some ways and certainly more expensive.
I strongly support the hon. Gentleman's comments about the slow progress in implementing the recommendations made in the Pooley report. Small abattoirs still await a clear answer on the appropriate charging regime that they should have, which would better secure their future.
The incident in my constituency relates to an abattoir. As I said, I hope that it does not end up being a proven case. This afternoon I spoke to one of the workers at the abattoir. He had been laid off and was, not surprisingly, concerned about what would happen to him in the period in which his workplace was shut. He pointed out that around 90 per cent. of the produce of the abattoir, which is largely a specialist halal operation, is exported to Germany. Thus there are two problems: the constraint on movements that the business would face; and the constraint on exports, which is its main source of income.
I have a lot of sympathy with the arguments about the consequential implications for other parts of the agriculture supply chain at this time of crisis. That business is not large and it appears to have traded in good faith. In those circumstances, the needs of such businesses deserve proper consideration. Obviously, farmers close to that business who have had no part in any matter relating to the crisis so far, but who are nevertheless restricted on their premises, also need some thought, because there are now implications for their cash flow. I believe that yesterday's announcement goes some way towards that, but it does so in a random way--which is inevitable if it is relying largely on agrimonetary compensation. Many of
I believe that there is scope to examine further the possibility of supporting consequential losses in some manner. I urge the Minister to continue investigating that issue and to use whatever means are available. I know that he has sympathy for those who have been placed in that situation. I also realise that it is a complicated process to satisfy his colleagues in the Government and, potentially, the European Commission that he is doing the right thing. Nevertheless, I urge him to continue with that focus.
The action that my right hon. Friend has announced to try to get the supply chain working again will have the most immediate effect, and it is what most business people would like. They would rather be paid for doing their job than paid something by the Government not to do it. In that light, I very much welcome the announcement and look forward with great interest to seeing the details of how the scheme will work. I am sure that that interest will be shared by many members of the South Derbyshire farming community.
The other gap that I have identified was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle)--the briefing to local authorities on their role in the matter. I spoke to South Derbyshire district council about refuse collection from farms, but it had already identified the need to respond effectively. I just wonder, however, whether that knowledge is fully shared across the country. In some parts of our country, the linkage between the local authority and the local farming community is perhaps a little less robust. In that respect, there should be a clear brief on what should be expected, and some of the points made by my hon. Friend are certainly relevant. I think that clearer guidance is probably necessary.
As for the medium to long term, I have already addressed the issue--although the hon. Member for Ludlow has done it much better--of clarification of the role of small abattoirs. I am trying to examine whether some of our difficulties--of course not the original infection, but some of our difficulties with migration of the disease across the country--have been caused by unnecessarily long journeys. I certainly accept the knowledgeable comments that have been made about specialisation in the abattoir sector. Although specialisation has made some long journeys inevitable, other long journeys are not inevitable.
We should bear in mind the experience of the 1960s, when outbreaks were concentrated around particular places of infection, partly because the movement of animals across the country was not as intensive as it is now. I think that there is now an opportunity to re-examine that issue and certainly to clarify the charging regime that the abattoir sector now faces.
We also need to examine the supply chain within agriculture. Some well-informed remarks have been made in this debate about the changing way in which the supply chain is working and the increasing specialisation of some sectors, both of which have led to particular types of beasts being taken on long journeys around the country to
Supply chains have developed for entirely understandable market reasons. As those who have listened to my speeches before will know, I am essentially a strong, robust supporter of the marketplace in agriculture. Nevertheless, operation of the market does not always entail proper risk awareness. There needs to be some thought about that issue. Yesterday, I listened to a farmer who was on the television talking about the number of movements that seem to be made. A hon. Member earlier in the debate spoke about the apparent frequency of movements.