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Points of Order

3.31 pm

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Hon. Friends and I have been tabling questions in recent weeks about the cost of sending British NHS patients for treatment in Germany and France. Over the past few days, we have received answers to those written questions, refusing us any information about the cost of that treatment on the spurious grounds of commercial confidentiality. The answers to further questions as to what constitutes commercial confidentiality are, apparently, confidential. Surely it is legitimate to seek details of whether taxpayers' money is being spent effectively, not only on those NHS escapees going to the continent, but for the 1 million-plus patients who remain on waiting lists at home. Could you give us your guidance on how we can get that information about taxpayers' money into the public domain?

Mr. Speaker: I am not responsible for ministerial answers.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You may have seen in The Times today an article on the second page reporting that yesterday the Government organised what the paper calls a pre-emptive strike to discourage discussion of a proposal by a think-tank close to the Government to raise the basic retirement age to 67. You will have noticed that on the Order Paper yesterday there was a question specifically on that subject from the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), which was withdrawn. Could you make inquiries as to whether any improper pressure was put on the hon. Gentleman to withdraw that question; could you rebuke anyone, from the Whips Office or otherwise, who did that; and could you offer counselling and support to Labour Members who feel inclined to give in to pressure from the Whips to remove embarrassing questions from the Order Paper?

Mr. Speaker: I do not think that a proper point of order.

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Animal Welfare (Journey to Slaughter)

3.33 pm

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): I beg to move,

The Isle of Wight, the constituency that I am proud to represent, was fortunately free of foot and mouth during the last outbreak, although on 19 February last year the first of two contacts was identified on the island. Fortunately, we were given the all-clear, but why should contacts be identified as far apart as Northumberland and the Isle of Wight? Both cases had been dealt with at an abattoir in Little Warley in Essex.

That is just the problem. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) said:

Why must animals travel such long distances to slaughter? The answer is, first, because of the closure of many small abattoirs, and secondly, because many supermarkets demand that animals be slaughtered at slaughterhouses of their choice and not those nearest the farms.

The hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) introduced a ten-minute Bill in November with the objectives of limiting journey times, promoting local slaughterhouses and limiting the frequency of animals' journeys to markets. The Government had the opportunity to take up his proposals in both the Animal Health Bill and the document "England's rural future". Regrettably, neither of them mentioned the hon. Gentleman's proposals; hence my Bill, which takes a slightly different approach by considering why animals have to travel so far.

A wide range of organisations, from Compassion in World Farming and the Soil Association to the Meat and Livestock Commission and the Countryside Alliance, recognise that small slaughterhouses have closed at an unprecedented rate and that supermarkets' dealings with farmers frequently require animals to be slaughtered far away from the farm. The result is, of course, considerable additional stress to the animals caused by long journeys, overcrowding, inadequate rest periods, lairage and drinking facilities, and by repeated loading and unloading.

The indefatigable countryside campaigner Mr. Robin Page pointed out in 1999 that there were 1,000-plus slaughterhouses in Britain in 1980, with 44 having the capacity to kill more than 50,000 beasts a year; in 1999, however, thanks to the European Union fresh meat directive, there were only 416 slaughterhouses, with 78 killing more than 50,000 beasts a year. Mr. Page went on to say:

I want to stop that stress.

Compassion in World Farming reports that we are down to about 300 abattoirs. As Mr. Page said, EU meat hygiene legislation has driven up costs to a point beyond

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the reach of many small slaughterhouses. The increased costs have arisen both because EU legislation has stepped up its requirements on veterinary supervision and because the EU has imposed a range of additional structural requirements on slaughterhouses.

A number of steps need to be taken if a network of local slaughterhouses is to be re-established. The Government and the abattoir sector need to make a concerted attempt to prevent the closure of more local abattoirs and to secure the reopening of those that have closed. The Government should give careful examination to the ways in which we can give financial assistance to that development and encourage investment in small local abattoirs. They must negotiate with our EU competitors to secure a revision of EU meat hygiene legislation. Such revision must provide a more sensible balance between the need to achieve good hygiene standards and securing economic viability for small local abattoirs.

Farmers and others who sell for slaughter should be encouraged to use an abattoir that is reasonably nearby rather then sending animals to a distant slaughterhouse. Those supermarkets that source their meat only from a few large abattoirs must be persuaded to alter that policy. They should be willing to source their meat from local abattoirs up and down the country, especially if it is for local consumption. Indeed, there would be little point in creating new local abattoirs if supermarkets refused to use them. Supermarkets want to be regarded as a responsible part of the food chain, so they should be prepared to facilitate a return to local slaughter, which will bring benefits in terms both of animal welfare and of disease control.

I am pleased to say that the agricultural sector on the Isle of Wight is working towards the creation of its own local abattoir, which would prevent a two to three-hour journey by road, ferry and road again to mainland abattoirs such as that situated at Frome. I compliment the agricultural community on the island on its work, and especially the Isle of Wight county branch of the National Farmers Union, the Isle of Wight Partnership and the South East England Development Agency, which have all contributed to the plans. I also thank Lord Whitty for the interest that he has shown in those plans.

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Let us think how much easier it would be if the Government were fully behind shorter journeys from farm to table. The objectives of my Bill are to require the Government specifically to compare the stress of additional distance of transport with that of abattoirs, while reducing burdensome regulation; to adopt EU standard veterinary qualifications for those who inspect abattoirs—such qualifications are already acceptable, but we have to make them available for those who train in the United Kingdom; to assist in the recreation of small abattoirs, perhaps paid for by a standard headage payment across all slaughterhouses, instead of the bulk purchase scheme that exists at the moment and unfairly benefits large slaughterhouses; and to ban unreasonable trade practices in supermarkets.

The Bill is an important animal welfare measure. Personally, I consider it a more important such measure than others that may come before the House in future weeks and months. The fact is that far more animals suffer every day from long-distance journeys to slaughterhouses and markets than will ever suffer from foxhunting, but I do not wish to make a partisan point on that subject. This is such an important animal welfare measure that I believe that it deserves the support of all parts of the House.

I commend the Bill and I hope for the support of the House in introducing it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Andrew Turner, Mr. Richard Bacon, Mrs. Helen Clark, Mr. Jonathan Djanogly, Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson, Mr. Peter Duncan, Mr. Adrian Flook, Jane Griffiths, Lady Hermon and Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger.

Animal Welfare (Journey to Slaughter)

Mr. Andrew Turner accordingly presented a Bill to require the Secretary of State, in setting standards for slaughterhouses, to have regard to the desirability of reducing the length and duration of animals' journeys to slaughter, and for related purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 10 May, and to be printed [Bill 108].

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