HL Deb 12 March 1997 vol 579 cc327-42

4.31 p.m.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, I shall make a Statement about the standards of hygiene in British abattoirs. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister told this House yesterday, this is an issue which the Government take very seriously indeed. I welcome the opportunity to set out the facts.

"Before going into detail, I wish to emphasise that before any redmeat carcass 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 past 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 which was strongly opposed by the Labour Party and others.

"The Meat Hygiene Service has now been in operation for two years. In its first year, the Meat Hygiene Service 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 Meat Hygiene Service was set formal targets. In the first year, it 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 also. Although these scores are a useful mechanism for driving up standards, I should again emphasise that all redmeat must be passed fit for human consumption.

"In addition, the Meat Hygiene Service 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 Meat Hygiene Service 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 Meat Hygiene Service 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.

"Further, the State Veterinary Service, which oversees the Meat Hygiene Service, has carried out an audit of the service's methods in its application of both the operations 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. 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 just described is action already taken. I will now deal with action in hand. We have been working with the Meat Hygiene Service on a joint action plan to drive standards upwards, targeting both the most serious problems and the plants with particular difficulties. The main specific action points, which my honourable friend the Parliamentary Secretary put to a meeting of leading meat industry representatives on 18th February, are as follows.

"First, the Meat Hygiene Service will accelerate its work on defining standards for clean livestock. Standards already defined in the agency's operations manual will be set out in the graphic document to which I have already referred. Secondly, it must be clearly understood that no carcass 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, Meat Hygiene Service's staff will be given extra (additional) 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 Meat Hygiene Service 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 Meat Hygiene Service.

"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 MAFF, the other agriculture departments and the Meat Hygiene Service had 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. I will not speculate as to the motives behind their production. However, they 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 which 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 our abattoir practice up to the highest possible standards.

"There is much public interest in this matter. My right honourable 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. I hope to do this by the end of this week. This will provide the basis for more informed discussion than that which has taken place over the past few days".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.40 p.m.

Lord Carter

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement made by his right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture in another place. Perhaps I may turn to the Statement first. As regards the disciplinary action which has been mentioned against employees of the Meat Hygiene Service, the details of which were given in a Written Answer by the noble Lord in the Official Report of this House last week, can the Minister say whether all those cases related to offences connected with the specified bovine materials or were they other offences that were subject to disciplinary action?

The noble Lord outlined the eight point plan that the Government have now put in action. However, it is a quite extraordinary situation. An independent report in March 1993 showed that there were very poor standards in our slaughterhouses. The Government introduced the MHS in 1995 to deal with that but now they tell us, as if they had just discovered it, that, it must be clearly understood that no carcass showing any signs of faecal contamination should be submitted for approval as lit for human consumption". Why now in March 1997, when an independent report was produced in March 1993, is it necessary to draw that to the attention of the slaughterhouse operators? The Statement says that, we shall shortly start the publication of the findings of enforcement activity on a regular basis". But again, why now? We have had the BSE enforcement bulletin since last summer, so why do the Government have to wait until they are pressed to produce this description of enforcement activity?

There is also the extraordinary sentence in the Statement which says that, pieces of paper produced by the Opposition … do not detract at all from the facts which are as I have just stated them to be". What do those pieces of paper say? They refer to levels of hygiene enforcement leaving much to be desired; abattoir inspectors being actively encouraged to ignore breaches of regulations; the fact that, far from improving, standards of hygiene are steadily decreasing; a potential time-bomb for human health; meat being sold falsely as BSE free in as many as one in 10 cases; not enough health staff to combat the problem; and allegations that the Minister, Mr. Hogg, has failed even to answer the letters dealing with the matter since June of last year. However, all that is just brushed aside and described as, pieces of paper produced by the Opposition". The EHOs formerly employed in meat inspection were transferred and became civil servants in the employment of the Meat Hygiene Service when it was set up in April 1995. They then had to sign the Official Secrets Act. I believe that there was a mindset among those officials who spend every day of their working lives in abattoirs. They know that their activities could lead to the closing of abattoirs and the staff losing their jobs. As we all know, the abattoir trade is fast and rough. They are very aggressive businessmen working on very slim margins. As I said, I believe that there was a mindset in the MHS and that the Government did nothing to ensure the enforcement of the regulations which they had laid down. I have that as first-hand information from employees of the MHS.

In December 1995 in this House my noble friend Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, asked the noble Lord, Lord Lucas the following question: can the noble Lord tell the House how many slaughterhouses in England, Scotland and Wales are regarded by the Ministry of Agriculture. Fisheries and Food as inefficient or unsatisfactory? The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, replied: I do not believe that we know of any such slaughterhouses". In a later supplementary question I put the following point to the Minister, asking him whether it was, extraordinary after all the confusion and the increased costs and pressure on abattoirs resulting from the regulations, [that] the recent inspections of abattoirs by the State Veterinary Service found that nearly half of those inspected were in breach of the rules governing the removal of specified offals as a control against the possible spread of BSE". In his reply, the Minister said: our belief is that the introduction of the Meat Hygiene Service and the regulations has resulted in a great increase in quality and a great decrease in costs compared with previous inspection results".—[Official Report, 13/12/95; col. 1273.] In April 1996 the Shadow Health Minister, Mr. Henry McLeish, pointed out that the latest available figures for England showed that 112 slaughterhouses were failing to comply with the EC directive.

I have already referred to the independent study of March 1993 which highlighted the very poor standards in many of our abattoirs. Only seven months after that report the Government announced that, the seven point plan of deregulation in the meat industry … signals a move for a less prescriptive system of meat hygiene enforcement". Unannounced inspections by the State Veterinary Service in the autumn of 1995 showed that 48 per cent. of slaughterhouses were failing to meet the Government's specified bovine offal regulations. In that same news release from the Labour Party of April 1996, we asked the Government to publish: the latest figures for hygiene assessment in slaughterhouses in England, Wales and Scotland; the most up to date figures for those slaughterhouses that have satisfied the EC Directive; the names of those slaughterhouses that are failing to meet hygiene standards so that the public can see where food safety regulations are being broken". All of that was ignored. When did the Government know about the bad practices in abattoirs; what did they know; and what action did they take?

Another report and independent review came to light last week. Perhaps I may just remind your Lordships of one part of its contents, namely: Spinal cords were not removed, specified bovine offal bins were unmarked and there was a major problem with faecal contamination". That report was not publicised, although the authors had been advised that it would be. We know that Professor Pennington, who is leading the Government's inquiry into E. coli, did not receive a copy. Indeed, the Minister, Mr. Hogg, said on a radio programme today that it was Professor Pennington's fault if he had not seen it. However, if he did not know that such a report was being prepared, how could he ask for a copy of it? At the very time when the Government should have been leaving no stone unturned to ensure that standards were properly applied in our abattoirs, we understand that the Minister himself had not looked at the report. That comprehensive and devastating report was summarised, sanitized and made available to a few people in the meat industry.

Last Thursday in the other place the Minister of Agriculture said that we were not to worry because he had made sure that everything was all right in our abattoirs; while he had not actually seen the report of the hygiene advice team, he had in fact put its recommendations into effect. The Minister said that standards in our abattoirs "were constantly improving". However, now we find that the Association of Meat Inspectors has been warning Ministers and others over the past nine months that, in its experience, the problems in our abattoirs are bad and getting worse. In a letter to Mrs. Angela Browning on 11th February, the General Secretary of the AMI said: There has been no improvement in the standards of hygiene, and sadly faecal contamination appears to (be) becoming an acceptable infringement of regulations". On 19th January he wrote to the Chief Executive of the MHS saying that, far from improving, standards of hygiene are steadily decreasing—with particular reference to faecal contamination in beer". Indeed, only last week, the General Secretary told the chief executive that, far from being encouraged to enforce stricter hygiene standards. MHIs are being actively encouraged to ignore breaches of regulations and in some cases [are] threatened if they try to take action". In the Statement the Minister referred to the State Veterinary Service and reminded us of its crucial work in overseeing the MHS. When this Government came to power in 1979, there were just under 600 state vets, but now we have fewer than 300. It is over a year since the problem of dirty livestock was highlighted by the report of the hygiene advice team. Is it not obvious from what the Minister said there are serious problems still to be addressed in our abattoirs?

I have worked professionally for the Ministry of Agriculture for over 40 years. With great sadness, I have to say that this is a sad Statement for a once-great department of state. Indeed, today's Statement will not convince anyone that the Government have, as yet, even begun to grasp the enormity of the problem.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I should also like to sympathise with him for having to repeat such a pathetic Statement. It really does not tackle the problem in any shape or form. It is stated that carcasses must be individually stamped by Meat Hygiene Service inspectors as fit for human consumption. That is not much consolation to those who suffer from E.coli and their relations in many areas of Scotland. The whole point is that this has not been effective. We have an epidemic, or near epidemic, and certainly serious cases, and nothing is really being done to tackle that.

I note that the MHS was set a target of increasing by 10 points the scores of some plants. Surely any inspector should know what is a well run slaughterhouse, and what is clean and what is dirty without needing to increase the scores in order to reduce the number of bad abattoirs. That is not tackling the problem as it should be tackled. We are told that 450 additional staff have been recruited. It has already been pointed out that the number of state veterinary surgeons has been cut by 300. Can the noble Lord tell us whether all the 450 additional staff are in place and what training they have received? That is important and it is something that we should know. Perhaps he can also tell us the total number of abattoirs in England, Scotland and Wales which the 450 extra staff must look after? The Statement mentions additional training in hygiene methods and that the State Veterinary Service will intensify its audit activity. I should have thought it should intensify the supervision of the abattoirs which are at fault.

The essence of the whole question is completely ignored in the Statement; namely, that the public are concerned about the way the Ministry of Agriculture is run. That is the essential point. The story of the Swann Report is quite pathetic. Authoritative journals—the FT and others—have given accounts which have not been denied. Mr. Swann produced his report and was told to take it away and rewrite it. He refused to do so, so someone else was asked, obeyed, and rewrote it. Mr. Swann had 81 points of concern which he illustrated with strong language. He was concerned about faecal contamination and faecal matter all over the place. He was concerned about dirty beasts entering abattoirs which had every chance of spreading infection.

The 81 points were whittled down to 11 and the circulation of the report was restricted. Professor Pennington, as already noted, was not informed that even such a slimmed down report existed. The Minister of Agriculture said that it was not his fault. If his officials were at fault, what has been done about them? Did his officials think so little of the Minister that they thought they could hide an essential report such as this? These are extremely serious matters which are not referred to in the Statement in any shape or form. The report that the Secretary of State for Scotland, Mr. Forsyth, was incandescent with rage—a fine phrase which quite rightly struck the headlines—turned out to be absolutely true. He was rightly angry that he was kept in ignorance of the matter. These are indictments of the Ministry of Agriculture which everyone knows to be true. All we are told is that a target was set for improving scores by 10 points, and that further training will be undertaken. There is something seriously wrong.

As regards overseeing abattoirs, in many cases that was done a great deal better under local authorities than it has been done under the new body. The Ministry of

Agriculture is no longer a fit body to oversee the standards of hygiene which the public depend upon. It is all very well to have a poacher turned gamekeeper, but what does not work is to have someone who is both a poacher and a gamekeeper. The sooner a separate overseeing body is set up, the better. For the present, this account means nothing.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Carter and Lord Mackie of Benshie, for asking me such a difficult and challenging set of questions on a subject where I think I can give a number of good answers. It is always a pleasure to show the Ministry of Agriculture in the good light in which it deserves to be shown, and not the rather gruesome green colour in which the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, chooses to paint it.

First, I shall answer the questions of the noble Lord, Lord Carter. He asked whether the people disciplined by the Meat Hygiene Service had been disciplined in respect of SBO controls. That is correct. Disciplinary offences have been announced regularly in the BSE enforcement bulletin. The figures made public yesterday are merely the cumulative total. There is nothing new about them. The noble Lord asked why there was a need to make the remark in the Statement about the need not to present carcasses with faecal contamination. It has always been and remains a heavily emphasised part of the meat hygiene inspectors' manual that they should not pass for human consumption any carcass which has faecal contamination on it. We feel that some abattoirs have continued to present carcasses in such condition to the Meat Hygiene Service for its approval. We wish to work back up the chain to make sure that abattoirs have quality controls in place and this does not happen and that they identify and remove those carcasses before that point in the MHS inspection is reached.

On the subject of the enforcement bulletin, I think the noble Lord, Lord Carter, described graphically the information he would like to have on slaughterhouses. That is something which we are, and have been, working towards. We have developed a system known as the HAS, the hygiene assessment score, which is intended to perform that role and to encapsulate the quality of a slaughterhouse in one figure. However, to do that requires the system to be developed and proven. It also requires that the people making the assessments—carried out monthly in every slaughterhouse—are consistent as between slaughterhouses so that different inspectors in different slaughterhouses give the same quality assessment for the same quality of slaughterhouse. That takes, and continues to take, some time to get right. As my right honourable friend said, it is something that we are determined to do in the near future. As noble Lords opposite will know, we encourage the production of league tables. We believe that that sort of information reaching the public is a spur to better performance. I do not think that abattoirs have any reason to think that the position should be otherwise. I am delighted at the conversion of the parties opposite to that as a principle and as a method of improving performance perhaps throughout the public service.

The noble Lord referred to the Opposition documents, as my right honourable friend called them, that have been produced. There were some rather odd reports of leaked memos of meetings which Mrs. Browning had held which are public documents. There was some expansion of the concept of leaked documents to include ones that the newspaper had discovered for the first time in its files rather than ones that were leaked. But a number were leaked. They appear to have been leaked by Mr. Comrie, general secretary of the Association of Meat Inspectors. Most of what he says in those documents amounts to a criticism of his own members—that they are not enforcing the controls in the way they should. That point was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Carter. He referred to the mind set of those officials, having come from local authorities, being rather more towards protecting the abattoirs than the customers. We recognised that problem as part of the existing situation which had to be tackled.

I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, that the situation under local authorities was acceptable or in any way better than the current situation. There was a substantial problem to be dealt with. Some individual cases would have been good, but in general there was a problem. Lack of training and the attitude of the inspectors were part of that problem. Since the individuals are still with us, it is a matter that we continue to work at improving.

Mr. Comrie made some strange remarks. He has between 1,500 and perhaps 2,000 members. He has been quoted in The Times as saying that he received hundreds of unsolicited letters on the subject from his members. Neither we nor the Meat Hygiene Service has seen a single one of those letters. Some of the statements made by Mr. Comrie are specifically disowned by his colleagues on the board. I think that it would be wise for us all to take what he said with a pinch of salt. Clearly he has a position in the industry, but I do not think that what he says should be treated as veracious without being confirmed. We should be delighted to see any of the letters he received. Certainly, if the number amounted to hundreds, it would be a serious matter. However, I have a great deal of doubt about whether those letters exist.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked about the number of unsatisfactory abattoirs. The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, asked how many abattoirs were in existence. The latest figure I have, as of January 1997, is 557 abattoirs. Of those 116 fall below the 65 mark, almost all of them by a relatively small amount. That is an enormous improvement. When the benchmark was established something of the order of 380 fell below the 65 cut-off point at which we aimed as a first stage in improving abattoirs. The score runs to 100 which I would describe as excellent and very hard to achieve. It is the three Michelin stars of the abattoir world. But 65 is achievable by all abattoirs. We are determined that they should reach that standard as swiftly as is reasonably possible.

Both noble Lords raised the subject of Professor Pennington. I find this aspect of the past few days rather puzzling; probably my officials in MAFF do too. We were involved at an early stage in discussions with Professor Pennington and his team. We pressed our case that we had much experience within the State Veterinary Service and within the Meat Hygiene Service which would be relevant to the investigations he was making. We received explicitly, and with feeling, the impression that we were pushing too hard: that his was an independent inquiry; that he should be allowed to proceed in his own way and make his own choices as to what evidence he took; and that we were in danger of acting in a way which might be seen as putting improper pressure on him or in some way seeking to influence the results. So we took a step back and waited to hear from him. We waited with some reasonable confidence that he would come back to us. Clearly, we had much information that would be useful to him; his group includes a lady who is on the Meat Hygiene Service ownership board. What the Meat Hygiene Service is and does is therefore well known to the group. His reference to lack of knowledge of the report a few days ago rather surprised us. I have no explanation for what has gone on. It is a pleasure to us that at last he is asking for information from us. We were concerned from a parochial point of view that he was proceeding without the benefit of much available information and expertise. So whatever the consequences as regards what has appeared in the media, we are glad that the lines of communication are open, irrespective of why they were closed in the past.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, went rather further than the noble Lord, Lord Carter, in criticising MAFF. He said that nothing was being done and seemed to imply that we should have done a lot more and faster. I do not think that that is true. We have pushed this matter through in a sensible and effective way. Yes, there is a lot further to go. There was a great deal to do when we started out on this track. We have proceeded on the basis that we should proceed in conjunction and in co-operation with the industry wherever possible, that we should bring it along with us and that we should not take a big stick to it and close down everything that was unsatisfactory. Had we done so, we would have closed down two-thirds of the industry on day one. That is the principle on which one proceeds with, say, schools which are unsatisfactory or in many other circumstances where one wishes to improve a situation which has been tolerated for a long time. I am sure that that was the right way for us to go about it. We have been going about it effectively. Although there is a great deal left to do, we are confident that we are doing the right things in the right way.

5 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many of us find his reply very reassuring because of its innate good sense? It is appreciated, I think, on all sides of the House, that this difficult problem faces the Government with complex issues. Following, as one does fairly closely, what the Government have done there is every reason for confidence that the matter is being dealt with as sensibly, calmly and steadily as possible. We are grateful for that.

Lord Lucas

I am grateful to my noble friend for his comments. We are always willing to listen to suggestions as to how we might do things better, in particular with such an old and intractable problem as this. I do not think that the criticisms and comments we have heard over the past few days have had any helpful content; indeed, to some extent, they have been destructive and uninformative.

Baroness Symons of Vernhan Dean

My Lords, in paragraph 9 of the Statement which deals with actions to take forward a joint plan to drive standards upwards, the Minister states: Secondly, it must be clearly understood that no carcass showing any signs of faecal contamination should be submitted for approval as fit for human consumption. Do we infer from this that hitherto carcasses showing signs of faecal contamination have been passed fit for human consumption? If not, this is hardly a new action point to be taken forward. Many noble Lords will find it extraordinary that this is a new action point. It is a basic standard of human hygiene which most of us learn when we are extremely young.

Secondly, paragraph 8 of the Statement says that, more than 450 additional staff have been assigned to the agency". Will the Minister tell us whether those are permanent staff and, if so, whether they are financed from current MAFF running costs or whether the costs of such staff are drawn from the contingency fund?

Thirdly, I find the Minister's explanation in regard to Professor Pennington's inquiry quite extraordinary. He explained the nature of an independent inquiry as somehow requiring of its chairman powers of clairvoyance in knowing what papers might be necessary. Is the Minister now satisfied that Professor Pennington has seen all the relevant information and all relevant documents which he may find important, the existence of which he is hardly in a position to know of if no one told him in the first place?

Lord Lucas

To answer the noble Baroness's questions in the order in which she asked them, I am sorry that I did not make myself clear enough on the matter of faecal contamination in my answer to her noble friend Lord Carter. It has always been a matter of obvious and strict practice with meat hygiene inspectors that any carcass which has faecal contamination should be rejected and not passed for human consumption. What we are trying to do for the future is work back up the chain and make sure that such carcasses are never presented for approval by the abattoir. In other words, we shall work more with the abattoirs' own internal systems of quality control to make sure that they do not ever consider presenting such carcasses to meat hygiene inspectors.

On the question of the 450 additional inspectors, we see no immediate prospect that they can be dispensed with. The problem of BSE is with us. I think it is unreasonable to look more than three years into the future. We shall clearly need those inspectors for the next three years. To ask what happens after that is altogether too speculative.

Turning to the matter of Professor Pennington, our strong feeling is that Professor Pennington does not have all the information that we should like to give him. However, we cannot force that upon him. We have offered information; we are offering a report. We cannot force him to take them. As I said, the professor has in his group someone who is a member of the ownership board of the Meat Hygiene Service. We have offered him, initially and repeatedly, information, meetings and anything that he wants from us. He has yet to take us up on that. That is his decision. I cannot explain it; but he is independent and that question has to be put to him. We should be delighted, we should be over the moon, if he would make use of the information we have.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, to take up the point about Professor Pennington before the Minister leaves it, I simply cannot understand the Minister's argument. Here is a man entrusted with an inquiry into E.coli, a very serious matter that has resulted in deaths. The Ministry of Agriculture knows that it has in its possession a report which deals with many of the aspects which could clearly effect E.coli. Was Professor Pennington told specifically of that report? It is all very well for the Minister to say today, "We had information that might be available and helpful to him". That is not the point. It is also not the point that there may have been a member of Professor Pennington's committee who had knowledge of the meat inspection industry. The onus is on the Minister, not on a member of the committee. I cannot understand why the Ministry of Agriculture did not disclose the specific report and send it to Professor Pennington. It seems the obvious thing to do.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I do not think the noble Lord should get hung up on this report, which is an irrelevancy. As the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, correctly described it, it is a summary—indeed, a summary of a summary—intended for general discussion within the industry and released as such. The crucial documents are those that relate to the inspections done at each of the 557 abattoirs. That sort of level of data—on the actual problems which are encountered at abattoirs and what has been done about them, individually, in actual cases—is the crucial data which the Meat Hygiene Service has. It has an enormous amount of categorised, useful data on what is happening in individual abattoirs. We should not even have considered this particular report as being the important document to show to Professor Pennington. It is the lower level data—that which is much more detailed and informative—which we should be delighted to see Professor Pennington make use of.

We have made every effort, and I am sure that Professor Pennington knows that we have a great deal of information on this matter. He may feel that he has that information effectively from other sources and does not need to come to us, and that if he talks to us he will in some way have us "selling our wares" to him, trying to convince him that what we have done already is the right thing when he wants to stand back and take an independent view. I do not know. All I can say to the noble Lord is that Professor Pennington is perfectly aware that we have this information, and we shall be more than delighted to give it to him. But we cannot force it upon him.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffam Prior

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that possibly too much has been made of the issue of faecal contamination during the slaughter of animals? It is a matter of degree. The slaughter of animals is not by any means a pretty sight. Slaughtermen work amid blood and ingesta contents. But the majority of them are skilled and attentive people and they work in a hygienic manner—although it is very difficult under those circumstances to avoid some degree of faecal contamination. I remind the House that the slaughter of animals is not done under sterile conditions, so it is very difficult to produce a carcass that is entirely free of contamination.

I also wish to ask my noble friend: might it be useful to refer to what the health advisory team report says about a variety of matters? Perhaps I may quote the final paragraph on page six of the report. It states: In general the meat industry has responded very positively to the HAT [health advisory team] exercise. In almost all plants the management teams commented that they found the exercise useful and constructive". In addition, in relation to specified bovine offals, the report comments on page 13 that their, removal in the slaughter hall was carried out in accordance with the legislation". It seems to me that many of the criticisms aimed at the report need not have been made had the report been read in detail.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I am very happy to agree with my noble friend that the industry as a whole, in general, has responded very positively to the initiatives undertaken by the Meat Hygiene Service. There are those who have not, or who are doing a great deal less than they could be doing. As my right honourable friend has said, if they continue in that way they will progressively be forced out of the industry. I do not think there is any doubt now that we are enforcing the specified bovine offal regulations properly, indeed almost perfectly. That is as it should be.

I disagree somewhat with my noble friend in that he places a rather lesser weight than I do on the need to make sure that there is no faecal contamination. I am sure it is impossible to ensure that there is none. The dirt comes in on the animals, in the animals, and there is no way of ensuring perfection because the contamination cannot be seen at very low levels. One of the dangers with E.coli 157 is that it is infectious, indeed deadly, in very small numbers. I believe that a matter of 10 individual organisms can cause a fatal infection, which is unusual. We shall never be rid of the problem of its spread in slaughterhouses. However, we can do a great deal to improve the current situation. In the past two years we have seen many instances of significant improvement being made. We know that further improvement can be made and are determined to see that happen.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, is the Minister's department exploring the reasons for the sudden explosion in E.coli infections? Is he aware that in America, Japan and Germany, where there have been massive closures of small abattoirs, there have been massive outbreaks of this particular strain of E.coli? MLC figures show that, in 1980, there were 1,047 abattoirs in this country; there are now 408. I declare an interest in that I use a small family abattoir associated with a butcher's shop for my animals when they are to be killed. It is a mere four miles away from my home. The animals do not suffer any distress.

We have heard a lot about faecal contamination today. Anyone who deals with cattle will know that as soon as cattle are stressed they suffer from loose motions which go all over the place. If cattle have to be transported long distances to the few—the 408—remaining abattoirs, even if they leave home clean they will be pretty soiled by the time they reach the abattoir. Then they are mixed in lairages with other animals where there are other infections. Because of the stress, their immune systems are affected and they will be more vulnerable to infections from other animals. I ask the Minister how he expects the farmer to ensure that his cattle are clean by the time they reach the abattoir.

In addition, if you are going to wash cattle, their warm, wet skins are an ideal breeding ground for any bacteria left. The processes in the slaughterhouses, where the men are paid at piecework rates, are not conducive to good hygiene practices. The meat inspectors inspect the cattle after they have been eviscerated. The knives are passed from one animal to another without being sterilised in between. It is quite possible that they too are responsible for passing on the bugs from one carcass to another. I ask the Minister whether MAFF has considered that. Will he revert to the principle of "small is beautiful"?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, as usual, there is a great deal of sense and correctness in what the noble Countess says. If I may, I shall write to her on some of the detailed points she raised. From my limited knowledge I am sure that in some systems the knives are sterilised between carcasses or they certainly should be. However, I am familiar with all the problems she raised, particularly those caused by the modern large-scale meat industry where meat is produced, processed, slaughtered and distributed on a large scale. It provides an opportunity for nasties such as E.coli 157 to proliferate in a way which would not be possible in the old style meat industry where a local herd went to a local slaughterhouse and distribution took place locally.

I do not believe that we can do anything to get away from modern practices, but it is one of the reasons we have to put much greater emphasis on hygiene procedures and facilities in the big slaughterhouses to ensure that the opportunities which E.coli and other bacteria can find in such places are denied to them.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, what is the status of the Meat Hygiene Service? It is of interest to a number of us on the Select Committee, but I ask the question for myself. What kind of agency is it? How accountable is it to Ministers? If it comes up with recommendations, how binding are they on Ministers? What is the relationship between the two? If the service recommended fewer abattoirs how would it be received? Would the recommendation have to be carried out? Is the service independent or semi-independent? I do not believe that the whole matter of executive agencies has been thought through.

Why are there no problems in Northern Ireland? The Northern Ireland agricultural service and the way it deals with abattoirs is highly efficient. There are far fewer abattoirs, the service receives large sums of money from the European Community, and whatever the Republic receives the north receives as well. The problems that have arisen in England, Scotland and Wales have not arisen in Northern Ireland. Having had responsibility for Northern Ireland a long time ago, I recommend that we should have a good look at the situation there. It could show us a thing or two in this part of the United Kingdom.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I am not sure that I can give exactly the right answers to either of the noble Lord's questions. I do not know the technical name for the type of agency that the Meat Hygiene Service is. It is clearly not an agency with an independent existence in the way that the schools inspectorate is. It does not have control over its own destiny, nor, when it makes pronouncements, do those pronouncements have the force of law. They are not pronouncements that it is impossible to circumvent. It is an agency on its own because it carries out a separate function and it is most efficient that it should be set up like that. However, it is totally responsible to, and reports directly to, Ministers. Its independent existence is to help with increased efficiency and better operations rather than having any additional importance.

As regards Northern Ireland, I have no information that it is better or worse. I just do not know the independent position of Northern Ireland. I shall write to the noble Lord. I have no particular reason to think that slaughterhouses there are better but certainly some aspects of the cattle industry are a great deal better in Northern Ireland.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, I wish to draw the Minister's attention to paragraph 2 of the Statement that, before any redmeat carcass goes into the food chain, it has to be individually stamped by Meat Hygiene Service Inspectors as fit for human consumption". The simple question is: how on earth do they know that it is fit for human consumption? In recent years we have been concerned with BSE, now we are concerned with E.coli, and particularly E.coli 157. How is the Meat Hygiene Service able to stamp a carcass in an abattoir as fit for human consumption when, on the Minister's own admission, one cannot even see E.coli 157 with the naked eye? That is at the heart of the problem we face. It is all very well having men in white coats with white hats standing with a stamp saying, "This is fit for human consumption", but the fundamental question is: how do they know?

The supplementary question is: what is being done? I presume that the Minister's answer to my original question will be that they do not know, they cannot tell. But what is being done about the possible risk of E.coli 157? Is action being taken further back in the food chain to ensure that the cattle infected with E.coli 157 do not go near an abattoir, just as cattle that are infected and are seen to be infected with BSE go nowhere near an abattoir.

The noble Countess's question is pertinent. If the Minister writes to her I hope that he will also write to other Members of your Lordships' House who have contributed this afternoon.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I am delighted to do so and to include some of the more detailed information for which the noble Lord asked. The short answer is that we do our best within the limits of our knowledge and as our knowledge and experience increase, we shall do better.