HL Deb 06 March 1997 vol 578 cc1971-82

3.35 p.m.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, in the hope that it is now convenient I shall, with the leave of the House, repeat the Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on the Meat Hygiene Service—Hygiene Advice Team Report. The Statement is as follows:

"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 1st April 1995 as a MAFF agency and took over responsibility for enforcement of hygiene rules in slaughterhouses which 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 this 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 carried this out by appointing hygiene advice teams to visit each slaughterhouse in the country to assess its score and make recommendations on improvements needed: a mark was given to each slaughterhouse so as to serve as a benchmark against future progress. The end product 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. But it was put 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 17th July 1996, and placed in the Library of this House.

"I will deal with some specific criticisms which have been made. Was the report toned down? The facts are these. 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 taken part in advisory teams, asked Mr. Swann to draw together a report on red meat. The draft did not fully reflect the views of others. 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. That was done. The revised and condensed version covering both red meat and poultry is what was put to the industry representatives in June 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 upon. This is untrue. Individual reports were made on specific plants and were discussed with individual operators. The 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 this is carried out under the overarching supervision of the State Veterinary Service.

"One specific point of concern, in relation to E. coli, is 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 Meat Hygiene Service acted on this; for example, ante-mortem checks are carried out on all cattle and are in the process of being tightened up. Further action is in hand. The MHS is at present preparing clear visual operational guidance on the standards expected and how to achieve them. That will be issued this month.

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

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.40 p.m.

Lord Gallacher

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating to the House the Statement made in another place. Today's national press reports details of an investigation by a six-member team contracted to the Meat Hygiene Service, lasting for 12 months and ending in March 1996, to audit the state of hygiene in Britain's meat industry. There were visits to 450 abattoirs in England, Wales and Scotland, either directly or through teams, and serious faults were found. According to the press, a report records distressing details relating to the entire slaughtering process with serious breaches of control and basic hygiene.

My first question to the noble Lord is: are these reports in the press factual? They are certainly too numerous to recite to your Lordships' House this afternoon. Does the report contain references to BSE and specified bovine offals and did members of the team find bins containing specified bovine offals not marked as such and thus creating a major health hazard? In some cases were spinal cords not being properly removed? Who decided that this report was not to be given undue publicity? Can such restrictions by the Meat Hygiene Service be imposed without approval by reference to Ministers at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and its civil servants?

It is suggested that those interested in, or affected by, the report—which means, of course, all of us—could have found out about the report by picking up a reference to it in the annual report of the first year of the Meat Hygiene Service. Is this a serious defence of the decision—so obvious—to play it low key? Was the report completed in December 1995 and could it have been published as a separate document by March 1996? Was this period not the time when Ministers were at maximum alert over BSE and also the time when a possible link between the new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and BSE had been announced? Who could have acquiesced in restrictions about this matter at that particular time?

May I ask whether Professor Pennington, who is conducting a Scottish Office inquiry into the serious outbreak of E.coli in Scotland, was made aware of the existence of the report? As his final report has yet to be produced, if he has not been made aware of its existence will he be made aware of it in order that he may comprehensively review this important aspect of the serious matter upon which the Scottish Office Secretary of State has asked him to report?

Are the proceedings of the Meat Industry Forum, to which reference is made in the Statement, published in any way, and if so how are they published? I think I can claim in a modest way to be fairly active in the meat trade and certainly I have seen no reference to the Meat Industry Forum's deliberations. What is to happen now? Is the report to be published at all as a separate document? Will there be an inquiry into slaughterhouses in general in the light of the report? What effect does the noble Lord think that today's adverse publicity will have on public confidence in the Meat Hygiene Service as such and its initiatives on the vital task of assuring the world at large that our red meat industry is actively engaged in restoring its image?

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating this rather deplorable Statement. The questions already asked from the Labour Front Bench go to the heart of the matter. I wish to add one or two more. The answer to whether Professor Pennington and his team were told is no, because I think he has already said that he was not told. Why was he not told is the pertinent question to ask?

Is it true that the first reaction of the Meat Hygiene Service in Scotland, for instance, to these kind of recommendations was a 10 per cent. cut in the number of its inspectors in Scotland from 125 to 112? If we follow the pattern of the answers given by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, to a Question asked five minutes ago in your Lordships' House we shall no doubt be told that it is no business of the Government how the Meat Hygiene Service organises itself as long as it produces the results. However, it did not produce the results, did it? What control is there over this alarming cut in the number of inspectors? The abattoir groups made vast profits out of the BSE cull last year. Why was it not insisted that some of that be ploughed back into hygiene improvements? Mr. Swann says that the full recommendations have yet to be implemented. Why is that? Is that not just another example of the long line of government secrecy in a Government which we are always told are committed to full exposure?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I rather resent the attitude taken by both Opposition spokesmen on this matter because they have known for a long time exactly what the state of our abattoir industry was. They have known it because my noble friend Lord Howe referred to it explicitly and in detail in the debate on the setting up of the Meat Hygiene Service. It may help noble Lords if I repeat what my noble friend said: A number of organisms—such as E coli 0157:H7, some salmonella serotypes and Listeria monocytogenes—have been implicated in food poisoning incidents associated with the consumption of meat and meat products. Some commentators argue that meat is a low-risk product because it is normally cooked before consumption and that therefore there is no need to be concerned about contamination with organisms of this kind. The Government do not accept this argument for one second. While it is true that thorough cooking will destroy most, if not all, pathogenic micro-organisms, the hazards associated with cross-contamination in the distribution chain or in the kitchen remain a matter of concern. While no one expects an abattoir to resemble an operating theatre, sensible steps must be taken at all stages of production to limit the risk of contamination. The most appropriate point to address the problem of contamination with pathogenic organisms is the slaughterhall. That is what these regulations are designed to do. Many abattoirs in this country are well managed and produce meat which is of a good hygienic standard. Unfortunately, and I will not go into detail, this is not true of all of them".—[Official Report, 18/4/95; cols. 425–6.] That is the situation as portrayed by my noble friend in April 1995. All this report that is being referred to today does is detail the situation as we knew it to be so that, based on that detail, the industry could begin to reform itself.

The Meat Hygiene Service was established with the mandate to improve the way slaughterhouses were run and to work with the industry in doing that. I do not know if the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, or the noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, would have wished us to take precipitate action. To my mind that would have been entirely inappropriate. If one has a school system—as one does—which is operating below one's best hopes, one does not just go around closing the schools which are performing badly. One puts a lot of effort into working with them to make things right. Here we had a situation where there was contamination of food. It was not something new; it had been going on for a long time, if not for ever. It is something we are determined to improve. We have set up the organisation to make it improve but the right way to make it improve is to work with the industry, to speak with a soft voice but carry a heavy stick. First of all, we must speak with a soft voice to see if we can get things done by agreement. That is what the Meat Hygiene Service has been doing, and it has been doing so with great success.

Noble Lords opposite have supported that policy. They will remember the discussions we had on the temporary derogations from the new regulations. That was a policy which noble Lords opposite supported, and quite rightly too, so that small slaughterhouses should have time to bring their premises up to the required standard. The report itself was prepared for communication to the industry. It was known that the report would be produced—as I said in the Statement—because this was one of the things that the Meat Hygiene Service had to do. When the service had done so, it took up a page of its annual report saying that it had been done. It was part of a process, dealing with a known problem in a known way. It was not distributed to Ministers let alone to anyone else. It was an internal working document.

Reference has been made to the comments that Professor Pennington made this morning. At the outset of Professor Pennington's inquiry, MAFF offered him all evidence and support that he might wish. Professor Pennington has yet to take up that offer. I hope that he will do so. I cannot understand the remarks he made this morning. He has never asked for, so he has never been refused, any information. We have just made an offer, and have yet to be taken up on that offer. When he asks, he will presumably not wish to see merely a condensed, summarised version which is prepared for a general discussion with the industry. He will want to see a great deal more detail and that will be available to him down to individual reports on individual slaughter houses.

As was outlined in the Statement, the Meat Hygiene Service has been addressing the dangers and difficulties identified by the survey in the slaughterhouse industry. There has been a great deal of improvement. Targets have been set for those improvements. Processes are being undertaken to document and deal with the problem of dirty cattle coming into the slaughterhouse system. If slaughterhouses do not respond to kindness and encouragement they will be closed; and that process is within a few months of completion with some slaughterhouses. It is not an empty threat to slaughterhouses. If they do not work with the Meat Hygiene Service, if they do not continue to improve their standards, their licence to operate will be withdrawn.

In its brief life, the Meat Hygiene Service has been a great success story. It is one which we look forward to continuing. I am saddened that the Financial Times should descend to tabloid standards of journalism in promoting this story. It bounced MAFF with it at five o'clock last night. It gave us no opportunity to provide the evidence which would have enabled the newspaper to present the truth rather than the story. If it had had the full truth it might not have considered publishing because it was so obvious and so well known.

The noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, asked me a couple of questions which I have not covered. He asked when the report would be made fully public. It has been placed in the Library of the House and we shall certainly copy it to anyone who is interested in it.

As regards the relationship with BSE, that has been in the public domain for a long time. If the noble Lord cares to read the BSE enforcement bulletin, which is published regularly, he will see that that aspect of slaughterhouses—it is treated with immense seriousness—is dealt with in great detail. Any delays in finalising the report about which we are talking today have been due to the fact that the Meat Hygiene Service has been devoting a great deal of energy to dealing with BSE, and that has been given priority, and quite rightly so.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, asked a question about the inspectorate. I do not have an answer at the moment. I shall write to the noble Lord. It is not a statistic that I know; nor do I know the basis for it.

I hope that noble Lords opposite will forgive me for a somewhat fierce rebuttal of allegations that have been made today. But what has been said in newspapers today is a slur on the Meat Hygiene Service which is both undeserved and destructive.

3.54 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, has the Minister read in the newspapers the criticism of the conduct of my right honourable friend Douglas Hogg? If he has, can he fairly and squarely confirm that that criticism is wholly without justification and utterly misconceived?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, yes, indeed. I certainly confirm that. Indeed, in present company I doubt that I would dare do otherwise.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, from these Back Benches I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I think that I voice the concern of the House if I suggest that when people can die as a result of contracting E. coli it is rather different from seeking improvements in the educational standards of our school children.

We note that the Government effectively nationalised the Meat Hygiene Service a couple of years ago. While in principle a number of us will appreciate that nationalisation can be beneficial, we have grave doubts about any nationalised concern under the control of this Government.

The Minister suggests that the Meat Hygiene Service is a success story. Given the reports that have emerged recently, and the outbreaks of E. coli which have hit not just Scotland but other parts of the United Kingdom, I am not sure whether many members of the general public would think of the Meat Hygiene Service as a success story. Perhaps I may ask the Minister one specific question. How many people died as a result of E. coli and other related factors in the two years prior to the nationalisation of the Meat Hygiene Service, and how many since?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I do not have an answer to the noble Lord's specific question.

As regards his general question, nationalisation is not the word that I would have used to describe the process. Perhaps it is centralisation since an operation under public control locally became an operation under public control centrally. The report that we are discussing today documented the very poor state of the industry under that local control and, I think, entirely justified our decision to take it under central control and to put a lot of effort into improving the situation.

As to the seriousness of people being infected by E. coli, of course it is a horrible disease and a fatal one. The world is full of dangers. Smoking, driving, and walking the street at night are dangers that exist. The Government are putting a lot of effort into improving the situation. That is what we are doing in this case. We cannot eliminate all dangers by wishing them away. We shall never eliminate the possibility of contamination in raw meat. There is nothing that we can do to reduce it to zero. But we can work at improving the situation, as we can work at reducing many other dangers to which we are subject in this life; and that is what we have been doing.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, noble Lords are doubtless aware that the business of a slaughterhouse is extremely messy, both as regards the killing of animals and dealing with the carcass. The position can be greatly helped, and the cost greatly reduced, if farmers are very particular about how they deliver their cattle to the slaughterhouse, making sure that they are absolutely clean.

Does the Minister know whether slaughterhouses produce an incentive to encourage farmers to do that; or do they simply trust them? It costs a bit of money to make the cattle absolutely clean but it is extremely important for public health.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, the proposal advocated by my noble friend has been advocated for a long time by the Meat Hygiene Service and will form a major part of the recommendations and code of guidance which is to be published in a month's time. It is sensible. Some slaughterhouses, in particular those associated with the major supermarkets, already do so. We wish to see that process become universal.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, will the Minister expand a little on his earlier statement about Professor Pennington not asking for information. Given the widespread publicity on the E. coli infection, could anyone involved and responsible for producing reports which contained reference to E. coli have been unaware of the need to draw this to Professor Pennington's attention?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, no, I do not suppose there was. That is of course why we immediately offered Professor Pennington evidence. It is inconceivable that he would not want evidence on the operations of slaughterhouses. We are waiting for him to ask. He will then have all the evidence he wishes.

The professor must be able to take the evidence in the order he wishes. I believe that to date he is concentrating on the specific problems that occurred in the distribution chain downstream from the point of cooking in a certain butcher's shop in Scotland. He is known to wish to address the question of how that infection got into the butcher's shop in the first place. But at present it appears that he has not turned his mind to it.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior

My Lords, regardless of the question of whether there was suppression of the report, its contents must be of concern to all, especially the finding that certain slaughterhouses are deficient in their practices. None of the practices apparently described in the report should occur in any slaughterhouse, let alone a few. Will the Minister assure the House that more effective supervisory procedures will be set in place in the future to safeguard against these undesirable practices? Will he also agree that they should be in the hands of an increased veterinary staff?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend on the importance of veterinary staff. A major part of the Meat Hygiene Service effort is to make sure that appropriately skilled staff are on hand to watch operations in slaughterhouses. Regarding my noble friend's point about the need to change things, we are satisfied that what we are doing and what is being done by the Meat Hygiene Service will result, as hoped for and as planned, in a much better standard of hygiene in our slaughterhouses and in the meat that they produce.

Baroness Mallalieu

My Lords, is the Minister aware that this morning a number of European newspapers reported this matter as an attempt by the British Government to conceal the true state of poor hygiene in our abattoirs? In view of the possible consequences that that may have for the ultimate lifting of the beef export ban, will the Minister tell the House what steps the Government propose to take to correct that view if it is wrong?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, the noble Baroness gives me even more cause to regret the action by the Financial Times. One would have hoped that it was the last responsible newspaper left in this country and that it would have acted otherwise. Since it did not, we must deal with the press through the press. My right honourable friend will hold a press conference shortly which I hope will address all these matters. It will certainly make available to the press members of the Meat Hygiene Service, the Chief Veterinary Officer and others, who will be available to answer questions on this matter. We have nothing to hide. It is a story of success that we have to tell. It is a story of known problems going back a long way. The European Community sends its own inspectors round abattoirs. They know exactly what they are like. There really is nothing to hide, and nothing has been hidden.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, am I right in thinking that large quantities of meat are imported from the developing world? If so, to what degree do those countries meet the hygiene regulations of this country and the European Union?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I do not have the information with me to answer that question. I shall write to the noble Viscount.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, instead of blaming the Meat Hygiene Service, as we heard, and not expecting the report, which is critical, to lead to better standards within abattoirs, is it not a fact that the failure to deliver a high standard of hygiene within slaughterhouses was the fault of local authority inspectors; and that that failure led not only to the establishment of the Meat Hygiene Service but to this report? Should the Government not now give all support to the Meat Hygiene Service to deliver a high standard of hygiene within the service, and, as my noble friend Lord Soulsby said, to bring in the necessary experts to deliver that high standard?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I do not think we should blame local authorities too much. The system was very difficult to operate, with 300 different authorities all trying to operate independently or semi-independently of each other. There was never any hope that they would achieve a unified standard. That is one of the reasons why the Meat Hygiene Service was the right organisation to bring into place. I am delighted to say that noble Lords on all sides of the House supported that measure. I am sorry that the same cannot be said of colleagues in another place.

Lord Rea

My Lords, does the Minister not feel that, had the report from the Meat Hygiene Service of a year ago been brought into the public eye then, the slaughterhouse industry would have taken far greater note of its criticisms than it did while it was privately circulated? According to a report I read, Professor Pennington said in conversation that he had just about reached the conclusion that a survey of all slaughterhouses such as was described in the report was necessary; however, he did not know that it had been carried out and that the results had been available all this time. Surely it should have been the Government's job at least to have told Professor Pennington that the report was available.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, if Professor Pennington feels that we have done less than we should have done to inform him of what was going on, then of course I accept that criticism. We have offered all the evidence. I am sure that the Professor knows of the existence of the Meat Hygiene Service and what it does and that it will therefore have a lot of information available for him. If he had asked for evidence from us and we had failed to produce that particular report among it, I should find it possible to accept criticism now. However, since the Professor asked for nothing, I am not surprised that we did not provide him with this piece of information, which is not of itself the sort of information in which we should have thought he would have a particular interest.

I do not think that what was done by the Meat Hygiene Service is in any way subject to reasonable criticism. It has acted extremely well throughout. The same can be said for the vast majority in the slaughterhouse industry. They have responded to the introduction of the MHS very well. They are making in large numbers the improvements that are required of them and are steadily improving their performance. There are of course some recidivists. They are nearing the end of their licence to fail to improve. One loses one's patience in the end, and they will be dealt with severely.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, while I am gratified that the Minister will be writing to me—it is always a pleasure to receive a letter from the noble Lord—I am rather shocked that he did not come to this House today armed with answers to the questions about the reduction in the number of meat hygiene inspectors. That is surely absolutely pertinent to our discussions. The Government say that, in spite of unfortunate deaths, the whole thing is a success, and apparently that success is contributed to by cutting the number of inspectors in Scotland from 125 to 112. I hope that the Minister's letter will contain a very good explanation, not only for what happened but for his not being able to provide the answer today.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I accept the noble Lord's criticism. It is a matter of which I should have made myself aware. Again, I apologise for the shortness of notice. This is a part of MAFF's empire which has been, and is, doing extremely well. The criticism that has blown up today was somewhat unexpected. My briefing is therefore limited to what I was able to learn this morning.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, is it not a little shabby of the Minister to blame Professor Pennington for not having asked for a report which he did not know existed? The Minister talks about an invitation to Professor Pennington. When was that invitation issued? Was it issued today, after these events?

Lord Lucas

No, indeed, my Lords, it was issued at the outset of Professor Pennington's inquiry. It was always expected that the Professor would take us up on it when he wished to do so.

Lord Harlech

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that we are confusing issues, and that over the years there has been a great deal of regulation pertinent to slaughterhouses which has resulted in a very large number of closures as a result of the high standards required? Is it not the case that very often the disease chain is commenced after the product, the carcass, leaves a slaughterhouse which is highly regulated?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, it would be unfair to say that there have been a lot of closures of slaughterhouses specifically for hygiene reasons. By and large, overt hygiene problems are dealt with swiftly and effectively. Certainly there has been a great deal of pressure on slaughterhouses to improve, to go beyond the regulations in order to achieve better standards than those required by law. That is part of what the Meat Hygiene Service is doing. There is still a problem in slaughterhouses that needs to be addressed. There may be sources of contamination "downstream". However, that does not exempt slaughterhouses from improving on the present position.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House on which date and in which publication Professor Pennington could first have read of the existence of this report? Is he seriously saying that someone doing research in relation to an issue as widely publicised as the E.coli outbreak, given that the report had been drawn to the attention of the Meat Hygiene Service, cannot expect the Government to make certain that it is made available to him?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I do not wish to major too much on possible disagreements with Professor Pennington; I think they stem from questions he was rather bounced into at an early hour this morning. Clearly, Professor Pennington was going to want to know what the Meat Hygiene Service had to tell him: it is the main—indeed, the only—source of reliable information on what takes place in slaughterhouses throughout the country, what practices and problems there are and what is being done about them. Inevitably he will wish to have access to a very large amount of information that the Meat Hygiene Service has, of which this report is a minor and insignificant example. Indeed, it is probably rather too condensed and digested to form any useful part of Professor Pennington's evidence; he will wish to have a great deal more detail than is contained in this report.

At the outset of Professor Pennington's inquiry MAFF offered to make available to him any evidence that he wished to have. We are certain that he will take us up on that offer, but he has not done so yet. It is up to Professor Pennington when to ask for whatever he wants; he knows that we have it.

Lord Rea

My Lords, perhaps I may make it clear to the noble Lord that no noble Lord has blamed the Meat Hygiene Service for what has happened but rather the Government for their soft-pedalling on the information that they had and for having cut the numbers of staff of the Meat Hygiene Service, as a result of which it is less effective than it might be.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, the document we are discussing was at all times an internal Meat Hygiene Service document. It was never until today seen by Ministers; nor had Ministers any particular reason to see it, because it merely detailed something that they already knew about and which they had already taken action to solve by the creation of the Meat Hygiene Service.

I do not believe that there is any great fire behind all the smoke that has been generated today. As I said at the beginning of my answer to the Front Bench questions, this is a problem which the Government not only knew about but exposed to gaze within this House at the outset of the creation of the Meat Hygiene Service. There really was nothing new in the report other than details of the ways in which the problems were occurring.

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