HC Deb 21 October 1992 vol 212 cc536-44

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

10.32 pm
Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)

I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for selecting this subject for debate, since it is of crucial importance to rural communities in the United Kingdom. It is instructive to see how the Labour Benches are emptying. Opposition Members were screaming about employment prospects for one group in the community earlier today and beating their breasts about the perils of unemployment, yet they do not see fit to stay to defend the jobs of the rural community which remain under threat from some of the resolutions which are before us today.

At the outset we must ask who directive 497 and some of the subsequent regulations have been made for. Have they been made for British consumers, who have not been subject to any particular disease processes in the food chain? Have they been made for British farmers, who might now find themselves disadvantaged? Have they been made for British animals, who might now find themselves transported over greater distances to slaughterhouses? Have they been made for the rural communities, which might now have to face higher unemployment and more hardship? Perhaps they have been made for fellow European farmers.

By studying the statistics, I have found that the answer to all those questions must be no. The only conclusion that I can draw is that the regulations are drawn up to suit the bureaucrats of Brussels and beyond.

I thank my fellow Conservative Members of Parliament, and not only those from the west country. I single out my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) and my hon. Friends the Members for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Robinson) and for Wansdyke (Mr. Aspinwall) for their tremendous support in this venture. I also thank the many Conservative Members who have been in touch with their local branches of the National Farmers Union and who have shown great sympathy in the issue, which affects the whole of the United Kingdom and not merely the south-west.

The issue is of particular importance to the south-west because of the number of small abattoirs there. The effect of directive 497 cannot be underestimated. The Federation of Fresh Meat Wholesalers has said that it will cost about £400,000 for the smaller slaughterhouses to reach the level of standards of structural change required by the directive, and an infinitely greater sum for some of the larger ones. That is unacceptable.

The most recent information supplied to the Commons Library by the Meat and Livestock Commission said that it expects the number of slaughterhouses to fall from 670 to possibly fewer than 350. That is extremely serious.

Why do we face that situation? Several factors are involved. First is the question of grants. Why is it that in Belgium, France and parts of Germany grants are available to small slaughterhouses to make the structural changes required by the directive, but the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has not made those grants available to small British abattoirs? I expect to hear a clear statement on that from the Minister this evening.

The second factor is derogation. Eighty derogations have been approved so far for the United Kingdom, and 512 have been applied for. I may be very simple, but it seems to me that the majority want to stay in business. The Government are asking for structural plans and for three-year business plans so that small abattoirs show that they want to stay in business for the full three years. In the present economic climate, what business in the United Kingdom can give an absolute guarantee that it will be in business in three years' time? Does not the Minister think that that is an unrealistic question in this year?

The third question is animal transport. I have had many submissions on that subject from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and other interested groups. If we lose small slaughterhouses, animals will have to be transported over ever greater distances to be slaughtered. That cannot be in the interests of animal welfare, which is extremely important to many of my constituents and to those of many of the hon. Members remaining in the Chamber.

An additional welfare question concerns casualty stock. At present, an animal can be taken to the closest abattoir. Under the changes, if small abattoirs go out of business, animals will either be transported over a greater distance or, if there is a spare vet—which will be unlikely—they could be shot on the spot and then taken. It is far more likely that they will be taken to the knacker's yard and used for pet food, with a subsequent loss of income to our hard-pressed farmers; that cannot be in the interests of the farming community.

On top of all that, there is the issue of competition. If there is a reduction in the number of small slaughterhouses, there will be far less competition in the sector and far more price fixing. Therefore, smaller farmers in the south-west will find it far more difficult to obtain the sort of economic deal that they require to make their businesses viable. Competition lies at the heart of the Government's policy, and we must be willing to maintain it at all costs.

What about those with small numbers of stock who wish to take three or four animals per week to slaughter? Will they be dealt with by the large slaughterhouses which have contracts with Tesco or Sainsbury? No, they will not—such slaughterhouses are designed for a steady throughput, and it would be uneconomic to put only a few animals through. Therefore, there will be more farmyard slaughter which will not improve animals' welfare or hygiene in the food chain. It will go against all the standards that we rightly set out to maintain.

Conservative Members are not complaining about the directive. We are not talking about the implications for public health or food hygiene—we are right behind all those aims, as every right-minded citizen should be. We want the Government to take a sympathetic attitude to the implementation of the directive.

As if all those problems were not enough to bear, new veterinary charges have been imposed on our small slaughterhouses. Having escaped the knife of Europe, it now seems that they are to be sacrificed on the high altar of domestic bureaucracy. They are being asked to stomach charges when vets come to make ante-mortem and post-mortem inspections in addition to the existing meat inspections, although meat inspectors have many years of experience and have never been shown to be inadequate. That creates a monopoly for vets whereby they can charge the small abattoirs not only £41 per hour as at present—in the poultry sector the charges are already £48 per hour or more—but a standing charge for appearing, unsocial hour charges and travel-to-work expenses.

Baker's slaughterhouse in Nailsea in my constituency has estimated that those charges alone, irrespective of the structural changes that it will have to make, will impose additional costs on it of £40,000 to £45,000 per year. That is inconsistent with the survival of many slaughterhouses in the south-west of this country.

Quite rightly, much anxiety has been expressed in the House today about the loss of jobs throughout the country—possibly 8,000, with the closure of 10 pits. In the south-west, there could be job losses of 1,000 to 1,500 from the closure of the small slaughterhouses alone. There is no beating of breasts about it; Opposition Members are not screaming about it. My small farmers who might go out of business are not being offered £37,000. I want to know why.

Today we are looking for flexibility. I accept that we need decent health and public hygiene regulations for our slaughterhouses, but will the Minister consider a possible compromise? While we accept that, for the sake of public confidence, we must maintain veterinary inspection in our small slaughterhouses, why does it have to be all day and every day that they are slaughtering? Why cannot there be as—for sheep dipping—regular inspections of which the houses are given warning so that they are encouraged to keep up their standards, without the penal levels of funding otherwise required?

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

Will my hon. Friend emphasise a point that I think he has missed—that the slaughterhouse is essential for the community of the town? If it is taken away, one begins to destroy part of the agricultural base of many communities and towns in the south-west. It is imperative for my hon. Friend the Minister to understand that.

Dr. Fox

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. All too often in the House we measure everything in pounds, shillings and pence—if I may say that in this communautaire age. We are talking about the quality of life in a rural community. People should be able to go to their local butcher and get the cuts of meat they want, and not have to go to the nearest Tesco or Sainsbury for it. The quality of life in rural areas is being put at risk by the attempt to impose, by means of a centralised European directive, a certain solution across the whole Community which takes no account of regional variations.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is disgraceful that the Opposition Front Bench is not manned for this debate and that only one Labour Member—and from an urban constituency—is here?

Does my hon. Friend further agree that, although we may implement the conditions of the regulations, we know full well that people on the other side of the channel, especially in Spain and France, will not do so? Is not that diabolical? If the far west of Cornwall loses its abattoirs, that will mean immeasurable suffering for animals and for rural communities.

Dr. Fox

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The only surprising aspect of his intervention was his surprise that no one is on the Opposition Front Bench. The Opposition have no interest in rural issues, yet they are the very people who make the biggest fuss about the environment and social issues. They have no interest in what happens outside towns. It is a symptom of the increasing urbanisation of our politics that the Opposition show not the slightest interest in an issue that affects large parts of the United Kingdom.

What is happening in the rest of Europe is certainly important. My plea to the Minister is: whatever directives are implemented in the United Kingdom, will the Government ensure that they are equally implemented in the rest of Europe? The farming sector is sick and tired of being made to follow one set of directives in the United Kingdom, fully policed, while different practices are followed in the rest of the Community, inadequately policed. Surely it is not too much to ask for fairness.

This week I have received many letters from constituents on this issue. One of them said to me, "Please ask the Minister for fairness and flexibility. If we are not given them, there will be no slaughterhouses left in this constituency." Then the south-west will lose more than its small slaughterhouses; we will have lost part of our community and our quality of life—and that is too much for us to bear.

10.46 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nicholas Soames)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) on securing such an important debate about a matter dear to the heart of Ministers. It is, as my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) says, extraordinary that the Labour party should not even field a Front-Bench spokesman for so important a debate. And only one Labour Member, the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), who has always taken a close interest in rural affairs, is present.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is seized of the real importance and difficulty of this matter and of the crucial importance that it represents to the farming communities of all my hon. Friends who have stayed behind tonight. My hon. Friends the Members for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), for Wells (Mr. HeathcoatAmory), for Westbury (Mr. Faber), for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Robertson), for Wansdyke (Mr. Aspinwall), and for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), have all drawn my attention to the important contribution which the slaughterhouse industry makes to the local economy and to the needs of farmers, and to the need to ensure that these necessary new regulations are introduced sensibly and sensitively.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Will the Minister acknowledge that my colleagues from the south-west have also made representations to him? In the absence of an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, may I say that we welcome the determination of the Minister and his colleagues, while in the European Community driving seat, to ensure not only that the details of the regulations are fair but also their enforcement? We look for action and results by the end of the year.

Mr. Soames

I freely acknowledge the presence of a large number of Liberal Members who, representing rural seats, take a close interest in these matters. Many of them have written to me, and, I hope, have received prompt replies.

I shall set the new legislation in context. As my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring has said, there has been a steady decline in slaughterhouse numbers in Great Britain over the past 20 years. In 1972, there were 1,890 red meat slaughterhouses. In 1982 there were only 1,062, already a substantial fall, and we now expect licence applications from just under 600 in 1992. They have closed as consumers have demanded better quality and more hygienically produced meat. That is because of consumers' growing preference for one-stop shopping, with all that that implies—many of them not necessarily for the better. Therefore, with or without these new rules, the number of slaughterhouses would continue to decline.

About half the meat produced in this country already comes from slaughterhouses which comply with European Community standards. In preparation for the single market, the Commission published in 1990 a package of proposals extending the scope of the long-standing EC hygiene directives to cover all meat production, and not just that intended for intra-Community trade. The new red meat directive has been implemented in Great Britain by the Fresh Meat (Hygiene and Inspection) Regulations 1992 which were laid before the House on 10 September.

In drafting these rules, we had full and close consultation with the industry which, having suffered for years from the cumulative effects of various food scares and highly alarmist media coverage, recognised the need to make sure that the highest possible standards are operated at all stages of the production chain, from the farm, right through to the retail shop. The Government for their part took the view that implementation of the single market rules offered the opportunity to ensure that, against the background of the continuing rationalisation of the industry, those slaughterhouses which survived were the ones which were willing to invest in maintaining the best possible level of hygiene.

Consumers increasingly demand that the meat that they buy comes from animals which have been reared in accordance with good sound husbandry and welfare practices. My hon. Friends will appreciate that the brilliant characteristics of this country's husbandry will be an immense advantage to our farmers in securing further export markets.

Consumers wish to be sure that animals have been slaughtered humanely and in hygienic conditions.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

Joseph Morris of South Kilworth in my constituency has the strong backing of innumerable consumers who enjoy his product and wish to continue to buy it. Unfortunately, he cannot afford to employ a vet full time. Could my hon. Friend the Minister look into that? Mr. Morris, who is a slaughterman, will be put out of business by the new regulations.

Mr. Soames

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing that case to my attention. If he writes to me, I shall look into the matter in detail. I shall speak about official vets later.

For the reasons that I have outlined, the Government have fully supported the principle of a common hygiene standard throughout the European Community. As my hon. Friends know, the public are now exposed to far more information than in the past—and unfortunately misinformation, as those of us who sat through the Opposition day motion on BSE before the summer recess know. We witnessed the serious damage that Labour's allegations caused to the beef industry in this country. Unfortunately, people are exposed to more misinformation by ill-informed sensation-seeking media about food and its risks and benefits than they were 10 or 20 years ago. As a result, they are much more interested in and critical of the practices involved in food production.

The time has come to do away with the distinction between meat produced for the EC export market and meat produced for home consumption. The new regulations replace nearly all existing British legislation on red meat hygiene. They come into operation on 1 January 1993 when all slaughterhouses, cutting premises and cold stores will need a current licence from the relevant territorial agricultural department.

Dr. Fox

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Soames

I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not. I must get on.

The regulations should come as no surprise to anyone, in view of the high degree of consultation that has taken place. Last year we circulated more than 10,000 copies of an information pack describing exactly what was required post-1992. They made it plain that the fresh meat regulations apply to all slaughterhouses and to wholesale premises where red meat is cut up or stored. Premises that supply the final consumer directly—for example, butchers' shops—are exempt.

Dr. Fox

I follow my hon. Friend's argument about exporting meat, but what are the domestic reasons in terms of health hygiene? We have an excellent record of meat inspection. For example, many of our animals are inspected at livestock markets before going to slaughter. Why are our domestic farmers being penalised? I fail to understand why extra precautions are being introduced when there has not been a hygiene failure in the market.

Mr. Soames

I shall come to that, if my hon. Friend will allow me to develop my argument.

The hygiene requirements of the regulations merely reflect the good hygiene practices which have been embodied in our legislation for some time and which domestic slaughterhouses should have been following in any event. I am sure that my hon. Friend will accept, however, that there is, in some plants, clear and irrefutable evidence of a need to achieve real improvements in day-to-day hygiene if the plants are to remain in business.

There are some new structural requirements in the rules. They are all designed to ensure that meat is protected from contamination during the production process. However, we negotiated for extra time to be made available after 1992 for businesses that are committed to achieving the new structural standards but are unable to do so before the regulations come into force. Over 1,600 businesses in England and Wales, including over 500 slaughterhouses, have indicated that they wish to upgrade. Our field staff are working closely with them to agree what needs to be done.

We are being as flexible as we possibly can—I ask my hon. Friends to accept that that is the position—in the advice that we are giving. The local Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food veterinarian and the plant operators are working together to find the best solutions to problems within the context of the regulations. Where my hon. Friends find that there are problems in this context, I shall be grateful if they will get in touch with me. If they do so, I shall have the matter thoroughly investigated.

There are less onerous structural requirements for slaughterhouses which slaughter less than 12 livestock units a week for supply to the home market. There are no derogations from the hygiene requirements, and all premises, in order to be licensed, will need to comply with the requirements from 1 January 1993. We are conscious of the need to maintain a sense of balance where premises need extra time to make structural changes, and we are looking for sensible short-term expedients to protect hygiene that will not soak up the funds that are needed for major works.

I accept that, because of past under-investment, the regulations will require many red meat plants previously operating only in the domestic market to incur considerable expenditure on upgrading their premises. On the other hand, many operators have already invested considerable sums of their own money in bringing their premises up to European Community standards. They are understandably concerned that their competitors should also have to improve their premises. They are already aggrieved that those same competitors may be given up to three years after 1992 in which to do it.

The House would not expect me to go into any confidential details of the individual premises that we are intending to license. I can give the assurance, however, that, if any premises close as a result of the introduction of the fresh meat regulations, it will be because they cannot meet the required hygiene standards or they have made a commercial decision not to invest in the requisite structural upgrading.

Everyone in the industry recognises that there is over-capacity in the British slaughterhouse sector. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that those who are prepared to achieve the best meat production and hygiene standards should be the ones that survive. In my view, that is only right and proper.

When we consulted publicly on the fresh meat regulations, it was clear from the responses that we received that there was considerable concern about the extension of veterinary supervision to the domestic meat market. I know that it is a matter that concerns many hon. Members who are now in their places. It is a controversial requirement in the United Kingdom, but in most other member states veterinary supervision of meat and animal products for public health purposes has always been the norm even for meat sold on the domestic market.

We fully support the principle of veterinary supervision at the slaughterhouse and, in particular, the requirement that an official veterinary surgeon should inspect every animal, ante-mortem, to detect animals which may be suffering from conditions liable to render the carcase of the animal unfit for human consumption. Veterinary surgeons receive training that uniquely equips them to detect these problems and to give expert assessment of animal welfare in the lairage.

We appreciated from the start that the directive's requirements on supervision would have significant implications for plant operators who will have to meet the increased costs of the inspection regime. We are aware that that was borne out by the responses to our public consultation exercise and by the letters that we have received from hon. Members.

In our guidance to local authorities on how to implement the regulations, we have sought to give them as much flexibility as we can. It will be for the local authorities to decide what the most cost-effective arrangements will be in their particular circumstances. We have drafted the guidance in such a way that, for example, a veterinarian based at a large slaughterhouse might also be able to supervise one or two smaller premises in the area. I would urge local authorities to take full advantage of the flexibility that we have made available to maximise the use of all available staff, including the meat inspectors who play a very valuable role in ensuring the safety of our food.

Local authorities should consider whether they can co-operate over the provision of official veterinary surgeon services and to see whether some change to the hours of slaughter in slaughterhouses in their area would help to make best use of OVS staff and minimise the cost to the operators. On this point, of course, the slaughterhouses themselves have a significant role to play.

What we cannot do is regulate the individual contracts between the OVS and the local authority. I know that there is some concern about these charges but they are a matter for local negotiation and will, inevitably, be subject to the operation of market forces.

I do not believe it would be in the interests of our meat industry to exclude any slaughterhouse from the requirement for veterinary supervision. That would be contrary both to the European legislation and to the interest of consumers. There is a real danger that other member states could challenge lax controls or use them as an excuse not to allow imports of our beef. Furthermore, they would introduce an element of distortion between slaughterhouses in the same area, and I think that my hon. Friends would agree that it is hardly likely that we will get a level playing field in Europe if we cannot even establish a level playing field in the United Kingdom.

In conclusion, I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring that we shall be sensible and flexible in our interpretation and application of the new regulations. I recognise that it is not easy for businesses to finance major structural improvements at present. We will do all that we can to be sensitive to firms that are genuinely committed to reaching the new standards, but we cannot and will not ignore bad hygiene practices.

My hon. Friend raised a number of other points in connection with the travelling of animals, grants and casualty slaughter and, because of the time constraints, I will, if I may, write to him in detail about those points.

If premises close, it will be either because they cannot or will not improve their hygiene standards or because they have taken the commercial decision not to invest in the future of their business. At the end of the day, I have no doubt that the British consumer will continue to enjoy the best meat in the world, prepared in premises that will be the equal of anything in Europe. I want to assure my hon. Friend that we take seriously the extremely important matter that he has raised tonight and we will ensure, to the best of our ability, that no one will be disadvantaged.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes past Eleven o'clock.