HL Deb 20 July 1999 vol 604 cc886-901

7.37 p.m.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied with the performance and effectiveness of the Meat Hygiene Service.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I thank in advance all those who put their names down to speak, all of whom can speak from knowledge and experience, and I thank my noble friend the Minister.

This is the first time that the House has debated the Meat Hygiene Service since 1995, when the statutory instrument setting it up went through the House of Lords—there never was discussion in another place. We were told then that the Meat Hygiene Service, which replaced the well-tried and respected local authority meat inspection regime, would be accountable to Parliament through Ministers. In the light of that, I was surprised and concerned to see at col. 121 of the report for 9th July a Written Answer by the Minister to my noble friend Lady Gould which was critical of those who were asking Questions about the Meat Hygiene Service. Indeed, my noble friend was complaining of the cost and trouble to Ministers and officials caused by those Questions. My noble friend must be aware that Parliament is here to hold Ministers to account by means of Questions, debates and so forth. I hope that he will reconsider his attitude and never give a reply like that again.

During the 1995 debate, my noble friend Lord Carter—speaking then from the Opposition Front Bench—was highly critical of the Meat Hygiene Service, its costs and mode of operation. He ended his speech with a quotation from a United States judge, Mr. Louis Brandeis, who said, The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding".—[Official Report, 18/4/95; col. 412.]

That just about sums up the Meat Hygiene Service. Indeed, the service has become an expensive, incompetent organisation, which has imposed high costs, inconvenience and disruption on abattoirs without, apparently, delivering any better or safer service than the local authorities. At the same time, it has built up an atmosphere of resentment and fear among abattoir operators, especially small ones, many of whom have been driven out of business by the high costs and red tape.

In 1995, Her Majesty's Government promised that charges would not be raised unduly. However, my information is that that promise has not been kept. Even at the present time, I understand that yet another increase imposed in April is shortly to be implemented. In my own view, charges should not have been imposed on operators at all, as the system of self-financing authorities is unfair and leads to inefficiency and, possibly, corruption. Clearly, the charges should now be dropped, following the decision after representation by tens of thousands of businesses, especially small and medium-sized ones, to scrap charges for the new food safety authority. The Government quite clearly took notice of a mass opposition, and I think that they ought to take notice of the abattoir operators, who have been hard done by.

Indeed, it would be quite inequitable and scandalous to retain charges for the Meat Hygiene Service in the face of scrapping charges for another food safety inspectorate. What is sauce for the food safety goose is also sauce for the MHS gander; or it ought to be. But it seems that inspection charges are higher than they need be because the number of inspections has increased needlessly without giving the public any greater protection. There is evidence to show that there is more cross-contamination in the larger abattoirs and that the necessarily high throughput needed to make businesses solvent after meeting the high charges actually increases the risk to the general public. That certainly was not the intention of the European directive and the MHS when it was established.

Then there is the difficulty of recruiting. We have all heard about the difficulty of recruiting British vets to do this job. Indeed, none of them seems to want to do it. Of course, we have also heard a great deal about their training, or lack of it. Because British vets are not attracted to the job, a large number of foreign vets—not just a few—have had to be employed. From Answers by Her Majesty's Government, it appears that there are at present 130 foreign vets employed and I understand that 300 more are to be recruited. Perhaps my noble friend will take those figures on board and let me know if we are in fact going to recruit another 300 foreign vets.

These people are not really suited to British conditions. In many cases, they do not understand the system or the working culture. They are often officious and rude to abattoir staff. This is perhaps understandable, as they are given one week's training—I repeat: one week's training! It is really not sufficient, especially bearing in mind that they are, in effect, law enforcement officers. Police officers in this country receive 22 weeks' training before they are allowed to enforce the law. Yet here we are, giving only one week's training to other people who are doing the same sort of job.

Moreover, what makes things worse is the fact that the existing appeals system is to the Meat Hygiene Service itself. This means that the agency is prosecutor, judge and jury in its own cause. That simply cannot be right. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will think about that and bring forward some changes which will give abattoir operators confidence in the scheme and reduce their fear of victimisation if they make any complaints.

I know that there is much more to be said on this subject. I feel sure that the speakers who will follow me will say it and say it well. However, I want to ask, finally, whether there is a case for the Meat Hygiene Service to continue at all. The Written Questions so disliked by my noble friend seem to show that the whole system is based on outdated and imprecise scientific assumptions and that the employment of full-time veterinary coverage is not really necessary. When I was the leader of a local authority—a county borough council, which had its own health authority—I had some experience of employing meat inspectors. They did the job extremely well; they did it efficiently and they did it at very low cost. I never have understood why we had to change from a system that was working well—except, of course, for the ridiculous EU directive.

I hope that my noble friend will undertake to carry out an investigation into the principle upon which the Meat Hygiene Service operates. I believe he will find that the scientific assumptions have been disproved. If that is so, he should seek to renegotiate the EC Directive 91/497 to achieve a much more satisfactory and less expensive meat service. Such action by him would help to restore the confidence of operators both in him and in the Government; and he would be a very popular Minister indeed.

7.47 p.m.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

My Lords I am sure that all the small abattoir operators will be very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, for introducing this evening's debate. The Meat Hygiene Service was introduced in 1995. I am very sorry to say that it was introduced by a Conservative government. It was then described as, a costly, Stalinist, centralised and bureaucratic organisation". Those are not my words—indeed, I wish they had been—but those of the noble Lord, Lord Carter, who is now the Government Chief Whip. Of course, so it has proved. The MHS, unreformed, looks like being a total disaster for the rural economy. It is driving perfectly good and viable businesses, which provide a much-needed service, into insolvency.

Perhaps I may give your Lordships just two examples. My own local slaughterhouse is run by its owner, who is also a farmer. It has been run by him for 35 years and has a completely unblemished record—no complaints, no hygiene bad scores, no food safety fears, no black marks, no E.coli; indeed, no problems. He remains in business, but for how long? He is a vital part of the local economy, linking farmers, butchers and consumers. However, at present, his veterinary inspection costs and his meat inspection costs total about £300 a week. Those costs are quite high, but they are bearable for a small business. But these will increase dramatically and so steeply by about 400 per cent when an attempt is made to recoup the full charges of the MHS—so much so that his business will become completely unviable, and he will have to close.

Perhaps I may cite another case in this respect. I refer to John Coles who has a small slaughterhouse in Devon. He was telephoned last week by his principal OVS arid told to carry out a water test at a cost of £500. I should add that he has never had any problems at all with water quality. As a rider, the OVS finished the conversation by saying, "Do you think it is still worth running a small abattoir?" He was due to be inspected this week under the HAS scheme. As the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, pointed out, some of these vets have received little training. The Spanish vet had only been in this country for six weeks. Mr Coles rang me this evening just before the debate to say that the vet could not understand the forms, had had only three or four hours' training and had marked Mr Coles' abattoir down from 85 to 66, which is just one point above the danger level for closure.

Is this really right? Are the Government really intent on driving these small businesses into liquidation, not because they are unsuccessful, or because they pose a threat to public health, but because they do not fit the MHS charging structure, they do not fit the mould? Why are the Government doing this? The Minister for the Cabinet Office has promised a new approach to regulation, and so has the Regulatory Impact Unit. It is supposed to, ensure that we implement regulations in such a way to minimise the individual and cumulative burden —of regulations— particularly on small businesses". But it is small businesses that are being driven to the wall by the monolith of the MHS. Whatever happened to joined-up government?

I understand that the Government have written to the Commission to ask for clarification of Directive 91/497 and its derogations for LTAs which, incidentally, are quite clearly contained in Article 4 of the directive which I have here. I do not see why they need to be reinterpreted either by the Commission or by the legal department of MAFF. Will the Minister say whether the Government have had a reply to their letter to the Commission and, if so, what was the impact of that reply? Is there any truth in the rumour that the Commission said that there are derogations for LTAs in the directive, but that that advice has been contradicted by government lawyers? I would like some answer on that. I also ask the Minister to ensure that a copy of that correspondence is placed in the Library so that we can see for ourselves exactly what has gone on between the ministry and the Commission in this case.

I really believe that the Government must show a little more backbone on this whole issue. They must decide who calls the shots. Is it the Government or is it the bureaucrats? They must not let hundreds of small, perfectly good businesses go to the wall which have done nothing wrong at all except be small. The Government must not allow Europe to dictate the pace on this. They cannot simply lie back and think of Europe. I hope that they will think more of the small businesses that form such a vital part of the rural economy.

7.52 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

My Lords, I also wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, for raising this enormously important subject. Small abattoirs do not sound very exciting but there is no subject in my diocese, which depends considerably on small-scale livestock farming, which causes more anger, more resentment and more fear. It is not simply the abattoirs themselves which are under threat, but all the jobs that flow from them. It is an enormously significant threat to people who live in Herefordshire and Shropshire, and obviously in similar areas throughout the country.

Every small abattoir is faced with closure because of the enormous charges which are being levied on them. I think that there is perhaps some scope for re-interpreting a European Union directive—I shall come back to that in a moment—but I just want to emphasise the enormous impact which these charges are having. Small abattoirs play an absolutely strategic role in food production. They fill business needs that large factory slaughterhouses cannot. Small orders, speciality cuts, meat from rare breeds and organic meat all form the high quality end of the market that produces the good will and the innovation that the meat industry needs, particularly at this time when livestock farmers face such critical difficulties. They enable the small livestock farmer to add value close to home. Often it is possible for the animals to be slaughtered at a nearby small abattoir and then the joints or the sausages can be sold at the farm shop. That enables a small farmer to add value, instead of the value being added miles down the line by someone else, which of course is another cause of enormous resentment among small farmers. Farmers' markets, farm shops and village shops will lose their local supplies of meat and the fine food sector will simply not be able to obtain the high quality meat which makes its business possible. Thousands of jobs are at risk all over the country.

The question has to be asked: why do we have to have these enormously high charges? There is of course enormous gratitude that the Government have deferred the charges for enforcing the control measures for specified risk materials for one year, but that is only one year's grace as far as we know. There is no promise that those charges will not be levied again after the year's remission. The Government are charging for meat hygiene inspectors and official veterinary surgeons, MHIs and OVSs. The OVSs' inspection time has increased from 25 per cent to 50 per cent of slaughtering times and the threat is that it will be increased again to 100 per cent. We have already heard about the enormous costs that have to be paid.

There is the question of whether the European Union has been misinterpreted. I understand that it is in this country alone that this particular interpretation is placed on the directive; namely, that we have to have fully qualified veterinary surgeons as supervisors on top of the traditional meat hygiene inspectors. This, I think, centres round the interpretation of the words in the directive, "vétérinaire ordinaire". Does this actually mean a veterinary surgeon? I believe that it does not mean that, but unfortunately that is the interpretation that has been put on that particular phrase in this country. We have already heard about the scandal of vets from overseas who speak little English and who cannot understand the system, and whose judgments may be critically important and critically destructive for the welfare of small abattoirs. The track record of small abattoirs is good. Their hygiene levels on the whole are higher than those of large abattoirs.

This is a matter which is causing deep concern. I hope very much that the Minister will be able to give us some significant assurances that the Government understand the gravity of the problem; that he will be able to clarify this interpretation of the directive; that he will give us assurances that the real value of small abattoirs to rural communities is fully understood by the Government; and that the Government are absolutely committed to ensuring their survival. So much is at stake that this debate, though a brief debate and not well attended by your Lordships is, I hope, something which will make a significant difference. I hope that I shall be able to go back to my farming friends in the diocese at the end of this debate and say that we have been given some real assurances of real value from the Minister. I note, sadly, that I speak before the noble Countess, Lady Mar, because I know that she has a great deal of expertise on this topic and I would have dearly loved to hear what she said before I had to make my own amateurish contribution. However, I do it with passion because I know how many people's livelihoods hang on the right answer to this problem.

7.57 p.m.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I would say to the right reverend Prelate that his contribution is as valuable as any other in this House because he speaks of the people who are being damaged by the legislation.

First, I would like to say "thank you" to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, for asking this Question. Secondly, I ex press my heartfelt thanks to the Minister for so kindly arranging a meeting for Dr North, Mr Chadwick and myself with the chief executive and officials of the Meat Hygiene Service last Thursday.

I am delighted to report that the meeting, to put it mildly, developed into a lively exchange of views and we parted with an agreement for co-operation. Last evening I received a letter from Mr Johnston McNeill, chief executive, enclosing a copy of a letter from Mr Peter Soul, director of operations at the Meat Hygiene Service, to all principal official veterinary officers and area resource managers. I am aware of the huge cultural changes that are needed to enable a government department to become a publicly oriented business. I am also sensitive to the feelings of staff who work for an organisation that is a public "knocking block". I worked for British Telecom for 13 years. This enables me to say that I am pleasantly surprised at the contents of the two letters. They indicate a determination at senior level that what is known as the "canteen culture", where the customer is always wrong, should not prevail. If the members of the Official Veterinary Service conduct their business with abattoir owners and operators upon the lines suggested in the letter of Mr Soul, much of the antagonism that has built up should evaporate.

While the management problems have been addressed, there are other areas which require attention. I was shown a copy of the timetable for the conversion course for veterinary surgeons. We were told that it was in fact a refresher course and that veterinary surgeons are taught law and litigation in their basic training. The course lasts for one week. I was finally able to establish—the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, might be interested in this—that the time devoted to legislation is a mere 5¼ hours, regardless of whether the vet is UK or EU trained and regardless of an individual's grasp of idiomatic English. Again I find myself in sympathy with a young Spanish vet, straight out of university, ill-equipped to cope with the far from genteel atmosphere of an abattoir and with a poor command of our language. I am no longer surprised at the reports my colleagues and I have been receiving. Perhaps I may ask the Minister to look to a review of the training procedure and, in particular, to the training offered to non-UK trained vets. At the very least it is unkind to throw them in at the deep end in this manner. This is a management problem that must be tackled.

The Minister must have noticed the number of questions about the science upon which many of the hygiene requirements and recommendations are based. I understand that Directive 64/433/EEC and its amendments form the basis of the Fresh Meat (Hygiene and Inspection) Regulations 1995. While the directive has been amended, the 1950s science upon which it was based has not been updated. There is up-to-date evidence that shows that our grandparents were often right in the way they handled food, and meat in particular, although at the time they did not understand the science.

I understand that there is a current review of all the EU hygiene directives. How can we ensure that subjects such as temperature and humidity control, frequency of hand washing and the relative safety of clean wooden chopping boards are considered on a hard scientific basis?

There is a great deal of criticism about the Hygiene Assessment Scheme 99. We heard from the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby, about that. It appears to operate unfairly for smaller abattoirs in that their ability to obtain a score of more than 70 points is dependent upon the production of policy documents. I have been assured that any operator experiencing difficulty with this will be assisted by his OVS and I am pleased to see that Mr Soul's letter contains an instruction to this effect. I am sorry that the letter did not reach the veterinary surgeon of Mr Cole.

Mr Soul has also included the caveat that operators should be advised of requirements that have a statutory basis and those that are "best practice." I understand that the operation of the scheme is to be reviewed after three months. I hope that the wrinkles will have been ironed out by then.

Can the Minister say why MAFF has not seen fit to adopt the Food Safety Act 1990, Section 40, code of practice on the lines of that issued to local government officials? This includes a number of points which must be considered before litigation is resorted to. I understand that currently the MHS applies only the rather vague and limited criterion of the "public interest" when deciding whether to prosecute. Additionally, do ex-police officers have specific training and the expertise to conduct investigations into meat hygiene offences? There is considerable disquiet in this area and I would be grateful if the prosecution policy could be addressed.

I was alarmed to find that the audit is not independent and does not include the competence of enforcement officials and the quality of enforcement, as well as the level of achievement of standards by plant operators. Performance standards are set by MAFF and compliance is audited by MAFF officials. In order to achieve independence, transparency and objectivity, will the Minister look into the possibility of introducing individuals from several disciplines into the audit teams?

Time precludes my dealing with the charging implications—other noble Lords have spoken about them at length—but I know that the Minister and his honourable friends in another place are actively considering them at the moment. I look forward to an early outcome to their deliberations. Uncertainty does not assist the industry.

8.3 p.m.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, I shall be brief because the case for the prosecution of the Meat Hygiene Service has already been well put and because I feel sure that the Minister will welcome an extra minute or two to deal with the serious questions that have been put to him.

I have two questions to put to the Minister, both of a general nature. First, is he absolutely sure that the basic science which lies behind the creation and operation of the Meat Hygiene Service is sound? I ask this because I remember attending a conference a few years ago on the marketing of wild venison and being fascinated to hear the senior environmental health officer for the Tayside region say a most surprising thing. He said that food poisoning from meat had actually gone up by 47 per cent in Tayside since the meat hygiene regulations had been introduced. In his view, this was because the basic science of cleanliness which inspired the regulations was misguided.

I am not a scientist and I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I express his reasons in somewhat simple terms. These were that over hundreds of thousands of years, at least, our tummies had got used to absorbing the bugs which inhabit meat processed in a fairly traditional manner; for instance, he mentioned wooden chopping boards and naturally ventilated larders. But the modern process of storing, cutting up and distributing our meat requires stainless steel, plastic, air conditioning and goodness knows what else. The result is that the bugs which survive, and even thrive, in this new synthetic environment are not the ones with which our tummies are familiar. Hence the increase in food poisoning.

I put this point more than once to the previous Government without getting an answer. I would be truly grateful if the Minister could do his best tonight. I would merely add that if there is anything in this theory, then we are probably already caught in a downward spiral of ever greater, ever more misguided regulation. As food poisoning continues, or even rises, the bureaucratic mind will introduce ever cleaner, more spotless, more expensive and more useless regimes, with increasingly opposite results to those intended.

That brings me to my second question, which is even briefer but perhaps a little deeper. Can the Minister convince the House that he and his department are not guilty, in Mr Christopher Booker's immortal expression, of taking a sledgehammer to miss a nut?

From all that has been said tonight, I would have thought that we are faced with one of the clearest examples of the bureaucracy senselessly destroying the livelihoods of many thousands of people. It is also causing massive and unnecessary suffering to millions of animals because they have to travel many extra miles to slaughter. Perhaps those animals are not quite so dumb as we think.

Worst of all, this kind of crazy officialdom is devouring our freedom, our trust in the way we are governed and, therefore, our democracy itself. After all, how can such a benign and intelligent man as the Minister preside over such madness? I look forward to his answer with great anticipation.

8.7 p.m.

Viscount Thurso

My Lords, I, too, am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, for having raised this important question. It is also clear that, up to this point, the debate has been peopled by experts in the subject. I am grateful to them for the knowledge that they have imparted. I became my party's food spokesman only a relatively short time ago, I think largely based on the fact that I was born on a farm and that I have worked in a restaurant. Indeed, one of my noble friends has described me as the last "F' in "MAFF".

I have had to learn a great deal extremely quickly. I have done so largely by ringing up as many organisations as I could lay my hands on and finding out what they thought. So I apologise if my contribution is less erudite than those which have gone before.

The Government have made abundantly clear—quite rightly—their determination to put the consumer first in matters of food hygiene and food production and that they will not tolerate any lapse in standards in the production of food. Clearly it would be wrong simply to accept an argument that the regulations should be clarified and made less onerous just because there is an added expense on the food industry. However, we on these Benches support the Government on that aspect and welcome generally the Bill to introduce the food standards agency. In pursuing that objective, there is a duty on the Government that they do so in a way that is clear, fair and perhaps even wise.

It is clear that there must be a proper regard for the relationship between risk and reward. Any set of regulations which achieve 100 per cent in any area are bound to be impossibly unworkable. One therefore has to find the correct balance between the rewards that one seeks to achieve and the risks that one leaves in place.

Two areas of grave concern have emerged in the debate. The first relates to the area of small abattoirs. It is interesting to note that the first sentence of the brief provided for me by the National Farmers' Union states that the NFU supports the Meat Hygiene Service. It then goes on to detail all the aspects that it feels are absolutely wrong with the service, but the brief begins with that expression of support. I therefore think that the charges that are sometimes levied against the industry of simply not wishing to achieve the Government's objectives are not correct.

As many speakers have made clear, the costs that have been imposed on the industry, particularly on the small producer, are extremely onerous. I do not necessarily accept the principle that every time a new agency is created or new regulations are put in place, they should be self-financing. Frankly, there are times when the Government must shoulder the responsibility. If they wish to achieve certain objectives, they must be prepared to pay for them. That largely holds true in this area.

The problem is that all the costs fall on the producers: it is not simply those who run small abattoirs but also the farmers, who will shortly pay a £7 a head passport for beef, plus the £1 slaughtering charge. So there will be £8 of new costs coming in. As all my farming friends tell me, that the fact that costs go up does not, as in most other business, mean that the producer can simply charge more, because there is a market to go through. The market dictates the price that a producer will receive, irrespective to a large extent of the costs. We have seen that clearly in the prices recently achieved throughout the country. Farming is under great pressure at present, as are all aspects of rural life. Therefore, to impose unilaterally on the producer costs which cannot be passed on to the consumer is a very unfair way forward.

The second area of concern that has emerged clearly relates to the severity with which EU regulations are imposed. I have no particular knowledge of how they are imposed in this area. However, as chairman of Scrabster Harbour, I know that the trustees have just spent £150,000 creating a border inspection post so that we can continue to import fish. We have imported fish for a very long time and have had a happy system of dealing with it by means of a cold room, with which the vet was perfectly happy. However, EU regulations state that we must have a border inspection post, so we have built one. It has sat there for some three months now, completely unused, and the prediction is that it will go on being unused. If these regulations have the same kind of effect, clearly there is much to be done.

I believe that this Government are genuinely a listening Government. Not long ago, I appeared on a television programme with the Minister who has responsibility for food safety. I asked him whether he would remove the proposed levies for the food standards agency. Not surprisingly, at that time he said that he would not. However, other people have asked the same question; the Government have listened, and have decided not to charge. So I have confidence that the Government will listen to good representation. I know that my honourable friend Paul Tyler and others have made representations to the Government and that the Minister has listened to them. There is a review going on at this very moment. Perhaps the Minister, in replying, will give some indication of how that is going forward.

I hope very much that the representations that are being made to the Government will be listened to, and that they will once again demonstrate that they are a good government: that they listen to what people want and give it to them.

8.13 p.m.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, it is good of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, to give us a chance to join in this important debate. The topics covered have ranged widely. There have been references to costs, bureaucracy, science base, qualified vets and derogation, and from the right reverend Prelate we have heard comments on our rural way of life.

The Meat Hygiene Service performance targets are set by the Minister, monitored by MAFF's audit consultancy and management services division, audited operationally by the vet and meat hygiene advisers, and investigated by the National Audit Office. Performance outcomes are published in the Meat Hygiene Enforcement Report and in the BSE Enforcement Bulletin. My goodness, there are a fair few to start with!

Despite all of that, in a Question for Written Answer on 1st July by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, it was stated that the Meat Hygiene Service charges have risen astronomically since responsibility for the service was removed from local authorities. Indeed, I have proof of the noble Lord's contention in the shape of a copy invoice from the Meat Hygiene Service to Robinson's butchers of Wingate, County Durham, in the Prime Minister's constituency. That small slaughterer produces joints for sale in its local farm shops. From 26th April this year to 30th May, the MHS has invoiced it for £980.82 for a grand total of 14 cattle, 23 pigs and 26 sheep. To be fair, £68.98 is an EU charge levied in ecus and converted at an unexplained exchange rate. The remaining £911.84 is for inspectors at £14.53 an hour, travel at £14.53, overtime at £19.55 and a vet's bill of £37.53. No wonder there is confusion.

The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, referred to charges. Part of that grotesque charge reflects the MHS policy of charging for a minimum three hours per visit regardless of whether it takes half an hour or three hours. Another small slaughterer, John Chadwick, of Standish, near Wigan, has calculated that eight staff slaughtering on half a day a week cost him £210. At present, the Meat Hygiene Service charges a further £100 or so. But when the deferred EU charges are fully implemented, that will rise to £310.

Does the Minister therefore agree that the level of charging on small slaughterhouses is the very opposite of efficient? Will he start whatever process is necessary to change the basis of the charge from a flat rate to a headage payment, so that small firms are placed on a level playing field with larger companies and our European competitors? If not, will he admit that the Government have a hidden agenda to drive the small slaughterhouses out of business?

The Meat Hygiene Service has set up 10 performance targets for 1999–2000, not one of which relates to complaints—of which there have been plenty. I was also glad, thanks to my noble friend Lady Mar. to see the letter from Peter Soul to his staff on how to deal with complaints. I was encouraged by its contents. However, will the Minister act quickly to set up a proper appeals procedure?

There are those who say that there has been too great a concentration in this House on the subject of the Meat Hygiene Service. Many Questions have been tabled by noble Lords on all sides. I hope that the figures that I have given and the examples given by other noble Lords will emphasise how seriously we view the situation. It is of great concern, particularly to small abattoirs.

The Government have established regional development agencies to improve the rural economy. I understand from a recent radio report that West Midlands RDA has placed agriculture at the top of its list of priorities, which I am sure the right reverend Prelate will be pleased to see. It recognises the importance of agriculture. Small rural slaughterhouses play a vital part in the continued viability of agriculture and in the provision of choice to the consumer. The right reverend Prelate spoke of innovation, niche markets, fine food markets, like those that I visited recently at the Royal Agricultural Show, and their ability to diversify and add value to their product, which is an aspect that the Government have encouraged.

I return to the Question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart; namely, whether the Government are satisfied with the performance and effectiveness of the Meat Hygiene Service. I must question the effectiveness of a system that costs so much and charges so unfairly, placing greater burdens on the smaller operator rather than the larger, and is set to apply additional charges when the full EU directive is levied. When that happens, where will Robinson's in Wingate and Chadwick's in Standish be and how will they cope? Will they find it possible to remain effective themselves?

I have highlighted only two slaughterers, but there are 113 others in England, Scotland and Wales. As the small abattoir federation stated, if the proposed charges are introduced then all low throughput abattoirs will no longer be able to afford to operate and will be forced to close". This is a serious challenge that the Government have to face. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.

8.19 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue)

My Lords, first, I thank my noble friend for raising the issue which is of widespread concern to many in the industry and in the countryside. I also thank the noble Countess for her kind and constructive words.

We have heard a great many criticisms of the Meat Hygiene Service tonight, some justified, some perhaps unjustified. Before dealing with the main issues and questions raised, at the beginning of my speech it may be worth recalling why the Meat Hygiene Service was set up in the first place; the nature and importance of the job it performs and the achievements it has secured over the past four-and-a-half years, not forgetting some of the constraints under which it operates. I shall try at the end to deal with particular issues facing us as a government in trying to protect small abattoirs within the system we have inherited and operate.

As noble Lords know, the Meat Hygiene Service was launched on 1st April 1995 as an executive agency of MAFF to provide a meat inspection service to all licensed fresh meat plants in Great Britain. Prior to that time, day-to-day enforcement of meat hygiene legislation was in the hands of some 300 local authorities. There appears to be a growing romantic aura around the system that operated then, but I remind noble Lords that under the previous system the meat industry suffered severely from inconsistency of enforcement and variability of costs between individual local authorities. The House will recall that the decision by the then government to put in place a centralised system to provide a consistent quality service across the country received widespread support from the industry which recognised the benefits to industry and consumers of a single national enforcement agency.

I also remind the House of what the Meat Hygiene Service does. It is responsible not only for providing a meat inspection service, but also for ensuring that the high standards required by law are maintained in the hygiene of meat production and in the welfare of animals and birds at slaughter. Moreover, it ensures that the specified risk material controls are rigorously enforced.

The MHS works with industry to enforce inspection, hygiene and welfare regulations, thereby providing public assurance and protecting public health. It ensures that the controls are in place to satisfy those countries that import meat from us—including in the near future, I am pleased to say, beef.

Despite what we have heard tonight, I believe that the MHS has a number of significant achievements to its credit which should not be ignored. As already mentioned, it has brought together the disparate local authority enforcement activities into a consistent and high quality service. It has also secured a significant improvement in the hygienic operations of our meat plants and in the safety of the meat produced in this country.

It has also coped with the BSE crisis—something which would have been considerably more difficult or even impossible under the previous arrangements. Each year it has been set and has achieved stringent performance targets by Ministers. I am pleased that the most recent targets, including those for the HAS scores, along with others set for last year, have all been met.

We must also remember the constraints under which it operates in providing the kind of service everyone wants to see. First and foremost is the European Union meat hygiene legislation. Many of our problems seem to derive from the prescriptive nature of the European meat hygiene directives. The original directives are over 30 years old and I am pleased that the Commission and the member states are starting on a review. Discussions are beginning on the texts of the consolidated food hygiene regulations which will incorporate meat hygiene rules. We hope that the opportunity will be taken to review the effectiveness of the current meat hygiene directives. Ministers are on record as supporting a more HACCP-based approach—that is hazard analysis and critical control point, as noble Lords know—to meat hygiene where the operator is expected to identify and monitor the critical control points in his plant and operate in a hygienic manner.

We know that the Commission and some member states support a more flexible approach. However, discussions are only just beginning and the views of all those concerned are not yet known. We must admit that it will be some years before we will have completed negotiations on the consolidated food hygiene regulations. The final shape of those regulations is uncertain. In the meantime, we have no option but to continue to apply the existing controls.

Another significant constraint on the ability of the MHS is its obligation to provide a service as and when demanded by plant operators 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. This presents certain logistical and resource problems which are exacerbated by the shortage of veterinarians in this country willing to undertake meat hygiene work. That is why the Meat Hygiene Service has had to look to other European Union member states and even further afield to find the veterinary resources it requires.

I add, in relation to specific questions asked by my noble friend and the noble Countess, that the Meat Hygiene Service is recruiting up to 300 non-British veterinarians to undertake the increased inspection work in abattoirs, cutting plants and cold stores. That is simply because there are not enough British vets who wish to undertake the work.

All vets so recruited must register with the Royal College and must also pass a test to show that they are proficient in English. They then receive OVS training. The department is satisfied that non-British vets used by the Meat Hygiene Service are fully capable of carrying out their duties. I assure the noble Countess that we will look closely to ensure that the foreign vets meet our needs.

A reassurance is the system of checks on Meat Hygiene Service performance, of which I will remind noble Lords. The service is already subject to intensive scrutiny. An essential part of the service's work is ensuring compliance with the specified risk material controls. Those are vitally important measures to protect public health from the risk of BSE. Each month, the State Veterinary Service independently audits compliance with these controls in all abattoirs. The consistent finding of this audit over the past three years is that almost 100 per cent of plants are fully compliant. The Government are therefore confident that the Meat Hygiene Service is providing a highly effective service in this area.

In addition, the Veterinary Public Health Unit and the European Commission make regular inspections of Meat Hygiene Service control systems, the most recent of which has led to the lifting of the beef export ban.

I should also like to say a little about openness and accountability in the Meat Hygiene Service. If individual operators have a problem with the service that they receive, there are mechanisms in place to enable them to take their concerns up with the service management. Earlier this year the MHS introduced an enhanced complaints procedure to deal effectively and quickly with customer complaints. It was devised in accordance with the best practice principles used in public services throughout Britain.

The procedure has a two-tier approach. Since its launch in April 1995, it has operated a formal appeals procedure enabling its customers to seek redress if they have a complaint about a major aspect of MHS operations. Copies of the procedure were sent to all plant operators at the time.

In addition and complementary to that, the MHS set up a customer complaints procedure in March 1999 to enable complaints relating to the day-to-day aspects of the agency's operations to be dealt with more quickly than under the appeals procedure at the point of service delivery or by senior management. A simple guide to that procedure has been sent to all MHS customers and a copy is also available in the Library of the House.

The procedures meet the latest best practice principles as promoted by the Service First unit of the Cabinet Office and are part of the MHS quality management system which was registered by the British Standards Institute to international standards. That shows that the MHS is committed to continual improvement in delivering quality services and is willing to listen to ideas for improvement. It will also keep under review the effectiveness of the complaints mechanisms. If noble Lords have comments, suggestions or complaints about the procedure, they should put them forward.

Money and costs are central issues. Two of the principal objectives of the Meat Hygiene Service are to deliver value for money in the provision of efficient and high-quality services and to achieve the financial and performance targets set by Ministers.

As everyone who has contributed to the debate has said, operators are having to pay more than they did under the previous system. That results from the consistent application across the country of common standards. The achievement of those standards is not cost-free. I am assured that there is clear evidence that under the previous system some local authorities had been subsidising their costs in some way or had not provided the appropriate level of supervision.

On charging policy, the Meat Hygiene Service follows the guidance in the fees and charges guide produced by the Treasury. Meat Hygiene Service charging methodology is fully specified in UK legislation and is the subject of full consultation with industry and other interested parties. The service has limited flexibility to vary its charging procedures without clear parliamentary authority and already follows the standard practices expected of any government agency.

The Government recognise the deep concerns about the prospects of increased MHS charges for veterinary inspections in abattoirs, particularly for smaller operators. It is not our intention to force plants to close. I recognise the great importance of the local abattoir to the local community. The availability of a local abattoir can reduce journey times for animals, which has implications for animals as well as for costs. The local abattoir can often handle one or two animals or particular species such as goats, whereas a large abattoir will want to concentrate on the longer runs of a single species. I recognise that the disappearance of the small local abattoir would cause an undesirable degree of dislocation to many rural communities. The Government greatly wish to avoid that.

That is why we have deferred the introduction of charges for specified risk material inspection for a year and have undertaken an examination of the impact of all charges on the slaughtering industry and the primary producers who supply it. That will ensure that charges are as low as possible, consistent with public safety and European Union legislation. However, the Government remain of the view that it is right in principle to recover the cost of inspection from industry. Public health and consumer interest come first in our priorities.

The impact of charges is being reviewed and any changes in the level of Meat Hygiene Service inspection charges to apply in 1999–2000 have yet to be decided. Any revised rates will be subject to full consultation with all plant operators.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, there is one minute left on the clock and the Minister is already four minutes over his time. Is he going to answer the question from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford on the interpretation of vet ordinaire? Why should a vin ordinaire be a vin ordinaire and why should a vet ordinaire be so extraordinarily expensive? We would like an answer on that. Secondly, apart from all the wonderful procedures that the service is following, does the Minister have any evidence that the incidence of food poisoning has gone down?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I had it in mind to answer the many questions that were asked, but I note that the clock is firmly against me. Perhaps we were not given enough time. I was particularly intent on answering the right reverend Prelate on the interpretation of the European directives, because that is at the heart of our problems and differences. There is an apparent inflexibility built into the system. We have been legally advised on that inflexibility, but as we have said before, we have asked the Commission whether the interpretation is correct on derogation, level of charges, low-throughput abattoirs and definitions of vets and veterinarians. We have received a reply and Ministers are currently considering it and the response to our consultation on the impact of charges. We hope to respond on that very soon.

The right reverend Prelate was correct to say that that has been at the centre of the problem for Ministers who want to help small abattoirs. We have been looking for ways to help and we do not want to be so rigidly constrained. We shall make announcements in due course. I am sorry that I do not have time to reply to the other questions, but I shall write to everyone.