HL Deb 06 March 2000 vol 610 cc796-8

2.52 p.m.

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

Further to their response to the report of the Meat Industry Red Tape Working Group, how they propose to prevent widespread closure of small and medium-sized abattoirs and cutting plants and give confidence to their owners and to the wider farming community.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, the Government recognise the difficulties of small and medium-sized abattoirs. The Red Tape Working Group, which we established, proposed a radical agenda to assist and give confidence to those sectors of the industry as well as to the wider farming community. The Government have accepted the vast majority of the group's recommendations and are now pursuing their implementation.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does she appreciate that the one point absolutely crucial to the survival of small and medium-sized abattoirs—that relating to charges—is one of the three points which the Government did not accept? Will she please make it absolutely clear to her right honourable friend that most of the small abattoirs questioned—I believe 26 out of 28—said that they would probably have to close within the next 12 months if charges were maintained and that that will have a devastating effect on the farming community both up and down the food chain? Will she bear in mind in particular the Prime Minister's exhortation to diversify which he made to farmers when he was in the West Country? This situation will crucify that policy.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I accept the noble Countess's point that it is important that we have a range of facilities and that small and medium-sized abattoirs can be extremely important for particular sectors and specialist sectors, which we want to encourage and where marketing is extremely important.

With regard to charging, we have taken action to help the whole of the sector; for example, by freezing the hourly rate of MHS charges at April 1999 levels and promising that they will not be raised by more than the rate of inflation this year; and by deferring the introduction of charges for cattle passports and for specified risk material enforcement until 2002. The further issue about the basis for charging (particularly around headage which, I believe, is the issue to which the noble Countess was referring) has been put forward to a task force which I understand will be meeting next week.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I declare an interest as a breeder of rare breed pigs. Apart from the general thesis of the noble Countess, with which I wholly agree, will the Minister accept that, in spite of the measures she has detailed, small and medium-sized abattoirs are rapidly closing all over the country, which will have a dramatic effect on the future survival of rare breeds? That is something which I am sure the Minister would deplore. Does she accept that the matter is urgent and that the Government badly need to do something about it if we are to preserve such remarkable leftovers?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I recognise the issue raised by the noble Viscount in respect of rare breeds. As I said in my earlier answer, there are specialist areas for which such abattoirs are of great importance. Over time, there has been a substantial reduction in the number of red meat slaughterhouses. We must recognise that. I was surprised to see that red meat slaughterhouses in this country declined in number from 1,385 in 1975 to 339 last year. Over the past 25 years, there has been an inexorable reduction.

One of the most important things we can do is to move from a prescriptive approach to a risk-based approach in abattoirs. That is one of the issues that my right honourable friend is pressing with Commissioner Byrne in Brussels today.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, one of the recommendations of the Red Tape Working Group was that a derogation for the smallest abattoirs should urgently be considered. When I raised the matter several months ago with the then Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, he said that the Government were looking into it. Will the Minister tell the House what progress has been made with regard to looking for a derogation for the smallest slaughterhouses? Furthermore, does the ministry accept, in the light of its sustainable agriculture launch, which considers a number of indicators—economic, social and environmental—that the number of slaughterhouses serving the industry should be one of the indicators?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I cannot give the noble Baroness an off-the-cuff answer on the second point, but I shall certainly look into the matter.

With regard to the derogation for a reduction in veterinary supervision for low throughput plants, we received an indication last year from the Commission that it was possible to have a reduction in such supervision at the post-mortem stage, but it was still necessary to have full supervision at the ante-mortem stage. For that reason, we froze veterinary supervision levels in low throughput plants at May 1999 levels. But we must consider carefully the implications of the differential between post and ante-mortem supervision. That is exactly what we are currently doing.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, has the Red Tape Working Group identified those rules and regulations which do not come out of Brussels and which have been superimposed over the years by officials here?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I recommend the Red Tape Working Group report, because it is written in robust and clear English. I am sure that the noble Lord would appreciate it. It makes clear comment about the possibilities and the matters which fall within national rather than European jurisdiction. Of the 35 recommendations, the Government have accepted 28. We are considering four of them and only three have been rejected. The most important recommendations must be negotiated at European level. They relate to the HACCP-based approach to supervision which I believe is supported here without exception. That is why it is important that we pursue those matters in Brussels. I believe that the working group accepted that point.

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