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Lord Stoddart of Swindon: Oh!

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, indeed. The Minister is defending a situation caused by incompetence and a lack of appreciation of the real situation.

I was delighted by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon. He put forward a massive case for the local authorities. He also showed a degree of self-restraint which is unusual in him. I did not hear him once mention the European Union, which shows the depth of his feeling for the case he put forward. I was pleased when the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, the only real expert on veterinary affairs we have in the House, said that local authority procedure and practice in Scotland was most satisfactory. We have found it to be so. The Government should have looked, as the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, said, at the simple matter of standardising local authority procedures and ensuring that they were carried out. That would have been very much simpler than setting up the new MHS. I am not sure what MHS stands for but we all know that it is a centralised body which is approved of in principle by a large number of people. However, that approval is heavily qualified by the practice once they find it being put into operation.

The Minister must listen to the detailed allegations made by my noble friend and others about the enormous increase in costs to many bodies throughout the country. The local authorities have a vested interest in ensuring that employment continues in their areas. There are far too few useful slaughterhouses and as regards many in Scotland the travelling distance is expensive and is bad for sick animals which must be slaughtered. The Minister must listen to all that has been said and try to do something about the matter. I suppose that it is too late to stop the process but the Minister could do a great deal to cut the bureaucratic costs.

It is difficult to say anything new in the debate because almost everything has been said. The administrator, whose references were found to be all at

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sea and so forth, has now resigned. That is a measure of the incompetence shown in setting up the body. The fact is that again the Government have made a complete mess. We can advise only that they listen to what has been said and instead of producing the standard brief and reply stating that all is well, that the body is approved and that this is only a small teething problem, they admit that that is not so and that the concept has been wrongly applied.

I do not wish to sit down without saying something nice about the regulations. I ploughed through the 50 pages of each regulation. There are marvellous descriptions of the evisceration of rabbits and so forth but there are some good points which are the exemptions. The exemption relating to premises where fresh meat is cut up, stored or rewrapped for sale from those premises to the final consumer is a piece of common sense which I am glad to see.

There are in my area a number of people who raise turkeys and sell them directly to their customers at Christmas time. Their premises are inspected by some sensible vets and health inspectors. One such person visited a couple I know who raise many turkeys. He looked round the premises and tut-tutted. He was most polite about the matter but said that he did not think a great deal of the process and the premises. However, when he left he ordered a Christmas turkey for himself and his brother-in-law. That is an attitude of which the Government would do well to take note in dealing with local authorities and sensible people in Scotland.

The other good point about the regulations is that the Minister accepts responsibility. Therefore, we cannot ask him questions and be told, as I have been told so often, that the noble Lord should write to the body concerned because it has nothing to do with the Minister. The Minister has accepted responsibility for the quango and the great deal of trouble that will cause him.

5.30 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Howe): My Lords, we have had a wide-ranging and at times somewhat impassioned discussion. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, for giving us the opportunity to discuss these regulations and the new Meat Hygiene Service. Your Lordships considered the MHS on 13th October last year, again on the initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Carter. On that occasion, my noble friend Lord Ferrers outlined the Government's intention that the MHS would operate to strict standards and would be a better use of resources than the previous local authority system of enforcement. I am glad to be able to update your Lordships on the progress which has been made since last October and I hope to set the record straight on some of the misleading claims and allegations which have been made about the MHS, some of which have been repeated today.

First, perhaps I may say a little about the two regulations which are the subject of the Motion tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Carter. Apart from the transfer of responsibility from local authorities to the MHS, both regulations are very similar to their predecessors. The

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fresh meat regulations do, however, make some changes designed to reduce the burden on industry. These changes result from a review carried out in accordance with the deregulation initiative. I know that the House will welcome action aimed at the removal of unnecessary burdens.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, I apologise for interrupting my noble friend. How can he possibly say that increasing the charge from £50,000 per year to £75,000 per year is reducing a burden on industry? If that is a reduction in the burden, I am in the Majlis in Tehran.

Earl Howe: My Lords, my noble friend has already had the opportunity of speaking in the gap. I am sure that he will appreciate that the rules of the House are such that his time for speaking has passed. I shall address his anxieties in the remarks that follow. I have barely begun my speech and I am sure that my noble friend will allow me to continue as I have a great deal to say.

There are those who argue that controls over fresh meat are over-prescriptive and unduly onerous compared to other sectors of the food industry. That premise underlies the position adopted by my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke. The Government fully recognise that there is a need to review the inspection arrangements to ensure that they are correctly focused on present-day problems. We have commissioned research work in this area and are working closely with our European partners, the European Commission and other interested third countries. But we are not prepared—even if it were legally possible, which it is not—to sweep away the long-standing internationally accepted inspection requirements until the necessary groundwork has been done to replace them with alternative systems which provide equivalent protection for the consumer.

A number of organisms—such as E coli 0157:H7, some salmonella serotypes and listeria monocytogenes—have been implicated in food poisoning incidents associated with the consumption of meat and meat products. Some commentators argue that meat is a low-risk product because it is normally cooked before consumption and that therefore there is no need to be concerned about contamination with organisms of this kind. The Government do not accept this argument for one second. While it is true that thorough cooking will destroy most, if not all, pathogenic micro-organisms, the hazards associated with cross-contamination in the distribution chain or in the kitchen remain a matter of concern. While no one expects an abattoir to resemble an operating theatre, sensible steps must be taken at all stages of production to limit the risk of contamination. The most appropriate point to address the problem of contamination with pathogenic organisms is the slaughterhall. That is what these regulations are designed to do.

Many abattoirs in this country are well managed and produce meat which is of a good hygienic standard. Unfortunately, and I will not go into detail, this is not true of all of them. The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart,

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praised the role of local authorities. The variability of the standards applied by the 300 or so local authorities previously responsible for this work has led to inconsistencies which the MHS will be required to sort out so that consumers of British meat in this country and in our growing export markets can be fully confident about their purchases. I was grateful to my noble friend Lord Soulsby for the remarks which he made in that connection.

The export market is important. Our meat exports last year were worth almost £1 billion and that has a very real impact on our livestock farmers. Internationally, trading countries rely on national authorities in the exporting country to provide assurances about the health status of their production. It is no exaggeration to say that we in the UK would not accept imports of meat from a country whose enforcement arrangements do not provide proper accountability from the enforcement officer in the plant to the national veterinary authorities. In order to provide that level of accountability while enforcement remained with local authorities, we had to make special arrangements which were cumbersome and expensive. Those arrangements will no longer be necessary with the MHS.

The MHS will build on the work done by MAFF's State Veterinary Service over the past year or two to develop a risk-based approach to enforcement, focusing on the real hygiene risks. We have introduced, in consultation with the industry, a hygiene assessment system which is used to monitor standards of operation and to identify, in discussion with the operator, the areas where improvements are needed. Last month we published the first results from this system in red meat slaughterhouses. One of the MHS's key performance targets for 1995-96 relates to achieving improvements in premises where that system has identified shortcomings, and we will expect the MHS to increase its enforcement effort at plants which score poorly. Conversely, of course, where plants are managed to a high standard, the MHS should be able to reduce its input. This flexible, risk-based approach should enable the MHS, working in partnership with the industry, to bring about a real improvement where that is needed, and to minimise the burden of enforcement in plants where the management maintains high standards.

There are a good many misconceptions about the MHS. We have heard some of them repeated this afternoon. The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, called it a secretive bureaucracy. He is totally wrong. Perhaps I may begin by explaining how the MHS will operate. It will be answerable to agriculture Ministers who will be advised by an ownership board which will include independent members, one of whom is Mr. John Barratt. Mr. Barratt has wide experience of the meat industry and I am sure he will be able to provide a useful view on the management and operation of the MHS. The chief executive will consult closely with all sectors of the meat industry through the Industry Forum, which includes all the representative organisations including the NFU, the FUW and the QMLA. The MHS is sending all premises operators a customer service statement, together with a document which explains its appeals and

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complaints procedures. I believe that those procedures are valuable. But Ministers will be keeping a close eye on this aspect of its operation.

The MHS plant staff will be operating in accordance with its operations manual, which will be available to plant operators. That is not a document which the MHS has drafted. The agriculture departments, as custodians of the legislation and the policy in relation to the work which the MHS carries out, will remain responsible for its contents. MAFF has undertaken to review the manual in consultation with the industry and professional organisations in the autumn to ensure that it fulfils its objective of achieving high and uniform standards of enforcement, without imposing unnecessary burdens.

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