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House of Lords

Wednesday, 3rd November 1999.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Bradford.

Baroness Whitaker

Janet Alison Whitaker, having been created Baroness Whitaker, of Beeston in the County of Nottinghamshire, for life--Was, in her robes, introduced between the Baroness Blackstone and the Baroness Amos, and made the solemn Affirmation.

Lord Foster of Thames Bank

Sir Norman Robert Foster, Knight, OM, having been created Baron Foster of Thames Bank, of Reddish in the County of Greater Manchester, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Weidenfeld and the Lord Sainsbury of Turville.

Meat Hygiene Service: Contractors' Practices

2.49 p.m.

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether it is their policy to consider the employment policies of the companies to which they award contracts for the provision of veterinary services to the Meat Hygiene Service.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Hayman): Yes, my Lords. The Government expect all contractors fully to comply with the legal obligations placed on them as employers. In awarding contracts for the provision of veterinary services, the Meat Hygiene Service follows government best procurement practice and complies with all relevant statutory provisions.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. Is she aware that some anomalies seem to be creeping into the terms and conditions for the employment of official veterinary surgeons, particularly those from other European countries? I shall not tire the House with details, some of which have been reported in the press. Will the noble Baroness kindly agree to meet, with me, one or two of the veterinary surgeons concerned, so that we can be absolutely clear as to what is fact and what is fiction in an attempt to resolve these matters?

Baroness Hayman: Yes, my Lords. I am grateful for the way in which the noble Countess phrased her request. She was kind enough to alert me to her concerns, which, as she says, have been reported in the

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press. They are of such a serious nature that I asked Meat Hygiene Service auditors to visit one company yesterday and to hold extensive discussions with the directors and some of the staff involved. They were given full access to company records. Of course, if concerns remain or if individuals have concerns, I am happy to investigate those and to meet the noble Countess. I am also happy to facilitate her meeting with the Meat Hygiene Service or the companies concerned if that seems sensible.

Lord Luke: My Lords, Regulation 8(1) of the Fresh Meat (Hygiene and Inspection) Regulations 1995 states that an official veterinary surgeon can be appointed only by the Minister. If that is not the case, who is running the Meat Hygiene Service? Is it not time that the Government took a proper grip on the business aspects of all these contracts?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I made it clear in my initial Answer that the Government do take a proper grip on the business aspects of the contracts. The contract referred to was awarded in line with government best procurement practice. I can reassure the noble Lord that contract OVSs are designated by the Minister as official veterinary surgeons, and hold warrants of authorisation issued by the Minister appointing them to act as authorised officers of the Minister in licensed premises. Whether on a contract or directly employed, an OVS must operate according to the operations manual of the Meat Hygiene Service.

Lord Willoughby de Broke: My Lords, why do the Government or the Meat Hygiene Service feel it necessary to employ fully qualified veterinary surgeons for meat inspection tasks, when none of our European Union competitors does the same and there are derogations under the relevant directive to allow a lower-cost inspection regime?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I query the correctness of the noble Lord's comment. Other European countries have exactly the same problems in providing appropriate levels of veterinary supervision. I understand that the Dutch are recruiting extensively in Germany, as the noble Lord is well aware because of his keen interest in these areas. We have looked carefully at whether veterinary surgeons have to be employed to carry out supervision, and the advice we have received is that they do.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, when considering these employment matters will the Government bear in mind the national interest in having the widest possible range of small and local abattoirs?

Baroness Hayman: Yes, my Lords. We have listened to the concerns of the industry about the future of small abattoirs which often provide an important service to local communities and, for example, to organic farming. My right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture announced in September a series of measures to help the industry, including

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clarification from the EU that low-throughput slaughterhouses would not be required to have full-time supervision by a veterinary surgeon during post-mortem inspections.

Viscount Thurso: My Lords, the noble Baroness referred to "best procurement practice". Can she assure the House that that does not simply mean "cheapest" but "best value", which should include those who are properly fitted for the task, including knowledge of the language and even culture?

Baroness Hayman: Yes, my Lords. This issue has been raised particularly in the context of overseas veterinary surgeons. We have taken steps to ensure that they have adequate training and a grasp of the English language in order to be able to carry out their duties. The Meat Hygiene Service is also undertaking a programme of continued professional development to ensure that the people who are employed are able to fulfil those tasks.

European Union Institutions: Budgets

2.55 p.m.

Lord Bruce of Donington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    When and under what circumstances a "gentleman's agreement" was reached between the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament by virtue of which the Council does not present the draft budget relating to the expenditure of the latter, and whether Her Majesty's then government agreed or did not oppose this arrangement.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Council of Ministers agreed to a declaration on 22nd April 1970 that committed it not to modify the administrative budget for the European Parliament during the annual budgetary process in so far as it did not infringe Community legislation. This agreement was made before United Kingdom accession to the European Economic Community.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for that reply, in which he disclaimed any responsibility on the part of Her Majesty's Government and their immediate predecessors for this arrangement. Is my noble friend aware that guarantees between two institutions within the Community run oddly with the Community's manifest desire to distribute cascades of written documents and agreements among everybody else? Is it not a little odd that in a specific segment of the Community's affairs it should not issue documents that can be checked in the normal way rather than have understandings with one each other? Is my noble

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friend aware that this operates not only between the Council and the European Parliament but between the Commission and the European Parliament whereby, in return for treating the Commission's staff requirements somewhat indulgently for next year, the Commission for its part has agreed not to examine too closely the expenses and salaries of Members of the European Parliament and the expenditure on buildings, which more recently has been without any legal authority whatever? Can my noble friend give an assurance that Her Majesty's Government will now treat these matters very seriously and follow the edict of our own National Audit Board in reviewing the accounts; namely, that all fiddles ultimately lead to fraud?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, it was my noble friend who used the phrase "gentleman's agreement". I made reference to a declaration, and there is nothing secret about that. My noble friend is quite right that all of the five administrative budgets within the European Union are non-compulsory and are under the control of the Government, which is why the various institutions of the Union have made these agreements. My noble friend is the most conspicuous and devoted consumer of these cascades of paper, not only in this House but probably anywhere in Europe. There must be control over the expenditure of the European Parliament and European institutions as a whole, and the Prime Minister has supported root and branch investigation of expenditure, particularly mismanagement and fraud. We have every confidence in Neil Kinnock as Vice-President for Administration Reform who is responsible for this work.

Lord Saatchi: My Lords, as this gentleman's agreement, or whatever it is called, was entered into almost 30 years ago before the UK joined the EEC, is it not time for the Government to call for a review of the procedure? Has that not become urgent in the light of the Minister's Written Answer of 22nd July in which he disclosed that the European Parliament cost the UK double the cost of your Lordships' House and yet sat for only one third the number of days? In the light of the astonishing changes in the EU over the past 30 years, is it not now time for an open, transparent and accountable system so that the European Parliament is able to scrutinise the spending of the Council of Ministers, and vice versa?

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