HC Deb 11 March 1999 vol 327 cc482-4
3. Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

If he will make a statement on the Meat Hygiene Service's charges. [74079]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Jeff Rooker)

The Meat Hygiene Service charges licensed premises on an hourly rate basis for the inspection service provided by its official veterinary surgeons and meat inspection staff. The level of the charges is reviewed annually and is subject to a period of consultation with the industry and individual plant operators, which for 1999–2000 is still on-going.

Mr. Burnett

I am grateful to the Minister and I hope that he will shortly make an announcement on small rural abattoirs. I should like to draw the House's attention to the predicament of the larger abattoirs, particularly in Torrington and Hatherleigh in my constituency which face a doubling of meat inspection charges from 1 April 1999. In Torrington, the figure is some £410,000 and in Hatherleigh it is £170,000. Those increases will be paid for by the hard-pressed farmer. In Hatherleigh last Tuesday there were some 18 officials inspecting 25 people working at the abattoir. Does the Minister really believe that it is necessary to have two, or sometimes three officials inspecting the same animal at the same time?

Mr. Rooker

I fully understand and, indeed, share the concerns at the proposed increases currently being considered. Firm proposals have yet to be put to Ministers. There is nothing on our desks; negotiations and discussions are still going on and there will be full consultation with the industry before any final decisions are taken. We are receiving many representations, but the work is unevenly distributed throughout the industry. I understand that some 80 per cent. of cattle are slaughtered in just 20 slaughterhouses.

Mr. Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West)

Does my hon. Friend accept that when farm incomes are plummeting, particularly in less-favoured areas, the charges imposed by the Meat Hygiene Service are regarded as disproportionately high and indeed punitive? Will he undertake to look again at the matter with a view to mitigating the burden that is imposed, particularly on small farmers.

Mr. Rooker

The answer is yes, because that is implied in the fact that we will have consultations. The fact remains that the taxpayer contribution in the past has been enormous and we are reducing it by charging for specified risk material controls. We will not allow unjustifiably high charges. The charges are fully audited. We do not see why the taxpayer should carry any greater burden.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

I congratulate the Minister on having the good common sense to issue a press release on Tuesday saying that he would reconsider the position of small and low-throughput abattoirs. Will he hold off levying the charges until the consultations are concluded—in other words, will there be a stay of execution for those abattoirs? Will he give us an assurance that he will be very careful when considering the definition of small abattoirs so that those in strategic areas in the rural environment are not excluded? The loss of those abattoirs would be devastating to the local economy, small farmers, niche marketing, animal welfare and a host of other concerns. This is a very serious matter.

Mr. Rooker

By implication, I want to consider those matters. I do not want to hide behind the fact that European Union legislation drives and controls much of this. The definition of small or high or low-throughput abattoirs is not one that can readily be used to differentiate the charges. We can have some flexibility on how the charges are levied but we need the industry's co-operation.

Many people have urged us to charge on a headage rather than an hourage basis. That would be very unfair to operators who have invested huge amounts in larger-throughput abattoirs where the unit cost is very low. We must be very careful not to discriminate, but I accept the point about isolated abattoirs and the problems of animals having to travel long distances. It is a private sector industry; it is not controlled by the Government. We do not plan to introduce any compensation, as the industry would like, for it to reorganise itself.

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)

Does my hon. Friend accept that the proposals as they stand are unfair to small abattoirs? The owner of a small abattoir in my constituency estimates that his weekly costs will increase from £60 to £600 and that he will be out of business in a month. I urge my hon. Friend to act quickly. Am I right in thinking that the charges are to come in next month? We are talking not only about abattoirs but about butchers and consumers. The proposals go against everything that the Government are trying to do in encouraging local, high-quality production and local marketing of food.

Mr. Rooker

I have to be careful what I say, because of the lawyers and our friends across the water. All hon. Members can tell their constituents to watch the bills and the charges. Many estimates have been sent in by butchers and small abattoir operators, but they should watch the actual charges. We are limited in what we can do to implement the new proposals because of the shortage of vets, as I have said to every hon. Member who has written to me. It is not as though everything can start 100 per cent. all at once. We will seek to concentrate the extra resources on the high-risk abattoirs, and in particular those that consistently score low on the hygiene assessments. We will cut no corners whatever in meat hygiene.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

Of course the Minister is right to target resources where the risk is highest, but the extra charges to come in at the beginning of April for the specified risk material removals are an additional burden on top of the meat hygiene charges that have already been introduced and will continue next year. Does not he understand that not only the mechanisms of charging—per capita or per time—but the staffing levels required give rise to the high charges?

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that in other parts of Europe the level of veterinary inspection in abattoirs is far lower than is required here. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has already promised an investigation into the charges in the rest of Europe. Will any further increases, for whatever purpose, be suspended until the investigations into charging mechanisms and into European practices are complete?

Mr. Rooker

On the new element of the charges regarding the specified risk material removals, the taxpayer has spent £20 million subsiding that work in the past year, because we extended by a year the period for which we did not charge. We cannot construct a policy on anecdotal evidence in Europe—

Mr. Paice

I did not say that.

Mr. Rooker

That was the implication. We seek much more precise and targeted official information about the practice in Europe. Some 10 or 12 member states currently face infraction proceedings from the Commission because they are not doing what they should be doing.