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House of Lords

Monday, 15th March 1999.

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

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Norwich.

Meat Production

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

    When they consider their plans to rationalise primary meat production will be complete and what will be the level of meat production in the United Kingdom.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue): My Lords, the Government accept that some rationalisation of the primary meat production sector is desirable, but consider that such rationalisation should be achieved through the action of market forces. The Agenda 2000 reform of the European Union beef regime may eventually lead to reduced beef and lamb production. In that context, the Government will consider whether an early retirement scheme could be of use.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, before I ask my supplementary questions, perhaps I may declare an interest. My husband and I have a small farm and we take our animals to be killed at a small family-owned abattoir. Does the Minister realise that the new charges to be implemented by the Meat Hygiene Service on 1st April will kill off many small farmers and specialist producers? The Government always hide behind EC regulations. However, can the Minister say whether they will take a leaf out of Denmark's book over the antibiotic Virginiamycin? The Danes went to the Scientific Committee on Animal Nutrition and were told no, there could not be a ban. So they then went to the Council of Europe and asked for a ban, which was subsequently granted. Will the Minister ask Mr. Nick Brown to go to the Council and point out that the UK will not tolerate the destruction of a very specialist and valuable part of our rural culture? Will he also ask his right honourable friend to request a complete review by the Meat Hygiene Service?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I thank the noble Countess for her Question. However, I must make clear that new charges have not yet been decided upon or announced. There will, of course, be consultation with the industry in that respect.

On the question of the EU rules, we have written to the European Commission to ask for clarification concerning the inspection charges and the level of inspection required, especially for small slaughterhouses and cutting plants where I believe the main problem lies. We have not yet received a reply, but when we do we will communicate it rapidly to the noble Countess. I should point out that her pressure in this area together with other public pressure for the Commission to appreciate the concern about small producers, is not unwelcome to us.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the Government are thinking very seriously about how to

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avoid any further reduction in the number of smaller local slaughterhouses, if only because of the need to deal effectively with casualty animals, to avoid long hauls for any description of animal and, indeed, to cater for small and specialist demands for meat?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, the Government certainly appreciate the importance of the small slaughterhouse, not only in the more remote rural areas but also as regards servicing the small producer who may find that the big slaughterhouse is not very interested in his two or three cattle. So we certainly appreciate the situation. However, I should point out that the over-supply in the slaughterhouse industry is on an enormous scale; indeed, it is estimated at about 50 per cent. Therefore, there is need for rationalisation. We must be concerned about whether the rationalisation takes place in what one might call a rational way or in a way that eliminates all the small slaughterhouses of the kind that I have mentioned. As far as concerns the increased inspection levels which the Commission requires of us and the charges, I should stress that we have made clear that, certainly in the first stages, the increases will be directed towards the big slaughterhouses and only to those smaller ones which have low hygiene scores.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn: My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister confirm whether or not I heard him correctly? Today is 15th March and the new charges are due to come in on 1st April, but I believe my noble friend said that the Government are still consulting at this stage. Can my noble friend say whether this gives people the opportunity to plan their business commitments when they have, say, 15 or 16 days left in which to do so?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, my noble friend is quite right; there is a certain tightness in the timetable. A small delay may be necessary, especially in order to consult the industry. As I am sure my noble friend knows, there has already been consultation. The industry was not very happy with the level of charges that were being floated. Ministers are looking at two items in particular: first, whether the level of charges could be reduced; and, secondly, whether there are ways in which we can help the smaller abattoir. I am sure that the industry will consider the latter to be worthy causes of any small delay.

Lord Chesham: My Lords, would the Minister care--

Lord McNair: My Lords--

Lord Chesham: My Lords, it is the turn of this side. We have not yet asked a question from this side of the House. Sit down!

Noble Lords: Order!

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington): My Lords, I am surprised that neither noble Lord is prepared to give way, but I think it is the feeling of the House that the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, should speak first.

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Lord Chesham: My Lords, would the Minister care to give me a comparison of costs as between this country and France? In France the vets are paid by the state. There is a sanitary slaughter charge of 30 francs per bullock, 12 francs per cow, 1.70 francs per lamb etc., and 11 francs per tonne sanitary cutting cost. How is it possible that the costs in this country should so exceed those in France?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, we are currently investigating the charges in this area in all of our partner countries. France, like some other countries, has a different system from ours, but it operates under the same European Union requirements to recover costs, to have a structure of standard charges and not to have cross-subsidy. We are assured that in the end, although the French have a different system from ours--the French levy the fiscal charge centrally and pay their inspectors centrally--the outcome is similar to ours. I see the noble Lord is a little sceptical about our French friends. We are certainly looking into that matter.

Lord McNair: My Lords, does the Minister agree that if the concerns of the noble Countess, Lady Mar, were borne out, this would particularly affect the producers of organic meat?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, if we could find ways to introduce the measure that we are considering it would benefit small slaughterhouses that have good hygiene standards, whether the meat is organic or otherwise.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, will the Minister justify what he has just said about the charges; in other words, that they will not be introduced on 1st April because consultation is still in progress? Will he please explain why a senior veterinary official visited Mr. John Coles in Devon just this morning and told him that they must work out how Mr. Coles was to pay the charges from 1st April? He stressed that there would be no special allowances for people with high hygiene scores.

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, we shall announce the charges as soon as possible. If the noble Countess will provide details of the case she mentioned, we shall certainly consider it.

Nuclear Weapons

2.45 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have given assurances to non-nuclear states that under no circumstances will they be attacked by a British nuclear weapon and that these assurances will not be unilaterally withdrawn.

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, we have long given assurances to non-nuclear weapon states that we shall not use nuclear weapons against them unless they first attack us, our allies or a state to which we have given a security commitment, in alliance or association with a weapon state. These assurances have been given to the 182 non-nuclear weapon states parties to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and to many non-nuclear weapon states through protocols to regional nuclear weapon free zone treaties. In giving such assurances we make clear that we do not regard them as applicable if any beneficiary is in material breach of its own non-proliferation obligation.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer which I think the House will find informative. Can my noble friend tell us whether other nuclear states are following Her Majesty's Government's steps in this matter? What other action is being taken to discourage non-nuclear states following in the footsteps of India and Pakistan?

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