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Lord Carter: My Lords, the Minister has explained the regulations extremely clearly and we understand they are being laid because of the delay that he mentioned. We regard the proposals as entirely welcome and from this side of the House we support them.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, from the Scots point of view, we too support the payment of grants to assist in the improvement of the habitat. We would much rather have seen the Government restore the payments to hill farmers, which they cut and which were introduced some time ago, but obviously the measure is a sensible move.

I cannot agree that 40 per cent. is a generous subsidy for fencing. Normally one likes to pitch the grant at a rate which will pay for materials so that the remaining 50 per cent. will pay for the farmer's labour in putting up the fencing. However, it is better than nothing. The general level of the scheme is right and proper so we shall not contradict the Minister.

The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, I am grateful for the support of the noble Lords, Lord Carter and Lord Mackie, for this important instrument. Behind the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, about the generosity or otherwise of the 40 per cent. grant, I sense that anything less than 100 per cent. would be seen by him as ungenerous. Nevertheless, I hope that the 40 per cent. grant will be quite significant for those who take up the offer. The instrument will allow the Scottish and Welsh agriculture departments to pay such grants under the Farm and Conservation Grant Scheme for fencing of land to farmers who have entered into the appropriate habitats options in the Scottish and Welsh habitats schemes. I commend the instrument.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Poultry Meat, Farmed Game Bird Meat and Rabbit Meat (Hygiene and Inspection) Regulations 1995

4.25 p.m.

Lord Carter rose to move, That a humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the regulations be annulled.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving this Prayer I shall speak also to the second Motion in my name on the Order Paper which deals with the Fresh Meat (Hygiene and Inspection) Regulations. I believe that the Motion on the same subject in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, will also be discussed, so that we shall have a single debate on all three Motions.

As we are dealing with regulations laid under the negative procedure I have put down the Prayers to annul the regulations in the usual way to ensure that we secure a debate on these important regulations. The two Motions in my name and that in the name of the noble

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Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, approach the situation from a different angle, but they all illustrate the anxiety that now exists regarding the operation of the new Meat Hygiene Service (MHS) which came into being on 1st April.

This is the first chance the House has had for a proper debate on the regulations, although we touched on the subject in the debates on the deregulation Bill last autumn when I moved and withdrew certain amendments so that discussion could take place at that time. It would be helpful if, when he replies to the debate, the Minister could confirm that the situation is now, as was forecast in October last year, that three agencies will effectively be concerned with different aspects of meat hygiene and food safety: the State Veterinary Service, the new Meat Hygiene Service and, with their continuing responsibilities for food safety, the local authorities. So much for deregulation and reducing bureaucracy.

The major concern, now that the MHS has started to operate, concerns the level of its charges. The Government have had to acknowledge that concern by the temporary reductions in charges that have recently been announced, operating for the first year. I am sure that the Minister will reply concerning these charges at the end of the debate.

I have received briefing—as I am sure other noble Lords have—from the National Farmers' Union, the Poultry Meat Federation, the Federation of Fresh Meat Wholesalers, the National Federation of Meat and Food Traders and the British Meat Manufacturers Association. To be fair, a number of them support the principle of the MHS, but all refer to their anxiety about the excessive charges being levied.

I have also heard from 10 abattoir owners, all comparatively small operators, who are extremely worried about the extra costs which they now face. They include an abattoir at Widnes which has increased costs of £25,000 a year; an abattoir in Anglesey where the overheads have been increased from 52p per tonne to £3.30 per tonne; a slaughterhouse in Wrexham, where the annual costs have increased from £22,745 to £54,600; and the Manchester wholesale meat and poultry market where there has been a 40 per cent. increase on an annual cost of £262,245. These are all small businesses which have spent large sums of money in recent years upgrading their premises to meet the requirements and standards of the European Commission. All now face what they regard as excessive increases in charges as a result of the introduction of the Meat Hygiene Service.

It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us how much of all that is due to directives from the European Commission and how much to the long-standing ambition of MAFF and the veterinary profession to get meat hygiene under centralised veterinary control. That is an ambition which, in the case of the veterinary profession, goes back over 70 years. I do not in the least disagree with the objectives, but it is important that in this debate we tease out how much of the new arrangement is due to the requirements from the

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European Commission and how much to the long-standing ambition of MAFF to get meat hygiene under its centralised control.

The regulations were tabled on 9th March and they were extremely long and complicated regulations for a new organisation to start on 1st April. It did not give much time for discussion. At the time, the department's press release said that the new rules would implement the European Community directive on the welfare of animals during slaughter and killing, while at the same time maintaining the key welfare safeguards from our existing domestic legislation. It is important that we understand where responsibility lies, and perhaps we could be told how much is a direct result of directives from the European Commission and how much is due to the enthusiasm of the department.

There has been a substantial increase in the estimated running cost of the new organisation. On 9th March a press release from the department, when the regulations were laid, referred to a cost of £40.3 million, but a parliamentary reply on 14th March, only five days later, referred to a figure of £53.4 million for the first year of operation. It would be helpful if the Minister could explain the discrepancy between these two figures. As I understand it, the taxpayers' support is £15.4 million, plus the set-up costs of £5.2 million. That is a cost to the taxpayer in the order of £20 million, plus a start-up cost of £626,000 that was spent on the project team for setting up the new organisation.

I understand also that almost the first thing that the MHS did was to supply corporate ties to the 947 employees. Of course, we know that no self-respecting quango nowadays is complete without a corporate tie and a classy coat of arms. Considering all that has taken place, I wondered whether the College of Heralds would accept a coat of arms for the MHS consisting perhaps of a bureaucrat rampant over an abattoir owner couchant on a field stained red with taxpayers' and farmers' blood. I also wondered whether the corporate ties were in the same post as the 15 pairs of wellingtons that were supplied to each meat inspector.

I understand that the Government are now recommending a maximum charge of £35 per hour for official veterinary surgeons engaged in MHS work. However, a survey by the British Veterinary Association in April 1993, which covered something like 400 official veterinary surgeons working in 600 slaughterhouses in 200 local authority areas, showed an average hourly rate of £25.70, so why the increase of nearly 50 per cent. in the past two years? I understand that a survey by the BVA taken in March 1995 confirms the considerable dissatisfaction that is felt over the handling of the transfer from the local authority system to the new arrangements.

It would be interesting to know how the competitive position of our farmers and our meat industry and the costs they will have to bear compare with the situation in other member states. For example, I understand that the veterinary charges in slaughterhouses in France and Southern Ireland are paid for out of government funds. Would it be possible for the Minister to tell the House how many European Union states have the equivalent

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of a meat hygiene service, with all the costs falling on the farmer and the abattoir owner and during the setting-up period a proportion falling on the taxpayer?

I referred earlier to the understandable ambitions of the veterinary profession for something like 70 years to see an increased role for the veterinary surgeon in meat hygiene. Unfortunately, The Veterinary Record of 4th March 1995 does not show much enthusiasm for what has happened in the run-up period of the new organisation. It says:

    "Next month will see the start in Great Britain of the national Meat Hygiene Service. It would be good to be able to report that things have progressed well and that all is set fair for a smooth transfer of responsibility for administering meat hygiene from local authorities to the new meat hygiene agency. Sadly, that is not the case. Despite vigorous campaigning by the BVA, events over the past year tell a sorry tale of delays, poor communication and missed opportunities on the part of MAFF and the fledgling MHS. As a result, the aim of ensuring adequate veterinary supervision of meat hygiene—so central to the safe operation of meat plants and, indeed, the principle on which the service was based—might not be realised".

With a further reference to the bureaucracy which is now involved, there was a report in the Farmers Weekly on 7th April, only last week, referring to the last-minute avalanche of paperwork that had confirmed the worst fears of the slaughterhouse owners. I quote:

    "Before we can begin work in the morning there must be a pre-operation inspection, and three forms to fill in, and a further 27 must be made during the day. Abattoirs are going to be forced to employ an extra person just to fill out the paperwork".

Also, it would be helpful if the Minister could tell us what is the position regarding the number of veterinary surgeons required in order that the MHS can operate properly. Estimates in 1992 suggested there should be some 300 vets, both full-time and part-time, to provide a proper service. I believe that the figure now is 167, but the costs have increased from £32 million when local authorities were providing a similar service to £54 million now. Surely the increase cannot all be accounted for by the corporate ties and wellington boots. It certainly is not on veterinary surgeons. Perhaps the Minister could tell us how many vets will now be engaged in the MHS work.

One also wonders just how close this new MHS is to what actually happens in slaughterhouses. A letter from the MHS in Cardiff requires 14 days' written notice from the operator where there is a change in the plant requirements for inspection. During this 14 days, it is clear from the MHS—it is stated in terms—that the operator is liable for all MHS charges, even if the throughput has gone down. So a slaughterhouse owner who is tied to the market has to absorb the losses inherent in market fluctuations, but the MHS has carefully insulated itself from those pressures. The original publicity material at the time of the tendering process and during the setting-up period referred to flexibility to reduce or increase attendance to suit seasonal variations in plant operating time, but it seems that the flexibility has to be at 14 days' written notice.

Having criticised the way in which the MHS was set up and the way in which it appears to have started its operations, it is fair to ask whether there was an alternative. I think the alternative was set out extremely

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well in a speech made by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, at a seminar on meat hygiene organised by the Association of District Councils in October 1993. He said then:

    "The Government has been listening to the criticisms which have been made both by local authorities and by the industry, of the prescriptive nature of the current controls. Where it is possible to make the regulations and guidance less prescriptive, and more based on an assessment of risk, we will do so".

The noble Earl then set out clearly the plans of the Government at that time so far as the local authorities were concerned. The plans would consist of introducing a slaughterhouse performance monitoring system to focus advice and enforcement on real hygiene risks; publishing a leaflet for business on meat hygiene enforcement—government, local authority and industry rights and responsibilities; consulting on new guidance on veterinary supervision; publishing a MAFF strategy document for research on meat hygiene and inspection; and continuing to work in the EC for review of existing inspection requirements and for the modification of meat hygiene directives to target statutory requirements on key public health issues. All that was to do with the local authority responsibility, and then of course the Minister tagged on the establishment of a meat hygiene service.

The final quotation says it all:

    "A major part of this work is the publication of our proposals for a system of assessing the performance of meat premises in relation to hygiene. We propose that this system should be used by MAFF, together with each local authority, to monitor performance and standards, and to identify for the operator where improvements are needed. We believe that this will make it much easier for MAFF as the licensing authority, and OVS and EHOs working for the local authority, to focus on the real hygiene problems which need to be addressed. I believe that it will also provide an effective framework for demonstrating that the goal of a 'single standard' of safe, properly inspected meat is being achieved".

All that was to be done in the autumn of 1993 through the existing local authority systems. I am sure that it could have been done for a lot less than the £21 million that has been, or will be, spent on establishing the new system.

The Government's intentions were well meant. It has been a long-standing ambition inside the department and the veterinary profession to bring meat hygiene under centralised veterinary control. But we have had a sorry tale of well-meant intentions confused by bureaucratic muddle and the inbuilt tendency of new quangos to be unable to control their costs. This is a self-regulating agency not a quango; it is a SEFRA, a self-financing regulatory agency. I hope that when the Minister replies he is able to bring the House good news regarding the ability of the department to intervene to control the heavy costs being placed on slaughterhouse owners.

It was a US judge, Mr. Louis Brandeis, who got it about right in 1928, when he said:

    "The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding".

I beg to move.

Moved, That a humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the regulations be annulled.—(Lord Carter.)

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4.41 p.m.

Lord Willoughby de Broke: My Lords, the Motion standing in my name asks the Government to look again at the meat hygiene regulations which have been introduced to translate EC directives into national law. The regulations require the creation of a new government agency—the Meat Hygiene Service—and involve large expenditure by slaughterhouse operators as well as a generous slug of taxpayers' money. Unfortunately, there has not yet been the opportunity to debate them either in this House or in another place.

Perhaps we should remind ourselves that the main reason for inspecting abattoirs in the first place is to protect the consumer. I believe that I shall be able to show that under the Meat Hygiene Service the consumer will have less rather than more protection. Secondly, any such service should be cost-effective. Again I will show that the MHS is more expensive than the service it replaces run by the local authorities and will be so expensive that it will quite needlessly drive out of business many medium and small operators.

Let me explain why the Meat Hygiene Service will be more expensive. The local authority meat inspection system was estimated to cost between £32 million and £45 million according to whose figures one believes and how those costs were allocated. The Government's figures for the Meat Hygiene Service, as the noble Lord, Lord Carter, pointed out, show that it will cost £54 million in its first year of operation, of which the taxpayer will pick up no less than £20 million. That is a pretty generous slug of taxpayers' money. It means that £9 million is the minimum extra cost over and above the service which the Meat Hygiene Service will replace. That is just for starters. If the new agency is so cost effective, why does it need any subsidy at all? And what happens when the subsidy is removed? The costs will not come down. The extra costs will be passed on to the industry which will be faced with ever higher expenses in the years to come.

There are around 420 slaughterhouses and abattoirs in England of which slightly more than 200 are what may be called medium to small-sized businesses which provide an invaluable service to the consumer, the butcher and the producer. The producer is able to transport his stock over shorter distances for slaughter with reduced stress to the animals; the quality butcher can be sure that the carcasses he buys will be properly cooled and hung rather than quick-chilled; and the consumer benefits by having a wider choice of quality meat. I should add that all those businesses have a respectable number of customers. One owner to whom I spoke yesterday has 4,500 satisfied clients. So we are not talking about a backroom operation.

It is precisely the smaller and medium-sized slaughterhouses which will be the first victims of the increase in charges which the MHS will impose. If my noble friend the Minister wishes, I can provide him with numerous examples of operators who either have closed or are threatened by closure because of the cost of this superfluous layer of expensive bureaucracy. On average the charging system will increase their costs by around 40 per cent. The MHS will be setting the charges. It will effectively be judge, jury and executioner. A 40 per

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cent. increase cannot be paid for out of operating profit and will needlessly put people out of business. I cannot believe that that is what the Government wish to do.

I must emphasise how strongly people feel about this matter. Perhaps I can illustrate the point by telling the House that nearly 200 slaughterhouse owners have pledged not to pay the MHS charges. That is how strongly they feel. They are businessmen who pay their taxes and their VAT and who are normally law-abiding subjects. They are significant employers in their regions. They have been pushed into deciding that enough is enough. Is it right that those people should be forced to make the choice between obeying the law or going bust? I do not believe it is.

I am aware that the larger slaughterhouses support the introduction of the Meat Hygiene Service. Why? Because it would suit them admirably to see their smaller rivals go out of business, giving them a larger share of the cake. That is no justification for the introduction of the Meat Hygiene Service. Equally, I am aware that both the NFU and the CLA have given heavily qualified approval so far to the introduction of the MHS. However, their continued support is dependent on its cost effectiveness. They are already concerned at the indication of the much higher costs I mentioned. My noble friend may wish to enlarge on that aspect.

I turn to the interests of the consumer and food safety. I query the assumption that the introduction of the MHS will mean greater protection. Who will the MHS be serving? Will it be the consumer or the meat industry? As the MHS will rely for its income solely on the meat industry, it is that industry which will be its customer, and it is he who pays the piper who calls the tune. The tune inevitably will be called by the major meat wholesalers. As smaller slaughterhouses are forced to close down, the Meat Hygiene Service costs will be spread ever more thinly, leading to higher fees and even more closures. The effect of fewer slaughterhouses will be greater throughput of animals in those slaughterhouses which remain in business. In turn, that will lead to greater cross-contamination, which is inevitable as a consequence of greater throughput. No matter how rigorous the inspection, more animals through an abattoir means more cross-infection; that is simple arithmetic.

Equally, it will be more difficult to trace diseased animals through individual slaughterhouses where the larger slaughterhouses are processing thousands of carcasses a week. Most disturbingly, new and lethal pathogens have been discovered. I refer in particular to a strain known as Definition Type 104C, which is increasing and becoming a serious health concern. That cannot be spotted in the abattoir in the carcass, no matter how many vets line up in attendance. It will have to be dealt with on the farm in the same way as TB and brucellosis were successfully controlled.

What does the MHS really bring? It does not bring lower costs, though that was part of its rationale; it does not bring standard charges because abattoirs will still be paying different rates, and it will not bring any increase in consumer protection. I ask the Government to take note of my concerns; to set the MHS and these

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regulations on one side, and to bring back a scheme which will be more effective in terms of cost and in protecting the consumer.

4.49 p.m.

Lord Geraint: My Lords, there is a great deal of anxiety in the meat trade about the Meat Hygiene Service. The majority of organisations in Britain are in favour of the scheme but they are concerned about the cost of administering it. From my understanding of the matter, the agency is not responsible for the licensing of slaughter premises. That duty was earlier transferred from the local authorities to government when the European Union veterinary inspectorate reported low standards of hygiene and structure of many British plants during the regular checks which are made within all member states.

Unfortunately for the meat trade, more than half our abattoirs have been closed in the past 12 years. In 1983 we had more than 1,000 abattoirs in Britain. Today, the number is down to just over 500. I wonder whether they have been closed compulsorily or whether many of the abattoir owners have thrown in the towel. When one compares the regulations in Britain with those in Italy, France and Germany, I wonder whether fair play is operating. I hope that the Minister will be able tell us what percentage of the abattoirs in those countries have been closed over the past 10 years.

The Meat and Livestock Commission has long supported the concept of a centralised meat inspection service and welcomes its launch. The commission states:

    "The benefits to be gained from a national service are numerous: it is easier to ensure that consistent inspection standards are provided across all abattoirs, cutting plants and cold stores; a regular pattern of continuous professional training can be assured; career prospects for authorised meat inspectors can be improved; important additional benefits can be more readily achieved—for example, the feedback to farms of origin information on the state of health of stock revealed by post-mortem inspections; the scope for a streamlined, cost-effective inspection service is more readily achievable".

I accept the comments of the Meat and Livestock Commission because I honestly believe that it has given excellent service to the industry over the past few years.

According to a press release, the President of the Farmers' Union of Wales has made a last-gasp appeal to the Government to reconsider the establishment of the meat health service which he said would transfer control of meat inspection from local authorities to the new Meat Hygiene Service. The press release states:

    "The new service would have a total budget of £53.4 million and employ a total of nearly a thousand, 872 meat inspectors and vets and 75 management and clerical staff. In a direct appeal to the government to think again, Mr. Parry has told Mr. Waldegrave that some abattoir operators in Wales anticipated an increase of up to 40 per cent. in operational costs and that the agency's budget was over £8 million more than the current service operated by local authorities".

I wonder whether those figures are correct. The press release continues:

    "Mr. Parry says that abattoirs were going out of business at a 'frightening' rate and that any increase in operational costs would increase the closure rate".

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I shall say very little about Scotland because my noble friend Lord Mackie will say a few words on the Scottish aspects of the scheme. The Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers says:

    "While continuing to express ... total support for the aims of the new Agency providing a cost effective, fair, efficient, affordable, consistent and creditable service to all Meat Plants in Great Britain, there continues to be considerable unease and anger at the manner in which the service is being introduced".

My noble friend will take over from there when the time comes.

The Association of District Councils is not in favour of the change either. It states:

    "The Association and its members have always expressed concern about the cost, accountability and role of the MHS. It believes that the service will be more expensive and less accountable than the one hitherto provided by local authorities. More importantly, however, it will be less flexible and less responsive to the needs of small and local businesses which have already experienced some difficulty in coming to terms with regulatory changes in the industry. The MHS will also fragment the existing local authority food hygiene and safety framework with consequences for consumers and business".

I have received a letter from Edward Hamer, one of the biggest wholesalers in Wales. At the moment he is the chairman of the Federation of Fresh Meat Wholesalers (Wales). The company operates from Llanidloes, Powys. He is well known for the service he has given to the industry in Wales and for the number of lambs which he exports to Spain, Italy and other countries. He says:

    "In principle we are in favour of the M.H.S. as we were promised a more economic service, a slim low cost structure that was able to service the needs of this industry for inspection and veterinary time far better than 300 local authorities. We were told that the M.H.S. would be low cost and flat structured. However, what we have seen evolve is a very large, top heavy, overstaffed, expensive organisation formed. Although it has been classed as an executive agency of MAFF, it would appear in all senses to be a quango, although obviously people who are involved are strongly denying this.

    As far as the costs to industry are concerned, we are seeing colossal rises in cost per hour and manning levels. This being due to enormous amount of paperwork which has been created. We as an industry were promised full consultation before any of the nuts and bolts of this service were put together. However, there has been no consultation whatsoever. They can argue that there was an industry forum, which was held in York. However, the first many of us knew at the sharp end of the industry was the arrival of thousands of forms which have to be completed. In a plant such as the size of mine, to complete all these forms in the full and proper manner will take two extra personnel full time.

    The Welsh Industry has had reasonable rates for authorised meat inspectors and official veterinary surgeons. These rises that we are seeing now are colossal on what many people have been paying. In fact that on an industry wide basis it is 40% more than we were paying in the last financial year".

In the view of the comments of the leaders of the industry in Wales, Scotland and England I believe that the Government should have another look at the scheme in its present form. I am sure that that is the wish of noble Lords on both sides of the House. We do not want to see an industry on which we are so dependent failing.

4.58 p.m.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior: My Lords, it would appear that I may be the only Member of this House to speak in favour of the unified Meat Hygiene Service other than my noble friend the Minister. I speak

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as someone who has had in his career several years' experience of food hygiene meat inspection in Scotland, where it was a first rate local authority service. Therefore, I am speaking against the prayer to annul the regulations pertaining to the central Meat Hygiene Service.

During the debate on the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill in October 1994 I spoke of the importance of the need for a unified meat hygiene service under veterinary direction. I am still very strongly of that opinion. It has been long recognised that the welfare of animals awaiting slaughter and at slaughter, and the wholesomeness and soundness of meat and meat products in the food chain, is best achieved by a single seamless system which is represented by the unified meat inspection service that is in force. I say en passant that this seamless single service is much more liable to avoid the food hygiene problems of infection such as those which have been referred to by my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke.

It is also recognised that while the meat inspection and hygiene services under some local authorities are beyond reproach, particularly in Scotland, nevertheless there were many others where that was not the case. It has been long recognised that England and Wales in particular have lagged behind other countries of the world in meat hygiene. That has meant that until 1993 we have had two hygiene standards; one for export purposes meeting international standards including those of the European Union, and one for home consumption. Surely it is an anomalous situation that our own citizens should tolerate a perceived or otherwise lower standard of meat hygiene than that of our customers overseas.

I am informed that prior to 1993 there were only 78 meat hygiene plants that were licensed for export. That meant there were about 400 or more licensed for domestic consumption only. Surely that is not an agreeable situation. At present there are about 515 licensed abattoirs, 104 of which meet European standards which undertake 67 per cent. of the slaughtering in this country. But there are about 400 plants still not meeting those standards. They are under temporary derogation to allow upgrading to meet the needs of international standards by 1995. I am informed by the Meat and Livestock Commission that it estimates that half of these have no intention whatever of upgrading their premises to a level which must be consistent with good hygiene and good health for our nation.

The regulations pertaining to animal welfare and slaughter and the inspection of slaughtered animals are well known and are codified in the present regulations which are available. It is also well known that these were under the direction of about 300 local authorities looking after about 500 slaughterhouses. That meant enforcement of the rules in these slaughterhouses and licensed meat plants suffered from a lack of consistency and uniformity. These regulations varied enormously. Further, this inconsistency and uneven standards were criticised by bodies which have been mentioned such as the British Meat Manufacturers Association, the

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Federation of Fresh Meat Wholesalers, the International Meat Trade Association Inc., the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers, the British Poultry Meat Federation, the NFU, the British Veterinary Association, the Meat and Livestock Commission, and others. All urge the Government to set up a single enforcement body.

I quite accept that there have been teething troubles with the introduction of the new Meat Hygiene Service. Some of these have been detailed by the noble Lord, Lord Carter, and other noble Lords. I suspect that there will be more teething problems to come. There are certainly some local authorities and slaughterhouse owners, meat inspectors and veterinary surgeons, who feel aggrieved at how some of these regulations have been put in place. As might be expected, with an industry which slaughters and inspects about 27 million cattle, pigs and sheep and 580 million poultry per year, it would be unrealistic to expect everything to go so smoothly when we are moving to a new system. Nevertheless, it is my understanding that the majority of those concerned with slaughtering meat hygiene across the spectrum welcome the new Meat Hygiene Service. It is my firm belief that this is the most logical way forward to ensure consistency for a sound and wholesome product in the abattoirs and cutting plants which will eventually end up in the households of the people of this country.

In addition, but also ancillary to the main point, I believe that it will improve the career prospects of those in the field of meat hygiene. It will allow for consistency of training across the country and provide a valuable surveillance system for livestock health in Great Britain. I believe that all of those are important ancillary issues ensuing from a sound and wholesome meat hygiene service.

5.7 p.m.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, has just made a very serious allegation. He said that our meat inspection service has been lagging behind other countries in meat hygiene. What does that mean? Does it mean that the people of this country, over a period of 70 years, have been more prone to food poisoning than people of other countries? The Minister should give the House an answer to that. I hope that he will also be able to assure us that the number of food poisoning cases, as a result of this particular piece of legislation, will reduce. I hope that he will be able to give some figures to support the arguments that this service should be taken away from the local authorities and given to a centralised authority. It is also a condemnation of the local authorities who have administered this service over the past 70 years to say that we have been lagging behind other countries in the meat hygiene service that is given to consumers.

I congratulate my noble friend Lord Carter on putting down his prayer and also the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, in tabling his amendment. Those two matters enable us to have a reasonable and good debate today and that is precisely what we are having. As my noble friend Lord Carter said, when this legislation goes through today—indeed, it is already in operation—the Government and certain sections of the meat trade will

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have attained their objective of destroying the local authority meat inspection service, which I believe has successfully protected the consumer for over 70 years. They will replace it with a secretive, centralised bureaucracy which will be not only more expensive, as we have heard, and destructive of small slaughterhouses, but it will also be dangerous for the consumers in that it will be more liable to corruption and may lead to the development of a cosy relationship between the big boys in the meat industry and the new nationalised Meat Hygiene Service. I say "nationalised" because that is precisely what this transfer of power means. I understood that the Conservative Party did not believe in nationalisation, but that is precisely what is happening here. The local authority meat inspection service is being nationalised and, I believe, for no good reason.

This is yet another centralising act of a Government who pay lip service to local democracy, but by their actions do everything to destroy it—little wonder that there are few Conservatives active at local level. A misnamed "conservative" Government have taken away the opportunities hitherto enjoyed by decent local Conservatives to serve the community in which they live. This is just another example of the centralising Stalinist tendency of this Government.

The Association of District Councils, of which I have the honour to be a vice-president, has pointed out that the consultants appointed in 1991 to assist MAFF in its review of options for improving the meat hygiene enforcement system in the light of single market requirements found no conclusive evidence to change the UK's meat inspection system. That confirmed what the Government's Preston Review concluded in 1985—that meat inspection should continue to be provided by local authorities. Indeed, the Preston Committee rejected the case for a centralised meat inspection agency on the grounds of the costs of the central bureaucracy. How right it was—£5.2 million will be allocated in each of the financial years 1994-95 and 1996-97 in addition to the £600,000 that has been spent by MAFF on the project team to oversee the establishment of the MHS.

Furthermore, I understand—we have heard about this today —that the Meat Hygiene Service will cost public funds some £15.4 million, which is additional to the moneys which will be recovered in fees and charges. The recent answer by Mrs. Angela Browning, the Parliamentary Secretary at MAFF, shows that the estimated cost of the MHS in its first year of operation will be £53.4 million as compared with £45 million for the local authority meat inspection service. That additional cost of nearly £9 million a year will mean that, on average, each slaughterhouse will pay £20,000 per annum more for meat inspection, while some will have to pay £80,000 more than they paid to the local authorities.

The Government claim that because the Meat Hygiene Service can operate across local authority boundaries, it can use manpower more effectively. That claim can hardly stand up to examination. In the first place, local authorities can, if necessary, employ agency staff who can also operate across local authority boundaries. Secondly, local authorities can redeploy meat inspectors to other duties when not needed for

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meat inspection. The Meat Hygiene Service will not be able to do that. Thirdly, for unplanned staff absences and surges in workload, local authorities can call on 6,000 environmental health officers, all of whom are qualified meat inspectors. That is not available to the MHS. Furthermore, the suggestion that the Meat Hygiene Service will unite enforcement functions is, to say the least, misleading.

I refer now to a most interesting brief that has been given to me by the Association of District Councils. It states:

    "The Government took a decision, without consultation, to use its powers to issue slaughterhouse licences. It did so without revoking the responsibility of local authorities to issue the same licences, thus creating an unnecessary, burdensome and confusing licensing regime. The State Veterinary Service (SVS) will continue to issue slaughterhouse licences despite the creation of the MHS.

    It is difficult to see how enforcement is united when the SVS issues a licence, the MHS is responsible for day to day hygiene and meat inspection and local authorities are responsible for all remaining food hygiene controls in the remainder of the meat sector.

    In essence, therefore, one enforcement agency has been replaced by three. In so doing, the MHS has fragmented the existing food safety framework, created confusion and inconsistency and given industry yet another enforcement agency with which to deal.

    When the MHS's operation is considered in detail, the arrangement makes even less sense. The MHS will have no remit in premises other than licensed slaughterhouses. In respect of illegal slaughter, animal welfare issues and the licensing of slaughtermen, the local authority will have to continue to act as watch-dog. In some premises, the division between the responsibilities of the MHS, the SVS and local authorities will be so blurred that each will have a role in respect of different aspects of meat hygiene enforcement.

    It has even been suggested recently that, when the MHS is called upon to seize unfit meat, it may have to rely on assistance from the local authority due to various legal technicalities which prevent it from taking such action itself".

So much for the new service which will co-ordinate everything and be so much better for everyone.

I repeat that we see the formation of a centralised, unaccountable, bureaucratic agency which has been set up to replace a democratic service of proved effectiveness. Let us not forget that the local authorities have been carrying out such work for 70 years, without any complaint or legislation except perhaps some government interference over charges. The system has worked effectively and efficiently. Do the Government never learn? Have they already forgotten the lessons of the Child Support Agency, which replaced the courts and which has now collapsed in ignominy and chaos from its original form?

As we have heard, some slaughterhouses are already threatening to withhold the extra payments that will be demanded. What are the Government going to do if they do that? Will they close them down? Will they send the owners to gaol? What will they do? I sincerely hope that the House will pass at least one of the Motions which are now before us so that the Government are in no doubt about the anger that is felt in many parts of the trade, in local authorities and, I hope, also in your Lordships' House.

5.18 p.m.

Lord Hamilton of Dalzell: My Lords, I declare an interest in this debate. As my noble friend Lord

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Willoughby de Broke and other noble Lords have so clearly explained, the Meat Hygiene Service will impose increased costs on the production of meat. I am both a grower and consumer of meat. As a grower, I see the potential to close slaughterhouses as a direct blow against those who have heeded the Government's advice to go into direct marketing in order to increase their margins. I also see it strengthening the hand of the supermarkets as monopoly suppliers.

As a consumer, I am a supporter of the smaller suppliers who, often in conjunction with the ability to slaughter in-house, can offer something better than can be bought from a supermarket. Those are the people who will find the increased cost of the new arrangements hardest to bear. I have no doubt that many noble Lords who are particular about the meat they eat will regret their demise as much as I do.

It always seems to fall to those who have the reputation of being sceptical about the European ideal to raise these issues for your Lordships to consider, when they should be the concern of everyone. I was told at the time of the Maastricht debate that I was wrong to oppose the treaty and that the right way to go about things was to raise troublesome issues when they occurred; matters could then be sorted out by debate in your Lordships' House; and representations made to Brussels.

Your Lordships may recollect that 18 months ago I prayed against arrangements for sheep and cattle quotas. Your Lordships agreed that they were unfair to owners of land and agreed to a Motion which asked the Government to do something about them. The House is still awaiting the judgment of the European Court of Justice to find out whether anything can be done to honour its opinion.

That experience has confirmed my view that we have handed over to Brussels more power than is prudent. How are we supposed to carry out our role when the tradition of the House is to accept statutory instruments by which regulations are imposed upon us without opposition? I find myself also in the rather embarrassing position of agreeing with the lecture we had on Tory principles from the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart. I sit on this side of the House not entirely by custom but by conviction.

I believe in free enterprise and small business, to which over-regulation is anathema. Do we not claim to be the party of deregulation? We see an ever-increasing flow of regulations not just in agriculture and its associated industries, which is now so regulated that it is almost a nationalised industry, but in many other aspects of our lives not germane to the debate. That leads to the closing of businesses and the loss of jobs. I dread to think what that is doing to the party in the country. It is a great disappointment to me that I have to criticise my party for betraying the tenets of its own philosophy.

5.24 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, I have given notice to my noble friend that I would speak in this debate. I

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hope that someone will divide the House on the issue, but I believe that my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke has been—I am not sure that the word "conned" is right—persuaded by the Chief Whip to say that he would not.

These regulations are a disgrace. I do not go as far as the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, and compare my right honourable friend the First Lord of the Treasury to a failed Georgian priest novitiate in the form of Mr. Stalin. I find the idea of him sitting in a monastery outside Tiflis learning about the dual nature of Christ as something slightly odd. But, be that as it may, I come to the debate because it is the sort of thing in which no one is really interested.

I was talking to the chief executive of our local borough council, who by most people's yardstick is regarded as an extremely good chief executive. I believe that Guildford Borough Council is held out as an extremely good local authority, whichever political party is in charge of it. He said, "Yes, of course we have been running our slaughterhouse very well. We do not want it taken away because we think we are doing very well for the public. But it is not something I shall go to the barricades over. The Government will do something more stupid later about which we shall have to get even more cross". Rules about slaughterhouses are not something about which people, except those directly involved, will become very cross.

Again, I spoke to the head of the borough council's meat hygiene service today. As a direct result of the new regulation, the inspection bill for the Guildford slaughterhouse, which is owned by the local authority and let out to a private company, goes from £50,000 to £75,000 a year, without the prospect of one fewer tummy bug. How can my noble friends on the Front Bench produce regulations which are as stupid as this? It is outrageous. I have already had reason to write to my noble friend about some of the civil servants in his office who I believe have been misinforming him about the rules and regulations. He knows about that. I shall not go into further detail. I shall merely hope and listen with bated breath for a reply to the letter which I wrote to him.

The noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, talked about the variation in the quality of slaughterhouses. There is a book which lays down regulations as to how the inspection is to be carried out. Am I supposed to believe that the regulations have been disobeyed by some local authorities and obeyed by others? If that is the case, the Government have been deeply lacking, as has the state veterinary authority, in ensuring that the regulations are properly carried out. I should like to know whether that is true.

I should like also to know whether the inconsistency of which the Government complain was caused because they insisted on an hourly rate per inspection rather than a headage rate. Under the old headage system, no one complained of inconsistency.

We now have a new agency set up. Mr. Johnston-McNeil will be paid £78,000 a year to run it, which is not a great deal less than the Prime Minister receives. His head of operation, who, it was said, would be paid £50,000 a year, was forced to resign after

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expenses irregularities concerned with his employment with the Australian Government. It has already been established that it will cost a great deal more. Will there be one fewer case of salmonella, one fewer tummy bug or one animal suffering less as a result of this regulation? If the answer to all of those questions—as I suspect it is—is no, what on earth is the point of increasing the bill for meat hygiene inspections by 50 per cent.? That is government gone mad. I hope someone will call for a Division. I shall vote against the Government with relish.

5.28 p.m.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, this has been a remarkable debate. I begin by apologising to the Minister for not having my name down to speak. It was due entirely to my incompetence, something which he will understand because he has had much to do with incompetence by his department. The strictures the Minister has heard during the debate must have shaken him to the core. I feel rather sorry for him.

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