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Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): I preface my remarks by drawing attention to the declaration under my name in the Register of Members' Interests and by stating that I am a paid-up member of the National Trust and the Country Landowners Association and a life member of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. Those are three of the seven national organisations that are campaigning to save Britain's smaller abattoirs. However, they are only the tip of the iceberg. In March this year, no less than 137 bodies and associations were co-signatories to a letter that was sent to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. That is a huge increase on the 12 national organisations that endorsed a letter that I wrote to Baroness Hayman last August.
Given that small abattoirs represent a tiny sector of a relatively small industry, that level of concern and support is unprecedented. It is about to be underscored by a public petition that is being organised by the Country Landowners Association, the Council for the Protection of Rural England, the National Federation of Meat and Food Traders, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Soil Association.
My constituent, Mr. Colin Kinmond, is one of those business men on behalf of whom the campaign is being waged. Mr. Kinmond is the proprietor of the Bishop's Castle Meat Company. When I visited him 10 days ago, he was beside himself with anger and frustration--not about the state of the trade or his ability to supply a product, as between a willing buyer and a willing seller, but about the oppression and interference that he experiences from the Meat Hygiene Service. He is not alone in that. Scores of other craftsmen running small abattoirs feel the same way: pilloried and persecuted by what is euphemistically called a service--and for which, ironically, they must pay--but is in fact an enforcement agency, which should, if there were any justice and consistency, be paid for out of public funds.
That brings me to the nub of the issue: the level of meat inspection charges. I am grateful to Mr. John Chadwick of the Small Abattoir Federation for supplying the following statistic. He calculates that, when 100 per cent. veterinary supervision is implemented next April, a low-volume abattoir will pay £44 per unit for inspection. That is 11 times the unit charge of £4.14 in a high-throughput abattoir. Those figures are entirely consistent with those that were given to me by the noble Lady in her letter of 21 September, in which she stated that the current hourly rates of official veterinary surgeons employed in abattoirs range from £25.01 to £106.18. I am sure that the Minister will appreciate that that is intolerable and unsustainable for small abattoirs paying the higher charges. The inevitable consequence will be an acceleration of closures as the April 2001 deadline approaches--unless something is done, such as scrapping the present charging regime in favour of a universally applied headage charge.
I shall avoid going over the same ground that I have covered in parliamentary debates, at Question Time and in countless meetings and frequent correspondence with Ministers, so as to be able to devote some time to another aspect of the matter. On 1 April this year, the
One of the most important things we can do is to move from a prescriptive approach to a risk-based approach in abattoirs.--[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 March 2000; Vol. 610, c. 797.] I trust that Health Ministers will endorse that sentiment, and I hope that they will also accept my invitation to reassess the risks and hazards associated with abattoirs in the context of all their other public health responsibilities.
None of the studies . . . took into account hospital acquired infections that develop after a patient leaves hospital . . . This suggests that the true extent of hospital acquired infection is higher than the prevalence or incidence studies suggest. Another paragraph is headed:
Some patients die each year as a result of hospital acquired infections. It goes on to say that
a crude comparison indicates that if US-- that is, United States of America--
rates were applicable in the United Kingdom, 5,000 deaths . . . might be primarily attributable to hospital acquired infection and in a further 15,000 cases . . . hospital acquired infection might be a substantial contributor.
Mr. Gill : Had time permitted, I should have discussed the Mead Webber abattoir in more detail. As the hon. Gentleman said, that case illustrates my point to a T. A new official veterinary surgeon imposed arbitrary conditions on the continuation of its licence, notwithstanding the fact that 16 predecessors in his office thought that it should continue in production.
I continue my theme of inspection. The Public Health Laboratory Service Board monitors food poisoning, but there is not an equivalent body for hospitals. One in 11 acute admissions to hospital ends up with some form of hospital infection, but there is no independent certification of hospital standards or of causes of death. With regard to communicable diseases, hospitals are the biggest single source of infection. Whichever way one examines the matter, it is hard to escape the conclusion that failings in terms of public health occur not so much in abattoirs as in other areas. To coin a phrase, Ministers and Departments are looking through the wrong end of the microscope.
The number of hon. Members who signed early-day motions 187 and 689 during this Parliament and early-day motion 845 during the previous Parliament shows that this issue is not party political and that it involves common sense and natural justice.
Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes): Before my hon. Friend ends his interesting speech--I congratulate him on his delivery--I draw his attention to the problems that face Henry Lang, a small craft boutique abattoir in Ashburton in my constituency. I have fought its cause for six months, but it has only just received a full licence. The bureaucracy, rules and regulations and limited throughput may drive it out of business during the coming months. The proof of the pudding lies with the quality of the abattoir--the goods that have been produced during the past 100 years show that my hon. Friend's comments on hospitals are spot on. I should rather have products from Mr. Lang's abattoir than from the local hospital.
Mr. Gill : I would be grateful to my hon. Friend if he would convey to his constituent my sincere sympathy. I am a fourth generation butcher--my family has produced meat for consumers in the west midlands for four generations. We operated before there was relevant
The Under-Secretary, who is obviously an astute politician--that is evidenced by her rapid rise to the Front Bench since her entry into Parliament in May 1997--has my assurance that the consensus on the Back Benches is that small abattoirs should be supported. However, I am sure that she recognises that, if the action that is needed to save small abattoirs is not taken urgently, the odium for that failure will inevitably attach itself to the Government, of whom she is a member.
When the Under-Secretary replies to the debate, I hope that she will give us four assurances. If she does so, the industry will be relieved and thankful. First, will she give an assurance that she will reassess the specific level of risk to human health posed by abattoirs, given her Department's overall responsibility for health matters? Secondly, will she take the initiative to move from the prescriptive method of meat inspection to one based on a realistic assessment of risk? Thirdly, will she champion the cause that meat inspection, like almost every public health protection measure, should be carried out at public expense? Fourthly--but much more urgently--we should put Britain on a similar footing to other European Union countries, by instituting a charging regime based on headage payments. I urge the Government to do that while there is still time to save the relatively few remaining rural abattoirs, which are central to the aspirations of people of all parties and none for the future well-being of the rural economy.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Yvette Cooper ): I congratulate the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) on securing a debate on such an important topic. I know that he takes a particular interest in the issue and that he has been involved with it for a long time. As his speech demonstrated, it is an area in which, as I readily acknowledge, he has expertise.
From the outset, I must emphasise the fact that the Government recognise the importance of small and specialist abattoirs to the rural economy. The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Ms Quin), made that clear in the House on 25 May, during Agriculture questions. The hon. Gentleman described some of the problems faced by the sector and referred to individual cases. I will respond to the points that he made and set out details of the action that we are taking in response to those concerns.
Hon. Members will be aware that food safety is the first priority of the Food Standards Agency, which is responsible for meat hygiene. The agency is, rightly, determined to ensure that fresh meat is produced as hygienically as possible and will not accept any lessening of public health safeguards, no matter what the size or location of the abattoir concerned. The current system of veterinary supervision and official meat inspection
We also understand the importance of local slaughtering facilities, especially those that service small rural communities. We want all animals to be slaughtered as near as possible to their farms of origin. If animals have to travel, welfare legislation provides a number of controls to protect them, including maximum journey times, vehicle standards and transporter competence. Those rules are rigorously enforced. In the meantime, current inspection rules will apply.
We acknowledge that there are difficulties that result from increased levels of veterinary supervision and the associated Meat Hygiene Service costs. We have, therefore, acted in a number of ways to help small and medium-sized abattoirs and the farmers who supply them, while we try to make progress on the key issue of changing the European position. As my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food announced last year, the Government continue to meet the cost of enforcing specified risk material controls and cattle passports. We will do so until 2002-03, at the earliest. Together, the two measures will save the industry £89 million, over three years.
Mr. Gill : I understand exactly what the hon. Lady is saying. We have heard it from Ministers so many times. Does she realise that it is no consolation to people who run abattoirs that the Government have not imposed a charge that might otherwise have been imposed? Such people already face cost burdens that they cannot sustain.
Yvette Cooper : I appreciate the concerns that the hon. Gentleman raises. We are making progress and I shall outline other measures that I think will prove helpful, but it is important to point out that this measure makes a difference. Although others might make a greater difference, it would be wrong to dismiss it out of hand.
Mr. Steen : The Minister is blaming the European Union for much of the cost, but does she agree that the real problem is the Government's interpretation of the EU directive? It is our fault that charges in British abattoirs are horrifically higher than in other European countries.
Yvette Cooper : I will come on to the Government's implementation of the EU directive and action taken by the European Commission, and I hope that that will address the point that the hon. Gentleman raises.
The Government also obtained and published advice from the European Commission stating that full-time supervision by a veterinarian of permanently derogated low-throughput abattoirs is not required during post mortem inspection, but is required during ante mortem inspection. The Food Standards Agency is considering how best to give full effect to the Commission's advice, so that there is maximum benefit to low-throughput plants while maintaining public health safeguards.
Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I am glad to hear that, because derogation is extremely important to low-throughput abattoirs. When will the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food make a formal policy statement on implementation?
The Meat Hygiene Service has frozen veterinary supervision in low-throughput plants at May 1999 levels while work is on-going. In addition, the Government have accepted, or are considering, 32 of 35 recommendations made by the meat industry red tape working group--the Pooley group--and are pressing on with implementation. The Food Standards Agency is taking forward the 29 recommendations that fall to it, and will consult widely on specific proposals as they emerge.
Mr. Gill : I am glad that the Minister has mentioned the Pooley report, and I am delighted that, by and large, the Government have accepted it. We realise that there are two or three recommendations on which the Government cannot proceed without European Union approval, but can the Minister confirm that shifting charges for British abattoirs on to a headage basis is within the Government's power, and requires no sanction from Brussels? Will she also promise today that she will institute immediately the change that is desperately needed to preserve our small abattoirs?
Yvette Cooper : The issue is being considered by the meat charges task force, which is due to report later this month, so I cannot give a specific answer at this stage. We are implementing most of the Pooley group's recommendations, including the radical overhaul of meat inspection. As I have said, the Food Standards Agency is pressing hard for the early introduction of a risk-based control system for fresh meat plants. In addition, the agency is supporting the Commission's initiative for a fundamental review of meat inspection procedures. Early discussions in Brussels have indicated almost unanimous member state support for a rapid review of those procedures. They are recognised to be outdated and it is accepted that they must be replaced by controls that are based on risk.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Does the hon. Lady accept that the way in which the veterinary inspection is carried out in this country is different from how it is done in other EU member states? British abattoirs undoubtedly have to meet an additional cost. Will she also confirm that the time scale for reform of the EU processes is likely to be elongated and that the changes may come too late for many of our smaller abattoirs?
Yvette Cooper : The European Commission is currently undertaking infraction proceedings against the British Government because of under-implementation by the previous Government. We must accept that and respond to it. Obviously, a timetable is involved and the process will take time, but we must recognise our legal position.
The Pooley group has considered many of the issues in detail and has made recommendations, which we are taking forward. We will continue to explore solutions to the problems faced by small and medium-sized abattoirs, as long as they allow the public health safeguards to be maintained. The Food Standards Agency has set up a task force, as was recommended by the Pooley group, to explore the issues associated with a capping approach to meat hygiene inspection charges for low-volume abattoirs.
Following the meeting of stakeholders in March, Colin MacLean, the former director general of the Meat and Livestock Commission, was appointed as chairman. The remaining members have an understanding of the wider meat industry and of the way in which it works, and collectively represent the interests of the industry as a whole. As I said, the task force is due to report back to the wider stakeholder group before submitting its report and recommendations to the Food Standards Agency.
Yvette Cooper : Questions about risk in this area are a matter for the Food Standards Agency. It is right for that independent agency to take that responsibility, not least for the sake of consumer confidence. The hon. Gentleman mentioned broader risks; indeed, there are risks that we should be working to reduce across the national health service. We are doing so and are undertaking a programme of action to address risks associated with hospital-acquired infection. For example, we introduced the Commission for Health Improvement to take further action on that matter. I do not think that many people would regard the fact that we need to take further action in one area as a reason to relax some public health safeguards in another. The hon. Gentleman's question about the assessment of risk must be addressed as part of making the changes that are necessary in Europe, which will be a matter for the Food Standards Agency.
The agency is also tackling the issue in another way. It has established a task force to study the burden of food regulation on small food businesses, in whose scope small abattoirs will be included. This is a major programme of Government support, especially for the small rural abattoir.
Mead Webber has been mentioned. I am unable to comment on the matter, not only because of lack of time but because it is the subject of an independent investigation by the Food Standards Agency. The outcome of its investigation will be published, in line with its principles of openness and transparency.
I have noted the hon. Gentleman's comments. We share his concern about the future of small abattoirs. They are important to the rural economy, which is why we have introduced a programme of support. In addition, we are pressing for changes in Europe and for implementation of the Pooley group recommendations. We are committed to putting the consumer first, as are the Food Standards Agency and the Meat Hygiene Service. The protection of public health in relation to food must be our priority.