HC Deb 06 March 1997 vol 291 cc1023-35

3.32 Pm

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Douglas Hogg)


Madam Speaker

Order. Will hon. Members leaving the Chamber please do so quickly and quietly? We have business to conduct here. Minister, when you are ready.

Mr. Hogg

It may be helpful if I make a statement about the report by the Meat Hygiene Service on the state of hygiene in slaughterhouses, which has been the subject of much comment in the press this morning.

The facts are as follows. The Meat Hygiene Service came into existence on 1 April 1995 as a Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food agency, and took over responsibility for enforcement of hygiene rules in slaughterhouses that had previously rested with local authorities.

One of the targets for the agency, approved by Ministers and announced to Parliament, was to carry out a review of the state of hygiene in each individual slaughterhouse in Great Britain. It was required to complete that assessment by the end of March 1996. The purposes were threefold: first, to create a comprehensive benchmarking of standards and practices within the British fresh meat industry; secondly, to allocate resources to a function previously performed by local authorities; and, thirdly, to drive up standards across the board and in individual plants.

The Meat Hygiene Service conducted its review by appointing hygiene advice teams to visit each slaughterhouse in the country to assess its score and make recommendations for improvements: a mark was given to each slaughterhouse to serve as a benchmark against future progress.

The final outcome was a comprehensive assessment of the state of hygiene that had been found and a long list of recommendations for future action. The report in its final form was always intended as an internal working document, to be used by the enforcement authorities, so it was not formally published. However, it was presented to the Meat Industry Forum—the leading representatives of meat industry organisations, with whom the Meat Hygiene Service holds regular discussions—and was the subject of frequent discussions with the industry and others. The fact of the review was also explicitly referred to on page 18 of the annual report on the Meat Hygiene Service's first year of operations, which was presented to Parliament on 17 July 1996, and placed in the Library of the House.

I will deal with some specific criticisms which have been made. Was the report turned down? The facts are as follows. Hygiene assessment teams of MHS staff prepared reports on individual plants. An editorial board, chaired by the MHS head of operations, and made up of professional staff who had all been part of advisory teams, asked Mr. Swann to compile a report on red meat.

Mr. Swann's first draft was regarded as rather unsatisfactory and not fully reflecting the views of others who had taken part in the review. Mr. Swann was asked to recast his contribution, but was not willing to do so. The editorial board then asked another senior member of Staff to redraft the section on red meat. The revised and condensed version covering both red meat and poultry was put to the industry representatives last year. The final report reflected the majority judgment of the professional veterinary staff who carried out the review.

It is said that important recommendations were not acted on, but that is untrue. Individual reports were made on specific plants and were discussed with individual operators.

Meat Hygiene Service staff are present in every slaughterhouse. In their continuing discussions, they are in a position to ensure that necessary improvements are carried out. All their work is carried out under the over-arching supervision of the State Veterinary Service.

One specific point of concern is in relation to E. colinamely that cattle should not be delivered to slaughterhouses in a dirty condition. It is quite clear that concerted action is needed by the enforcement authorities, by slaughterhouse management and by farmers, to ensure that cattle are presented for slaughter in the cleanest possible condition. The MHS has taken action. For example, ante-mortem checks are carried out on all cattle and are being tightened up. Further action is in hand. The MHS is preparing clear visual operational guidance on the standards expected and how to achieve them. It will be issued this month.

Our purpose in creating the MHS—a policy that was bitterly opposed by Opposition parties—was to drive up standards within abattoirs and the slaughtering industry. The preparation of the report and its follow-up is part of that process. Standards are constantly improving, and they are substantially better now than they were when the service was provided, to varying standards, by more than 300 local authorities. That is a tribute to the MHS, and to the Government for insisting on its creation.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

Does the Minister accept that, for many years, we have realised how vital it is to have high standards of hygiene in our slaughterhouses, and that, following the discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, it was even more important to achieve those standards because of a possible link with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease?

Does the Minister agree that the report produces alarming evidence showing just how badly the Government enforced the controls in our abattoirs to keep BSE, E. coli and other diseases out of our food? Spinal cords were not being removed, bovine specified offal bins were unmarked, and there was a major problem of faecal contamination, which could infect carcases with E. coli, salmonella and other organisms. The report also draws attention to important worries about animal welfare.

Can the Minister confirm that the report is thorough and substantial, and, indeed, that it cost some £1 million to produce? Can he confirm that it makes 81 major recommendations on abattoir practices? Can he confirm that all those recommendations are now being implemented? Can he assure us that the problems identified by the hygiene advice teams are being addressed? Does he agree with the report about the need for a proper national strategy in relation to contamination in abattoirs? When will that strategy be implemented?

May I point out to the Minister that this final report is dated December 1995? He needs no reminding that it was in March 1996—March last year—that Ministers were advised of the probability that the new variant of CJD was linked with BSE. Surely, against that background, we had a right to expect that Ministers were leaving no stone unturned to ensure that the highest standards were being implemented in our abattoirs. Surely Ministers had a responsibility to examine the situation assiduously, to ensure that all the regulations were being properly enforced—and it should be remembered that the BSE regulations were introduced as long ago as 1989.

If Ministers were carrying out that proper examination, how could they be unaware of this major report? It is not a routine report; it is not a casual document containing a few minor criticisms. It is a devastating critique of practices in our abattoirs. How was it that Professor Pennington, who has been conducting the inquiry into the tragic outbreak of E. coli in central Scotland, was unaware of the report? Why was it never shown to him? How was it that Richard Cawthorne, a United Kingdom abattoir monitor and owner, and president of the European Meat Association—he was on the radio this morning—did not see the report?

We are advised that the report was due for publication in March 1996, but it was never made public. It really is not good enough for the Minister to say in his statement that there was a reference to this major report, which was completed in March 1995, in a document that came from the Meat Hygiene Service to the House of Commons, and was placed in the Library just as the House rose for the summer recess. He has not answered the question—and his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has not answered the question—why on earth was the report not made public and put in the public domain? How can we be confident that Ministers are acting on these matters if they do not make such reports public?

Why cannot the Government understand that, on food safety matters, we have to be open and up front on everything? Is this matter not further evidence of the need for an independent food standards agency, with food safety as its No. 1 priority? Secrecy only undermines consumer confidence in the safety of our food. Yet again, another episode is leading the public to lose even more confidence in the Government on the subject of the safety of our food.

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Gentleman did not make the slightest effort to listen to what I said. I shall deal with his general points first, and then his particular points. He said that it is vital that we have proper controls in abattoirs. I entirely agree, and that is why we introduced the Meat Hygiene Service. It is true that, when practices were controlled by local authorities, they were not as good as we would wish. It is regrettable that the hon. Gentleman voted against the establishment of the Meat Hygiene Service, because it is the instrument for a national approach to the problems.

On many occasions, the hon. Gentleman referred to the document prepared by Mr. Swann in December 1995 as the final document. It was not a final report: it was not a report at all. It was a first draft requested by the editorial board, which comprised people who were all—I think—engaged in the assessment that was being carried out.

When the first draft was presented to the editorial board, the members—the professional peers of Mr. Swann—decided that the report was not satisfactory, for the reasons that they advanced, because they had carried out the assessment. They asked him to redraft it. He decided not to do so. I do not blame him, and I am not trying to be critical of any individuals. His peers asked him to revise it, and they thought it needed changing because it was not satisfactory. That he declined to do.

The editorial board then asked another expert, who had already prepared one of the chapters, to do the chapter on red meat. The chapter on red meat represented the considered view of the majority of the veterinary experts engaged in the assessment. That report was extensively circulated around the members of the industry to whom the matter was relevant, because they sat on the Meat Industry Forum. They had copies of the report, and discussed it on many occasions. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary discussed it and related matters on 22 occasions in 14 months.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang), if he had wanted to, could have asked for a copy of the report, because it was explicitly referred to on page 18 of the annual report, which he clearly has not read. Before he speaks again on such issues, I suggest that he seriously considers what is said in advance, especially given that he had a copy of my statement in advance.

Sir John Cope (Northavon)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that all the criticisms of hygiene and practices in abattoirs disclosed in the report are, in so far as they are the responsibility of regulators, the responsibility of local authorities, which were the regulators until shortly before the report was compiled? The creation of the Meat Hygiene Service brought the practices under the purview of the national Government, and enabled all the recommendations that my right hon. and learned Friend mentioned to be put into practice to improve the abattoirs, compared to their standards when they were run by the local authorities.

Mr. Hogg

My right hon. Friend is wholly right about that. There is no doubt that the control of abattoirs and slaughterhouses, when it was conducted by local authorities, was not as uniform in its application as one would have wished. The desire for national, uniform standards was the reason why the Government introduced the Meat Hygiene Service, which was wrongly opposed by the Opposition parties. The final condensed report that was given to the industry was part of the process whereby the Meat Hygiene Service assessed the nature of the problem with a view to driving up standards. That is exactly what is happening. That is a positive tribute to the Meat Hygiene Service and to the Government who set it up, and a positive condemnation of those who opposed its setting up.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

First, I sincerely commiserate with the Minister on his injury. Would he like to take this opportunity to dispel the wicked media rumour that he shot himself in the foot?

Does the Minister agree that the central issue is not whether the report was published in full, but whether its trenchant recommendations have been implemented in full? May I refer him to the particular replies given by his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister a few moments ago? He said that the recommendations were drawn to the attention of all those who had an "operational need" to be aware of them. He then went on to say that they were drawn to the attention of all those who "needed to take action".

Why, in those circumstances, did Professor Pennington tell us this morning in terms that he was not aware of the report or its recommendations, and that he had no knowledge that there were any recommendations at all which were relevant to his inquiry into the E. coli outbreak?

Mr. Hogg

Professor Pennington has indeed said that he himself did not see the final report. It is, however, clear from our inquiries that the group was aware of the exercise being undertaken by the Meat Hygiene Service.

With regard to the implementation of the recommendations, a number of activities have gone on in parallel. Perhaps the most important is that, when the meat hygiene advice teams visited each plant, they prepared a plant report which was additional to and different from the other documentation that we have been discussing. Each plant report was discussed, where discussion was necessary, with the plant operators, so it formed the basis of an operation plan within that particular plant. A copy was also sent to the regional managers of the Meat Hygiene Service. Therefore, specific plants were dealt with on a plant-by-plant basis as a result of the assessment.

More general lessons were also learned, and discussed with the industry through the forum, which had the final report in front of it and discussed it on many occasions. Hon. Members have been asking for a national policy to ensure that clean livestock enters abattoirs. That is why we set up the Meat Hygiene Service. It has insisted on that policy through its in-plant controls. This general document, which will be attached to the operators' manual, will be published shortly, and will add to the documentation available.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

Has my right hon. and learned Friend thought about the policy of transporting animals substantial distances to the larger abattoirs, which means that they often arrive much dirtier than when they went to the little local abattoir, when the farmer had already hosed them down? Will he consider the policy of closing all our small abattoirs, because at least outbreaks there do not travel over such a wide geographical area?

Mr. Hogg

I am afraid that I cannot entirely agree with my hon. Friend, because part of the policy of driving up standards in this area has been to ensure that abattoirs and slaughterhouses comply with the rules, and a number of those to which my hon. Friend refers did not comply with the rules, and that is why they were closed down. They did not provide the kind of standards that the Meat Hygiene Service wished to see in our abattoirs and slaughterhouses.

Dr. Jeremy Bray (Motherwell, South)

Does the Minister understand that there is a difference between Professor Pennington's team knowing that the work was going on—

Hon. Members

Sit down.

Madam Speaker

Order. The Minister has my permission to stand at the Dispatch Box. I hope that he will not be kept there too long, and that questions will be short and to the point. I know that he will give short answers.

Dr. Bray

Is the Minister aware that there is a difference between Professor Pennington's team knowing that the work was going on, and his being sent a copy of the final report and recommendations? Is he further aware that Dr. Ahmed, the consultant in public health medicine in charge of the outbreak control team dealing with the E. coli outbreak in my constituency, has widely been giving the advice that it must be assumed that 20 per cent. of the fresh beef sold in Scotland today is contaminated with E. coli? What action has been taken on the report?

Mr. Hogg

It is for the chairman of any inquiry or review team to determine the evidence that the team wants to receive. It is for him to determine the lines of inquiry that he wishes to pursue. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has always been ready to provide any information, evidence or material to the group. Indeed, I think that a specific offer was made by the veterinary service. Moreover, a member of the ownership group of the Meat Hygiene Service is on the Pennington group, so it is clear that the group was perfectly well aware of what was going on—the report and the fact of the review. It is for Professor Pennington to call for material that he deems relevant to his inquiry, and we would be happy to respond.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

Is not the issue at stake the following: it is extremely unlikely that, had we not created the Meat Hygiene Service, a report of that nature could ever have been prepared, because there was no mechanism at a national level for local authority-supervised abattoirs to be required to carry out such hygiene checks? As for independence, can the Minister assure me that all meat hygiene inspectors are qualified veterinary surgeons, and are being properly briefed on what needs to be done to ensure that there is no outbreak of E. coli in any of our local abattoirs, where none has taken place thus far?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend has made a serious point. When the controls were administered by 300 local authorities, before the creation of the Meat Hygiene Service, it was not possible to have an overview of what was happening in slaughterhouses—and, a fortiori, it was not possible to have a national policy to improve them. The setting up of the Meat Hygiene Service has enabled us to know precisely what is going on throughout the country, and through that knowledge, and through the existence of the agency, which was opposed by the Opposition, to drive up standards. That is a very serious improvement, attributable to the Meat Hygiene Service and to Government policy.

Mr. John Garrett (Norwich, South)

Given the increase in E. coli infection foreshadowed by the report, why did the Minister subsequently cut by £2 million the funding for food safety research being carried out by the food research institute in Norwich, which specialised in examining the causes and effects of E. coli poisoning?

Mr. Hogg

We always have to judge at any one time what are the chief priorities for scientific research. As a matter of policy, we have substantially increased the spending on research into BSE, in accordance with the wishes expressed in the House and with the peer assessment by those who know. I think that that was widely welcomed in this country.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that I took part in a Wednesday morning Adjournment debate on the Meat Hygiene Service initiated by an Opposition Member? The hon. Gentleman and I reflected the concern and unhappiness felt by many within the meat industry about the cost and the bureaucracy of the Meat Hygiene Service. Is it not odd, therefore, that the Opposition now seek to take what I regard as irresponsible advantage of the situation, in a manner that does no good to the consumer or to the industry?

In fact, perhaps even against my wishes, the Meat Hygiene Service, which has been responsible for revealing the problem, was set up against the wishes of the Opposition. Should we not make that obvious to the people of this country?

Madam Speaker

Order. I hope that, after that, questions will be short and to the point. They are much too long; they are comments and speeches, not questions. We must move on. We have another statement after this.

Mr. Hogg

Few hon. Members are more powerful than my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton). He is right to say that the Labour party opposed the instrument by which the facts are being known and the improvements carried out. That is an absurd position for the Labour party.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Does the Minister accept that Professor Hugh Pennington is not just an eminent scientist, but a truthful and mild-mannered man? He told me this morning that he had no knowledge of the report, had not seen it and was extremely angry about it. Does the Minister not think that the House should believe him? Does he not find it incredible, against the background of 20 fatalities in Scotland, that no civil servant from MAFF or the Scottish Office thought to provide the report to Hugh Pennington? Is that not a comment on the atmosphere of secrecy over which the Government and all ministerial teams preside?

Mr. Hogg

That is nonsense. Of course Professor Pennington is a man of the utmost distinction. If he says that he has not seen the report, I am not saying he has. However, people in his group knew of the existence of the review. It would have been passing strange if they did not, because it is referred to in the annual report. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where?"] Page 18. I am glad that hon. Members have got it. They will find an explicit reference to the review on page 18, paragraph 4.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

It does not say what it said.

Mr. Hogg

It was open to the hon. Gentleman to ask for a copy of the review. He did not read it at the time, and he is now kicking himself.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Stamford and Spalding)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is fatuous to suggest that any Minister can read every report produced by his Ministry, let alone every report produced by every agency under the aegis of his Ministry? It may be that some of his officials should have drawn his attention to the report or to passages in it, but if he was left in ignorance, it was hardly his fault, was it?

Mr. Hogg

Reference has been made to a report prepared by Mr. Swann. No report was prepared by Mr. Swann. He prepared a first draft, which his professional peers—and nobody else—found unsatisfactory. They wanted him to change it because it did not reflect their views, although they had helped to carry out the assessment. He decided not to do that. Consequently, another report was prepared—shorter and simpler to read—which was widely circulated in the industry. It is referred to explicitly as "the review" on page 18, paragraph 4.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

I accept that the Minister may not have seen the report, but is he seriously suggesting to the House that, when he and his fellow Ministers came to the House to answer questions and make statements about E. coli, there was nothing in their background briefing on the contents of the report? If there was nothing, should not his civil servants be sacked? If there was, and he failed to tell the House, should not he be sacked?

Mr. Hogg

There is a serious misunderstanding here. The Government have known for a long time about the problem of, for example, faecal contamination of carcases in abattoirs. That was expressly referred to in the other place by my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Howe, when talking about poultrymeat and other regulations. The problem has existed for some time. It is one reason why the Meat Hygiene Service was set up.

We have discussed the recommendations to carry on the various works. I have had discussions with the Meat Hygiene Service, and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has had discussions with the industry on many occasions.

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend have a view about why the earlier, and it seems unsatisfactory, draft of the report, which appears to have been lurking around since the end of 1995, should have been given to the press in March 1997? Does he agree that people involved in farming and the meat industry will not easily forgive those who, for purely political reasons, seek to generate a fraudulent panic about the safety of British meat?

Mr. Hogg

I suspect that many farmers and others will agree with my hon. Friend. What is absolutely certain—this is the crucial point—is that there was full discussion of the report, which was the majority view of the professionals who carried out the assessment.

That full report—28 pages of it—was put before the industry forum, which includes the National Farmers Union and others and all those in the meat industry. They had copies of it, and it was discussed. The carrying out of the review is referred to in the annual report, which was laid before the House and which has been placed in the Library of the House. Any hon. Member who wanted a copy of the document had only to ask, and we would have been pleased to send one to them.

Mr. Tony Banks

On the radio this morning, the Parliamentary Secretary said that she had not seen a copy of the report, and that it had not been drawn to her attention. With the benefit of hindsight, to which the Minister referred earlier, does he accept that it would have been better if the report had been drawn to the attention of Ministers?

Mr. Hogg

It is for Ministers to lay down policy. The implementation of the policy is the responsibility of the agency. In this case, the agency was doing three things: first, it established the benchmarks by which one can identify progress in the future; secondly, because it was taking over responsibility for functions previously held by local authorities, it determined the allocation of staff, both regionally and plant by plant; and thirdly, it wanted to use the process as the mechanism for driving up standards. All those things come into the category of implementing policy.

I have the highest confidence in the chief executive of the Meat Hygiene Service. He knows his function, which is to tackle this sort of problem. He will keep Ministers informed about the detailed implementation to the extent that he deems necessary, but he is primarily responsible for the implementation of the policy, and I have every confidence in him.

Mr. Mark Robinson (Somerton and Frome)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend share my disappointment at the way in which the matter has been reported, particularly on television programmes today? The sight of filthy animals going into abattoirs caused me to telephone Southern Counties and Romford Meats to ask what it would do if it was presented with animals in that condition. I was told, unequivocally, that any such animals would be sent straight back to where they came from.

Mr. Hogg

That is absolutely right. If one looks at the report, which was circulated among the industry and was the subject of discussion within the industry, one can see that great weight is placed upon the ante-mortem inspections. It is made plain in that document that, if cattle are presented in a filthy state, they will be rejected. It is important for everybody in the industry to understand that, if cattle turn up at an abattoir in the state to which some people have referred, they will be sent straight back to where they came from.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

On several occasions, the Minister has mentioned page 18, paragraph 4 of the Meat Hygiene Service report. Will he confirm that that survey makes no reference to the report under discussion—either the draft report or the subsequent report—and talks merely about a "national review" taking place? That review could presumably have led to a report later. If that is to be interpreted as a report, why are Opposition Members guilty of not having read the report, when Ministers are held to be innocent for not having seen it or had it presented to them?

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Gentleman has not done me justice. I said in the statement that the fact—only the fact—of the review was explicitly referred to on page 18 of the annual report.

Mr. Tony Banks

We have all got it.

Mr. Hogg

I am glad that everyone has it. The hon. Gentleman should read it. In case he cannot understand it, I shall read some of it for him. Paragraph 4 on page 18 says: MHS Hygiene Advice Teams (HATs) involved two-person teams of experienced OVSs and MHIs who, during 1995/96, assessed, through individual plant audits—

the point that I made to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler)— standards and inspection processes at all licensed premises throughout Great Britain. This national review provided the first comprehensive benchmarking of standards and practices within the fresh meat industry"—

and it goes on. I have never heard of a review that does not generate a document.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Have there been any prosecutions as a result of the report? I believe that there have. If so, is that not evidence of its great value in driving up standards as my right hon. and learned Friend said, and would not reports of such prosecutions have provided an opportunity for the Opposition and anyone else to pick up information about the report? Should not Professor Pennington have done that also?

Mr. Hogg

The report and the process have indeed driven up standards; that is plain from the report that was discussed by the industry forum. I do not know the number of prosecutions offhand, so I shall write to my hon. Friend. I can tell him, however, that I have told the chief executive of the Meat Hygiene Service that, if the facts justify it, he must not hesitate to prosecute.

Mr. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood)

Will the Minister tell us clearly when he read the annual report of the Meat Hygiene Service, a copy of which was placed in the Library before the last summer vacation? Why, when he read it, did he not call for a copy of that damning report? He cannot have it both ways: he cannot argue that Opposition Members should have asked for the report when he himself never asked for it.

Mr. Hogg

I have already made the position plain. Ministers are responsible for policy. In this class of case, the implementation of policy is the responsibility of the Meat Hygiene Service. I am absolutely confident in the quality of that service and in the competence of its chief executive. I am happy to leave to him the responsibility for implementation, which is a role imposed on him by Parliament.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that some people in the west midlands and Staffordshire—the owners of abattoirs that have had to close or have had to have a great deal of money spent on them to bring them up to the standards required by the Meat Hygiene Service—will be pretty sick of this debate? They will know that Her Majesty's inspectors went in and made such closures as a result of that review. Is it not further the case that, if it had been left to the Labour party, there would have been no Meat Hygiene Service and no review?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend is entirely right. It is true that, if it had been left to the Labour party, we would have had no Meat Hygiene Service, no report, no review, no discussion, and standards would not have been driven up. It is also true—there is a certain irony here—that most of the complaints that I have received are not about low standards and so forth, but about closing small abattoirs because of the higher standards. The plain truth is that we are driving standards up, and, as a consequence, some small abattoirs have been closed.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

The charge, surely, is that the annual report of the Meat Hygiene Service, which was published in June last year, gave no warning—least of all to people who, like me, are interested in the matter—that there was anything so bad in our slaughterhouses. I have read the Swann report, and it makes chilling reading. The Minister said that the purpose of the report was to establish benchmarks in the slaughterhouse industry. How many slaughterhouses were not up to standard in December 1995, and how many in March 1996, when the BSE crisis broke? He should have the figures at his fingertips.

Mr. Hogg

The review process had three purposes: first, to establish benchmarking and to take an overview of the state of the industry, which had previously been in the hands of the local authorities; secondly, to determine the allocation of resources; and thirdly, to drive up standards, both nationally through national practices, and on a plant basis, by on-plant discussion with the plant operator, based on the plant report. There is no doubt that the effect of that process has been greatly to improve standards.

If the Labour party had had its way, this business would still be in the hands of the local authorities; we would not be having this discussion; standards would be as they were when they were in the control of local authorities; and we would all be much worse off.

Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)

Is it not regrettable that some people are willing to use food scares to embarrass the Government, and, in doing so, unnecessarily alarm members of the public? Was there not a typical example of that this afternoon, when the Leader of the Opposition stirred it for all he was worth but did not even stay to hear the facts from my right hon. and learned Friend?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that. The Leader of the Opposition asked my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister three questions on the report and then walked out, even though he knew that a statement was coming. If he was seriously interested in the matter, and not merely trying to make cheap political capital, he would have listened to the facts. He did not, and the country will judge him accordingly.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Can I tell the Minister that the Leader of the Opposition is one of the few Members who has read the whole report? The Minister has all his Ministers with him. Did any Minister or civil servant issue an instruction. write a letter or send a memo to anyone suggesting that this report be given only limited circulation because of the danger of it generating concern among the British public?

Mr. Hogg

I had hoped that, by explaining the process, I would have answered questions such as this. [HoN. MEMBERS: "Answer."] Mr. Swann carried out, along with others, assessments of abattoirs. He was asked by the editorial board, which comprised his peers, to produce a first report. That editorial board found, in its professional judgment, that the draft report was unsatisfactory. It asked him to make changes; he declined. At that point, it commissioned another expert, who was also involved in the assessment—he had done the poultry section—to do the red meat section, and that he did. The report that emerged and that was subsequently circulated to the industry represents the majority view of the veterinary experts who carried out the review, and no other.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

May I ask a troubling constituency question? West Lothian council and I endlessly, over three years, wrote to and met Scottish Office officials about the outbreak at Redhouse dairy in Blackburn in my constituency, which was the first E. coli 0157 outbreak in recent times. Are we to understand that neither the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson), nor the Earl of Lindsay, the Minister responsible for agriculture, nor the Secretary of State for Scotland was alerted to the report?

When my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) asked, very properly, about the figure of £1 million, the Parliamentary Secretary shook her head. What were the costs of the report, and why was it not brought to the attention of Scottish Office Ministers, who were faced on a day-to-day basis with the entreaties of West Lothian council and others who were affected?

Mr. Hogg

The cost, speaking off the cuff, was not £1 million. I think that it was £454,000, but if I am wrong, I apologise, and I will write to the hon. Gentleman. On the report's availability, the final report—the one that was circulated to the industry—was made available to all concerned, including the Scottish Office.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

Am I right in saying that, when the Minister placed the document to which he referred in the House of Commons Library, he assumed that there was another document associated with it? Is he telling the House that that is what the paragraph to which he referred means? Does he ever ask for such documents to be brought to his attention, or has he published a paragraph in that report which he did not understand? Is that not an indictment of him?

Mr. Hogg

I have never said that a copy of the final report was laid in the Library. What was laid in the Library was the annual report, which states in terms in paragraph 4 on page 18 that a review was carried out. As anyone who knows anything about government knows full well, a review generates a report. If anyone wanted the report, he had only to get on the telephone and ask for it. I would have sent him a lordly number.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Have we not seen today a deplorable exhibition of casuistry by the Minister, who admits that he has received a report in his Department which cost half a million pounds and made the most serious complaints about the state of the meat hygiene industry? He was unaware of the seriousness of the report, and neither he nor his Ministers asked to see the report. Is that not a confession of incompetence?

Does the Minister not think that the country is getting fed up with the weekly promulgation by members of the Government of their doctrine of ministerial infallibility? Why is it that everything that goes wrong is the result of the work of officials, and everything that goes right is the result of the work of Ministers?

Mr. Hogg

Just occasionally, Opposition Members should try to get their minds around the simplest of propositions. Just to encourage them, I will repeat it. Policy is a matter for Ministers. As this is a particular case, the implementation of policy is a matter for the agency. I have total confidence in the chief executive. He has put in hand a process which has informed the industry what needs to happen and is driving up standards. Had the matter been left as the Labour party wanted it, there would have been no improvement of any kind.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

Most consumers will have welcomed the establishment of the Meat Hygiene Service and its drive for higher standards, and will have noted that its inception was opposed by the main Opposition party. Can my right hon. and learned Friend assure me and all other United Kingdom consumers that meat and meat products that are imported into Britain are slaughtered and transported to the same high standards that apply in this country?

Mr. Hogg

I have always said, because I believed it, that British beef, as now is, is the best and safest in Europe. The reason for that is the rules we put into place, such as the 30-month rule, controls on cattle rations and controls in abattoirs. I want to see, and I am pressing for, similar regimes in Europe. Until the Europeans have put those things in place, I shall continue saying and believing that British beef is the best and safest in the Community.