HC Deb 31 March 1993 vol 222 cc248-50W
Mr. Nicholls

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he is able to report on the outcome of the independent review of slaughterhouses, and of the recent consultations on the Government's proposals to limit meat inspection charges; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Gummer

I am pleased to announce three measures to ensure that veterinary supervision of slaughterhouses is provided in a manner which will enable small slaughterhouses to meet proper hygiene requirements without placing unnecessary burdens on them.

I am determined that cost-effective, consistent and proportionate arrangements for veterinary supervision should be put in place so that public health is protected and the whole industry given the best chance to provide an efficient and competitive service.

There has been considerable concern about the cost of veterinary supervision which has been widely quoted at sums of £40 or more per hour. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary (Commons) in my Department has been consulting closely with the British Veterinary Association about the fees being charged by veterinary surgeons. The House will be interested in the results of a survey of veterinary costs recently carried out by the Association. This survey attracted responses covering over 400 official veterinary surgeons working in more than 600 plants in over 200 local authority districts. The average hourly rate being charged was £25.70. This yardstick will ensure that industry and local authorities can more easily check that they are obtaining a cost-effective service.

Up to now, the arrangements for supervising hygiene in slaughterhouses have been carried out by local authorities. It is obviously important that they should provide this service at a reasonable cost. In small slaughterhouses in particular it is an appreciable component of the overheads. We issued proposals on these costs for consultation on 14 January. Although in most cases inspection services are being provided within reasonable limits, the Government are concerned to protect the interests of slaughterhouses where charges have been unnecessarily high. As a result we are introducing a strict upper limit of £40 for up to four livestock units and £6.30 per livestock unit thereafter. Where the cost of existing or prospective arrangements would exceed the limit, local authorities will have the option of renegotiating contracts with veterinary practitioners. They will no doubt find the British Veterinary Association survey useful in this.

The third measure I am announcing today will enable small slaughterhouses to make use of local large-animal practitioners to provide the veterinary supervision service. Already, the Government have issued guidance to enable large-animal practitioners to carry out ante-mortem inspection work. We will shortly issue additional guidance to help them carry out the full veterinary supervision of low throughput slaughterhouses. Most small abattoirs have at least one such veterinary practice within five miles. Slaughterhouses will be able to seek a service from practitioners who are willing to provide it, and this alternative ought to ensure cost-effective and competitive provision. Above all, a great deal of expensive waiting and travelling time will be avoided. In the rare event that a local authority is not prepared to sanction such an arrangement, there can be a direct appeal to the Minister.

The Government will shortly consult on proposals on monitoring hygiene standards in meat plants, The proposed monitoring system is intended to assist local authorities in ensuring that the level of veterinary supervision is proportionate to the risk arising at the individual premises, so that plants operating to high standards can benefit from lower levels of supervision.

I have also received the report I commissioned from two independent experts, Dr. Johnston and Mr. Spurr, on hygiene and structural standards in slaughterhouses. This has been placed in the Library and I commend it to the House. The authors concluded that overall the improvements being required by the state veterinary service do not go beyond what is necessary to rectify structure-related hygiene problems. I shall continue to ensure that we do not ask anything more of the industry than is essential to achieve this end. I shall also seek to carry forward the other recommendations of the Johnston/Spurr report.

Ministers are taking the closest possible personal interest in the way these regulations are enforced. We are very conscious of the importance of slaughterhouses to the local economy of the countryside. As I have made clear on many occasions, there is no question of any slaughter-house being refused a licence under the new regulations without a personal decision by myself or my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales.

We recognise that the process of implementing these regulations has been a difficult one for the industry and enforcement authorities. In applying them, we will continue to seek practical solutions to problems and to avoid placing unnecessary burdens on businesses. In this context as in all areas of food law, the Government are committed to ensuring that the requirements imposed by the legislation are proportionate to the risk involved. We propose where necessary to continue discussions between slaughterhouse operators, local authorities, veterinary surgeons and meat inspectors with a view to achieving high standards and harmonious working relationships during the transition to the proposed national meat hygiene service.