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House of Commons

Thursday 13 December 2001

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. David Cameron (Witney): What steps she is taking to assist small abattoirs; and if she will make a statement. [20554]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): As we announced in the rural White Paper last year, agriculture Departments in England, Scotland and Wales have agreed to transfer £8.7 million to the Food Standards Agency for the three financial years 2001–02 to 2003–04, enabling the agency significantly to reduce inspection charges levied on many small and medium meat plants.

Mr. Cameron: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer, but is she aware that in recent years the overall costs of small and medium abattoirs such as Mutch Meats in Witney have accelerated because of the need to remove waste, the BSE regulations, meat hygiene inspection charges and additional costs from foot and mouth? Does she agree that they need short-term help because of foot and mouth, but that in the longer term a proper answer is required to make those businesses viable? When will we get that answer? In particular, will it form part of Sir Don Curry's report? The terms of reference are not entirely clear. It is important that we examine abattoirs carefully to ensure that we do not end up with just a few mega-slaughterhouses.

Margaret Beckett: Of course, I am aware that there have been a lot of problems in the abattoir sector, which I agree have been exacerbated by foot and mouth. It is not for me to say what Sir Don Curry's commission will consider—it is independent—but it is possible that it will examine what is happening in a number of abattoirs. I am not sure whether it will look more widely at the overall climate, but I am sure that it will take heed of the hon. Gentleman's remarks.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): Is it possible to enter into negotiations with our European Union partners to review and revise meat hygiene laws to get a better balance between high standards and economic viability?

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Are there ways in which we can encourage farmers to use nearby abattoirs, and supermarkets to relax their policy of using just a small number of industrial-scale abattoirs, which are often distant from the point of meat production?

Margaret Beckett: The issue of whether people use facilities more locally or at a greater distance is likely to feature in one way or another in the various inquiries that have been set up to examine the foot and mouth outbreak. On the general issue that my hon. Friend raises, we continually press to get the right balance and to ensure that we have safety and high quality in food without overburdensome regulation. He will know that it is only a couple of years since an industry working group was set up to examine the sector. We keep it under review, but I do not anticipate making major proposals in the near future.

Norman Baker (Lewes): In recent years, every abattoir in my constituency has closed, with the consequence that farmers have to transport animals much further for slaughter. Are not longer lorry journeys bad for animals, bad for farmers in economic terms and bad for the environment? Is there not a case for Government to help abattoirs in particular parts of the country, including east Sussex, to reopen?

Margaret Beckett: Abattoirs have been closing gradually for about 20 years, as the hon. Gentleman is aware. Of course, there are issues about distances; equally, there are issues about commercial viability. Most of the abattoirs that have closed have basically gone out of business. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we subsidise abattoirs. I do not find that an attractive proposition, but I am sure that some aspects of his comments will come up when the recent disease outbreak is examined.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley): Is my right hon. Friend aware that I have just one small abattoir left in my constituency, at Ilkley, which is well regarded by local farmers? Does she agree that we should be encouraging more small abattoirs to stop long, painful journeys for animals? The impact of the foot and mouth outbreak might have been reduced if more small abattoirs had been spread around the country.

Margaret Beckett: I understand my hon. Friend's concern for her constituents, although she will know that wherever animals are sent to abattoirs the journey has to comply with the Welfare of Animals (Transport) Order 1997. That gives considerable detail on measures necessary to protect animals. With regard to my hon. Friend's more general point about the number of abattoirs, as I have said, that issue is bound to be considered. I recall being told that, at the time of the 1967 outbreak of foot and mouth disease, there were about 1,500 abattoirs, yet there was a serious disease outbreak then, although it was not precisely the same as the one that we have recently had.

Rural Services

2. Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham): What measures she is taking to support (a) shops and (b) essential services in rural areas. [20555]

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The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael): Since the rural White Paper was published a year ago we have provided substantial extra funding to boost basic services in rural areas. We have helped village shops and pubs, extended rate relief, helped rural schools and other services, extended sure start to rural areas and assisted bus services, to name just a few.

Mr. Pond: Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the opening today of the refurbished Shorne post office in my constituency? Is he aware that more than 1,000 of my constituents have signed a petition calling for improvements to a small parade of shops in Meopham called Camer parade? The viability of those high-quality businesses is threatened by poor access, especially for elderly and infirm people, and by the need for environmental improvements for which resources are not currently available. Does my right hon. Friend agree with those petitioners that local shops and other services are the life-blood of rural communities, and will he advise parish councils on how to access resources to make the improvements that are needed to such facilities?

Alun Michael: There are several ways in which we can help local shops to remain viable. I especially welcome the news that efforts to stem the loss of post offices have succeeded in the case that my hon. Friend mentions. I congratulate him on undertaking an extensive consultation with his rural constituents. He has pointed to one conclusion and I look forward to hearing more about his constituents' views when I see him shortly, as he has requested.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): Will the Minister confirm that his Department has received a letter from my constituent Sir John Cave, chairman of the Council of the Devon County Show? Will the Minister acknowledge the real importance of the return of livestock to the show next year, and will he ask his officials to let the organisers of county shows know before the end of January whether they will get the necessary permits?

Alun Michael: I am aware of the importance of the Devon county show, which is why I visited it this year. Despite the fact that livestock were absent, it gave a tremendous boost to communities in Devon to get together and it was a welcome event. We are aware of the importance of livestock to the Devon and other shows, but the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that we must be careful not to jump ahead of the veterinary risk assessments that are available to give certainty that might turn out to be uncertainty. However, we will bear the hon. Gentleman's point in mind and give the organisers of such shows the best information possible as soon as possible.

Jim Knight (South Dorset): Will the Minister join me in congratulating all those involved in the successful award this morning by UNESCO of world heritage status to the Dorset and east Devon coasts, which are the first in England to receive it? What support can his Department give us in co-ordinating across that rural area the essential services that we need to provide for the visitors whom we look forward to attracting to our world heritage site?

Alun Michael: I am delighted by that news and the fact that my hon. Friend has made the link between the

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environment, conservation and the quality of the landscape, and the ability to attract people to the area to help the local economy. We are helping with the provision of services in a range of ways. I commend to hon. Members on both sides of the House the document "England's Rural Future", which as I said yesterday has been made available to the Library and the Vote Office. It describes the extensive work that has been done in the past 12 months, as well as giving our detailed response to the rural taskforce and the Haskins report.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): The Prime Minister said on 20 September 1999 that

Why should anyone believe the Prime Minister when ever more rural shops are now going out of business and rural post office closures accelerating? In much of rural Britain, businesses are being forced into bankruptcy at a rate unprecedented since the war, and £700 million has been filched from county councils by a Government who fiddle the figures to favour their political friends.

Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman's question is as much a caricature as it is a predictable and boring way of trying to talk up problems in rural areas. I suggest that he reads the facts in "England's Rural Future". He would then see that the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister have been justified by the actions that the Government have taken over the past 12 months. Not least among those actions is the creation of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, a powerful Department that is able to work for rural communities. We are getting on with that work seriously, while Conservative Members merely mock.

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