HC Deb 17 November 1970 vol 806 cc1194-204

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Humphrey Atkins.]

11.25 p.m.

Mr. Charles R. Morris (Manchester, Openshaw)

I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise tonight an issue which is giving rise to concern, even to alarm, among responsible civic leaders and citizens in the City of Manchester.

It is perhaps tragic that within the short space of four years since 1966 when the new abattoir was built—I should explain that the abattoir is in my constituency of Openshaw—it should be lying like an albatross around the shoulders of Manchester's ratepayers. The full extent of the financial burden carried by the ratepayers in the City of Manchester can be seen by examining the latest figures of capital outlay for the building of the abattoir, which was £4,160,000, and the present estimated deficit for the current year of £418,000. Disregarding the figure for capital outlay, it means that the Manchester abattoir is at present costing the ratepayers more than £1,000 per day. As for the capital outlay, one need not exercise one's imagination to realise just how much more could have been done with £4,160,000 to improve community life in the City of Manchester had they decided not to build an abattoir.

Following his meeting on 2nd September with representatives of the Manchester City Council and the National Association of British Market Authorities, the Minister will be aware of just how critically Manchester's distinguished Director of Markets and the Chairman of the Manchester Corporation Markets Committee view their present plight. But it will help my presentation of the case if we first look, briefly perhaps, at some of the factors which influenced the Manchester Corporation's decision to go ahead with the building of the new abattoir and highlight the development of policies which in effect have inhibited the Manchester Markets Department in realising the throughput and financial returns on which their original plans were based.

As the Parliamentary Secretary is aware, the abattoir was built to replace the Water Street Meat Market and Slaughterhouse which had been in existence since 1872. I should perhaps emphasise that there was no legal obligation on the Manchester Corporation to build the new abattoir—no obligation whatsoever; it was simply a desire to improve the slaughtering facilities and the standard of hygiene in the city's existing abattoir. The new abattoir was built in the belief that it would meet the slaughtering and meat processing needs for a sub-region covering an area of some 20 to 30 miles radius of the city. It was built with the full knowledge and approval and the positive encouragement of the Ministry of Agriculture.

How well Manchester built can be gauged by the fact that it is the largest and most technologically advanced abattoir in Europe. It is the only abattoir in this country of the standard required by the United States authorities for the export of meat to that country and one of the few abattoirs approved for the export of meat to the Common Market countries.

What Manchester Corporation and the City Council did not know when they sought to provide an abattoir for the subregion of Manchester and its environs was that the same Ministry which had encouraged them to meet this need would continue to approve the establishment of new private slaughterhouses or material extensions to existing slaughterhouses. Nor were they aware that the agreement entered into with the then Government of Eire would in practice prove to be an incentive for the Irish producer to export meat to this country in carcase rather than on the hoof.

The consequences of these policies pursued by the Ministry have produced a situation whereby Manchester's envisaged throughput capacity of 225,000 cattle units slumped in the year ending March, 1970, to only 95,000 cattle units, with a hoped-for slight improvement to 105,000 cattle units for the current year. That gives an indication of the extent of the under-used capacity available at the Manchester abattoir. It is time that the Ministry called a halt to the creation of additional private slaughtering capacity, at a time when there is so much under-used capacity in abattoirs such as ours in Manchester.

I know that the Parliamentary Secretary realises that this problem is not peculiar to Manchester, and that Cardiff, Glasgow, Sheffield, Blackburn, Bradford, Newcastle-on-Tyne and many other cities are or will be similarly affected.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. Charles Morris) is far too modest. He referred to the fact that the abattoir is in his constituency in Manchester, but I hope that he will agree that it is necessary to emphasise that this is very much a national problem as well as a problem which seriously affects the City of Manchester.

Mr. Charles R. Morris

I am grateful for that intervention. I assure the Parliamentary Secretary that he is not the victim of a family conspiracy.

I express the hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will say that the Government will not remain deaf to the pleas of the ratepayers in the cities to which I referred or to those who have made submissions on behalf of the National Association of British Market Authorities. I emphasise that they do not seek to be baled out indefinitely but ask that the financial load that they are being obliged to carry in providing for the needs of their communities should be shared by the Government at least over a period of three to five years to ease them through the critical situation that they now face as a result of policies for which they are in no way responsible.

I invite the Minister to come to Manchester to see for himself the problem that exists. Will he undertake to look urgently at the question of a short-term subsidy for municipal abattoirs? I should like to impress upon the Minister that local authorities, such as Manchester, have reached crisis point concerning the financing of abattoir facilities. Our deficits are now out of all proportion to funds which can reasonably be made available to meet them, and they are escalating yearly.

Action is imperative. The Government can go on ignoring this problem. The alternatives facing authorities, such as Manchester, regarding the continuance of abattoir facilities will be extremely grave not only for the corporations and city councils but for the communities which they serve.

Manchester could continue to operate the abattoir as at present in the hope of ultimate improvements; it could curtail the services at the abattoir; it could close the abattoir and leave the traders to make other arrangements. Finally, it could let the abattoir to the traders at a nominal rent.

Regardless of these available alternatives, I want to conclude by impressing upon the Minister the magnitude of the financial problem facing Manchester and other marketing authorities in the provision of abattoir facilities. I hope that the Minister will give this problem his close and serious attention.

11.37 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Anthony Stodart)

I thought that the hon. Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. Charles R. Morris) made the under-statement of the evening when he described his hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Alfred Morris) as his hon. Friend. I think that he is, in fact, something closer to him.

I am glad to see both hon. Gentlemen here this evening. I hope that they will accept my sincerity when I thank the hon. Member for Manchester, Openshaw for raising a subject which I agree is not a local but a national issue and which was presented generally to me with what I thought, and said at the time, was outstanding competence by a delegation which came to see me some weeks ago. Moreover, the hon. Gentleman will realise that he is raising this subject at an inconvenient hour. Those of us who attend Adjournment debates are quite sensitive about this point.

I welcome the opportunity of reminding hon. Gentlemen opposite and the House of the background to this problem. The hon. Member for Manchester, Openshaw said—and I agree, because in this he is factually entirely accurate—that Manchester has run a public slaughterhouse for a very long time now; and before 1950 it became clear that the old premises at Water Street no longer met the needs of modern times. Therefore, plans went forward for a new abattoir, wholesale meat market and cold store, but building work did not start until 1961.

When the corporation decided to go ahead it knew—let us be fair about this—of the change of policy which had been announced by the Government in a Paper in 1956. This made it clear that the policy of moderate concentration of slaughtering facilities by central planning, which had until then been the accepted aim, was to be dropped. Instead, the idea was that after a limited period, during which traders were to be free to provide slaughterhouses to suit the needs of their individual businesses, there should be a measure of control through the licensing of future undertakings.

The Ministry did not encourage the Manchester authorities to concentrate slaughtering for this huge area in one centre. It is true—I accept this at once—that we were asked for some technical advice, but we were not consulted upon the size of the project before the general scheme was accepted.

It is important that I should make it clear that the Minister has no direct control over the provision of slaughterhouses by local authorities.

Manchester decided to promote a Private Bill and the subsequent Act in 1954 made it possible for it to build a new slaughterhouse, meat market and cold store to replace its old premises, and to borrow £2.5 million for it. As I have said, building did not start for a number of years, not until 1961, and as a result of rising expenses and some misfortune the Corporation was ultimately faced with a cost of £4 million.

The slaughterhouse now provides facilities sufficient to cope with the needs of 1¾ million people—the whole of the Manchester conurbation. Certainly it was recognised as being one of the best-designed and equipped slaughterhouses of its time and it still is the largest and one of the finest in the country. Of that there is no doubt.

Mr. Alfred Morris

Is it not the case that Manchester built this abbatoir at least with the expectation, if not the explicit understanding, that it would serve a much wider area than the City of Manchester? Is it not the case that instead of an abbatoir we now have an albatross?

Mr. Stodart

I will come to that point later.

From the beginning it has been under-used and losses have piled up. There are some who claim that these losses have been due to Government policy. The hon. Member made some references to Irish cattle. With the greatest respect, indeed affection, for both hon. Gentleman opposite, I must remind them that the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Area Agreement was not introduced by this side of the House but by their side when in government. The responsibility for this agreement and for the side agreement on store animals and carcase meat rests firmly with the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friends.

At the time that the agreement was signed, as the hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe, who has always taken a keen interest in agriculture, may recall, I took the view that the Government of the Irish Republic had in their ranks some very successful negotiators. That is my tactful way of saying what I have said today about the Irish Trade agreement. I do not think that this is something that can be piled on our heads.

To put the losses and the use of the slaughterhouse in perspective, may I say that I understand that, even if the slaughterhouse were fully used, it would, at present rates, still run at a loss of not far short of £250,000 per year, instead of the £400,000 which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. By no stretch of imagination can Government policy be blamed for this.

I can well believe that, had the final cost of £4 million been foreseen by the Manchester Corporation, there might have been considerable modification of the scheme before it ever started. I am not blaming Manchester for the rise in costs: I am merely stating the facts.

There is no absolute duty upon any local authority to provide slaughtering facilities: they must do so only so far as they consider these to be necessary and expedient, and in fact only about 120 out of the 900 local authorities where meat is produced have public slaughterhouses. As a rule, local authorities seek the advice of the Ministry on projects of this kind and our officers have always tended to be cautious and to urge a very careful study of the economics of any scheme of this kind.

Mr. Charles R. Morris

Did they do so in this case?

Mr. Stodart

I am in no doubt that they did. The hon. Gentleman said that they encouraged this scheme. My information is that they did not encourage it: they were asked for their advice and they gave it.

We know very well how easy it is in this field to be led astray by over-optimistic forecasts. The chief complaint against the Ministry's policy is that, in approving the issue of licences by local authorities for new or enlarged premises over the past 10 years, we have not taken enough account of the need to protect Manchester and other authorities who have spent money on modern slaughterhouses.

The Slaughterhouses Act 1958 allows the Minister to approve such a licence only where it is necessary for the purpose of securing adequate slaughterhouse facilities or expedient for special reasons". These are the words of the Act. Before approving, the Minister must consult all local authorities he thinks may be affected. This has always been done.

I want to turn to a point of some importance—the radius from which slaughterhouses draw. We consult all local authorities within at least 20 miles of any proposed development and we always take their views into account, although we could never accept that the protection of local authority investment must be the over-riding consideration.

Mr. Charles R. Morris

Is it not a fact that Manchester's objections to 15 applications have been dismissed by officials in your Department?

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is the hon. Gentleman's Department.

Mr. Stodart

I should hate to think that you have to carry the responsibility for the administration of my Department, Mr. Speaker.

Since 1961 there have been 41 applications for licences within 30 miles of Manchester. Of these, 12 were refused, and only one will result in the building of a completely new slaughterhouse. The other licences issued were, in the main, for enlarging existing premises to meet the particular needs of a developing business. They often had desirable features which were very difficult to ignore, because the improvements would lead to more hygienic conditions. They were there already, but they sought to improve them, and what they sought to do would lead to these better and more hygienic conditions.

There have been great developments in hygienic slaughtering and dressing techniques in the last 20 years. The pattern of slaughtering has changed so much that with modern and refrigerated transport it is becoming increasingly the practice, both here and abroad, to slaughter near to where the meat is produced, rather than near to where it is eaten. I find this process practicable and sensible because, from my own experience, I know that the loss of weight that can take place in a live animal between the farm and the slaughterhouse is considerable. Therefore, an animal that travels only 15 miles will, generally speaking, be more economically handled than one that travels 50 miles.

There is also the trend towards the wholesale preparation of cuts that is always going on. Therefore I think it right that organisations, whether they are private firms or public authorities, should not be prevented from taking account and advantage of all this.

It is being said that it is unrealistic nowadays for us to consult only those local authorities within 20 miles and that we should consider the effect on public slaughterhouses up to 50 miles from any proposed development. This means that we are seeking, in effect, a return to the policy of concentration. That policy was firmly rejected when the 1958 Act was passed, and there is no better case for it now. I repeat, however, that we do not lose sight of the need to consider local authority investment. Over the last five year only ten applications have been approved in the whole of England and Wales—this is turning to the national picture—for completely new undertakings, and I am sorry to say—and I freely admit this—that Manchester is not alone in making a loss on its slaughterhouse.

As both hon. Gentlemen have referred to this, I should tell them that recently I met a deputation from a number of authorities. They put their case forcefully to me and made many of the points which both hon. Friends opposite have made tonight. I promised that the question of slaughterhouse policy would be examined, and we are studying it now. As tonight's debate has shown, I believe that the problem is not simple and that we need a little time to consider it. We are treating it as a matter of urgency, and we shall deal with it as quickly as we can.

I said to the delegation, and I repeat it to the two hon. Gentlemen, that there is nothing I should like more than to visit Manchester, a city for which I have a profound love as a friend of the late John Barbirolli, the leader of the Halle Orchestra. If I could combine a visit to the City with hearing the Halle Orchestra, I should be a very happy man indeed.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at five minutes to Twelve o'clock.