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Lord Monro of Langholm: My Lords, I speak as a farmer who has not been near a farm for weeks. Whatever the trade agreements, why are the Government so reticent about preventing the import of beef from countries outside the European Union where foot and mouth disease is endemic? The Government have taken the right domestic steps in relation to foot and mouth disease, but farmers will not feel confident about the future until imports of beef or lamb from countries where foot and mouth disease is endemic are banned.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I understand that EU certification rules require freedom from foot and mouth disease in a country or region before meat from susceptible animals can be imported into the EU. Consignments of meat from third countries entering the EU are subject to checks at border inspection posts.
Baroness Byford: My Lords, have the Government considered imposing a temporary ban on meat coming from Germany until Germany adheres to the regulations? If not, will the Government consider doing so now?
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, no, we have taken up most vigorously with the EU and the German authorities the need for the German authorities to take the appropriate action. I have no reason to believe that that is not the appropriate way to proceed. We continue to be as vigilant as we possibly can be. If there are any further cases--I hope that there will be none--we shall take up those matters with the German authorities and the commissioner.
Lord Watson of Richmond: My Lords, in order to clarify the matter, can the Minister confirm or deny that products are still entering the United Kingdom from countries outside the EU in which foot and mouth disease is endemic?
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, "arbitration" in the sense of the Arbitration Act 1996 would invoke procedures which would be costly and time consuming for both operators and the Meat Hygiene Service. That is why the Government have approved the Food Standards Agency's proposal for a simpler and quicker procedure involving resolution of disputes by a nominated independent person.
The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. I am pleased that the new draft statutory instrument goes a long way towards providing that reconciliation method. Is the noble Lord able to give a categorical assurance that the informal arbitration system will be in place when the statutory instrument comes into force? Can he also state that the extra charges--they will be levied mainly on small abattoirs if there are problems--will not be raised for matters beyond the operator's control? I refer, for example, to diseases (which we have had recently), flooding, machinery breakdown, or even unforeseen illness among the staff.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the aim is to have the revised provisions in place by 2nd April 2001, and I would expect the new charges and the informal arbitration system to be in place also. That would seem right and consistent.
I stress that any increased costs to slaughterhouses would be a result of inefficient operation. The statutory instrument that will lay out the circumstances under which that might occur makes it clear that in the case of mechanical breakdown, for example, a charge might be levied if it was caused by lack of maintenance. The proposals are designed to deal with inefficiencies in the operation of a slaughterhouse rather than any external event.
Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, I welcome the action on the Maclean report that the Minister has outlined in the regulations, but are not the Government shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted? Small abattoirs are now clearly beneficial in containing the spread of disease and encouraging farmers' markets. Should not the Government be considering incentives for small abattoirs rather than simply a change of charges?
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the £20 million that it will cost to implement the Maclean Group's recommendations will be made available. That will benefit small and medium-sized abattoirs. I certainly accept that they have an important contribution to make to the rural economy. We need to find ways of encouraging their future development. However, acceptance of the Maclean Group's recommendations is an important part of that process.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the debate in your Lordships' House three weeks ago was very important and informed the Food Standards Agency and the Meat Hygiene Service of the strong opinions of many in the industry. A meeting was held with stakeholders only last week when the Meat Hygiene Service went through the proposals. If an operator disagrees with a decision of the Meat Hygiene Service to levy an additional charge, the operator may ask for the dispute to be determined within a month by an independent person. The FSA will nominate a panel of independent persons, having first consulted the industry on its nominations. The aim is to have the process in place at the same time as the new charge regime comes into operation.
Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, is the Minister aware that some slaughterhouses where animals licensed for slaughter are currently taken are charging between 15p and 17p per kilo for the meat that they slaughter? Many farmers regard that as excessive.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I was not aware of that. It is a matter of concern if farmers feel that the current very serious foot and mouth situation is causing them extra hardship because of higher charges levied by some people in the industry. On the substance of the issue, the new regime with its system of appeal will provide a stable way forward for the slaughterhouse industry. After the discussions between the Meat Hygiene Service and representatives of the industry last week, I am convinced that those in the industry are satisfied and believe that the proposals are fair.
The Countess of Mar: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the working of the new statutory instrument depends on agreement and the setting up of a template between the Meat Hygiene Service and the abattoir owners and managers? How long will the abattoir owners be allowed to develop the template and will they be given any assistance in doing so?
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, it is very important that the Meat Hygiene Service and the operators feel that we have a fair and non-bureaucratic system that will enable us to take forward the proposals as soon as possible. Those proposals include having an independent person to review decisions if an operator disagrees with an MHS decision. I cannot give the noble Countess a definite date by which the template that she refers to will be completed, but I assure her that we wish to do that as soon as possible.
Lord Renton: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and for the efforts that are being made to relieve the terrible poverty that has arisen in parts of the Caribbean through the inability to export bananas to the European Union. Will he impress on the United States, which is the most prosperous country in the world and whose co-operation is needed to achieve agreements, that if it does not agree, it will cause continued poverty and confusion in the Caribbean?
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