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Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I can certainly reassure my noble friend that the Government are doing all that they can to raise the issue internationally. Noble Lords will know that 108 countries have now effectively abolished capital punishment and only 87 now retain it. As regards the United States, we have joined our EU partners on a number of recent demarches in relation to specific cases at state and federal level. We are particularly concerned about executions of those under the age of 18 at the time of the offence, executions of those who are mentally incapable and executions of foreign nationals. It is a matter which we are pursuing with great vigour with all our partners and with some success.

The Lord Bishop of Wakefield: My Lords, is the Minister aware of the consistent support which the majority of church leaders in this country have given to the Government's policy for the worldwide abolition of the death penalty? Does she share the concern of these Benches about the alliance of politics and religion which, in the southern part of

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the United States of America, so grotesquely perpetuates the use of the death penalty? In the light of the Government's earlier representations made to the US State Department in March 1999 and the ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, will she say what other ways the Government have in mind to exert pressure on that religious and political alliance?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, first, perhaps I may say how grateful Her Majesty's Government are for the wholehearted support we have received from our Churches here. That has been extremely welcome. They have been a supportive element as opposed to a distraction. That is a benefit which not all legislators have enjoyed. I warmly thank the right reverend Prelate for raising that point.

We have done a great deal in the past two years to address the issue. Many noble Lords will know about the death penalty panel which brings together a number of academics. Regrettably, the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, is not in her place because she has participated in that work. The panel is looking very creatively at making recommendations to assist the Government to see how they can most advantageously exert pressure and encourage countries to come away from the use of the death penalty. We are extremely grateful for all the work that has been undertaken by that panel.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, now that our relationship with Iran has improved considerably and the Iranian elections have produced a Majlis far more inclined towards human rights, will the Minister and her colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office make fresh representations to the Iranian Government that they should not execute the three students convicted of offences in connection with the student disorders at the university last July?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that we shall continue to raise human rights issues with Iran. Issues relating to human rights and the death penalty cause us a great deal of concern. We shall continue to pursue them wherever they arise.

The Earl of Northesk: My Lords, is the Minister aware that last year executions in the United States reached a 48-year high, rising by nearly 50 per cent from the previous year? Are the Government entirely satisfied with that state of affairs, bearing in mind that according to a Written Answer of 16th April last year,

    "The Foreign Secretary's Death Penalty Panel"--

to which the Minister referred--

    "has ... targeted the United States for action, and we are constantly reviewing the best way to tackle the US authorities over the death penalty"?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I have said already that the matter causes us concern.

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Considerable effort is going into the initiative. The noble Earl will know that it has been in existence since 1998. We have welcomed some recent improvements. For example, there is a moratorium in Illinois which highlights the practical problems associated with capital punishment. We welcome also the increased debate in the United States. Public awareness of the issues will be central to any change in policy. We are engaging in those matters. I do not hesitate to compliment the panel again because its work is incredibly valuable. We are taking its recommendations extremely seriously.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, since the abolitionist resolution before the third committee was sabotaged last year, will we be seeking other methods of bringing the matter before the General Assembly?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, as I said earlier, we shall be engaging with our partners to try to ensure greater success than we have had in the past. We are extremely proud that, on the last occasion, the number of countries which joined with us in that endeavour rose significantly. We wish to pursue it and we shall continue to do so with great vigour.

Meat Industry Red Tape Working Group: Report

2.52 p.m.

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Further to their response to the report of the Meat Industry Red Tape Working Group, how they propose to prevent widespread closure of small and medium-sized abattoirs and cutting plants and give confidence to their owners and to the wider farming community.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, the Government recognise the difficulties of small and medium-sized abattoirs. The Red Tape Working Group, which we established, proposed a radical agenda to assist and give confidence to those sectors of the industry as well as to the wider farming community. The Government have accepted the vast majority of the group's recommendations and are now pursuing their implementation.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does she appreciate that the one point absolutely crucial to the survival of small and medium-sized abattoirs--that relating to charges--is one of the three points which the Government did not accept? Will she please make it absolutely clear to her right honourable friend that most of the small abattoirs questioned--I believe 26 out of 28--said that they would probably have to close within the next 12 months if charges were

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maintained and that that will have a devastating effect on the farming community both up and down the food chain? Will she bear in mind in particular the Prime Minister's exhortation to diversify which he made to farmers when he was in the West Country? This situation will crucify that policy.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I accept the noble Countess's point that it is important that we have a range of facilities and that small and medium-sized abattoirs can be extremely important for particular sectors and specialist sectors, which we want to encourage and where marketing is extremely important.

With regard to charging, we have taken action to help the whole of the sector; for example, by freezing the hourly rate of MHS charges at April 1999 levels and promising that they will not be raised by more than the rate of inflation this year; and by deferring the introduction of charges for cattle passports and for specified risk material enforcement until 2002. The further issue about the basis for charging (particularly around headage which, I believe, is the issue to which the noble Countess was referring) has been put forward to a task force which I understand will be meeting next week.

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I declare an interest as a breeder of rare breed pigs. Apart from the general thesis of the noble Countess, with which I wholly agree, will the Minister accept that, in spite of the measures she has detailed, small and medium-sized abattoirs are rapidly closing all over the country, which will have a dramatic effect on the future survival of rare breeds? That is something which I am sure the Minister would deplore. Does she accept that the matter is urgent and that the Government badly need to do something about it if we are to preserve such remarkable leftovers?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I recognise the issue raised by the noble Viscount in respect of rare breeds. As I said in my earlier answer, there are specialist areas for which such abattoirs are of great importance. Over time, there has been a substantial reduction in the number of red meat slaughterhouses. We must recognise that. I was surprised to see that red meat slaughterhouses in this country declined in number from 1,385 in 1975 to 339 last year. Over the past 25 years, there has been an inexorable reduction.

One of the most important things we can do is to move from a prescriptive approach to a risk-based approach in abattoirs. That is one of the issues that my right honourable friend is pressing with Commissioner Byrne in Brussels today.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, one of the recommendations of the Red Tape Working Group was that a derogation for the smallest abattoirs should urgently be considered. When I raised the matter several months ago with the then Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, he

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said that the Government were looking into it. Will the Minister tell the House what progress has been made with regard to looking for a derogation for the smallest slaughterhouses? Furthermore, does the ministry accept, in the light of its sustainable agriculture launch, which considers a number of indicators--economic, social and environmental--that the number of slaughterhouses serving the industry should be one of the indicators?

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