HC Deb 12 March 1997 vol 292 cc372-86 4.25 pm
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Douglas Hogg)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I will make a statement about the standards of hygiene in Great Britain's abattoirs. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister told this House yesterday, this is an issue that the Government take very seriously indeed, and I therefore welcome the opportunity to set out the facts.

Before going into any detail, I wish to emphasise that, before any red meat carcase goes into the food chain, it has to be individually stamped by Meat Hygiene Service inspectors as fit for human consumption. This is a critical safeguard, the existence of which is being ignored in the welter of comment appearing over the last few days.

Until 1995, standards and rules in abattoirs were enforced, with varying rigour, by over 300 local authorities. This was not a satisfactory state of affairs. For this reason, we set up the Meat Hygiene Service—a major reform that was strongly opposed by the Labour party and others. The MHS has been in operation for two years. In the first year, the MHS was required to carry out a review of all slaughterhouses in Great Britain to record standards, to establish a baseline for measuring future progress and to decide how to allocate resources for enforcement. This is the exercise to which I referred in my statement last week.

In order to raise standards within abattoirs, the MHS was set formal targets. In the first year, the MHS was set a target of increasing by 10 points the scores of those plants which were below 65 on a scale of 0 to 100. This target was met in full. For 1996–97, it was required to ensure that at least two thirds of the plants exceeded 65. It seems likely that this target will be met. Although these scores are a useful mechanism for driving up standards, I should again emphasise that all red meat must be passed fit for human consumption.

In addition, the MHS has taken a number of further steps. Thus, we have drawn up an operations manual which for the first time sets out a national standard on hygiene and, in the hands of MHS inspectors, is a vital tool for raising such standards. It specifically covers the steps to be taken so as to exclude "dirty livestock"—a policy which, as I said last week, we will shortly be reinforcing in graphic form.

Also, since concern has been expressed that supervision in some plants may be inadequate, the MHS has carried out a major review of supervision levels. As a result, the contracts now being placed with official veterinary surgeons will ensure that sufficient time is put in at each plant in 1997–98. Furthermore, the State Veterinary Service, which oversees the MHS, has carried out an audit of the MHS's methods in its application of both the operation manual and the scoring system. I will shortly be discussing with those responsible for the audit how best to carry forward their recommendations.

I should also mention the steps we have taken over the past year to strengthen the capacity of the Meat Hygiene Service. More than 450 additional staff have been assigned to the agency, and although these extra staff were appointed to apply BSE-related rules, they will of course reinforce inspection overall in abattoirs. Enforcement of the BSE rules themselves was tightened up sharply and, as the House has been informed on past occasions, compliance with the rules in that specific area is now satisfactory.

What I have described is action already taken: I will now deal with action in hand. We have been working with the MHS on a joint action plan to drive standards upwards, targeting both the most serious problems and the plants with particular difficulties. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning), put the main specific action points to a meeting of leading meat industry representatives on 18 February.

First, the MHS will accelerate its work on defining standards for clean livestock—standards already defined in the MHS operations manual will be set out in the graphic document to which I have already referred. Secondly, it must be clearly understood that no carcase showing any signs of faecal contamination should be submitted for approval as fit for human consumption. Thirdly, we shall shortly start the publication of the findings of enforcement activity on a regular basis. Fourthly, principal official veterinary surgeons, who are the most experienced veterinary surgeons, will be given a larger role in managing OVSs and meat inspectors.

Fifthly, MHS staff will be given extra training in hygiene standards. Sixthly, OVS attendance will be stepped up at plants with poor hygiene scores. Seventhly, a new industry-Government working group will be set up to concert the drive to higher standards. Eighthly, the State Veterinary Service will intensify its audit activity, which will provide the basis for yet further action. I have told the chief executive that in appropriate cases infringement of the rules should result in prosecution: also, where appropriate, consideration will be given to the revocation of licences.

The knowledge which the MHS has now of meat hygiene is clearly relevant to Professor Pennington's inquiry into E. coli. It is important that the Pennington group should have access to this knowledge. Professor Pennington has been offered a statement, to be drawn up by the chief executive of the MHS.

I am well aware that public concern over meat hygiene has been heightened by the reports of the past few days. In my view those reports are misleading and do not take account of the important progress made over the past 18 months. I do not pretend that there is not scope for further improvement, but I can assure the House that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the other Agriculture Departments and the MHS have been and remain determined to drive up standards, and we are succeeding.

I turn now to the pieces of paper produced by the Opposition in recent days from various quarters and of various dates. They may yet produce more such documents—knowing them, I suppose that they will. I will not speculate as to the motives behind their production, but the proximity of a general election is probably one. However, those documents must be seen in the context of our policy to improve standards. Set in that context, they do not detract at all from the facts which are as I have just stated them to be.

The Meat Hygiene Service will apply the rules ever more strictly, and this requirement will be reflected in the Meat Hygiene Service targets for 1997–98. Each plant now knows where its weak points are. Plants that are found repeatedly to have low standards will face progressively stricter attention from the meat inspectors and, as I have said, in appropriate cases prosecutions and licence revocations will ensue. Our purpose is to bring up our abattoir practice to the very best possible standards.

There is much public interest in this matter. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister told the House yesterday that he was taking a personal interest in our efforts to drive up standards. I therefore intend to place a fuller version of this statement, containing additional detail about the measures to which I have referred, as an information paper in the Library of the House of Commons. I hope to do so by the end of the week. That will provide the basis for a more informed discussion than that which has taken place during the past few days.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

These are serious matters. The House and the country are well aware of the importance of ensuring that health and hygiene controls in our slaughterhouses are maintained. We know that BSE is the most likely cause of new variant CJD, which is why it is so important to keep all the offal out of our food—the offal which can contain the BSE agent. We know that faecal contamination is a source of E. coli, which tragically resulted in more than 20 deaths in this country.

I advise the Minister that the House wants to know today what he knew about bad practices in our abattoirs, when he knew about them and what he did about them. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] The Minister referred in his statement to the Meat Hygiene Service review. As the Minister said, that was the report which the House addressed last week, but he seems to have forgotten the appalling breaches of hygiene highlighted in that report. Spinal cords were not removed, bovine specified material bins were unmarked and there was a major problem with faecal contamination.

Does the Minister remember that that report was not publicised? Indeed, it was not passed to Professor Pennington's inquiry on E. coli. The Minister seemed to say today on the radio that it was Professor Pennington's fault. Indeed, the Minister, who we assumed had left no stone unturned to drive up standards in our slaughterhouses, said that he himself had not seen the report. It was a comprehensive and devastating report, but it was summarised, it was sanitised and it was made available to only a few people in the industry.

Last Thursday, however, the Minister said, not to worry: he had made sure that everything was all right in our abattoirs and, although he had not seen the recommendations of the hygiene advisory team, he was confident that standards—I use his words—were "constantly improving".

But this week we find that, for the past nine months, the Association of Meat Inspectors has been warning Ministers and others that there are serious problems in our abattoirs and that in some respects in some places they have even been getting worse. Is the Minister aware that, on 11 February 1997, in a letter to the Parliamentary Secretary, the general secretary of the Association of Meat Inspectors warned that there has been no improvement in standards of hygiene, and sadly faecal contamination appears to be becoming an acceptable infringement of the regulations"? Does that point, and the other points in the letter, not worry the Minister? Surely he takes those criticisms seriously. It is no use his seeking to dismiss the general secretary's letters; if he does, I suggest that he has a look at the "Frontline Scotland" programme that was shown in Scotland last night, which again focused attention on some of these major and appalling breaches.

The Minister referred in his statement to the State Veterinary Service; rightly so. The State Veterinary Service has a crucial role in all these matters, especially in ensuring that we have the highest standards in our slaughterhouses. I hope that hon. Members know that we had just under 600 state vets when the Conservatives came to power. Now we have fewer than 300. In a written answer to me last week, the Minister confirmed that we have 289 state vets in 1997. Last year, we had 301, and there were 394 in 1995. Against a background of apparent concern about tackling the issue, we see the number of state vets continuing to plummet.

For the Minister, BSE means "blame someone else". He blamed the Opposition, he blamed Europe and he blamed the public for BSE. He blamed Mr. Swann, the editor of the hygiene advice team report, and today he and his colleagues have tried to blame the general secretary of the Association of Meat Inspectors. Does the Minister recognise that his "blame someone else" approach will not work? Every time Ministers come to the House and tell us that they have a grip on food safety, it quickly becomes clear that they do not.

Surely the Minister understands that food safety standards and hygiene in our slaughterhouses have been matters of concern not for months, but for years. It is almost a year since the Minister came to the House of Commons and made the statement that triggered the beef crisis. Yet there is a widespread public belief that those issues are still not being addressed. Is it not clear that we must establish an open and independent food standards agency? There is no place for secrecy in food safety.

Is the Minister aware that his statement this afternoon utterly fails to address adequately the issues raised by the Opposition? He is not tackling those problems effectively. There is no confidence in him or in his Government as far as food safety issues are concerned. We need a general election, and a fresh start with a new Government.

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) used an awful lot of words to say remarkably little. In so far as he said anything of substance, let me deal with it.

First, of course this is a matter of very great importance: food safety is our paramount consideration. That is why we set up the Meat Hygiene Service. It is extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman should make the comments he did, when his party and the Liberal Democrats voted against the establishment of the Meat Hygiene Service. That was not a very responsible course of action.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman went on at great length about standards not being improved in the past two years. That is simply untrue. One way—and it is only one—of measuring standards is by examining the hygiene assessment system scoring. In 1995, 111 abattoirs scored less than 50, and 374 scored less than 65. By 1997, 16 scored less than 50, and 116 scored less than 65. In other words, there has been a huge improvement. It is true that the number of abattoirs has fallen during that period. Nonetheless, the crude figures show a very substantial increase in standards.

The hon. Gentleman referred to Mr. Comrie. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman read the comments of the vice-president of the AMI that were reported in today's edition of The Times. Mr. Johnston said a number of things. Of Mr. Comrie's allegations, he said: His letters are written on AMI headed notepaper, but as far as I know, they are his views, not those of the committee. We have other anecdotal evidence of the rejection of Mr. Comrie's views. For example, I have a fax that was sent by Mr. Dennis Eyre to Johnston McNeill, chief executive of the Meat Hygiene Service. It states: Dear Mr. McNeill, I wish to notify you that, as a member of the Association of Meat Inspectors, I totally disagree with the content of the letter sent by the general secretary to yourself and Angela Browning. I can also refer to many plants where standards have improved vastly since the MHS took over. I cannot, though, name one plant that standards have dropped. I have consulted with the meat inspectors that work with me to enforce standards in meat plants for the Meat Hygiene Service and, so far, none can name a plant that is worse than under local authority control. We fully support you and the Meat Hygiene Service, and acknowledge the success with enforcing SBM control and hygiene. It just happens that two days ago across my desk came another letter from a senior member of the Farmers Union of Wales addressed to Mr. Johnston McNeill. The letter, from Mr. Dolan, states: Based on a number of visits to meat premises at irregular intervals, there is self-evident and continuing improvement in hygiene practice, quality of product, organisation of staff to the benefit of producers, consumers and operators. The plain truth is that we knew that there were problems in the abattoirs. That is why we set up the Meat Hygiene Service. Since that time, we have pursued a consistent and continuing policy based on targets, which are being enforced, and on extensive discussions with the industry, conducted principally by my hon. Friend, which are designed to drive up standards, and which are having that clear effect.

Mr. Paul Marland (West Gloucestershire)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is outrageous for members of the Opposition to prey on people's fears over the matter, pretending that they have a monopoly of concern for public health? It is blatant political opportunism. No one has an interest in trying to cover up the truth.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm again that there have been substantial improvements in the slaughterhouses in this country since the Meat Hygiene Service was set up, and will he remind the general public that Labour and the Liberal Democrats voted against the introduction of that service? If they had had a shred of care about the matter, they would have supported in the House the setting up of that agency.

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend is wholly right. The plain truth is that we are approaching a general election, and the Opposition parties are less scrupulous than they ought to be in the way in which they are currently conducting themselves with regard to food safety. The farming community, for example, will deeply resent what the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) said in these exchanges; so will those responsible for enforcing high standards in the abattoirs. In a professional and determined way, standards in the abattoirs have been forced up, and those efforts have been denigrated and disparaged by the hon. Gentleman, who ought to know better.

Mr.Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Does the Minister recall agreeing with me on 30 January that the public no longer believe his assurances? He said: it would he idle and foolish for me not to accept that the public do not have the degree of confidence that I would like them to have and which I believe would be justified, when Ministers and officials associated with Departments talk about food safety."—[Official Report, 30 January 1997; Vol. 289, c. 526.] Will the Minister now acknowledge that, since that statement, his Ministry has been further discredited, and that the assurances have become increasingly incredible?

Does he further accept that the view of Professor Pennington, whom his Government appointed to look into the E. coli outbreak, is that the culture of secrecy in his Ministry and in Whitehall has severely damaged the credibility of the entire exercise? Does he accept the view of Professor Pennington that, had he seen the original Swann report on the failures of the hygiene standards of abattoirs—during the regime of the MHS, not relating to the previous regime—it would have been extremely useful to the professor's inquiry?

In view of the remarks that the Minister has just made about the general election, does he accept that the public will have no confidence in an internal Government inquiry into their own inadequacy in the context of a general election campaign? Will he now accept that the only solution to regain public confidence and restore confidence in the beef industry is to institute a full public inquiry?

Mr. Hogg

In view of what the hon. Gentleman has said, I look forward very much to his supporting the Government's proposals for a food safety council and a food safety adviser. I do, of course, recall what I said in the House before, and I accept—while very much regretting—that, over a long period, people have become sceptical about assurances that they have received from Ministers and others.

That scepticism is not justified, but it is a fact, and it needs to be recognised and acknowledged. I recognise and acknowledge it. That is why I decided that it would be sensible to introduce a food safety council and a food safety adviser to provide a stream of independent, authoritative advice that could be made public and, if that was necessary and justified, could be contrary to the position adopted by Ministers.

If the hon. Gentleman really wants to be constructive—which I doubt—I advise him to support us.

Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)

Is it not the case that, whether or not there was a report that my right hon. and learned Friend saw, if the Government had not set up the Meat Hygiene Service in the first place—against the wishes of the Opposition—we should not have had the report at all? Should not all parties now start working together to improve standards in slaughterhouses, and stop playing party politics with people's fears about food?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend is entirely right. The problem that existed before April 1995, when the Meat Hygiene Service was set up. was that the implementation and enforcement of all the rules and practices was in the hands of local authorities—some 300 of them. Because of that, it was not possible to gain an overall view of what was happening in abattoirs, let alone enforce a proper national standard. The creation of the Meat Hygiene Service has enabled us, for the first time, to get a grip on standards and drive them up. It is lamentable that the Opposition parties did not support us, and it is lamentable that they are now disparaging the efforts of those who are engaged in that task.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South)

Does the Minister not realise that it is a valid criticism of the way in which he set up the Meat Hygiene Service that he must come to the House today with a further eight-point plan to improve abattoir and food safety, and that he has announced to the House that up to a third of abattoirs do not reach 65 out of 100 on his scale of proper standards? Is it not a disgrace that the public must put up with so many abattoirs not meeting the standards that they should have met? No wonder there has been criticism of the Minister's running of the Meat Hygiene Service.

Mr. Hogg

I think that I am being charitable, but the hon. Gentleman is simply missing the point. Others might suggest that he is deliberately evading it, but I will be kind and say that he is deliberately missing it.

We are engaged in a continuing process. Before 1995, there was no effective scoring, and no possible overview of what was going on. We have created a system that enables us to improve standards, which the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats voted against. In the first two years, we set targets for the improvement of standards, and those standards were met. We are setting yet tighter targets in the coming, third year. As I have said, it is a continuing process—that is why my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has had some 22 meetings relevant to the issue over 14 months—and we are driving up standards incrementally. That is how it is done.

I really think that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths) should try to grasp the basic point. Every red meat carcase must be certified fit for human consumption by the meat hygiene inspector.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of letters that I have written to the Parliamentary Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning), about abattoirs in my constituency that have almost gone out of business because of the stringent controls exercised by his Department? Indeed, is he aware that there are abattoirs in the west midlands that have gone out of business because of those controls? Given the electioneering of the Labour party, who are playing on the natural fears of people outside this place, what impact does he think that the news generated by the Labour party over the past few days will have on lifting the European ban on the export of British beef?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend makes at least two important points, the first of which is that a number of abattoirs have gone out of business as a result of the ever-increasing standards demanded of them. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has received a number of representations from hon. Members to safeguard particular abattoirs. That is a sign of how volatile the House sometimes is. The duty of my Department is to drive up standards, and that we will do.

On the second point, my hon. Friend makes a very sound observation. He is effectively saying that the irresponsible scaremongering will damage not only the meat industry in Britain but our standing in Europe. He is quite right. The fact that it is hysterical, irresponsible and ill-informed will not be understood in Europe: they will simply take it at face value. Those of us who know the quality of the observations from the Opposition Benches know that it is irresponsible, ill-informed and ill-intentioned, but unfortunately not everybody else will.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

If the Minister wants to drive up standards, I suggest that he starts on the Treasury Bench. I put it to him that his responsibility is not just to react to crises, but to try to ensure that such fundamental problems do not start in the first place. Will he take it from me, not only as a Member of Parliament but as a member of the National Farmers Union for Scotland, that he has become a very serious liability to the industry and to consumer confidence in food produced in Britain? In view of those circumstances, will he do the honourable thing and resign—or will we have to wait until he is pushed?

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Gentleman clearly was not listening to what I said, or if he was, he steadfastly ignored it. The plain truth spelled out by the facts that I have given the House and the scoring to which I have referred is that there has been a substantial improvement in the past two years. Those are the facts. I do not particularly take credit for that— [Interruption] No; I accept that that is a matter for the Meat Hygiene Service, the State Veterinary Service and the operators of the plants, but to say that 1 am to be criticised for presiding over a period when we have driven up standards is patently absurd.

Mr. Edward Gamier (Harborough)

This afternoon's performance from the Labour party will have done nothing whatever to increase its stock among the farming community in my constituency.

Can my right hon. and learned Friend tell me how our present meat hygiene regime compares with that currently in force in the rest of the European Union and elsewhere on mainland Europe?

Mr. Hogg

We have just had a very interesting report from the European Commission about BSE and related matters in European countries other than Portugal and the United Kingdom. My hon. and learned Friend would find it deeply worrying.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

The people who died in Scotland were not scared to death: they were poisoned. In his statement, the Minister mentioned excluding dirty animals. It is almost impossible to exclude faecal contamination from slaughterhouses, because the animals are standing in queues waiting to die. They can smell death, and when that happens, they urinate and defecate. If he was standing in a line waiting to die, he would fill his underpants as well, and probably has.

The Minister must realise that meat eating is bad for people's health. The people of this country should turn to vegetarianism before they turn as mad as the Minister.

Mr. Hogg

The House will have heard the hon. Gentleman's observation with some distaste.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

My right hon. and learned Friend has set out a catalogue of great achievement in the past two years. Does he agree that standards of meat hygiene in United Kingdom abattoirs are higher now than they have ever been? Will he reinforce the point he made earlier, that meat hygiene standards in the United Kingdom are the highest in the whole of the European Union? Is it possible that those who have been busy leaking misinformation to the Labour party have an agenda wholly removed from that of public health and hygiene?

Mr. Hogg

As my hon. Friend knows, I do not always agree with him, so it is nice to be able to do so now. He is certainly right on the three points he made. First, standards in the United Kingdom are much higher than they were two years ago. Secondly, I venture to say that no country in the European Union has higher standards or enforces them more effectively. Lastly, we are approaching the general election, and many people, most notably Opposition Members, are behaving disreputably on this issue. This is a serious matter, but Opposition Members are not treating it as such.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

Is the Minister aware that the number of notified cases of food poisoning in Scotland rose from fewer than 1,000 in the late 1970s to more than 10,000 last year, with a similar increase in England? Did that not give him a hint that he should do something, such as abandon his dangerous dogma of deregulation?

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Gentleman has clearly—I rather like him, as a matter of fact—[HON. MEMBERS: "Withdraw."] That will damn his chances, but no matter. He and I will live with that: he will, most certainly.

The hon Gentleman has clearly not paid the slightest attention to what I have been saying in the past 20 minutes. Standards are improving owing to the policy initiatives taken by the Government and consistently opposed by the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats. It was because my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland was so concerned about E. coli and related matters that he set up the inquiry under Professor Pennington to address the general issues that are the subject, at least in part, of this discussion.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that our first consideration should be the British consumer, the British meat producer and the British farmer? Does he accept that imports of foreign beef are coming into this country from places that have no proper inspection system? Their inspections are nothing like as good as those provided by the Meat Hygiene Service, even if it has had some teething problems. Furthermore, does he agree that that is unfair to the British farmer and could be dangerous to the British consumer? It is essential that we place proper restrictions on the import of beef from other countries, some of which may have BSE and other diseases, before it causes a disaster here.

Mr. Hogg

It is a great pleasure to be able to associate myself with much of what my hon. Friend has said. He is entirely right about where our paramount duty lies. Our paramount duty is to the consumer—the consumer in the United Kingdom, obviously, but to the consumer.

My hon. Friend implicitly drew attention to the fact that there is almost certainly a higher rate of BSE in Europe than has yet been declared, and that controls such as we have in the United Kingdom are not in place in those countries. It is a serious problem, and it is being addressed by the European Commission. For example, it proposed an offal regime at the December Council, which we supported. That did not go through, but we will support the Commission when it again brings its proposal forward, because it is an important safeguard that is not yet in place.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Did the Minister say that he was asking the chief executive of the Meat Hygiene Service to prepare a written statement that the Scottish Office would pass on to Professor Pennington? The Minister said that the knowledge of the Meat Hygiene Service was clearly relevant to Professor Pennington's inquiry. If that is so, why were not the Swann report and the final report into slaughterhouse hygiene clearly relevant to Professor Pennington's inquiry, and passed on to Hugh Pennington?

On Thursday, the Minister implied that the matter was a Scottish Office responsibility. There was an immediate counter-briefing by the Secretary of State to say that it was the Minister's fault. Does not the Minister think that, against the background of 21 fatalities from E. coli in Scotland, people in Scotland will conclude that it was both Departments' and both Ministers' responsibility, and that the climate of secrecy that they have encouraged is responsible for some of the things that have been debated today?

Before he goes down the road of his junior Minister, the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning), and blames Hugh Pennington for not requesting the report, will the Minister reflect on the fact that there is much more confidence in Hugh Pennington than in any Minister on the Treasury Bench?

Mr. Hogg

It is for Professor Pennington, as the person presiding over the inquiry, to determine his lines of inquiry and the kind of information that he judges necessary. It has always been made plain to him that, if he needed specialist advice on meat hygiene, it was available to him. It is for him to ask for it. [Interruption] No, no: it is for him to ask for it. It has always been made plain that Departments stand ready to assist him.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, if there were to be a public inquiry, it would inevitably delay decisions on this important subject? Is he aware that I am certain that my constituents would wish to see the Government getting on with the business of government and him taking vigorous and determined action to improve standards of food hygiene—which is exactly what he is doing?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend is quite right. If there were a public inquiry, what would be decided is something like this—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I have the advantage of knowing facts. I am therefore able to say what the outcome is going to be, and it would be something like this: the decision to set up the Meat Hygiene Service was a very sound one; the decision by the Labour party and the Liberal Democrat party to oppose it was a very foolish one; during the past two years, there has been a substantial improvement in standards; there is more to be done, and the Government are gripping it. That is, broadly speaking, what an inquiry would say.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Does the Minister or the Secretary of State for Scotland blame Mr. Ian Anderson, whose name has figured prominently in the press, for not having acted properly as a civil servant?

Mr. Hogg

I do not think that I have blamed anybody for anything in this connection.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that anybody who visited any slaughterhouse when environmental health officers had a responsibility in that area will be aware of the very serious variations in performance and standards? It is almost incredible that anybody who has any knowledge of slaughterhouses could have opposed the setting up of the Meat Hygiene Service, and the need for an urgent improvement.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the reality is that, given the threat and dangers we face—possibly from new strains of bacteria as well—and the natural problems of slaughtering cattle to which the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) referred, the matter will continue to be a serious challenge for the Government, whoever they are?

It does no service whatever to approach the matter on the basis of a letter from one individual in Somerset who was an environmental health officer and subsequently became involved privately with the meat inspection service. Although he may be the general secretary of the AMI, the letter appears to have been written in an individual capacity. That is not the right way in which to approach such a serious issue, which is slowly being turned into a political stunt. The matter is very serious, and will need continuing attention.

Mr. Hogg

My right hon. Friend has made a number of important points, of which I shall highlight two. My right hon. Friend, whose experience goes back very many years, is wholly right when drawing on his personal knowledge of abattoirs and practices before the setting up of the Meat Hygiene Service to say that nobody in 1995 who understood abattoirs and slaughterhouses would for one moment have opposed the creation of the Meat Hygiene Service. It follows that the Labour party did not have a clue then and does not have a clue now—which takes me to the second point.

The Labour party is mounting a serious campaign against the interests of food safety, confidence in British food and the British farmer on the say-so of Mr. Comrie, who has the background that my right hon. Friend has indicated and whose letters—I repeat what his vice-president said— are written on AMI headed notepaper, but as far as I know, they are his views, not those of the committee. It is a slender basis for the hysteria that right hon. and hon. Members have sought to generate for political reasons.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

When he was opening his remarks today, the Minister said that he was talking about GB abattoirs. During answers to questions, he gave us all the impression that he was talking about UK abattoirs. If it was GB abattoirs, how do the abattoirs in Northern Ireland compare with the average in Great Britain, given that they all meet EU standards, and where are they on the scale? Given that a serious problem is now evident in abattoirs, is it the Minister's intention that the 450 staff kept on will be kept in work?

Mr. Hogg

In a matter of this sensitivity, I thought that it was prudent to confine myself to talking about those matters that relate to GB. My hon. Friends with responsibility for Northern Ireland would respond more directly to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South-West)

The Minister sets great store by the Meat Hygiene Service, but will he confirm that no fewer than 45 inspectors have been subject to disciplinary proceedings for not enforcing the specified bovine offal regulations? Who inspects his inspectors?

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Gentleman does not understand the importance of what he has just said. He has just said that, yes, standards are being driven up and that those meat hygiene inspectors who are not enforcing the regulations are disciplined. It is part of the process of driving up standards.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

Will the Minister consider this? Eighteen months ago, I wrote to his Department to point out serious problems which arose because contaminated poultry industry meat was not stained as red meat is; 12 months ago in the House I raised the matter and the Minister offered the most complacent reply, suggesting that there was not a problem; and, six months ago, he suddenly seemed to realise that there was a problem. There still is a problem. When will the Government do something about it?

Mr. Hogg

As I have been saying for the past 45 minutes, the Government have done a great deal to enforce and to bring about higher standards in abattoirs. We will continue that policy.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Môn)

Does the Minister accept that he does himself and the Government no credit by seeking to play down the level of genuine public concern about the standards in abattoirs and to deflect the criticism day after day about those standards? Given that fact and that the public will not have confidence in an internal inquiry by the Department, and as he has already turned down a public inquiry, does he not accept at least that some form of arm's-length inquiry is crucial in this case?

Mr. Hogg

I began my statement by accepting that there is room for improvement. We have not tried to play down the existence of the problem. We have tried to set it in proper perspective. There was a problem way back in 1995, which we sought to tackle by the creation of the MHS. There remains a problem, albeit of a much lesser kind. We are embarking on a policy, we have persisted in a policy, we will continue with a policy of driving up standards and we are succeeding. Those are the facts. I remind the hon. Gentleman that every red meat carcase has to be certified as fit for human consumption by a meat hygiene inspector.

Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire)

I am interested in the Minister's league table mentality towards abattoir hygiene. In that system, at what point or at what score does meat hygiene become unacceptable? Does he think that someone who contracts E. coli would be pleased or mollified by being told that the meat had come from an abattoir at the bottom of the league table? How does the Minister reconcile the idea of league tables with commercial confidentiality, which his hon. Friend clearly could not do yesterday?

Mr. Hogg

I take the hon. Gentleman back to the critical point, which is that, in respect of every individual red meat carcase, there has to be certification by the meat hygiene inspector who inspects the carcase that it is fit for human consumption. That is a specific individual inspection and certification. Hygiene assessment scoring is a mechanism for trying to improve overall hygiene standards and is extremely valuable. That is why we place weight on it, but there is not a direct overlap between hygiene assessment scoring and the fitness for human consumption. That is a certification by an individual meat hygiene inspector based on a specific inspection of a specific carcase.

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

Why is the Minister seeking to distort the words of Mr. Comrie? I have his letter here and it says: It now appears, from reports I am receiving from members"— so they are not his words, but the words of other people in his association— that MHIs are being actively encouraged to ignore breaches of regulations and in some cases threatened if they try to take action". That is a major allegation. Why does the Minister think that that responsible man, who has a significant position in the industry, would want to make such a statement—unless it were true?

Mr. Hogg

That question could be usefully asked to the vice-president of the association, who informed The Times: His"— that refers to Mr. Comrie— letters are written on AMI headed notepaper, but as far as I know, they are his views, not those of the committee. Hon. Members will recall that I gave other anecdotal evidence of the dissatisfaction felt by members of the Association of Meat Inspectors at what had happened.

In particular, I quoted at length from a fax from Dennis Eyre to Johnston McNeill supporting the Meat Hygiene Service in every major particular.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Does the Minister recall writing to all hon. Members on 16 December to say that the controls in the abattoirs were being rigorously enforced? How does he reconcile that statement with what he told the House this afternoon—that there are lapses and the Minister is striving to improve standards? May I take the Minister back to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) raised? What on earth is the point of having elaborate benchmarking, where abattoirs are supposed to strive to get beyond the figure 65, if no one knows at what point abattoirs are not doing the job properly? What is the point of benchmarking as explained to the House by the Minister?

Mr. Hogg

As to the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, the letter that I wrote would have been directed at SBM—specified bovine material. It is now, I think, universally recognised, especially by the European Commission, that our controls are extremely effective and, it is plain, much more effective than any of those elsewhere in Europe, at least for the most part. I also recommend to the hon. Gentleman that he spends just a little time reading the regular monthly bulletin that we publish on the enforcement of SBM controls because he will find the contents extremely reassuring. He might care just to remind the House of them from time to time.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Thank you. I am bringing this to a close now.